“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
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…” (Iliad 1.1-5)
What is “the will of Zeus” that Homer references? While inappropriate, or, at the very least, amateur, to open any form of academic discussion with a question, the aforementioned inquiry forms the basis for this paper and, thus, should be addressed immediately. In the opening invocation, Homer sets the stage for his epic poem by tying the narrative’s backbone, “the anger of…Achilleus,” to the determinant of the plot’s progression and events: “the will of Zeus.” This force, to be here argued as fate—or “fateful death” (κήρ)—appears inescapable to the characters within the story and, on the surface, their fatalistic attitudes are justified: all those fated to die within the narrative do. Then how can one explain the instances in which there appear elements of choice? In the cases, particularly, of Achilleus and Zeus, there are clear moments where whatever has been ‘fated’ could potentially be changed. Thus, any seemingly prophetic declarations could arguably be nothing more than statistical likelihoods based upon the individuals in question. In other words, Homer depicts fate paradoxically: it is a force that the gods themselves cannot change, yet is determined—potentially even dependent—upon the choices that people make.
Interpreting “the will of Zeus” as fate brings to question fate’s very nature so, thus, the first question to address is the biggest: what is fate, exactly? In the Greek mythological canon, as detailed by Hesiod in his Theogony, Fate is personified two ways: first as “black Fate”, the child of Night and Erebus (Theo.201); secondly, as the Moirai—three daughters of Night and Erebus—Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos “who at the hour of their birth give mankind their personal rations of bad luck and good for their lifetime” (Theo.207-09). These primordial goddesses, as children of the second generation of god-like beings, are older and more powerful than Zeus; despite his position as ruler of the Olympians, Hesiod describes him as considerately paying “the greatest respect” to the Moirai (Theo.859-60). Within The Iliad, Homer references the three spinners by name only a few times, either in the plural as “the Destinies” (Il.24.49) or singularly as Destiny with varying descriptive epithets such as “deadly” or “strong” (Il.16.849; 24.209).
As the Moirai spin and determine fate, Zeus, within The Iliad, measures and interprets fate upon his “sacred golden scales” (Il.22.249). The use of the scales appears initially troubling, as the scales seemingly exemplify that “the will of Zeus”, if it is to be interpreted as fate, does not actually originate with Zeus. From where, then, does fate originate? Within Homer’s epic, fate appears to stem from the very nature of the people—mortal and immortal alike—involved. On the mortal side of the character spectrum, Achilleus stands as the premiere character through whom Homer’s depiction fate can be examined.
Achilleus, specifically his wrath, as referenced by Homer’s opening word of the epic, manin (μῆνιν), is the backbone of The Iliad. His fate, already established prior to the events of the epic, demands that he must die “by a god and a mortal” at Troy (Il.19.416-17). Yet, this fate exists only because he made the conscious choice to sail to war at Troy in the first place: he chose the short life of everlasting glory versus a long life at home (Il.9.411-13). By that same token, Achilleus believes, and even claims, that he shall change his fate: he shall sail home the following morning and abandon Troy and everything it represents for him—glory, honour, death—in favor of a long, quiet life (Il.9.427-8). However, when the morning arrives, Achilleus has not left. Why? Because Achilleus is who he is: he is a warrior who craves honour; after all, he sits out of the fighting for most of the epic because his own honour was metaphorically taken from him by Agamemnon in the form of Briseis (Il.1.184-87). As a result of his own nature, Achilleus’ fate is more determined and definite, as opposed to possibility or potentiality—in statistical terms, the odds are more in favor of his fated demise.
A man defined by wrath—a word, oftentimes, referred to by one of its synonyms, passion—Achilleus experiences extremes on both ends of the emotional spectrum throughout The Iliad. This passion is the defining factor of Achilleus’ personality and, thus, as his name suggests, he suffers seemingly equal the suffering he extols upon others. In his piece, “The Name of Achilles: Etymology and Epic”, Gregory Nagy broke down the name of Achilleus, Ἀχιλλεύς, as a combination of akhos (Ἀχι), meaning distress, and lawos (λαός), meaning people or others. He argued that Achilleus’ name functioned as a “speaking name” that was designed to fit Achilleus’ character as a hero who brings distress (akhos) to the people (lawos) of Homer’s epic. Inversely, Achilleus is also a character who suffers a great deal of distress from others within the narrative: Agamemnon takes his prize and Hektor kills Patroklos. In the case of the latter, Achilleus’ distress is so great that his passionate cries are enough to drive “an endless terror upon the Trojans” (Il.18.217-18) and set Achilleus, by his own choice, firmly on the path of his fated death (Il.18.97-100). Achilleus’ so-called fate is determined by his own personality and name; his destiny seems dependent upon Achilleus being who he is, which, in turn, is influenced by his own foreknowledge of his fate.
The mortals alone are not the only characters who both influence and are influenced by the paradoxical force of fate. Zeus, in particular, while he has great influence upon the outcomes of various characters’ survival, makes conscious decisions to try and maintain that which is considered fated, even if it means he must watch his own progeny die. Sarpedon’s death at the hands of Patroklos presents Zeus with a test of his own power to deter the fulfillment of his son’s fated death:
“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.” (Il.16.433-38)
Zeus laments that he could save Sarpedon—that such an act is within his power, yet he will and does not (Il.16.458-61). Sarpedon’s fated death is the result of Zeus’ own oath-abiding nature—having previously ordered the gods to withdraw from partaking in the fighting (Il.15.72-74), Zeus must abide his own decree in choosing to not save Sarpedon—which, in turn, feels bound to abide with Sarpedon’s fate. That there is the existence of choice in Zeus’ dilemma of deciding between losing a son or abiding by what has been deemed as “destined” reemphasizes, not only the paradoxical nature of fate within Homer’s narrative, but that its very existence does not originate with Zeus at all, but with something higher, namely the Moirai. They have spun Sarpedon’s fate, but Zeus’ conscious decision brings it to total fruition.
Homer’s opening reference to fate by naming it as “the will of Zeus” initially appears to present a problem due to the author’s own paradoxical treatment of destiny: a force seemingly shaped by gods that, simultaneously is dependent upon the choices and wills of the fated—or even the gods—in question. Destiny and free will are not mutually exclusive within Homer, but, instead, symbiotically dependent upon each other. In the case of Achilleus, his κήρ is determined due to his own passionate nature and choice to pursue glory; yet his own behavior is influenced by his foreknowledge of his own demise. On the side of the immortals, Zeus’ ability to forestall or even reverse the κήρ of various mortals, in particular his son, Sarpedon, is completely with his power, but his oath-abiding nature, and refusal to interfere with what he interprets as fated, is what brings it into fruition.
Hesiod. Works of Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns. Daryl Hine, translator. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Homer. The Iliad. Richmond Lattimore, translator. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.
–. Homeri Opera in Five Volumes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1920. Available at <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0133&redirect=true>
Nagy, Gregory. “The Name of Achilles: Etymology and Epic.” Studies in Greek, Italic, and Indo-European Linguistics: Offered to Leonard R. Palmer. Eds. Anna Morpurgo Davies and Wolfgang Meid, 1976. 209-37. qtd. in Peradotto, John. Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narration in ‘The Odyssey.’ Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1990.