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Gods and Fate

In classic Greek Mythology, the fates are depicted as three goddesses: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. And all of these ‘moirae’ are answerable, in one way or another, to Zeus. Homer however, doesn’t paint this picture. He not only never mentions the three goddesses, he doesn’t speak of fate as being personified by a god at all. In fact, whenever fate is mentioned, it plays a role that even Zeus is unable to control.

The first major mention of this strange relationship between gods and fate comes in Book 8. Zeus turns the tide of battle in favor of the Trojans, but before he does, he first consults his scales. He does this by placing the individual fates of Troy and Achaea on each side. It is only after Achaea’s fate falls that Zeus acts to help the Trojans. One wonders what Zeus would have done had Troy’s fate fallen instead.

We get an idea perhaps, later on in Book 16. Halfway through the book, Zeus is watching the war from the heights of Mount Ida and sees one of his (many) sons vainly fighting against Patroclus, who is dressed in Achilles own armor. Zeus knows that his son Sarpedon doesn’t stand a chance against Patroclus and wonders out loud if he should snatch him from the fight and set him down safely somewhere else in order to save him.

Hera hears him contemplating this and rebukes him. What she says is interesting. She reminds Zeus that Sarpedon’s doom was sealed long ago. No mention is made of who exactly determined this – the feeling is that it just was. Hera continues with an sagacious speech:

If you send Sarpedon home, living still, beware!

Then surely some other god will want to sweep

his own son clear of the heavy fighting too.

She concludes by saying that Zeus would enrage every other god who ever has any interest in a mortal about to die.  She doesn’t say that Zeus can’t interfere with fate, she simply states:

Do as you please, Zeus…

but none of the deathless gods will ever praise you.

If Zeus does protect Sarpedon against Patroclus (and fate), then Zeus will no longer command any respect among the gods. Zeus can’t just do as he pleases. If he did, everything would fall apart. The other gods would feel free to jump into human affairs whenever they wanted, keeping alive anyone they pleased. The way Hera talks, things would devolve into chaos.

No, Zeus must play by the rules. And he does… Zeus watches silently as Patroclus kills his own son.

Homer seems to give us the idea that although the gods may be privy to some aspects of the future, they are far from omnipotent. Zeus may be the mightiest of the gods, but he can’t do everything. It’s merely an elaborate and constant power struggle. Poseidon, his brother, reminds him of this at the end of Book 15 when he says that he really isn’t even that intimidated by Zeus. Their spheres of influence may be different (Poseidon controls the sea, while Zeus controls the earth), but that doesn’t make him any more powerful. He even threatens Zeus before leaving the battlefield and warns him not to get to cocky.

It’s as if the gods themselves are subject the fundamental powers at work in the universe. Although no one person in a polytheistic system can truly be omnipotent, it’s difficult to escape some sort of ‘ultimate authority’ behind it all. While Zeus’ epithet may be ‘the all-powerful’, it’s clear that Homer doesn’t exactly see it that way.

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