Read an Excerpt FROM MANY GODS TO ONE Divine Action in Renaissance Epic
By TOBIAS GREGORY
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
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Chapter One The Polytheistic Model Homer and Virgil
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Olympian Community and Divine Counterbalance
In the third book of the Iliad Paris and Menelaus fight a duel designed to bring to an end the bitter nine years' standoff. The winner, it is agreed, will take possession of Helen and her accompanying treasure, and the Greeks will then depart in peace. Both armies agree to the terms, and the truce is solemnized with sacrifice. In the duel Menelaus clearly gets the better of Paris, but Aphrodite protects her favorite from harm, hiding the Trojan prince in a mist and spiriting him away to the safety of his bedchamber. Greeks and Trojans alike seek Paris on the battlefield, and when he is not to be found the Greeks claim victory and demand their prize. Here the book division falls, and in book 4 the scene shifts from the Troad to the halls of Olympus, where the gods sit assembled, drinking nectar from cups of gold and observing the action. Zeus speaks first. Wishing to provoke Hera, as the poet tells us, he points out that Aphrodite, Paris's partisan, has been down there in the thick of things protecting him, while Hera and Athena, who favor Menelaus, sit idly watching. What now? he asks. If all the gods will agree, here will be an end to the conflict: Menelaus will lead Helen home to Greece and Troy will remain intact. But the gods will not all agree, and Zeus knows it. Hera and Athena burn for Troy's destruction, and the former lashes out:
Majesty, son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken? How can you wish to make wasted and fruitless all this endeavor, the sweat that I have sweated in toil, and my horses worn out gathering my people, and bringing evil to Priam and his children. Do it then; but not all the rest of us gods will approve you. (Il 4.25-29)
Now it is Zeus who is displeased. Hera's hatred of the Trojans is disproportionate, he responds. Would she be satisfied if she could enter the city and eat Priam's children raw? But then, with remarkable ease, he gives in:
Do as you please then. Never let this quarrel hereafter be between you and me a bitterness for both of us. And put away in your thoughts this other thing that I tell you: whenever I in turn am eager to lay waste some city, as I please, one in which are dwelling men who are dear to you, you shall not stand in the way of my anger, but let me do it, since I was willing to grant you this with my heart unwilling. For of all the cities beneath the sun and the starry heaven dwelt in by men who live upon earth, there has never been one honoured nearer to my heart than sacred Ilion and Priam, and the people of Priam of the strong ash spear. Never yet has my altar gone without fair sacrifice, the libation and the savour, since this is our portion of honour. (Il 4.37-49)
Fine, Hera agrees; destroy any one of my favorite cities when it so pleases you. She admits that as the mightiest of the gods Zeus can do so anyway whether she protests or not, but goes on to claim that her efforts should not be allowed to go for naught: she is, after all, the eldest daughter of Kronos and enjoys additional authority as Zeus's spouse. Thus mixing flattery with assertion of her due privileges, Hera works around to proposing a compromise:
Come then, in this thing let us both give way to each other, I to you, you to me, and so the rest of the immortal The Polytheistic Model: Homer and Virgil 33 gods will follow. Now in speed give orders to Athene to visit horrible war again on Achaians and Trojans, and try to make it so that the Trojans are first offenders to do injury against the oaths to the far-famed Achaians. (Il 4.62-67)
Crafty councilors of state that they are, Hera and Athena have their plan of action ready in advance. As soon as the ruler of Olympus gives his consent, Athena fl ashes down to the battlefield where, disguised as a fellow-soldier, she convinces the Trojan Pandarus to let fly an arrow at the exposed Menelaus. Athena herself deflects the shot, Menelaus is conspicuously but not seriously wounded, and Greeks and Trojans plunge into renewed battle. Despite the eagerness of both war- weary armies to end the war by single combat, their attempt is foiled by the gods.
