The Role Of Zeus in Homer's Iliad


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The Role Of Zeus in Homer's Iliad

 

In the era of Homer, divine intervention was thought to be typical, and one of his

foremost works, The Iliad, reflects this. Nearly all of the Greek gods are

involved in the outcome of the Trojan War, which happens to be the

background story of this epic poem. The gods are used by Homer to add

twists on an otherwise standard plot of war. I shall concentrate on Zeus,

however, and reflect on his actions and their outcomes on the Trojan War,

and more importantly, the story of The Iliad. Zeus, very untypical of a Greek

god in his lack of involvem7ent in the Trojan War for selfish reasons, was

portrayed as the father figure, being impartial and fair to both sides of the war.

He remains this way to serve as a check for each god's involvement in the

war. Without his presence at the head of the inner circle of Olympus, it is likely

that the activity of the Trojan War would become chaotic, possibly even

becoming a playground of war for the gods. With Zeus's majestic power,

above all of the other gods combined, along with his experience, he is quite

befitting to his role in the storyline of The Iliad. The Iliad was thought to be

written by a Greek minstrel named Homer. The Iliad was the first of the major

epics credited to him, the second being The Odyssey. Discussion about

Homer among scholars inevitably leads to controversy on nearly every

conceivable issue, ranging from his birthplace to his actual composition of

either of these epics. Because of our lack of reliable information, we have but

a small fragment of knowledge agreed on by scholars about the writer of the

first great piece of literature of Western civilization. Homer in ancient Greece

was conceived as a "blind, old man, singing or reciting his own compositions"

 (History of Horticulture), and at least seven ancient Greek cities claimed to be

his birthplace. His work has been questioned as to two separate ways: if one

minstrel, possibly named Homer, composed these works alone, and if so, if

this minstrel wrote both of these epics. It has been argued that Homer is, in

fact, the collective progression of minstrels that have passed this

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ever-evolving tale down until it was inscribed into the epic that we have today.

                    

The opposite has been argued also, however. Concerning the second

question, that of if Homer wrote both The Iliad and The Odyssey, several

points have been brought up. One point brought up is the fact that they have

been thought to be written over a generation apart, which, if true, makes it

  very unlikely for one man to have composed both of these classic epics. The

other point brought up is the amount of variances in the writing of these epics,

especially in writing style and word choice and phrasing. It has been proposed

by several scholars that the authors of The Iliad and The Odyssey be named

Homer I and Homer II, respectively. However the origin of these epics, they are

classics and served as cornerstones for the early Western literature, and

possibly even modern as well. The Iliad has been ascribed to Homer in

approximately 750 BC. This would put his writing several centuries after the

completion of the Trojan War, currently thought to have occurred in 1185 BC.

Homer is writing in what historians call the Dark Ages of Greek history, in

which the Greek population saw a virtual elimination of literacy. By the time his

epics were composed, literacy had begun to return, which is one of the

reasons his works became so popular. Homer reflects on a different time,

almost a half millenium earlier, reflecting on an era known as the Heroic Age.

 

This contrasts directly with the contemporary society of Homer, in which the

quality of life dropped tremendously. The Iliad, in essence, recounts the story

of part of the tenth year of the Trojan War. It recounts of the anger of Achilles,

the greatest warrior present at Troy, and of the background battle that is

ensuing. The background story of the Trojan War is assumed to be known by

the reader, and Homer focuses his energies on expanding the characters of

the epic, showing the reader that he is more a dramatist than a pure historian,

writing for pleasurable purposes rather than strictly educational purposes.

 

The main theme of The Iliad is the anger of Achilles, even starting in the first line of

the play. The wrath of Achilles is brought on by the irrational actions of the

leader of the Greek forces, Agamemnon. Achilles refuses to fight against the

Trojans, and the Greeks suffer accordingly without their top warrior. Two other

themes are intertwined around this main theme, one being the Trojan War,

and the final being the will of Zeus, my subject. These intertwining themes

meet in the end of the epic, when Achilles' wrath is curbed and he returns to

battle. The role of Zeus in Homer's Iliad is one of moderator and the overall

director of all that occurs in this story. His position was to ensure that whatever

fate decreed would happen. As I stated before, without his presence, the story

would likely become a war playground for the gods instead of the Greeks and

Trojans. Zeus stayed impartial throughout almost the entire epic in contrast to

the other gods, who would scheme and contrive plans for the sides that they

chose to ally with. For example, Hera, his wife, chose to display the more

typical actions of a Greek divinity. Paris, a Trojan prince, chose Aphrodite as

the fairest over Hera and Athena, and this infuriated her, and she went to no

end to try to help the Greek army defeat the Trojan side (Classics in

Translation, 14). However, Hera recognizes the superiority of Zeus over

herself as well as the rest of the Olympian gods. Hera is obviously the

subservient god, even becoming afraid and ceasing speaking when Zeus

orders her under the possible occurrence of him laying his "invincible" hands

on her (Iliad, Book I, 30). She does try to undermine his power by trickery,

slyly getting him to sleep while her and her brother, Poseidon, god of the

seas, influence the war in the favor of the Greeks (Iliad, Book XIV, 334).

