Homer's Gods

Homer's Iliad, Books 9-16

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 10: Homer’s Gods. This is the second of three episodes on the Ancient Greek epic poem about the Trojan War, Homer’s Iliad, most likely set down in its current form some time in the late 700s BCE. In this episode, we’ll cover the bloody, sword clashing, helmet smashing center of the Iliad – books 9-16 – and then I’ll talk a little bit about Homer’s gods, how we perceive them as modern readers, and the Ancient Greek reactions to the Homeric pantheon. If you’re just jumping in and want to hear the story from the beginning, the previous program, Episode 9, introduces all the major characters, lays out the basic situation of the war, and tells the story of the first eight books.

Otherwise, here’s a recap on the essentials. The Trojan War is in its ninth year. The Greeks have gone from their homeland in the west, across the Aegean to the east, to modern day Turkey, to recover the great Greek king Agamemnon’s sister-in-law, Helen. The whole epic starts with a very long scene of arrogant king Agamemnon making a bad tactical move. To prove how important he was, Agamemnon stole a woman away from the Greek champion, Achilles, because Achilles had openly questioned some of King Agamemnon’s selfish and egotistical decisions. The Greek champion Achilles was heartbroken and furious, and said he’d no longer fight for the Greeks. Achilles even went to his mother, a sea nymph called Thetis, and asked her to help him make Agamemnon pay for the king’s pride and selfishness. Achilles’ mother then went to Zeus, and persuaded Zeus to punish the Greeks. The Greeks, Thetis said, needed to understand that they were nothing without her son Achilles – that King Agamemnon was a braggart and blowhard, and that the real strength of the Greek army was in its champion Achilles.

So Zeus sent an idea to the Trojan champion Hector – Achilles’ counterpart on the other side, telling Hector to attack. And attack Hector did. The first eight books of the Iliad show the Trojans mounting an sudden and unexpected defensive assault, thwacking arrows and hurling spears against the Greek aggressors. In closing lines of Book 8, where we last left off, the success of the Trojan assault has left the Greeks hunkered down amidst their defensive bulwarks along the coast, desperate for a plan. So, let’s polish our bronze, double check our bowstrings, sacrifice some livestock, and jump back in. . .to Homer’s Iliad. I’ll be quoting from several editions in this program, but unless otherwise noted, quotes in this episode will come from the Robert Fagles translation, published by Penguin in 1990, and the book titles come from this edition, as well.

The Iliad, Book 9: The Embassy to Achilles

At the end of the previous book, the Trojans were camped outside of their city. This was new, for the Greeks had kept them penned up in Troy for most of the siege. The Trojans had spent the previous day crushing the Greeks in battle, driving them all the way back to their ships, and in the glow of a thousand watch fires, the long-suffering Trojans planned the final destruction of their assailants.

Book 9 picks up the same night, in the Greek camp, where panic and despair had crippled the armies of king Agamemnon. His eyes desolate, tears coursing down his craggy face, Agamemnon rose to address his men. Zeus had duped them, Agamemnon said. He would have no victory in Troy. Agamemnon's homecoming, he said, would not be triumphant. It was time to sail home to the fatherland, Agamemnon told his troops. Seriously this time. Even though Agamemnon had said the exact same thing in lines 163-166 of Book 2, using identical language, seriously, Greek army, he said, let’s go home. We’re not getting anywhere here.

Diomedes, the mighty star of Book 5, begged to differ. Diomedes said the king could leave, but the rest of the Greeks would finish the war, and even if it were just left to him and a single trusted fellow warrior, he would see to the fall of Troy. Wise old Nestor agreed with mighty Diomedes, but said they should take their evening meal and talk it over. Food and drink were prepared and enjoyed, and after the repast Nestor arose. He said, “Now, I will tell you what seems best to me. / No one will offer a better plan than this” (IX.122-3).1 After this modest introduction, wise old Nestor laid out his idea. He said they needed Achilles. He said they needed to apologize, give Achilles’ wife back, and throw in some treasure.

Agamemnon, in an uncharacteristic moment of self evaluation, admitted that he may have been a bit overzealous in unnecessarily seizing the beloved wife of his strongest warrior. In fact, Agamemnon said, it had been a mad, blind thing to do, a dumb thing done in rage. He would atone. He’d give Achilles an outrageous amount of treasure, and seven cities, seven beautiful women, also the choice of any one of his daughters in marriage. To top it off, he’d give Achilles his wife back, and, king Agamemnon said, “I will swear a solemn, binding oath in the bargain: / I never mounted her. . .never once made love to her” (IX.159-60).

The Envoys of Agamemnon by Ingres

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' Achilles Receiving the Envoys of Agamemnon (1801).

Following Agamemnon’s generous offer to give Achilles untold treasure and return his unmounted wife, the Greek giant Ajax and his crafty compatriot Odysseus were dispatched to plea the humbled king’s case before the champion Achilles. They found Achilles relaxing near his ships, playing the lyre with his dear companion, a man named Patroclus. Patroclus, though his time onstage in the Iliad is relatively brief, still plays a hugely important role in several books. Homer never explicitly states that Patroclus was Achilles’ lover, but some later Greek authors assumed this to be the case. Whatever the exact nature of their relationship, Patroclus was very important to Achilles, and when the Greek emissaries Ajax and Odysseus approached the two men, Achilles was plucking his lyre and singing songs about warriors and heroes while Patroclus listened. The champion Achilles saw the two emissaries Odysseus and Ajax approaching, stopped his song, and greeted them happily. Achilles exclaimed “Welcome! Look, dear friends have come our way. . .my dearest friends / in all the [Greek] armies” (IX.237-9). Achilles invited them into his quarters and had his dear friend Patroclus pour wine. Achilles said, “Mix stronger wine, / A cup for the hands of each guest - / here beneath my roof are the men I love best” (IX.244-5).

Achilles and Patroclus prepared and served their guests dinner, and soon enough, wily Odysseus and giant Ajax got down to business. They told the Greek champion Achilles that the Greeks were losing the war – that the Trojan champion Hector was unstoppable, and that Achilles was badly needed by all. They repeated Agamemnon’s offer, reiterating the king’s itemized list verbatim, but for some substitutions of pronouns. Achilles would have wealth unending, his unmounted wife returned, all the other women he could wish for, and he’d get to defeat the champion of the Trojans, bringing himself great honor. Not to mention, he’d help save his comrades from the shame of defeat – or worse still, death. There was no way Achilles could refuse this, right? Right?

In response, Achilles said he wanted to be very clear, so that no one would approach him with similar entreaties again. He spoke of Agamemnon first. He growled, “I hate that man like the very Gates of Death, who says one thing but hides another in his heart” (IX.378-9). The Greek champion said that he had fought, and fought, and fought, and suffered, and bled, and lived on subsistence rations, all so that Agamemnon could hide behind the lines and take the very best treasures. Worst of all of Agamemnon’s crimes, they’d come all the way to Troy to get Helen back for Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus – all because Helen had been seized by the Trojan prince Paris, and then, of all things, Agamemnon had stolen Achilles’ wife? He’d loved that woman, Achilles said, and “Any decent man, / a man with sense, loves his own, cares for his own / as deeply as I, I loved that woman with all my heart” (IX.414-6). The king, therefore, Achilles said, was a hypocritical, cowardly, greedy, selfish tyrant. The last thing he wanted to do was marry into Agamemnon’s family.

And as for the treasures, he told them that he wouldn’t sacrifice his life for any treasure. Achilles said he’d heard a prophecy about him from his mother – he could stay in Troy and fight, and die, and his glory would live forever. Or, he could go home and lead a long life in his fatherland, and be forgotten. He said he was opting for the latter. As a matter of fact, Achilles added, they were just about to leave the next morning for home.

The Greek emissaries were silent. Momentarily, an old tutor of Achilles asked him to reconsider, offering him a cautionary tale about help given too late, but Achilles would have none of it. He was done with Agamemnon. The Greek king, he said, was a waste of space. Odysseus and Ajax really shouldn’t serve Agamemnon, either, Achilles said, but he loved them anyway.

Though they didn’t conceal their anger and disappointment about Achilles’ refusal to help his brothers in arms, Odysseus and Ajax left on civil terms. Achilles thereafter spread soft bedding for his old tutor, and retired to the confines of his lodge with a beautiful woman he’d captured from Lesbos. Which is more than a little puzzling, as Achilles has lost his wife three days ago and just extolled the virtues of loving one’s own wife, and he’s sleeping with a woman he most likely kidnapped from her husband. Well, I promised the Iliad would be entertaining, not ethically coherent.

Anyway, after Achilles and his dear companion Patroclus settled in for the night (also, by the way, Patroclus had a woman that Achilles had kidnapped from somewhere else), anyway, clever Odysseus and giant Ajax returned to Agamemnon’s camp and told the king the terrible news. Mighty Diomedes lamented the loss, but said one way or another, Achilles or no, they had to be ready for combat in the morning, and suggested that perhaps Agamemnon should play a role in the fighting to spur the men on. Lulled by wine and the lateness of the hour, the exhausted and disappointed Greek warriors went to sleep.

