The Iliad And The Avengers: Will The Real Spiderman Please Stand Up?
The Illiad and The Avengers may have more in common than you think. With Stan Less’s recent death, I started thinking about his work and Homer’s work. Especially and specifically, The Iliad and The Avengers. There are some interesting comparisons here and perhaps some observations of value. I read Spiderman comic books as a kid and so I’ll start here.
Who is your favorite cinematic Spider-Man? Tobey Maguire? Andrew Garfield? Tom Holland? Each took the name, wore the costume, had pretty much the same Spidey senses, and wielded a lot of the same Spidey powers. Each represented a different take on the character. Fans debate their individual merits and powers, sometimes heatedly. But in the end… they were all Spider-Man. Weren’t they?
Now consider the gods of the ancient Greek tribes. Each tribe had a Zeus, but none of them were exactly the same as any of the others. As the tribes formed alliances, settled territories, and built city-states, they acquired other shared gods. In time, each city-state had its own Apollo, Athena, and Hestia. Again, none were identical to his or her counterpart in the neighboring city-states. Imagine a hundred different takes on Zeus, Athena, and Apollo, and what’s even more important… a hundred different takes on their histories and hierarchy.
Oddly enough, the Greek city-states accepted this situation with a yawn for a long time. And then Homer came to change the game. He altered not only the players, but the very playing board itself.
An Excursus: The Iliad And The Avengers
To make that change clearer (or maybe more interesting), let’s consider for a moment the Marvel movie machine. From 2008 to 2011, Marvel Studios produced films featuring some of its most popular comic book superheroes: Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and Captain America.
In each film, one superhero is always the center of the action. We get to follow his history, his battles, and sometimes his growth as a hero. This means each hero shines brightly in his own film. And of course, in the world of big money movie marketing, each hero develops a nice fan following along the way. So, any comparisons that fans might have made between, say, Thor and Iron Man, were across the same cinematic boundaries that differentiate James Bond from Jason Bourne.
Well, kind of. Marvel fans operate knowing the movies were supposed to take place in the same universe, albeit a cinematic one. They know that all the Marvel heroes, at least in their comic book incarnations, had met before and perhaps even fought together on more than one occasion.
But the movie characters were different. Their story-lines and overall continuity had been severely altered (retconned) for the cinematic universe. In other words, until the movie heroes met on the big screen, none of us could really know how they would measure up to one another. Further, no one could tell how they would get along with each other, if at all. And, no one could be sure who would lead and who would follow. My son Matt and I debate such things on a regular level.
The Iliad And The Avengers: Then Came The Avengers In 2012
In this first Avengers’ movie, Captain America meets Iron Man. Almost immediately, there are mutual resentments rooted deep in the past. Iron Man also meets Thor and they exchange blows and blasts. Iron Man tosses in some sarcasm and gentle mockery, communication styles that the god of thunder had never experienced until then.
Black Widow makes overtures to Bruce Banner on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D., but Natasha is afraid of Bruce’s alter ego, the Hulk, and Bruce is afraid of a trap. Yet, there are hints of potential romance. Black Widow and Clint Barton (Hawkeye) are trained agents and already have a long history. When they are forced into hand-to-hand battle, their skills prove nearly equal.
The Hulk and Thor are not so evenly matched, however. Without his hammer, Thor doesn’t have a chance. Rivalries, egos, and competing priorities nearly tear the team apart, but the fate of the Earth pulls the heroes back to together and Captain America emerges as the leader.
Such is the world of “retcon”(retroactively generated continuity) or better stated, “movie reboot,” which the Avengers introduced in the 2012 Avengers’ movie. Interestingly, it’s the only storyline continuity that most Americans know today. Nevertheless, there might be a few comic book readers and collectors that would disagree with me.
The Iliad And The Avengers: Gods Of The Iliad
What The Avengers did for Marvel’s cinematic heroes, the Iliad did for the Greek gods. The Iliad standardized the gods. It firmly set their powers and gave them stations in life. Homer placed them side by side in the same consistent narrative. The Iliad also brought them into relationships with one another and so established the Olympian hierarchy of power and prestige.
In the Iliad, Zeus assumes a clear persona and understood role. He emerges as the undisputed king of the gods. The other gods may try to trick him or circumvent his authority… but they must inevitably fail. In fact, Zeus tells the other Olympians:
“Hang me a golden chain from heaven, and lay hold of it all of you, gods and goddesses together—tug as you will, you will not drag Jove the supreme counselor from heaven to earth; but were I to pull at it myself I should draw you up with earth and sea into the bargain, then would I bind the chain about some pinnacle of Olympus and leave you all dangling in the mid firmament. So far am I above all others either of gods or men.”
