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Themes and Colors
Fate Theme Icon
Pride and Hubris Theme Icon
Heroism Theme Icon
Justice and Vengeance Theme Icon
Beauty Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Mythology, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fate Theme Icon

The power of fate hangs over the lives of all the characters Hamilton describes, and even controls the gods themselves. In Greek mythology, Fate was personified as three sisters: Clotho, the spinner of life’s thread, Lachesis, the allotter of a person’s destiny, and Atropos, who cut the thread at death. These three are rarely mentioned by name, but their power seems to have control over even Zeus, the most powerful of the gods.

The Greek poets and playwrights found great irony in the fact that individuals might seal their fate by the very precautions they took to prevent it. The Titan Cronus learns that a child of his is destined to overthrow him, so he swallows all his children as soon as they are born. Gaia, his wife, hides the infant Zeus away, and later he does indeed overthrow his father, but it is perhaps Cronus’s very bloodthirstiness that makes his own wife and son turn against him. Among mortals a famous example involves Oedipus and his father Laius. Laius also learns that his son will kill him, so he leaves the infant Oedipus to die – which only means that the two do not recognize each other when they quarrel on a highway years later, and thus fate is fulfilled.

In Norse mythology, Hamilton emphasizes the sense of doom that pervades the Norse worldview, as the universe will inevitably end and all the mortals and gods will be killed at Ragnarok. Because of this, there is only heroism and a brave death to strive for, as one’s doom is already sealed. The Norsemen also have three Fate figures, the Norns.

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Fate Quotes in Mythology

Below you will find the important quotes in Mythology related to the theme of Fate.
Introduction to Classical Mythology Quotes

One could never tell where Zeus’s thunderbolt would strike. Nevertheless, the whole divine company, with a very few and for the most part not important exceptions, were entrancingly beautiful with a human beauty, and nothing humanly beautiful is really terrifying. The early Greek mythologists transformed a world full of fear into a world full of beauty.

Related Characters: Zeus
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Hamilton lays out in great detail a theory that seems, in light of the myths that follow, rather dubious. For Hamilton, Greek mythology's placement of the human at the center of the universe meant that fear became irrelevant. This supposed freedom from fear relies on the concept of beauty--Hamilton proposes that "nothing humanly beautiful is really terrifying." On the one hand, she could be saying that infusing something scary with a human quality made it relatable, so things that had once seemed scary, unfamiliar, and unpredictable suddenly seemed, at the very least, rational and relatable. This would seem to be a decent explanation of Hamilton's argument, except that some of the scariest and most destructive figures in Greek myth are the most human. (For example, the several examples of humans getting revenge on someone by killing their children and serving them as food to the unsuspecting victim.) So Hamilton's theory could be generally correct--Greek myth could be less permeated by terror than mythologies that came before it, because its gods were at least humanlike, instead of natural forces or animal-like demons--but it certainly does not account for everything in Greek mythology. 


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Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

You could not drag down Zeus… Nevertheless he was not omnipotent or omniscient, either. He could be opposed and deceived… Sometimes, too, the mysterious power, Fate, is spoken of as stronger than he. Homer makes Hera ask him scornfully if he proposes to deliver from death a man Fate has doomed.

Related Characters: Virgil, Zeus, Hera
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage helps us understand the power of fate in Greek mythology. Here, Hamilton is explaining the origin and role of Zeus, who is the supreme ruler of the Greek universe and the most powerful of the gods. Despite Zeus's position, however, even he is vulnerable. He's vulnerable to the other gods, to humans, and, above all, to fate, which Hamilton positions as being one of the most important forces in Greek myth. Zeus owes his position as supreme ruler to fate--he and his brothers drew lots--but fate also creates havoc in people's lives (like the sailor "Fate" has doomed to death that Zeus can do nothing to help). In a universe ruled by humanlike gods, fate is a force that, in a sense, humbles the gods and makes them relatable to humans. Despite the fact that the gods have power over humans, the gods do not have total power over even their own lives--they can be tricked, delighted, or destroyed by the workings of fate, just like anyone else.

Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

There is a story, too, that Medea restored Jason’s father to life and made him young again, and that she gave to Jason the secret of perpetual youth. All that she did of evil and of good was done for him alone, and in the end, all the reward she got was that he turned traitor to her.

Related Characters: Jason, Medea
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

To a modern reader, the heroism in Jason's quest for the golden fleece is ambiguous at best. While Jason is the face of the journey and it is his ambition that fuels the trip, the Argonauts are able to overcome many of the obstacles that they face because of help from Medea, whose courage, cleverness, and sacrifice is much more apparent than Jason's. It's important to understand that Medea was a much less sympathetic character to ancient audiences--culturally, as a woman, a foreigner, and a betrayer of her family, she was a clear-cut villain who, perhaps, deserved her tragic fate. However, this passage shows the moral complexity of the story of the golden fleece. All of Medea's good and evil acts were done for love, and her loyalty to Jason was boundless until he betrayed her. With that in mind, her terrible vengeance seems, while perhaps not proportional to Jason's betrayal, comprehensible. Jason was certainly unjust to her, treating her badly while taking credit for everything she gave him. 

Part 4, Chapter 1 Quotes

“If I must slay
The joy of my house, my daughter.
A father’s hands
Stained with dark streams flowing
From blood of a girl
Slaughtered before the altar.”

Nevertheless he yielded. His reputation with the Army was at stake, and his ambition to conquer Troy and exalt Greece.

“He dared the deed,
Slaying his child to help a war.”

Related Characters: Agamemnon, Iphigenia
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes as the Greek warriors are headed to Troy to fight, and Artemis, angry that somebody killed one of her sacred deer, demands the sacrifice of the Greek leader Agamemnon's daughter as retribution. This is a story full of retribution, in fact--Agamemnon ultimately agrees to sacrifice his daughter because he is eager to get retribution against the Trojans for taking Helen from her husband, who is Agamemnon's brother. Agamemnon is also fated to perish at the hand of Clytemnestra, his wife, who is seeking vengeance for Agamemnon's sacrifice of their daughter. So, in many ways, the story of the Trojan war is a story of the ways in which "justice" being pursued through vengeance only begets more and more violence. This is also an example of the gods being just as petty and cruel as the humans. Artemis worsens the bloodshed already inevitable due to war because of her petty need to inflict a disproportionate punishment on Agamemnon. Despite the heroic nature of brave men heading off to war, this story is not one that casts anyone in a particularly good light.

Priam, the King, and his Queen, Hecuba, had many brave sons to lead the attack and to defend the walls, one above all, Hector, than whom no man anywhere was nobler or more brave, and only one a greater warrior, the champion of the Greeks, Achilles. Each knew that he would die before Troy was taken… Both heroes fought under the shadow of certain death.

Related Characters: Achilles, Hector, Priam
Page Number: 260
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes as the Greeks and Trojans begin to battle one another, and it describes the two most heroic soldiers: Hector on the Trojan side, and Achilles on the Greek side. These men are strong, brave, and good warriors, but their heroism has a different tone than the heroism we have previously seen. Achilles and Hector are tragic heroes because they are both destined to die during this war (according to prophecies), and they both fight anyway, though Achilles tries to shirk his fate for a while. As the role of fate in Greek mythology has made us come to expect, Achilles, despite his resistance to fighting, is compelled to fight and die anyway. Despite their knowledge of their own certain death, both heroes fight hard and do not let their knowledge of their fate take away their ability to care about their friends and communities. Achilles' and Hector's heroism is not a victory against fate, then, but it is certainly one against fatalism. 

Part 4, Chapter 4 Quotes

Aeneas, we are given to understand, married Lavinia and founded the Roman race – who, Virgil said, “left to other nations such things as art and science, and ever remembered that they were destined to bring under their empire the peoples of earth, to impose the rule of submissive nonresistance, to spare the humbled and to crush the proud.”

