- Theology and Poetics in the Iliad
Among some Jewish and Christian Bible Scholars there is a half-joking convention that "theology" is Christian and that the word does not apply to the Jewish religious thinkers.Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature
The cautious remark of this exergue certainly also applies to the Homeric poems, especially when many modern scholars consider the treatment of the gods in the Iliad to be essentially a literary treatment.1 But the ancients took the Homeric gods seriously as religious beings, and some modern scholars follow them. It would be, perhaps, more correct to speak in the plural of various theological layers (if not those W. Kullmann indicated in his 1956 book), by focusing on the complex, sometimes contradictory, teleological directions of the narrative.
My purpose is to underline the "poetic" aspects and effects that the representation of the gods in the Iliad produce, without suspending the religious feelings and perceptions with which they were received by ancient [End Page 17] audiences and readers. Even in the burlesque treatment that both the Iliad and Odyssey bestow upon them, the gods were still felt to be the same gods as those who eventually, in other representations, would be humorless and pitiless. Once poet and audience accept the fact that gods begat heroes like Achilles, Sarpedon, and Aeneas, or a fatal woman like Helen, it is obvious that poet and audience would find normal the physical presence of Thetis beside Achilles, of Aphrodite beside Helen, and would not take it as an expedient or a fiction of the literary or epic machinery. Of course what these gods say and do in the scenes Homer stages is another matter.
What then is "literary," or better "poetic," in their treatment? Before answering, I must recognize the ahistorical definition of the category I am going to illustrate. For Homer and his audience, the narrative was at once theologically and literarily edifying, for no distinction between literature and theology was thinkable. A large part of ancient exegesis consists in trying to justify Homer's representation of the gods. Theology and literature cannot in fact be distinguished and separated. For instance, when Homer creates an archaic sounding myth in order for Zeus to be persuaded by Thetis to honor Achilles and to crush the Trojans (1.396ff.; see Grif fi n 1978.7), we realize that it is with this invention that Thetis obtains Zeus ' s approval of the plan () that constitutes part of the plot of the Iliad.2 Furthermore, we see that this invented story rehearses for us a previous manifestation of the hostility of Hera, Athena, and Poseidon against Zeus, a model, we could say, of their new hostility against Zeus's . This hostility-a red thread throughout the whole narrative-reveals both the burlesque aspects of Zeus's conjugal and familial relationships and, when he asserts his will, his sublime authority (e.g., 1.524-30). Of course, the entire dramatization of the events that begin either with Thetis's discreet allusion to the episode Achilles narrated (1.503) or Zeus's initial refusal or silence (1.511ff.), all the rhetoric of the representation (beginning with line 511: , "So she spoke: but Zeus gatherer of clouds answered her nothing," where the negative shockingly breaks, for the only time, the regularity of the formula), all this and all the rest is literary elaboration.3 But can we deny a religious and theological [End Page 18] purpose and consistency to this ad hoc invented myth when it is at the source of the divine plan of the Iliad? To have doubts about its "tradition"-and accordingly about its "truth"-would imply doubt about the "truth" of the whole religious fabric woven around Zeus's .
Had a member of the audience asked the poet whether this myth was his invention or not, he would probably have answered that it was the story told by the Muses. It is just in the inscrutable folds of this answer, in the leeway opened between divine inspiration and poetic skill, that criticism of the poets as liars, as unwise, etc. was made possible for early philosophers such as Heraclitus and Xenophanes. For indeed...