Suffering Of Human Beings In Iliad: Because Of The Gods Or Is It A Consequence Of Human Action
In this paper, I explore the controversy of why human beings suffer; is it because of the gods or is it a consequence of human action? The former is something that I believe in; however, this seems untrue in the Iliad and the Odyssey. As a practicing Hindu, I believe in polytheism; for me, the gods are all knowing and are responsible for maintaining the moral order. Those who do bad deeds are punished and those who do good deeds are rewarded for their actions. Hence, when I read the Iliad and the Odyssey, I was surprised that though the gods are mentioned, they are not responsible for maintaining the moral order. Through this paper, I show that human beings in the Iliad and the Odyssey suffer due to their own actions. Human beings are incapable of knowing everything and also have limits. Those who attempt to go beyond their limits face severe consequences. To address the controversy mentioned above, I will first discuss the role of the gods in the two works of literature. Secondly, I will explain how free will allows human beings to act and influence their Moira. Lastly, I will demonstrate that human suffering is a consequence of human action alone through discussing the downfalls of Agamemnon, Patroclus, Hector, and Achilles.
To begin, it is important to know the role of the gods in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The gods are immortal, and their knowledge exceeds human knowledge. Moreover, the gods act as foils for human beings as they possess everything that a human being desires. Often the most powerful heroes are children or grandchildren of the gods (Burkert, 1985). For example, Thetis, a goddess of water, is the mother of Achilles (Burkert, 1985). Usually, gods can be seen as onlookers which is evident in the Iliad (Burkert, 1985). However, if their interests are affected, the gods can intervene directly (Burkert, 1985). For instance, in the Odyssey, Athena influences human actions directly as her interests are also at stake (Burkert, 1985). Athena advises Telemachus by changing her appearance and guides Odysseus home. Still, from my understanding, the gods are onlookers in both works who rarely influence human action. The gods do not have a large role in the Homeric poems; they do not influence human actions directly. Rather, human beings bring suffering upon themselves by performing certain actions.
In the Iliad and the Odyssey, human beings have free will, through which they choose their paths. The consequences brought by those choices results in moira. Moira can be referred to as one’s portion or lot; according to Dodds, moira means that people do not understand why something has happened “but since it has happened, evidently it had to be” (1951, p. 6). I view Moira as a consequence of human action. Human beings act and moira takes place depending on whether that action is reckless or not. However, often human beings blame their moira on the gods.
For example, Agamemnon states that “…the Achaeans have spoken often against me and found fault with me in it, yet I am not responsible but Zeus is…” (Homer, Iliad, XIX. 85-96). Here Agamemnon apologizes for taking Achilles’ prize Briseis, away from him. He does not take full responsibility for his actions, instead he blames Zeus even when it was his decision to take Briseis away from Achilles. Agamemnon uses the gods as an excuse to justify his actions. His moira is that he angers Achilles which disrupts the relationship between him and the other soldiers. There are many instances in the Iliad where human beings bring suffering upon themselves. The gods can be seen as guiding forces but it is ultimately human action that results in the outcomes that humans are faced with.
I find that Agamemnon’s actions throughout the Iliad are prime examples of humans bringing downfall amongst themselves. Along with upsetting Achilles, he also vows to show no mercy to those involved in the war. For example, Agamemnon tells Menelaus “[no], let not one of them go free of sudden death and our hands; not the young man child that the mother carries still in her body, not even he, but let all of Ilion’s people perish, utterly blotted out and unmourned for” (Homer, Iliad, V1, 57-60). Through these lines, Agamemnon expresses that he does not want to show mercy to the people involved in the war; he will not even pardon the unborn children in women’s wombs. Agamemnon is being ruthless by targeting the innocent people who are merely associated with the war; all he wants is glory. In the Odyssey, it is revealed through Menelaus that “while [he] was wandering [the sea] and bringing together much property, meanwhile another man had killed [his] brother secretly, by surprise and by his wife’s treachery” (Homer, Odyssey, IV. 90-92). Menelaus reveals that Agamemnon has met his Moira through his Wife, Clytemnestra’s infidelity. Agamemnon dies as a result of his own ruthless actions. The gods do not bring this upon Agamemnon.
Unlike Agamemnon who vows to eliminate anyone in his way to reach glory, Patroclus exceeds his limits in attempt to capture Troy which results in his death. Achilles even warns Patroclus that “[he] must not, in the pride and fury of fighting, go on slaughtering the Trojans, and lead the way against Ilion…” (Homer, Iliad, XVI. 91-92). Yet Patroclus goes beyond his limits and fights Hector, knowing full well that he is only supposed to drive the Trojans back from the ships. As Patroclus is wounded with the javelin, Hector “[comes] close…and with a spear stab[s] him in the depth of the belly and [drives] the bronze clean through” (Homer, Iliad, XVI. 820-821). Patroclus meets his lot (moira) and dies. Patroclus dies as a result of his own actions. Though he is warned by Achilles, he still attempts to fight against the Trojans, exceeding his limits. This shows that Patroclus is driven by his desire for glory and fury to kill the Trojans. As a result, Patroclus suffers a devastating death and initiates the wrath of Achilles.
