In my copy of the Iliad, which is a Mentor Book published in April 1938, it opens like this:

An angry man—there is my story: The bitter rancour of Achillês, prince of the house of Peleus, which brought a thousand troubles upon the Achaian host. Many a strong soul it sent down to Hadês, and left the heroes themselves a prey to dogs and carrion birds, while the will of God moved on to fulfilment.
(translated by W. H. D. Rouse, 1938)

What is the "will of God" doing here? In a story about the Greek gods and heroes is not where I'd expect to see mention of a monotheistic God, especially a term like "the will of God". What's this doing here?


2 Answers 2


That's a poor translation, although an understandable one; it should be "Zeus".

First I checked a number of other English translations of the Iliad; it was easy to find the relevant passage in each one, since it's the very first paragraph of the whole thing. Here are a few I found, with the corresponding phrase highlighted by me in each case:

  • Goddess, sing me the anger, of Achilles, Peleus’ son, that fatal anger that brought countless sorrows on the Greeks, and sent many valiant souls of warriors down to Hades, leaving their bodies as spoil for dogs and carrion birds: for thus was the will of Zeus brought to fulfilment. Sing of it from the moment when Agamemnon, Atreus’ son, that king of men, parted in wrath from noble Achilles.

    Translated by A. S. Kline, 2009

  • The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus' son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes, and made them themselves spoil for dogs and every bird; thus the plan of Zeus came to fulfillment, from the time when first they parted in strife Atreus' son, king of men, and brilliant Achilles.

    Translated by A. T. Murray, 1924

  • Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

    Translated by Samuel Butler, 1898

Bearing in mind that Jove is one of the Roman names for the adapted Greek god Zeus, all of these translations suggest that the monotheistic-sounding "will of God" is an anachronism and it should really refer to Zeus. Let's now take a look at the "original" (for some value of original) Ancient Greek text, sourced from here:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

The key word here is Διὸς, which is (with a capital delta) the genitive singular of Ζεύς (Zeus). Interestingly the same word with a lower-case delta, δῖος, can mean heavenly, divine, noble, and it's actually used that way in the very same passage, two lines later, to refer to Achilles. This looks like a piece of Ancient Greek wordplay that's not preserved in any of the above translations. The word is also presumably cognate with the Latin deus and the English deity, both meaning simply "god" (not necessarily monotheistic). Hence my comment that the translation error is an understandable one.

  • 10
    It's worth noting that there's a lot of ancient Greek writing that will talk about God that sounds to modern ears as if it's meant as the monotheistic God, but is, in fact, a reference to the divine instead. Plato does this a lot in his writing. Commented Sep 29, 2021 at 5:29
  • @al'Thor. I'm just curious. If you know, what is the Greek (ancient Greek) for "god" generically? There must be a great deal of literature using this word, because the nature and character of all their various gods is a common theme, and the dialog in plays often bemoan humanity's vulnerability to their whims.
    – cycollins
    Commented Sep 29, 2021 at 18:19
  • 2
    @al'Thor After I posted this, I felt silly. It's "theos", with a theta (I don't know how to typeset in greek on these comments). Hence, "theology", "theocracy", etc.
    – cycollins
    Commented Sep 29, 2021 at 19:29
  • 1
    theos -> "θεός". ΘΕΟΣ in capitals. Commented Sep 30, 2021 at 16:16
  • By the way, ΘΕΟΣ = (male) god. Referring to female god (goddess) is thea, "θεά", ΘΕΑ. Commented Sep 30, 2021 at 16:20

The Greek is “Διὸς … βουλή” where “βουλή” means “will” and “Διὸς” is the genitive of “Ζεύς”, hence “will of Zeus”.

So why did Rouse translate “Zeus” as “God” here? This is clearly a deliberate strategy and not a mistake (as suggested by the other answer), because Rouse makes this choice in many places in the text. Here are three examples, comparing Rouse’s translation to the 1924 translation of A. T. Murray:

I.63 καὶ γάρ τ᾽ ὄναρ ἐκ Διός ἐστιν,
[Murray] for a dream too is from Zeus
[Rouse] for God, it seems, doth send our dreams

I.85 ‘θαρσήσας μάλα εἰπὲ θεοπρόπιον ὅ τι οἶσθα:
[Murray] Take heart, and speak out whatever oracle you know
[Rouse] Fear nothing, but speak the word of God which you know.

II.205 εἷς βασιλεύς, ᾧ δῶκε Κρόνου πάϊς ἀγκυλομήτεω
[Murray] one king, to whom the son of crooked-counselling Cronos [that is, Zeus]
[Rouse] One king’s enough for me, and why? He gets the right from God on high!

What I think Rouse had in mind, is that there is a risk in translating the Iliad, of allowing the modern reader to interpret the Homeric gods in a very different way from the ancient audience. The modern reader is likely to take the gods as characters in a story, like the heroes but with extra magic, missing the divinity and reverence they were accorded by Homer’s audience. So Rouse uses “God” to translate various religious concepts—“Zeus”, “oracle” and “son of Cronos” in the three examples I gave above—in an attempt to convey to a modern, Christian, reader the piety of the speaker in the poem.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.