Study Guide

The Odyssey Fate and Free Will

By Homer

Fate and Free Will

Book 1

(Zeus): 'Oh for shame, how the mortals put the blame on us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given […].' (1.32-34)

"Fate" seems little more like cause-and-effect than some divine master plan: if you goof things up by, say, telling the giant you've just blinded your name, then you're going to get Poseidon after you. That's just how it works.

(Zeus:) “For his sake Poseidon, shaker of the earth, although he does not kill Odysseus, yet drives him back from the land of his fathers. But come, let all of us who are here work out his homecoming and see to it that he returns. Poseidon shall put away his anger; for all alone and against the will of the other immortal gods united he can accomplish nothing.” (1.74-79)

The way that Poseidon functions under Zeus’s will is a perfect example of fate and free will combined. While he must eventually allow Odysseus to go home, he gets to choose how long it takes and how much the man will suffer in the process. Similarly, Odysseus is fated 1) to suffer and 2) to eventually go home, but his actions along the way are a matter of choice. The question then is whether, with the end point decided, the path to get there matters at all.

Telemachos

(Telemachos:) ‘My guest, since indeed you are asking me all these questions, there was a time this house was one that might be prosperous and above reproach, when a certain man was here in his country.’ (1.231-233)

Telemachos considers his bad luck the work of the gods. He feels that the gods who favored them so have vanished along with Odysseus. Being abandoned by the gods is, to the ancient Greeks, akin to being cursed.

Book 2
Halitherses

(Halitherses): 'I who foretell this am not untried, I know what I am saying. Concerning him, I say that everything was accomplished in the way I said it would be at the time the Argives took ship for Ilion, and with them went resourceful Odysseus. I said that after much suffering, with all his companions lost, in the twentieth year, not recognized by any, he would come home. And now all this is being accomplished.' (2.170-176)

Fair enough: Halitherses points out that his predictions were totally right. At the same time, anyone who knows Odysseus might be able to guess that some back stuff would happen to him. Right?

Book 3
Nestor

(Nestor:) ‘Never once did the wind fail, once the god had set it blowing.’ (3.182-183)

Nestor credits Menelaos’s safe journey home to the will of the Gods.

(Nestor:) 'The will of the everlasting gods is not turned suddenly.' (3.147)

It's hard to change a god's mind—but it sounds like Nestor is suggesting that it can be changed. Maybe if you sacrifice enough ram thighs.

Book 4
Proteus

(Proteus, in Menelaos' tale:) '"But for you, Menelaos, O fostered of Zeus, it is not the gods' will that you shall die and go to your end in horse-pasturing Argos, but the immortals will convey you to the Elysian Field, and the limits of the earth, where fair-haired Rhadamanthys is, and where there is made the easiest life for mortals, for there is no snow, nor much winter there, nor is there ever rain, but always the stream of Ocean sends up breezes of the West Wind blowing briskly for the refreshment of mortals."' (4.561-568)

Well, here's an example of fate planning something good: Odysseus isn't going to die and go to (presumably) Hades with the rest of us commoners. Instead, he's going to enjoy some immortality with the rest of the Greek heroes in the Elysian fields. Does that make his ten years of suffering any easier to deal with?

Menelaos

(Menelaos:) ‘[…] no one of the Achaians labored as much as Odysseus labored and achieved, and for him the end was grief for him, and for me a sorrow that is never forgotten for his sake, how he is gone so long, and we know nothing of whether he is alive or dead.’ (4.106-110)

Menelaos seems to use fate for purposes of comfort; he is able to resign himself and accept his suffering (with regards to his missing friend) because it is the will of the gods.

Book 5

(Ino:) ‘Poor man, why is Poseidon the shaker of the earth so bitterly cankered against you, to give you such a harvest of evils? And yet he will not do away with you, for all his anger. But do as I say, since you seem to me not lacking in good sense. Take off these clothes, and leave the raft to drift at the winds’ will, and then strike out and swim with your hands and make for a landfall on the Phaiakian country, where your escape is destined.’ (5.339-344)

Apparently, Odysseus’s fate is common knowledge – even among the lesser gods.

(Zeus:) ‘[Odysseus] shall come back by the convoy neither of the gods nor of mortal people, but he shall sail on a jointed raft and, suffering hardships, on the twentieth day make his landfall on fertile Scheria at the country of the Phaiakians who are near the gods in origin, and they will honor him in their hearts as a god, and send him back, by ship, to the beloved land of his fathers, bestowing bronze and hold in abundance upon him, and clothing, more than Odysseus could ever have taken away from Troy, even if he had escaped unharmed with his fair share of the plunder. 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 his fathers.’ (5.31-42)

Zeus reveals that it is his will – and thus Fate – that Odysseus should reach Ithaka safely and with treasure – but without his friends at his side. Fate, then, is determined by the will of this god and subject to change at his whim; it isn’t a pre-planned determination.

