The above title pretty much sums up epic – it seems a pity that the gods were left out of the film, Troy.
In the Iliad, gods and heroes are inextricable. Gods intervene at all points. Heroes are still heroes, but the action of the gods ensures that all acts of free will result in tragedy. This is because the gods are intent on their own game. They are sublime, beautiful and appallingly selfish. In Book 1, Hephaistus begs his mother Hera not to quarrel over humans – they are not worth it, he says, for then there would be:
in the stately feast at all, since vile things will be uppermost.
At another time, Hera and Zeus bargain chillingly over the destruction of cities. Her motive – pique. Zeus comments:
If you could
…eat Priam and the children of Priam raw…
Then only might you glut at last your anger.
He can’t understand her feeling, but by giving way now, he will gain credit for the next time he plans to devastate a city.
Gods in the Iliad create spectacular effects with their beauty and mysterious power. They certainly vary the grimness of battle and death. However, it is the heroes, their wives and children, who give the poem depth and solidity. It is because humans suffer that the gods have any meaning. Zeus almost becomes pitiful when his mortal son, Sarpedon, has to die. The poem is finally resolved when the gods together feel compassion for the body of Hektor, and they demand that Achilles release it for burial.
Meanwhile, heroes have mysterious affinities with gods. Agamemnon, Lord of men, is acted upon by Zeus, King of gods. Athene, everyone’s favourite goddess, is in league with Hera to destroy Troy, so her help for heroes is not altruistic in the Iliad. Helen, the sex-kitten, is protected by air-headed Aphrodite whose “terrible love” for her might easily turn to terrible hate. Apollo protects Hektor, but only up to a point: he will abandon him in the end.
Heroes are what the Iliad is about; their bravery, loyalty, fame, prowess and perseverance. There are league tables. Not all heroes are in the first league – while Achilles is in a league of his own. However, as in real life, it is often the celebs who get it wrong – more spectacularly than other people. In Book 5 we have the aristeia or star performance of Diomedes of the great war cry; he seems to some to be the perfect hero, never putting a foot wrong. But after showing us the pattern of a hero, he is not prominent in the epic. There is not much of a story in perfection. Achilles, the most amazing hero, also makes the most amazing mistakes. He also, remarkably, reveals his inner feelings to us, the audience, so we can feel for him and understand him, even if we have to condemn him.
Yes, we are well into the world of heroes; the motives of the gods are an open book. We are privileged.