Just a little essay I wrote about Homer’s Iliad.
The Humanity and Mortality of the Gods
So Tydides prayed and Athena heard his prayer, put spring in his limbs, his fighting hands and close beside him winged him on with a flight of orders: “Now take heart, Diomedes, fight it out with the Trojans! Deep in your chest I’ve put your father’s strength. He never quaked, that Tydeus, that great horseman- what force the famous shieldsman used to wield! Look, I’ve lifted the mist from off your eyes that’s blurred them up to now- so you can tell a god from man on sight. So now if a god comes up to test your mettle, you must not fight the immortal powers head-on, all but one of the deathless gods, that is- if Aphrodite daughter of Zeus slips into battle, she’s the one to stab with your sharp bronze spear!”
In this scene, we are presented to a fallen Diomedes who is on the floor praying for the divine assistance of the goddess Athena, seeking revenge upon the archer Pandarus who stuck him down and any Trojan who stands in his way. Athena answers Diomedes’ call for help and negotiates a pact with the brave and powerful warrior whom is then given the visual ability to distinguish between men who are being aided by gods and those who are not. Diomedes is given orders by Athena to refrain himself from attacking any god or goddess except for Aphrodite, goddess who assists in the Trojan armies; Diomedes is to kill Aphrodite and thus weaken the Trojan masses. The themes of prayer, divine intervention, and the humanization of the gods are present throughout this book in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, in which Diomedes “lord of the war cry” (Homer, 168) and the all mighty goddess of wisdom Athena agree to become accessories to their selfish endeavors; Aside from the examples of three prominent themes depicted by Homer in book five, this scene also raises questions about the true extent of powers and capabilities the gods possess in the realm of humans and the gods, and questions regarding ungodly characteristics and traits which some of the Olympian gods posses.
To the ancient Achaeans and Trojans, the Olympian gods are not figures of mythology; they are indeed a real force within their world beliefs and are believed to be the ones who determine the fate of mankind. With this being stated, readers may be able to understand the important role the Olympian gods play within the realms of everyday life and more specifically the realm of warfare. On either side of the battlefield, gods are summoned on a regular basis to assist the endeavors of warriors and kings with their great powers. Prior to book five, where Diomedes makes a pact with the goddess Athena, Homer illustrates how the gods are persuaded to act out favors for those seeking help by describing the sacrificing of animals and the great feasts that such sacrifices provide; such sacrifices can be interpreted as collateral for their prayers to be answered. But this act of persuading the gods through the process of sacrifice begins to outline some of the humanlike characteristics that are often attributed to the gods; characteristics and traits that mark humanlike faults; the extent to the true power of the gods is also determined by the willingness to act, out of either bribery or personal choice. As in the case of Diomedes and Athena in book five of The Iliad, a compromise is agreed upon by both parties, yet it questions the legitimacy of Athena as all powerful and divine, as well for Aphrodite who will eventually be injured by a mere mortal Diomedes.
As Diomedes lies on the battlefield, stricken down by Pandarus, he prays aloud for the divine intervention of the goddess Athena,
Hear me, daughter of Zeus whose shield is thunder, tireless one, Athena! If you ever stood by father with all you love amidst the blaze of battle, stand by me- do me a favor now, Athena. Bring that man into range and let me spear him! He’s wounded me off guard and now he triumphs- he boasts I won’t look long on the light of day.
It is obvious that Diomedes is in no place to make an animal sacrifice or great feast, so he offers himself and his duty to Athena who grants him the ability to strike down his enemies and mark those who are being aided by gods. By compromising an agreement with Diomedes, Athena’s abilities as a powerful immortal goddess are put into question. If Athena, being the daughter of Zeus whose shield is thunder, why must she have a human carry out her plan to kill her goddess sister Aphrodite? It is true that the power possessed by Athena extends both the human and godly realms, but does Athena truly have to use mortals and human tactics to injure an immortal goddess as herself? In fact, it is the use of Diomedes as a human catalyst and her negotiation to assist Diomedes if he acts out her attack on Aphrodite, through which Athena losses divine credibility and expresses an ungodly feature of cowardice to confront Aphrodite on her own.
