How ethical are the gods in the Iliad?
Written by: Wildchild
Ethics and morality are synonymous terms, both meaning customs in their original languages, Greek and Latin respectively. However, the Greek term “ethics” also implies
character as opposed to its Latin counterpart referring to social customs. Ethike is descended from ethikos which, in turn from ethos which means character or nature. Ethos is the fundamental and distinctive characteristic of a group within its social context or period of time, typically expressed in its attitudes, habits or beliefs. Thus the ethical nature of the gods can be explored in two ways, from an Ancient Greek perspective, and from a modern perspective.
However, this exploration from two perspectives violates the term ethical as it should be “a universal system of moral principles and values “ applicable through actions perpetrated by humans. However, absolute standards are unobtainable and conditional upon the society and time in which they are conceived. Another definition suggests that to be ethical is “to conform to accepted standards consistent with the agreed principles of correct moral conduct”. Conversely, until Aristotle, there were no “agreed principles for moral conduct” thus the term ethical cannot be used within the context of Homers society. We can, however examine the role the gods have to play in the Iliad and examine the relationship between the immortal and mortal to ascertain an “ethical” framework of the poem.
Where does our ethical view come from? If it is within us, as part of our “soul” our precondition of being human then it should be universal regardless of the elapsing centuries and societies, especially if a belief in an ultimate creator is entertained. Indeed, if we believe that this creator is eternal and that he/she bestows our souls, then the idea of eternal souls immediately becomes more viable as they are made of the essence of this creator. By soul I mean the spiritual awareness, the essence of an individual. Indeed the idea of karma-a Sanskrit term meaning action in terms of cause and effect has consequences for the idea of an eternal soul as it has to live with the consequences forever. This in turn creates responsibility upon the individual in the form of freewill. This metaphysical principle is essential to the idea of ethics as we are presented with the awareness of alternatives thus, choice. The gods in the Iliad, however, are not concerned with, or upholders of spiritual matters.
The Ancient Greeks were polytheistic in their beliefs, limited in the power they could grant to their gods - we see Greek mythology and the attributes of the gods and goddesses being based purely upon experience - war, love, and elements such as fire, water and earth. The struggles faced by the ancient Greeks are reflected in the creation of the polytheistic community of Mount Olympus - an acceptance of the greater forces of nature. The Gods in the Iliad assume anthromorphic as opposed to spiritual personas. These are exemplified by the patriarchal organisation of the divine family and the frequent use of patronymics, for example “Athene, daughter of Zeus”. This patriarchal ordering of Gods is based upon the Homeric society in which children were known as “daughter/son of…” This adoption of Homeric standards suggests the gods being created by the society merely to be an allegory of humanity. This would then be consistent with the idea that the gods are logical metaphors for human failure and indeed, successes.
The patriarchal society again would support this view with each god or goddess having specific roles attributed to him/her. However, despite the gods often being instigators of events; for example the Trojan war - Aphrodite appears to cause it, but ultimately the war is caused by Paris who steals Helen by abusing Menelaos’ hospitality thus provoking Menelaos to call upon the suitors of Helen to rescue her. In this case, the gods are being manipulated by
Homer to emphasize the consequences of the lack of human morality. However we see the gods as being amoral as they are easily manipulated by the promise of material gifts in sacrifice and libation, unconcerned about the fate of most mortals bar a select few such as Sarpedon, trivialising matters such as war by indulging in a futile “battle of the gods” when the defining feature of a god is immortality: “You will never kill me, I am not a creature of fate” ( book22 pg351) as opposed to knowledge and power which, although useful, are not an obligatory attribute - we see Zeus being deceived in book 14 line153. They also engage in deception, adultery, theft, rape, the production of evils for humans and are enslaved to their desires: “the murderous work of manslaughtering Ares”
The significant feature of the gods amorality is, however, their total disregard for the consequences of their actions: Hera says to Hephaestos “it is not right to mistreat an immortal like this for the sake of mortal men” (book 21 pg 344) and their selfish love/lust. Love should underlie ethical principles - agape should be the basis on which to build a society as opposed to the fulfilment of selfish desire. Summum bonum, or highest good is the most primary concept of ethical morality. This good can only be bestowed by a being greater than us in all senses of the word, for example, the Christian God of today, developed by the Romans and Thomas Aquinas. This god has evolved from the polytheistic Homeric society, already moving towards a monotheistic society with the hierarchical constitution of the gods. This change originated in the 5th century BC when Plato proposed a system of deities that had similarities to gods of the Homeric ages, but loved, were generous, and were controlled by their minds as opposed to their desires. Platonic deities gave moral and ethical principles by their standards. Ancient Society ultimately rejected the Homeric gods in favour of the Platonic gods as these offered hope and the belief in agape - unconditional love. The belief is a reluctance to accept responsibility for actions and consequences thus deities are created for security. However, it is easier to believe in your created product if it encompasses all the qualities that you ultimately desire.
