What Roles Did the Gods in The Iliad Play?

The gods in the Iliad, as in most Greek mythology, heavily influenced events as they unfolded.

While Zeus, the king of the gods, remained neutral, several lesser gods and goddesses chose sides, championing either Greek or Trojan causes.

The entire conflict, in fact, began because of an encounter between the gods. 

It Began With an Apple

The Iliad refers only briefly to the Judgement of Paris, implying that The Iliad audience was already intimately familiar with the story.

The story is a simple one. Zeus is holding a banquet to celebrate the wedding of Thetis, a nymph, and Peleus, a mortal warrior. The pair will go on to become the parents of Achilles.

Excluded from the celebration is Eris, the goddess of discord. Angered by the snub, Eris snatches a golden apple from the garden of the Hesperides. She marks the apple with an inscription “For the fairest” and tosses it into the party. 

Three goddesses claim the apple: Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite. The three demand that Zeus be the judge between them, but Zeus, who was no fool. He refuses to make a choice. Paris, a Trojan mortal, was picked as the judge between the three.

He had previously met the god Ares, who transformed himself into a bull to challenge Paris. Paris’ cattle were known as being of the highest quality.

When asked to judge between the god in disguise and his own cattle, Paris unhesitatingly gave Ares a prize, revealing his honesty and sense of justice. Since he had proven just in his judgement, Paris was chosen to pick between the goddesses. 

The three goddesses presented themselves to Paris, even stripping down to parade naked before him so that he would be able to judge them fairly.

Not willing to rely on their own attributes alone, each offered Paris a bribe to win his favor. Athena offered wisdom and skill in war. Hera offered him power and lands to make him the king over Europe and Asia. Aphrodite’s offer, however, was the successful bribe. She offered him the hand of the “most beautiful woman in the world” in marriage.

Aphrodite didn’t mention that the woman in question, Helen, was already married to the Spartan Menelaus. Undaunted, Paris claimed his prize and bore her away to Troy.

So What Role Do the Gods Have in The Iliad?

Once the war lines were drawn, the gods and goddesses lined up on either side of the fray to see it play out according to their whims and desires.

Although goddess Aphrodite arguably didn’t do Paris any real favors by offering him a married woman, she did take up the Trojan cause in the conflict, favoring Paris and even coming to his rescue during the battles. Joining her was her lover, Ares the god of war, and her half-brother Apollo

Apollo, the god of pestilence and plagues, takes Athena’s side early on. It is uncertain whether he took Athena’s side out of loyalty or provocation. His ire is roused by Agamemnon’s behavior toward the daughter of one of his own priests.

Agamemnon and Achilles have taken two women, Briseis and Chryseis, as war prizes from a city’s sacking. Crhyseis’ father, Chryseus, is a priest of Apollo. When his appeals to Agamemnon to ransom his daughter is refused, he turns to the god for assistance. Apollo obligingly turns a plague on the Greeks, killing their cattle and horses and then the men.

To stop the plague, Agamemnon is forced to give Chryseis up. In turn, he demands that Achilles give him Briseis, an action that angers Achilles and causes him to withdraw from the fighting, which in time incites further immortal interference.

Angered by Agamemnon’s disrespect of his position and honor, Achilles appeals to his own immortal mother, Thetis. She rises against the Greeks. She also carries some sway with Poseidon, who already has cause to hate the Trojan king as a sea-nymph.

Thetis goes to Zeus to plead the Greeks’ case on Achilles’ behalf, and Zeus, hearing her appeal, does help the Greeks for a time, costing Agamemnon important victories as he tries to fight without Achilles’ help.

Other Greek gods in The Iliad play a less active, minor, or shifting role, taking up one side or another for a shorter time or only one or two circumstances.

For example, Artemis is angered when the Greek leader Agamemnon takes a deer from her sacred hunting grounds. Agamemnon is forced to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease her before going on to battle against Troy. 

Which Gods Fought for Greece?

The role of the gods in The Iliad shifted and changed like sand in the wind in some cases. In others, some gods were the loyal champions of their chosen sides throughout the battle.

Fighting on behalf of the Greeks was Thetis, the mother of Achilles; Poseidon, the god of the sea; and Athena, the goddess of war, and Hera, scorned by Paris in the contest to decide whose beauty was the greatest. Each of the Greek gods and goddesses, like the Trojan gods, had their own agendas and reasons for their actions, however petty.

Athena and Hera’s reasons for supporting the cause of the Greeks were most obvious. The two goddesses were angry at having been scorned by Paris in the contest of beauty. Each felt that she should have been chosen over Aphrodite and sought their revenge.

Athena plays an active role, interfering and supporting directly in several instances. When Agamemnon takes Briseis from Achilles, she stops the hot-headed warrior from striking him down on the spot for the insult.

Later, she inspires Odysseus to rally the Greek troops. She seems to take a particular liking to Odysseus, assisting him several times throughout the poem.