The Iliad, Book 10: Marauding through the Night

All of them went to sleep, that is, except for Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus. Even through his tent the Greek king could see the Trojan watch fires burning brightly nearby. The plan to get Achilles back had failed. It was time to generate another plan. Agamemnon told his brother that they needed tactics. He would get wise old Nestor – Nestor’s idea to talk to Achilles had been good – maybe the geezer had some more schemes up his sleeve.

Agamemnon awoke the old man. The king told Nestor about how he hadn’t been able to sleep. The Trojans lurked close by. If a single Greek sentry neglected his duty, the Trojans could mount a nocturnal assault. Agamemnon considered Nestor's warning, and after checking the line of Greek sentries, they found everyone on duty alert and well armed. Meanwhile, some of the key Greek fighters had been summoned to an assembly. Nestor addressed them.

It was very late – not far from daybreak, but Nestor proposed that a Greek warrior should sneak into the opposing camp and see if he could gather any strategic information. Diomedes volunteered, and selected Odysseus to accompany him. The men said their prayers to Athena, and then ventured in the direction of the Greek army. The night was dark, and the reconnoiterers strode over carnage and dead bodies, heaps of broken armor and blood that looked black in the starlight.

Meanwhile, the Trojans were also conducting their meeting, and came to similar conclusions. What they needed was information on the Greeks. From the ranks of the Trojans, a spy volunteered to venture into the Greek camp to gather intel. The Trojan spy got his bow, wolf pelt cloak, and weasel hat, and set out.

The Trojan spy, however, was soon spotted by Odysseus. Odysseus and mighty Diomedes captured him. The spy pleaded for his life, and said to take him captive. Odysseus said, “Courage. Death is your last worry. Put your mind at rest” (X.447-8). The Greeks encountered into the Trojan spy’s motives, and he told them everything. The Greeks asked the spy if he had any choice strategic information on the Trojans. Why, the Trojan spy said, he certainly did. He’d tell them everything – just please spare his life. The Trojan camp, the spy said, was carefully guarded with watchful sentries. But some of their allied forces were quite vulnerable. There was, in fact, an encampment of Thracians with some incredibly fine horses that the marauding Greeks could probably ambush. Now, the spy said, he’d told them everything – would they please take him back to their ships, or bind him and gag him for the Trojans to find?

(15) Flaxman Ilias 1795, Zeichnung 1793, 187 x 308 mm

Following their night raid, Odysseus and Diomedes head back to the Greek camp with the spy's possessions. Virgil would later copy this narrative in his tale of Nisus and Euryalus in the Aeneid 9. From Alfred John Church's The Story of the Iliad (1911), illustrated by John Flaxman.

Odysseus said, “Well, we are men of honor, and we wouldn’t hurt a vulnerable captive.” Just kidding, Diomedes cut the Trojan spy’s head off, and they stripped his corpse of its bow, wolf pelt cloak, and weasel hat, and threw them all into a bush to collect later. Then, the pre-dawn raid then proceeded in earnest. Diomedes and Odysseus skulked up to the Thracian camp, and together, killed a total of thirteen men, including a king. Next, they secured some of the horses. What was next? wondered Diomedes. The night was still young – he’d only killed fourteen people, after all. Diomedes looked around for more mayhem to cause, but Athena interceded. It was time to go. The Trojans might have gods watching over their forces, Athena told them. And sure enough, Apollo, stalwart supporter of the Trojans, awoke some of the forces and sent them after Diomedes and Odysseus. It was, indeed, time to get back to camp.

The Greek heroes hurried back to their camp, taking time only to retrieve the dead guy’s bow, wolf pelt cloak, and weasel hat that they’d tossed into the bush. Nestor heard them coming and worried that the Trojans were invading en masse, but saw it was only Diomedes and Odysseus returning. The two heroes reported that their mission had been successful, tethered the horses, and then washed themselves in the sea. After this, they bathed in polished tubs, rubbed themselves with olive oil, and drank wine, thanking Athena for their victory. And the fate of that weasel hat, to this day, remains unknown. We’ll come back to the weasel hat. I’ve written a song about it. [music]

The Iliad, Book 11: Agamemnon’s Day of Glory

The sun rose over the dark, hulking ships of the Greek fleet. A new spirit of violence had arisen in the Greek army since the raid that had taken place in the small hours of the morning. King Agamemnon awoke, and adorned himself in his armor. Almost forty lines are devoted to the description of the armor of the king. Thus impressively clad, Agamemnon strode down to the trench that ringed the Greek ships and prepared for the day’s battle.

What followed was a day of warfare that makes the rest of the Iliad seem almost peaceful by comparison. Throughout Book 11, Homer heaps the gore and screams and severed limbs on thick. Battalions smashed into battalions, and the leader in the bloodletting, for once, was Agamemnon himself. Last time we talked about the aristeia, that convention of epic poetry in which a single hero becomes, for the moment, seemingly invincible – Book 11 begins with Agamemnon’s aristeia. No longer hanging back and letting his men do the fighting, Agamemnon was on the front lines. He killed two brave Trojans, and then two more, and then two more. Spears exploded through heads, splashing brains into helmets, swords tore off ears and pierced chests, and everywhere, Homeric similes compare the men on the battlefield to wild beasts – again and again lions slaughtering powerless prey, wildfire racing over dry timber. Agamemnon was the chief lion of the Greek pride, and as the Trojans’ strength faltered, they were “like cattle driven wild by a lion lunging / in pitch darkness down on the whole herd / but to one alone a sudden death comes flashing - / first he snaps its neck, clamped in his huge jaws, / then down in gulps he bolts its blood and guts” (XI.201-5).

The Trojans watched in disbelief. The Trojan champion Hector, who’d the day before been filled with the power of Zeus, was shocked to see all the ground the Trojans had won being taken back. But Hector received a message from Zeus. Hector was told to hang back from combat as long as Agamemnon was active. However, Hector learned that if Agamemnon fell, Zeus’ power would return to Troy, and to Hector himself. Quickly, forces were detached to take down the rampaging Greek king Agamemnon.

Though the Trojan forces pressed him hard, Agamemnon refused to go down easily. He killed his first assailant. His second assailant managed to slash Agamemnon on the side, but Agamemnon decapitated him. He kept fighting, but soon enough the king realized his wound was too severe for him to continue. He had his charioteer carry him back to the Greek camp.

After Agamemnon fell, the Greek forces quickly started to waver under the pressure of Hector. Soon enough, Greek blood and guts were littering the battlefield, and the Greeks might have lost at that very moment. But wily Odysseus and mighty Diomedes stood together at one of the flanks and made a stand. The Trojan champion Hector soon came for them. He took one of Diomedes’ spears to the head, but was protected by his helmet, and after some unkind words were exchanged, Hector realized he was needed more in the main part of the battlefield.

And then, a miracle happened. The Trojan prince, handsome, lazy Paris did something useful. He shot Diomedes. Now, admittedly, his arrow only pierced Diomedes’ foot. Diomedes didn’t flinch. Diomedes growled, “So brave with your bow and arrows – big bravado - / glistening lovelocks, roving eye for girls! / Come, try me in combat, weapons hand-to-hand - / You scratch my foot and you’re vaunting all the same - / but who cares? A woman or idiot boy could wound me so. / The shaft of a good-for-nothing coward’s got no point” (XI.453-8). Paris, evidently, declined the offer. Odysseus covered Diomedes, who pulled the arrow out of his foot, and then headed back to the Greek ships. We aren’t told about their conversation, but I imagine it was something like the following, with Odysseus saying:

Odysseus: You’re not going, are you, Diomedes? It’s just going to be me fighting here.
Diomedes: I got shot in the foot, bro.
Odysseus: But you told that guy that it wasn’t a big deal.
Diomedes: Of course it’s a big deal, Odysseus. He shot me in the [censored] foot. That [censored] hurts.
Odysseus: So you’re really going?
Diomedes: Yeah. I mean, yeah, I am. Are you mad at me?
Odysseus: No.
Diomedes: You just used your angry voice.
Odysseus: I didn’t use my angry voice.
Diomedes: There – that was your angry voice – right there.
Odysseus: I didn’t use my angry voice.
Diomedes: That is your angry voice.
Odysseus: [sigh] Really, I’m fine. I’m fine. Hey, how do you think we’re able to keep having these articulate, unrealistically protracted conversations even in the middle of supposedly apocalyptic combat?
Diomedes: Oh, Odysseus, you’re such a thinker. Who knows?
Odysseus: Okay. You’re right. I guess – well – I guess I’ll just dismember some more people.
Diomedes: Yeah, alright. That always makes you feel better. Hey, good raid last night, huh?
Odysseus: Sure. I’ll see you back in the tent, Diomedes. Cutie. Get yourself some Diomedicine.[laughter]
After this hypothetical conversation did not actually place, Odysseus really was indeed left alone. He fought desperately. It was touch and go, against all odds, savagery. No one showed him any mercy, and he returned the favor. Odysseus was wounded, though, and when he was on his last legs, Ajax and Agamemnon found him and came to his defense. Hector, seeing the intensity of the combat around Odysseus, made his way to the eye of the storm. Hector’s chariot moved forward, “trampling shields and corpses, axle under the chariot splashed / with blood, blood on the handrails sweeping round the car, / sprays of blood shooting up from the stallions’ hoofs / and churning, whirling rims” (XI.627-30). More intense combat, more blood, and more lion similes followed, and giant Ajax took center stage.

