Thematic Comparison: Divine Intervention in Homer & Virgil
Both works decently portray the horrors of warfare, and (albeit it in a reverent fashion) place the blame for this horror soundly at the feet of the gods. However while in Homer this intervention is largely capricious and relatively unmotivated, in Virgil's work it takes on a more motivated and historical turn in which the gods may actually be seen as working to some form of higher end.
Part of the difference between these two takes on divine interference relates to the purpose of the two works. Homer's epic, so far as can be told, was designed to educate and amuse and perhaps to make a statement about the meaning of warfare and deity. However, it was not designed so much to create a national myth of identity. The Greeks and the Trojans they faced were more or less of the same culture and lineage, worshipping the same gods and practicing the same lifestyles. Whichever one, that which was distinctive about Greek culture would have survived. It is likely that even among early listeners, there would be a definite kinship sensed between the warring sides. The purpose of the work was less nationalistic, and more dealing with the personal heroism transformation from rage to tragedy to forgiveness in the story of Achilles and Hector. The primary purpose of the Aenid, on the other hand, seems to be to create a nationalistic myth of the genetic foundations of Rome which might serve to justify its people, national characteristics, and dominions over fallen Carthage and much of the known world.
These separate purposes inherent in the work and its intended audience change the way the gods and the story will be portrayed. In the Iliad, it is possible to betray the gods as capricious and even dangerous because the war was on, and people could sit safely inside and look out at salted ruins without doubt or fear. There is room in this plan for some philosophy and ethics and other distractions. In the Aenid, on the other hand, there is less of a place for philosophy and distraction. The gods must be shows as the guides and founders of a proud nation, and their capriciousness must not interfere with the primary goal of the work to provide an ethnic and historical justification for the imperialism of Rome.
One of the first and most obvious ways this difference in approach is apparent is in each epic's opening description of its topic. The Iliad begins by inviting the goddesses (muses) to sing through the poet himself, invoking from the beginning a sense of mankind's place as a puppet of the gods. The goddess will sing of "the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel? It was the son of Jove and Leto..." (homer, book 1) In short, the topic of the book is the anger and actions of men (Achilles in particular) which is directed and guided by gods who are far more capricious then they themselves.
The Aenid, on the other hand, does not invoke a goddess in the production of the work. The gods, for all their bravado thoughout this work, and for all that they determine destiny and daily interferences, are shown as being more regional and limited in their power over humans. While it does not invoke a muse, it does deal more directly with the actions of deity:
forc'd by fate, And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate,... What goddess was provok'd, and whence her hate; For what offense the Queen of Heav'n began to persecute so brave, so just a man;involv'd his anxious life in endless cares, Expos'd to wants, and hurried into wars! Can heav'nly minds such high resentment show, to exercise their spite in human woe? (Virgil, book 1)
So it is apparent that one of these two is founded primarily on humanist ideas of battle, albeit written by someone who invokes the mystic muses. The other is founded more directly on the idea of divine agency which shape the difficult creation of a future nation, though the writer himself has a more humanist perception of the world.
Of course, this difference in perspective should lead one to expect some difference in the behavior of the deities involved. In the Homeric epic, the gods are very casually dedicated to the battle. When at the beginning of the 20th chapter they gather together in Olympus, the gods remind one almost of spectators at a heated hockey game. Fans on both sides may be overwhelmingly attached to their team and might even riot if something goes wrong with the game, but have no faith that one team is morally superior or in any way personally preferable to the other, nor will it have any real affect which wins. Their dedication is almost exactly that of sports fans, for they may choose sides-based entirely on liking the way on or another of the heroes fights or looks. The main interest is watching the battle and hedging bets on the various fighters. It is anxiousness to return to their sport, rather than any concern for humans, that rings through Neptune's voice: "Why... have you called the gods in council? Are you considering some matter that concerns the Trojans and Achaeans- for the blaze of battle is on the point of being kindled between them?" (Homer, book 20) This is evidenced and colored in two particular examples which deserve some exploration as they show the tendency of deities to 'switch sides' on the issues.
In the Iliad, Poseidon/Neptune is officially on the side of the Greeks. He aids them in battle, and lends his support to their coterie of protective gods because of his connection to Achilles' mother. However, at one point he acts out of his allegiance to reach out his hand and save Aeneas: "Why should this man suffer when he is guiltless, to no purpose, and in another's quarrel? Has he not at all times offered acceptable sacrifice to the gods that dwell in heaven?" (Homer, Book 20) An awareness of Aeneas' family and possible fate moves Neptune to save him, and indeed become one of his protectors in the Aenid. Other gods also switch allegiances at times, such as Hermosa/Mercury who helps Priam avoid death at the hands of the Greeks as he sneaks in to visit Achilles and beg for the return of Hectors body. That Mercury would not rather see him dead shows a degree of detachment from the real battle at hand. Finally, one also notices that Vulcan makes the armor both for several heroes among the greeks and is also willing to make armor for Venus' pet Aeneas so that he may better lead his people to battle. These examples show how the interest of the gods in the war of the Iliad is largely peripheral to other issues, and that it is the battle itself and the survival and death of warriors that is pleasing for he gods.
In the Aenid, on the other hand, the interest of the deities is less abstract. There are no real scenes where a huge council of disinterested deities sit around picking sides, as in Chapter 20 of the Iliad. On the contrary, the two man deific forces to shape this work have a direct relationship to the protagonists and a specific plan for the refugees and their future nation. Hera/Juno hates Aeneas and the rest because she has heard in a prophecy that they will eventually destroy Carthage, and she is attached to that nation. Moreover, she fears that they will bring tyranny to all the world: "times to come should see the Trojan race / Her Carthage ruin, and her tow'rs deface; / Nor thus confin'd, the yoke of sov'reign sway / Should on the necks of all the nations lay." (Virgil, book 1)
Aphrodite/Venus, on the other hand, is directly involved because Aeneas is her son and these are the last member of his dead city that have fled with him. She reproaches Jove with this concern, "How could my pious son thy pow'r incense? Or what, alas! is vanish'd Troy's offense?" (Virgil, book 1) and continues to protect him through-out. Indeed, Venus feels for her son and his people in this epic a rather mothering love that is even willing to sacrifice witnessing more battles if it will mean the Trojans survive to build Rome.
Throughout the Iliad, the gods battle each other for no better cause than the release of some divine energy and the sporting rivalry over the battle field. Indeed, closely associated gods and even lovers (such as the sister-brother pair of Athena and Apollo, or the wedded Venus and Vulcan) lean towards opposite sides with no apparent ill-effects. Humans are just tools, as exemplified in the moment when Aeneas is saved by Neptune because Apollo doesn't bother. In the Aenid, on the…