Neutral Gods and Goddesses in The Iliad

Not all of the roles of god and goddess in the Iliad were quite so clear. Zeus himself refuses to openly take sides, only overseeing the battling so that the declarations of fate that have already been decided will come true.

Patroclus and Hector’s deaths are predetermined, and Zeus takes steps to ensure they come about, even allowing his mortal son, Sarpedon, to die to Patroclus to prevent him from being killed by anyone other than Hector. 

Zeus’ role is one of an overseer, a balance to keep the fates in line. He sees to it that the fated events occur so that the order of things can be maintained.

Zeus’ interventions favor first one side and then the other as he bows to the other gods’ will. His wife, Hera, has chosen one side, while his daughter Aphrodite has chosen the other.

Zeus can not be seen to favor any too strongly, and so his loyalty seems to shift constantly throughout the tale, truly favoring neither of the groups of mortal men but holding to the course laid out by fate.

How Did the Gods Affect the Outcome of the Trojan War?

Divine intervention in The Iliad undeniably changed the course of history, not only for the individuals involved in the war but for the outcome of the battle itself.

Not only did the gods start the war with their spat over a golden apple, but they also continue to interfere and meddle in human affairs throughout the epic. From the basic taking of sides to joining in the battling itself, the gods take an active role throughout most of the epic.

From the moment Agamemnon takes the sacred deer onward, the gods’ whims are intertwined with mortals’ affairs. Even when Zeus declares that they are all to leave the mortals to their own fates, they interfere at will and forbids further interference.

The gods and goddesses find more subtle ways to intervene and continue supporting their favorites, rather like fans at a sporting event if they could come onto the field in disguise and interfere with the gameplay at will.

From the time Athena stops Achilles from striking down the impertinent Agamemnon to Thetis appealing to Zeus on her son’s behalf, the gods and goddesses take part in nearly every major event of the war.

Athena takes perhaps the most active role, fitting for the goddess of war, but Apollo with his plague and Poseidon also join in the fray. Hermes is perhaps the most passive of the immortal participants, acting primarily as a courier for the other gods and an escort, leading Priam into the Greek camp to retrieve Hector’s body.

What Were the Greek Gods Like? 

The gods of The Iliad acted very much like the mortals they sought to control. They were often shallow, selfish, petty, and even silly in their behavior.

They certainly showed no compassion or care toward the mortals. Men and women alike were mere pawns in their hands, manipulated as part of a grander scheme to gain favor and power amongst themselves.

Once Aphrodite promises Paris that he will have Helen, allowing her to be taken back by Menelaus would constitute a failure on the goddess’ part to carry out her vow. Unwilling to lose face with the other gods and goddesses, Aphrodite does everything in her power to prevent Helen’s return to Sparta. She even goes so far as to rescue Paris from a duel with Menelaus, saving his life. 

Later, she once more joins in the battle, coming onto the battlefield itself. She tries to rescue her son Aeneus but is wounded by Diomedes, the Scourge of Troy.

Apollo intervenes and rescues her son. In book seven, Athena and Apollo decide to use single combat between two of the warriors.

They bring Hector and Ajax together for a battle. By Book 8, Zeus is fed up with the gods’ antics and summarily forbids them all from participating further in human affairs. He then retreats to Mt. Ida, where he weighs the two armies’ fates to determine the next battles’ outcome. The Greeks lose, and Zeus returns to Olympus

What Did the Gods Win and Lose in the Trojan War?

The war began over a contest, the woman whose “face launched a thousand ships” the fiercely disputed prize. As it unfolded, each god and goddess had something to gain and something to lose.

Zeus could no more take sides between the three warring goddesses, one being his wife, than he could have judged the contest. His gain in the epic was retaining his status-quo as ruler of the gods.

He suffered several losses, however, including his mortal son, Sarpedon. In book 17, he laments the fate of Hector as well, but the fates have decided, and even as a god, he is unable to go against Fate.

Thetis perhaps has the most to lose, of the gods and goddesses involved with the Trojan war. Her son, Achilles, has been prophesied to either live a long and uneventful life or gain great glory and die young in Troy’s war.

When Achilles was an infant, she dipped him in the River Styx to grant him immortality through his contact with the magic water. Her attempt provided him protection except for the heal she had held on to when dunking the infant. Despite her efforts, she does eventually lose her son to Fate. She first tries hiding him on the island to prevent him from taking part in the war.

When that is unsuccessful, she has Hephaistos make special armor with silver reinforcements at the heel to protect him. When Hector steals Achilles’ armor, she has a new set made for him. She does all she can to encourage her son to leave the battlefield, to no avail. Achilles has chosen his path, and Fate can not be denied. In war, even the gods and the goddesses don’t always win

The flow and ending of the tale were greatly influenced by the decisions and the roles played by the gods and goddesses in The Iliad. With every choice they made, they either won or lose something. 

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One Comment

  1. Thank you for this thorough explanation. As I read the Iliad, I couldn’t help but feel like the Gods were such meddling provocateurs, with so much power yet such little sense of responsibility.

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