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Discuss causation in the Iliad. Are events caused by gods, by humans, by fate, or what?
The nature of causation in the Iliad is paradoxical: there are many instances where human behaviours are caused by the divine intervention, and indeed many of the main actions of the epic seem to be caused by gods, but at the same time it is possible to give an account of the plot of the poem without reference to the deities. There is also the question of fate, and whether this is identifiable with either Zeus himself, or the gods collectively; or whether it is a higher level of causation entirely that is more powerful and pervasive than the influence of the gods. All these issues together inevitably also cause debates over the moral responsibility of humans, and whether they can at all be held to blame for what they do and how they act. Almost all of the events of the Iliad would be comprehensible on a purely human level. On the broadest plane, the pretext of the whole war can be understood as Agamemnon leading an expedition against Troy to recover the wife of his brother Menelaus: there is no compulsion, for example, to see the entire war as either the plan of Zeus, or the fulfilment of fate. There are sufficient motives for it beginning simply from human disagreements; the same holds true for individual actions in the poem. To start with, many decisions are made and actions taken, which do not mention the gods' involvement. However there are just as many instances where the intervention of a god is described, but even in these cases it is possible to read a human causation of the event. For example in book 4, Pandarus shoots an arrow at Menelaus, thereby breaking the truce between the Greek and the Trojans which was elaborately described in book 3. Although a lengthy debate among the gods leads up to this moment, where Zeus agrees that the truce should be broken and sends Athena down to enable this to happen, it is Pandarus that both makes the decision to shoot the arrow, and completes this action. Whether or not a goddess said the following to him beforehand is in some ways irrelevant: Will you now listen to me, battle-minded son of Lycaon? Then you would dare let fly a swift arrow at Menelaus, and would win favour and renown in the eyes of all the Trojans, and of king Alexander most of all. From him you would surely before all others carry off glorious gifts, if he should see Menelaus, the warlike son of Atreus, laid low by your arrow, and set on the grievous pyre. 1 1 4.93-99: 'e Ra nu moi ti pithoio Lukaonos uie daiphron.
tlaiis ken Menelao epiproemen taxun ion,
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This is because it is entirely possible that he was thinking these things himself - he himself has this motive to shoot the arrow; there is no need for Athena to come down and remind him of his motivations to get the arrow shot. In this way, although divine influence is described, it can be argued that this is merely a literary device to externalise why a character behaves or feels in the way they do. An example of where the intervention of a god could be described as the externalisation of a feeling would be when Aphrodite coerces Helen into going to bed with Paris in book 3. If Aphrodite can be understood as the personification of sexual love, then it is simply externalising a very understandable conflict in Helen's mind: she may be enraged with Paris, while simultaneously still find him attractive. This interpretation of events excludes the concept of divine causation, leaving humans alone to be the factors that propel the events of the narrative. The reason why it is possible to understand the human causation of events in the Iliad despite the presence of divinities is that the gods operate in a way that enables this - they normally intervene in a very human manner. The gods of the Iliad differ from the heroes in just two main ways: firstly, they are not limited by age or death, and secondly, they are stronger and more intelligent.2 The poem suppresses the supernatural side to the divine: most other myths from other cultures at the time involved stories with unbelievable feats, which could not be explained in human terms, for example, humans turning into animals. There is even evidence in other early Greek epic poetry that the myths used by the poet of the Iliad were originally much more miraculous. For example, Achilles' armour was in other accounts magical and impenetrable, and Achilles himself was later raised from the dead by his mother. This would be inconceivable in the Iliad as it is fundamental that actions can be understood as being caused by humans, and the laws of humanity as we know them today (for example that all men die at some point) must hold true to the narrative of the poem. This explains why it is possible to interpret all the events as being caused by men. On the other hand, just as it is possible to read the Iliad and understand the events and actions of characters as being caused by
pasi de ke Troessi xarin kai kudos aroio,
ek panton de malista Aleksandro basilei.
tou ken de pamprota par' aglaa dora pheroio,
ai ken ide Menelaon ariion Atreos uion
so belei dmithenta pures epibant' alegeines. 2 It is also true that they can take on the form of other humans, but compared with most other mythological traditions this is not exceedingly supernatural.
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