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Fate in The Iliad

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  • 0:04 Fate vs.Free Will in…
  • 0:40 Fate and the Gods
  • 2:37 Fate and Mortals
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Vonderach
In the world of Homer, fate always prevails. However, men, and especially gods, have some room for free will to make choices within the framework of their destinies. This lesson examines the role of fate in Homer's ''Iliad.''

Fate vs. Free Will in the Iliad

In this lesson, we look at the role of fate, which is predestined or foreseen events out of our individual control, and its role in the Iliad, which isn't as straightforward as you might imagine. Sure, fate is powerful and lurks behind everything, giving order and a sense of direction to the events of the poem. However, a little thing called free will, or the freedom and ability to make our own choices, comes into play and complicates the particulars of preordained destiny. Let's take a look at how the gods and mortals of the Iliad demonstrate the interplay between fate and free will throughout the course of the poem.

Fate and the Gods

The gods in the Iliad are very powerful and can intervene in mortals' lives, influencing relationships and success in warfare. Zeus, in particular, plays a strong role in directing the mortals. He even has a literal scale, which he tips in favor of the Trojans in Book 8. This briefly turns the tide in the war. There are also several examples of gods intervening to bestow courage and strength on the mortals involved in the war, as Poseidon does with the Aeantes brothers in Book 13.

For all their power, however, the gods are still limited by the boundaries of fate, the ultimately stronger force. While they influence day-to-day affairs, most of the gods' meddling only ends up contributing to the correct fate playing out. Zeus' scale? He may tip it in favor of the Trojans, but this is just temporary. Zeus' real reason for helping the Trojans is so the Greeks will be beaten down and Achilles will look like an even greater hero when he returns to the fighting. The Greek side is fated to win the war, and no matter what the gods do along the way, this will happen.

The gods understand that it can be dangerous to interfere with fate, and seem to respect its supremacy. In Book 16, Zeus plays with the idea of saving his son Sarpedon, who is about to meet his destiny and die on the battlefield. Zeus' wife, Hera, warns him not to mess with fate. It's a slippery slope. If Zeus saves Sarpedon, then won't the other gods start getting ideas to save their kids, too? And then where does it end? Although it grieves him to do so, Zeus allows Sarpedon to meet his death at the hands of Patroclus to avoid the chaos that would result from altering fate.

In Book 20, Zeus commands the gods to get involved in the war because without their interference, Achilles will go too far and bring down the entire city of Troy. This would be against his destiny, for Achilles is only fated to kill Hector, not to raze the entire city single-handedly. Here, the gods influence events in order to preserve the dictates of fate.

Fate and Mortals

In Book 1, we're introduced to Calchas, a prophet and seer who knows the future. The mortals rely on these prophets and their understanding of fate. The mortals are always aware that they are subject to their own personal destiny. As Hector tells his wife in Book 6: 'No one escapes his fate. . . from the moment of his birth.' Like other mortals, Hector accepts his fate and goes off to meet it knowing there is nothing he can do to change it. Along the way, though, he will have free will to make choices as far as the gods will allow him.

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