This scene shows us much about the workings of the Olympian community in Homeric epic. The Olympian gods form an extended family, linked by bonds of kinship and marriage. At the center of the family is Zeus, patriarch of Olympus, father or brother to each of the major gods. Zeus is not the creator of the universe, nor its first ruler. He came to power, so Hesiod tells us, by overthrowing his father Kronos, who in turn had dethroned his father Ouranos; rule of heaven and earth rests on the basis of force. Zeus commands not by metaphysical necessity but because he is strongest of the gods, and in the Iliad especially Zeus's physical supremacy is very much in view. Gods and mortals acknowledge it, and Zeus himself is wont to bring it up when angered, as in the famous passage in book 8 when Zeus reminds the assembled gods that were they to hang a golden cord from Olympus and put their combined weight behind it, they could not budge him,
Yet whenever I might strongly be minded to pull you, I could drag you up, earth and all and sea and all with you, then fetch the golden rope about the horn of Olympos and make it fast, so that all once more should dangle in mid air. So much stronger am I than the gods, and stronger than mortals. (Il 8.23-27)
But if Zeus rules by force, he is nevertheless often responsive to the wishes of his fellow Olympians. Zeus cannot be overpowered, but he can be convinced, supplicated, lobbied, and even tricked. Like the other gods, Zeus favors particular mortals for his own reasons; he is fond of the Trojans, as he says to Hera in Iliad 4, because they have never failed to honor his altar with sacrifice. But in the face of opposition by Hera and Athena, Zeus turns out to care less about preserving Troy than about preserving peace in heaven. It is not that Zeus is unable for all his strength to prevail against Hera's wiles, but rather that he does not find this mortal affair worth a lasting quarrel, "a bitterness for both of us."
Hera's first utterance in book 4 concludes with the threat of disharmony in heaven: "Do it then, but not all the rest of us gods shall approve you." The line is formulaic. It recurs at two other moments in the poem when Zeus's heart softens toward individual Trojans and he is tempted to intervene on their behalf. As Sarpedon and Patroclus are about to square off in book 16, Zeus considers saving Sarpedon, his own son, and Hera talks him out of it; as Achilles pursues Hector around Troy's wall in book 22, Zeus considers saving Hector, and Athena talks him out of it. In both passages the intervening goddess speaks the same three lines:
Do you wish to bring back a man who is mortal, one long since doomed by his destiny, from ill-sounding death and release him? Do it, then; but not all the rest of us gods shall approve you. (Il 16.441-43, 22.179-81)
This pattern of successful reproach indicates several things. It points first of all to Zeus's supreme power; evidently he may extend a man's destined portion of life if he chooses. Hera and Athena present such action as a drastic and unwelcome step, but they acknowledge that they cannot prevent him. That their threatened disapproval causes Zeus to stay his hand voluntarily, however, suggests that he too views interference with mortal destiny as a drastic step. It attests furthermore to the importance of pan- Olympian consensus in Zeus's decision making. We find various instances in Homeric epic where the Olympian community brings pressure to bear on individual gods; in Odyssey 1, for instance, Zeus allows that Odysseus must be permitted to return home despite Poseidon's opposition: "Poseidon shall put away / his anger; for all alone and against the will of the other / immortal gods united he can accomplish nothing" (Od 1.77-79).
The consensus of the Olympian community, however, is counterbalanced by individual gods' freedom of action. Though Zeus will intervene to restore order at points of crisis, he more often allows his fellow Olympians wide latitude to do as they see fit; they are, after all, neither his adversaries nor servants, but his family. In general the gods are loath to antagonize one another openly. Thus Athena excuses herself to Odysseus when he observes, reasonably enough, that having stood by him throughout the campaign at Troy she has been notably absent on his long and harrowing return:
... I never did have any doubt, but in my heart always knew how you would come home, having lost all of your companions. But, you see, I did not want to fight with my father's brother, Poseidon, who was holding a grudge against you in his heart, and because you blinded his dear son, hated you. (Od 13.339-43)
The freedom of action that the Olympians generally concede to each other includes, and often consists of, the right of reprisal against mortals. The gods take it ill that any mortal's slight against them should go unpunished, and frequently the necessity of reprisal is expressed as a matter of the god's own prestige. In Iliad 4 Hera protests to Zeus that she, eldest daughter of Kronos and queen of Olympus, should not suffer the indignity of having her labor go in vain. This labor, on her own description, is that of destruction: "gathering my people, and bringing evil to Priam and his children" (Il 4.28). It accords with her high position, Hera suggests, that she be able to ruin a city when she wants to, and although it appears that Zeus is less impressed by the strength of her argument than simply weary of quarrelling, he does not prevent her. The same state of affairs obtains in the Aeneid. When the Trojans at last succeed in landing in Latium, Virgil's Juno views their survival as an insult to her divinity: why should I, she says, "Jove's mighty consort" [magna Iovis coniunx] (7.308) see my purposes frustrated, when other gods lay waste to whom they please? (Aen 7.304-10). Significantly, Juno points out that Mars and Diana, against whom she measures herself in this instance, each took violent revenge upon mortals without just cause: "quod scelus aut Lapithis tantum aut Calydone merente?" (7.307) [for what heinous sin did the Lapiths or Calydon merit such penalty?]