Divine Intervention in Western Epic

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Throughout the history of western literature, divine intervention has been a common theme. This is particularly apparent in the genre of epic poetry, where gods, heroes, and normal humans all interact. In the ancient Greek and Roman epics of the Odyssey and Aeneid, the pantheon of gods often intervenes on behalf of their favorite people. Long after the Christianization of the West, John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost would show the nature of divinity from a Protestant Christian perspective. The most important difference between all of these epics is their view of divinity: the Odyssey shows gods as exceptionally powerful beings with little transcendence over humanity, the Aeneid shows a similar view but with Fate as an additional force, and Paradise Lost shows a single, omnipotent God who fulfills the roles of both the Greek intervener and the Roman Fate in a single Being.

In the Greek Odyssey¸ Homer’s presentation of divine intervention centers around the concept of a patron god or goddess, who bestows particular favor on a person. Of course, a divinity may also be hostile to a certain person. Divine treatement of mortals frames the conflict which drives much of the entire plot of the story.

Athena is Odysseus’ patron goddess. She often intervenes for him by interceding for him to the other gods. For example, the poem, beginning in medias res with a council of gods debating what to do with Odysseus, frames the conflict of the book with her pathos-charged appeal to the other gods to allow Odysseus to return home: “But such desire is in him/merely to see the hearthsmoke leaping upward/from his own island, that he longs to die.”1 This both emphasizes how much Athena cares about Odysseus and frames the book with the theme of returning home with a goddess’ help. She, of course, has a reason for her fondness for Odysseus: she finds a sense of comradeship with him because both she and he are tricksters, saying “Two of a kind, we are/contrivers, both.”2 Thus, she is quite loyal to his cause, viewing it with a sort of personal interest.

Not only does she persuade the gods to allow Odysseus to return home, but she also acts to cause his return to happen, intervening in the physical world. This theme weaves throughout the book. For example, when Odysseus is going to the palace of Alkínoös, Athena hides him in fog3 and leads him there in disguise.4 She also uses her power to change people’s emotions to be more open to him; for Odysseus to get help from Alkínoös, he needs to be able to speak with his daughter, who Athena “[gives] a bold heart”5 so that she may be be able to talk with him. Additionally, Athena modifies Odysseus’ appearance on many occasions. When he was going to meet Alkínoös, she made him “taller, and massive too, with crisping hair/in curls like petals of wild hyacinth,/but all red-golden…just so she lavished/beauty over Odysseus’ head and shoulders.”6 She also changes his appearance when he is returning home and stays at his swineherd Eumaios’s hut, temporarily disguising him as a beggar.7

Athena’s favor also extends to Odysseus’s son Telémakhos. Athena, disguised as a friend in order to guide Telémakhos, tells him that “the gods were never indifferent to your life.”8 This favor is important to Athena’s status as Odysseus’ patroness, because familial relationships were considered quite important in Greek culture; this can be seen when Zeus describes Ithaca as “[Odysseus] father’s country;”9 any patron would also wish goodwill on the child of the patronee.

Poseidon, on the other hand dislikes Odysseus. His dislike of Odysseus stems from Odysseus’ blinding the cyclops Polyphêmos, Poseidon’s son.10 He constantly tries to prevent Odysseus from being able to return home. The gods are thus in conflict: Zeus says that “Only…/Poseidon, bears the fighter an old grudge/since he poked out the eye of Polyphêmos,”11 but, (presumably because of the other divinities’ protection, “he does not kill the man;/he only buffets him away from home.”12 This “buffeting” is the subject of nearly all Odysseus’ sufferings and causes the protraction of his return that makes up the substance of the plot.

In Virgil’s Aeneid, the gods squabble much in the same way as in the Odyssey. Like Odysseus, the main character Aeneas has a patron goddess, Venus. Venus intercedes for Odysseus, begging Vulcan to assist him in his fight to be able to settle in Italy.13 Just as in the Odyssey, a goddess opposes this hero too; Juno opposes Aeneas, asking Aeolus to try to foil Aeneas voyage to Italy, saying that “the race I hate is crossing the Tuscan sea…Put new fury into your winds, and make the long ships flounder,”14 which he does.15

In addition to the gods, however, Fate itself intervenes as a force. Like Athena, it affects Aeneas’ emotions; when Dido begged him to stay with her in Carthage, “no tears moved him, no one’s voice would he /Attend to tractably. The fates apposed it;/God’s will blocked the man’s once kindly ears.”16 Similar to Odysseus’ frequent acknowledgement of the gods’ assistance, Aeneas acknowledges the power of Fate, considering it when deciding where to settle.17 However, Fate is not necessarily fixed and unchangeable. When Venus begs Vulcan to help Aeneas, he says, “If concern like this/Had moved you in the old days, even then/I might have armed the Trojans lawfully—/For neither Jove almighty nor the Fates/Forbade Troy to endure.”18 This is interesting, as Fate clearly plays a role in Aeneas’ journey. Vulcan seems to almost present a conflicting view of Fate as both strong and overpowering and changeable. It seems that the Romans had conflicting ideas about the strength of Fate, wavering between viewing it as a strong force that determines destiny and something which changes, sometimes conflicting with the gods. It is possible that this conflicting view in the ancient world may have rendered many people more open to Christianity.

