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  • Cited by 10
  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: May 2006

5 - The Gods in the Homeric epics

from Part 2 - The characters


A popular, somewhat pretentious, party game in certain circles not so long ago was to summarise a famous work of literature as briefly as possible: give the plot of Proust in one sentence, and so on. If we were thus to reduce the storylines of the Iliad and the Odyssey to the bare essentials, the Gods would not have to feature at all. Zeus’s co-operation is not necessary, given the hero’s larger-than-life status, to explain the disastrous effects of Achilles' withdrawal from battle, and neither do Poseidon or the Sun need to be invoked to account for misadventures at sea and the effect of twenty years' absence on a man’s home. The party game was of course intended to provoke amusement by making the summary factually accurate but also entirely incongruous with the spirit of the original. Similarly, without the Gods the epics would be quite different from the Iliad and the Odyssey that we have, and surely also from the tradition that produced the poems. The (slightly longer) summaries given by the poems themselves, after all, give divine action a certain prominence: 'the plan of Zeus was accomplished', 'he took away from them the day of their return'; and the action of the Iliad begins with the question 'Which God caused them to quarrel?' The words of the characters reflect a pervasive view that significant ideas, emotions and events are in some way caused by the intervention of a God. Insofar as some concept of cause and effect is inherent in narrative, then, the divine must make its appearance; arguably it is not until Thucydides that the idea of a sustained narrative without the divine is born.

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