Like Patroclus, Hector also brings suffering upon himself by exceeding his limits. Hector is presented with the choice of either going out and fighting Achilles or staying inside the Trojan walls and defending his family. Priam, Hector’s father, appeals to Hector: “…beloved child, do not wait the attack of [Achilles]…you might encounter your destiny beaten down by Pelion, since he is far stronger than you are” (Homer, Iliad, XXII. 38-40). However, Hector does not listen to the appeals of his father and proceeds to wait for Achilles outside the wall. He leaves behind his young child and his wife Andromache who also does not want him to leave the safety of the walls.
Consequently, when Hector sees Achilles, “shivers [take] hold of him and he [can] no longer stand his ground there, but [leaves] the gates behind and [flees], frightened and Peleus’s son [goes] after him…” (Homer, Iliad, XXII. 136-139). Hector regrets his decision when he spots Achilles and rans away from the gates because he is frightened to face him. He makes a rash decision and must now pay for it by accepting his lot (moira). Then finally, “Brilliant Achilles [drives] the spear as he [come] on in fury, and clean through the soft part of the neck the spearpoint [is] driven” (Homer, Iliad, XXII. 326-327). Though Hector has the option staying within the Trojan walls, he chooses to fight Achilles outside the walls. Thus, Hector’s death is brought upon him by his own actions. His father Priam, mother Hecuba, his wife Andromache and his child suffer because of his actions as well when Agamemnon’s army invades the Trojan walls.
I believe that Achilles’ story is the best example of human suffering brought about by human actions. In book one of the Iliad, Thetis, the mother of Achilles, is saddened by Achilles’ experience at the Trojan war, she says “your birth was bitterness…if only you could sit by your ships untroubled, not weeping since indeed your lifetime is to be short, of no length” (Iliad, I. 414-416). Here, Thetis is upset as she thinks about Achilles’ decision to fight in the war. Inevitably, Achilles will die because he has chosen to gain glory in the war rather than to live a long and a healthy life. It is clear that Achilles has chosen to fight in the war to gain glory. His death is further confirmed when he kills Hector. Though Achilles is aware that bringing killing Hector will bring death upon him, he still kills Hector. At the time of Hector’s death, Achilles says “die: and I will take my own death at whatever time Zeus and the rest of the immortals choose to accomplish it” (Iliad, XXII. 65-66). Achilles, like Agamemnon, blames the god for his upcoming death, even though it was he who chose glory over a long life. Also, Achilles is motivated by his anger at Patroclus’ death to kill Hector which eventually results in his own death.
It is only in the Odyssey, that we can see the gods getting deeply involved in the lives of human beings. Though it is only Athena. Athena is worried about Odysseus and his family; she says, “that the heart in [her] is torn for the sake of wise Odysseus, unhappy man, who still, far from his friends is suffering griefs, on the sea-washed island” (Homer, Odyssey, I. 48-50). Since her interests are affected, she inserts herself into the lives of Odysseus and his family. Athena also disguises herself as Mentes (an old friend of Odysseus) to guide Telemachus on his journey to reach manhood. She states that she must “make [her] way to Ithaka so that [she] may stir up [Odysseus’] son a little, and put some confidence in him” (Homer, Odyssey, I. 88-91). She wants Telemachus to reach manhood and be able to assist his father kill the suitors.
She appeals to her father, Zeus, to let Odysseus come home. Athena appeals “Father Zeus…no longer let one who is a sceptered king be eager…he cannot make his way to his country…and now there are those who are determined to murder his dear son on his way home” (Homer, Odyssey, V. 8-19). Athena asks her father to tell Calypso to release Odysseus from the island and let him go home. Athena also guides Odysseus home after the Trojan War. Athena claims that “Odysseus is far the best mortal men for counsel and stories, and [she] among all the divinities [is] famous for wit and sharpness (Homer, Odyssey, XIII. 97-99). According to Athena her and Odysseus are alike; thus, she favours him and wants him to return home to defeat the suitors.
In this paper, I show that Human beings are often blinded by their own desires; they act on those desires and bring upon their own suffering. While Athena does interject herself into the life of Odysseus and his family in the Odyssey, in general, the Gods are merely onlookers in both works. Moira is brought about by human action. Humans in the Iliad and the Odyssey may not be aware of why they are experiencing Moira, though it is there action that brought it about in the first place. I exhibit this by discussing the downfalls of Patroclus, Hector, Agamemnon, and Achilles. The only time gods influence the actions of human beings is in the Odyssey, when Athena helps Odysseus and Telemachus in their journey home. The gods are mostly onlookers in the Iliad and the Odyssey: the only time they intervene in human life is when their own interests are affected. The main argument of this paper is that human beings bring suffering upon themselves by acting recklessly and that moira is the result of their own action.
- Burkert, Walter., and ebrary, I. (1985). Greek religion. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
- Homer. and Lattimore, Richmond. (2007). The Odyssey of Homer. New York: HarperPerennial Modern Classics.
- Homer., Lattimore, Richmond. and Martin, Richard. (2011). The Iliad of Homer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Dodds, E. R., and ACLS Humanities E-Book. (1951). The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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