Destiny, Fate and Free Will in Homer's Odyssey
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When we look at Greek Mythology we often run into the gods of that era. Sometimes they are merely backdrops to the human element of the story but in stories such as The Odyssey the gods play a prominent if not vital role to the central themes of the story.
Fate has a place in the Greek world but its place is not the same as it is in other scenarios or worlds. It is important to understand the word before we discuss it. Fate as far as Greek mythology goes is not just fate. By most standards fate means that things occur for an unknown reason that no one has any control over. However, in the world of Greek Mythology fate does not just happen. The gods engineer fate and they interfere to make things happen that might not otherwise have happened. Since the players do not always know of the gods' involvement, things may actually appear to be fate but in reality be engineered happenings.
Free will on the other hand is not engineered. It speaks to the concept of having full authority over one's aspirations and ultimate direction. The key there is "ultimate." The gods can make up the plan and choose the path, but the people had to walk it. Therefore, fate and free will are not mutually exclusive and they both go on throughout The Odyssey.
In The Odyssey life is one's own responsibility; instead of leaving all things up to fate, the characters had a significant influence upon his or her own existence.
In The Odyssey the gods are responsible for controlling many aspects of where the story goes, but the people still have to choose to go. The gods in The Odyssey are who held Odysseus captive for over eight years. They were responsible for his capture in the first place and then refused to let him go for almost a decade. When they finally decided he should be allowed to find his way home they made it known to his captor Kalypso. However Odysseus still had to choose to leave. Kalypso tried to keep him by offering immortality. "You would stay here, and guard this house, and be immortal" (Homer 267). Odysseus could have stayed but he chose to go. Some say that the gods knew Odysseus would not stay and that is why they decided to let him go.
However, knowledge of an act doesn't take away the fact that Odysseus chose himself. The gods took much of his life away and Odysseus had more reason than anyone to give up and say to himself, "This is my fate." Just as Ann, a critic of The Odyssey says, "Blaming the gods for your faults doesn't always work, though. There's a difference between having a fate and accepting your fate. The real heroes never give in." (Ann par. 26) That difference, between having fate and accepting it, is free will. Once they have controlled the "fate" of certain people the gods let the happenings take course. It is true that the gods interfere with the lives of the people, but that never takes away their free will. Zeus says it himself in the beginning of The Odyssey while talking to other gods upon Olympus, "My word how mortals take the gods to task! All their afflictions come from us, we hear. And what of their own failings?" (Homer 210) This statement by Zeus shows that the people are indeed responsible for themselves and have the ability to make their own choices. Regarding the same verse Torrey stated, "This makes it seem that while men don't take responsibility in the Odyssey, the gods say they should..." (Philemon, par. 1). Zeus also gives us another good example in that same speech. Here he questions Aigìsthos of taking his advice. "We gods had warned him, send down Hermes, our most observant courier, to say: .... Friendly advice-but would Aigìsthos take it?" (Homer 210). The fact that Zeus sent down a messenger and questioned Aigìsthos taking the advice means that Aigìsthos had the choice to take it. Otherwise it wouldn't have even been a question because Zeus wouldn't have give Aigìsthos any options.
In some areas it is pertinent that the gods interfere. For example, Athena went to Ithaka and advised Odysseus's son to call an assembly. The purpose of the assembly was supposed to be to gather community support in opposing Penelope's suitors. Penelope had waited a long time for her husband Odysseus to come home and in the end she gave up and began allowing suitors to come around. Just as Odysseus was finding his way home she was seeing others and Athena thought a community effort to keep the men away was in order. Here again is a prime example of the god's important role in the development of the story. Without the interference of Athena the suitors may have moved more quickly than they did. In addition to that, the gods worked hard at getting Odysseus home as quickly as possible. We can say that the gods interfered because they wanted a certain outcome and that is very true. However helping situations along doesn't insure the outcome, it just makes it more likely. The gods wanting a certain result is a different matter from free will. It is important to distinguish the two.
In the Odyssey both free will and fate occur. As we study what the true meaning of free will is we can be surer of the representation of it by The Odyssey. Many times throughout the story there were choices made that affected the outcome. In one instance we can observe the suitors on Ithaka. They behaved in an atrocious manner and chose poorly throughout the whole story. The gods, who might have interfered and changed the course of history by affecting the choices the suitors made, could foresee where their choices would lead them. Instead the gods chose to sit back and allow the people to make the choices they were going to make. Those choices caused consequences and reactions that the suitors could not get out of. Athena said to Odysseus, "Yes, try the suitors. You may collect a few more loaves, and learn who are the decent lads, and who are vicious- although not one can be excused from death!" (Homer 423) This was the fate of the suitors brought on by the gods because of the choices that the suitors had made. This is the way of free will and it represents the actions that were allowed in the myth.
The Odyssey represents free will in that it gave choices. Choices were given to the gods but more importantly the people made their own choices. The choice Odysseus made to disguise himself instead of go straight home and tell his wife he was back. The choice his wife made to wait for eight years and then made the decisions remarry. All of these choices that were made by those involved in the myth are evidence of free will. The Odyssey, along with other Greek Mythology, gives us guidance in our lives today. We can turn to the stories and see morals and values that we want to emulate. Heroes were the finest kind in the myths. We can also see the values and morals we do not agree with and know we would stay away from those.
The Odyssey presents us with the wonderful world of magic and gods while at the same time presenting us with a plain view of fate and guidance by showing us that the gods can interfere a little then sit back and let the choices fall where they may. Free will is exercised all over that story and free will gives the story the twists and turns that we have come to expect form all Greek Mythological classics.
Ann. Rev. of The Odyssey, by Homer. The Constant Reader (1998) : par 26. 10 Aug 1998.
Homer. "The Odyssey." Trans. Robert Fiztgerald. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: the Western tradition-7th ed. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1999. 209-514
Philemon, Torrey. Rev. of The Odyssey, by Homer. "Odyssey Journal." 1998.