The Issues Of Gods And The Fate In The Iliad
Considering divinity, destiny, and the existence of free will is not a concept that is exclusive to Greek Literature; in fact, whenever there are predetermined, all-powerful entities that guide the actions of lesser beings, it is quite natural to question the agency of those being guided. For instance, those that subscribe to any particular religion might ask themselves, ‘if my deities have a plan for me, does everything I do fall in line with that plan? Are the choices I make my own choices, or are they steps that have been predetermined before my creation?’ But given the rather distant nature of contemporary deities, a follower might find it relatively easy to believe in free will since there are often no concrete manifestations of their deities’ guidance. However, in the Homeric epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, the gods’ involvement in mortal lives is much more concrete, forceful, and apparent because they are often bluntly guiding the course of events on earth. So, when their deities are so actively imposing their will on the lives of mortals, how do the characters of both Homeric epics maintain the illusion of free will? By analyzing the complex relationships between gods, fate, and human agency in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, the reader stands to gain a deeper understanding of the characters in both epics.
In Homer’s two epic poems, the relationships between gods and mortal men are often wrought with complications. The characters in both the Iliad and the Odyssey seem capable of not only accepting the existence of both fate and free will, but also the power and influence of divine will. The main characters in both the Iliad and the Odyssey recognize that the gods are guided by human-esque emotions, and are capable of both inflicting pain and offering assistance to the mortals that incite strong emotions among them. Despite Apollo’s assertion in Book V of the Iliad that “never the same is the breed of gods, who are immortal, and men who walk groundling” ( Iliad V, 441-442), the similarities between gods and men in Homer’s texts are almost comically evident. The parallels begin when one considers Homer’s anthropomorphic depiction of the gods: the immortals are described as having mortal forms, mortal personas and subscribing to the mortal structures of family and hierarchy. Additionally, very much unlike the modern perception of deities as distant figures with minimal direct involvement in the lives of mortals, the Greek gods seem to more closely resemble a middle-school playground, using mortals as their playthings and bargaining chips. For example, the gods’ constant discord regarding Odysseus’ nostos in t he Odyssey and the outcome of the Trojan war in the Iliad led to haphazard and contradicting divine intervention throughout both poems. Poseidon, angry at Odysseus for blinding his son Polyphemus, complicates Odysseus’ homecoming time and again. Hera, angered by Paris’ insult to her beauty, actively supports the Achaeans throughout the Trojan War. While mortal conflicts have relatively small implications, the gods’ petty actions often lead to rippling conflict as well as the deaths of scores of mortal men. Therein lies the ultimate difference between gods and men: though mortal men, even heroes, will eventually die, the human-like gods will never perish.
Odysseus, filled with awe when Hermes plucks an herb that would be “dangerous for mortal men to pluck from the soil”, justifies this act by saying that, for the gods, “all lies within their power” ( Odyssey X, 339-341). And Odysseus is mostly correct; though the gods are not entirely omnipotent, in both the Iliad and the Odyssey the gods often have absolute power over mortals. But, because Homer’s gods are depicted as neither fully divine nor fully human, they are sometimes bound by certain human limitations. This phenomena is illustrated in one of the battles of the Iliad. Aphrodite, in an attempt to protect her son Aeneas, is wounded on the battlefield by Diomedes, who goes on to wound Ares as well. In his lament to Zeus upon returning to Olympus, Ares says “We who are gods forever have to endure the most horrible hurts, by each other’s hatred, as we try to give favor to mortals.” ( Iliad V, 873-874) Aside from its whiny nature, this statement is extremely important because it makes clear the relationship between gods and men in Homer’s works. Ares, Aphrodite, Athena and Apollo involved themselves in this human battle due to either an emotional attachment to a mortal on the field or by “each other’s hatred”, and were injured for bodily engaging in the lives and conflicts of mortals. Significantly, the gods were only injured; for mortals however, the involvement of the gods (identified as “favor” by Ares), often has the unfortunate side effect of inciting more conflict among men, resulting in thousands more mortal deaths.