There is a persuasive argument detailing the gods as being purely a psychological invention, further upheld in the Iliad by the constant intervention by the gods of placing ideas and feeling into peoples minds - for example; “Athene, glorious daughter of Zeus, ranged through the Achaean army and spurred them on”. Paris is referred to as the “godlike Alexandros”- showing the true character of the gods-concerned only with appearances and superficiality. The gods are associated with “godlike Achilles” frequently when he is in his prime and upholding the ethical principle of justice through his abstention from war, but when fighting “inhumanely”, the gods are no longer associated with him as they reassume their anthromorphic status. This closeness to humans is intricately shown through sharing the same emotions. Personification also shows the use of gods as symbols for human emotions - “attended by Confusion the ruthless in battle” (book 5 pg 82). This suggests that gods cannot have the word ethical associated with them, as they are a product of mortal’s instability in explaining greater forces.
The mortals in the Iliad are fighting for principle of justice spawned through love, which should be a fundamental ethic but cannot be in the Iliad, as it is selfish love/lust that propels the characters into fighting. Paris “won” Helen through a competition set by three goddesses and stole her from Menelaos. Zeus is supposedly the protector of supplicants - the “upholder of justice” and invoked as protector of Oaths. There is no indication of the benevolent Zeus in the poem - he shows no interest in the supplicants, indeed we see Lycaon killed. We see Zeus himself inciting the breaking of a solemn oath in book 3. The upholders of justice in the poem are mortals such as Achilles. We see this role serving no purpose as “And yet I tell you death and strong fate are there for me also: there will be a dawn, or an evening or a noonday when some man will take my life too”. (book 21 pg338) Fate and death are the only certainty for mortals in The Iliad. Their fortune depends upon moira, which is assigned independently of moral considerations. Humans believe that gods punish wickedness and reward righteousness. Hence appears the irony where men are pious and gods indifferent.
Homer uses the gods for thematic as opposed to religious purposes within the poem. The gods are used for dramatic purposes to invoke and enhance images of terror and grandeur, for example, in Achilles aristeria, to be guardians of fate “ I am afraid that he may reach beyond his fate and storm the wall”(pg 323). He uses gods to show the places of people, and how they should remain true to their character - their souls as opposed to try to become something else; for example Aphrodite is shown in the context of war where she is wounded because of her lack of experience. The gods universalise the action of the poem. It is interesting to note that Homer associates the gods with comedy i. e. “Hephaeistos bustling around on his thin legs” in order to emphasise human misfortune by contrast, but seems also to suggest his lack of belief in his literary creations.
By the ethical standards proposed in the modern day society (Hume and Schopenhaeur believe that it is a fundamental mistake to conceive ethics and morality as forms of law) through human rights groups and even, idealistically, human nature, the treatment of mortals by the immortal gods and goddesses in the Iliad is unethical and wrong despite the “helping” of Achilles by Athene or Hector by Apollo. The gods are perpetrators in the waging of war against their male/female counterpart deities - their mortal counterparts merely fighting for them by proxy. The behaviour of the gods cannot be condoned as ethical even in context of the Homeric ages - their behaviour is depicted by Homer as amoral and uncaring. Plato developed religion in the true sense of the word, as a consequence of behaviour not in accordance with the human soul. As mentioned, the gods do not perform a perfunctory role of “gods” with religious hindsight. However, religion is “morality touched by emotion” (Matthew Arnold) and with no standards set for behaviour by the immortal beings the characters within the Iliad, mortal or immortal cannot be expected to indulge in ethical behaviour.
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