As the combat intensified, even Achilles, with his dear companion Patroclus, looked on with dismay at the decimation of the Greeks. It was a rout. Most of the main Greek characters of the Iliad were badly wounded, and they fled back to their ships.

Back at camp, in wise old Nestor’s tent there was a healer. She prepared a mighty brew in Nestor’s large cup – a drink made of wine, and barley, and cheese. This curious, and in my layman opinion yucky sounding beverage was a common one in Ancient Greece – wine, barley, and cheese. So, as the wounded heroes shared this restorative cheddar Chablis, Achilles’ dear companion Patroclus came in, concerned for his fellow Greeks. Old Nestor lamented that Achilles had left the fighting, and then he grew nostalgic. Old Nestor remembered when he was young, and strong. He fondly recollected killing a cowherd and taking the cowherd’s flock back to his city. In a war that had ensued, Old Nestor reminisced about killing a hundred people. Then he recalled meeting Achilles’ father, and Achilles’ father’s advice to the boy. After this, wise old Nestor revealed his idea. Patroclus could dress up as Achilles, and lead Achilles’ elite army into battle. The men in Achilles' army were all fresh. None had seen any fighting.

On the way back to Achilles’ quarters, Patroclus passed the suffering Odysseus and other wounded Greeks. He spoke with a wounded Greek captain, who said the situation was becoming irrecoverable. Patroclus considered Nestor’s idea. Should he really dress up as the invincible champion Achilles, and lead Achilles’ elite forces into battle with the Trojans? [music]

The Iliad, Book 12: The Trojans Storm the Rampart

Meanwhile, the Trojans wiped the blood from their weapons, and surveyed the Greek defenses. A sturdy rampart wall encircled the Greeks, and all around it was a pit filled with sharp stakes, so that any assailant faced impalement from below, arrows and rocks from above, and a solid barrier between them.

The sight of the perilous bulwarks did not stop the Trojans from attacking, though. Fighting broke out all around the wall. Boulders smashed the attacking Trojans, but, resolved to carry the day, they pressed forward to destroy the wall. Once, a Trojan looked up and saw a bird carrying a snake – an ill omen, he told Hector, for it meant that they would lose the fight once they were in the walls of the Greeks, and never return home. Hector was not convinced. He said, “You tell me to put my trust in birds, / flying off on their long wild wings? Never. . .Bird-signs! / Fight for your country – that is the best, the only omen!” (XII.280-1).

The Trojans smashed at the wall, crushing the supports of towers and battlements and support stakes. Rifts appeared in the wall, and the Greeks plugged them up with earth. They placed their shields over the breaches while other Greeks flung huge rocks down onto the attackers. Ajax, with the aid of a powerful Greek archer, was the center of the Greek defense. But a powerful Trojan warrior, with the aid of Zeus, tore a section of the Greek wall down. As the outer Greek defenses began to fall, the trench, earthworks, and barricade itself were all covered in the blood of both armies.

Then, the Trojan champion Hector saw his chance. He lifted a colossal boulder, and waited for an opening. And Homer writes, in the HarperCollins Caroline Alexander translation,

[Hector] went and stood close, and taking a firm stance, he struck [the gates] in the middle,
his legs straddled wide, so that his blow [lost] no force,
and shattered both hinges; the stone fell inside
under its own weight. The gates groaned loud on the other side, the bolts
did not hold, the doors were sundered in every direction
by the blow of the stone. Glorious Hector sprang at them,
his face dark like the rushing night; he shone with the dreadful
gleam of bronze that he had put about his body; in his hands he held
two spears. No one coming against him could have restrained him
except the gods, when he leapt through the gates; and his eyes blazed with fire.
Whirling around he called to the Trojans through the battle-throng
to scale the wall, and some through the well-wrought
gates themselves rushed in; the [Greeks] fled
to the hollow ships; and there arose tumult unceasing. (XII.457-71)2
Terrified, the Greek defenders fled for their lives.

The Iliad, Book 13: Battling for the Ships

The very moment the Trojans breached the Greek defenses, Zeus looked the other way. Interesting things were happening to the north in Thrace. No need to worry about the Trojan War any longer. He’d basically led the Trojans to their victory, after all, hadn’t he? Yeah. . .basically. And he’d told the other gods to stop interfering. Why, they wouldn’t dare ignore his command, Zeus reasoned. Sure they ignored his commands and interfered in the war all the time, and there was no absolutely reason to suspect that this time would be different, but still, Zeus thought, he’d basically taken care of things. No one would interfere.

Yeah, as soon as Zeus looked away another god began interfering. “Suddenly down from the mountain’s rocky crags / Poseidon stormed with giant, lightning strides / and the looming peaks and tall timber quaked / beneath his immortal feet as the sea lord surged on” (XIII.20-3). The presence of the sea god put new vigor into the limbs and weaponry of the flagging Greeks. Poseidon taunted the Greeks, and told them they couldn’t possibly lose to the Trojans, and so the Greeks quickly went into battle formation.

The sight of the newly heartened Greek army did not intimidate the Trojans. After all, they’d just ripped through fortification walls to get at their nemeses. New Greek and Trojan heroes came to the forefront and fought one another at the bases of the ships. Poseidon aided the Greek fighters, but kept a low profile in case Zeus happened to return. A small encyclopedia of fighters perished in diverse gory ways, their victors standing over them and stripping their bronze armor and helmets as prizes.

In the midst of the butchery Menelaus cursed Zeus for favoring the Trojans when all this time, it was he – Menelaus – who’d been slighted and deserved justice. While Trojan heroes, among them Aeneas and Hector, felled some mighty Greek warriors, the Greeks benefited greatly from the support of Poseidon. A contingent of archers working for the Greeks launched a powerful volley on the Trojans. Things, it seemed, had evened out once more. The armies prepared to go at it again. Ajax told Hector his days were numbered. The war cries of each army rose to the highest clouds. Book 13 of the Iliad, almost a thousand lines of nonstop, sword clashing, shield clanging, bowstring twanging action, ends with the Trojans, notwithstanding the Greeks rallying against them with Poseidon's backing, poising to finish the foreign invaders. [music]

The Illiad, Book 14: Hera Outflanks Zeus

As the Trojans prepared for a final assault, Nestor joined Agamemnon to look out over the growing ruination of the Greek forces. Agamemnon, as he had in the past, lost his heart for the warfare, and proposed fleeing for home, rather than perishing in a strange place. But Odysseus said it wouldn’t work – the Trojans would kill them on the way to their boats, and Diomedes insisted that all that could be done was to fight it out. Poseidon heard all of this, and again filled the Greek armies with fighting power.

Meanwhile, up on Olympus, Hera, who favored the Greeks, looked on with apprehension. She was glad Poseidon was helping, but she knew the Greeks were still in a dreadful position. Far worse, Hera thought, looking at her husband as he stood over one of the cold rivers that fell down from Olympus – far worse, if Zeus saw what was going on, he would finish her cherished Greeks for good. Hera had to distract her husband. But how to distract Zeus, the mastermind of all the gods. . . .Sex?

Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier - Jupiter Asleep on Mount Ida, 1785

Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier's Jupiter Asleep on Mount Ida (1785). Zeus takes a nap after divine seduction by his wife.

Hera went to her chambers. She cleansed her beautiful body. She rubbed herself with olive oil, and combed her hair. She put on lavish robes, a waistband with a hundred tassels, beautiful earrings, and a seductive headdress. Then, as if all this weren't sufficient, she went to Aphrodite. She said she needed an intense dose of seduction, and lied, telling the goddess of love and sex it was to offer counseling to two other feuding deities. Aphrodite complied.

Though Hera now radiated and pulsed with divine beauty, she still wasn’t quite ready to go to her husband. She went to the deity Sleep and, after promising him a favor, compelled him to guarantee that once she and Zeus had made love, Sleep would make carry Zeus into unconsciousness. And then finally, Hera was ready.

As soon as Zeus saw Hera, he couldn’t think of resisting. Homer writes, “[A]t one glance / the lust came swirling over him, making his heart race, / fast as the first time. . .they [had] rolled in bed, they locked and surged in love. / He rose before her now, he savored her name: / ‘Hera – where are you rushing?’” (XIV.354-7). Hera pretended she was going to counsel some other gods, but Zeus begged her to stay. He had never, he said been quite so filled with arousal as he was now – and, he added, enumerating many of his past sexual encounters – this was really saying something. The father of the gods told his wife that even when he’d cheated on her with Dia, with Danaë, Europa, Semele, Demeter, or Leto, had he been quite so horny, he hadn't been quite so horny as he was at that moment. I’m sure Hera was grinding her teeth during this blundering compliment, but, then, her purpose was being accomplished. Zeus said had to have her. But no, said Hera coyly, they were right on top of Mount Olympus – everyone would see them! Not to worry, Zeus said – he’d wrap them in a golden cloud. How could Hera refuse this?

