The Odyssey

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Fate, the Gods, and Free Will Theme Analysis

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Fate, the Gods, and Free Will Theme Icon
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
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Fate, the Gods, and Free Will Theme Icon

Three somewhat distinct forces shape the lives of men and women in The Odyssey: fate, the interventions of the gods, and the actions of the men and women themselves. Fate is the force of death in the midst of life, the destination each man or woman will ultimately reach. Though the gods seem all-powerful, "not even the gods/ can defend a man, not even one they love, that day/ when fate takes hold and lays him out at last."

While fate determines the ultimate destination, the nature of the journey toward that fate—whether it will be difficult or easy, full of shame or glory—depends on the actions of gods and men. Sometimes a god works against a particular man or group of men that have in some way earned that god's anger, as when Poseidon blocks Odysseus's attempts to return home to punish him for blinding Poseidon's son Polyphemus. In such instances, the destructive actions of the gods tend to affect men like natural disasters: they alter men's lives but do not curtail men's freedom to act as they choose amidst the rubble.

Sometimes a god works to help a man or group that the god favors, as when Athena disguises Odysseus on his return from Ithaca; but in these cases the line between human free will and divine intervention can get quite blurry. Athena helps Telemachus to take action by giving him courage: but does she affect him like a steroid that artificially augments his strength, or like a wise friend that helps him to more fully grasp his own inherent abilities? Whether the gods manipulate human actions or inspire humans to follow their own free will is never entirely clear.

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Fate, the Gods, and Free Will ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fate, the Gods, and Free Will appears in each section of The Odyssey. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fate, the Gods, and Free Will Quotes in The Odyssey

Below you will find the important quotes in The Odyssey related to the theme of Fate, the Gods, and Free Will.
Book 1 Quotes

Ah how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods.
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,
but they themselves, with their own reckless ways,
compound their pains beyond their proper share.

Related Characters: Zeus (speaker)
Page Number: 1.37-40
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Zeus, the king of the gods, surveys the lives of Odysseus and his son, Telemachus. As Zeus prepares to meddle in the life of Odysseus--sending a messenger to free Odysseus from his captivity on Calypso's island--he comments on the relationship between humans and gods. People, he notes, are fond of blaming the gods whenever anything bad happens to them. The truth, however, is that the gods are only partly responsible for human misery--humans themselves are capable of making choices (usually), and thus compounding their own suffering unnecessarily.

On one level, Zeus is being almost comically disingenuous here, as he complains about mortals denying free will while simultaneously Zeus is meddling in mortal affairs and affecting their fates. ButZeus's observations also complicate our understanding of free will and fate. While the gods of ancient Greece are extremely powerful, they leave humans space in which to exercise their freedom (but the exact amount of free will is very blurry and ambiguous). Although Zeus is complaining about the people who blame the gods for their own misfortune, his statement could be interpreted optimistically: humans do have the power to control their own destinies. In the poem, we'll see Odysseus exercising his own agency and using his ingenuity and courage to control his fate.


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Book 2 Quotes

You should be ashamed yourselves,
mortified in the face of neighbors living round about!
Fear the gods' wrath – before they wheel in outrage
and make these crimes recoil on your heads.

Related Characters: Telemachus (speaker), Antinous, Eurymachus, Ctesippus
Page Number: 2.69-72
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, young Telemachus yells at the suitors who have overrun his mother Penelope's court. In the absence of Odysseus, suitors have come from across the land to ask for Penelope's hand in marriage, and they're all incredibly rude and sloppy. Telemachus angrily warns the suitors that the gods will punish them for their rudeness one day (foreshadowing the final scenes of the poem).

Telemachus's outburst reminds us that he's too young and weak to attack the suitors himself, but he's also portrayed as a moral authority in the poem: he's been trained in right and wrong, and immediately recognizes when the suitors overstep their position. In ancient Greece, the highest law is the law of the household: visitors and guests are required to be polite and orderly. Thus, for the suitors to be rude and spend all their time in Penelope's home, abusing the law of hospitality, is a sign of their immorality--a crime for which they'll eventually pay with their lives.

Book 3 Quotes

Some of the words you'll find within yourself,
the rest some power will inspire you to say.
You least of all – I know –
were born and reared without the gods' good will.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), Telemachus
Page Number: 3.29-32
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, young Telemachus gets a visit from the goddess Athena. Athena tells Telemachus that she's going to help his father return to his home, and that Telemachus needs to take action as well. Telemachus is reluctant to follow Athena's advice and ask Nestor about Odysseus, but Athena encourages him nonetheless, assuring him that he'll "find the right words."

In one sense, this passage further complicates the idea of free will in the poem. Telemachus must choose to take action on his own, but Athena, a goddess, is also blatantly advising him what to do, and she tells him that he will be inspired by "some power" to say the right things when the time comes. As is typical of Homer and Greek mythology in general, there is a complicated mixture of human freedom, divine intervention, and overarching fate involved in every action.

