Iliad Questions and Answers
by Homer

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What is the relationship between gods and mortals in Homer's Iliad?

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Scott David eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The gods have a complicated but important role in The Iliad. On the one hand, they are far more powerful than human beings and are depicted as having the ability to shape and manipulate human outcomes. One need only read The Iliad's opening book to find Apollo punishing Agamemnon by inflicting a plague on the Greek army, an example that illustrates this grave disparity of power.

At the same time, however, the gods are also deeply human in terms of their personalities and foibles. They can even have children with human beings, and there are characters within The Iliad who have divine parentage. Most notable is Achilles, son of the sea nymph Thetis, but to give additional examples, you can point towards the Trojan hero, Aeneas, son of Aphrodite, or Helen, daughter of Zeus.

Furthermore, the gods are not impartial in this conflict among mortals, and they find themselves divided over which side they should support (a fact which causes no small tension among them). Various gods will intervene (or...

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tinandan | Student

The Iliad came out of a pagan warrior culture in which the gods were conceived of as very similar to mortals, only bigger and better.  They may have special powers and live in a different realm, but their behavior, emotions, loyalties, and so on are very similar to those of the people of the day.  That is why we often find the gods doing things that we would find objectionable, such as rape.  This is very different from the Judeo/Christian conception of God as holy, sinless and completely "other" than people.

The Iliad was written in an aristocratic culture.  There were kings (landowners/warlords), warriors, commoners, and slaves.  So, you find the gods behaving like a bunch of aristocrats relative to the mortals.  For example, they take people under their patronage, and then will protect and help that person and seek to harm his or her enemies.  You will even find a god becoming the patron of an entire city and fighting for it.  In return for their patronage, the gods expect respect, honor, and various gifts and sacrifices.

You also find the gods fighting among themselves (like petty kings), and also pouting and taking petty revenge, as when Apollo cursed Cassandra because she wouldn't sleep with him. 

The gods are very directly involved in the Trojan War in the Iliad.  You can find examples of them deflecting spear points and so on during battles.  However, because there are many gods and they are actually fighting against each other, the gods' involvement does not improve the lives of people as a whole but, if anything, contributes to the chaos, danger, and uncertainty of the world of the Iliad. 

In fact, you could argue that it's a major theme of the Iliad that the involvement of the gods and of fate tends to make people's lives tragic.