In Proverbs 8:35-36, during the song of wisdom, Solomon writes the following concerning wisdom: “For whoever finds me finds life, and obtains favor from the Lord; but he who sins against me wrongs his own soul; all those who hate me love death.” Rarely has this statement been more literally true than in our own age, where we have seen a great many people show their love through death in violence directed at themselves and others and through addictions and other behaviors known and understood to be self-destructive. It is worthwhile to note, though, that such behaviors are not limited to our present evil age. In fact, the ancient Greeks demonstrated an awareness of the ways that people could hate God and love death through the portrayal of the effects of eros and thanatos, that is sexual/romantic love and death. And, as it so happens, the Iliad is a good place to examine these twin failures of eros and thanatos and demonstrate how the behavior of those characters most closely associated with them in the Iliad demonstrates the failure of those approaches to life that are so popular in both heroic ages of the past as well as our own decidedly less than heroic age.
While we are used to thinking of the failure to love God being connected with a love of death with regards to the Bible, though, it is perhaps less usual to think of its similar aspects within the heathen thought of the ancient Greeks, at least as we are able to understand their imagined behavior from the works of Homer. In discussing the failure of both eros and thanatos to provide genuine meaning even within Homer’s Iliad, it is worthwhile to discuss how this can be seen from the most notable characters who show the failure of both of these things, the gods. While Homer’s conception of glory and heroism is different from our own, it is notable that in both Hector and Achilles there is a strong sense of longing for an undying reputation for prowess even in the face of certain death. For Homer, glory is something that could only be gained by a being who took risks, and he could not conceive of the gods as really risking anything, and so their actions were not glorious by definition.
It is telling that the most inglorious of all of the heathen gods discussed in this epic poem are Aphrodite and Ares, respectively the deities of romantic love and war. Here is a brief summary of the inglorious deeds of these two heathen deities. [Note: All page citations are taken from the translation of The Iliad of Homer by W.H.D. Rouse, the paperback version published in 2007.] For one, Aphrodite takes her favorite Paris out of battle and away from the vengeance of the husband whose wife he stole (47). Shortly thereafter Ares is not smart enough to avoid interfering in battle and has to be corrected by the much wiser Athena (63). In this same battle, Aphrodite is wounded by the Greek Diomedes and shows herself to be rather cowardly (69-70). Then, a bit later, Diomedes even frightens Ares so much that he tries to go to Zeus for help against a mere mortal (80-81). Near the end of the poem Ares is solidly bested by Athena (307-308) who demonstrates the superiority of wisdom to mere brute force. In all of these ways both Aphrodite and Ares are shown up and demonstrated to be rather pathetic beings despite their fearsome reputation.
It is worthwhile to wonder what exactly Homer was trying to accomplish with his comic treatment of both Ares and Aphrodite. Throughout the Iliad as a whole both Zeus and Athena are viewed consistently highly. Zeus is seen in an almost henotheistic fashion, as more powerful than all of the other gods and goddesses in the Greek pantheon and one whose will cannot be thwarted, even if others dissent with it and grouse about the way that Zeus tries to bully them around and interfere with their domains. Athena, likewise, is portrayed as wise and shrewd in her dealings and possessed of both intellect and considerable valor, in stark contrast to Hera, who agrees with Athena concerning the way they would like the war between Greece and Troy to go but has much less self-command and much less ability to hold her tongue in arguments and disputes with Zeus. Homer appears to be supporting the rights of the power to do what they can and the self-command of those who must suffer what they must in this portrayal of the gods, and the showy nature of both Ares and Aphrodite despite their weakness demonstrates that neither erotic love nor warmongering are appropriate actions to celebrate, something we would do well to remember, as a heathen poet should not a more elevated system of morals than we in our more civilized times.
Why does Homer, like the Bible, equate hating God with loving death? This is a question that gets to the heart not only of the Iliad but also of many of our contemporary problems in society. Homer was aware of the reality of death for mankind, and understood something many people nowadays forget, that we human beings are not in control of our own destiny, but rather subject to the whims and influence of the spiritual world. As Homer points out, many of these influences are not good ones–a Christian would be strongly tempted to call many of the spiritual aspects of this book to be demonic in nature. Because mankind is not in control of the universe but is subject to a higher authority, to hate and rebel against that authority is to love death. And so it is in Greek literature as well as the Bible, even if that equation is demonstrated differently. The Greek and Trojan heroes sought glory even as they realized that it meant the waste and destruction of their lives and cities, the raping of their women, the burning of their homes, and even the massacre of their helpless children. To hate God’s ways was truly to court destruction on a massive scale, something we would do well to remember in our own times.