Related Characters: Aeneas, Lavinia
Page Number: 344
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes at the end of Hamilton's narration of the story of Aeneas, the sole male survivor of the sack of Troy who goes on to become the founder of Rome. This story, which is the story of his hero's journey, is unique in the book because it is told from the Roman perspective rather than the Greek perspective, and it illustrates several differences between the two cultures. Perhaps the most salient difference here concerns the ideals of heroism. The Greeks generally measured heroism in terms of ambition and daring; Greek heroes were not always unambiguously good, and they were often punished for their misdeeds or arrogance, despite being widely admired as heroes. Aeneas, a Roman hero, causes a lot of trouble on his hero's journey, but is allowed unambiguous success afterwards, which would seem unlikely in Greek myth. This being the founding myth of the Roman empire, it also shows the cultural value placed by the Romans on strength and order above all else (including art and science, which the Greeks prized). In the context of the book, this representation of Roman culture comes off as being less morally complex and sophisticated than Greek culture, but also arguably more "just."

Part 5, Chapter 1 Quotes

Insolent words uttered in the arrogant consciousness of power were always heard in heaven and always punished. Apollo and Artemis glided swiftly to Thebes from Olympus, the archer god and the divine huntress, and shooting with deadly aim they struck down all of Niobe’s sons and daughters… she sank down motionless in stony grief, dumb as a stone and her heart like a stone within her. Only her tears flowed and could not stop. She was changed into a stone which forever, night and day, was wet with tears.

Related Characters: Phoebus Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Niobe
Page Number: 349-350
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage concerns the tragic fate of Niobe, daughter of Tantalus, who has, because of her familial curse, been fated to a terrible life. This is an interesting story because it puts fate in tension with hubris. The gods supposedly kill all of Niobe's children in front of her as punishment for the arrogance of considering herself godlike, but it also seems that Niobe had to display that arrogance in order to bring the gods' vengeance down upon her, so she could fulfill her tragic role in the family curse. In other words, her bad behavior was fated because of her father's sins, so it might not really be her fault, and yet she had to suffer the consequences anyway. This shows the great moral complexity of Greek myth--viewed from different perspectives, this story can be seen as an example of the saying that "sometimes bad things happen to good people," and it can also be seen as an example of righteous retribution for multi-generational sins. 

“Slay the two who slew.
Atone for death by death.
Shed blood for old blood shed.”

And Orestes knew that he must work out the curse of his house, exact vengeance and pay with his own ruin.

Related Characters: Orestes
Page Number: 358
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes within a complex description of the familial curse affecting the House of Atreus. The story of Orestes is one example of a life consumed by this curse. The quote comes from an oracle (speaking in the voice of Apollo) who confirms Orestes' intuition that he must kill his mother to avenge his father, even though he knows that to do so will destroy him. This story makes us contemplate the senselessness and inevitability of vengeance. Because of old sins and violence, Orestes is doomed to repeat patterns of bloodshed even while he knows they will ruin him and beget more violence and despair. Even so, Orestes is considered brave because he carries out this task, despite knowing its end, because it is what is fated and it is what the gods will. On the one hand, Orestes is brave to do as he is asked without complaint or attempting to escape his fate, but on the other hand, Orestes kills his mother without much thought--usually an unforgivable sin. This is another example of the complex and even contradictory moral system of the ancient Greeks.

Part 5, Chapter 2 Quotes

Apollo was the God of Truth. Whatever the priestess at Delphi said would happen infallibly came to pass. To attempt to act in such a way that the prophecy would be made void was as futile as to set oneself against the decrees of fate. Nevertheless, when the oracle warned Laius that he would die at the hands of his son he determined that this should not be. When the child was born he bound its feet together and had it exposed on a lonely mountain where it must soon die. He felt no more fear; he was sure that on this point he could foretell the future better than the god.

