Study Guide

The Iliad Fate and Free Will

By Homer

Fate and Free Will

Book 1

Thetis answered him then letting the tears fall: "Ah me,
my child, your birth was bitterness. Why did I raise you?
If only you could sit by your ships untroubled, not weeping,
since indeed your lifetime is to be short, of no length.
Now it has befallen that your life must be brief and bitter
beyond all men's. To a bad destiny I bore you in my chambers." (1.413-418)

Thetis seems to think that Achilleus's destiny is so bad that she wishes she never even raised him. Her feeling here will be echoed by Achilleus in Book 18, lines 86-87, when he wishes he had never been born. That said, do you agree with this? Do you think it is better to live with a bad destiny or never be born at all?

[…] among them stood up
Kalchas, Thestor's son, far the best of the bird interpreters,
who knew all things that were, the things to come and the things past,
who guided into the land of Ilion the ships of the Achaians
through that seercraft of his own that Phoibos Apollo gave him. (1.68-72)

To us, the whole idea of a "seer" – somebody who watches birds and looks for other signs of the will of the gods – might seem a little strange. And yet, what about weather forecasts, or economic forecasts in the modern world? Do you think it makes sense for us to rely on these forecasts, or are they just as strange as ancient prophecy?

and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished […]. (1.1-5)

These are the very first lines of the Iliad, and they function sort of like a modern movie preview. The art of the movie preview is to give a flavor of what's to come, but not give everything away. Do you think that Homer hits the nail on the head? Does it make the story more or less interesting to know that everything in it happens according to the "the will of Zeus"?

Book 2
Odysseus

(Odysseus:)
Kalchas straightway spoke before us interpreting the gods' will:
"Why are you turned voiceless, you flowing-haired Achaians?
Zeus of the counsels has shown us this great portent: a thing late,
late to be accomplished, whose glory shall perish never.
As this snake has eaten the sparrow herself with her children,
eight of them, and the mother was the ninth, who bore them,
so for years as many as this shall we fight in this place
and in the tenth year we shall take the city of the wide ways." (2.322-329)

One of the interesting things about Kalchas's prophecy here is that we only hear about it second-hand, through Odysseus. Odysseus, as we all know (especially those who have read the Odyssey), is a master of trickery, so everything he says has to be taken with a grain of salt. What would be the advantage of making up a prophecy? Would you act differently if you knew that you were fated to succeed only after many years of failure?

Book 5

Yet, as it was not the destiny of great-hearted Odysseus
to kill with the sharp bronze the strong son of Zeus, therefore
Athene steered his anger against the host of the Lykians. (5.674-676)

At first this might look like your standard-issue account of destiny stepping in to direct the hero's actions. On close inspection, however, it turns out to be highly ambiguous. Because, if it's destined that Odysseus won't kill the son of Zeus (i.e., Sarpedon), is it destined that Athene will stop him, and in just this way? Here, as elsewhere, it seems more like the gods choose to act in accordance with destiny, rather than being forced to do so.

Book 6
Hektor

(Hektor:)
Poor Andromache! Why does your heart sorrow so much for me?
No man is going to hurl me to Hades, unless it is fated,
but as for fate, I think no man has yet escaped it
once it has taken its first form, neither brave man nor coward. (6.486-489)

Okay, so we know Hektor is trying to cheer up his wife here, but if you were Andromache would you fall for that? So what if Hektor will only die when he's fated to die? Doesn't it still make sense for his wife to be sad whenever he dies? On another point, when Hektor says that the brave man can't escape his fate any more than the coward, what do you think would make someone want to be one instead of the other?

Book 9
Achilleus

(Achilleus:)
For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly. (9.410-416)

Achilleus's destiny gives him a choice over how he is going to lead his life. How does this fit in with the picture of destiny elsewhere in the work? Is Achilleus just special? If you had a destiny like him, would you rather know it or have it kept secret from you?

Book 16
The Gods

(Zeus:)
Ah me, that it is destined that the dearest of men, Sarpedon,
must go down under the hands of Menoitios' son Patroklos.
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 in the rich country of Lykia,
or beat him under at the hands of the son of Menoitios. (16.433-438)

To us, this might sound contradictory. Zeus is pondering whether he should save Sarpedon from death, even though that would go against his destiny. Can the gods defy fate? In fact they can – and so can mortals, sometimes (see the quote from Book 20, below). If you read Hera's reply, which comes immediately after this passage, you will see that Zeus doesn't back down because he has to, but rather because it would be inappropriate to save Sarpedon.

Book 19
Agamemnon

(Agamemnon:)
'This is the word the Achaians have spoken often against me
and found fault with me in it, yet I am not responsible
but Zeus is, and Destiny, and Erinys the mist-walking
who in assembly caught my heart in savage delusion
on that day I myself stripped from him the prize of Achilleus
Yet what could I do? It is the god who accomplishes all things.' (19.85-90)

When Agamemnon is trying to patch things up with Achilleus, do you find his excuse convincing? (Erinys, just so you know, is the personification of vengeance.) If you are familiar with Shakespeare's Hamlet, you might want to compare Agamemnon's excuse with the similar one made by Hamlet to Laertes (Act 5, Scene 2, lines 226-244). Then read Laertes's response and see if it sounds like something Achilleus might say.

Book 20
The Gods

(Zeus:)
For if we leave Achilleus alone to fight with the Trojans
they will not even for a little hold off swift-footed Peleion.
For even before now they would tremble whenever they saw him,
and now, when his heart is grieved and angered for his companion's
death, I fear against destiny he may storm their fortress. (20.26-30)

Is it reasonable for Zeus to fear that Achilleus might act against his own destiny? Do you think the rest of the Iliad supports or contradicts this view of human freedom? If it contradicts it, does Zeus know something the rest of us don't know? Or is there just something special about Achilleus?

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