Possibly one of the most influential and well-known text from Ancient Greece, the Iliad is an epic poem attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Homer. It details some of the most significant events in the myth of the Trojan War - a legendary, massive 10-year siege on the city of Troy by an alliance of Greek forces. Whether the war itself ever happened is still unknown, but the story is indisputably one of the most significant in Greek mythology, likely due to all the mysticism involving gods and heroes of Greek legends. Through the examination of the various narrations of the Trojan War, we hope to gain insight on the way the Ancient Greeks viewed their gods and how they believed the latter interacted with the mortal world.
It's all your fault!
From the very beginning, the war was precipitated by the gods. During the wedding of the Nereid (sea nymph) Thetis and the mortal king Peleus, all the gods were invited except for Eris, the goddess of strife and discord. Insulted, she decided to provoke a conflict among the gods - she tossed in a splendid golden apple (later known as the Apple of Discord) inscribed with the words “To the fairest” and caused the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite to fight over it (the other goddesses simply didn't care).
To settle the argument fairly, the goddesses sought a third party to make the decision, this being Zeus, the ruler of the gods, but he refused for fear of retaliation from the scorned goddesses. Instead, he directed them to the mortal Paris. When he failed to make a choice, they resorted to offering bribes in return for his favor. Hera, the queen of the gods, offered to make him king of all men; Athena, goddess of war strategy, offered him victory in battles; Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, offered him Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chose Aphrodite, and in doing so, started the domino of events starting from the capture of Helen and leading to the Trojan War.
Overall, it can be seen how closely the Ancient Greeks identify the gods with humans. From this event, we clearly see the pettiness and conceitedness of the goddesses as they squabbled over a mere ornament and a shallow, meaningless title. The egotism of the gods is also exemplified in how Eris retaliated to the snub of being uninvited. Pride is a common theme here, but more interesting is the fear Zeus shows in his reluctance to choose between the goddesses. While most people would think of the gods as fearless due to their immense power, Zeus’ fear here makes him seem more like a mortal man rather than the ruler of the immortal gods.
While the war was fought mainly between mortals, the gods themselves got rather invested in it as well. They were almost like spectators at a football match, cheering on their favorites from the sidelines. There were two camps up in Mount Olympus where the gods resided - Team Trojan, consisting of Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Leto, and Scamander; and Team Greek, with Athena, Hera, Hephaestus, Hermes, Poseidon, and Letis. Unlike game spectators though, the gods were pretty much free to jump in the fray and get a hit in on the opposing players too. They protected their favored heroes and mortal offspring, blessing them with boosts of strength and whisking them off the battlefield when in danger.
They did not limit their attacks on the mortals alone, either. Homer narrated many instances where the gods turned their blades and powers on one another, though as immortals the damage was much less deadly and mostly inflicted on their prides. There is a remarkable section in Book 21 of the Iliad where the gods quarreled on the sidelines, squabbling and pouncing on each other like children. It is almost laughable how childishly they were acting, the taunts and pettiness completely unbefitting of a god in modern minds. Again, this highlights the similarity with which the Ancient Greeks saw the gods and themselves. It also underscores how self-absorbed the gods were and how little they cared about lives of mortal men. They played with mortal lives like puppets on a string, choosing to end or prolong them based on arbitrary reasons instead of some greater cause like the betterment of the world as one would expect from such higher beings. While the Ancient Greeks did think that the gods would dutifully reward the good and punish the evil, they also expected this kind of self-serving behavior from them.
Hell Hath No Fury Like A God Scorned
The gods demanded worship, obedience and respect, and could turn nasty when denied them. Apollo, the god of plague, medicine and healing, is no different. The respect and worship one offers him would translate to them being blessed with good health. On the other hand, actions that offend him in any manner would ultimately result in the individual’s suffering from pestilence. This was illustrated in the Trojan War where the Greeks were struck by a plague from Apollo due the the Greeks’ refusal to ransom Chryseis, the daughter of one of Apollo’s priests whom they had abducted. It was only when she was returned that Apollo lifted the plague.
As mentioned earlier, the Trojan War lasted for a long 10 years. The plague was said to have started during the last year of the war. While contemporary people would attribute the plague to poor sanitation, shortage of food and over-population over time, the Greeks attributed the plague to Apollo’s wrath. It was no mere coincidence that the plague was ‘lifted’ just as the Greeks cleansed themselves after returning Chryseis. This tendency to attribute events to the gods despite other more probable reasons highlights the extent to which the Ancient Greeks saw the gods’ involvement in their daily lives.
Of Omens and Signs
Other than the plague, the divines were said to have manifested in various ways - dreams, signs and omens that were either sent by the gods or representative of their work. In Book II of the Iliad, Zeus sent a wonderful but false dream to Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief of the Greek forces, to make him think that he would win the war very soon. Agamemnon believed what he saw in his dream was a good omen for the coming battle, heeding the divine voice he had heard without question which resulted in a terrible loss for the Greeks in the subsequent battle.
Another example is one shortly before the death of Hector, a Trojan prince and the greatest fighter in Troy. During a fierce battle where the Trojans managed to drive the Greeks back past their trenches, the Trojans observed that “an eagle high in the sky wheeled across their left, grasping a long blood-red snake alive and writhing. It still had fight in it, arching back to strike the eagle on its breast, and the bird in pain, letting it fall among the troops, flew swiftly down the wind with a loud cry”. (A. S. Kline [translated Homer: The Iliad], 2009; Bk XII; Pg 175 - 250) A Trojan commander warned Hector that it was a terrible omen, predicting that the Greeks will turn around and retaliate fiercely, leaving the Trojans to return empty-handed. Hector ignored the warning and, sure enough, he did not live to return from the subsequent battle. Achilles, the best of the Greek warriors, returned to the field and killed him, slaughtering Trojan troops as he went and forcing them back behind their walls.
The Ancient Greeks saw signs from the gods all around them - from the birds in the sky to their own dreams at night. Their immediate willingness to believe these signs almost every single time they spot them is a direct contrast to today’s cynical world. We may believe in the gods of our respective faiths, but rarely do we consider that they may be sending messages to us. The Ancient Greeks clearly felt close to the gods, perceiving them as existing and interacting pretty frequently around them. This may serve as some motivation or even excuse for their behavior, being encouraged by good omens and dismayed by bad omens.
While the various narratives of the Trojan War are certainly not scientific in any way, they do provide much insight into life and war in Ancient Greece. The mythological aspects portray the gods as the Ancient Greeks saw them, and from there, we may speculate why they lived and behaved the way they did.
Petersen, W. (Producer/DIrector), Rathburn, D., & Wilson, C. (Producers). (2004). Troy [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Warner Bros. Pictures.