The role of Gods, Men and Women in Homer’s Iliad

Categories: The Iliad

The Iliad is a treasure-house of beautiful objects of art swords, cups, robes, bows, beds, shields. The poem's most beautiful symbols are, first  of all, absolutely useful objects. No object has purely enhancing value. The epic poet's delight in naming things is always accompanied, in Homer, by the process which all together relates them to the larger setting.

One function of the artifact, of course, is to convey its user's identity: that is, the artifact shows his skill specific kinds of action, so that Aias, for example, comes to be identified by the towering shield behind which he himself stands firm as a tower or Hektor by his flashing helm which serves as a inspiration to the charging Trojans.

In this way, Aphrodite's girdle, Athene's aegis and helmet, and Apollo's bow and lyre are images that make it easy to memorize their users' various roles in the epic scheme (Kenneth John Atchity, 1978).

Directly linked to this immediate function is the role the artifact plays in the structure and composition of the poem.

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Consider the simile used to describe Menelaos' wound in Book 4:

And straightway from the cut there gushed a cloud of dark blood. As when some Maionian woman or Karian with purple colors ivory, to make it a cheek piece for horses; it lies away in an inner room, and many a rider longs to have it, but it is laid up to be a king's treasure, two things, to be the beauty of the horse, the pride of the horseman: so, Menelaos, your shapely thighs were stained with the color of blood, and your legs also and the ankles beneath them.

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The developed form of Homeric epic differs drastically, not only from the prehistoric saga, but even from the most refined evolvements of oral poetry found anywhere. The preferences of Augustanism, periodically recurring, have created an inclination to see in Homer a vigorous and effective, but primitive art. Such an idea, though, confuses subject matter with treatment. Homer's tales are old, and there is savagery in them. They are not "abridged," but they are reconceived, and the Homeric reconception depends on as self-conscious creativity as is to be found in literature.

The poet's precursors, answering as they could the varying demands of Greek taste, doubtless account for something, but it is imponderable. Homer reckoning with oral methods both in their limits and their opportunities; and is extremely sophisticated, subtle, and contrived. The contents, like the contents of Geometric art, have an ancient look at times; but the touch are illicit, the intention steady, and the design ever present. If the festivals and what they oblique for Greek culture in the eighth century offered the setting and conditions for such art, the nature of the art and its motivation should be sought in the poems themselves.

For a poet whose language and whole artistic means is bound by the fairly rigid rules of an age-old tradition, the dilemma of originality is in great part one of formal mastery. But it also lies in the academic or intuitive diffusion of the themes and character shapes which comprise the heroic typology. Parallels are not far to inquire in early epic literature for the diverse kinds of valor symbolized by Homer. Everywhere can be found, reformed according to shifting cultural standards, the ideal hero, chevalier sans pear et sans reproached, the cunning hero, the boaster, the grim and aging warrior, the to some extent buffoonish hero, the aged king, the warrior virgin, the wise counselor, or the young reckless fighter.

Action also falls into types: the archetypal siege, the brilliant trick, the hand-to-hand duel, imprisonment and liberate of a famous warrior, disappearance, and return. Such blueprints of character and act lie in the storehouse of Western culture, heavy with poetic insinuations. In selecting as the center of the Iliad the pattern of the hero who retires from the war, Homer perhaps did nothing extraordinary. The type surely existed, as the tale of Meleager shows. But to build this matter into a study of heroic self-searching and the dark night of the soul was ingenuity in the highest sense, and a far cry from those glimpses of an old Achaean rough and stumble which occasionally peer through the consistency of Homer's work.

Homer's genius is like a shuttle drawing the deform of profound reticence across the woof of old, half primitive material, from the time when heroism meant primarily physical prowess, murderous adroitness, colossal self-assertion. Yet it is also perhaps part of essential human equipment that the germs of a counteractive to this self-assertion are not wholly lacking amongst the original types themselves. The hero who retires out of wounded honor, though he may not achieve the stature of Achilles, should nevertheless be in some degree a man of compound sensibility.

There is an interesting brief episode in one of the Serbian epics which relays how one hero went out to slay a famous marauder; he consummate his task, but then was stricken with repentance for having slain one better than himself, and disappeared forever into a cave. In the Arthurian legend, it will be remembered, Lancelot has periods of madness, when he is dependent, and Orlando too went mad. The consciousness of desolation amid greatness and success was perhaps not originally the most accepted theme for epic singing, but in Homer's hands, it grew to overshadow all else, and originated, for the first time that we know of, the primal shape of tragedy (Aycock, W. M., and T. M. Klein, 1980).

