Humours of the Homerist 4
What is the role of ‘fate’ in Homer’s Iliad? David Grene used to tell us that fate in ancient Greek usage was only ever about 95% certain. That is to say, there was always that little bit of wiggle room, and hence a feeling of possibility and choice without which it would not be possible humanly to conceive of a worthy life. Without this feeling there is also not the possibility of meaningful and interesting narrative. An Homerist is not a fatalist. So catch yourself when you find yourself explaining events in epic as ‘due to fate’: if Homer is not susceptible to the simple-minded criticism that we cannot discuss this or that character’s choices, because for ‘the Greeks’ everything was fated—then what after all is the role of fate in Homer’s plotting and in the lives of his protagonists? How do we understand the role of fate in art and life?
It is quite clear that Zeus is the strongest of the stronger powers in the world. He boasts, in threat, that he is the one who can pull the golden chain:
Singing Homer is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
εἰ δ᾽ ἄγε πειρήσασθε θεοὶ ἵνα ϝεἴδετε πάντες:
σειρὴν χρυσείην ἐξ οὐρανόθεν κρεμάσαντες
πάντές τ᾽ ἐξάπτεσθε θεοὶ πᾶσαί τε θέαιναι:
ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ἂν ϝἐρύσαιτ᾽ ἐξ οὐρανόθεν πεδίον δέ
Ζῆν᾽ ὕπατον μήστωρ᾽, οὐδ᾽ εἰ μάλα πολλὰ κάμοιτε.
ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε δὴ καὶ ἐγὼ πρόφρων ἐθέλοιμι ϝἐρύσσαι,
αὐτῇ κεν γαίῃ ϝἐρύσαιμ᾽ αὐτῇ τε θαλάσσῃ:
σειρὴν μέν κεν ἔπειτα περὶ ῥίον Οὐλύμποιο
δησαίμην, τὰ δέ κ᾽ αὖτε μετήορα πάντα γένοιτο.
τόσσον ἐγὼ περί τ᾽ εἰμὶ θεῶν περί τ᾽ εἴμ᾽ ἀνθρώπων.
‘But come on, ye Gods, have a go!—So you all may know:
Hang a golden cord from out the sky
And all of you gods and all you goddesses, grab on;
But you wouldn’t be able to drag me out the sky to the plain,
Zeus the Highest Counsellor, not even if you made the effort time and again.
No, whenever I myself should wish to set my mind to a pull,
I’d haul you with the earth herself and the very sea;
Then later, from the peak of Olympus
I’d lash the cord, while all this stuff would end up in mid-air.
That’s how much I personally am above the gods, how much I’m above mankind.’
But it is also clear that not even the father of gods and men is free to alter fate. Let us consider the nature of the pressures on him, however. When he realises that his dear son, Sarpedon, is about to be killed by Patroclus, he mourns out loud in the most affecting way, and wonders whether he should spirit him away alive (XVI.433 ff.). Hera’s response is worth mulling over. It is not, ‘hey Zeusy, that’s nice, but you know it’s IMPOSSIBLE.’ It is, rather more like ‘well well well … all this fuss for a mortal … okay, go ahead. But the rest of us gods aren’t going to be too happy about it.’ She goes on to point out what chaos would result if each of the gods decided to help out their particular favourites, protecting their lives from some kind of prearranged fate. ‘There are so many sons of immortals fighting around Priam’s town!’ She suggests, instead, that Sarpedon be allowed to die, but also that arrangements be made for the body to be returned to Lycia, where his family could prepare it and mourn properly. Zeus is eager to acquiesce. It is the thought of what a bureaucratic mess would be created that prevents the supreme power in the universe from saving his son.
We all know this feeling of the bureaucratic nightmare. Yet it is quite a puzzle how Homer knew this feeling, without the direct experience of modern politics and infrastructures. Is it really the mundane, bureaucratic inertia of the Department of Motor Vehicles or the U.S. Congress that preserves the machinery of fate? This may not be ‘the Greeks’’ answer but it appears to be Homer’s.
When Agamemnon declares to the troops after hearing the false dream in Book II that the army’s cause is hopeless, it is said that the Achaeans would have returned home in their ships ὑπέρμορα, ‘beyond fate,’ unless a directive through a chain of command, from Hera through Athena to Odysseus, had not reined them in. This notion that such and such would have happened ‘beyond fate’ but for the intervention of so and so, recurs through the poem; I would connect it to an affect of the ‘brink of destruction,’ a feeling of the tension that something that is not supposed to happen is almost coming to pass, where one senses almost bodily the lurching force that keeps what is fated on its proper track. Nothing ever happens in the Iliad beyond what is fated, despite the reality of the threat. It is as though there is a contract established between poet and audience, which allows her to draw on this affect in a state of peculiar epic pleasure.
