Authority and Epic

“Shaker of the earth, you would have me be as one without prudence
if I am to fight even you for the sake of insignificant
mortals, who are as leaves are, and now flourish and grow warm
with life, and feed on what the ground gives, but then again
fade away and are dead. Therefore let us with all speed
give up this quarrel and let the mortals fight their own battles.”
Iliad 21.462-467

We tend to ascribe human motives and emotions to the gods in the Homeric poems, looking at mythological figures as if they are mirrors of our selves & experiences. It’s understandable, since the gods behave so very like humans. If I were to analyze Apollo’s words to Poseidon above in that way, I’d think about how supportive Apollo has been of the Trojans and wonder if he’s motivated by a desire to draw Poseidon away from the fighting.

That might be part of it. But while Apollo does seem to admire Hector and provides him support, his loyalty to the fulfillment of prophecy supersedes his affection for Hector, and mortals more generally, however genuine it may be. When it is time for Hector to die, Apollo quietly vanishes, leaving the Trojan he loves to his fate.

One way that the gods do seem very human-like is in their preoccupation with honor and maintaining their own power. In her introductory notes to Anthony Verity’s Iliad translation, Barbara Graziosi writes that “the Iliad is deeply concerned with leaders and their people.” This is so on every level, from the natural to the mortal to the divine worlds. And the gods in the Iliad are, as Apollo demonstrates here, aware that fighting over mortals is as pointless as mortals fighting over prizes…here today, gone tomorrow. And yet, they do it, repeatedly (gods and mortals).

But mortals do have a trick up their metaphorical sleeves, and it’s called epic poetry, that lays bare not only their failings but also the gods’ pettiness. We’re pretty clever, us mortals, always finding a way to foil the best laid plans of gods, which is to say authority figures.

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