Fable is defined as "a tale embodying a moral, using animals, people or inanimate objects
as characters." In the case of The Iliad, as well as much of ancient Greek myth, poetry and other
forms of literature, fable was used to embellish and expand on actual occurrences in Greek
history. Fable offered the Greeks a way to explain much of what went on in their lives, as well as
what had occurred in the past. Often heros and other characters that had actually existed in Greek
history were used as the main characters in Greek tales which ad some sort of moral lesson to the
ancients. The will of the gods was often also another primary explanation utilized by the Greeks in
their tales. The will of Zeus was believed to be all encompassing; therefore the Greeks believed
that everything that had transpired in their history did so because Zeus deemed it so.
The Iliad is built on two tales of anger and stubbornness; one the story of the Trojan war,
while the other is that of the private quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. This tale is set in
the final year of the Greek war with Troy. The Greeks have gone to war with the Trojans because
Helen, the wife of Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother, was taken back to Troy by Paris, the Prince
of Troy and son of Priam, King of Troy. In the case of the tale of the dispute involving Achilles,
the Greek hero of the Trojan War, and his withdrawal from battle due to a dispute between he and
Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae, it was a question of honour and respect. Agamemnon had
taken the daughter of a priest as a concubine, whom of course offered a hansom ransom for her
return. Agamemnon however refused the ransom, so the priest prayed to Apollo for vindication,
so Apollo sent a plague among the Greeks. Achilles then demands that Agamemnon return the
daughter to her father, which will in turn result in the end of the plague. Agamemnon angrily
returns the woman, but takes a woman whom Achilles has claimed for himself as a battle prize.
Achilles then withdraws from the war as a sign of protest, and prays to Zeus for his own
vindication, asking that the Greeks fail miserably in their plight against the Trojans, until
reparation is made between him and the Greeks for the loss of honour which he has suffered. Zeus
obliges Achilles with his request, and the Greeks do begin to lose to the Trojans, partly due to the
will of Zeus, and partly due to the constant interference of the Trojan affiliated gods.
As the Greeks continue to flounder in their attempt to defeat the Trojans, Agamemnon
realizes that the Greeks need Achilles to win the war. Agamemnon sends an envoy consisting of
Aias, the chief Greek warrior second only to Achilles, Odysseus, one of the Greek leaders, and
Phoinix, Achilles old teacher and a current Greek general to convince him to return to the battle,
and offering Achilles a large incentive as well. Achilles is still uninterested in returning to aid the
Greeks, and would sooner see Agamemnon lose the war as a result of his dishonourable attitude
to Achilles earlier. Achilles' closest friend, Patroclus, however feels obligated to help the Greek
cause and decides to return moral the Greek troops by donning the armour of Achilles. Achilles
permits this, but warns his friend to not lead a charge, as he does not have the skill to do so.
Patroclus forgets this piece of advice, and in the heat of battle tries to lead the troops, and is
subsequently killed by the Trojan hero, Hector. Achilles is so saddened and enraged at the same
time by the loss of his friend that he returns to the war to slay Hector. Achilles defeats Hector,
and defames the body by dragging it daily around the walls of Troy, rather than returning it to the
people of Troy for a proper burial, while Patroclus is honoured with a great funeral procession.
By the end of the epic, Priam, Hector's father, pleads with Achilles for the return of Hector's
body by asking Achilles to think of the emotions which his own father would undergo if he were
under the same situation. Achilles and Priam then both weep for their great losses, and Hector's
body is returned.
The Iliad had a great impact on the Greek culture. It was an epic story of the great Trojan
war, yet it was a fable nonetheless. There is evidence of this throughout the epic. One of the most
obvious is the constant reference to the actions of Zeus as having great impact on the outcome of
the war. Events that were the result of human action were credited to the will of the gods. One
example of this was the request of Achilles to Zeus to ensure that the Greeks did not win the war
without him. It would be far more probable that the decline in the progress of the Greek army
after Achilles withdrawal from the battle would be that the moral of the soldiers dropped
significantly at the loss of one of their greatest warriors. Yet this possibility was not considered,
as Achilles said that he had prayed to Zeus to cause the downfall of the Greek army, so the
worldly explanation was immediately downcast.
Another example of the will of Zeus taking precedence over the more secular probability
was the continued poor tactical plans made by Agamemnon. Though it would stand to reason
that the king was simply not a very good military strategist, or that he simply used poor
judgement over the period of time which the tale occurs, the explanation for the foolhardiness of
Agamemnon stated by Homer is that Achilles prayed to Zeus to cause Agamemnon to create his
own setbacks, and Zeus obliged the request by sending a false dream;
The other gods and all fighting men slept through the night, but
there was no easeful sleep for Zeus. He was wondering how he
could vindicate Achilles and have the Achaeans slaughtered at the
ships. He decided that the best way would be to send King
Agamemnon a False Dream.