And so Zeus, writes Homer in the Stanley Lombardo translation

caught his wife in his arms.
Beneath them the shining soil sprouted
Fresh grass, and dewy lotus, and crocus,
And hyacinth, soft and thick, that kept them
Up off the ground. And as they lay there
A beautiful, golden cloud enfolded them
And precipitated drops of glimmering dew. (XIV.351-7)3
After this flower-blossom inducing, eco-friendly act of divine coitus, just as planned, Zeus fell into deep sleep. And Hera rushed down to help the Greeks. She had them redistribute their equipment. And then, battle! Poseidon led the Greeks. Hector led the Trojans. Hector took a boulder to the chest from Ajax, and the injured warrior’s forces led him off toward Troy. The Greeks rushed for the fallen champion, and the Trojans were now the defenders. The Trojans retreated – away from the ships, back past the earthwork fortifications of the Greek encampment, back past the ditch filled with sharpened stakes, back to a river that crossed the plains of Troy. And the Greeks came in pursuit.

The Iliad, Book 15: The Achaean Armies at Bay

The Greeks were chasing the Trojans now – they chased them past the river, over the plain, and soon the Trojans were in danger of being pressed against the walls of Troy. Only, elsewhere, on Mount Olympus, Zeus woke up. And he saw the Trojans being routed.

Instantly, Zeus understood what had happened. He wheeled on Hera and confronted her. She’d seduced him in order to distract him as her beloved Greeks gained ground! He would make her sorry for duping him. But no, Hera explained to him. She’d merely been on the way to give sexual therapy to some other gods when he’d intercepted her and enveloped her in golden mist. She was innocent! If the Greeks were winning, it was the doing of Poseidon.

Now Poseidon and Zeus, lords of the sea and sky, occasionally butted heads over who was the chief most deity. Zeus always won, but he saw that his wife must be telling him the truth. His ocean-dwelling brother was committing a minor act of rivalry. No matter. Zeus had a plan. He would drive everyone against each other, but finally, accomplish that which he’d set out to all the way back in Book 1. Having humbled Agamemnon and the Greek king’s forces, he would glorify Achilles, and fulfill his promise to Achilles’ mother. Zeus decided Achilles would rejoin the battle after his friend Patroclus died on the field. And when Achilles rejoined the battle, the Trojans were finished. Hera’s cherished Greeks would be the beneficiaries. Was that okay with Hera? Why, yes, she said, it was.

And you’ll notice, by the way, Homer’s naked plot spoiler here. As we’ll see in many future shows on Ancient Greek literature, poets and playwrights dealing with the epic cycle and its aftermath generally assumed prior knowledge when they performed and staged their stories – everyone who heard this story in, say, the 600s BCE, in other words, knew Patroclus was going to bite the dust and that Achilles would go ballistic as a result. For that matter the audiences of plays in 5th-century BCE Athens knew, for instance, that Oedipus had killed his father and married his mother, that Medea was going to murder her children, that Orestes was going to kill Clytemnestra, and on and on, as they watched the plays of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus – these were widespread stories that most attendees at the theater would have known. Thus, in Archaic and Classical Greek culture and beyond, surprising turnabouts in plot, were far less interesting than a specific performer or dramatist’s technique and delivery – the way that a story was told was expected to be startling and visionary, rather than the mechanics of the plot itself. We’ll talk about this more in future programs.

To return to the Iliad, after a bit more squabbling on Mount Olympus, a messenger was dispatched to Poseidon. The God of the Sea was told to stand down before his lightning chucking brother. Poseidon was incensed. He was nearly peers with Zeus, after all. Zeus had been born first, but only slightly. Initially, Poseidon refused, but after the divine messenger reasoned with him, Poseidon decided he would stand down. Which was bad news for the Greeks. Book 15 tells us, “A sharp tremor, and the massive god of earthquakes left [Greece’s] lines, / into the surf he dove and heroes missed him sorely” (XV.259-61).

Just as the Greeks were disheartened by Poseidon leaving them, the Trojans were encouraged by one of their chief deities’ continued support. Apollo healed and heartened the battered Hector. Hector rose, and after a gorgeous simile comparing him to a robust stallion breaking free of its tether, hurled himself back into the fray. The simile is as follows in the Caroline Alexander translation:

[Apollo] breathed great strength into [Hector,] the shepherd of the people.
As when a horse confined to a stall, fed on barley at the manger,
breaking his tether runs with pounding feet across the plain,
to immerse himself in the fair-flowing waters of his accustomed river,
triumphant, and he holds his head high, his mane
streaming about his shoulders; emboldened by his beauty,
his knees bear him lightly to the pasture and places horses love;
so did Hector lightly move his feet and knees,
urging on the horsemen. (XV.262-70)
You can see there, as in many of Homer’s epic similes, that a vision of a very different world opens for a moment, breaking the story of the grim war and showing us an image of a beautiful horse splashing through a river toward a pasture. Homeric similes often work this way, shards of precious tranquility amidst scenes of violence and chaos, and we’ll look at quite a few of them once we finish both of these epics, because they’re one of the most haunting and magnificent features of Homeric poetry. Anyway, seeing that Hector was obviously protected by gods, and knowing that their oceanic protector Poseidon had abandoned them, it was the Greeks’ turn to flee. They wheeled from the Trojan plain, went back through their trench, back to their earthworks, back to their ships.

As the first damaging assaults scarred the Greek ships, Patroclus could take it no longer. The dear companion of Achilles gritted his teeth and said he would get his king to help the Greeks.

Out on the battlefield, giant Ajax and his archer companion tried again and again to wound and kill Hector, but divine protection stalled their spears and arrows. Ajax understood that withstanding the divinely empowered Trojans was probably futile. Still, Ajax said, “Quick, better to live or die, once and for all, / than die by inches, slowly crushed to death - / helpless against the hulls in the bloody press - / by far inferior men” (XV.592-5). Fighting and grisly violence ensued. Skulls exploded. Jaws and teeth shattered. Men were disemboweled, and eyes flew out of sockets. Ajax was at the center of it, wielding a giant pike, and Hector too, his divine armor protecting him from even lethal blows. They were fighting on the decks of the ships, now, and for the Greeks, the only way to survive, it seemed, was to pour everything they had into the diminishing odds of victory.

The Iliad, Book 16: Patroclus Fights and Dies

With a name like that, is there really any need to tell you the story of this book? Well, here’s the details of what went down.

Patroclus was in tears at the sight of the Greek forces being beaten so decisively. He went to Achilles. The Greeks really, really needed Achilles, Patroclus explained. Their ships were going to get burned. He understood that Achilles was still upset. After all, Agamemnon had taken from Achilles the woman whom Achilles loved, whom Achilles had stolen from people that Achilles had murdered. Well – there were some details, yeah. But Achilles’ woman had been stolen from him! He knew his friend was mad beyond measure at the Greek King Agamemnon. But still, could Achilles still help his poor brothers-in-arms, his dear friends – could Achilles, the greatest of all the Greeks, stand up, buckle on his armor and sword, and save them all?

Nope, Achilles said. He couldn’t.

Patroclus accused Achilles of being a “heart of iron” (XVI.37). “[T]he salt gray sunless ocean gave you birth / and the towering blank rocks – your temper’s so relentless” (XVI.39-40). And then Patroclus revealed his plan. He’d put on Achilles’ armor. He would lead their elite troops – called the Myrmidons. Achilles’ men – these Myrmidons – were well rested. They would run over the Trojans like wildfire. And he, Patroclus, would wear Achilles armor, and lead the Myrmidons into combat. Every Greek in the army would redouble his efforts if he saw Achilles – or someone who looked like Achilles, in their ranks.

Achilles conceded that this was acceptable. Patroclus could wear his armor. Only, he told Patroclus, be careful, and don’t actually take the city of Troy. Because if Patroclus took the city of Troy, and people found out about it, Achilles’ own glory would be reduced. In summation, after being told he could borrow his friend’s armor, and fight alongside the elite Myrmidons – but just not fight too hard – Patroclus was off.

At this point, poor Ajax was still neck deep in Trojans, his arms exhausted from blocking and dealing blows. So tired he could barely breathe, Ajax saw Hector approaching. Now, Ajax and Hector had already dueled to a draw back in Book 7, and back at the end of Book 14, Ajax had crushed Hector’s chest with a boulder. But the Trojan champion just kept coming, almost always under divine protection, and Ajax kept being on the defensive, fighting him off. This time, Ajax knew he was too battered and exhausted. Poor giant Ajax, always at the center of the fighting during the Trojan war and never enjoying divine protection, is one of the Iliad’s most stalwart warriors, so much so that in a lost part of the Epic Cycle, and also in Sophocles’ play Ajax and Book XIV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses poets wrote about the hardworking Greek fighter who only fought with the strength of his own body, and never by divine aid, envisioning what happened to Ajax after the events of the Iliad. But that’s a story for another day. Ajax fled the ship that Hector was charging, and the Trojans set it ablaze. Soon, fire burst on more than one ship.