The problem of Homer's originality, is in fact simplified rather than obscured by the oral theory. The only function denied Homer by the nature of his medium was, for the majority part, novelty of phrase. All the larger features of his poetry were his own to form, character, configuration, imagistic economy, and above all, point. It has really been suggested that Hector and Patroclus are his own inventions. It cannot, certainly, be proved whether they are or not, and the supposition seems a little unlikely. On the other hand, it is also needless, for beyond question Homer has shaped these two figures, with all his others, to a purpose completely his own; there is a strong probability that whatever Hector and Patroclus were earlier, in Homer they have become somewhat new, and understandable only as parts of the Iliad.

The careful and dependable identification of Hector with Troy itself, especially in the Andromache scene and the scene where his death represents the fall of the city, can have found its motivation only in a poem which intended at drawing the significance of the whole epic tradition about Troy into the frame of a single dramatic action. So too, Patroclus, whether created from nothing or from a figure already existent, could never have accomplished his complex character outside a poem which requisite him to substitute for the dread Achilles on the battlefield, and at the same time to be the quintessence of gentleness and friendship.

Similar observations could be made concerning practically all the characters in the Iliad. One cannot, for example, imagine that Agamemnon always appeared in epic tradition as he does in Homer. The great king of Mycenae should have been represented as noble, as a minimum at his own court. But Homer has handled him with the most subtle irony, as a foil to Achilles, using all his customary eminence as a means of diminishing the man. Early in the poem, Nestor points the issue adequately, when he attempts to bring Achilles into reconcilement with the king:

Do not you, Achilles, set your will at strife with a king,
Hostile, for never a scepter-bearing king, to whom Zeus gives
Glory, has stood in equal honor with other men
If you are the mightier, and a goddess was your mother,
Yet he is greater, for he rules over more men.

(bk. 1, Il. 277-81)

The perfection of Homer's art as seen in his two epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, has been almost obvious among critics. The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, though only a small number of them are still extant, reached around the same level of greatness as the epics of Homer. Their greatness is adequately apparent in the works that survive. Appreciation of the tragedians can be too narrow or otherwise derisory because so much of what they wrote is forever lost to us, but enough remains to designate their quality. Even less, unfortunately, remains of Menander, of whom we have not a single absolute work.

Homer exhibited a world at war in the Iliad. Its hero is sometimes too little concerned concerning means, but his general aims are represented as noble and good, to live on in peace and affluence while he rules wisely and well and gives gods and suppliants their due. It would be a relic to denounce Homer as a fascist because he accepts monarchy and even slavery. He romanticizes his picture of the best institutions that he knew, not to recommend them in predilection to some modern alternative, for such alternatives did not then exist. He was simply concerned to make men behave with due deliberation of themselves and others within the framework of society as he saw it. He was an educator, not a reformer.

Homer's gods are made in the resemblance of men, but he seems to have heard of some earlier stage, even if he failed to realize it. In some cases he uses adjectives which are only comprehensible when used of gods who looked like animals.

Initially Hera may have been a cow-goddess and Athene an owl-goddess. At Mycenae Schliemann thought he had found cow-headed female idols, and though this has been issued, it remains true that the cow plays a significant part in Argive legends relating to Hera. The usual assumption is that Hera was originally a cow-goddess, then a goddess with a cow's head or a goddess whose sanctified animal was a cow. Of all this Homer says nothing, but he calls her βοω + πις though she is in human form. Athene in the identical way must have been an owl-goddess, and the owl is still her emblem and sacred bird on the coins of fifth-century Athens. Homer calls her γλαυκω + ̑πις, and in several places recalls ancient saga by making her take the form of a bird.

In a well-known passage she appears as a vulture, and in the Odyssey she makes her desertions in the form of a bird. This is remains of Minoan belief which held that the gods emerged in the shape of birds. On the Hagia Triada sarcophagus a bird sits on each of the double axes under which the sacrifice is conducted. A terra-cotta from Cnossos shows three columns with a bird on each. Two gold plates from the IIIrd shaft grave at Mycenae symbolize a woman convoyed by birds. The idol from the Sanctuary of the Double Axes at Cnossos has a bird on its head. So, too, Homer makes use of old ritual and makes Athene turn into a bird. His epithet γλαυκω + πις must come from the similar source, even if for him it meant no more than 'bright-eyed'.

