The gods appear to have a large role to play within Homeric epics and that also of Virgil; the theological approach of other characters seems to increase the gods’ significance as does their ability to have such an astounding impact on mortal affairs. Nevertheless despite their apparent divine effect on mere mortals, within the Iliad they are viewed as erratically changing between both god-like and human-like states, the main hindrance of their consistency being their location. However their relevance may be questioned as some argue that when regarding the basic essentials of the Iliad and the Odyssey for example, it is not imperative that they feature. Moreover the prevalent view is that the most significant ideas, emotions and events are caused by the intervention of the gods thus providing a more causal function to their involvement in epic poems. Within their place in the epic plot as a physical being, there are also scenarios whereby they are described as ‘daimons’ with the connection to the concept of possession which I will go into more detail with later on. One way in which the gods and fate help the development of the epic plot is through their strong impact on the events of mortals.
Examples include when Odysseus blinded Poseidon’s son Polyphemus, Poseidon evoked a terrible storm which led them to the floating land of Aeolus before the misfortune which led them to the land of the Laestrygonians; also earlier on in the Odyssey Poseidon shipwrecks Odysseus’ ship leaving him on the land of the Phaeacians where he is found naked and wounded by Princess Naussica. An example in Latin literature comes from the Aeneid and the wrath of Juno: a prophecy claims that the race descended from the Trojans will someday destroy Carthage, her favourite city, thus showing the origin of her resentment of Aeneas. The notion of fate also intertwines with Juno’s wrath as it arises from the prophecy, furthermore showing the significance of fate if it even influences the actions of the mighty gods. Juno additionally holds a persistent grudge against Troy after the incident with the ‘Golden Apple’ whereby the Trojan prince, Paris, selected Venus as most beautiful of the divine. From this, Juno’s rage drives her to call upon Aeolus to unleash a formidable storm upon Aeneas and his men. Furthermore these examples are to support my point that the gods’ physical impact on mortals and their activity holds a massive significance on how the plot can develop and cause more misfortunes. A prominent issue with this seems to be the concept of vengeance of the gods on mortal men: Poseidon punished Odysseus for blinding his son; Juno punished the Trojans as a Trojan prince selected Venus over herself as fairest. By acting on these vengeances, epic poets reveal the divine sovereignty of the gods and their capabilities to influence the mortal plain, and more exclusively their desire to.
Another trademark of the gods within the epic plot is the use of epithets to describe their characteristics and qualities. For example Hermes, herald of the gods, had the epithets, ‘???????????’ (of the golden wand) and ‘???????????’ (slayer of Argus). The purpose of these epithets was to remind the listeners of their individual qualities which made them identifiable. In these examples, the first epithet, ‘of the golden wand’, refers to the caduceus which Hermes was often seen holding and the latter is in relation as to how Hermes slew the giant, Argus, by lulling him to sleep before he murdered him with his sword. The use of these references is formulaic and their existence can be confirmed by the various sites from the Bronze Age in Crete and on the Greek mainland written on tables. Walter Otto was a German classical philologist known particularly for his study of the legacy of Greek religion and mythology; his opinion of how Homer briefly describes the gods and their relationships with mortals is that “each of them possessed clearly defined lineaments, which were well known to all hearers… the poet can assume that every listener has a vivid idea of the being and essence of every god”. The Olympian gods hold major centrality within Homer’s epic poems and in these poems they are used to clearly show the status of mere mortals in contrast as to how Homer exploits the traditional religion within poems in order to correspond with the genre he has in mind and the distinguishable themes he stumbles upon throughout his stories. Furthermore the use of epithets in order to differentiate between the gods and their roles helps the development of the epic plot in that it aids the bard and the reader to understand the story and where the gods stand in regards to relationships with both gods and mortals, and the war at hand especially in Homeric literature.
The Olympian Gods are not the only ones involved in the epic plot however they hold the most prominent reputation. The Chthonic divinities were mainly known by groups of primeval goddesses which include the Death Spirits (Keres), the Fates (Moirai) and the Furies (Erinyes). These goddesses’ responsibility was to administer sacred rules which were formed in order to regulate society and the cosmos; anyone who disobeyed them would be punished with vengeance via magic. Hesiod mentions this in the Theogony as he refers to the Moirai (218-222), “(These goddesses) grant / to mortals at their birth both good and evil, / and they follow up the transgressions of both men and gods; / nor do the goddesses ever leave off from their terrible anger / until they pay back an evil vengeance to whoever transgresses.” The Erinyes were renown for punishments which were drastic and bloody in order to offer the criminal as a sacrificial victim in payment for the crime he made. These divinities are rarely mentioned in the Iliad as the Olympian gods take prime characterisation.
Within Phoinix’s speech to Achilles in Book IX of the Iliad he is said to have “called on the hateful Furies” who “accomplished his curses” when they made him sterile. The Furies are also mentioned as the culprits who silence Achilles’ horse, Xanthos, as he attempts to warn him of his impending death. However their involvement is so scarce that it may be argued that they are not relevant to the plot of the epic poem in Homeric literature in comparison to Hesiod’s Theogony. The only notable remnants of the Chthonic divinities within the Iliad is through the personification of the Moirai as they are described as “powerful” and as the subject of many active verbs showing its control. Although even then there is an issue with their involvement as Hesiod stated that they grant both good and evil to mortals at their birth whereas within the Iliad they are never responsible for positive gifts; these blessings are only ever granted by the Olympian Gods. My argument is that the Chthonic divinities being ignored in this way and replaced by the quarrelsome Olympian gods means that one could argue that the relevance of the gods is not as important as we may think. The omission of these goddesses as a major role, especially within Homeric literature, alongside the concomitant significance of Olympian power are crucial in Homer’s inferiority of the female chthonic divinities in comparison to the patriarchal Olympian religion.
Henceforth this oversight could represent the absence of order and laws in society within Homeric epic poems as the Olympian gods strip mortals of their humanity and control their brutal war. Therefore this shows how the plot developed and twisted out of control due to the exclusion of the Chthonic divinities and their order. One of the most iconic scenes in the Iliad is the death of Patroclus; it is the most renown time that a god has directly intervened with the death of a mortal in war. Apollo stuns Patroklos so that Euphorbus and then later Hektor can hit him with the fatal blows that take his life.
Some claim that there is an alternative, more religious notion to Patroclus’ death because of the subtle reference of ritual-like components. Patroklos does not mentally seem to be himself at this stage and so he equates to a ‘daimon’ equal to Ares. This impersonal divine force which arises within Patroklos is sometimes associated with ‘Fate’. It is in this scenario that the concept suggests a ritual identification of a hero and god.
This is because Patroklos is at the peak of his aristeia as Hector kills him aided by Apollo. It seems that he is under the ritual identification at the hands of one god before his inevitable death at the hands of another. Despite being confronted on this matter that failure has already been determined for him, Patroclus still perseveres which shouldn’t suggest recklessness but passion within the mania of war.
The concept of war mania is then further strengthened by the fact that Patroclus is wearing Achilles’ armour forged by Hephaestus which provides him with powerful military and religious qualities. Possession is the notion of divinity or a divine power which temporarily invades within a person, it is well-documented in Ancient Greece in literature. The understanding of ‘possession’ is that once someone has been invaded by a divinity, consciousness is lost and the divinity is said to act through the body they are in.