Mortals: The Playthings of Zeus
Mortals: The Playthings of Zeus
Odysseus escapes the island of Cyclops unharmed. He manages to avoid death at the face of Scylla and Charybdis. And he brings the witch Circe under his control and saves his companions… Though The Odyssey is an epic celebrated for the heroism of Odysseus, there are many instances of synchronicities that keep us from attributing the hero’s success to his abilities alone. And with prophesies and divine interventions occurring throughout, the debate emerges as to the relative significance fate and free will hold in the epic world.
Yet, a careful read of the poem provides us with a new angle. In The Odyssey, humans possess free will only in the short run, since every outcome of events is governed by the decree of Zeus, which the humans deem as fate. Still, this ‘fate’ is not a fate after all, because, as it is subject to the whims of Zeus, it often lacks the crucial quality of having been decreed with a strict adherence to time. The epic insinuates that, ultimately, mortals are left with neither fate nor free will, but only with the free will of Zeus.
Though human beings in The Odyssey lack free will in the long run, it is undeniable that they do have choices over their will and action at any given moment in their lives. This is exemplified by the scene in which the goddess Kalypso has to give into Zeus’s order and offer Odysseus the chance to leave her island. Seeing Odysseus ecstatic upon the notice, Kalypso nonetheless tries to make her lover stay: “Son of Laetres and seed of Zeus…are you still all so eager to go on back to your own house and the land of your fathers…stay here with me and be the lord of this household and be immortal…” (Odyssey 93)
It is interesting to note that even as a goddess, Kalypso does not use her power to control Odysseus’ actions. She only questions his idea of homecoming and offers attractive compensations in the hopes of changing his mind. In response to the persuasion, Odysseus claims that despite the guaranteed prosperity, he so longs to earn glory and respect through homecoming that he would endure the adventure even if ‘some god batters him far out on the wine-blue water’ (Odyssey 94). Odysseus clearly is independent from a divine power in making his decision, for his reasons are highly personal and it is only he who decides to stand fearless against danger. In addition, the fact that Zeus merely orders Kalypso to forego her control even though he certainly has the power to move Odysseus out of the island himself further supports the view that, at least in the short run of events, Zeus, and junior gods like Kalypso, seem to allow humans choices.
However, having free will in the short run does not ensure free will in the long run. Hence, we should not be hasty in concluding that humans in The Odyssey are able to shape the turn of events in their lives. Unfortunately for the mortals in the epic, though they are given choices for almost all the actions they partake in, they are portrayed as being unable to avoid whatever the gods have in store for them—that is to say, their “fate”. One of the most prominent examples of this in the epic is that Odysseus would demolish the suitors upon his homecoming, which is conveyed by a number of omens. One of these portents occurs during Menelaos’ dinner party, when an eagle flies by with a goose in his talons. In response, Helen makes the following interpretation: “Hear me… the way the immortals put it into my heart…so Odysseus…will come home and take revenge; or he is already home, and making a plan of evil for all the suitors.” (Odysseus 229-230)
The most important part of Helen’s speech is that it is the gods—most likely with the consent of Zeus, as it always is the case—who have put the prophecy into her mind, rendering the eagle’s action to be seen as a divine message foreshadowing an unavoidable outcome of events. In order to make their scenario come true, the immortals, though they do not directly control the humans the way they please, do influence their behaviors so that Odysseus (as represented by an eagle) would become victorious in the finale. This is clearly shown in the battle scene between Odysseus and the band of suitors, in which Athene participates: “…the suitors aimed at them with their sharp spears, and threw, but Athene made vain most of their casts so that one man threw his spear against the pillar sustaining the strong-built palace, another into the door…” (Odyssey 328)
By intervening, Athene brings disorientation to the enemy, whom Odysseus easily kills, thereby fulfilling both his and the suitors’ so-called destiny. It must be noted that until this point the suitors certainly do have free will in every action they carry out. They plunder Odysseus’s house, plan to murder Telemachos, and harass Penelope—in the hope of maximizing their power in the household. Yet Zeus has not been on their side, and hence all of them have to face an untimely death at the hands of Odysseus. Now, is it logical to say that humans can exercise free will in the long run even if their actions have no influence in helping them achieve their end goal?
Nevertheless, The Odyssey makes us wonder whether ‘fate’ truly is a valid term. By most standards fate means ‘that which is inevitably predetermined (for the humans),’ a definition which in principle prohibits the creator of human fate, Zeus, from altering it once decreed. Because the players (the mortals) are not aware of Zeus’ action, instances may seem to be fated like the case of Odysseus and the suitors, but in reality they are engineered happenings that perhaps have been ‘edited’ according to his whims. In fact, the epic illustrates a number of cases in which Zeus exercises freedom in manipulating the ‘fate’ of the human beings, one of which is portrayed in the beginning. For example, Zeus agrees to detain Odysseus on the island of Kalypso because Poseidon—angry at the hero for blinding his son—has insisted that Odysseus never be rendered the chance to return home. However, once Poseidon goes to visit the Aithiopians, Athene begins to sympathize and talk of Odysseus’s piety to Zeus, and persuades him in to executing the divine will for Odysseus in the following way: “…our absolute purpose: the homecoming of enduring Odysseus… for so it is fated that he shall see his people and come back to his house with the high roof and to the land of this fathers” (Odyssey 89).
Had Zeus truly abided by the concept of fate, he should have decreed not only ‘what’ happens but also ‘when.’ Though it remains debatable whether Zeus has always planned the homecoming of Odysseus, it is evident that he does amend the agenda—an action that undermines the validity of the term ‘fated’. Timing is an indispensable factor in terms of fate, especially in an epic like The Odyssey, where an event can tremendously impact the plot depending on the circumstances in which it occurs. For instance, had Odysseus’s men opened the bag of winds only later on, the crew would have reached Ithaka not only earlier but also with more men surviving. By observing the flexible nature of Zeus, we are able to conclude that he is situation-dependent when making decisions and is not hesitant to manipulate. Instead of inscribing a set of events on a stone and allowing the world to operate accordingly, Zeus often keeps pace with the mortals and alters the tempo of happenings—if not the outcome itself. Therefore, according to the epic, what is referred to as fate is actually a misnomer; as it is rather the product of Zeus’ whims and hence his free will. After all, humans are left with neither free will nor fate. They are mere helpless entities governed by the volatile disposition of the king of gods.
Cognizant of such conclusion, we may acquire a whole new perspective of the characters in The Odyssey. The epic has been celebrated for centuries for its outstanding delineation of the achievements and the struggles Odysseus copes with during the course of his adventure. Yet after inferring how human actions have no influence in bringing about the desired outcome and that it is only the mind of Zeus that shapes the mortal world, we may begin to question whether the hero truly is deserving of all the praise and respect he earns; he, like the rest of the humans, is a mere puppet of the gods. Likewise, our fantasy of the immortal beings—especially Zeus—as serious and flawless entities is jeopardized, for throughout the epic they portray themselves as more human than divine (by showing their whims and indecisiveness, for instance). In essence, the philosophical deduction proves to be of a great value. It not only provides a unique insight into the question of free will and fate, but also paves way for new interpretations of the renowned epic poem.
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