. Juno makes no pretense here to act as an executor of divine justice; indeed, it is precisely the power to set justice aside and inflict undeserved suffering on mortals that Juno claims as her privilege. The queen of Olympus, whether in Greek or Latin guise, may be an especially vindictive goddess, but she is not the only Olympian who asserts the right to destroy as a matter of maintaining prestige. In Odyssey 13, when the Phaeacian oarsmen have delivered Odysseus in safety to Ithaca, Poseidon appeals to Zeus: these seafarers have flouted my wishes, and will the gods respect me if mortals do not? And Zeus tells him to go ahead and take revenge: "Do as you will and as it pleases you" (Od 13.145). When Poseidon proposes to heave a range of mountains around the Phaeacian port, sure ruin for a seafaring people, Zeus suggests an alternative, less drastic reprisal:
"Good brother, here is the way it seems to my mind best to do. When all the people are watching [the Phaeacian vessel] from the city as she comes in, then turn her into a rock that looks like a fast ship, close off shore, so that all the people may wonder at her. But do not hide their city under a mountain." (Od 13.154-58)
Poseidon, like Hera in the Iliad and Juno in the Aeneid, sees his prestige at stake in the power to take revenge, and Zeus, here very much the level-headed older brother, reassures him that he stands to lose no respect among the gods and steers him toward a more moderate display of vengeance. In no way, however, does Zeus seek to impede him. When Zeus intervenes, he is most often inclined to mediate in this manner, gently cajoling the offended deity and offering or accepting compromises. In Iliad 4, we have seen, Zeus and Hera reach an agreement. He will allow her and Athena to break the truce between the two armies (which action, it is clear to all the gods involved, will tend toward the eventual destruction of Troy), and she in turn will not complain when Zeus chooses to lay waste to a city dear to her as Troy is to him. The quid pro quo consists of exchanged rights to destruction. It appears that Hera gets the better of this negotiation, since Zeus has shown no inclination to destroy any of the cities she names as dearest to her (Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae); furthermore, Zeus is in no way compelled to bargain in the first place, as she admits. That Zeus is willing to concede Troy so casually indicates just how little his mortal attachments concern him relative to concerns in heaven.
The essential distance between divine and mortal is an underlying fact of the epic universe, and in scenes such as these we can feel the vast disjunction between Zeus's calm, conciliatory manner with his fellow Olympians and the ensuing deadly consequences for mortals. Zeus's weary concession to Hera-"do as you please, then"-conveys the sense that events on earth are simply not worth quarrelling over. Although Olympian emotions can run high on account of mortal affairs, the stakes are infinitely lower for the gods; they watch while mortals fight for their lives, and their friendly accords have devastating effects on earth. In Iliad 4 the agreement between Zeus and Hera dooms the agreement between Greeks and Trojans to failure. Were it not for Athena's intervention, the war might have ended with the single combat. In book 3 it is abundantly clear how eager both sides are to put an end to the "sorrow of warfare" (3.112), how willing to swear to the terms of the peace accord. But the will of heaven is otherwise, as the poet foreshadows in a chilling single line: "They spoke, but none of this would the son of Kronos accomplish" (Il 3.302). The gods prolong the war, and in doing so prolong the narrative; here, as often elsewhere, they play a crucial role in extending the epic plot.
In this instance, Athena's intervention moves the plot in the direction it will eventually go: toward Greek victory and Troy's destruction. But divine intervention pulls both ways. It can propel the epic action toward its eventual close, or it can dilate the action by delaying the course of destiny. Though all readers (and, originally, hearers) of Homer's poem know how the Trojan War will eventually conclude, the renewed fighting in Iliad 4 by no means marks the beginning of the end of the war, nor even of the segment thereof narrated in the Iliad. The action to come will feature a long spell of inconclusive battle in which the Trojans more than once have the upper hand, in accordance with the promise Zeus has made to Thetis in book 1. It is not simply that the gods are at loggerheads and that it will take a while for one faction to win out. Thetis has not sought final defeat for the Greeks but temporary losses during Achilles' absence from combat, so that the entire army may see what harm Agamemnon has done in dishonoring the best of the Achaeans, the one warrior essential to their cause. This Zeus brings to pass, though he recognizes even before he grants her suit that it will make for trouble on Olympus. In the subsequent course of the poem Zeus balances his promise to Thetis against the lobbying of the anti-Trojan gods, and while this balance is maintained the action of the Iliad takes place.
Excerpted from FROM MANY GODS TO ONE by TOBIAS GREGORY Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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