 

However, when Zeus awakens, his reemergence into the picture effectively

eliminates the other gods from intervening in the war due to his sheer will and

backing power (Iliad, Book XV, 349). The opposing gods were mainly Apollo

and Artemis, twin brother and sister. They favored the Trojan side, and were

constantly turning the tide in favor of the Trojans. Apollo respected Zeus and

his enforcing of the laws of fate, however, and kept fate as it was deemed to

be. An example of this is when Achilles' servant, Patroclus, tries to take the

city of Troy. Before Patroclus was allowed to wear Achilles' armor into battle,

he promised only to drive the Trojans away from the ships and not to take an

offensive against the city of Troy. Only the reflection of Patroclus by Apollo's

shield three times prevents this. This lack of moderation shown by Patroclus,

as well as the deeming of death before the end of battle by fate, granted by

Zeus, leads to his death (Iliad, Book XVI, 398). Zeus serves as an enforcer of

fate in the epic, giving no ground to anyone, even his blood relatives. Zeus

also shows no mercy to mortals in The Iliad. His own son, Sarpedon, was

allowed to die at the hands of Patroclus while Zeus looked on, unwilling to

break fate and save even his own son. Zeus was debating whether or not to

take him from the battlefield, but Hera convinced him by expressing the

feelings other gods would have, namely anger. She told him that he would not

be praised and that other gods would possibly take their loved ones out of

battle as well (Iliad, Book XVI, 391). Zeus was confined to his own sorrow

because he was not willing to take his son out of the battle. Zeus was able,

however, to have Apollo take his body from the battlefield and take him back

to Lykia, where he could be buried as a hero (Iliad, Book XVI, 397). Patroclus,

another example somewhat discussed previously, was also fated to die when

he took an offensive against the Trojan city. It was fated for him to die in

battle, and it was Zeus "who then aroused the spirit in Patroclus' breast"

Classics In Translation, 37). This led him into his inescapable fate, to which

Zeus was unerring and emotionless. Zeus will only enter into the fray of the

Trojan War if fate is not being followed, and will only alter situations until fate

has been met. At the end of the epic, when Achilles is finally roused back into

battle, he turns the fate of the war so much to the Greek side that Zeus

temporarily allows the other gods back into the war to ensure the city of Troy

is only sacked when fate decrees, and not a second earlier. Zeus interferes in

the war in areas that fate has nothing to do with, such as glory and honor.

Zeus helps Hector, the main hero of the Trojan side, in his attainment of honor

when he takes the armor of Achilles off the body of Patroclus. Only Achilles

could fit into the incredible armor, but with Zeus' intervention, Hector was

enabled to fit into the armor as well, proving himself no less of a man than

Achilles (Iliad, Book XVII, 408). Zeus knew of the fate of death of Hector at the

hands of Achilles, and felt that the increase in honor of Hector was necessary.

 

Zeus also wanted a respectable and honorable death for Hector, the Trojan

hero, and was infuriated when Achilles decided to desecrate the body of

Hector. This epic ends when Hector's body is ransomed back to the Trojan

side to the pleasure of Zeus, in essence wrapping together the themes of the

wrath of Achilles and the presence of all-powerful Zeus. Zeus has an

overriding presence in The Iliad, sometimes not directly present, but always in

the mix. He is the only presence in the epic that stresses the Greek ideals of

moderation and fate. The Greeks believed in the ideal of moderation, and the

essence that moderation was the key to becoming a better person. Fate also

could not be avoided in the eyes of the Greeks, and when fate was trifled with,

bad things happened, as they did when fate was trifled with in The Iliad.

 

The presence of Zeus in the epic affected every action taken or avoided in some

shape, way, or form. His allowance of other gods intervening in the war at

times strengthens the idea that he is all-seeing, all-powerful, due to the fact

that the other gods' intervention inevitably led fate back onto its original

course. In the eyes of the Greeks, the Trojan War was a spectacular event to

the mortals, but to the gods, it was nothing more than a mere petty struggle.

 

However, the idea of fate must always be kept under all circumstances, and

Zeus was the overseeing power that ensured this in The Iliad.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

MacKendrick, Paul. The Iliad. Classics In Translation. Vol. I. Pp. 11-48.

University of Wisconsin Press. 1980.

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Fitzgerald, Robert. Dell Publishing. 1974.

Bloom, Harold. The Iliad - Modern Critical Interpretations. Chelsea House Publishing. 1987. History of Horticulture - Homer http://www.hcs.ohio-state.edu/hort/001.

 


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