Elsewhere, amidst Achilles’ men the Myrmidons, Patroclus decked himself out in the Greek champion’s armor. He harnessed Achilles’ war team to the champion’s chariot. After a brief catalog of all the Myrmidon fighters who were going out into the fray, and a stern motivational speech from Achilles, the elite forces rushed into battle, in the Robert Fagles translation,

crammed so close
the crested helmets, the war-shields bulging, jutting,
buckler-to-buckler, helm-to-helm, man-to-man massed tight
and the horsehair crests on glittering helmet horns brushed
as they tossed their heads, the battalions bulked so dense. (XVI.253-7)
Achilles prayed to Zeus for victory. Specifically, after reminding Zeus how faultlessly devout he had been, Achilles asked that Patroclus be allowed to lead the charge bravely, and return safely. Zeus heard the prayer. Sure, he said to himself, he’d allow Patroclus to lead the charge into the battle. As for returning safely, no, Zeus didn’t think so. Thanks for all the nice offerings and sacrifices, though.

So the elite Myrmidons finally entered the fray. Soon, as usual, limbs, brains, eyeballs, teeth, guts, etc. etc. etc. were flying on both sides once more. To Zeus’ dissatisfaction, Patroclus moved to kill a Trojan captain very dear to him, but Hera warned him against interfering. If Zeus started plucking people from battle, then everyone would start doing that again, Hera said. So be it, said Zeus, the man’s time had come. After one missed spear, Patroclus hit the Trojan captain with a fatal blow. Fighting – bestial in its fury – broke out around the corpse of the fallen captain.

During rest of the fight, carefully orchestrated by Zeus, the Greeks pushed the Trojans away from their ships. Zeus compelled Hector to call for a retreat, and this time, the Greeks drove them all the way back, again past the rampart of their encampment, past the stake filled ditch, down the Trojan plain, and this time back up against the city walls. Apollo himself, longtime patron of the Trojans, had to stop Patroclus at the city walls. It was time for a showdown.

Antoine Wiertz's Battle of the Greeks and Trojans for the Corpse of Patroclus (1836). Nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings of scenes from the Trojan War begin to depict central battles as animalistic frays, like this one does.

Attempting to spear the Trojan champion Hector, Patroclus, now in the thick of his own aristeia, instead killed a half-brother of Hector. The two men then literally played tug-of-war over his corpse, Patroclus pulling on a foot, Hector the head, as they simultaneously hacked at one another. Moments later, as Patroclus was distracted by fighting, Apollo slammed his hand into Patroclus’ back. Achilles’ dear friend was stunned. His helmet flew off, going under his horse’s hooves. A Trojan fighter speared Patroclus between the shoulder blades, and he went down. Then Hector approached him. It had been stupid for Patroclus to think he could take the city walls, Hector said. The Trojans wouldn’t fall so easily. The vultures would eat Patroclus raw.

Well and fine, Patroclus said, his life fading before his eyes, but Hector hadn’t beaten him. He could have taken twenty Hectors, but Apollo had given Hector divine aid. Hector, Patroclus said, hadn’t beaten him at all. Oh, and there was one more thing Hector hadn’t thought of. One tiny little detail. This word was Patroclus’ very last, just before death took him. “Achilles.”

Hector was not intimidated. He stepped on Patroclus’ chest, pulled the spear out, and, shoulder to shoulder with his Trojans, prepared to face the elite Myrmidons and Greeks beneath his city walls. [music]

Homer's Pantheon: An Introduction

We will continue the story in Episode 11. For now, I want to spend some time talking about the title and main idea of this episode: Homer’s Gods. When we learn about the Olympians in school, we meet an imposing set of embodiments of various powers – the thunder god, the ocean god, the love goddess, the smith god, and so on – a set of names as timeless and stoic as white marble. If we bother to read Ancient Greek literature, though, we begin to learn just how complex the history of the Olympian Pantheon is – that within different periods of ancient Greek history, certain deities were of more interest than others, that gods evolved and changed, and that cult centers to specific deities led to regional focuses on, say, Demeter, or Apollo, or Aphrodite. We learn that to writers like Hesiod in the Theogony, Plato in various dialogues, and influential stoic philosophers like Cleanthes and Seneca, Zeus was ultimately an arbiter of justice and order on earth, a ubiquitous superintendent of the entire cosmos not too different from the Abrahamic god. But reading Greek and Roman literature also teaches us that the Olympians had a wicked side – a perverse, violent, egomaniacal side so awful that the only way I can describe it to you is to retell a story from Ovid, a story that should serve as a gateway into the rest of this program.

Book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells the tale of a poor peasant girl named Arachne, moneyless and humble, but possessed with an astounding ability in weaving. Arachne, though she was goaded to do so, challenged the goddess Athena to a contest of weaving, and the proud goddess, not to be outdone, accepted the challenge. Athena, using all of her divine powers, wove a portrait of the Olympians standing near the Acropolis of Athens in all their splendor, her central portrait ringed with smaller pictures of mortals foolish enough to challenge the gods – a series of dark and violent allegories of what might now happen to Arachne, the mortal girl who had challenged her. Arachne, however, wove something far different.

Arachne’s tapestry depicted a catalog of the most abominable crimes the Olympian gods had perpetrated on mankind. Zeus, Poseidon, and Apollo raped and disgraced defenseless girls, and hurt other mortals for slights and peccadilloes. The deities in Arachne’s tapestry were a stark and angry mirror – one that forced Athena and her compatriots to see what they were, at their worst, in their relationships with humans – executioners, rapists, torturers, and sadists. Arachne’s tapestry, however, did not cause the Olympians to do any soul searching. Instead, Athena bashed the peasant girl’s face in with her loom’s shuttle, and then changed her into a spider. And as for the tapestry, Ovid tells us, Athena, “bitterly resenting / her rival’s success, the goddess warrior / ripped it, with its convincing evidence / of celestial misconduct, all asunder” (6.184-7).4

This is one of the bleakest stories in Greek mythology, and it occurs in the midst of a volume that doesn’t shy away from the general human rights abuses of the Olympian Pantheon. Seven hundred years after Homer, when salvation-based cult religions were fundamentally changing the theological fabric of the Mediterranean, Ovid and his contemporaries could write about the pantheon of Hesiod and Homer with a considerable degree of ambivalence. But this ambivalence – this general sense that Olympus is neither good, nor evil – and by extension that there is no problem of evil in the universe, because the gods are not necessarily good – we can see Ovid’s ambivalence in the work of Homer, set down seven centuries before Ovid recorded the tale of Arachne in the Metamorphoses.

To return to the Iliad, throughout this show and the previous, you have seen a lot of Homer’s gods, and we’re now at a good place to talk about them. Robin Waterfield writes that

Being pictured as super-humans, [Homer’s gods] could not be omnipresent or omniscient. We even hear of the gods washing, walking, eating, drinking, being wounded, and making love. The gods in this respect are just many times more powerful than petty humans; the only utterly irreconcilable gulf between the two species, which makes Homer’s Iliad a tragic poem, is that the gods are immortal. But for Homer the gods did not have laws, only preferences.5
Zeus, Hera, Athena, Poseidon, Aphrodite, and Ares do all have preferences. In addition to having appetites and lusts and easily bruised egos, these gods support various individuals and factions within the war, and their factional support causes year after year of human suffering. Not a single deity in Homer has any regard for innocent lives, or average, blameless soldiers. Pious individuals who petition their chosen gods consistently and with fitting sacrifices still do not get their prayers answered. The end of the Trojan War, which actually doesn’t happen in the surviving part of the mostly lost Epic Cycle, does not bring just rewards to the deserving and fitting punishments for the guilty. It’s simply another chaotic massacre to end a long series of chaotic massacres, in which egocentric gods haphazardly back bombastic, equally egocentric warriors, a gory free-for-all loosely superintended by the imperceptive, puffed up, thunderous rapist god, Zeus. This is something common to all Greco-Roman epics – Virgil’s Juno, in the Aeneid, is a monstrous figure, and by the time the imperial Roman poet Statius wrote his epic, the Thebaid, around 100 CE, he made the gods so malicious that after starting a horrific war, they simply left humanity to go down the garbage disposal, unable to bear the sight of the mess that they’d made.

The Iliad, written near the beginning of an epic tradition largely ambivalent about gods, is not, put simply, a story about devout mortals and the wise deities who take care of them. It’s a tale about a shifting, uncertain universe, where the only certainties are martial power, and exercises of this power that lead to legends. Even martial power isn’t something to place ultimate stock in, however. Athena helps Diomedes fight, Aphrodite rescues her favorite fighters from their victorious opponents, Poseidon and Apollo smash the Trojans and Greeks against one another, and Zeus makes Hector invincible – all with the intention of letting him die. The great Ajax, unaided by divine help, manages to stay alive on his own, but most often, individual volition, in the midst of this snake pit of unreliable deities, is feeble.

As disquieting as the moral order of the Iliad can sometimes be, the utter chaos of the Homeric world is at times one of the things that makes it so riveting. So many times over the course of the middle portion of the Iliad that we’ve just heard, the warriors go back and forth between the ships and the walls, as though the gods merely intend to wear a rut down in the Trojan soil until no one is left at all, and all we see are bones and sand. At times, the chaos is so complete that the books we read today feel like demolitions – munitions exploding, fire racing in every single direction, warriors slaying warriors, gods squabbling and duping one another, and thousands of unseen innocents, women and children who have to pay the price.

