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Kenneth R. Seeskin THE COMEDY OF THE GODS IN THE ILIAD ". . . no animai but man ever laughs." Aristotle, De Partibus Animalium, 673a8-9 No reader of the Iliad can fail to be struck by the great extent to which social relations among the gods resemble those which obtain among men. Zeus, the oldest and strongest of the Olympian deities, rules as an absolute monarchor patriarch. The "council" meetings over which he presides are not unlike those which occur on earth. Like Agamemnon, he must assert his authority from time to time; and, like any mortal king, he must deal with problems relating to jealousy, adultery, dishonesty, and revenge. To the extent that the gods differ from mortal heroes, those differences are similar to the ones which separate mortal heroes and commoners. The gods occupy the highest place on the scale of excellence, beauty, and social status, mortals with divine ancestry occupy the next position, and so on down the line. Although the above picture is accurate in many respects, there is something about it which is bound to leave one cold, for, unlike his mortal heroes, Homer's gods often appear as clowns. One need only recall scenes like Hephaestus' bumbling attempt to wait on the other immortals (1.584 ff.), Hera's seduction of Zeus (14.157 ff.), or the famous theomachy (21.385 ff.) to see that, ironically, humans frequendy are more dignified than the gods they are trying to please. It was scenes like these which caused Longinus, in his essay On the Sublime, to remark that Homer appears to have made his men gods and his gods men (sec. 9). Now any long story is bound to contain comic relief. But for many authors (Shakespeare, for instance), comic relief is supplied by those whose social status is lower than that of the main characters, e.g., grave diggers, nightwatchmen, country bumpkins, or pettythieves. As Aristotle argued in the Poetics (sec. 2 and 5), comedy is an imitation of men worse than the average. In Book 2 of the Iliad, Homer does use Thersites 295 296Philosophy and Literature for comic effect; yet this scene is noteworthy for being the only one in the book which supports Aristotle's contention. In practically every other case, comedy is supplied by characters better than the average: it is supplied by the gods. Moreover, in the few cases where mortal aristocrats are involved in comic situations (e.g., the rambling speeches of Nestor), the teasing tends to be extremely mild. Farce and slapstick are reserved almost exclusively for the inhabitants of Olympus. Plato, for one, was outraged by passages where the gods look ridiculous and wanted them excised from the text. Not surprisingly, there is a tradition of modern scholars who feel a similar sense of outrage. Walter Leaf, for example, maintained that the theomachy is poorly written and thus not the work of Homer.1 Gilbert Murray argued that several of the scenes in question are in bad taste, exemplify the spirit of Milesian skepticism, and, again, are not the work of Homer.2 Wilamowitz constructed an elaborate theory which claimed that these passages are the work of a later rhapsode who probably was associated with Archilochus .3 Finally, George Calhoun, who exposed the flaws of those just mentioned, concluded that such passages show the influence not of a later period of skepticism but of an earlier, less refined period and were composed merely to please Homer's audience.4 Since it is not my purpose to enter the long debate over the authorship and unity of the text, let me state the guiding assumptions of this essay dogmatically. First, the passages in question are not interpolated and serve important artistic functions. Second, for whatever reason Homer decided to include them, their presence raises profound moral and religious questions. From the outset, it is clear that any anthropomorphic conception of the gods will have to fail in one important respect. The gods are immortal, humans are not. Thus even the lowliest human can do something which no god can—risk his life. For all of their quarrels, deceptive schemes, and forays into the thick of the fighting, the gods are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 295-306
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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