First of all I want to mention a very important similarity that both, the Homer and the Sophocles’ gods, share. The gods that we read about are all mighty gods; whose will dictates mortal’s fate. There is nothing they can’t do or someone they can’t touch.
Homer’s gods are all powerful too, but they act in a different way towards mortals. Several times in the Iliad and the Odyssey we find examples of the physical relationship that mortals had with their gods. Greek’s rituals of death show us how important physical relations were to them, they needed to feel the physical presence of someone to believe and accept something. One clear example of this is when the Greeks and the Trojans fought over Patroklos’ body. Iris told Achilles: “they are destroying each other […] fighting over the fallen body. Your shame, if the body goes from here with defilement upon it.”
Homer portrayed gods that came down to the earth to help and guide their heroes. We see this in several occasions: when Achilles was angry and he was deciding whether he should kill or not Agamemnon, Athene “descended from the sky”, and said “I had come down to stay your anger – but will you obey me? from the sky the goddess Hera sent me”. Athene promised him that if he held his sword back then he’d be compensated. Something similar happened with Telemachus when he was inspired by Athena (“and down she swept from Olympus’ craggy peaks and lit on Ithaca”). The gods also visited Odysseus and Paris, among some others, but they all needed to be obedient and do favors to the gods so that they could have their help. The gods often interceded for their heroes; their fate could change in a blink of an eye.
On the other hand, in the writings of Sophocles, the gods played an abstract role. Oedipus Rex is all about fate, but it is also an affirmation of the gods’ powers. We can see how Apollo’s will is the one thing that controls their lives. Apollo has an unlimited control over Oedipus and his family fate. Through the story of Laius we can conclude that gods’ wills were not changeable or challengeable. He gave away his son in order to avoid the god’s will, and even so the prophecies about his life and his son came all true. From this we can see that the mechanics was simple, you needed to obey gods’ will without hesitation because no matter how hard you tried to avoid it, your fate was already written.
However, the conception that mortals have of their gods is very abstract. They never get to see Apollo or any other god, all they had was the Delphic Oracle of Apollo, which was the shrine were mortals went to consult the priest and priestess to receive advice and/or messages from the gods. What they had was more like faith, and that is because they never had a proof that they were real individuals. Personally, I think that the relation that Sophocles described between men and the gods is a tough relationship. By this I mean that it was much harder for Laius to follow Apollo’s will than it was for Achilles or for Odysseus. Even for us, sometimes it is really difficult to do uncertain things, and that is simply because it is in the human nature to be doubtful and afraid of the unknown things.
After indentifying the similarities and differences that the relationship between mortals and gods had in the ancient times, I would say that we are more close to be a society with Sophocles’ description of this relationship. Nowadays we do not receive visits from God, not because they do not happen anymore, but because God doesn’t minister everyone physically. The fact is that we also count with a seer, a person that receives revelation directly from God and then he communicates it to us. We do not need to see God physically to know that He ministers us. In these aspects I think that we are very similar to Sophocles description, nevertheless I also identify a notorious change. In the time of Oedipus and Laius fate was written; it couldn’t change, you could not avoid it and all that you could possibly do was accept and deal with it. Nowadays we are agents of our own behavior. We can change. Our lives and our destiny are what we make of them. We have the power to act, and that changes everything!
In times like these we need something to cling on. You call it, whether God, Mother Nature, or a supreme power; we need to depend on something bigger and stronger than us. We deeply need God’s guidance and support.
7 thoughts on “Relationship between men and the gods”
You make a good point that in the Oedipus story that they have to take it more on faith. Also Oedipus’s parent thought they could avoid fate. So there were some people who did not believe the gods were all powerful while in homer’s time only the barbarians did not respect the gods.
I hadn’t thought about how their rituals with death was symbolic of their relationships with gods. That is a good point. I don’t know about Sophocles’ time but we do read about how in the plague of Athens that becomes unimportant. That could be a sign of their declining relationship with god.
This was a well written blog and you used good examples. I however wouldn’t say it was easy for Odysseus or Achilles to follow the will of the Gods since it took all of Achilles’s will power not to strike Agamemnon even though a God was there telling him not to. Another question is do we have fate similar to theirs. After all we do believe god knows all and in predestination. After all I would say Oedipus thought he was always choosing freely.
I like how you talk about us being agents of our own behavior instead of subject the fate the Greeks were. I’m so glad that I have the freedom to choose!
I really love your blog post here! I think you did a very good job of bringing all the thoughts together at the end by saying that no matter who or when we are, we need a reliance, a relationship, with a being greater and more powerful than ourselves.
I wrote a little bit about the relationship about gods and mortals too. I agree with your idea that the conception of the gods changes over times. I may add to it that once we become used to a certain idea of how the gods or God in our case interact with men we tend to get stuck on that idea. I believe that is exactly what happened at the time Joseph Smith had the first vision. Notions of God actually interacting with men had dissipated and it as hard for people to believe that something like that could actually happen.
In the Odyssey and the Iliad the characters had a closer relationship with the gods than in Oedipus.
In Oedipus fate was going to happen with or without gods intervention, it was inevitable. But in the Iliad and Odyssey they had an opportunity to choose their fate!