With even a cursory exposure to ancient Greek texts, it is obvious that the gods and goddesses are very important in traditional Greek culture. As literary figures in mythos and specific poetry and drama, the gods dabble in the life of man, predict his fate, and routinely thwart any attempt for him to entirely forge his own future. But for those of us who are not extensively schooled in antiquities, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what the gods are to the ancient Greeks, and what they are to us as readers of literature who live outside the culture. Were the gods accepted as parable figures, meant to instruct? Were they used to explain acts of nature? Do they now belong to anything outside the scope of literary history?
Rather than speculate about the role of gods in all of Greek culture, it is more manageable to look at one specific text and determine the role its gods play within its world. In The Iliad, the gods are an integral part of the poem. Their foibles and fickleness recall for the reader the humanness of the Greek gods, and spark a mental association of men to myths. This makes the long-dead warriors more real to anyone who reads the poem. But the gods of The Iliad also inculcate what could be nothing more than a dry account of a historical war that no one recorded while it was happening. This historical-cultural element, one that connects the events of that unwritten war to readers by pulling the past into the present, make the old archetypes oddly modern and applicable to the present day world and its men. One of the most interesting lines in The Iliad is when one Aias tells the other that he recognizes Poseidon, who has disguised himself as K...
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...ormalized remembrance; the gods' inclusion make that remembrance bigger than any sterile account or battlefield casualty list could be. This expanded scope makes relevant the deaths of would-be anonymous warriors, makes tragedy out of widows and orphans, makes us think about the cycles of human aggression. The gods and their powerful presence is one element of this relevant piece of historic art.
Works Cited and Consulted
Camps, W. A. An Introduction to Homer. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
Homer. "The Iliad." Western Literature in a World Context: The Ancient World through the Renaissance. Ed. Paul Davis et al. vol 1. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995. 25-156.
Steiner, George, and Fagles, Robert, eds. Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays. Twentieth Century Views, ed. Maynard Mack. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1962.
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