Related Characters: Phoebus Apollo, Oedipus, Laius
Page Number: 377
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage begins Hamilton's narration of what is, perhaps, the most famous Greek tragedy of all: the story of Oedipus. Oedipus's father, King Laius, learns that he is fated to die at the hands of his son, so he leaves baby Oedipus on a mountain to die. As one would expect based on the body of Greek myth that Hamilton has detailed so far, Oedipus still manages to survive and kill his father, a fate in fact secured by Laius's actions and thus his ironic inability to recognize the grown Oedipus as his son. This passage is an example of hubris, in that Greeks are supposed to know better than to defy fate. Laius is also committing a cardinal sin of ancient Greek life; he thinks that he can "foretell the future better than the gods." While he believes that this hubris is helping him defy fate, Laius's hubris is actually contributing to his eventual tragic fate. This combination of hubris and fate is among the most common ironies of ancient Greek tragedy.

Part 7, Introduction to Norse Mythology Quotes

The gods know that a day will come when they will be destroyed. Sometime they will meet their enemies and go down beneath them to defeat and death… necessarily the same is true of humanity… The heroes and heroines of the early stories face disaster. They know that they cannot save themselves, not by any courage or resistance or great deed. Even so, they do not yield. They die resisting.

Page Number: 442
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamilton introduces Norse mythology by suggesting that the foundation of the Norse worldview was an acceptance by gods and mortals alike that one day they will all be defeated by their enemies. With this large-scale death looming over all of Norse myth, the ethical imperative--and the source of culturally-valued heroism--becomes to die in the midst of futile but noble resistance to their fate. Fate emerges here as a force similar to fate in Greek mythology; it's something more powerful than the gods whose inevitability anyone would be foolish to deny. However, like Hector and Achilles showed at Troy, it is also noble not to allow fate to drain a struggle of its meaning. Despite the pervasive understanding that fate will prevail, Norsemen and gods were only noble and heroic if they struggled against fate rather than yielding to it. Fate for the Greeks was less pervasive--only some were fated to tragic deaths. Here, the fated catastrophe of Norse myth presents a much darker worldview, one with fewer possibilities for joy, redemption, and lasting success.

Although the Norse hero was doomed if he did not yield, he could choose between yielding or dying. The decision was in his own hands. Even more than that. A heroic death, like a martyr’s death, is not a defeat, but a triumph. The hero in one of the stories who laughs aloud while his foes cut his heart out of his living flesh shows himself superior to his conquerors.

Page Number: 443
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage clarifies the power of fate, the definition of heroism, and the possibilities for redemption and honor within the bleak Norse worldview. Since all Norsemen and Norse gods were doomed, life's meaning was found in how one faced that doom--to give up was dishonorable, but to die resisting was, in a sense, to triumph. In Greek myth, death often came as a result of hubris or foolishness, but in Norse myth death is expected, so it is not, in itself, a sign that somebody has erred or showed weakness. Hamilton's example of the man who laughed while his heart was cut out shows that, essentially, heroism to the Norse was to accept your bleak fate without allowing that knowledge to break you. Hope and luck are not possible for the Norse, only courage in the face of certain doom. Norse heroism is, then, a contest of who can retain composure and courage in the face of catastrophe.

Part 7, Chapter 1 Quotes

Never shalt thou be stained by baseness.
Yet a day of doom shall come upon thee,
A day of wrath and a day of anguish.
But ever remember, ruler of men,
That fortune lies in the hero’s life.
And a nobler man shall never live
Beneath the sun than Sigurd.

Related Characters: Sigurd
Page Number: 451-452
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes as Sigurd is on the way to Brynhild for the first time and he stops to ask a wise man to tell him his fate. Despite the dark talk of wrath and doom and anguish, this is actually the best possible fate a Norseman could anticipate. Sigurd knows that he's destined to die cataclysmically (because all Norse are), but the wise man confirms that Sigurd's fate is to die honorably and courageously, and that, because of his bravery and spirit, he will be the noblest of all the Norse. So Sigurd goes about his life of bravery, performing good deeds for others and facing trouble and danger with courage. He eventually is murdered, but he has done nothing to dishonor himself in the process, so he is remembered as a hero. This story is tragic in that, despite Sigurd's goodness and courage, he cannot escape a horrible fate, but it is also hopeful and optimistic within the Norse worldview because it represents the best of possible fates.