The Odyssey and the Iliad
In our day and age, people strive for independence and a sense of authority. However, at many times this is more easily said than done. Whether it be God, or in the eyes of the Achaeans and Trojans, the immortals, lives and actions are commonly defined by a higher being. Which leads to Homer’s epic poems the Odyssey and the Iliad which deal with constant conflict in a world where the mortals are not even masters of their own destiny. The main character Odysseus, and the two armies, the Achaeans and the Trojans have little control over their own fate. Their destinies are defined by the gods. The gods demonstrate their control through prophecy, omens, and the intervention amongst the humans below them. Because of the control exercised by the gods, the characters are forced to become dependent on them, and fear their all mighty hand.
The story of The Iliad, deals with two armies, the Achaeans and the Trojans. In the war, the Achaians are trying to sack the city of Troy. The Trojans, the defenders of the city, are led by the powerful warriors Hector and Paris, while the Achaeans are led by Agamemnon, Achilles, Odysseus and several other powerful men. The story concludes with the Achaeans on the verge of sacking Troy because their greatest warrior, Hector, died by the hand of Achilles.
The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’s homeward journey after the Trojan War. Odysseus was afflicted with suffering on his homeward voyage, because he blinded the Cyclops, Poseidon’s son. When he finally reached his home of Ithaca, he found several men trying to steal his wealth and woo his wife, Penelope. This story ends with Odysseus saving his land Ithaca from the suitors.
In both stories, the characters respect the god’s prophecy, and assume it to be true. Odysseus, who devised the plan of the Wooden Horse knew, ‘it was their fate to perish when the city should admit the great Wooden Horse’; , and realized it was the only way to succeed in sacking the city of Troy. Similarly, never did Achilles question Zeus’s prophecy that ‘Hector was to have a short life and already the day of his death was being driven upon him by Pallas Athene through the strength of Achilles.’; Because of this prophecy, Achilles had immense confidence in his victory over Hector. The characters are controlled by prophecy, concerning their own death. Achilles never doubted Hector’s predictions about his death, because he was aware of his own destiny (I, p. 444):
Be careful now; for I might be made into the gods’ curse upon you, on the day when Paris and Phoibos Apollo destroy you in the Skaian gates, for all your valour.
In the same way, Odysseus does not fear death when he left on his land journey to make peace with Poseidon. He knows that he will return home to his wife Penelope, because it was his fate to die at sea an old man. (O, p.126).
Omens from the gods influenced many critical decisions. When a character was in need, he commonly asked for an answer from the gods. Odysseus, unsure if he should attack the suitors, asked for an omen from Zeus (O, p.228). In answer, Zeus sent a large thunderbolt down as a sign, and Odysseus became confident in his victory (O, p.228).
When a sign sent from above was ignored by the unknowing, disaster was upon them at once. The Trojans were hesitant to sack the Achaean boats because of an omen of an eagle carrying a snake in its claw. However, because the Trojans were so confident in themselves, they chose to ignore this omen and paid for their insolence (I, p.264).
Constant control leads to constant dependency. Odysseus is constantly relying on Athene for help and questioned her absence when he reached conflict on his voyage home (O,p.154). Achilles weeps to his mother Thetis (an immortal) (I,p.68):
She came and sat beside him as he wept, and stroked him with her hand and called him by name and spoke to him; ‘Why then child, do you lament? What sorrow has come to you heart now?’
Achilles asks how he should handle his personal war with Agamemnon. However, as much as the characters are dependent on the immortals, they still spent much of their life in fear. During the Trojan war, Apollo carried Zeus aegis (Zeus’ shield) in front of the Trojan army, in order to strike fear into the Achaeans (I,p.316). When Odysseus is staying on the island with Helios’s cattle, he constantly reminds his men (O,p.144):
‘My friends, we have food and drink in the ship, so we must keep our hands off these cattle or we may suffer for it’;
Therefore, Odysseus feared the wrath of Helios. As much as the characters feared the immortals, they had no choice but to put their trust into the hands of the gods. Agamemnon was told in a dream that the gods were going to hand Troy over to the Achaians(I,p.78). Because of the content of this single dream, the Achaeans risked the lives of many important men. Odysseus trusted Athene and Zeus with his life when he fought the suitors (O,p.228):
Odysseus was glad to hear the words of omen and the clap of thunder. Now he felt sure he should punish the guilty men.
With no doubt in his mind, Achilles puts his trust into Hera’s words that he will kill Hector, no matter what the outcome of the war (I,p.403).
The characters are only puppets in the god’s perspective. Odysseus, who was at the time unsure of his destiny, was told by Circe to go to Hades and seek the prophecy of Theban Teiresias (O,p.122). Odysseus knows that the gods will not let him reach Ithaca, unless he embarks on this terrifying journey across the Black Sea. Zeus has decided that in order to give glory to Achilles, Patroklos must perish first (I,p.311):
And glorious Hector shall cut down Patroklos with the spear before Ilion, after he has killed many others of the young men, and among them my own shining Sarpedon. In anger for him brilliant Achilles shall kill Hector.
Achilles did not encourage his friend Patroklos’ death, however, he knew that if Zeus
had pronounced it, it was inevitable. Achilles had no way of avoiding his friends destiny.
Poseidon despised Odysseus, because he blinded his Cyclops son Polyphemos.
Odysseus found himself in a paradox; it was his fate to blind Polyphemos, and yet he made Poseidon angry for fulfilling his prophecy (O,p.110). In the situation there was nothing Odysseus could have done to prevent Poseidon’s wrath.
The control that the gods have over the mortals is remarkable. Zeus and the
other immortals, seldom allow the mortals any freewill. The characters are forced to live their lives knowing that nothing they do, will reflect the outcome of their fate. Therefore, resisting would be a worthless gesture. Although they are known for their strength and
perseverance, they are rarely considered as being pawns controlled by the all mighty gods.
Lattimore, Richard The Iliad of Homer, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963.
Rouse, W.H.D. Homer The Odyssey, New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1937.