How are the Gods Portrayed in The Iliad?

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

Though the gods are supposed to be watching out for the best interests of the people, their jealousy and pettiness are what ultimately decided the fate of the fighters in the Trojan War.

High School or Mount Olympus?

Imagine a high school cafeteria, where people bicker over insignificant things. You're best friends with someone one day, and worst enemies the next. This is very similar to how the gods and goddesses acted in Homer's epic poem The Iliad. Their pettiness and jealousies ultimately determined the fate of the Greeks and the Trojans in the Trojan War. This lesson will focus on how the gods are portrayed in The Iliad.

Paris and the Golden Apple, or how this all got started

The human Paris, son of the King of Troy, is asked to do a most difficult thing ... decide which goddess is the prettiest. The prize is a Golden Apple, which has ''for the fairest'' written on the side. Since Paris is proven to be a fair judge, king of the gods Zeus decides that Paris can judge among three goddesses to see who is the fairest (and Zeus wants no part of that judging for sure!).

Each of the three goddesses promises Paris something if he agrees to choose her. Hera, the queen of the gods, promises Paris that he would be the king over all of Europe. Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, promises Paris that he would always be successful in battle. And Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, promises him the mortal Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, for his wife. Unable to resist the last, Paris gives the apple to Aphrodite, and sails for Sparta.

Of course, Helen's already married, and this is how all the trouble in Troy starts.

On the Trojans' side

Aphrodite is, of course, on the side of the Trojans in the war. She rescues Paris from a battle with the human Menelaus, Helen's first husband, when it's clear Paris is losing. But there are a few other gods who help out the (ultimately futile) Trojan cause.

Apollo, the god of the sun, poetry, and prophecy, is the biggest champion of the Trojans. When his priest is dishonored by the mortal Greek king Agamemnon, Apollo sends a plague down on the Greek forces. Many die, and Agamemnon seizes the mortal hero Achilles' concubine, the human Trojan woman named Briseis. This causes a big fight between the two Greek leaders and almost ends the war right then.

Ares, the god of war, is also on the side of the Trojans. In The Iliad, Ares is not well liked by the other gods (Zeus calls him hateful). He is the lover of Aphrodite, even though she is married to someone else.

Aphrodite saves Paris from Menelaus.
Aphrodite saves Paris from Menelaus

On the Greeks' side

Hera and Athena, of course, have a problem with Paris, since he didn't give them the apple. Outspoken about her support of the Greeks, Hera is responsible for distracting Zeus and ensuring a Greek win. Much of Athena's interference in the war comes from helping Achilles. She is the one who calms him down after Agamemnon steals his Briseis, and she also helps him after the death of Achilles' friend who dies while pretending to be him in battle. Athena is also a great friend to the mortal Odysseus, a Greek captain and the hero of the follow-up story, The Odyssey.

Poseidon, the god of the sea, is also on the side of the Greeks during the war. He arrives and secretly helps the Greeks even after Zeus has forbidden the gods from interfering in the war. Poseidon also plots with Hera to make sure the Greeks are the victors.

Athena counsels Achilles
Athena counsels Achilles

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