Immortality and its Discontents

“But the other gods who live for ever went off to Olympus, some of them angry, and some mightily triumphant, and sat down beside the father, god of the dark cloud, while Achilles continued to slaughter the Trojans and their single-hoofed horses” (Iliad 21.518-521, trans. Anthony Verity).

One of the most captivating aspects of the Iliad is the poet’s depiction of the gods and goddesses. In some ways, the poet’s characterization of them runs parallel to human characterization. Like humans, gods and goddesses love, argue, feast, marry, and come to blows. They jockey for social position within their large, dysfunctional family, sometimes showing respect, other times resentment. They can be competitive with each other, or supportive.

The one glaring difference is that the gods are eternal. Since they have nothing to lose, they also have nothing to gain. So they can hurl insults and boulders at each other, as Ares and Athena do in book 21, and then retire peaceably, if grumpily, to dinner with father Zeus.

The immortals represent various aspects of the two most powerful forces in the universe: creation and destruction. Yet they experience none of the consequences of these forces, all of which fall on the mortals. While the gods and goddesses rest and feast after their play at being human, Achilles wreaks permanent destruction on the battlefield.

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