Monday, 21 November 2011

Fate in Ancient Greek mythology

"A man can surely do what he wills to do, but he cannot determine what we wills" Schopenhauer.

Fate is an interesting concept in Ancient Greek religion. In a universe where gods expressed so many flaws and sometimes unsavoury characteristics the Judeo-Christian concept of an 'omnipotent' deity is out of the question. In fact the ruling gods before Zeus, Kronos and Uranous, were even prophesied their own deaths but in the end were unable to do anything about it. Even the gods themselves could not escape their destiny's, and from this point the concept of 'Moria' was devised. Greek philosophy was largely an attempt to apply logic and order to the universe and the idea of Moria fits in nicely with the ancient Greek belief system; In the Homeric poems Moria represents a power over life and death, in some cases can be seen as more powerful than the gods themselves. M.Nilssoon writes on fate in the Homerics with the quote "Fate is not a god, because otherwise the will of the god would be predestinated"(pp.368) thus, Moria represents the personification of a power acting in parallel with the gods in Homer. Later, in the Theogony Hesiod anthropomorphises Moria further into into the Moriae, a power which acts above the Olympian gods.

In the Iliad Apollo warns Patroclus at the walls of troy not to sack the city in the passage "Draw back noble Patroclus, it is not your lot to sack the city of the Trojan chieftains, nor yet it will be that of Achilleus, who is far better than you are"(Iliad 16.) This shows that even the greatest of men have their limits which are dictated by Moira. The role of Fate in the Iliad is complex however, there are instances where the course of events appear preordained by Moria and also others where the autonomy of the hero's is stressed as they make decisions which drive the plot.

Whilst researching this topic I came across an interesting article by J.V.Morrison called 'Kerostasia, The Dictates of Fate and the will of Zeus in the Iliad'. Morrison sites a passage towards the end of the Iliad in the opening to his article. In this passage Achilles is chasing Hector around the Trojan walls, on the forth time round Zeus performs this action:

"Then father Zeus balanced his golden scale, and in them he set two fateful portions of woeful death, one for Achilles and one for Hector, breaker of horses. Balancing it in the middle, Zeus raised it high, and the fated day of Hector sank down: it went toward the house of Hades, and the god Apollo left him"(p.274)

Below I have included a red-figure vase painting of Achilles fighting Hector. This is a quintessential example of this technique being employed. Red-figure painting originated in Athens at around 530 BC and replaced the earlier black-figure technique. The expressive pose of the subjects makes up for the limitation of the medium and despite its simplicity depicts dynamic combat. Achilles on the left looms over Hector who is almost falling backwards. Heroes where usually depicted naked and often with disproportionately large thighs showing their physical prowess.

Achilles and Hector

Many scholars claim the balancing of the golden scales as evidence for Zeus as god of fate (Zeus Moiragetes) but I think this passage portrays Zeus as a witness and agent of fate rather than a dictator or instigator of fate. In the measuring of the hero's fates (kerostasia, literally meaning 'the weighing of an individuals death') it is clear that Zeus has not dictated them himself. Instead Zeus must in act the fate which is already set in motion, in this case Hector's demise (or ker, 'individual doom').

However, contrary to this portrayal of a fatalistic world presented by Homer there is also a sense of autonomy in the actions of the hero's in the Iliad. A key example of this is the role of Achilles in the Iliad. Achilles is fated from the beginning to meet his end in the battle for Troy, even by himself at times (he and Thetis refer to himself as "of the shortest life") although this is not clarified by Homer. Later in the text however Achilles talks of a 'twofold fate' in 9.410-16:

"For my mother, Thetis the goddess of the silver feet, tells me that a twofold fate bears me on to the day of death. Either, if I stay here and fight beside the city of Trojans, my homecoming is lost, but my glory never dies; or, if I return home to the dear land of my fathers, my noble glory dies, but the life that's left to me will be long, and the stroke of death will not come to me quickly." (9.410-16)

Here it appears that Achilles has the option of death and glory on the Trojan battlefield or a long and dull life tending the land of his forefathers (this passage always reminded me of the saying 'Better to live a single day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep). This contrasts not only with the stress that Achilles' fate is unavoidable at the beginning of the poem but also at the end of the epic when Achilles comes to realise-or perhaps to accept-that he will die at Troy. Morrison accentuates this point in his article in the passage

"If Achilles has no choice, then he must merely endure his destiny of staying at Troy. Yet the poet shows us that Achilles does make decisions. In fact most of the key events of the Iliad are determined by the choices of heroes."(p280)

It remains unclear in Homers' Iliad whether the ancient Greeks believed in a determinists' fatalistic universe, or whether they have a degree of free will but only their eventual fates are predefined. In both cases however Fate plays a key role, dictating events if not directly then in an overarching eventual manner.

M. Nillson (1967) Die Geschichte der Griechische Religion. Vol.1. C.F Beck Verlag. Munchen

J.V Morrison (1997) Kerostasia, The Dictates of Fate, and the Will of Zeus in the Iliad. Arethusa, Vol. 30 pp.276-296. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Homer. The Iliad


  1. Achilles's death was fated to follow shortly after Hector's. That is why if he had stayed home he would have lived a long life, no one would have killed Hector during the war.

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