The Homeric gods themselves, frequently, display little intelligence or dignity. In a number of scenes of the gods convening in Olympus, the deities bicker and argue like any human council, generating plans that are flawed for obvious reasons. And while they are immortal, Homer’s gods suffer from all sorts of pains and indignities. Ares, the god of war, goes to whimper to his father after being stabbed in the guts by Diomedes. In a book to come, Hera will slap Artemis around until arrows tumble out of her quiver. And by the Iliad’s end Aphrodite has been cursed, chased, stabbed in the arm, and punched in the boob.

But there is, somehow, a web of order that governs it. To understand this web, we have to talk about the thing that caused the Trojan War. This thing was not, contrary to popular belief, the handsome playboy Paris seducing or kidnapping beautiful Helen from her Spartan husband Menelaus. It was not some prior geopolitical feud between confederated Greece and its eastern neighbor in Asia Minor, Troy. The Trojan War, a lost part of the epic cycle once told, was caused by one single entity, a goddess. We met her before once – a passing mention in Hesiod’s Theogony, and we forgot about her. But we won’t forget about her again. She was a child of the elemental Night, and the Greeks called her Eris, or the goddess of Strife and Discord.

The Story of the Cypria

The story of the goddess Eris setting the whole Trojan War into motion is briefly alluded to at the very end of the Iliad – just two lines – but its full version was recorded in a lost epic poem called the Cypria. The Cypria, the very first poem of the eight-book-long epic cycle, told of the beginning of the Trojan War, and its course up to the beginning of Homer’s Iliad, but it started at the war’s ultimate origin point. Here’s how the Epic Cycle, which continued to unfold in narrative poetry written long after Homer, once began.

The parents of Achilles, the nymph Thetis and her lover Peleus, were being wed. Fond of celebrations, the gods were holding a party and feast. The guest list was long, but the gods were careful to exclude one individual – and this individual was Eris, the goddess of strife. Eris was incensed. And she came anyway, bringing with her a very important golden apple. On the golden apple were inscribed the words, “for the fairest.” It was, the gods and goddesses apprehended, to be given as a prize for the most beautiful of all the goddesses. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all stood up, each believing herself eligible.

Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem - The Judgment of Paris - WGA05252

The Judgment of Paris (1628) by Cornelius van Haarlem. Being a vital scene to the Trojan War sequence and its aftermath, and also because it involves three beautiful goddesses, this is one of the more commonly painted scenes from the myth cycle, though it doesn't take place in the Iliad.

The goddesses asked that Zeus would be the judge. But Zeus wouldn’t touch this with a ten foot pool. He delegated the decision to the mortal Trojan prince, Paris, who had shown fair judgment in a prior contest. The goddesses Hera, and Athena, and Aphrodite then bathed and presented themselves to the Trojan prince. Each endeavoring to look her most beautiful, all three goddesses promised mortal Paris a prize. Hera promised kingship of the known world. Athena promised martial power and great wisdom. And Aphrodite guaranteed that Paris would have Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman on earth, as his bride. Paris chose Aphrodite and Helen. And Eris, I imagine, though the goddess of strife and discord is not mentioned, smiled in the background, envisioning a decade of death and carnage on the Trojan battlefield, and long afterward bloody and protracted homeward journeys of heroes like Menelaus, Agamemnon, and most famously, Odysseus.

By now, you the rest of the story, or most of it. Aphrodite backed Paris and the Trojans, because Paris had earned her the golden apple. Hera and Athena, incensed at not having been chosen, backed the Greeks. Zeus backed the Trojans, and then, eventually, the Greeks, simply because he wanted Achilles to enjoy glory. The divine story of the Iliad is a mixture of playground scuffle, soap opera, and slaughterhouse, and in the ancient Greek imagination, the dark plot was all catalyzed by Eris, goddess of discord and strife. We can blame Aphrodite, who whisked Paris away from being killed by Menelaus in the first books of the Iliad, which would have ended the war. And we can blame Zeus, for not simply slamming a lightning bolt down on the Trojan plain and telling everyone to shake hands and have a drink together. But really, behind it all, is Eris, the goddess of strife and discord, who quietly instigated a generation-long massacre and then quietly vanished, forgotten. [music]

Early Criticism of the Homeric Pantheon: Xenophanes

Let’s leave Eris behind, and talk about Homer’s gods more generally. Homer’s gods offer a perfect illustration of something called “henotheism.” “Henotheism,” which is a pretty esoteric word, simply means the belief in a primary deity who exists amidst other deities. Between monotheism, the belief in a single, usually omnipotent god, and polytheism, the belief in many different gods, henotheism is a halfway point. And henotheism comes with some inherent problems. If, for instance, Zeus is so powerful and wise, why is he so stupid as to take his eyes from the battlefield at the beginning of Book 13 and not understand that another god will interfere? If Zeus is in any way all-knowing, how can he be duped by his wife’s advances later in the same book? And if he’s so powerful, then why does he have to bow down to the rules and let an elite Greek fighter kill one of his favorite and most treasured of the Trojans? Why, a couple of books from where we are now, is Agamemnon going to say that Zeus is subject to the whims of his oldest daughter, Atê, or fate? Is the gentleman in charge, or what?

These questions lead us to one of religion’s central questions. The structure of this question is always the same, “If god is so [blank], then why [blank]?” In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it’s usually, “If God is so good and wise, then why does so much suffering exist in the world?” Now we’re not quite there yet. We’ll get there, when we get to the Historical Books of the Hebrew Bible, and Job, and Second Esdras. The question was not uncommon in later schools of Greek philosophy like Epicureanism and stoicism. But for now, let’s stick with Ancient Greek poetry. The question a pious Greek might ask, on reading Homer, would be, “If Zeus is so powerful and wise, why can’t he get the Trojan War sorted out?”

One answer is simply that Zeus is one deity among many. Zeus is the figurehead of a turbulent henotheistic pantheon, and not a modern monotheism. Zeus might be in charge, generally speaking, but he’s part of a greater picture, the daddy in the family photo, and the kids, aunts and uncles are all very ornery. As a modern reader, the violent, rowdy, incestuous circus of the Homeric gods is certainly entertaining, but it doesn’t seem like something that ought to inspire worship and reverence. And as it turns out, modern readers are not the only ones to find Homer’s pantheon less than magisterial. Throughout the philosophical and theological writings of Ancient Greece, even very early ones, we find authors who were not very impressed with Homer’s depictions of the gods.

Homer’s first dissident was a remarkable, very early Greek philosopher called Xenophanes. We know little about life – only that he fled from the west of present day Turkey in 546 after his homeland was invaded, that he moved from town to town a lot, and that he may have lived past the age of 92. And we only have fragments attributed to Xenophanes, but they are pretty striking fragments.

Xenophanes in Thomas Stanley History of Philosophy

Xenophanes, from Thomas Stanley's The History of Philosophy (1655).

In his sharply critical theological writings, Xenophanes is thousands of years ahead of his time. He was, to use a word we used earlier, a henotheist, placing high importance on a primary god, Zeus, and not having much concern with any other deities. Xenophanes’ objection to Homer’s pantheon was the same one a modern person might make – that the swashbuckling, unpredictable, egocentric jackasses who pull the puppet strings of Homer’s epics aren’t worth a single prayer or sacrifice. I will quote some of Xenophanes’ fragments – these are from a book called The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists, published by Oxford University Press in 2000.

Rather than the rambunctious Homeric pantheon, Xenophanes imagines “One god, greatest among gods and men, / In no way similar to mortal men in body or in thought.”6 “Complete he sees, complete he thinks, complete he hears” (26). “He remains forever in the same place, entirely motionless, / Nor is it proper for him to move from one place to another. / But effortlessly he shakes all things by thinking with his mind” (27). And in contrast to these visions of an omnipresent, omniscient deity, Xenophanes regrets that “Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods / Everything that men find shameful and reprehensible. . .Stealing, adultery, and deceiving one another” (27). You can already see from these fragments that Xenophanes’ conception of Zeus is far closer to the Abrahamic God than the anthropomorphic patriarch of Homer. To Xenophanes, Zeus didn’t have to ever move anywhere, because he was everywhere simultaneously. Zeus never had to hurl thunderbolts or play fisticuffs with other deities, because he could accomplish anything with a mere thought. Again, this sounds less like Homer and more like the Hebrew Bible, a book which, in the 500s during Xenophanes’ lifetime, was already well underway during the Babylonian captivity.

If this was all Xenophanes had written on the subject of religion, he’d still be famous – famous as a Greek who had, for unknown reasons and in the same timeframe as the ancient Israelites, moved quite far in the direction of monotheism in his writings. But these aren’t even Xenophanes’ most famous reactions to Homer.