Book 9
Odysseus

(Odysseus:) 'Next I told the rest of the men to cast lots, to find out which of them must endure with me to take up the great beam and spin it in the Cyclops' eye when sweet sleep had come over him. The ones drew it whom I myself would have wanted chosen, four men, and I myself was the fifth, and allotted with them.' (9.331-335)

How convenient: Odysseus wants four men to draw the short straws, and those four men just so happen to draw the short straws (or whatever they're using to cast lots). It seems like fate is on Odysseus' side.

(Odysseus, in his tale:) “We are Achaians coming from Troy, beaten off our true course by winds from every direction across the great gulf of the open sea, making for home, by the wrong way, on the wrong courses. So we have come. So it has pleased Zeus to arrange it.”’ (9.259-262)

Here Odysseus tries to win sympathy from Polyphemos, the Cyclops, by pointing out that it wasn’t his fault that he came to his shore.

Polyphemos

(Polyphemos, in Odysseus’ tale:) ‘“Hear me, Poseidon who circle the earth, dark-haired. If truly I am your son, and you acknowledge yourself as my father, grant that Odysseus, sacker of cities, son of Laertes, who makes his home in Ithaka, may never reach that home; but if it is decided that he shall see his own people, and come home to his strong-founded house and to his own country, let him come late, in bad case, with the loss of all his companions, in someone else’s ship, and find troubles in his household.” ‘So he spoke in prayer, and the dark-haired god heard him.’ (9.528-536)

Wounded Polyphemos invokes his father Poseidon as well as Fate to his aid in cursing Odysseus. This is excellent evidence that notions of fate and free will are not mutually exclusive. Odysseus chooses to blind the Cyclops and to reveal his name, therefore it is his fate to suffer at sea. His pride, not his destiny, determines the following course of events.

Book 10
Circe

(Circe, in Odysseus’ tale:) ‘“Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus, you shall no longer stay in my house when none of you wish to; but first there is another journey you must accomplish and reach the house of Hades and of revered Persephone, there to consult with the soul of Teiresias the Theban, the blind prophet, whose senses stay unshaken within him, to whom alone Persephone has granted intelligence even after death, but the rest of them are flittering shadows.”’ (10.488-495)

It might seem kind of weird how Circe just suddenly up and tells Odysseus that he has to go to the Underworld, though since she’s a (minor) goddess herself, it kind of makes sense that she would know the will of the gods. Anyway, it’s important to remember that this comes from the part of the story narrated by Odysseus himself, in which we never get a “behind-the-scenes” look at what the gods are planning. Like Odysseus, we’re just along for the ride in this part of the story.

Book 11
Odysseus

(Odysseus, in his tale:) ‘“Aias, son of stately Telamon, could you then never even in death forget your anger against me, because of that cursed armor? The gods made it to pain the Achaians, so great a bulwark were you, who were lost to them. We Achaians grieved for your death as incessantly as for Achilleus the son of Peleus at his death, and there is no other to blame, but Zeus; he, in his terrible hate for the army of the Danaan spearmen, visited this destruction upon you.”’ (11.553-560)

Odysseus tries to reclaim Aias’s friendship by reminding him that his death was purely ill-starred and no fault of his. He blames Zeus, and not Aias, for taking his life and reminds his friend that one cannot always control his own fate.

Teiresias

(Teiresias, in Odysseus' tale:) '"Glorious Odysseus, what you are after is sweet homecoming, but the god will make it hard for you. I think you will not escape Shaker of the Earth, who holds a grudge against you in his heart, and because you blinded his dear son, hates you. But even so and still you might come back, after much suffering, if you can contain your own desire, and contain your companions'[…]."' (11.100-105)

Teiresias is supposed to be a prophet, but check out how he uses words like "think" and "might." It doesn't sound like he's really standing behind his reading of the future.

