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The Gods

Greek Epic

Do you not see how my son sneezed for everything I have spoken?
(Odyssey 17.544-5)

In the Ancient Greek world, gods are potentially everywhere. They are many, they are influential, and they can mingle with mortals at any time, day (Athene and Telemachos, Odyssey 1) or night (Athene and Nausikaä, Odyssey 6). Each god takes on their own characteristics, partly based on their own area of responsibility, like Athene and cunning or Poseidon and the sea (Od.5), and partly based on their relationships with fellow gods and the mortals. So then, they are characterised and take on forms similar to men: they are anthropomorphic. Similarly they can disguise themselves in mortal form, as either a stranger or friend. The gods can help or hinder mortals, perhaps because of particular feelings towards them – they can take sides, and so often determine the outcome of events, or even the events themselves. Zeus oversees all, though is often only involved when compelled or asked. He is a sky god initially (his name means ‘Light of Day’, like Latin dies and Sanskrit dyaus), and so can control storms, thunder, and bolts of lightning, hence his epithet ‘Cloud-gatherer’ (Od.1.63). He is also ruler and fatherfigure to the gods (the true father to many of them): ‘Father Zeus’ (Od. 12.371), compare Latin Jiu-(p)-piter. In The Iliad, a poem of war and mortality, Zeus oversees, though does not entirely control, men’s fates, when and how they die. A man’s ‘fate’ is in Greek µ ο ι ρ α or α ’ι σ α , his ‘portion’, his ‘allotted time alive’. For Homer, how a man dies is more flexible than when a man dies (a little contrary to our interpretation of the word ‘fate’). And when a man dies, his soul is taken by Hermes to the divine Underworld, a place for the dead ruled by yet another god, Hades. Gods often seem to explain certain natural phenomena, like weather (Zeus), and earthquakes (Poseidon) – some would argue that this is the true origin of the gods and their various roles, long before elaborate mythologies. However, the difference between a chance happening being ascribed to a god and an actual declaration and belief that a god intervened is illusory in Homeric narrative. There are many examples of divine intervention in Homer, but consider for example Od.9.142. Finally, the supernatural meets men through signs and omens. For the Greeks this often took place through observing the flights of birds:

sometimes they just appear conveniently for a prophet or seer to see them, and sometimes Homer actually says that they were sent as a sign (e.g. eagles fighting, Od.2.146ff). There are other ways (what we might today call ‘superstition’): sneezing for example was a sure sign of the gods’ agreement, that something just said should truly come about (Od.17.544). These signs/omens/portents are important features of the narrative, usually reaffirming what we want to happen anyway, and giving us, the audience, a sense of the dramatic irony.

Sample Questions
Essay Questions
‘The gods are an essential part of the Odyssey.’ How far do you agree with this view? In your answer you should consider what the characters and actions of the immortals contribute to the Odyssey. (1) ‘There is no real difference between the characters of the mortals and the immortals of the Odyssey.’ To what extent do you agree? (2) To what extent is divine intervention important in the Odyssey? Does this divine intervention lower our opinion of Odysseus? (3) How important are omens and signs in The Odyssey? (4)

Context Questions
5.117-147. How do Calypso’s words here reflect the largely separate worlds of immortals and mortals? (1) 6.11-40. Is this passage a good reflection of the extent to which the gods influence the relationship of Nausikaä and Odysseus? (2)