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Divinity and Human Will In Homer’s Iliad

Iliad is a story about the civilization of the Greeks. It is believed to have been written by the poet Homer, presumably around the 8th century BCE. It envelops the idea of divine intervention over the course of the infamous Trojan war. There are primarily two schools of thoughts regarding the portrayal of divinity and the presence of human will in the Iliad.

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One spectrum believes in the prominence of Gods in the Iliad and rejects the idea of human agency. Amongst these, Dodds comments that the Homeric characters lack any unified concept of soul or personality. He emphasizes on the departure from human behaviour and the prominence of supernatural agency in the Iliad. He focuses on the idea that no individual acts on his/her human impulses, but is rather moved by the divine power. This is evident in multiple scenes of the epic.

One of the greatest examples is the story of the Golden Apple where the event of the 'Judgment of Paris' took place. During the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the Goddess of discord, Eris, was not invited and hence, she planted the Golden Apple there to create a quarrel among the Goddesses. The apple was to be won by the 'fairest of them all' and Paris was made the judge of it. Paris chose Aphrodite over Hera and Athena, and in return, Aphrodite promised him Helen of Troy. This made Aphrodite delude Helen into eloping with Paris and triggering the infamous Trojan War. This also initiated the constant disapproval of Troy by the other two goddesses, namely Hera and Athena.

In Book-20, Achilles is in the throes of an internal dilemma, where his fate is either to live a short, but glorious life at Troy or spend long and obscure years back in Phthia. It is the shock of Patroclus’s death that prompts a decision from him, and not his rational thought process. Even the death of Patroclus originated from the interference of the capricious Greek Gods. The conspired death of Patroclus forced Achilles to come back to the battle and sways his decision entirely. If it weren't for him, then Achilles might have taken a different decision. In Book -16, Hector’s cowardice is also an aftermath of Zeus’s promise to Achilles that he will save the Achaean ships. It is Zeus who instills cowardice in Hector's nerves to keep up with his promise. Without Zeus's interference, Hector would have captured and burned the Achaean ships and gained glory for himself and Troy.

According to Bruno Shell, every new turn of events in Iliad is engineered by the Gods, with human initiative having no source of its own; whatever is planned and executed is the plan and deeds of the Gods. He further builds on the theory propounded by Dodds and says that nothing that happens in the Trojan war is out of human initiative, and every action is engineered and dictated by the Gods. The death of Patroclus is significantly induced by the Gods: it was the personal agenda of Zeus that forced him to order Apollo to weaken Patroclus which consequently led to his downfall. Hector wouldn't have been able to kill Patroclus armed with Achilles's armour on his own. Zeus weaves this conspiracy to murder Patroclus to take revenge for killing his son, Sarpedon.

Further, in Book-13, the war is turned in the favor of the Achaeans only after the involvement of Poseidon who imbues Idomeneus with raging powers in response to Hector striking his grandson, Amphimachus. In Book-8, Zeus weighs the fate of Troy and the Acheans at Mount Ida, where the latter sinks. Hence, the king of all turns the tide in Troy’s favour by striking lightning on the Greek ships. Revenge becomes one of the driving forces for the Gods to change the direction of the war and, sometimes, it is just their idle curiosity to be on the winning side.

Even though the Gods decide not to personally involve themselves after a certain point, yet they somehow control human actions. In the words of Jean-Pierre Vernant, “There is no action as a man, there is no self-consciousness or responsibility among Homeric characters as there is no autonomy or will.” This statement is provoked by the incidents that resulted in Hector’s death. Achilles' decision to kill Hector was only possible through the involvement of the Gods. It was Athena who disguised herself as Deiphobus and lured Hector into going back to fighting one on one with Achilles. It was Athena who pushed Hector towards his end or else he would have been alive.