Elpenor

(Elpenor, in Odysseus’ tale:) ‘“Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus, the evil will of the spirit and the wild wine bewildered me. I lay down on the roof of Circe’s palace, and never thought, when I went down, to go by way of the long ladder, but blundered straight off the edge of the roof, so that my neck bone was broken out of its sockets, and my soul went down to Hades’. […] I know that after you leave this place and the house of Hades you will put back with your well-made ship to the island, Aiaia; there at that time, my lord, I ask that you remember me, and do not go and leave me behind unwept, unburied, when he leave, for fear I might become the gods’ curse upon you; but burn me there with all my armor that belongs to me, and heap up a grave mound beside the beach of that gray sea, for an unhappy man, so that those to come will know of me. Do this for me, and on top of the grave mound plant the oar with which I rowed when I was alive and among my companions.”’ (11.60-65, 69-78)

We wish every drunken mistake we make could be chalked up to luck or fate. Oh, and if you wanted, you could read Elpenor’s fate as a test for Odysseus, a test of his own piety and, in turn, whether or not he is worthy of his own destiny.

Book 12
Odysseus

(Odysseus:) 'My men were thrown in the water, and bobbing like sea crows they were washed away on the running waves all around the black ship, and the god took away their homecoming.' (12.417-419)

Okay, but as long as we're pointing fingers: was it "the god" who took away their homecoming—or was it they themselves, when the men chose to eat Helios' cattle after they'd been specifically warned against it? Or was it Poseidon, who trapped them on the island for a month, until all their food ran out? Or was it Odysseus, who got Poseidon mad at them by telling Polyphemos his name? You get the point.

Book 13

(Alkinoös:) ‘Ah now, the prophecy of old is come to completion, that my father spoke, when he said Poseidon someday would be angry with us, because we are convoy without hurt to all men. He said that one day, as a well-made ship of Phaiakian men came back from a convoy on the misty face of the water, he would stun it, and pile a great mountain on our city, to hide it.’ (13.172-177)

Alkinoös interprets this sign as a fulfillment of the prophecy his father read. Do you think the Phaiakians could have done anything to avoid their fate?

Book 15
Theoklymenos

(Theoklymenos:) "Telemachos, not without a god's will did this bird fly past you on the right, for I knew when I saw it that it was a portent. No other family shall be kinglier than yours in the country of Ithaka, but you shall have lordly power forever." (15.531-534)

Because obviously the gods have nothing better to do than send birds flying around to serve as omens.

Book 18
Amphinomos

[Amphinomos] went back across the room, heart saddened within him, shaking his head, for in his spirit he saw the evil, but still could not escape his doom, for Athene had bound him fast, to be strongly killed by the hands and spear of Telemachos. (18.153-156)

Amphinomos, in a rare epiphany, realizes that what he has done as a suitor will bring death upon him. Is the fact that Homer tells us ahead of time of his death by Telemachos’s spear a nod to some form of pre-determination?

Book 20

‘Poor wretches, what evil has come on you? Your heads and faces and the knees underneath you are shrouded in night and darkness; a sound of wailing has broken out, your cheeks are covered with tears, and the walls bleed, and the fine supporting pillars. All the forecourt is huddled with ghosts, the yard is full of them as they flock down to the underworld and the darkness. The sun has perished out of the sky, and a foul mist has come over.’ So he spoke, and all of them laughed happily at him. (20.351-358)

The seer predicts damnation and darkness for the suitors for their treachery. He turns out, like most seers, to be right. What the heck is the rest of the suitors’ problem? We definitely wouldn’t be laughing in their place!

Book 21

[Antinoös] was to be the first to get a taste of the arrow from the hands of blameless Odysseus, to whom he now paid attention as he sat in Odysseus' halls and encouraged all his companions. (21.98-100)

Notice how we get the construction "was to be." Who decided that Antinoös was going to be the first? Was it the gods? or Fate? Clearly, someone knew ahead of time.

Book 22

And now Athene waved the aegis, that blights humanity, from high aloft on the roof, and all their wits were bewildered; and they stampeded about the hall, like a herd of cattle set upon and driven wild by the darting horse fly […]. (22.297-300)

Athene finally reveals what we all already know: that she will fight by Odysseus’s side. This was destined to happen and the sign bound to show, so the only question was when. Certain events, we see, are predetermined, but the execution and timing of those events are left to choice.

Book 24

Then standing close beside him gray-eyed Athene said to him: 'Son of Arkeisios, far dearest of all my companions, make your prayer to the gray-eyed girl and to Zeus her father, then quickly balance your far-shadowing spear, and throw it.' So Pallas Athene spoke, and breathed into him enormous strength, and, making his prayer then to the daughter of Zeus, he quickly balanced his far-shadowing spear, and threw it, and struck Eupeithes on the brazen side of his helmet, nor could the helm hold off the spear, but the bronze smashed clean through. (24.516-524)

Laertes (he's the son of Arkeisios) smashes a spear right through the head of Eupeithes, Antinoös' father. It's fitting that Odysseus' dad kills Antinoös dad—and it would never have happened without Athene's help. Hm. It sounds like one side really has an unfair advantage.