Ever since the Greek and Roman classics have been translated into English, they have been fodder for many — students, teachers, writers or readers. Classics are often studied in depth to understand not just about the society and the masters of those times but also about the formats and themes of writing. In this paper, we are trying to analyze the use of the theme of power in the classical myths. And in particular, we will study the tussle of power between the gods and humans and related plots. The name of ‘Zeus’ will be referred to thus, though in the source texts, it is often ‘Jove’. Please note that ‘he’ and ‘man’ stand for the entire human race and not the gender specifically.
The theme of power in classical myths
The Greco-Roman classics are said to have been written in the period much before the birth of Christ. So also, we see the presence of a number of gods, almost for every emotion and element present in the world, and headed by the god of gods — Zeus. However, having said this, I find a lot of similarity between the gods and humans. It is like two worlds, one which has fewer members and a single king and the other where there are many small kingdoms.
While reading and understanding the grand epics, we come to know that these stories are based on some general themes. For instance, while the Iliad is based on the theme of wrath, leading to war and revenge, the Odyssey is based on homecoming.
An analysis of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Iliad and the Odyssey reveals that in every story, there is a tussle for power and dominance over each other. However, I would like to draw attention to three aspects:
- The fight between the gods and the humans
- The fight among the gods themselves and
- The similarity between the gods and the humans.
It is evident from the points I have noted that there could be many more underlying themes here. The classics are also called so because of the completeness of the work. While they adhere to the Aristotelian unities of time and place and once can make out plots and characterisations clearly, these works also deserve to be called classic because of the way emotions have been portrayed in them.
Emotions can surpass any time barrier. They do not belong to any age or period. They remain the same across all time.
God and man
There has always been a tussle between man and god. God wants man to obey him and follow the rules that he sets for them. However, man is always keen to break this law. Humans always flirt with the idea of doing their will and when somewhere along the line, their schemes backfire, they turn to appease the gods. This is something that we predominantly find in the above-mentioned classics.
Even as Ovid starts, he speaks about how the earth and heavens were made, how the waters were separated from the earth, how the sky was pulled up and above was heaven. These stories are probably those that we find in the Bible too and surprisingly, there is only one god mentioned in both sources. The following quote from the Metamorphoses explains this.
But God, or Nature, while they thus contend,
To these intestine discords put an end:
Then earth from air, and seas from earth were driv’n,
And grosser air sunk from aetherial Heav’n.
The creation of man also comes about in the same way as mentioned in the Bible. After god made everything, including the beasts and birds he could, he thought of creating man.
A creature of a more exalted kind
Was wanting yet, and then was Man design’d:
Conscious of thought, of more capacious breast,
For empire form’d, and fit to rule the rest.
It is interesting to note that as in the Bible, man was made in the likeness of god himself — the godlike image. There is a strong undercurrent of the future to be. There is a clash about to come between the gods and man, because man was also made with a thinking mind.
As we move on, we find the Metamorphoses filled with stories of how gods were displeased with humans and caused many a misery to fall upon them, once even destroying them with water (the episode of Noah and the ark in the Bible).
However, the gods decide that they have to be appeased with sacrifices. In everything man does, the gods have to be exalted. In Ovid’s words. “Good days contracted and enlarged the bad.”
It seems the gods were always aware of what man was capable of. However, they were also able to forgive, provided man was ready to ask for forgiveness. Help was also at hand if asked for.
In the Ovid, we see the goddess Themis giving instructions as to what can be done to save humankind from the floods. In Iliad, when Achilles tells his mother how Agamemnon has wronged him, his mother goes to Zeus and appeals for help.
The Iliad starts with a summing up of what the epic is – a story which arises from Achilles anger and revenge. However, it is explained at the very outset that a god (Apollo) was responsible for the fight in the first place.
And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel? It was the son of Jove and Leto; for he was angry with the king and sent a pestilence upon the host to plague the people, because the son of Atreus had dishonoured Chryses his priest.
In the Odyssey, we see Zeus speaking of how man is responsible for what befalls him (Book I, lines 48-51).
My word, how mortals take the gods to task!
All their afflictions come from us, we hear.
And what of their own failings? Greed and folly
Double the suffering in the lot of man.
However, man has a different take on this. He would like to blame it on god. After all, he finds himself at the mercy of god. In Book 6, Naussica tells Odysseus,
Stranger, there is no quirk or evil in you
That I can see. You know Zeus metes out fortune
To good and bad men as it pleases him.
Hardship he sent to you, and you must bear it.
In Iliad too, we see the intervention of Zeus in book II, by sending a dream to Agamemnon, he urges him to attack Troy.
In the Iliad, the war is fought with the aid of the gods. They fight, they heal and they fall, but being immortal, they do not die. At many instances, they whisk away those who are injured so that they can heal them and send them back to the field.
Moving away from this grand theme of the fight between god and man for power, I would like to discuss the other two topics listed in the beginning.
Fight among the gods
Interspersed with the fight between gods and humans and the latter always having to please the former is the battle between the gods themselves. They have their own favourites and are willing to plead or fight for them. In the Trojan war, the gods were allowed to take part to favour their men and fight for them, then for a while, they retreat from the battle (end of Book V).
In Book XX, we find that Zeus assembles the gods and allows them to take part in the war at their will, especially to help the Trojans against Achilles. We see a mixed approach here. Even while promising Thetis that her son Achilles will be avenged, he exhorts the gods to help the Trojans though leaving it for them to choose the sides they want.
So, while Hera, Athene , Poseidon, Hermes and Hephaistos help the Greeks, Ares, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Leto and Skamandros support the Trojans. The gods on the side of the Achaians decide to keep away from the battle and observe what happens.
When Thetis comes to appeal for Achilles, Hera is displeased with Zeus for admitting her. While she questions him as to what he has promised Thetis, he replies that she should not expect to be “informed of all my counsels”, even while reassuring her that, “When it is proper for you to hear, there is no one, god or man, who will be told sooner.”
To cite another instance of the fight between the gods, in the Iliad, when Pandoras wounds Diomedes, and the latter appeals to goddess Athene ( the goddess of war and wisdom) for help, she appears and reassures him. However, though she gives him the power to kill Pandoras, she also warns him not to wound any god except Aphrodite. In the fight which follows, Aphrodite is injured and returns to Olympos.
Gods have a human face
Throughout the reading of the epics, it is striking that the gods are a mirror of the gods and vice-versa. Each wants dominance in his terrain and each wants power. He has his favourites and he has his enemies.
However, humans fail in competing with the gods because they are, after all, mortals. They are only godlike and not god. They cannot play with the fortunes or destinies of others but they can fight and pray to the gods for success.
Gods have a human face. There is an aura which surrounds them but emotions govern their actions too. In this, they are human.
To this day, people believe in a divine being. It is human tendency to say that what happens to human beings is a result of what god thinks. Religions find solutions in prayers, sacrifices. All civilizations have some tradition of pleasing the gods. Prosperity, success and happiness are the fruits of this appeasement.
Fagles, R. (1996). Homer: The Odyssey. New York: Penguin Books.
Fagles, R. (1990). Homer: The Iliad. New York: Penguin Books.
Lesky, A. (1966). A History of Greek Literature; trans. De Heer & Willis, London: Methuen & Co.
Galinsky, G. K. (1975). Ovid’s Metamorphoses: An introduction to the Basic Aspects. Oxford UP.