With our view of God, comprehending the actions and thinking of the Greek deities can sometimes be difficult. The Christian God does not take such an active role in the affairs of people’s lives, where, the Greeks regarded direct involvement by the gods as a uncontrollable part of life. Naturally, divine intervention was a major variable in the equation of Homer’s Iliad.
Zeus, as the symbol of supreme authority and justice, made judgement calls as to the other gods’ involvement in the war and remained impartial. Even when his own son, Sarpedon, was about to die, he chose to let the outcome go unaltered.
On the other hand, his wife, Hera, displayed the more typical actions of a god. After Paris judged Aphrodite the fairest over herself and after a young Trojan boy replaced her daughter Hebe as cupbearer to the gods, she was resentful toward Troy. So she sided with the Greeks and would stop at no length to express her will. Scheming and manipulating, she even dared to trick Zeus. Along with Athena, she is seen as the chief divine aid to the Greeks.
Being the god of the sea, Poseidon was another strong supporter of the ocean-faring Greeks. Whenever Zeus turned his back, he tried to help the Greeks in the fight. He felt that he was somewhat Zeus’s equal as his brother, but recognizing Zeus’s authority and experience, he looked to Zeus as an elder.
Some Gods favored the Trojan side of the conflict. Both Apollo and Artemis gave aid to the city of Troy. Although Artemis takes a minor role, Apollo, perhaps angered by Agamemnon’s refusal to ransom Khryseis, was constantly changing the course of the war in favor of the Trojans. Responsible for sending plague to the Greeks, he was the first god to make an appearance in the Iliad. Their mother, Leto, also helped the Trojans.
One view of the gods’ constant intervention in the war was that they were just setting fate back on the right course. For instance, when Patroklos was killed outside Troy, Apollo felt no guilt for his doings. It had been decided that Patroklos would not take Troy so he should never have disobeyed Achilles in the first place. As a god, Apollo was just setting fate back in line. Achilles laid blame on the Trojans. He never considered accusing Apollo, although he was primarily responsible for the kill. Apollo’s part in the matter was merely accepted as a natural disaster would be today.
The general acceptance of a god’s will is a recurring trend throughout the poem. A prime example of this trend is in book XXIV. Achilles, angry over the death of Patroklos, disgraced Hektor’s body. Tethering the corpse, he dragged it around Patroklos’s tomb every day for twelve days.
This barbaric treatment displeased the gods. Zeus sent Achilles’ mother, Thetis, to tell him to ransom the body back to the Trojans. One may think Achilles would be possessive of the body and attempt to put up a fuss as he did before with Agamemnon. But Achilles showed humility and respect for the gods and immediately agreed to ransom the body to the Trojans, showing that all mortals, even godlike Achilles, were answerable to the gods.
Although they seemed to have unlimited freedom, the gods could not always do as they pleased and eventually had to come before Zeus. Zeus acted as a balance of sorts. He had to keep the gods in order and make sure that what fate decreed would happen. For example, after Achilles re-enters the battle Zeus declared that if Achilles were allowed to go on slaughtering the Trojans with nothing to slow him, he would take Troy before fate said it would happen. To counter Achilles’ massive retaliation against the Trojans, he allowed the gods to go back to the battle field.
In his own interests, Zeus preferred to deal with issues more personal to the individual heros of the Iliad. He attempted to increase the honor of certain individuals. He knew that Hektor was going to be killed by Achilles, and, feeling sorry for Hektor he attempted to allow Hektor to die an honorable death. For instance, when Hektor stripped Achilles armor off Patroklos, he helped Hektor “fill out” the armor so he would not seem like less of a man then Achilles. He also gave his word to Thetis that Achilles would gain much glory showing his involvement on a personal level.
Writing the story without the divine interventions of the gods would not have been possible for Homer. They affected every aspect the poem. Yet, from the immortal perspective of the Greek god, the Trojan war and everything related to it, was only a passing adventure in the great expanse of time.