Trojan Gods

Every great once in a while Hollywood produces a major motion picture that demands the attention of scholars. Well, at least those of us who like to stay current about the way our subject is being displayed to the wider public. When Troy was released in 2004, I was still firmly engaged in teaching biblical studies and the Trojan War, although located somewhere at the fringes of the Ancient Near East, was not a particular concern. Now that I’m also teaching a mythology course that covers the Iliad, I figured I’d better watch the movie. For research purposes only, of course. Although I hadn’t seen the film before, I knew of the critics’ complaints that the gods, conspicuous in Homer, had been left out. I was expecting to be disappointed, but I found the movie to be more intelligent and subtle than I supposed it might be. The absence of the gods, distressing as it may be to purists, gave the movie an angst that is generally reserved for more cerebral subjects.

The question of where the gods might be in all the slaughter and destruction of war reminded me of a book that had profound influence on me several years ago. Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery (Little, Brown, 1995) traces the gradual withdrawal of God from the scene in the course of the writing of the Hebrew Bible. The god who appears so active in the early chapters of Genesis distances himself further and further until the latest writings, according to Friedman’s dating, show few traces of the divine at all. God subtly, quietly, goes away.

Portrayed as defying the power of the gods in the film, Achilles desecrates the temple of Apollo and seals his fate. Nevertheless, although he is shot by an archer, the death of the hero seems more like an arbitrary act than the design of divine majesty. The Greeks, after all, did win the war. Atheism, however, did not exist in any real terms in the twelfth century before the Common Era. Then again, Achilles probably did not exist in any real terms either. Although Troy will never be among my list of most profound films, its commentary on the quiet skies of ancient Ilium serves as a useful metaphor, even for today.

11 thoughts on “Trojan Gods

  1. Daniel O. McClellan

    It struck me that Troy seemed to be a naturalistic presentation of the events behind the traditions (I don’t think it could have worked with invisible deities manipulating people and circumstances in every scene). For instance, according to Statius’ version, Achilles dies because he is shot in the heel, his one weak spot. In the movie he is shot repeatedly in the chest, but pulls those arrows out, leaving only the arrow sticking out of his heel. His body would have been found with only one arrow in his heel, catalyzing the tradition that it was that shot alone that killed him.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Thanks, Daniel. This is good information. My main source of reading on Troy has been Homer, so it is interesting to see where some of the other traditions come in. You are right about the naturalistic representation. What surprised me so much was that the critics really hit on this point as if a naturalistic representation of a somewhat historical event had never been done before!

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  2. Joseph Kelly

    Are you familiar with Balentine’s The Hidden God? If so, are these two books comparable?

    There was a paper read at SBL last November on Biblical Theology and Narrative Character Development, asking if they were compatible. This particular feature of God in the Hebrew Bible was one of the concerns of the paper, and I am interested in exploring it some more.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Hi Joseph,

      I’ve read some of Balentine’s other works, but not this particular one. I should put it on my reading list. What was your impression from the SBL session? (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend last year.)

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      • Joseph Kelly

        Actually, the session occurred at the same time that John Anderson was presenting his paper, so when I ran into Mark McEntire (the author), I asked if he would send me the paper by email, which he did. It was very interesting.

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  3. atimetorend

    The god who appears so active in the early chapters of Genesis distances himself further and further until the latest writings, according to Friedman’s dating, show few traces of the divine at all. God subtly, quietly, goes away.

    …only to be briefly revived in the new Christian writings a few short centuries later.

    My favorite Christian apologetic to describe the discrepancy between what we read and what we see is that those were isolated and uncommon events in history (parting of the seas, tongues of fire in Acts, Elijah calling down fire on the offering, etc.), and the people typically lived in the same day to day absence of miracles which we know. I like it because I think it is true, people lived without experiencing God that way. But the bible then is upheld as the way we are to know God. So that’s kind of funny, that God would choose to reveal himself in a way he won’t reveal himself any longer.

    I know, I am still shaking the webs of evangelical apologetics off myself. :^)

    Sounds like a good book.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      It is a challenging book for many. A friend of mine who used to work for Little, Brown (and who is now a clergywoman) strongly suggested that I read the book. I read it along with some other truly mind-stretching tomes one January and it has affected my outlook ever since.

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  4. Henk van der Gaast

    I still never get it. I never got it and I probably wont understand it. When I was in my twenties, I had thought Wood’s “In Search of Troy” must have been the only accurate documentary on Schliemann and Homer. It was of course the story of a precocious view of the early archaeologist.

    The documentary even dragged out Hittite writings on diplomacy that may have had a direct bearing on “Troy” itself.

    Over the years the Agamemnon story seems more unlikely by the day.

    I’m glad Homer and Herodotus have a recognised subjective image rather than the literal recognition that the ancient history course at my school had.

    Personally, by the number of sackings identified at the Schliemann site; I would think this legendary settlement had problems of ease of access by armies from states all around it. Hisarlik would have been all to easy to tag as Troy.

    Natural interpretation in the visual arts or no, Troy again was romanticised.

    Does it deserve special mention as a city-state over any other such settlement? Unless you have a recorded soap story, the viewing public just aren’t going to remember a damn thing. Try Jerusalem and Ur for size… ask any kid if they have heard of Eridu or Palmyra.

    I was happy with the non-natural license of the film.. I was also going to sue the company over dressing Achilles up to look like me!

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Point well taken! Many ancient cities were repeated sacked with much human suffering and likely some heroics on the part of unnamed Achilleses and the useless deaths of others. Because the Greeks popularized Troy, whether or not they ever fought it, everyone knows the story. Ugarit, meanwhile, remains a forgotten name among most people of antiquarian interests, but certainly provides much important information on the Bronze Age of civilization in the Mediterranean world.

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  5. Troy is an important movie to watch if you are teaching the Iliad to undergrads. When I started teaching the Iliad as part of a general humanities course, I was confused how students kept condensing Briseis and Chrysies into one woman. The reason? They had watched the movie first. It also colours how they view Agamemnon and the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      I agree. I was startled to see Menelaus die so quickly, Ajax to follow shortly thereafter, and even Agamemnon to buy the farm before getting back home! Movies are a great venue for exploring the larger themes (sometimes), but the story, as told, doesn’t often fit into Hollywood format.

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