The two titles of Apollo have to have a similar origin. Λυκηγενής can only signify that he was a wolf-god; such gods survived in Greece and may be the descendants of several animal-headed divinities of Minoan times. But for Homer Apollo is in human form, and in this similar line is called κλυτότοξος, a purely anthropomorphic conception. Homer should have used λυκηγενής without any sense of its meaning, taking it over from some precursor who had used it of Apollo.

But in the case of Σμινθεύς Homer is on better ground. Σμινθεύς is the mouse god, and he is called by Chryses to stop the pestilence because mice were the traditional purveyors of plague. It was mice which ate the bow-strings of Sennacherib's army, and mice of which the Philistines made images. So the appeal by Chryses is imperative and significant. The word comes from the pre-Hellenic word +03BCίνθα which, as we have seen, survived in the vernacular parlance of Cyprus. How Homer knew the title is quite indecisive. In this case he uses with perfect correctness a title which positively dates from when Apollo was a mouse-god and had to be pacified as the sender of plague (Austin, Norman., 1975).

These are the only cases where Homer's gods and goddesses seem to owe somewhat to Minoan ancestry, and even in these they do not lose their anthropomorphic status. In place of animals and birds Homer presents us with a heavenly society very like that of his own heroes. Zeus and the other gods sit on their acropolis of Olympus, whose gates are shielded by the Hours. His palace is higher than that of the others and its floor is of gold plates. Against its walls rest the chariots of the gods, and in it Zeus and Hera have their own chamber. Round it are the palaces of the other gods. The life in Olympus is one of politics and devouring varied with love. Zeus controls his vassals with no more ease than Agamemnon controls his.

Once they appalled against him and he subdued them with difficulty. Even now they dispute his decisions and at times defy him, so that he has to chide and intimidate them with punishments. The whole episode of the Διὸς ἀπάτη is planned to draw his eyes from the battle that the gods may take a part in it. His efforts to remain them out of the war are abortive, and in the end they fight each other. The life on Olympus is human in its politics and in other ways too. The gods give visits to the Ethiopians, and, while they are away, much can be done without their seeing. Their blindness is indeed notable.

Ares does not know when his son Ascalaphus is killed as he is clad in a golden cloud on Olympus, and only hears the news later from Hera. Hera certainly is more intelligent, and her female intuition tells her that Thetis' visit to Olympus bodes no good to her, and Athene knows that the overcome of the Achaeans is Thetis' work. All this is wonderfully human, and no doubt Homer's audience appreciated it as such. But the poet seems to have felt that he was making it to a certain extent too human and to have used the resources of custom to differentiate his gods from men without destroying their human characteristics.

He did this by the simple devices of making them competent of miraculous actions. While Zeus nods, he shakes Olympus. When Poseidon comes from Samothrace to Aegae the mountains and woods shake under him and he does the journey in three steps. When Ares or Poseidon cries aloud, their cry is like that of nine or ten thousand men. The gods live on nectar and ambrosia, and their blood in significance is not ordinary blood but ἰχώρ a word which appears to be borrowed from Hittite.

This whole anthropomorphic system has of course no relation to actual religion or to morality. These gods are a pleasant, gay invention of poets who were equipped to use their material freely in an age which enjoyed its gods. But having his gods so like men and such outstanding figures for drama, Homer was confronted with two difficulties. In the first place, though they were heaved above the beasts, they were only like human beings and therefore often preposterous, and in the second place such a system almost excluded any concept of the gods being concerned with human morality. These two sides of the question had obviously to be considered, and the result was that Homer followed both lines and ironically made the gods both ridiculous and impressive (Bassett, S. E. 1923: 339-48).

It is but a small step from improving the gods to making them ridiculous, and Homer easily takes it. But his special method of getting a laugh out of them is to adjust some old story to their present anthropomorphic circumstances. The gods had their established attributes, and though perchance these might have been ignored, Homer preferred to stay them and work them into the plot. The lame metal-worker, Hephaestus, is still kept lame. That was part of his character, for he hurt his leg when he was thrown out of Olympus by Zeus. But Homer makes his lameness rather ridiculous. He busies himself with the gods' feast and the gods laugh at him διὰ δώματα ποιπνύοντα. Ares, the war-god, was in ancient story a monster of great size with a tremendous voice.

So when he is wounded by Diomedes, the poet ignores his otherwise anthropomorphic character and makes him cry like nine or ten thousand men and cover seven roods with his body. Folk-lore gave even odder stories than these, and Homer makes use of them. While Zeus wants to frighten the other gods and goddesses he intimidates to hang a golden rope from heaven and fasten them all to it. This hides several ancient myths which are lost to us. Here it is pure comedy. So, too, in practice Zeus had numerous wives. The large number was due to the successful sky-god annexing local sanctuaries, and therefore being associated with local goddesses by the simple maneuver of marriage. But Homer finds humor in his polygamous Zeus.