In contrast to both ancient epics, Milton’s Paradise Lost portrays an omnipotent God who exerts his will with the same force of will as Fate. Milton came much later than these earlier authors and, as a Protestant Christian, had significantly different viewpoints about divinity. While, as a Christian, he would have discounted the existence of any sort of pantheon, he decided instead to present God as filling all the responsibilities and powers of the ancient pantheons, thus emphasizing His omnipotence, which he further emphasizes opening by calling Him “the Almighty Power.”19 Additionally, God fills the same place as Fate in the ancient epics, presenting a paradox between predestination and free will which Milton seeks to resolve throughout the epic, writing that he wishes to “justify the ways of God to men.” 20 Nevertheless, free will of other characters does play a part, as God the Father asserts that, “Freely they fell who fell, and stood who stood./Not free, what proof could they have given sincere/Of true allegiance, constant faith or love…What pleasure I from obedience paid,/When will and reason…Made passive both, had serv’d necessity…?”21 In other words, sovereign God created his creation with free will, because they would not be able to glorify him without it.

The conflict, unlike in the ancient epics where the heroes attempting some goal have gods both for and against them, the Hero is Himself the Son of God, who is God Himself.22 The conflict is then between God and His creation, over which He holds absolute power. Raphael, an angel and messenger of God, calls him “One Almighty…from whom/All things proceed, and up to him return…”23 Satan, an angel who rebelled, comes into conflict with God when he rebels, attempting to present himself as a god. Milton writes of Satan’s followers, “Towards him they bend/with awful reverence prone, and as a god Extol him equal to the Highest in Heaven.”24 Satan himself refers to the rebel angels as “A third part of the Gods, in synod met/Their deities to assert…”25, encouraging his followers by inflating their hubris.

Thus, for purpose of comparison with the ancient epics, it seems reasonable to see Milton as presenting angels somewhat as sub-deities over whom God holds ultimate power. This literary treatment still reveals the stark difference of the two religious systems: where the pagan systems had deities as squabbling, independent powers, the Christian system presents a single God as the originator and creator of all other powers. The angels exert His will unless they choose to disobey, which has dire consequences: Satan’s rebellion doomed him and his followers to “Hell…fraught with fire/Unquenchable, the house of woe and pain.”26 Despite having created these beings with free will, God’s sovereignty is still manifested in his judgement.

Like in ancient myth, Milton’s God fulfills the role of an intercessor, the Son interceding to the Father for mankind. Of Adam and Eve’s repentant prayers, Milton writes, “To Heaven their prayers/Flew up…then clad/With incense, where the golden altar fumed,/By their great intercessor, came in sight/Before the Father’s throne: them the glad Son/Presenting, thus to intercede began.”27 In this passage, Milton shows that the prayers were not worthy, requiring the Son to present the requests. He chooses to use the word “clad” to allude to Adam and Eve’s clothing, to emphasize the imperfection of the prayers. Unlike in the ancient epics, the prayers of people directly reach to the pinnacle of divine power; the intercessor presents and enhances the prayers, while, in the ancient epics, intercessors present a person’s case themselves. An additional difference from the ancient myths is that the Son self-sacrifices as part of the intercession, saying “let me/Interpret for [Adam]; me, his advocate/And propitiation; all his works on me/Good, or not good, ingraft; my merit those/Shall perfect, and for these my death shall pay.”28 This type of propitious, redeeming self-sacrifice is foreign to the ancient epics, which prefer to instead focus on personal glory.

Throughout western history, views of the world have been expressed through literature. One area where this is quite apparent is the views of theology presented in epic poems. The Greek poet Homer’s Odyssey shows gods as powerful but non-transcendent, as does the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid, though Virgil adds a heavy-handed Fate; the English Christian poet Milton, however, shows in Paradise Lost that the Christian God is both like the Greek intercessor and the Roman Fate in one omnipotent Being. God’s omnipotence should bring all Christians comfort because His is also loving, as we can see through His selfless sacrifice and intercession. This ability to find comfort, rather than fear, in the existence of the gods may have had significant influence on the spread of Christianity. The Apostle Paul called this hope and comfort of redemption “that blessed hope,”29 emphasizing the eternal qualities of Christianity in a pagan world.



  1. Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 1.78-80.

  2. Homer, 13.379-380.

  3. Homer, 7.18.

  4. Homer, 7.22-23.

  5. Homer, 6.150-151.

  6. Homer, 6.244-250.

  7. Homer, 13.540-547.

  8. Homer, 3.33.

  9. Homer, 5.47.

  10. Homer, 9.548-585.

  11. Homer, 1.90-92.

  12. Homer, 1.97-98.

  13. Virgil, The Aeneid (New York, N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1990), 8.491-515.

  14. Virgil, 1.94-98.

  15. Virgil, 1.107-130.

  16. Virgil, 4.607-609.

  17. Virgil, 7.159-161.

  18. Virgil, 8.530-534.

  19. John Milton, Paradise Lost (Digireads, 2016), 1.44.

  20. Milton, 1.26.

  21. Milton, 3.101-109.

  22. While Milton does not explicitly make the unity clear (indeed, separating them may be somewhat necessary to make the Son clearly the epic hero), the genre of the epic somewhat forces the writer to respect the audience’s viewpoint, as the genre assumes that the audience anticipates the story. For Milton, his audience would have been Christians, who view the Son and the Father as the same essential being. John 10:30, Philippians 2:6.

  23. Milton, Paradise Lost, 5.469-470.

  24. Milton, 2.477-479.

  25. Milton, 6.156-157.

  26. Milton, 6.876-877.

  27. Milton, 11.14-21.

  28. Milton, 11.32-36.

  29. Titus 2:13 (King James Version).