The triviality with which Hera offers Argos, Sparta and Mykenai for Zeus to raze whenever they become “hateful to [his] heart” ( Iliad IV, 52-53) is yet another example of the god’s flippant attitude toward human, non-hero lives. This dichotomy between the inconsequence of quarrel between the gods and the deathly consequences of those quarrels on mortals is accurately described by Odysseus when he says,
“Of all that breathes and crawls across the earth, our mother earth breeds nothing feebler than a man. So long as the gods grant him power, spring in his knees, he thinks he will never suffer affliction down the years. But then, when the happy gods bring on the long hard times, bear them he must, against his will, and steel his heart. Our lives, our mood and mind as we pass across the earth, turn as the days turn… as the father of men makes each day dawn.” ( Odyssey XVIII, 150-158)
In this quote, Odysseus describes the precarity of human life: forever depending on the whims of fickle gods. By describing humans as “feeble” creatures that “breathe” and “crawl” across the earth, Odysseus highlights the wretched nature of mortal life. His wording also serves to accentuate the absolute power that gods have over humans. Odysseus’ statement could also be interpreted as a warning against overconfidence, especially when one considers his difficult nostos; he warns that a man who the gods have “grant[ed]…power”, should not think that his good fortune will last because when the “happy gods” make life difficult for him, he will have to endure that as well. By describing the gods as “happy” deities though they are inflicting pain, Odysseus intimates the mercurial nature of the gods. Their whims have the power to transform a mortal’s earthly reality from heaven to hell in an instant. Despite the gods’ nature, Odysseus urges mortals to “bear [the hard times]…against his will, and steel his heart”. Perhaps he encourages endurance because Odysseus sees this resignation to the whims of the gods as the burden of mortality. Mortals must submit simply because they are mortal; their fleeting lives “turn as the days turn”, and thus if the gods “make each day dawn”, mortals have no choice but to submit.
However, the whims of gods do not come without certain checks and balances; the nuanced bureaucracy in Olympus constrains the actions of the gods in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the Iliad, the circumstances of Sarpedon’s death intimate these divine politics. Just as Patroklos is about to kill Sarpedon, son of Zeus, Zeus laments aloud saying, “It is destined that the dearest of men, Sarpedon, must go down…The heart in my breast is balanced between two ways as I ponder, whether I should snatch him out of the sorrowful battle and set him down still alive… or beat him under at the hands of the son of Menoitios.” ( Iliad XVI, 433-438). Although Sarpedon is already “destined” to go down at the hands of Patroklos, Zeus still considers defying destiny and saving Sarpedon. The inevitability implied by the word “destiny” is belied by Zeus’ lament; it seems as if gods can, in fact, defy destiny. It is actually Hera’s threat of scorn and retaliation from the other gods that stays Zeus’ hand. Similarly, in the Odyssey, Zeus commands Poseidon to let go of his grudge against Odysseus, questioning how Poseidon could “stand his ground against the will of all the gods at once – one god alone?” ( Odyssey I, 93-95) This implies a “majority rules” mentality, suggesting that the will of one god, if not in line with most of the other gods, cannot stand. A similar situation occurs at the end of the Iliad: despite Achilles’ best efforts to defile Hektor’s body, the body is preserved by the gods after lengthy debate in Olympus. Though most of the gods agree that pious Hektor’s body should be preserved, Hera disagrees, saying, “Hektor is mortal, and suckled from the breast of a woman, while Achilleus is the child of a goddess..” ( Iliad XXIV, 56-59). Here, Hera is in the minority and thus Hektor is returned to Priam. On a base level, this majority-rules system might call to mind the United States Senate or House of Representatives, with two important, fundamental differences: the gods were not elected, and thus cannot be trusted to have mortal’s best interests at heart. They also do not serve under a specified term, since they are immortal. Thus, this godly system of decision-making raises two important questions: are all of the events that happen on earth solely the workings of gods? Are other gods the only thing that keep gods in check?
