The span of just one week of the Trojan War is masterfully told in Homer’s seminal epic The Iliad. While the poem tells mostly of the warriors who “live by the sword and perish by the sword, disdaining love, friendship, faith, or the arts of peace,” most notably Achilles and Hector (Graves). However, the gods of Greek mythology play a significant part in the story. From Apollo to Zeus, the cast of gods leave specific marks on the lives of both Achaeans and Trojans, whether offensively or defensively. Some mortals do serve as a function between humanity and the gods, which also serve an importance. The concept of destiny is strong throughout the story, with characters that fight or accept the choices fate has given them.
The god Apollo, also known as Phoebus Apollo, has a very pivotal role at the beginning of The Iliad. In the opening parts of Book I, his actions are the catalyst of the primary plot of the story – the argument between Agamemnon, leader of the Achaeans, and the famed Myrmidon warrior Achilles. It was Agamemnon’s pride in refusing the supplication of the Trojan priest Chryses to return his daughter Chryseis. As he was a priest of Apollo, he asked for his aid, of which the god responded with wrath on the Achaean army (Homer):
…with his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.
His rain of arrows and pestilence went on for ten days, killing hundreds of soldiers until Achilles consorted with Calchas, a Greek augur and seer. It was through him that Achilles learned that Apollo’s anger at Agamemnon that caused the devastation. While this is the only mention of Calchas in The Iliad, he serves an important purpose to the whole of many stories of the Trojan War. That is the reason why Agamemnon insults Calchas for his prophecies, who according to the king “have ever loved to foretell that which is evil” (Homer). That is the subtext for the many other prophecies Calchas has made in the past, such as his proclamation of the war lasting for nine years.
Calchas was one of many mortals affected by Apollo. In Book Five, there is a heated battle between Diomedes of Argos and Aeneas the Trojan hero where Aeneas is heavily wounded and saved by his mother, the goddess Aphrodite. However, it was Apollo that eventually saved him as Diomedes had successfully struck her with his spear. From an offensive front, Apollo aided Hector in killing Patroclus, brother-in-arms of Achilles, by attacking him from the back. Patroclus did have one minor victory, however; with his dying words told Hector that he would “live for little season, death and the day are close upon you,” at the hands of Achilles (Homer). After Hector’s death, Apollo also protected his body from corruption and harm as Achilles dragged it daily.
Patroclus’ words are a great example of the underlying theme of fate in The Iliad. Throughout the poem, many gods and mortals constantly acquiesce or fight against the destiny made by the fates with success or failure. One previous example is Agamemnon’s stubbornness against Calchas, placing more weight on a dream where Zeus tells him to fight the Trojans immediately, without the help of Achilles. Aeneas’ survival of his battle with Diomedes in Book 5 was not just from the hands of his mother and Apollo but also tied to Aeneas’ fate as the king of Troy even after its destruction. This is further explored in The Aeneid, an epic made by the Roman writer Virgil.
That clash between fate and the gods is very common in The Iliad; returning back to Hector, his actions are clear descriptions of this. Zeus helps him in the Trojan warrior’s battles against the Greeks, effectively almost pushing them back to their boats, but he also does not protect Hector when in Book 12 he casts aside the dark omen of the eagle and snake and attacks the wall made by the Achaeans. Zeus’ actions in this book of The Iliad highlights the importance of fate, as even the highest of gods in the Greek pantheon does not get in the way of destiny, but merely working his mighty powers within the boundaries of it.
The overall involvement of Zeus in The Iliad is a complex one. An apt description of Zeus is that he was ‘less like an absolute tyrant than a somewhat embattled administrator, forced to pick his way between conflicting constituencies” (Redfield). His position as the highest of the Olympians made it so that he maintained a neutral position. It was necessary in order to impede the potential chaos that would occur on both mortal and immortal levels. An example of this neutrality can be examined when Thetis, goddess and mother of Achilles, begs Zeus to give his son glory in battle. The god concedes his request but Achilles receives his glorious battle at the cost of the life of his dear friend Patroclus.