What Xenophanes resented the most was projection – the projection of imperfect human qualities onto immortal beings. Xenophanes griped that “[M]ortals think that the gods are born, / Wear their own clothes, have voices and bodies” (27). “If cows and horses or lions had hands, / Or could draw with their hands and make things as men can, / Horses would have drawn horse-like gods, [and] cows cow-like gods, / And each species would have made the gods’ bodies just like their own” (27). “Ethiopians say that their gods are flat-nosed and black, / And Thracians that theirs have blue eyes and red hair” (27). With these words, Xenophanes suggests an idea not widely in circulation until the 1800s – a full two thousand five hundred years after he lived. This is the idea that gods do not create men, but men create gods, and they create gods in their own image – that culture shapes religion, and that the idea of anthropomorphic gods is pathetic fallacy of the highest order.

Now, we don’t know whether Xenophanes really did have a sense of religion as a cultural phenomenon, or whether he was just chastising the Homeric poems for their anthropomorphism. What we can definitely take away from this fascinating early Greek philosopher is that at least some of Homer’s readers, even early on, found the cosmic order of the Iliad to be a bit lacking, and found his gods to be undignified, if not ridiculous. So if you have a similar reaction while reading the Iliad, you’re not alone. As we read classical Mediterranean epics in chronological order in this podcast – the Iliad and Odyssey of the late 700s BCE, the Argonautica of the 200s BCE, the Aeneid of 18 BCE, and the Thebaid of about 100 CE – as over the course of this period more sophisticated schools of thought emerge into the historical record like Aristotelian philosophy, Epicureanism and stoicism, we begin to see later epic poets becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the Homeric gods, and introducing heterodox ideas into their stories. But for one Greek philosopher, the most famous of all of them, it wasn’t so much the troubling pandemonium of the Homeric pantheon that caused concern, but instead something else. [music]

Plato Weighs in on Homeric Gods and the Iliad

The philosopher Plato, who lived from the 420s BCE until about 350, like Xenophanes, offered his own criticism of Homer’s gods. Plato’s criticism survives at length, making up much of Book 3 of the Republic, a long dialogue that Plato produced around 380 BCE which is perhaps the most famous philosophical text from the ancient Mediterranean. The book may need no introduction, but the bullet points are that it’s a series of extended discussions between Socrates and, mostly, Plato’s brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus. Socrates had been executed in 399, and Plato used him as a literary figure who asked question after pesky question and slowly undermined the logical footing of his conversational partners. Using his trademark Socratic dialogue, Plato’s Republic tries to pinpoint the meaning of justice and the just man, and how an ideal society might be configured.

To get to the specifics, then, what, exactly, does Plato think of Homer? First of all, Plato knows the Homeric poems very, very well. We have more Homeric quotations in Plato than in any other ancient source. It’s not very surprising, as literature, storytelling, and poetry were a foundational portion of a child’s upbringing in Plato’s Athens. From a young age, kids read Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey being quasi-sacred texts of Greece’s most advanced city-states, and key episodes of the Homeric poems were recited to music at festivals and private parties for entertainment. Thus, Plato, like all aristocrats of classical Athens, knew the Iliad and the Odyssey very well. And like Xenophanes, Plato found Homer’s pantheon of gods to be troubling.

Plato’s Socrates, the speaker of The Republic, or the main speaker, finds the episode of Zeus being overcome by passion for his wife to be entirely morally outside the bounds of the way gods ought to be depicted. Further, Plato's Socrates says, any passages in which the gods were mourning for their own pains or for the deaths of their cherished heroes, Socrates says, are unacceptable. These are immortal gods, after all, not a bunch of pansies who will shed tears at the slightest cause. The gods should also not be displayed laughing or overcome by mirth, according to Socrates. They are a disciplined lot, in control of their emotions, and not a band of jokers – their business is the control of the cosmos, not brouhaha and goofing off.

So far, Plato’s objections to the Homeric pantheon don’t sound too unreasonable. If you want people to feel piety toward the pantheon, you depict that pantheon in such a way that elevates them above the sometimes messy, impulsive world of human emotion. But Plato as a critic isn’t interested in merely tempering down some of Homer’s choicer passages about the deities. Plato wants massive censorship – not just of the gods, but of all characters, and all literature. It is for this reason that those of us who study literature, including me, often have a squeamish relationship with some of the Platonic dialogues.

Plato's Censorship Program for the Iliad

Just listen to the specifics of what Socrates says ought to be done to the Homeric poems. One: all references to Hades should be omitted, since they might make people fear death and act with less bravery and discipline in war. Two: references to the horror of death should be erased for similar reasons. Three: all passages of men mourning for lost comrades should be removed, since these passages show men who are weak, undisciplined and not self sufficient. Four: all passages showing men laughing should be struck, since mirth on the part of men is an overindulgence of emotion. Five: all passages showing major characters who act with dishonesty should be deleted, since readers might misconstrue the message and become dishonest themselves. Plato does note that it’s okay for leaders to be dishonest, since they have to dupe the masses sometimes in order to keep the peace. Okay, what else doesn’t Plato like? Six: only passages which show characters being dutiful and obedient to leadership should be retained. Seven: as for Achilles, passages about him need to be seriously censored – he’s disobedient to Agamemnon, for instance, and we can’t have our readers learning from this. And Achilles is way too emotional, wringing his hands over the death of Patroclus in upcoming books. Achilles is a demigod – the son of a sea nymph – and he should act like one – severe, disciplined, and not showing so much emotion. Finally, nine: passages describing feasts should all be cut and trimmed, as we don’t want readers to think too much about indulging themselves with food.

Plato's program of censorship for the modes of the major scale is silly.

There’s more, but it all adds up to the same idea. As Plato’s Socrates says of the Homeric poems, “[W]e must put an end to stories of this nature: if we don’t, they will engender in the young men in our community a casual attitude towards badness.”7 Plato didn’t exactly want to scour Homer from the record – only to change the Homeric poems into sanitized moral lessons that inculcated, over and over again, the same core messages: obedience, discipline, fearlessness in combat, and fidelity to state over family. If you’ve read The Republic you can see how Plato’s prescribed cleansing of Homer fits into his overall program of a militarized state run by a core group of elites who control legislation, the media, and everything else.

Plato Weighs in on Music and Modes

But even with what we’ve heard so far, Plato isn’t done with censoring Homer. He thinks that dialogue ought to be severely limited in the Homeric epics, since there’s something inherently disingenuous about a third person narrator trying to speak with the voices of others. And he thinks that the musical accompaniment to the poems should be rigorously restricted. In a major scale, there are seven things that we call modes. I happen to know a bit about modes, because I play them every day, being a hobbyist jazz musician, and as I host an audio show, I’m in an unusual position to be able to show you exactly what Plato thinks about music and modes. Plato, in what is in my opinion an unforgivably stupid section of the Republic, takes it upon himself to tell us that we must only use two of the major scale’s seven modes.

We can’t use this one, for instance. [Locrian mode]. Plato calls it “Mixed Lydian” and we call it “Locrian.” And we can’t use this one [Aeolian mode]. Plato calls it “Taut Lydian” and we call it “Aeolian” or “natural minor.” These two modes, to Plato, are bad because “Laments and dirges need not be voiced” (95). So, according to Plato no more natural minor scales. Incidentally, he’s already removed almost every symphony, concerto, sonata, fugue, nocturne, mazurka, and so on, from the Earth’s music. But he’s not done yet. According to Plato, two more modes must be eliminated. These are this one [Mixolidian]. Plato calls it “Loose Ionian” and we call it “Mixolidian.” And also, this one is also not allowed [Lydian]. Plato calls it Loose Lydian, and we call it “Lydian.” These two are no good, because, according to Plato’s musical expertise, they “are soft and suitable to drinking parties” (96). [Lydian again] Does this sound like a drinking party to you? To me, it sounds like a movie preview. “Janice was a yoga instructor. Jared was an out of work taxidermist. But one summer, during a thunderstorm, they met, and fell in love.” I’ve got a kooky sense of humor – thanks for putting up with me – anyway, Plato’s mode censorship eliminates pretty much all the music our species has produced. So, what are we allowed to play, exactly, in Plato’s Republic?

Plato likes a mode called “Dorian.” [Dorian] Plato thinks that this mode sounds like “a brave man’s voice during battle. . .the voice of a man who, even when he falls and faces injury or death or some other catastrophe, still resists. . .in a disciplined and resolute manner” (96). And he likes a mode called “Phrygian.” [Phrygian] Phrygian makes Plato think of the aforementioned man in peacetime, willful and striving for success. So, we’re allowed to use Dorian and Phrygian, because Plato thinks that these modes sound like manly men, doing manly things. [“Manly Men” short comedic ditty.] And lastly, as for Ionian [Ionian], or the major scale, the most common scale in music, Plato makes no mention of it. I guess he either forgot about it, didn’t actually understand the modes of the major scale, or he couldn’t count to seven. They seem equally likely to me.


Plato's version of the Iliad would have been an idiotic marionette show.

