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Homer’s Iliad features many sacred cultural principles present in the ancient Greek culture, but the importance and gravity of fate are communicated at the forefront of the work.
While the exact properties of fate and how it can be changed are a mystery to the audience, the importance and honor in meeting one’s fate is clear. In The Iliad, the significance of fate becomes more evident when mortal and semi-mortal characters come to learn their destiny because the gods reveal it to them under some special circumstance. Characters including Achilles, Patroclus and Hector learn their destiny from the gods, and this gives them a different perspective on their lives and greatly affects their decision-making. This essay will examine these circumstances, address the intervening nature of the gods and determine how knowing one’s destiny affects the way the character makes decisions.
In Book One of The Iliad, Agamemnon and Achilles come to an enraged confrontation after the gods curse their troops with a plague because Agamemnon will not return Chryses, his slave prize, to her father. During the argument, Agamemnon threatens Achilles, claiming that he will steal Achilles’s prize, Briseis, and return Chryses home to end the plague. Achilles becomes so angry that he goes to draw his sword when Hera sends Athena to stop Achilles. Athena says to him, “Stop this fighting now. Don’t lay hand to sword…and I tell you this- and I know it is the truth-one day glittering gifts will lie before you, three times over to pay for all his outrage,” (Homer, 84). Achilles obeys Athena for multiple reasons, the first being that the ancient Greeks turned to the gods to make decisions and they interpreted certain internal thoughts as the gods telling them what to do. The second reason is that Achilles is also selfish in nature. He understands Athena’s prophecy as an opportunity to win the argument with Agamemnon and further spite him “three times over” in the future.
Achilles faces further prophecies in Book Nine. His mother, the goddess Thetis, tells him that he has two possible destinies. Either Achilles will stay to fight the Trojans and die with everlasting glory, or he will return home to live a long life with no glory or pride. Thetis is a divine entity; therefore her emotionality as a mother is heightened as opposed to a mortal mother, and this pushes her to seek aid for her son from other gods. She is desperate to keep her son alive and to bring him glory, and she tells him this prophecy to protect him. She does not, however, think about the consequences for the mortals around him because she is immortal. The act of telling Achilles his two possible destinies puts the Achaean army in grave danger because of the possibility that Achilles won’t return to battle. When Odysseus goes to Achilles to offer prizes from Agamemnon in exchange for his return to the Achaean battle lines Achilles refuses for two reasons. First, Achilles is stubborn and is still holding on to his resentment for Agamemnon. Agamemnon is now semi-levelheaded regarding the conflict with Achilles and is offering him lavish gifts to squash the argument, but Achilles is still stewing in bitter anger. Second, Achilles’s thirst for glory and power has succumbed to his fear of death. What Achilles does not understand is that there is a certain type of honor in fulfilling one’s destiny, but he runs from his instead of embracing it. Knowing his fate, knowing that he will die in the Trojan War keeps Achilles from fighting. This fact stalls the troops and puts them in danger, all because his divine mother told him his destiny. He announces that he plans to go home to Phthia to live a long life.
Achilles is one of many mortals to learn his fate in The Iliad. In Book Sixteen Patroclus comes to Achilles in tears because of his refusal to fight and thinks that Achilles is holding back because of the prophecy that Thetis told him. Patroclus asks that Achilles let him wear his armor in battle to intimidate the enemy if he will not fight himself. Achilles denies fear and insists that he will not fight because he is still angry with Agamemnon, and allows Patroclus to wear the armor. The Trojans are struck with fear when they see the disguised Patroclus. He kills many men, including the son of Zeus, Sarpedon. Zeus attempts to intervene and save his son, “…My Sarpedon, the man I love the most, my own son-doomed to die… Shall I pluck him up, now, while he’s still alive” (Homer, 426)? Hera reminds him that he cannot intervene with Sarpedon’s fate:
Dread majesty, son of Cronus- what are you saying? A man, a mere mortal, his doom sealed long ago? You’d set him free from all the pains of death? Do as you please, Zeus…. But none of the deathless gods will ever praise you. And I tell you this-take it to heart, I urge you– if you send Sarpedon home, living still, beware! The surely some other god will want to sweep his own son clear of heavy fighting too (Homer, 427).
Here, Hera explains the importance of mortal fate to the gods. If Zeus or any other god were to “sweep” in and save mortals, ignoring the importance of their destinies and the destinies of those around them, the mortal world would turn to chaos. While the trivial behavior of the mortals has little affect of the gods, intervening in the fates of individual men could cause turmoil in the human world. She also comments on how the other gods will see him for acting on Sarpedon’s destiny. The other gods “will never praise him” for getting caught up in mortality.
After Patroclus kills Sarpedon, he chases the Trojans who have retreated back to the city. However, Apollo appears to remind him that it is not his fate to take the city. Apollo then makes Patroclus vulnerable in his armor and encourages Hector to kill him. When Patroclus dies he tells Hector, “…You won’t live long yourself, I swear. Already I see them looming up beside you-death and the strong force of fate, to bring you down at the hands of Aeacus’ great royal son, Achilles” (Homer, 440)!
This single battle in Book Sixteen involves multiple destinies that are communicated by multiple gods. It is unclear to the reader what exactly the properties of fate are, how fate works or how fate can be changed. It is clear, however, that an individual’s destiny is so important that even Zeus, who is mentioned to be the god that determines a mortal’s fate at birth, is unable to save his own son from death because doing so would incite ridicule from the other gods and chaos among the humans. Therefore, gods are able to, but do not usually intervene in a mortal’s destiny.
Zeus almost disrupts destiny again with Hector in Book Twenty-Two. Hector waits for his destiny since Apollo reveals that it is he that Achilles chases outside of the walls of Troy. Hector believes that to wait and fight Achilles is his only option. When Achilles arrives, Hector runs and is chased around the walls of Troy. Zeus hesitates for a moment, feeling sorry for Hector, and thinks to save him from his destiny. Athena scorns him for thinking this way and Zeus tells her to do what she thinks is best and to not hold back.
Even after this battle and the death of Patroclus, the fates of Achilles and Patroclus come full circle in Book Twenty-Three. Patroclus appears to Achilles in a dream and asks him to bury his body as quickly as possible because he must wait outside the gates of Hades until he has been cremated and buried. He also reminds Achilles that it is his own fate to die under the Trojan walls and asks to have their bones laid together in the same urn. Achilles performs the funeral rights and holds funeral games in honor of Patroclus. The appearance of Patroclus in Achilles’s dream creates immense guilt for Achilles. His closest childhood friend had to meet his destiny because Achilles avoided his own out of fear and anger. This guilt becomes more poignant when Patroclus asks to have their bones laid together because this request is made out of true loyalty and love, feelings that Achilles never gave in return because of his own selfishness.
The role of fate in The Iliad is central in almost every complex storyline, and it is especially important for Achilles, Patroclus and Hector. Achilles and Patroclus have fates that are intertwined: Achilles learns his fate and ignores it, choosing not to fight, causing Patroclus (and Sarpedon) to go to battle and die. Destiny becomes more imperative and mysterious when mortals learn their fates from the gods. Achilles learned his two destinies from his mother and attempted to control them, sending Patroclus to his death. Hector learns his fate and embraces it, waiting for Achilles outside the walls of Troy. Therefore, learning destiny thrusts new decisions and perspectives upon all parties. Gods like Zeus may want intervene in certain situations, but the power and ability that the gods have over the fate of mortals and semi-mortals is somewhat unclear. What is clear is the binding power and respect that mortals and gods have for fate alike.
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