Honors Literary Analysis and Composition 1
10 October 2014
Uncontrollable, Inescapable Fate
“Maybe fate isn’t the pond you swim in but the fisherman floating on top of it, letting you run the line until you are weary enough to be reeled back in” (Jodi Picoult, Vanishing Acts). This quotation reflects the attitude that the Greek society had back in ancient times. They believed that the gods had control over their fates, and no matter how much they struggled, they wouldn’t be able to change their destiny. Many stories and legends from back then display this belief, The Odyssey being one of them. The Odyssey is an epic poem written in 700 B.C. by Homer, an enigma in the sense that no one knew exactly who or what he was, but he was a revered Greek poet in that day and age. He is also credited with writing The Iliad, a prelude to The Odyssey. The Odyssey is about a man named Odysseus and his quest to return home to his wife and son after winning a war. Throughout his journey, however, he is faced with challenges of all kinds brought forth to him by the gods, who see fit to change his fate at will, one moment helping him to pass an obstacle, the next moment setting up an obstacle themselves. During the time of The Odyssey, fate played a colossal role in people’s lives. The Greeks themselves believed that their decisions had the potential to affect their fate, but ultimately, their destiny was left to the whims of the gods. Through the belief that the Greeks had in their deities and the selfish ideals and ever-changing minds of the gods, the fate of mortals was influenced to whatever extent the gods wished. Much of the gods’ power over the Greeks’ destiny originated from the Greeks’ unconditional belief in the gods. When Odysseus and his crew were trapped within Polyphemus’s cavern, Odysseus displayed an avid belief in the gods control over his fate once the Cyclops questioned them about the fate of their ship. Odysseus, hoping to gain the sympathy of the Cyclops, displays his wit and his belief in the will of the Gods, explaining, “We are from Troy, Achaeans, blown off course by shifting gales on the Great South Sea; homeward bound, but taking routes and ways uncommon; so the will of Zeus would have it” (Homer, Book 9, Lines 163-166). Odysseus, although he lies about their ship being demolished, does not lie about the mandate of Zeus. He, as well as the rest of his crew, knows that the reason they were dropped upon this island was because it was a part of their destiny. This is one reason that the gods have so much control and influence over them. The Greeks believe so strongly in the power of the gods, that it seems almost unthinkable that they wouldn’t be able to control their lives completely. Most of the power that the gods have, though, is from the beliefs of the Greeks. In modern times, there are fewer believers, and therefore, the gods have less influence over the fates of the mortals. When Odysseus finally manages to return to his home on Ithaca, he finds it overrun with suitors vying for the hand of his wife, Penelope. Penelope, who has given up all hope of Odysseus ever returning to her, and has tired of turning away suitor after suitor, has promised her hand to the man who can hit a difficult shot with Odysseus’ bow. Odysseus arrives at the contest disguised as a beggar and convinces the men to let him attempt the shot. As he draws back the bowstring, he declares to the watching crowd, and prays to the gods above, “Now watch me hit a target that no man has hit before, if I can make this shot. Help me, Apollo” (Homer, Book 22, Lines 5-6). Even if Odysseus is confident about his skill as an archer, he knows that this will be a difficult shot to make. Having seen the power that the gods hold over the course of his journey, he pleads to Apollo, the god of archery, to guide his hand in this endeavor of his. Believing in the power that Apollo holds, he depends on him to help. Once again proving that his belief in Apollo, as well as many other gods, gives the gods the power to influence the lives of the Greeks. It is thought that if you believe in something enough, it will come true. Well, perhaps this is what happened to Odysseus in The Odyssey. He believes profusely in the power of the gods, and in turn, the gods have the power to do as they wish, and affect Odysseus’ destiny. Many a time throughout The Odyssey has a god affected the course of Odysseus’ journey through his/her own selfish whims and desires. After escaping from the clutches of the Cyclops Polyphemus, Odysseus and his companions celebrated, feasting on the sheep of the Cyclops and offering up the best meat to Zeus, believing that this will appease the mighty god. But Zeus has already mapped out plans for the crew of Odysseus, as Odysseus mentions after offering up the sacrifices. Odysseus displays how fickle and stubborn the gods are when after sacrificing the sheep he says, “But Zeus disdained my offering; destruction for my ships he had in store and death for those who sailed them, my companions” (Homer, Book 9, Lines 471-473). This is a perfect example of a mortal trying to change his fate by appealing to the gods. Odysseus offered up the best of the sheep they stole to Zeus, in an attempt to please him. But Zeus, fickle as he is, already has decided upon Odysseus’ fate, as well as the fate of those around him. The gods are not simply power-hungry and stubborn, however. They are also kind and sympathetic when they feel the need to be. Sometimes, their selfish whims are in the best interest of the one whose fate they are deciding. For instance, Zeus shows his lenience and willingness to help at the end of Odysseus’ seven year hiatus from his journey on the Isle of Calypso. Odysseus, who has languished in exile while trapped upon the island, has almost lost all hope of returning home, when Hermes arrives with a message from Zeus. Although Calypso wished for Odysseus to stay upon her island for the remainder of his days, all-powerful Zeus, with his ever-changing mind, proves how lenient he is when he sends Hermes to the isle. “The strong god glittering left her as he spoke, and now her ladyship, having given heed to Zeus’s mandate, went to find Odysseus in his stone seat to seaward” (Homer, Book 5, Lines 43-46). After making Odysseus suffer for nigh on seven years, Zeus finally decided to let Odysseus continue on his way home. Odysseus might have been left on the island with Calypso for the remainder of his days if not for the changing thoughts of the gods. One moment, Zeus wished for Odysseus to suffer throughout his life, and the next, he’s assisting him on his quest to return to his wife and child. Odysseus may have fought against his imprisonment whilst on the isle, but it was to no avail, for the gods who controlled his fate did not yet desire for him to continue on his way. In the time of The Odyssey, people mainly left their lives up to the gods. That doesn’t mean that the gods controlled everything in their lives. If a mother decided to weave the same day that she did the washing, that didn’t mean that she was doing that because Hera desired it. The gods didn’t trouble themselves with every little menial task or decision. The Greeks believed in the gods so much, though, that they basically handed them the power to disrupt their lives. This power, combined with the unpredictable moods all the gods had, led to a control over their destiny. Although the gods might not be as widely believed in today, that doesn’t mean they don’t still hold influence over the lives of mortals. The Greeks left the outcome of their lives up to heavenly beings that they believed wielded great power. Many religions today are exactly like that, Christianity being an example. Millions of people believe that Jesus Christ, or God, has complete control over their lives, and that as long as they devote their entire life to Him, they will be rewarded for their devotion. Look at what happened to Odysseus, though. He respected and tried to live his life according to the will of the gods, and all they ever did was play with his life as they wished. He experienced many hardships and challenges along the course of his journey because he left his fate up to them and their power. The gods received most of their power from the undying belief that people had in them, however. They wouldn’t have had such a big impact on society in those times or in society now if people didn’t believe in them as they did then. Odysseus tried and tried to go against what the gods had in store for him throughout the course of The Odyssey, but to no avail. As any Greek of that day could have told him, your fate is in the hands of the gods.