His best treatment is when Zeus, trounce by his revived love for Hera, tells her that her charms far exceed any of his great loves. The long list of erotic triumphs is of the classiest character and well compared to Leporello's Catalogue in Don Giovanni. So, too, convention made Zeus and Hera brother and sister. This was awkward, but Homer laughs at it. He recalls the early days of love-making between Zeus and Hera, and adds the eternal touch ϕίλους λήθοντε τοκη + ̑ας. Perhaps some other ritual lies at the back of the remarkable scene in which Hera beats Artemis with her bow (Crotty, Kevin. 1982). But by far the most notable is the astonishing Διὸς ἀπάμος. In the Iliad this is a delightful, if to some extent lubricious, comedy.

There is great humor in the way in which Hera sets to work in cold blood to attract Zeus, and some satire both in her success and in Zeus' later reactions. The story is reassured from coarseness both by wit and beauty, and maintains a high level of elegant and delightful blasphemy. But it is based on a very old spiritual notion of the ἱερὸς γάμος, the wedding of the god and his bride, which is at the back of much primeval religion, and certainly seems to have been part of Minoan religion.

This belief was no doubt renowned with ritual such as we find in the festivity of the marriage of Zeus at Gortyn under a green plane-tree. Homer takes the familiar allegory and ritual, and turns it into a story, quite devoid of religious implication and interesting almost completely as a story. But the story was based on religion, and this gave his treatment a little added piquancy for those who knew the rite and the belief which it celebrated.

This gay treatment of the gods was undoubtedly excellent so far as poetry was concerned. It made the gods interesting and entertaining, and it helped by contrast to display the brilliance of men, at least of men in the heroic age. But of course to the moralist and the theologian it offered grave difficulties. To attribute the universe to divine governance and then to rob that governance of any moral accountability or significance, this struck a profound blow at the moral consciousness, which demands that a man's actions shall be sacred by some power above himself. And herein lays the elemental paradox and contradiction of Homeric theology. For the poet it was exceptional that the gods should be as he depicted them, irresponsible, amusing, insignificant. But conscience demanded that the gods must control human actions and be the sentineld of justice.

So Homer illogically makes the gods the arbiters of human behaviour and makes no effort to solve the inconsistency. He developed his views of spirituality and its significance for morality and religion on quite diverse lines, and left it at that. Basically this incongruity is a fault.

Though Homer does so, he wraps them up in a cloak of comedy which is at variance with what he actually seems to think. Modern literature presents hardly any parallels to such a treatment of religion. And yet there is somewhat of the same contradiction in Milton. The puritan in him condemned Satan and all his ways, but the artist wanted a terrible antagonist to God and endowed Satan with heroic qualities of courage and patience. It is true that in the later books of Paradise Lost Satan becomes less heroic, but the first feeling of sublime grandeur is ineradicable and quite alien to the religion preached elsewhere.

Milton's discord is less apparent than Homer's, but it shows that a single poet might combine such discordant elements and approve as a poet what he deplores as a moralist. Some such explanation might account for Homer's varying handling of the gods, but a rationalization might equally be found in the circumstances of his time. In Ionia thought had moved quickly and left some traditional elements far behind. The religion of the Ionian dignity was no longer based on fear of the Unknown and an aspiration to placate it. It had reached a point where belief in the gods was linked with a moral consciousness and genuine spiritual feeling.

But its art and folk-lore knew of gods who barely fitted into this scheme and were yet entirely familiar from story and ritual. The old stories were too intensely interwoven into its life to be derelict, but they failed to persuade its spiritual needs. Ionian society had reached an intermediary point. It clung to the old beliefs, in which it had been knowledgeable, but its conscience rejected them. Homer symbolizes this change, and gives us the old world of theology and the new world of religion and ethics. Equally elements are worked into his poem, and if he fails to synchronize them, we should blame his circumstances as much as himself (D'Arms, Edward F., and Karl K. Hulley." 1946: 207-13).

It is a fundamental assume of religion that the gods have power to answer prayers. But this power can be limited in place or in character. A god may be effective here and not there, he can be able to answer this prayer and not that. Usually Homer's gods are attached to special places, but their power expands beyond them. Apollo is the lord of Chryse, and even Zeus rules on Ida or at Dodona.

