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    Homer and the Gods of the Iliad: Belief or Impiety?

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    Later civilizations disapproved of Homer because "he told lies about the gods." Look in Book 21 for some of these "lies." List and describe several of them in detail as they are presented by Homer. Do you think Homer actually believed in gods such as he sang about? If so, do you think he was being impious to his gods? Why or why not?

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    The later civilizations mentioned in the question are actually some of the Greeks who lived after the time of Homer. The most famous of the Homeric critics was Plato, especially in Books 2 and 3 of the Republic.

    One of the critiques against Homer leveled by later Greeks was that Homer causes the gods to take on human form and qualities. Look for examples of this in Iliad 21 (e.g., Achilles' battle with the river). Later Greeks wondered whether "real" gods would actually behave like humans. Do rivers really get mad at people?

    Another aspect of Homer's portrayal of the gods that later Greeks criticized was the gods battling and quarreling with one another. Would "real" gods behave this way? Hephaestus versus the river god might be an example of this. Ares and Athene also square off against one another.

    As for whether Homer actually believed in gods such as he sang about, that is a difficult question to answer. Properly speaking, Greek religion was not a matter of belief, as in Christianity, but rather a matter of correct carrying out of ritual practices, such as sacrificing to the gods in a correct way and building temples and shrines to honor them. So, the question of whether Homer believed in the gods he describes is really not an issue. There is probably no doubt that Homer believed in the gods, but rather did he believe in that the gods behaved in the way his poem describes them?

    Some other Greeks who lived after Homer tried to defend the poet's depiction of the gods. They suggested, for example, that Homer's gods are not meant to be taken literally, but rather allegorically. Hephaestus versus the river god might represent fire versus water. Achilles battle against the river god might be taken as representing humankind's struggle against the forces of nature (other Greek heroes battled rivers or bodies of water; cf. Heracles wrestling match with the river Achelous).

    So, I would argue that Homer's piety is not an issue. If we heard Homer advocating that people ignore the gods, not make sacrifice to them, or not build temples for them, then that would be impiety in Greek eyes. I don't think we hear Homer advocating that the gods or their worship should be neglected.

    I hope this helps. By the way, I'm not convinced that the professor or teacher who framed this question really understands Homer or Greek culture, so you might want to tread carefully in the realm of correcting what appears to be a misunderstanding of Greek religion (i.e., the issue of "belief" in the gods).

    Hope this helps,
    John T., Ph.D.

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