But Homer’s new Zeus is far from omnipotent. There are more than a few things in the cosmos that even he can’t control. (More on this in a bit)
And so the other gods assume far more insignificant roles and powers in the Iliad’s universe. They squabble and fight with each other. Their help to men always has an angle and often less than honorable value. Furthermore, on a couple of occasions, ordinary humans injure them and send them running for cover. Homer positions them as glorified men and women, and no better really than superheroes or supervillains.
The Iliad And The Avengers: The Failure Of The Olympians
And here’s the problem. In standardizing the gods and bringing them together in the same story, Homer shows us his cards. He reveals the gods and their limitations. All of them. Let’s look at two.
First, Homer shows us his gods’ moral failures. His gods lie and cheat, and they promote lust and infidelity. They are “sinful” humanity but done in a big “over-the-top way.” Neither in their essence nor in their actions do they provide any absolute moral standard for themselves, let alone mankind.
Second, Homer shows us that there is something behind and beneath the gods, a Fate or Necessity that is ultimately more powerful than they. Even Zeus doesn’t always have the last word, and neither does his wife.
The Iliad And The Avengers: Fate And Necessity
Homer and the later Greek writers spoke of the Moirai… the Fates, and of the word Ananke, which means a vague Necessity, as their “sometimes” mother. Here was divine power and cosmic inevitability which even Zeus could not match, turn back, or undo. Eventually, these forces were anthropomorphized as three goddesses… Clotho, who spun the thread of life, Lachesis, who measured it out, and Atropos, who cut the thread with her shears.
But in earlier times, Fate and Necessity were associated with daemons. Daemons were momentary gods, an effervescence in the divine substratum of the cosmos. They were nameless, impersonal, and irrational manifestations of power, and they were generally hostile to man. The Daemons moved men to foolish emotion and to irrational and unintentional actions. Lastly, they were viewed at the time as the source of most of man’s problems.
The Homeric man is absolutely under the dominion of the emotion of the moment. When passion has subsided and the unhappy consequences begin to appear, he says: “I did not desire this; hence I did not do it.” His own behavior has become something foreign to him. It seems to be something which has penetrated into him from without. He lays the blame on some daemon or god, on Ate or on Zeus, Moria, and Erinyes, as Agamemnon does in regard to his treatment of Achilles.
In other words, the whole plot of the Iliad was the fault of some transitory “bubbling up” in the divine… some momentary demonic influence that set Agamemnon and Achilles at odds. And yet the “will of Zeus was done.” Or was it?
The Iliad And The Avengers: Conclusion
In his valiant attempt to standardize and rationalize the Greek pantheon, Homer showed the gods to be no better than glorified and wicked men and women. In immortalizing the gods in literature, he destroyed them as objects of worship. The Iliad is both the finest expression of Greek polytheism and at the same time its death knell. This would make a great, expanded worldview study. Especially since…
It seems crazy to think that the very same conceptual framework… the standardizing of movie characters responsible for earning billions of dollars in movie revenues… pretty much destroyed the Greek gods and their formal religion.
And yet, like the aficionados and collectors that still read comic books despite all the movie redux and retcon… the cult of the Greek gods remains what it has always been: an unexamined excursion to the dark side.
There’s only one God, ma’am. And I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.
—Captain America, The Avengers (2012)
Even my father, mighty Odin, who is called all-powerful, doth lay no claim to supreme divinity. . . .
—Thor, The Avengers #171 (May 1978)
For Further Reading
Fustel de Coulanges, Numa Denis. The Ancient City. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955.
Harrison, Jane Ellen. Epilegomenato the Study of Greek Religion and Themis, A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion. New York: University Books, 1962.
Barrows, R. H. The Romans. Baltimore, MD: Pelican Books, 1949.
Frankfort, Henri, and Thorkild Jacobsen, et al., Before Philosophy, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1967.
Rushdoony, Rousas John. The One and the Many, Studies in the Philosophy of Ultimacy and Order. Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1978.
Nilsson, Martin P. A History of Greek Religion. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1964.
North, Gary. Unholy Spirits: Occultism and New Age Humanism. Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1986.
Dooyeweerd, Herman. Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular, and Christian Options. Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1979.