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No Honor for the Gods

Homer has a much lower view of the gods than his contemporary/predecessor Hesiod. Whereas Hesiod often goes out of his way to describe Zeus as an all-powerful, calm and collected lord over creation, Homer seems to go out of his way to describe him as a fickle, honorless, brat.

Throughout The Iliad, people are constantly offering up prayers and sacrifices, only to be roundly ignored by Zeus. There is a sense that these petitions are little more than worthless – he’s just going to do what he wants to do anyway. Even his wife Hera only gets what she wants by having to seduce and trick him.

Early in the story, the two sides of the war swear an oath to Zeus that a temporary truce be established between them. Not long after this, the warrior Pandarus blatantly breaks the oath and kills a man anyway. Agamemnon is incensed at this, but feels reassured by the fact that Zeus will take revenge on Pandarus for breaking the oath sworn in his name.

But in actuality, it was Zeus himself who sent Athena to make Pandaurs break the oath in the first place. Agamemnon smugly thinks that Zeus will take care of Pandarus, while unbeknownst to him, Zeus was the very one to blame for breaking his own oath!

Not only is Zeus described as petty and conceited, but he can also shape humans and mold events as if they were putty in dangerous hands. Nearly all of the terrible consequences of Achilles’ wrath were actively planned for and made possible by the will of Zeus. As soon as Achilles’ mother Thetis first pleads with Zeus to help her and her son, he puts his awful, man-killing plan into action.

As far as what his plan fully entails, only Zeus himself knows – but Homer also discloses it to us early in Book 15. After Hera keeps trying to interfere, Zeus decides to tell her all that he plans on doing, so that she will finally realize that nothing will stop him from carrying it out and she will leave him alone. When he does tell her, Hera herself is shocked at the utter insanity of it all. Zeus is something of a madman. Or more accurately (and more frighteningly) – a madgod.

All to placate the pride of Achilles, Zeus has – and will continue to – send scores of men to their death in bloody battle. He arranges and actuates the deaths of thousands, including Hector, Patroclus, and even his own son, Sarpedon. As Zeus explains his schemes in lines 69 – 96, I picture him with a blank stare and a monotone voice. As Hera finally grasps the true depth of her husband’s lunacy, she recoils and flees in abject horror. She had no idea what she was interfering with, or how terrible Zeus’ plans truly were.


But it’s not just Zeus either. Homer makes it clear that all the gods are honorless. Honor is something that only mortals have, or can even hope to have. Every fight involving men is described as an epic battle to the death. While every fight involving the gods is described as a selfish child playing with its toys.

Perhaps it’s death itself that allows for honor. Immortals can’t enjoy everlasting glory, because they themselves are everlasting. I don’t see glory or honor as even being desirable for a deathless god. It is because we won’t last forever that we desire our name to do so for us. And when we hope for that, we also hope that it be held in high regard. The gods can wish for no such thing.

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