Study Guide

The Iliad Religion

By Homer

Religion

Book 1

(Chryses:)
Hear me,
lord of the silver bow who set your power about Chryse
and Killa the sacrosanct, who are lord in strength over Tenedos,
Smintheus, if ever it pleased your heart that I built your temple,
if ever it pleased you that I burned all the rich thigh pieces
of bulls, of goats, then bring to pass this wish I pray for:
let your arrows make the Danaans pay for my tears shed. (1.36-42)

When Chryses, the priest of Apollo, makes his prayer, he reveals something important about the religion of the Ancient Greeks. It was very much based upon a give-and-take relationship between mortals and gods: the mortal would make sacrifices, or would build monuments to the gods, but he could ask for something in return.

Now as he weighed in mind and spirit these two courses
and was drawing from its scabbard the great sword, Athene descended
from the sky. […]
The goddess standing behind Peleus' son caught him by the fair hair,
appearing to him only, for no man of the others saw her.
Achilleus in amazement turned about, and straightway
knew Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining. […]
Then […] the goddess grey-eyed Athene spoke to him:
"I have come down to stay your anger--but will you obey me?--
from the sky; and the goddess of the white arms Hera sent me,
who loves both of you equally in her heart and cares for you.
Come then, do not take your sword in your hand, keep clear of fighting,
though indeed with words you may abuse him, and it will be that way." (1.193-195, 197-200, 206-211)

Some scholars have argued that the Homeric gods might sometimes just be metaphors for human thought processes. For example, when Athene – the goddess of wisdom – appears above Achilleus and tells him to cool his jets, that could just be a poetic way of saying that his better judgment takes over. It seems difficult to apply this theory in every case, however (many gods act beyond their specific job description). How convincing do you find it, here and in the Iliad overall?

Book 5
The Gods

(Athene:)
I have taken away the mist from your eyes, that before now
was there, so that you may well recognize the god and the mortal.
Therefore now, if a god making trial of you comes hither
do you not do battle head on with the gods immortal,
not with the rest; but only if Aphrodite, Zeus' daughter,
comes to the fighting, her at least you may stab with the sharp bronze. (5.127-132)

This quote reveals just how strange the Ancient Greek understanding of the gods was. Just when you expect Athene to have taken the mist off Diomedes's eyes so that he doesn't fight with any gods, it turns out that he's only supposed to fight one of them: Aphrodite. What does the fact that Diomedes fights with gods and gets away with it say about Achilleus's claim to be the best of the Achaians?

Book 6

(Helenos:)
[…] but you, Hektor, go back again to the city, and there tell
your mother and mine to assemble all the ladies of honour
at the temple of grey-eyed Athene high on the citadel;
there opening with a key the door to the sacred chamber
let her take a robe, which seems to her the largest and loveliest
in the great house, and that which is far her dearest possession,
and lay it along the knees of Athene the lovely haired. Let her
promise to dedicate within the shrine twelve heifers,
yearlings, never broken, if only she will have pity
on the town of Troy, and the Trojan wives, and their innocent children. (6.86-95)

Once again, the theme of worship as a two-way street comes up. Helenos thinks that if the women of Troy make a good enough offering to Athene, she will help them. Unfortunately, things don't turn out that way.

Book 7
The Gods

(Poseidon:)
Father Zeus, is there any mortal left on the wide earth
who will still declare to the immortals his mind and his purpose?
Do you not see how now these flowing-haired Achaians
have built a wall landward of their ships, and driven about it
a ditch, and not given to the gods any grand sacrifice?
Now the fame of this will last as long as dawnlight is scattered,
and men will forget that wall which I and Phoibos Apollo
built with our hard work for the hero Laomedon's city. (7.446-453)

Bad things happen when humans try to build things without the gods' permission. Or is Poseidon more angry because he thinks the wall will have a kind of immortality? Talk about a fragile ego.

Book 9

(Phoinix:)
Then, Achilleus, beat down your great anger. It is not
yours to have a pitiless heart. The very immortals
can be moved; their virtue and honour and strength are greater than ours are,
and yet with sacrifices and offerings for endearment,
with libations and with savour men turn back even the immortals
in supplication, when any man does wrong and transgresses. (9.496-501)

Let's break down what Phoinix is saying here. First, he says Achilleus should stop being such a jerk. Then, he says even the gods stop being jerks when people offer them stuff. Now we all know that Achilleus just got offered a ton of stuff, but he's still not being nice. Does he think he's better than the gods or something? That doesn't sound very pious.

Book 23

Teukros was allotted first place to shoot. He let fly
a strong-shot arrow, but did not promise the lord of archery
that he would accomplish for him a grand sacrifice of lambs first born.
He missed the bird, for Apollo begrudged him that […]. (23.862-865)

See what happens when you don't promise to help out the gods? Teukros should have known better.

Menelaos

(Menelaos:)
Antilochos, beloved of Zeus, come here. This is justice.
Stand in front of your horses and chariot, and in your hand take
up the narrow whip with which you drove them before, then
lay your hand on the horses and swear by him who encircles
the earth and shakes it you used no guile to baffle my chariot. (23.581-585)

Menelaos is calling the gods to function, in effect, as a lie-detector test. Generally, do you think that the gods in Homer's poem do a good job at preserving truth, justice, and the Achaian way?

Book 24
The Gods

(Zeus:)
Hera, be not utterly angry with the gods, for there shall not
be the same pride of place given both. Yet Hektor also
was loved by the gods, best of all the mortals in Ilion.
I loved him too. He never failed of gifts to my liking.
Never yet has my altar gone without fair sacrifice,
the smoke and the savour of it, since that is our portion of honour. (24.65-70)

Unlike Teukros, Hektor always remembered his manners in dealing with gods. Even if they cannot save him from his fate, they still keep looking out for him.

Achilleus

(Achilleus:)
Friends, who are leaders of the Argives and keep their counsel:
[…] the gods have granted me the killing of this man
who has done us much damage […]. (378-380)

Achilleus gives the gods credit for the killing of Hektor. Does this seem consistent or inconsistent with his character more generally?

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