Plato fans, I’m really sorry for that dig. I know he’s terrific, and that some like to think of him as a puppeteer who uses even Socrates satirically in his dialogues. But the third book of the Republic, unless treated to elaborate reinterpretation, indicates that although Plato had little understanding of music, he was ready to slam draconian laws onto it. And to bring things back to Homer, this portion of Plato's Republic, if its censorship were applied to the Iliad, would make the poem garbled and unreadable. We would have a procession of stoic men, voicing brief, passionless lines, dying violently on the battlefield but fearing nothing, having little desire to return home, and never once questioning the motives of their leaders. The gods would be distant and meekly obedient to Zeus. No one would care when anyone else died, and when Patroclus perished, Achilles would serenely accept it and the poem would prematurely wheeze to its end. Plato’s Iliad would be a poem about shiny robot-men bravely killing each other in a world where bravery could not exist, since no one feared death. Plato’s censored Iliad would be a tedious, unintelligible piece of writing, and it never would have survived like the real Iliad has. In the real Iliad, death is terrifying, great people make terrible mistakes, and we cry, make love, overeat, miss home, speak out against leaders, and hope desperately that forces outside of our control won’t pummel us into annihilation. Now that, to me, is a poem. What Plato suggests – not so much. At a certain point in the Republic, when Plato’s Socrates suggests an alternative way to compose a Homeric passage, Socrates prefaces his remarks by admitting, with disingenuous modesty, “I’m no poet” (88). I underlined that phrase twice when I read the Republic the first time. It was the one part of Book 3 of the Republic that I very strongly agreed with.

The Long Legacy of the Olympians

So that’s an introduction to the subject of Homer’s gods, complete with a little detour through Plato’s take on the Iliad. It’s hard to retell the story of the Iliad to anyone without some acknowledgement and discussion of the Homeric pantheon, that set of gods so radically different than the modern deities revered by the monotheistic world. But I want to leave you with one last thought on Ancient Greek religion before we go – by no means the final word on the subject we’ll have in the Literature and History podcast – but just something to think about from the very beginning.

There is an idea that we encounter in the early Christian church fathers that persists to today – a notion that pagan polytheism was a tangled briar patch of embarrassing myths and perfunctory ritualism. Paganism, it seems, which really ought to be called Hellenism, was perpetually on the decline, according to early Christian heavyweights like Origen – a decadent and overgrown thicket incinerated by the manifestation of God on earth. Greco-Roman polytheism, to later Christian critics, is a sort of perpetually fading, ever-more shadowy religion fated to be left in the dustbin of history.

From a historical perspective, obviously, Christianity did take over the Mediterranean and continued to grow. But if we read the Homeric epics and later works of Greek literature with the sense that the Olympian pantheon is little more than an alternately vicious and hilarious prelude to Christianity, we make a couple of different kinds of mistakes.

The first is that, succumbing to the temptation of our shared historical dating schema, with its fold between BC, or BCE on one hand and CE, or AD on the other, we assume that Christianity burst on the scene from out of nowhere, scarcely influenced by anything that came before it and watertight to the supposed blasphemies of Hellenic ideology. Without going into too much detail, considering that this is an episode on the Iliad and not the theological roots of Christianity, I can simply say Christianity was a flower that grew on a preexisting branch of Mediterranean ideology, and not something sprouted up in isolation out of the bare earth, surrounded by a bunch of other outworn and rotting plants. To show you an example, let me read you a passage about the Angel Gabriel in the Book of Revelation. Revelation describes how God put Gabriel on earth “To watch how men behave, observe their acts, / Their characters, keep records of their piety / And virtue, so that he. . . / May suitably reward this man or that.”8 It’s a great passage in Revelation to describe the posthumous rewards and punishments of mankind by God, except it’s not from Revelation. This passage is describing Jupiter, sending the deity Arcturas amidst mankind, and it was written a little after 190 BCE by the Roman playwright Plautus. There are, actually, thousands of passages in especially later Greco-Roman literature and philosophy that basically sound like this or that verse in the New Testament, or we could more accurately say, the other way around. So it’s important, even when we have a laugh at Zeus and company, to realize that the Olympians were part of the long and intercontinental story that led up to Christianity, and even specific cornerstones of Christian theology.

There is another reason that, even if we’re having a chuckle at Aphrodite and Ares getting knocked around a bit in the Iliad – that from very early on we need to take Greco-Roman polytheism seriously. After the Apostolic generation, when the first wave of Christianity broke and all sorts of stuff started coming back toward the church, the second and third generations of Christians had to engage with the philosophical appraisals of the larger Mediterranean world. One of the main criticisms from pagan philosophy was not that the Christians were heretics, but instead that they were overconfident. To quote historian R.L. Wilken, “All the ancient critics of Christianity were united in affirming that there is no one way to the divine. . .By appealing to a particular history as the source of knowledge of God, Christian thinkers transgressed the conventions that governed civilized theological discourse in antiquity.”9 In pre-Christianantiquity, theological discourse was governed by the notion that there are many paths to the truth, and multiple explanations for phenomena. When we get to Ovid quite a while from now, we’ll see him, in Book 1 of the Metamorphoses, casually throwing out multiple explanations for how the world was created, and how humankind came to be, shrugging his shoulders and saying that one explanation is really as good as the next as far as he is concerned, since no one, really, knew for certain. This, essentially, was Hellenic philosophy’s central beef with Christianity – that Christians proselytized and had the temerity to state that only their way was the correct way to illuminate the universe and how one ought to conduct oneself within it.

If we treat Greek polytheism as nothing more than a murky preface to Christianity, then, we make the mistake of disregarding Christianity’s extensive pagan roots, and at the same time overlook one of polytheism’s intrinsic strengths – that its bustling and shifting pantheons, historically speaking, provided it with the potential for flexibility, evolution, and hybridization – for multiple simultaneous hypotheses, none of which were held as exclusive or orthodox. As we move forward through the next seven centuries of Greco-Roman ideology and beyond, of course, from time to time we’ll have to pause and have a laugh at the staggering ridiculousness and indignity of this or that Greek or Roman god. Homer’s pantheon, as Xenophanes and Plato observed, stands at one end of a spectrum, with the Homeric heavyweights bludgeoning and fornicating with one another on one end, and the much more elegant and distant deities of Platonism and stoicism on the other. But as blustering and oafish as Homer’s gods are, they are also a magnificent lot, descending from ashen clouds to blaze over blue green waters, appearing in shimmering halos along bright Aegean beaches, and hammering otherworldly metal in castles made of bronze and starlight. Homer may not have written poetry about gods quite in line with the deities of stoicism and Christianity. But the diverse resplendence with which he depicts deities stirred the hearts and minds of readers for thousands of years, and had an incalculable influence on the way that readers thought about the divine, forever after. [music]

Moving on to the End of the Iliad

Well, now that we’ve talked a little bit about Homer’s gods, why don’t we find out what happens at the end of the story? In the next episode, we’ll learn about what takes place upon the death of Patroclus. For sixteen books of the Iliad, now, Achilles has been sitting in the dugout, nursing his grudge against Agamemnon, indisposed to helping his comrades in spite of their efforts to persuade him. As you know or can imagine, the death of his dear friend is the force that finally gets the Greek champion to throw himself into the fray. We have seen the aristeia of several heroes in the Iliad – Diomedes, Agamemnon, Hector and most recently Patroclus, blazing moments of glory in which heroes temporarily turn into living gods. But the aristeia of Achilles is the pivotal event of the epic – the war’s fatal turning point, and the crescendo of Homer’s long symphony.

After we finish the story of the Iliad next time, we’ll finally talk about Homer himself – whether there was even Homer at all, and how centuries of archaeologists and scholars have devoted their careers to searching for the physical remains of the Trojan War, and plumbing the depths of Homeric language in an attempt to learn how the Iliad and Odyssey came together. Try a quiz at literatureandhistory.com and make sure you remember the names of your Homeric heroes, and the philosophical ideas of Xenophanes and Plato. If you want to hear a comedy song, I’ve got one coming up for you. If not, see you soon.

Still here? Well, as I said, I got to thinking about that weasel hat, back in Book 10. Odysseus and Diomedes kill that Trojan spy, and take his things, but unfortunately, Homer doesn’t tell us about the fate of that stolen weasel hat. What happened to that weasel hat? Was it just left in the bushes forever? Does anyone care about it but me?


1.^ Homer. Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles and with an Introduction by Bernard Knox. Penguin Classics, 1990, p. 254. Further quotes from this edition will be noted with line numbers in this episode transcription.

2.^ Homer. Iliad. Translated and with an Introduction by Caroline Alexander. HarperCollins, 2015, p. 259. Further references to this text will be quoted parenthetically with line numbers.

3.^ Homer. Iliad. Translated by Stanley Lombardo and with an Introduction by Sheila Murnaghan. Hackett Publishing Company, 1977, p. 275. Further references to this text will be noted parenthetically in this episode transcription.

4.^ Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by Charles Martin and with an Introduction by Bernard Knox. Norton, 2004, pp. 193-4.

5.^ Waterfield, Robin. “Introduction.” Printed in The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. xxi-xxii.

6.^ Printed in Robin Waterfield, Ed. The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 26. Further references noted parenthetically.

7.^ Plato. The Republic Ed. Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 86. Further references noted parenthetically.

8.^ Plautus. Rudens 13-16. Printed in The Rope and Other Plays. Translated by E.F. Watling. Penguin Books, 1964, p. 90.

9.^ Wilken, R.L. “Religious Pluralism and Early Christian Thought.” Printed in Remembering the Christian Past. Eerdmans, 1995, pp. 42-3.