But note that in the opening speech of the Odyssey, Zeus comes right out and says that Aegisthus has achieved the murder of Agamemnon and the wiving of Clytaemnestra ‘beyond fate’. Immediately, a different contract has been drawn up, enabling perhaps a different kind of pleasure in that poem, and a radically different equation of the possibility in human agency.
The opening lines of the Iliad assert that the will of Zeus was being accomplished in the consequences of Achilles’ anger. This βουλὴ Διός is a ‘will’ in the objective sense, an internal object of the verb βουλεύειν ‘to advise’ or ‘counsel,’ with which it is sometimes paired (as when in English we ‘walk a walk’). Hence the βουλή is a ‘plan’ or ‘counsel,’ rather than ‘the will’ which we tend to hypostatise as the faculty capable of the activity described by the verb. Perhaps it is not such a jump to infer such a faculty, as a subject for the verb, but in Homer the subject of the verb is always ‘I’ or ‘you’ or ‘he/she/it,’ and one should perhaps be cautious about the hypostasis. It is after all this faculty upon which the whole of the modern disquiet depends. How can we have a ‘free will’ if there is such a thing as fate? Since the notion ‘free’ really adds nothing to the matter, the modern question is about the possible coexistence of will and fate (or determinism). But the question to be posed within Homer, which, it must be said, the poet raises rather directly with her aside in line 5, is what is the relation between this plan of Zeus’—one presumes a result of his desire—and the anger of Achilles? To which it is directly juxtaposed, on the one hand, and on the other, indirectly to fate—the looming notion that emerges with a steady persistence through the episodes in the narrative.
At first it seems that the Homeric question is as intractable as the modern one, but I believe there are important data for the problem in the word most often translated as ‘fate’. This word is μόρος, and properly it means ‘part’ or ‘portion’. Sometimes the notion is figured as an arbitrary length of string that is cut by the three mythological spinners. But I think it is best served by an image that expresses the finitude of the available string—and really a cake or a pie works better. It is as if there is one big pie baked of the stuff of life, and each of us is allotted one share. This notion of the share, it seems to me, is a key to understanding Homer’s conception, in the way that it adds content to the notion of a predestined terminus to a string-like line of life.
What I would like to suggest is the notion of a ‘budget,’ in its fully political and modern sense, which gives context to the notion of a share or portion that is the Homeric ‘fate’. Just as in the case of a modern congress, everything that ultimately becomes a part of the fateful budget begins life as an object of desire on the part of an agent, however broad-minded or craven the politician. I think it is fair to say that everything that comes to be fated in the Iliad began life as an object of desire, in the person of some god.
To be sure, there is a Freudian over-determination in Homeric events; it is not that there is no explanation for why something happens, but rather, that there are too many of them. The anger of Achilles did all those terrible things, and also the will of Zeus was being accomplished, and oh, by the way, the whole thing was fated anyway. It is like the perfect aspect in the Greek verb: perfects show reduplication in the first syllable, a kappa infix, and distinctive endings. Some verbs show all three at once, when only one sign would be necessary to distinguish the perfect!
By the opening of the Iliad, the fall of Troy is quite obviously a fated thing, and certainly an event already in the audience’s past. But it is also quite obvious that Ilium would not have fallen had not Hera and Athena and their allies conceived a dreadful hatred for the place, and in particular for Priam and his sons. At the beginning of Book IV, Zeus wonders out loud if Hera would not eat Priam and his sons and all the Trojans raw, if she could get the chance. Zeus complains that Priam’s city is his very favourite under sun and heaven. Hera makes a deal: give me Troy now, and some time you can have my favourites: Argos, Sparta and Mycenae (IV.52). What an extraordinary concession; how does one take it in a Greek audience? One wonders if these citadels of the Achaeans were also a part of the audience’s past, but perhaps unrelated to their present familiar locales of like-sounding names; and in that case, one wonders where the originals had actually been? Whatever the scenario of the original audience, the threat of the loss of these thriving cities, to be wiped out like Ilium, must have impressed with its fear of transience. Homer breaks a fourth wall of history. It is like being warned of the fall of London or New York or Hollywood, in a big budget movie epic about the fall of old Babylon.
The problem with a budget is that it cannot be changed in mid-stream. In the period prior to its passage, a budget is a field of endless conflict and negotiation. Anything is possible at that point with enough lobbying and bribery. But once it is passed, nothing can be changed. Once the government offices or UN bureaus have received their annual allotment, they cannot ask for more. They can only petition for next year. I think that this is the key to the power of fate. It is like this year’s budget.
