Where Did the Gods Go?

What does leaving the gods out of ‘Troy’ mean for humankind?

By Joseph Dispenza

A subtitle for the new blockbuster, “Troy,” could be: “Where Have All the Gods Gone?”

Except for a few jabs at the apparent powerlessness of the sun god Apollo, patron and protector of Troy, the gods are absent. In this way, the movie mimics America’s contemporary secular culture, where spirituality is kept discreetly out of public affairs. In the real Troy story, the gods play an active and decisive role. The story opens at a wedding feast on Mt. Olympus, the realm of the gods. King Peleus is marrying a sea goddess, Thetis. (They will become the parents of Brad Pitt…er, Achilles.)

One of the minor deities, Discord, has not been invited to the wedding for obvious reasons. Miffed, she tosses a golden apple into the banquet hall. When it comes to rest on the marble floor, the gods see that it is engraved, “For the Fairest One.” Immediately, the apple is claimed by three goddesses—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite.

To settle the dispute, the gods conscript a mortal, one of the hunky princes of Troy, Orlando Bloom…er, Paris, and bring him up to Olympus to make a judgment on the golden apple. One by one, the goddesses come to him secretly and offer him a bribe. Hera offers him power, Athena wisdom, and Aphrodite the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

For Paris, this is a no-brainer. He awards the apple to Aphrodite and receives in return the beautiful Helen, who is at the moment married to Menelaus, king of Sparta. The gods transport Paris to Sparta, where he and Helen instantly fall in love. The two flee to Troy. Menelaus calls his fellow Greek kings together; armies are assembled under Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus; they sail for Troy; and the rest, as they say, is history.

All during the ten years of the Trojan War, the gods, like celestial cheerleaders, root for their favorite side, often influencing the back-and-forth battle victories by direct divine intervention. They also figure highly in the end of the war: the Horse, created by the tricky hero, Odysseus, is sacred to Poseidon, god of the sea; by dragging it into their city, the Trojans believe they have captured the defining spiritual token of the withdrawing Greeks.

Troy the movie, unlike Troy the legend, is virtually godless. What references there are to the Olympians are couched in the arrogant boasting of heroes. As the helpless Trojans look on, Achilles chops off the head of Apollo’s statue, as if to say, “So much for your belief in spiritual help!” King Priam of Arabia…er, Troy…makes fatal state decisions based on the results of thus auguries by temple priests. The unintended message of “Troy” may be that in a world without gods—spirituality—we are deprived of life’s deeper meaning. What exactly are we learning about life from watching men battling it out with each other? One by one the great heroes of the war fall; eventually the invincible fortress of Troy itself falls. But their toppling appears to have little consequence beyond testosterone-provoked score-settling.

Ironically, Achilles, with his disdain for the gods, is brought into the conflict through his desire to be like them, immortal. Invulnerable except for his heel, the place where his mother held him to dip him into the mystical waters of the River Styx, he falls to the arrow as part of the same lethal game of tag.

In the Iliad, which “inspired” the film, all these heroic falls come to pass, but, with the gods involved, they have a far-reaching significance that affects the affairs of both mortals and immortals for the ages. The whole story of the Trojan War can been seen as a lesson in human—and divine—nature. It is a textbook in psychology, anthropology, cosmology, and metaphysics.

All the myths have something important to say about human nature, because they are always about the interaction of men with the gods. The myths are spiritual at their core, and therefore offer us guidance in how to relate to the higher power within us. A myth told without the gods is only half of the story, and not the better half at that.

In “Troy,” the gods have become useless, foolish, and even dangerous; to put our confidence in them is to bring about ruin. Like our secular culture, which avoids the mysterious (mythos) in favor of what we can see, hear, and measure (logos), a story of Troy without the gods is only about the arrogance of warriors and their strategies, which end in either victory or defeat. A story told misses the opportunity to teach us about the human heart and the human soul.

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