Such characteristics represented in this scene illustrate pity features with in Athena the goddess of wisdom. When Athena flies down from the heavens to answer Diomedes’ prayer, she makes a compromise, which is read as if she will only help Diomedes if he fulfills her tasks. This compromise is reminiscent to something a parent tells a young child, when either one of them wants something that can only be granted with the cooperation of the other.
Look, I’ve lifted the mist from off your eyes that’s blurred them up to now- so you can tell a god from man on sight. So now if a god comes up to test your mettle, you must not fight the immortal powers head on, all but one of the deathless gods, that is- if Aphrodite daughter of Zeus slips into battle, she’s the one to stab with your sharp bronze spear!
This part of the passage illustrates the notion that without the cooperation of both parties, neither god nor mortal will fulfill their goals to overcome their advisories; in modern times we use phrases like “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch your” in such cooperation. Soon after the agreement with Diomedes is set, “Athena soared away and Tydeus’ son/ went charging back to the front line of champions” (Homer, 168). Athena unlike Aphrodite, who tends to her son Aeneas’ side, leaves the battlefield for the safety of Olympus again reinforcing the image of a cowering goddess watching the battlefield from afar, stepping in only when summoned.
Aphrodite, along with Athena, shares many faulty humanistic characteristics that eventually will lead to her being injured by mortal Diomedes; cowardice and sympathy for her mortal son are Aphrodite’s humanistic weaknesses in book five. Soon after Diomedes with spear in hand and the divine aid of Athena, confronts and kills Pandarus,
he hurled and Athena drove the shaft and it split the archer’s nose between the eyes- it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw and the point came ripping out beneath his chin.
Diomedes confronts the prince and captain of men Aeneas, who “would have died on the spot if Zeus’s daughter/ had not marked him quickly, his mother Aphrodite/ who bore him to kind Anchises tending cattle once” (Homer, 174). Aphrodite’s intervening actions, which are driven by her conflicting human maternal instinct, are what cause her to be marked by the powers of Diomedes and lead to her being stabbed by Diomedes’ spear through her wrist. When compared to our Christian notion of sacrificing sons, as God allowing Jesus Christ to be crucified, Olympian gods cannot detach themselves from the eminent death their offspring will eventually face. Aphrodite, being the god of love and beauty, is not a god which is too familiar with battle and war, and is recognized as a “coward goddess” (Homer, 175) by mortals like Diomedes and deemed incapable of warfare by father Zeus. Like Athena, Aphrodite’s power and immortality is brought into question, by this scene; if she is immortal, why is she injured by a mortal?
Although Diomedes has been granted the great strength of his father and the clear vision of Athena to distinguish gods from men, he is still a mortal man. How is it that he is capable of nearly killing an immortal god? Well being that Aphrodite is not a god of conflict, but rather one of love, Aphrodite is unqualified to take on the brute realities of death on the battlefield; though she can be labeled as being responsible for the Trojan war, by lighting the fire of lust between Paris and Helen. It seems as though Aphrodite’s unpreparedness in defensive battle and lack of strategy are the reasons why her guard is rested from Diomedes’ attack. Gods like Athena and Ares are both familiar with the risks and strategies needed for war, thus resulting in schemes and tactics such as Athena’s pact with Diomedes. Aphrodite’s spontaneous attempt to intervene between her son Aeneas and Diomedes, mirrors some characteristics that are present in mortal man throughout the poem.
Book five in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, is purposefully titled “Diomedes Fights the Gods” to illustrate the extent of power which both man and gods have, along with their own faults as both mortals and immortals. On one side we have Diomedes lord of the war cry, who seeks to become as great as a god by challenging the immortality of Aphrodite, and on the other we have two goddess, Athena and Aphrodite, who are willing to use their divinity to intervene in the fate of mortal men, regardless of what may be considered ungodly or selfish. As discussed in class lecture, the ancient Greeks and Trojans truly believed that the Olympian gods were real, and they attributed many of their faulty human characteristics to their gods. To believe that such scenes illustrated in book five of The Iliad as literal documentation of history is absurd in our present ways of comprehending historical events. But what can be understood, is the intense devotion the ancients have toward their gods, as many people today devote their lives to our contemporary understanding of a god. Maybe in the future, when our contemporary religions are long gone and have become a part of history, our descendants may conclude that our gods may be reflections of our own fears and faults, as the ancients did with their gods.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. Comp. Bernard Knox. New York: Penguin, 1991. Print.