Although unilateral this godly government might seem, the gods are not omnipotent; in questioning the role of the gods in the Iliad and the Odyssey, one must also take into account fate and destiny. For instance, when Zeus chooses to reluctantly let destiny play out regarding Sarpedon’s death, a query regarding divine power is introduced: are destiny and fate truly inevitable, or do the gods simply choose to follow their decrees? In the Odyssey, Athena tells Telemachus that “not even the gods can defend a man, not even one they love, that day when fate takes hold and lays him out at last” ( Odyssey III, 269-271), which would explain Zeus’ compliance regarding Sarpedon’s death. And, as Achilleus rages against Troy in the wake of Patroklos’ death, Zeus appeals to the gods saying, “If we leave Achilleus alone to fight with the Trojans they will not even for a little hold off swift-footed [Achilles]… I fear against destiny he may storm their fortress.” ( Iliad XX, 26-29) Though according to the prophecy Troy is destined to fall, Achilleus has yet to fulfill his individual destiny.Thus, Zeus feels obligated to initiate divine intervention in order to ensure that fate’s path is followed. Another example occurs in the Odyssey when Zeus commands Calypso to release Odysseus. He instructs Hermes to, “announce to the nymph…our fixed decree: Odysseus journeys home…so his destiny ordains.” ( Odyssey V, 32-46) Thus, Homer frames fate as a powerful force above the gods, but one that is only enforceable by the gods. One explanation for this divine obligation might be that the assigned role of the gods in Homeric epics is to carry out fate’s bidding, but this theory is belied by the fact that the gods are often not in agreement. So, half of them are often actively working against fate, just as Poseidon, Calypso, and Circe work against Odysseus’ fated return to Ithaca and Zeus briefly works against the fated fall of Troy. Homer never fully answers why the gods, especially Zeus, usually choose to uphold fate and destiny, but he establishes that fate does indeed place restrictions on the actions of the gods.
Between the will of the gods, fate, and destiny, there seems to be very little room for human agency and free will. If deities determine the events on earth, why do the characters of the Iliad and the Odyssey feel as if they can make their own choices? In both Homeric epics, the gods mostly choose to intervene when human decisions are being made that would veer off the designated paths of fate and destiny. Thus, mortals are left alone by the gods to act according to their free will, as long as that will does not go against fate. In instances such as these, the gods often subtly steer the course of events through suggestion and disguise, maintaining the illusion of free will. In Book I of the Odyssey, Athena sets the plot of the epic in motion when the goddess, disguised as Mentes, visits Telemachus and advises him to call a counsel in hopes of expelling the suitors and to sail abroad and gather information on the whereabouts of his father. In this instance, Telemachus “makes” these two decisions, but the reader knows that Athena’s machinations heavily influenced his decisions. Thus, the illusion of free will is maintained for Telemachus. The two Homeric epics also seem to maintain that sometimes, though divine power heavily determines a mortal’s fate, the events that occur on the path to fulfilling that fate depend on the mortal. This sentiment is echoed in one of Zeus’ laments, in which he says, “Ah how shameless- the way these mortals blame the gods. From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes, but they themselves, with their own reckless ways, compound their pains beyond their proper share.” ( Odyssey I, 37-40) Zeus states that, though mortals cannot avoid receiving their “proper share” of destiny/fate/suffering, they often needlessly complicate the fulfillment of their fate. For instance, Odysseus pridefully says his name after blinding Polyphemus, unnecessarily complicating his fated nostos. In the Iliad, the reader and the gods are aware that Hektor is fated to die, but it is Hektor himself that makes the choice to leave Andromache and fight Achilles. Through the choices they make, humans can either attain kleos or bring unnecessary suffering upon themselves on the path to fulfilling their destinies. This relationship between divine power and mortal “will” maintains a sense of humanity in both Homeric epic poems, because it assigns (sometimes false) gravity to the choices made by the characters in both epics.
As Homer recounted the tale of the Iliad to his audience, he implored the goddess to sing of “the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus…which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaeans.” ( Iliad I, 1-2). As he told the tale of the Odyssey, he implored the Muse to sing of “the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course” ( Odyssey I, 1-2). If one were to interpret these short introductions as Homer’s brief summary of both epics, the first observation to make is that Homer depicts his characters, not as helpless vessels carrying out the will of the gods, but as individuals with agency and decision-making capabilities. It is the “anger of Peleus’ son” that harms the Achaeans, not fate, destiny, or the gods. There is no mention of divine intervention being the reason why Odysseus is “driven time and again off course”. These absences are important because they suggest that perhaps the intricacies of fate, free will, and divine intervention were of little interest to Homer’s Greek audience. Perhaps they believed, just as we believe now, that the things that make life worth living are the events that happen on the path to fulfilling our destinies.
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