The Notion of Fate in "The Iliad" - Reflecting on Books XI - XXIV - by Homer

Fate and the Gods

There are so many overwhelming passages, themes, and scenes in the Iliad that on this first reading and blogging I am only going to be able to capture a tiny fraction of everything I'd like to talk about. That being so, from Books XI to XXIV I would like to talk about the theme of fate. One of the constant looming issues in the epic is the idea that though there are many ups and downs, supplications to the gods and their responses, fate is always hovering in the background as the strongest force of all. It seems as though even before events happen the gods have ordained or prophesied an outcome. All things, to the Greeks, seemed ultimately bound by fate. 

Achilles, Troy, Patrochlus, and Their Fate
Achilles, for example, was prophesied to have a short life from the very beginning. "'You're doomed to a short life, my son, from all you say! For hard on the heels of Hector's death your death must come at once-'" 1 Constantly he is reminded that he will not escape the war, but will die in Troy, great fighter that he is. "Mother tells me, the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet, that two fates bear me on to the day of death. If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy, my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies ... true, but the life that's left me will be long, the stroke of death will not come on my quickly." 2 

Troy, another example, is doomed from the very start of the book. It's broad streets are going to be sacked ultimately, a foregone conclusion. Zeus has already ordained such things, even though he allows for many things to happen along the way, such as Thetis swaying his mind to let the Achaeans suffer and to let the Trojans come so close to victory when they set one of the Achaean ships on fire. "So the, when those terrible, monstrous omens burst in on the victims we were offering to the gods, Calchas switfly revealed the will of Zeus: 'Why struck dumb now, my long-haired Achaeans? Zeus who rules the world has shown us an awesome sign, an event long in the future, late to come to birth but the fame of that great work will never die. As the snake devoured the sparrow with her brood, eight and the mother made the ninth, she'd borne them all, so we will fight in Troy that many years and then, then in the tenth we'll take her broad streets.' So that day the prophet revealed the future - and now, look, by god, it all comes to pass! Up with you, all you Argives geared for combat, stand your ground, right here, until we take the mighty walls of Priam!'" 3

Achilles' friend Patrochlus, Achilles warns him in a prophetic way not to storm Troy's gates, but to beat the Trojans back and then return to the ships, yet this is exactly what Patrochlus does and meets his fate in death. 

"Even so, Patroclus, fight disaster off the ships, fling yourself at the Trojans full force-before they gut our hulls with leaping fire and tear away the beloved day of our return. But take this command to heart--obey it to the end. so you can win great honor, great glory for me in the eyes of all the Argive ranks, and they, they'll send her back, my lithe and lovely girl, and top it off with troves of glittering gifts. Once you have whipped the enemy from the fleet you must come back, Patroclus. Even if Zeus the thundering lord of Hera lets you seize your glory, you must not burn for war against these Trojans, madmen lusting for battle- not without me-you will only make my glory that much less . ... You must not, lost in the flush and fire of triumph, slaughtering Trojans outright, drive your troops to Troy-what if one of the gods who never die comes down from Olympus heights to intervene in battle? The deadly Archer loves his Trojans dearly. No, you must turn back-soon as you bring the light of victory to the ships. Let the rest of them cut themselves to pieces on the plain! Oh would to god--Father Zeus, Athena and lord Apollo-not one of all these Trojans could flee his death, not one, no Argive either, but we could stride from the slaughter so we could bring Troy's hallowed crown of towers toppling down around us--you and I alone!" 

Agamemnon's Madness
Agamemnon, too, towards the end finally realizes that his madness at the beginning with his dreams, which sets the drama with Achilles off, was the work of Zeus on him, blinding him in his decision making. It wasn't really his full choice. "But I am not to blame! Zeus and Fate and the Fury stalking through the night, they are the ones who drove that savage madness in my heart, that day in assembly when I seized Achilles' prize - on my own authority, true, but what could I do? A god impels all things to their fulfillment: Ruin, eldest daughter of Zeus, she blinds us all, the fatal madness - she with those delicate feet of hers, never touching the earth, gliding over the heads of men to trap us all. She entangles one man, now another. Why, she and her frenzy blinded Zeus one time, greatest of men and gods, they say: even Father Zeus!" 5 Also, while not in the Iliad, in Greek mythology Zeus is always concerned with a prophecy of being overthrown. I believe we saw this in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, which I blogged about here, here, and here

Rescuing of Heroes
Likewise, other heroes in the epic find themselves in situations where they are about to die, yet it is not their fated time and so the gods come in and swoop them away magically, allowing them to continue their lives and fulfill their destinies. This happens with Paris, with Hector, with Aeneas, and so on.