Again, will of Zeus prevails, as it was Zeus' plan that Agamemnon show poor judgement, so as to
vindicate Achilles, rather than Agamemnon simply showing poor strategic abilities on his own,
totally independent of divine will.
Also demonstrated was the power of the other, lesser gods, and their power in the Greek
world. These gods were seen as influential on the lives of the Greeks, however, to a lesser degree
than that of Zeus. An example of such a belief is in the description of the duel between Menelaus
and Paris. Menelaus had a hold on Paris' helmet and was about to kill him, but somehow the strap
broke, and then Paris was seemingly whisked away to safety;
. . . but for the quickness of Aphrodite Daughter of Zeus, who saw
what was happening and broke the strap for Paris, though it was
made of leather from a slaughtered ox. . . . But Aphrodite used her
powers once more. Hiding Paris in a dense mist, she whisked him
off. . . . (Homer, 73-74)
Paris' escape from death at the hands of Menelaus was viewed by the Greeks as so miraculous
that it could be not explained any other way than through the intervention of the gods. Though
the gods were most likely with Paris to enable him to walk away from such a situation, it is
doubtful that they took such an active role.
The details surrounding the order by Zeus to the other gods to stay out of the war, and
not to interfere on behalf of either side, as well as the diversion of Zeus' attention in Book XIV
which allowed the Greeks to prevail in a few battles is also easily explained in secular terms. Once
Achilles retracted his services from the cause, as the chief soldier in the Greek armada, the moral
of the troops would no doubt drop substantially. The Greek soldiers saw Achilles as the mule that
carried the army through the war. Without him, the army no doubt believed that they would be
unable to win their war. Once such an attitude is prevalent in a group of individuals and the
motivational forces, which would have let the army battle for ten years, decreased on such a
drastic scale, it is unlikely that they will be focussed on their battles. Therefore they will not win
as they are not concentrating on what they are doing when in battle.
Further into the poem, the gods who were in favour of the Greeks winning the war
developed a scheme to help the forces of Menelaus and Agamemnon. Here decides to seduce
Zeus, thus diverting his attention away from the war, enabling Poesidon to come to the aid of the
Greeks. After Here had seduced Zeus, Zeus fell asleep, and Poesidon was able to take an active
role in the battle. The Greeks fought with great fury, resulting in the injuring and almost capture
of Hector. Once Zeus awoke and realized what happens, he demands that the other gods keep
from meddling any further in the war or they will face the wrath of Zeus. Zeus then states how the
remainder of the war shall occur, including the death of Patroclus, Hector, and Achilles.
The fact that the Greeks were able to, for a brief period, fight as they did when Achilles
led them on the battle field, can be explained in earthly terms also. It would stand to reason that,
for a brief moment in time, the Greeks simply remembered how to fight. This would have no
bearing as to whether or not Poesidon, or any other divine figure was aiding the Greeks, as they
were renowned combatants, and for a small increment of time renewed their abilities in battle
skills. This event seemed so incredible to the parties involved that it could only be explained in
terms of the supernatural realm. Again, though the gods were most likely with the Greeks that
day, it is unlikely that they took such a literal role in the battle.
The Iliad impacted the ancient Greek by establishing the criteria as to what the order of
Zeus was to be, its importance to the Greeks, and how to reach its level. The ancient Greeks
believed that the only way they could win the war with Troy was to follow the order of Zeus.
Because their hero, Achilles, had the most divine and kingly virtues, it was believed that he had
Zeus' favour, and could come to be a member of the order of Zeus. Because Achilles left the fight
due to the dispute between him and Agamemnon, the Greeks believed that their forces had lost
the favour of Zeus and the other gods, thus explaining why they were now losing the war; it was a
sign from Zeus to show his support for Achilles. However, Achilles had to lose all that he valued
in the secular realm to become a member of the order, explaining the death of Patroclus, as well
as Achilles initial loss of honour to Agamemnon.
All these examples show how the ancient Greeks believed that the will of Zeus was an all
powerful and all determining. The role of Zeus in the ancient Greek civilization was that he was
so omnipotent and omnipresent that it was inconceivable to the ancient Greeks that anything
could happen due to secular influences rather than divine ones. The poem and other works of the
time simply reenforced the idea of an all powerful Zeus' and the lesser god's presence in the
Greek world, and the many abilities of the divine beings. Everything in the ancient Greek culture
was credited to the will of the Olympians, from the death of a child, to how well the harvest that
particular year went. It would seem that secular explanations for most aspects of life were forgone
to pursue divine ones.
Homer, The Iliad. Translated by E.V. Rieu. Toronto: Penguin Classics, 1950.
Landau, Sidney I. , ed. et al, The Reader's Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary. Montreal:
The Reader's Digest Association Inc., 1977.
"Myth is true fable": how is this revealed in the Iliad? Discuss
specifically in terms of the poem's impact on the Greek community.
The Iliad Examined in Secular Terms
Classical Mythology 1100R
Prof. J. P. Atherton
February 4, 1998