Religion and Ethics in Homer’s Iliad

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The Importance of Religion and Ethics in The Iliad


    Homer clearly and precisely depicts the religion and the ethics of the Achian and Trojan societies in The Iliad. During the time of the Trojan war, religion played an important role in the societies. Sacrifice, prayer, and rituals were all equally significant, and the superiority of the gods and the fates above humans was a standard of society. The gods were sacred deities to whom one had to bestow honor and respect. Within the society, honor, glory, and fame were desperately sought by warriors striving to achieve enduring notoriety. One's word represented a considerable commitment to be acted upon. Religion and ethics are prominently displayed in the characters throughout The Iliad due to their importance in Greek and Trojan society.

The characters' religious dedication is evident through their sacrifice, prayer, and rituals: "King Agamemnon sacrificed. . . a fat bull of five years" and prayed to Zeus for success in battle against the Trojans. Meanwhile, the Achian soldiers "pray[ed] to be spared [from] death in the maul of war." Later, when Patroclos', an Achian soldier, body is recovered, twelve noble sons of Troy are sacrificed in his funeral pyre. Sacrifices are performed to honor the gods or obtain their favor.

The Greek and Trojan societies believe that a soul remains restless and can not enter Hades until proper funeral rites are conferred. Funeral rites were paramount for those who had been killed in battle. An example of their determination to ensure a proper funeral can be found after the duel between the powerful Greek Aias and the Trojan commander Hector in Book VII. After Aias and Hector reach a stalemate in their battle, they agree to "make no battle" the next day so they can respectively "bring in our dead." Their cooperative neutrality to honor the dead demonstrated their respect for one another's fallen comrades.

Another instance of the conferral of funeral rites can be found with the death of the brave Greek combatant Patroclos. In Book XVII when Patroclos lies dead, Menelaus, the Greek king, chivalrously defends the body, "like a cow standing over her calf." When Euphorbus Panthoidês, a Trojan soldier, attempts to desecrate the body of Patroclos, Menelaus "with a prayer to Father Zeus lunge[s]" and kills Panthoidês. However, Menelaus wisely retreats when confronted by a massive Trojan Army. The Achian army commences to retrieve the body of Patroclos when Hippothoös, a Trojan soldier, starts to drag the corpse away, but the powerful Aias kills him.

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At that point, the Achians rally behind the unanimous declaration that "There's no doubt we could not retreat with honor, and let the Trojans drag away [Patroclos] in triumph." Patroclos' body is eventually salvaged by Menelaus, Merionês, and Aias and is properly cremated in a great pyre created by his army. The dedication of the Achian soldiers to protecting and honoring their dead is corroborated by their actions.

The characters in The Iliad are respectful of the gods until a god acts against them. The gods generally act fairly but often become partisan. When Aphrodite the goddess of wisdom and Ares, the god of war fight against the Greek soldier Diomedes in Book V, Diomedes retaliates and injures the two gods. When Achilles is fighting in the river Xanthos and the River attacks Achilles, he fights savagely, "darting like a black hunter-eagle, the strongest and the swiftest." Yet both Achilles and Diomedes remain respectful and dutiful to the other gods. The gods do not punish nor are responsible for mortals on moral grounds. Over the powers of the gods are the three Moirae (fates), who have supreme control over life and death of all mortals.

The most important goal of the Achian protagonist Achilles, the Trojan commander Hector, and all other warriors is to remain ethical while in battle, for fame in battle is the ultimate honorable achievement they can achieve. However, if they achieve glory unethically, they are a disgrace and are not respected. Achilles' bravery and glory are proven in his battle against Hector, but his thoughts are on Patroclos, his noble companion. Achilles is bound to beget revenge of Patroclos' death by moral obligation and does so with vengeance, stating, "not one [Trojan] shall escape death [for killing Patroclos]." Immediately after killing Hector, Achilles reminds the Achians that "Patroclos lies. . . unmourned, unburied!" and he proceeds to honor him. Achilles is unique in his adherence to ethics despite his frequent petulant actions. Achilles must revenge Patroclos and die in battle to be remembered as a hero. Although he regrets this decision by stating in The Odyssey, "I would rather be a plowman to a yeoman on a small holding [than be dead]." However, his sacrifice and honor to achieve fame is commended by his peers in The Iliad.

In The Iliad the Greeks and Trojans struggle to adhere to the codes of religion and ethics, of their society. The Iliad is an epic poem dedicated to the pursuit of honor and name immortality through fame by humans who are inevitably mortal. The characters make sacrifices and pray to the gods to obtain their assistance. Formal funeral rites are a necessity for dead warriors, and it is a ritual respected by both societies. Although the gods do not control the mortal's fate, they are recognized as an influential spiritual power. Even at the price of death, these codes are followed.

Works Cited and Consulted:

Adkins, A. W. H. Merit and Responsibility: A Study in Greek Values. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960.

Carpenter, Rhys. Religion in the Homeric Epics. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1946.


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