ENG214 Topics in World Literature: Ancient to Medieval
Prof. E. Joy
Sample Student Essay (Critical Essay 1):
Fate versus Destiny
In Greek literature fate and destiny have always played a very important role. In fact, throughout most Greek literature fate has remained the one constant dilemma which all of the main characters are forced to confront. In Homer’s Iliad, fate always seems to be always lurking around the corner, waiting for its next victim to meet his or her destiny, which is in the end ultimately death. Even the gods are even unable to stop or intervene in the course of fate. But despite the doom and gloom that fate represents it seems that free will within the Iliad is not lost. Decisions can be made, when faced with fate, and even though the outcome in the end may be the same it raises the question, does fate exist? If fate is the “end all no way out” type of scenario then why is it even possible to allow the characters to even make decisions or contemplate other outcomes? The truth is, if Akhilleus never made a decision and left his life up to fate he would have never been one of the greatest Greek heroes. Akhilleus would have never been dipped into the river of Styx as an infant if his mother Thetis did not decide to do it. Akhilleus wouldn’t even have been in the Trojan War if he didn’t decided in the first place to enter the field of battle and become a warrior. On the Trojan side, Paris would have never even thought of Helen if it wasn’t for his decision to give the apple to Aphrodite. Again this raises the question, does fate really even exist or is “fate” just an explanation for the outcome for the decisions being made whether good or bad?
“My mother, Thetis of the silvery feet, tells me of two possible destinies carrying me toward death: two ways: if on the one hand I remain and fight around Troy town, I lose all hope of home but gain unfading glory; on the other, if I sail back to my own land my glory fails-but a long life lies ahead of me.” (9.449-506). Despite the fact that everyone will eventually die at some point within their lives, which is not fate or destiny at work, but which is a reality, Akhilleus can make choices about his future. If fate was ultimately the only option for Akhilleus, he would not have the option of having any sort of free will or the ability to even make decisions. The decisions which Akhilleus does make, however, are the reasons that will ultimately lead him to determine his own fate. The choice of going into battle knowing that there was a possibility for death, which most warriors already know, is not because fate has already decided it for him: he chooses to fight. He chooses to go and make his name immortal by going into to battle and becoming one of the greatest warriors in Greek history. If fate made the all of the decisions for him Akhilleus would have never challenged Agamemnon for Briseis. He would have never been torn over the option of whether he should continue to fight or to turn back and go home because his pride was wounded. Fate, destiny, has nothing to really to even do with Akhilleus other than the simple fact that Homer uses Fate as an excuse for characters to rationalize the situations instead of having them deal with the consequences of actually having to make a choice. When Akhilleus finally makes a decision, good or bad, destiny or fate are to blame for the outcome of a decision. Fate does not control the results or consequences of a decision and it seems that destiny is used only as an excuse to embrace or rationalize death within the Iliad.
Hera said it best when Zeus was debating whether or not to save one of his sons, Sarpedon, from his “fate”: “O fearsome power, my Lord Zeus, what a curious thing to say. A man who is born to die, long destined for it, would you set free from that unspeakable end?” (16.256-59). Mortal men are supposed to die in the Iliad. It wasn’t Sarpedon’s destiny or fate that made the decision for Zeus to let him die in field of battle nor was it fate that stopped Zeus from interfering. Zeus made his choice not to spar the life of Sarpedon and Sarpedon made his choice to go into battle knowing what “destiny” had in store for him if the worst should happen. Sarpedon is mortal and death is inevitable but in the end Zeus made a decision and so did Sarpedon. The fact is Sarpedon and Zeus both had free will and the opportunity to change “fate” by making different decisions about their actions. In the end fate did not decide the outcome of the situation. Sarpedon and Zeus decided their “fate” on their own terms knowing that there would be consequences and the benefits of their actions.
But one of the most vivid portrayals of fate and or destiny in the Iliad is when Athena intervenes between the combat of Akhilleus and Hektor: “Father of the blinding bolt, the dark stormcloud, what words are these? The man is mortal, and his doom fixed long ago. Would you release him from his painful death? Then do so, but not all of us will praise you” (22.212-16). In other interpretations of the Iliad the word death is referred or replaced by the words fate or destiny. The idea of fate used by Athena allows Zeus to rationalize Hektor’s death by drawing on the fact that Hektor is mortal, like Sarpedon, and is therefore fated to die as a mortal, even though he is favored by Zeus. Allowing this conflict to continue and sparing Hektor from death goes against the idea of fate which the gods seem to highly respect. However, Zeus unknowing and knowing, in a way, can change fate by sparing Hektor’s life. By allowing Athena to trick Hektor, Zeus ultimately ends the suffering between Hektor and Akhilleus. If Zeus spared Hektor, he knows that it would be altering Hektor’s mortality and only prolong his suffering, like Sarpedon. The fact is Zeus has free will to make that decisions about the give circumstances that will happen in battle, which by the way is not fate, and change or alter the consequences. Hektor also has opportunities within Book 22 to escape fate and Akhilleus by running away into the city. Another decision Hektor had was the choice not to face Akhilleus and to try run and escape, but he doesn’t. The truth is, it is not fate that prevents Hektor from running away from Akhilleus and it is not fate that prevents Zeus from intervening. It is Hektor’s and Zeus’s choice. It is Hektor’s choice to stand up to Akhilleus and face him head on and Zeus’s choice to allow this to even happen.
In conclusion, fate and destiny are not the only outcome in the Iliad. Even though death is the basic definition of destiny it can be changed. The characters in the Iliad can make their own decisions about their destiny. Free will is not a lost cause because the illusion that fate offers can be altered by making different decisions throughout the story. Akhilleus had a choice to go into battle knowing his “fate” of death will eventually come true if he chose to continue fighting. Zeus and the rest of the gods had plenty of opportunities to interfere and change the course of others' fate and destinies, especially the fates of Sarpedon and Hektor. Hektor had a choice to run, a chance to escape Akhilleus, and to live out the rest his life with his family. Fate did not make those choices for them. They all made decisions for themselves and unfortunately decisions have consequences. The course of fate can be changed if the characters really want it to and they would have done so by making different decisions. Free will throughout the Iliad was not lost but was clouded by the illusion of fate, and that is what ultimately led them all to face their ultimate destinies.
Homer. The Iliad. In The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Book 1. Ed. Paul Davis et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. 288-420. Print.