The archaic notion of God punishing the ones who try to cross them and rewarding the ones who sacrifice or repent remains intact till date. Iliad makes us aware of the pattern of the divinity controlling its subjects i.e. mortal humans. But, this control is not directly through the divine. It is in fact practised through ‘instruments of divinity’: The Gods in the Iliad are anthropomorphic and it is their human follies and impulses that morph the fate of the warriors. This can be symbolic of the fact that the humans are being subjugated by humans, with power being the only difference.

This control and policing framework are most highlighted during the medieval era, when the Church enjoyed hegemony thereby allowing the clergy to profess various corrupt practices like selling indulgences for a shorter stay in purgatory, banning reading the Holy book by the masses, etc. The ‘guardians of the divine’ sanctioning only the ‘worthy’ humans an entry into the gates of heaven has been a central idea to all faiths throughout history. These guardians were called the ‘Oracles’ during the time of the ancient Greeks. They reincarnated as the Church in the medieval era and during the modern times they are called religious fanatics/bhakts.

The Iliad is a classic that continues to ignite fresh debates around the possibility of free will and human autonomy against a backdrop of highly glorified, omnipresent, and overarching divine presence. This overwhelming authority of divinity can also be understood through contemporary popular fiction like Margaret Atwood's ‘The Handmaid's Tale’ where Gilead is the hub of orthodox practices, a place where the interpretation of the holy book supersedes the actual word of the lord, and where atrocities are inflicted upon the masses in the name of the almighty. Be it homicide or heinous crimes like rape-all were justified under the umbrella term of divine justice and discipline. The conflict regarding the divine interpretation and intervention is not just confined to the Holy book of Christians but it covers the Vedas too. The truth existing in the written word is largely overlooked and is overridden by the oral hearsays. The best example to suit this argument would be the all-pervading caste system in India. This has even been acknowledged by the most trenchant modern critic of the system. As Dr. B.R. Ambedkar wrote-

“Particular attention has to be paid to the fact that this (the varna system) was essentially a class system, in which individuals, when qualified, could change their class, and therefore classes did change their personnel.”

The ultimate question that prevails is if there is any human will? Or is everything in its most primitive form directed solely by the course of divinity. Do humans have a say in their life? Can they be more than just puppets at the mercy of the religious sect they belong to?

While the involvement and significance of the Gods largely overwhelmed the crevices of the epic, there is another spectrum of thoughts that believes in human agency hidden amongst the overriding Godly presence. The Iliad is indeed highly impressionable by the elements of Greek Gods. But, the Homeric epic is a well-proportioned tale that colours both the might of the Gods as well as the will of the humans. It puts forward the theme of balance in the universe.

It was John Gunnell who first talked about human agency in the Iliad. According to him, Homer limits the powers of the Gods to provide a new focus on human action. Even at those critical moments in which an event is ascribed to divine action, characters still act out of their free will.

It is the character’s conscious decision that prompts the action while the Gods only help reach the outcome. In Book-16, Patroclus joining the war shines on his conscious decision as well as his free will. It was not the Gods who destined him to do so and he chose his destiny himself. Patroclus joined the war because he wanted to serve his country.

Similarly, in Book-22, when Hector stands as the lone soldier at the gate of the Trojan walls as he was the one who led his army to camp outside the Trojan premises the night before, it was his morality and the overbearing guilt that allowed him to make that decision, and not the Gods. It was his humanity that led to his stand. Also, when Hector charges at Achilles knowing he has no support of the Gods, he depicts his valor and heroism, and not the will of the Gods. He controls his destiny. By opting to make the first move, he attains glory. Hector had the freedom to be courageous.

Hence, even in the abundance of control, there is human free will, the will to be courageous. This is perhaps the only freedom humans have- the freedom to search for the truth about God and themselves, but there is none nobler. And in this search, they show all those great qualities that we admire as a society—courage, intelligence, perseverance- the qualities that make human beings great.


By Isha Adhikari

(Guest Article)

A literature student at Delhi University, a published author of three anthologies, and a modern poet. Someone deeply interested in English Literature, Feminism, and Spoken Word Poetry.

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