Consider how deeply the anxiety about this problem goes in the Iliad; it is in fact expressed in the opening conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, which is essentially a problem of re-allotment once the division has already been made. The case is doubly poignant and humanly challenging because the commodity in question is a woman. Apart from the question about the value of a woman—as Chryseis is being loaded onto the ship that will take her home to father, so also are a hundred oxen, inviting a comparison of the value of the cargoes—it is not possible to return a woman. She has become ‘used’, to put it crudely. (‘That punishment, the public punishment of disgrace, should in a just measure attend his share of the offence, is, we know, not one of the barriers, which society gives to virtue. In this world, the penalty is less equal than could be wished …’—Jane Austen.) It is essential to the possibility of reconciliation with Achilles, although it stretches credibility, that Agamemnon claims he has not in fact slept with Briseis.
The whole narrative problem of the Iliad—which is also Zeus’s problem, and which causes him to have a sleepless night—is how to stitch in a certain sequence of action, within a framework that has already been determined. He already knows that Troy is going to fall, and when it is going to fall. But Thetis has called in a favour, and the Trojans must repel the Greeks like the Ukrainians the Russians; and he must deliver in such a way as to work within the confines of a fate that has already been budgeted.
To some extent, I believe Zeus makes things up as he goes along. He is shown doing this at XVI.644 ff., when he wonders whether Patroclus (the Greek) should die right there at Hector’s hands, over Sarpedon’s body, or whether he should get to rage on some more. (He decides on a little more action for Patroclus.) The flexibility here is striking, because in Book VIII we find out from Zeus’s own mouth, for the first time, that Patroclus has to die as part of this favour for Thetis. Just because Zeus expresses it as a fated thing, does not mean that he had ever seen this before: he speaks in the modus of a living prophet. But Zeus himself, the supremo, does not know precisely when the necessary death must occur.
Similarly, in Book XV, when he wakes up from Hera’s embrace, he announces for the first time, to us and to himself, that Hector also must die. His son, the Trojan ally Sarpedon, will fall at Patroclus’ hands, and Patroclus at Hector’s, so that Achilles will finally be roused from the ships to seek revenge. This is the way that Thetis’ favour will be completed. There will then be a reversal, a παλίωξις, the Achaeans driving back from their ships again to besiege Ilium, to neutralise the retrogression in fate that was initiated by Thetis’ request.
It is false to the letter and to the spirit of the story to say that Patroclus’ and Hector’s deaths were fated from the beginning. Although these crucial deaths are often said to have been fated, no such things were on the horizon until the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon, and Thetis’ visit to the knee of Zeus. Fate unfolds before us, at the very moments in VIII and XV that Zeus actually sees the pieces fall into place, and Homer himself there glimpses the horizons of his story. Perhaps we even feel a sense of achievement here, Zeus’s successful achievement of a negotiation within the confines of fate, that is at the same time a narrative achievement; as we are also swept onward into the real-time mortality of Patroclus and Hector, the pathos of Achilles’ surrogates.
At certain moments Zeus holds up the scales, and a man’s fate tips in the balance. I welcome suggestions about the meaning of this, but it strikes me as being a ratification rather than a decision. Judges do not like to feel like perpetrators of any kind, but as agents of justice. Zeus is no exception. Holding up the scales is a way of turning the messy motives that produce what is fated, into a matter of masses and weights; there is a distance in the gesture that perhaps is a comfort to judge and jury. It seems to be a way of objectifying a decision, rather than an event in itself.
So is the most powerful figure in the universe a kind of hen-pecked Bill Clinton, an American President with Hillary in the wings, and Ms. Lewinsky asking favours, who has to pass a budget through an unruly congress and then live with the consequences? Yes I think this is Homer’s idea. What I don’t understand is what experience Homer could possibly have had of this post-Enlightenment kind of government: for that is what Homer depicts in his Olympians, a government, of a kind very familiar to us. It is precious how domestically and politically the supreme deity is stressed and constrained.
The question to ask is about the truth and the reality. Which of the competing stories that purport to take us ‘behind the scenes’ actually works, so as to answer to our experience of reality? Is what is behind the appearance of our will and agency a reality of impersonal forces, masses, energies and elements, whose implacable natural laws are the true determinants of what is real? Or behind the scenes is there a purpose or intelligence of some kind? Or is there a loving god with a personal stake in our welfare? Or rather, does the world actually work as though its strongest power were a compromised president, where things happen as though they had been decided by a corruptible parliament, and the instant divinity of sex can overthrow the most stable fantasies of well-meaning people? It would be good to separate these answers, between the ones that are wishes, the ones that comfort, and the ones that are true.
I shall leave this question with a question about Achilles. In the embassy in Book IX, in response to Odysseus’ plea, he relates his mother’s statement, that there are two κῆρες, winged death-spirits or fates, which are carrying him towards death. If he stays to fight around the Trojans’ city, his return home will be lost, but his glory will be imperishable. But if he were to reach his dear home, mother earth of his fathers, his glory is lost, but he will have a long life. In learning this from his mother, does he know something more than you and I do about fate? If so, what is it?
Singing Homer is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.