How Ethical Are the Gods in the Iliad?

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Ethics and morality are synonymous terms, both meaning customs in their original languages, Greek and Latin respectively. However, the Greek term "ethics" also implies character as opposed to its Latin counterpart referring to social customs. Ethike is descended from ethikos which, in turn from ethos which means character or nature. Ethos is the fundamental and distinctive characteristic of a group within its social context or period of time, typically expressed in its attitudes, habits or beliefs. Thus the ethical nature of the gods can be explored in two ways, from an Ancient Greek perspective, and from a modern perspective.

However, this exploration from two perspectives violates the term ethical as it should be "a universal system of moral principles and values " applicable through actions perpetrated by humans. However, absolute standards are unobtainable and conditional upon the society and time in which they are conceived. Another definition suggests that to be ethical is "to conform to accepted standards consistent with the agreed principles of correct moral conduct". Conversely, until Aristotle, there were no "agreed principles for moral conduct" thus the term ethical cannot be used within the context of Homers society. We can, however examine the role the gods have to play in the Iliad and examine the relationship between the immortal and mortal to ascertain an "ethical" framework of the poem.

Where does our ethical view come from? If it is within us, as part of our "soul" our precondition of being human then it should be universal regardless of the elapsing centuries and societies, especially if a belief in an ultimate creator is entertained. Indeed, if we believe that this creator is eternal and that he/she bestows our souls, then the idea of eternal souls immediately becomes more viable as they are made of the essence of this creator. By soul I mean the spiritual awareness, the essence of an individual. Indeed the idea of karma-a Sanskrit term meaning action in terms of cause and effect has consequences for the idea of an eternal soul as it has to live with the consequences forever. This in turn creates responsibility upon the individual in the form of freewill. This metaphysical principle is essential to the idea of ethics as we are presented with the awareness of alternatives thus, choice. The gods in the Iliad, however, are not concerned with, or upholders of spiritual matters.

The Ancient Greeks were polytheistic in their beliefs, limited in the power they could grant to their gods- we see Greek mythology and the attributes of the gods and goddesses being based purely upon experience- war, love, and elements such as fire, water and earth. The struggles faced by the ancient Greeks are reflected in the creation of the polytheistic community of Mount Olympus- an acceptance of the greater forces of nature. The Gods in the Iliad assume anthromorphic as opposed to spiritual personas. These are exemplified by the patriarchal organisation of the divine family and the frequent use of patronymics, for example "Athene, daughter of Zeus". This patriarchal ordering of Gods is based upon the Homeric society in which children were known as "daughter/son of…" This adoption of Homeric standards suggests the gods being created by the society merely to be an allegory of humanity. This would then be consistent with the idea that the gods are logical metaphors for human failure and indeed, successes.

The patriarchal society again would support this view with each god or goddess having specific roles attributed to him/her. However, despite the gods often being instigators of events; for example the Trojan war- Aphrodite appears to cause it, but ultimately the war is caused by Paris who steals Helen by abusing Menelaos' hospitality thus provoking Menelaos to call upon the suitors of Helen to rescue her. In this case, the gods are being manipulated by Homer to emphasize the consequences...
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