Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Homer's gods and justice

The opening lines of this post are enough to pique the interest of any Iliad-lover. One of the most interesting things about reading the Iliad is trying to understand the conception of the gods and fate put forth. There are reams of books and articles on the subject. One of the best and most accessible is E.R. Dodds' The Greeks and the Irrational, which my Greek teacher gave us the first few chapters of to introduce us to the issue of the brutal gods in the epic. Here is a passage from page 29 of the UC Press 2004 edition:
"In Iliad 24 Achilles, moved at last by the spectacle of his broken enemy Priam, pronounces the tragic moral of the whole poem: 'For so the gods have spun the thread for pitiful humanity, that the life of man should be sorrow, while themselves are exempt from care.' And he goes on to the famous image of the two jars from which Zeus draws forth his good and evil gifts. To some men he gives a mixed assortment, to others, unmixed evil, so that they wander tormented over the face of the earth 'unregarded by gods or men.' As for the unmixed good, that, we are to assume, is a portion reserved for the gods. The gods have nothing to do with justice: else the moral would be false. For in the Iliad heroism does not bring happiness; its sole, and sufficient, reward is fame. Yet for all that, Homer's princes bestride their world boldly; they fear the gods only as they fear their human overlords, nor are they oppressed by the future even when, like Achilles, they know that it holds an approaching doom."

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