"'Now, I tell you, my heart aches for great Aeneas! He'll go down to the House of Death this instant, overwhelmed by Achilles all because he trusted the distant deadly Archer's urgings. Poor fool as if Apollo would lift a hand to save him now from death, grim death. Aeneas the innocent! why should Aeneas suffer here, for no good reason, embroiled in the quarrels of others, not his own? He always gave us gifts to warm our hearts, gifts for the gods who rule the vaulting skies. So come, let us rescue him from death ourselves, for fear the son of Cronus might just tower in rage if Achilles kills this man. He is destined to survive. Yes, so the generation of Dardanus will not perish, obliterated without an heir, without a trace: Dardanus, dearest to Zeus of all the sons that mortal women brought to birth for Father. Now he has come to hate the generation of Priam, and now Aeneas will rule the men of Troy in power-his sons' sons and the sons born in future years." But Hera the Queen broke in, her eyes open wide: "Decide in your own mind, god of the earthquake, whether to save Aeneas now or let him die, crushed by Achilles, for all his fighting heart.

But time and again we two have sworn our oaths in the eyes of all the gods- I and Pallas Athena-never to drive the fatal day away from the Trojans, not even when all Troy burns in the ramping flames When the warring sons of Achaea burn her down!" As soon as he heard that, the god of earthquakes surged through the clashing troops and raining spears 10 reach the place where the two famed heroes fought. Quickly he poured a mist across Achilles' eyes, wrenched the spear from stalwart Aeneas' shield, laid the bronze-shod ashen shaft at Achilles' feet and hoisting Aeneas off the earth he slung him far. And over the massing lines of men and massing chariots, high in the air Aeneas vaulted, hurled by the gods hand till he came to ground at the battle's churning flank where Cauconian units braced themselves for action. The god of the earthquake swept beside him there and gave the man a burst of winging orders: "Aeneas-what god on high commands you to play the madman? Fighting against Achilles' overwhelming fury!-both a better soldier and more loved by the gods. 

Pull back at once, whenever you're thrown against him-or go down to the House of Death against the will of fate. But once Achilles has met his death, his certain doom, take courage then, go fight on the front lines then-no other Achaean can bring you down in war." With that, with destiny made clear, he left him there on the spot and turning back to Achilles quickly brushed away the mist from his eyes, the magic, godsent haze. And Achilles stared with all his might, dazzled, disgusted too, and addressed his own great heart: "Impossible-look, a marvel right before my eyes! That spear I hurled is lying here on the ground. That man- I cannot see him-the one I hurled at, wild to cut him down. Ah, so the deathless gods must love Aeneas too." 6

The gods, Fate, and Christianity 
Also interesting is the way in which the gods interact with one another. They mess with one another, contradict each other, plot against each other, harm one another, and yet things will ultimately stay the same between them because they are deathless, as they say. The same dynamics between them will continue to play out age after age because that's the way they each are. And so fate seems to rule even them.

To conclude with a parting thought, I turn to De Lubac...  

The 20th century Catholic theologian Henri De Lubac in his work The Drama of Atheist Humanism hits upon a similar notion when he talks about the way in which Christianity freed man from notions of deterministic fate. "[The Christian idea of man] from the outset that idea had produced a more profound effect. Through it, man was freed, in his own eyes, from the ontological slavery with which Fate burdened him. The stars, in their unalterable courses, did not, after all, implacably control our destinies. Man, every man, no matter who, had a direct link with the Creator, the Ruler of the stars themselves. And lo, the countless Powers - gods, spirits, demons - who pinioned human life in the net of their tyrannical wills, weighing upon the soul with all their terrors, now crumbled into dust, and the sacred principle that had gone astray in them was rediscovered unified, purified and sublimated in God the deliverer! It was no longer a small and select company that, thanks to some secret means of escape, could break the charmed circle: it was mankind as a whole that found its night suddenly illumined and took cognizance of its royal liberty. No more circle! No more blind destiny! No more Moira! No more Fate! Transcendent God, God the 'friend of men', revealed in Jesus, opened for all a way that nothing would ever bar again." 

1 - Book 18 110
2 - Book 9 500
3 - Book 2 380-400
4 - Book 16 90-120
5 - Book 19 100-123
6 - Book 20 330 - 400
3 - De Lubac, Henri. The Drama of Atheist Humanism. Ignatius Press. San Francisco. (1995) Pg. 22, 23