But in general the gods move and have no special shrine. Nor have they severely limited fields of action. So far as the war is concerned, one god can do as much as another. In the story, moving as they do in human form, the gods are inured by time and place. Zeus and his fellows visit the Ethiopians, and it is implicit that nothing can be done with them till their return. But this is mere story. The religious realization knows better, and though the gods are in Ethiopia, Athene comes down from Olympus to stop the rage of Achilles from ending in murder.

Homer, however, is not quite fulfilled with this solution. Like Aeschylus, he seems to have been puzzled why men did evil at all, and his complexity has been shared by most thinkers on religious conviction and morals. It was well for Agamemnon to be punished--he had done wrong. But why did he do wrong? Homer has his solution; Agamemnon is the victim of ἄτη. Zeus has robbed him of his wits, and later he comprehends it and is ready to make amends. ἄτη is the egotistical infatuation which made him take Briseis from Achilles, but Agamemnon is sure that it comes from Zeus. while he sends his embassy to Achilles with offers of amends he says that he is not to blame, for Zeus has deprived him of his wits, and when the real reconciliation comes, Achilles accepts the excuse that Agamemnon is the victim of and has been distressing from ἄτη. But farther than this Homer does not go. He leaves the trouble, as others have left it, unsolved.

Homer then, while accommodating the stories and forms of traditional religion, both deepens its religious significance and widens its ethical basis. Such a progression is the work of rationalism in the best sense, which agrees to religious experience and tries to found it on a more unyielding base than superstition. But having made these findings he was faced with certain difficulties. A combined morality demands a unified and single pantheon. Morality has turned numerous religions from polytheism into monotheism simply as monotheism eliminates the conflicting claims of diverse deities.

Homer never comes near to the formation of a single god, and certainly his traditional material made such a view unattainable. But in several ways he co-ordinates his gods into a single system. Of greatest significance is the part played by Zeus in it. On Olympus he is only a legitimate monarch. His power is restricted by the other gods, and though in the last resort he can intimidate and control them, he has to put up with disputes and although disobedience. In all this his position does not be different much from that of Agamemnon on earth. But for men his position is different. He is preeminently the god who is in command of their lives. The others are mentioned honoris causa with him, but he is the chief controller of their fortunes. Diomedes knows that it was Zeus καὶ θεοὶ ἄλλοι who sent Tydeus wandering:

Achilles knows that incarcerated Troy lies with Zeus: Aeneas knows that it is Zeus who gives men strength and lessens it as he wills. It is Zeus who lays heavy sorrow on men at their birth and has given the burden of Paris to Troy. For men at least there is one god who overshadows the rest. The others take their part in the battle and have their own favorites, but on the whole it is Zeus who directs mortal associations and decides what is to take place.

The Homeric religion is then a blend of diverse ideas; or rather it is a religion struggling out of conventional forms into a rationalized system. The customary forms are themselves of a quite classy nature, but the poet uses them for poetry, and reserves his rationalization to get away from them to an even more simplified understanding. To the religious realization his results are not perhaps always successful, and for only aesthetic appreciation perhaps he is best while he keeps to simple material and permits his fancy to play with it.

The nod of Zeus which shakes Olympus is better poetry than the embodied terrors of his battle-fields. These new formation seem to have appealed more to his head than to his heart. His imagination never actually got loose on them, and they remain generalizations. But once he made poetry out of his doubts, and the outcome is deeply moving. Before his cremation the ghost of Patroclus appears to Achilles in a dream. Achilles tries to clutch him, but the ghost evades him and goes away. Such a scene would anyhow be wretched and terrible. For the last time Achilles sees his friend, and he cannot embrace him. But Homer makes it the more moving by leaving in doubt whether it is a real ghost or only a dream.


Austin, Norman. Archery at the Dark of the Moon: Poetic Problems in Homer's "Odyssey." Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

Aycock, W. M., and T. M. Klein, eds. Classical Mythology in Twentieth-Century Thought. Proceedings of the Comparative Literature Symposium 11. Lubbock: Texas Tech Press, 1980.

Bassett, S. E. "The Proems of the Iliad and the Odyssey." American Journal of Philology 44 ( 1923): 339-48.

Crotty, Kevin. Song and Action: The Victory Odes of Pindar. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

D'Arms, Edward F., and Karl K. Hulley. "The Oresteia Story in the Odyssey." Transactions of the American Philological Association 76 ( 1946): 207-13.

Kenneth John Atchity, Homer's Iliad: The Shield of Memory; Southern Illinois University Press, 1978

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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The role of Gods, Men and Women in Homer’s Iliad essay
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