Just who or what the gods and goddesses are is one of the Iliad’s most intriguing questions. Sometimes they are religious figures, sometimes allegorical, sometimes psychological. Their relation to humans is extremely complex.
One way of looking at the gods is as a way of explaining how or why an event took place. Thus, if a warrior throws a spear at another warrior and misses, Homer might say that Athene caused the spear to overshoot its target. Similar to this approach is a psychological reading of the gods. When Helen is arguing with Aphrodite about going to Paris in Book III, we could say that’s another way of Helen talking to herself and trying to figure out her true desire.
Sometimes the immortals in the Iliad can be seen as abstracted powers. Ares, for instance, is sometimes conceived of as war itself, not as a character. When the ground springs into bloom beneath Hera and Zeus in Book XIV, we could say that these two immortals themselves are possessed of the abstracted power of Aphrodite or, simply, love and fertility.
It is also clear that the gods and goddesses are characters in the Iliad, and as such display individuality and will in their actions. They are used as comic relief from the war, mimicking and mocking mortals. They are even parodies of humanity, and since they are supposedly so powerful (they’re quite literally “above it all” on Olympos), their squabbles and tricks seem foolish in comparison. As characters, Homer uses the immortals skillfully to further his plot. They can intervene, favor one side or another, and force mortals to do things against their will.
Though they can manipulate human lives, it is not at all clear that they can change human destiny. Thus, all their machinations may just be another way of saying this or that event took place. Comic or terrifying, they have this distinction in the poem — they are entirely creatures of the imagination. Unless, of course, they are real!…