The religion of the ancient Greeks was polytheistic, consisting of the worship of various gods who presided over different aspects of human existence. In addition, the Greek gods are not spiritual beings but are anthropomorphic. They resemble human beings and tend to act in a human way, displaying all human vices, virtues, emotions, and beliefs. This anthropomorphism continues past the personalities of the Greek gods and on into their social structure: a patriarchal organization that closely resembles the patriarchy of human society.
The similarities are so numerous that it seems as if mortals and Gods are one in the same. In fact, when reading The Iliad, one questions whether or not a difference really exists. The intervention of the gods in the Iliad is so frequent that it is hard for the reader to achieve a balance between human responsibility, fame, and divine intervention. These interventions, though many may seem completely self-serving and immoral, serve an important role in the play. Homeric gods have less to do with religion than poetic narrative. They help to define the character of the mortals.
The gods, in acting out human emotions through intervention, are almost comical, for their motives seem so unnecessary. In retrospect many mortals have acted in the same manner - what does this say about mortals In addition, divine intervention, can be seen as reinforcing the character of the mortals. Take for example the scene in Book 1 between Achilles and Athena: Athena's intervention prevents Achilles from acting out his rage, an act that is not in his character, yet. The Homeric Gods are mainly immortal men and women, more powerful than all mortals. But, like mortals, they are susceptible to all human emotions and desires - both desirable and undesirable. It is these undesirable qualities (jealousy, anger, and hubris to name a few) that act as the driving forces for intervention in the lives of the mortals In fact, the very opening of the Iliad centers around one such intervention.
Zeus's on and Leto's, Apollo, who in anger at the king drove / the foul pestilence along the host, and the people perished, / since Atreus's on had dishonored Chryses, priest of Apollo, / when he came beside the fast ships of the Achaians to ransom / back his daughter, carrying gifts beyond count and holding / in his hands wound on a staff the gold ribbons of Apollo, / who strikes from afar, and supplicated to the Achaians yet this pleased not the heart of Atreus's on Agamemnon, / but harshly he drove him away with a strong order upon him. (I. 8-15, 24-25) Since Chryses is a priest of Apollo, any offense against him is therefore, by association, an offense against Apollo. This event, however, can be seen as a double-edged sword, for one can interpret this action as being driven by anger and wrath. Not all of the interventions of the gods can be categorized in this same fashion. There are instances when intervention seems almost unnecessary, forcing the reader to question the motivations of the particular god. A poignant example of this occurs after the Achaians had built a wall to protect themselves.
Poseidon is greatly angered that the Achaians did not make sacrifice to him before beginning the construction. 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 the gods any grand sacrifice / Now the fame of this wall will last as long as daylight is scattered, / and men will forget that wall which I and Phobos Apollo / built with our hard work for the hero Laodemon's city. (VII. 448-454) Poseidon appeals to Zeus, who in turn agrees that the wall should be demolished as soon as its purpose is served. Poseidon's argument is that the fame of the Achaians wall will outlast the fame of his own wall.
Poseidon need not worry about his own fame, for he is a god. Even more so, the intent of the mortals was not to garner fame for themselves: "and they gathered together and piled one single mound all above it / indiscriminately from the plain " (435-436). In reacting to the actions of the Achaians, Poseidon seems to be acting out the need for fame that is prevalent among men in Greek society. Actions taken in such a manner seem to render the mortals completely helpless.
One could argue that all mortal actions are of no consequence, for gods can undo these actions with the snap of a finger. This constant interference casts the gods in the role of malicious puppeteers, while reducing the Homeric hero to a mere pawn. This manipulation occurs very frequently throughout the book, and a very good example of this is Athena's encouragement of Pandarus to kill Menelaos. She found the son of Lykaon, a man blameless and powerful, / standing still, and about him were the ranks of strong, shield-armoured / people, who had followed him from the streams of Aise pos. / Speaking in winged words she stood beside him and spoke to him: / 'Wise son of Lykaon, would you now let me persuade you / So you might dare send a flying arrow against Menelaos / and win you glory and gratitude in the sight of all Trojans, / particularly beyond all else with prince Alexandros.
/ Beyond all beside you would carry away glorious gifts from him, / were he to see warlike Menelaos, the sun of Atreus, / struck down by your arrow, and laid on the sorrowful corpse-fire. ' (IV. 89-99) Pandaros is portrayed as a very weak character, "a man blameless and powerful, / standing still, and about him were the ranks of strong, shield-armoured " (IV. 89-90) Athena is especially ruthless in her actions, appealing to the greatest desires of a Greek man: honor, glory, gratitude, and gifts.
To a weak person, this appeal is irresistible. In addition, no mortal would ever dare disobey a goddess. Not only does she lead Pandaros to attempt the assassination, but she also at times ensures that he misses, "She brushed it [the arrow] away from his skin " (IV. 130) As a result of his actions, the Trojans break the terms of the truce, and the war continues with the Trojans doomed for destruction. A very interesting thing to note is that Homer seems to blame Pandaros despite Athena's intervention, "So spoke Athena, and persuaded the fool's heart in him". (IV.
104) One must also remember that Athena favors the Achaians, and by inciting them to fight, ensures victory for them. Though several of the interventions cause disruption and harm in mortal life, there are a few interventions that have positive aspects. Such is the case with Athena's intervention when Achilles attempts to kill Agamemnon Then in answer the grey-eyed Athena 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 you both of you equally in her heart and cares for you. / Come then, do not take you sword in your hand, keep clear of the fighting, / though indeed with words you may abuse him, and it will be that way.
/ And this also will I tell you and it will be a thing accomplished. / Some day three times over such shining gifts shall be given to you / by reasons of this outrage. Hold your hand then, and obey us. ' (I, 206-214) Athena plays an extremely important role in this scene. Being an ally of Agamemnon and the Greeks, her natural instinct is to protect those she cares for. The death of Agamemnon would almost certainly mean disaster for the Greek cause.
In this way she is exercising almost a maternal role - looking after those she cares about. One can also argue that this scene uses Athena as an allegorical representation of Achilles hesitation. At this point in the story, he is not an irrational or unreasonable being. In addition, without the intervention of a god, this event is merely reduced to a human quarrel.
The introduction of Athena, however, emphasizes the universal importance of this scene and the severity of its ramifications. Through the use of the Gods, Homer allows the reader to see the larger significance of his heroes' deeds at the very moment they are being committed. Homer's gods have almost nothing to do with religion in the Iliad. In fact they are not all together like the Greeks gods either, meaning the gods actually worshipped in Homer's time. Interpreting the actions and motivations of the gods is made even more difficult due to their very human and almost comical actions. Perhaps we, as Westerners, have trouble accepting the concept of over determination.
Perhaps we cannot conceptualize the two levels of causation that exist in Homeric divine intervention. Either way we must accept that Homer's use of gods is primarily a literary function and secondarily a religious function.