The god also does nothing to change Achilles’ doomed fate of young death. However, there is an interesting speech made by Achilles in Book 9 that muddies the concept of fate. He is told by his mother of two paths he can take (Homer):
“If I stay here and fight, I shall not return alive but my name will live forever: whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me.”
While Achilles’ fate has been proclaimed earlier, the fact that the great warrior ponders on it shows that the concept of free will is not entirely lost in the epic. It shows the aspect of mortality that can at times be overlooked because of how these men are used as the tools of the gods.
Zeus’ daughter Athena, is an example of an immortal that does this in many books of The Iliad. She takes a role befitting her aspect as a goddess of battle and war. Like the goddess Hera she felt slighted by the Trojan Paris’ decision of Aphrodite as the fairest one of the three, so she aids the Achaeans in their war against Troy. Athena is first mentioned in Book 1 when she stayed Achilles’ rage after Agamemnon insulted him. She assisted the Achaeans many times afterward. In order to reignite the war after the duel between Paris and Menelaus in Book 3, Athena tricks the archer Pandarus to fire an arrow at Menelaus. However, in her protection of the Achaeans, she changes the trajectory of the arrow so that it would only wound Menelaus. She is also the one that gives Diomedes the Achaean prodigious strength that allows him to kill Pandarus and wound Aeneas. That strength was also powerful enough to attack the goddess Aphrodite, and “pierced the skin between her wrist and the palm of her hand” (Homer). She takes to arms herself in Book 5 by donning the helm of Hades and surprise attack Ares the god of war with a spear to his side.
Athena is, for many of her actions during the epic, doing these actions not only of her own volition but from the orders of Hera, Zeus’ wife and queen of the gods. In Book 1 she criticizes her husband’s clandestine actions, but she too partakes in “settling matters in secret” in her hatred against the Trojans (Homer). Hera uses Athena as the envoy to calm the enraged Achilles, the instigator that led to the wounding of Menelaus, and as the warrior sent to punish Ares’ involvement on the side of the Trojans. One of Hera’s most clever tactics occurs in Book 14, where she tricks both Zeus and Aphrodite. Despite the fight between the two goddesses, Hera convinces Aphrodite to give her a love charm, which she then uses to enthrall Zeus. With the help of Hypnos the god of sleep, she puts her husband in slumber, allowing her to bring Poseidon into the battle on the side of the Achaeans.
Aphrodite, on the other hand, played a softer role in the epic. She does support Paris and Troy throughout The Iliad, to different levels of effectiveness. She does fail in her attempt at protecting Aeneas, but she successfully saves Paris twice during the duel with Menelaus in Book 3. First, she was “quick to mark to break the strap of oxhide” of Paris’ helmet as Menelaus dragged him on the ground (Homer). Even when Menelaus attempts to kill Paris with a spear, Aphrodite whisks him away from the battle and takes him to his bedchamber. She was also an aide to the fallen body of Hector in Book 23, keeping away from it the dogs and fire at night and covering it with oils to protect the flesh.
Hephaestus, one of the gods that do not play a major role in The Iliad says something to his mother Hera in Book 1 that fits well with the overall theme of gods in the epic poem. In his way to calm her down from her criticism of Zeus, he tells her that the two should not fight, “setting heaven in an uproar about a pack of mortals” (Homer). The actions of the immortals throughout the epic fit the overall anthropomorphic nature of the Greek prevalent in the stories and myths told by men like Homer. The gods are powerful but easily swayed by their moods, or under the powers of fate even beyond their control. This spills into the great deeds of both mortal armies embroiled in a legendary war, who for victory and glory play their part as the pawns of the gods.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Samuel Butler. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Web. Accessed 18 Mar 2014.
Graves, Robert. The Greek myths. London: Penguin Books Ltd:, 2011. Print.
Redfield, James M. Nature and culture in the Iliad: the tragedy of Hector. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. Print.