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The Gods According to Homer

Updated: Jul 5

Get to grips with Greek Religion in five minutes in this blog series! If you’re an A Level Classics or Ancient History student, each of these blog posts are a five-minute summary of some of the main topics you will need for your exams. For university-level scholars or independent researchers, we’ve included clickable links to useful literature and canonical scholarship you need to be acquainted with to get started.

 

In this post, get to know the gods of the exciting epics of Homer!



Anthropomorphism

 

Homer’s gods are, as is usual in Greek religion, anthropomorphic.

 

G. M. A. Grube points out that the society of the gods is structured like humans, although Zeus is the final authority. The gods “have to respect each other’s rights and powers,” which is “essential to any community life, human or divine.”

 

The gods also have very human emotions. Sea goddess Thetis weeps when she sees her son Achilles grieving for his friend Patroclus. Ares and Aphrodite seek sympathy from other gods when they are wounded. The gods also quarrel with each other like humans, although Hephaestus is portrayed as a peace maker.

 

However, there are marked differences between gods and humans. The gods can change their physical appearance and are bigger than human beings. As Warren Smith observes, the gods “are not only tall, but freakishly gigantic, monstrous”; for example, Zeus’s giant hand pushes Hector into battle in the Iliad.

 

There are other differences, too. Barry Powell argues that the Iliad tells the “curious tension between the gods’ carefree world and the heroes’ world of violence and pain.”

 

There is some disagreement over the role of the gods in Homer. Some academics have described them as comic relief. Others maintain that they are a plot device, either to explain the start and course of the war in the Iliad  or to give plausibility, continuation, complication, surprise, and suspense.

 


Yet other scholars see the gods as offering a moral dimension to Homer’s epics. William Allan argues that the gods are not amoral, but actually offer divine justice. Geoffrey Kirk, however, disagrees, pointing out that “all sorts of not very heroic qualities are allowed to enter the lives of the gods.” A third opinion belongs to Jasper Griffin, who argues that Homer’s gods are impressive gods and deserve worship they receive, although they do enjoy being spectators in human affairs.

 

At the Mercy of the Gods

 

The gods are also presented as being as super beings with divine power and human life is in the hands of the gods. In the Odyssey, Odysseus tells Telemachus “It is easy for the gods in heaven to glorify or debase a man and later he tells the suitor Amphinomus: “Of all the creatures that breathe and creep about on mother earth there is none so helpless as man. As long as the gods grant him prosperity and health he imagines he will never suffer misfortune in the future. Yet when the blessed gods bring him troubles he has no choice but to endure them with a patient heart.”

 

Hector tells Glaucus in The Iliad XVII, “…we are all puppets in the hands of aegis-bearing Zeus. In a moment, Zeus can make a brave man run away and lose a battle; and the next day the same god will spur him on in a fight.”

 

Hector is well aware of the fact that he and others are at the mercy of the gods. He is saved by Apollo while Athene helps his arch-rival Achilles. Later, when he realises that his fate is to die, Hector observes: “Zeus and his Archer Son must long have been resolved on this, for all their goodwill and the help they gave me.” 


 

Of course, this makes it easy for people to blame the gods for human affairs. In the Iliad, Priam tells Helen that he blames the gods, not Helen, for bringing the war to Troy and later Patroclus tells Hector, “The victory is yours – a gift from Zeus the Son of Cronos and Apollo. They conquered me…If twenty Hectors had confronted me, they would all have fallen at my spear. No; it was hateful Destiny and Leto’s son that killed me.”

 

In the Odyssey, Penelope tells her nurse, “…the gods have driven you crazy. They can, after all, rob the wisest of their wits and make stupid people wise.”

 

The Gods Constrained

 

Of course, humans in Homer’s epics do have agency, especially if they understand how to use their relationships with the gods. As Odysseus tells Achilles in the Iliad, Hector is powerful because he “trusts in Zeus, and fears neither man nor god in the frenzy that possesses him”.

 

One of the things that makes Homer’s epics so compelling is his awareness of the limits of the gods’ power. As Phoenix the charioteer tells Achilles, “The very gods, for all their greater excellence and majesty and power, are capable of being swayed.”


In book Twenty of the Iliad, all the gods meet on Mount Olympus and Zeus says that they can now interfere in the battle. Apollo saves Hector, but then the gods begin fighting each other. Perhaps the gods’ greatest limits are those they put on each other.

 

Fate and the Gods

 

Even Zeus himself cannot change Fate. On two occasions in the Iliad, the other gods remind him of this. When Zeus considers saving his son Sarpedon, who is fated to die, Hera reproaches him: “Are you proposing to reprieve a mortal man, whose doom has long been settled, from the pains of death? Do as you please; but do not expect the rest of us to applaud…If you send Sarpedon home alive, what is to prevent some other god from trying to rescue his own son from the fight?”



In another case, Zeus considers saving Hector: “I grieve for Hector. He has burnt the thighs of many oxen in my honour.” This time, it is Athene who reproaches him: “Are you, the Lord of the Bright Lightning and the Black Cloud, proposing to reprieve a mortal mon, whose doom has long been settled, from the pains of death? Do as you please; but do not expect the rest of us to applaud.”

 

In our next post, explore the showdown between Greek philosophers and the gods!

 

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