The passage is also important because it establishes speech and eloquence as a vital part of maturity. Telemachus's story in the poem is a coming-of-age tale: with Athena's help, he'll learn to take control over his own life. The first step in doing so, it's suggested, is learning how to express his opinions with courage and conviction. Homer, a poet, is a little biased in portraying speech as the most important part of maturity, perhaps. He even makes a comparison between Telemachus's speech to Nestor and his own duty to recite the Odyssey--in both cases, the mortals look to the gods for inspiration, but also receive glory for rhetorical skill and power.

Book 5 Quotes

Outrageous! Look how the gods have changed their minds
about Odysseus – while I was off with my Ethiopians.
Just look at him there, nearing Phaeacia's shores
where he's fated to escape his noose of pain
that's held him until now. Still my hopes ride high –
I'll give that man his swamping fill of trouble!

Related Characters: Poseidon (speaker), Odysseus
Page Number: 5.315-320
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Homer firmly establishes the antagonism between Odysseus and Poseidon. Odysseus has disrespected Poseidon by, among other things, blinding his son Polyphemus. Poseidon has vowed to wage war against Odysseus, making his journey back to Ithaca extremely challenging.

And yet, the passage shows, Poseidon is only one god out of many. Many of the other gods on Olympus support Odysseus in his quest to journey home. The indeterminacy of the gods' support for Odysseus (i.e., the fact that some of the gods support him and others don't, and all of them are fickle and likely to change their minds) suggests that the result of Odysseus's journey is not predetermined, unless it is by a power higher than the gods themselves--fate, or perhaps the mysterious divine figures of "the Fates." But because of this ambiguity regarding destiny, it's suggested that Odysseus will have to use his own ingenuity and strength to get home, recognizing that insofar as he's in control of his destiny, he must act in the right way in order to succeed.

Three, four times blessed, my friends-in-arms
who died on the plains of Troy those years ago,
serving the sons of Atreus to the end. Would to god
I'd died there too and met my fate that day ….
A hero's funeral then, my glory spread by comrades –
now what a wretched death I'm doomed to die!

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker)
Page Number: 5.338-445
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Odysseus nearly drowns, thanks to the plotting of Poseidon, the god of the sea. Odysseus thinks that he's going to die in the middle of the sea, and wishes that he could have died on the battlefields of Troy instead.

It's important to understand why Odysseus would have preferred to die in Troy, as he declares in this monolgue. Odysseus still abides by the unwritten code of honor and glory: there is no better way for a man to die than on the battlefield, fighting for his people--and it's even better if the story of his death is then retold and glorified to others. To die on the middle of the sea is undignified, even feminine: Odysseus wishes his death could have been a major spectacle, witnessed by his followers and spread throughout Greece.

But there's another reason why Odysseus wishes he could have died in Troy: Odysseus can't stand the agony of almost making it back home. For Odysseus, one torture of the Trojan War was being separated from his wife and child--and now, he's eager to return to them. Poseidon wages psychological warfare on Odysseus by allowing him to get close to Ithaca, but not actually letting him make it home. Odysseus can't bear his own nostalgia and homesickness.

Book 8 Quotes

The gods don't hand out all their gifts at once,
not build and brains and flowing speech to all.
One man may fail to impress us with his looks
but a god can crown his words with beauty, charm,
and men look on with delight when he speaks out.
Never faltering, filled with winning self-control,
he shines forth at assembly grounds and people gaze
at him like a god when he walks through the streets.
Another man may look like a deathless one on high
but there's not a bit of grace to crown his words.

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker)
Page Number: 8.193-202
Explanation and Analysis:

Odysseus is here goaded into competing with the talented athletes of Nausicaa's kingdom. Odysseus is initially reluctant to compete in athletic events of any kind, because he wants to conceal his excellence--he's afraid that the others will deduce that he's a king. Odysseus modestly claims that he's not good at everything: after all, people who are good at talking aren't necessarily good at sports.

Odysseus's words are highly ironic, since he's a hero: an all-around "good man." Odysseus is a clever speaker, a talented warrior, a great leader, a fantastic athlete, and a handsome man, too. Indeed, James Joyce commented that Odysseus was the most "complete man" in all of Western literature: a father, a son, a husband, a warrior, a poet. In short, Odysseus embodies more human virtues than just about anyone else--but here he feels he must restrain those virtues, and cover them with a vague speech about how "no one's perfect."

Book 9 Quotes

Since we've chanced on you, we're at your knees
in hopes of a warm welcome, even a guest-gift,
the sort that hosts give strangers. That's the custom.
Respect the gods, my friend. We're suppliants – at your mercy!
Zeus of the Strangers guards all guests and suppliants:
strangers are sacred – Zeus will avenge their rights!

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker), Zeus, Polyphemus
Page Number: 9.300-305
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback scene, Odysseus and his crew of sailors land on the island of Polyphemus, a wicked cyclops. Odysseus asks Polyphemus to give his crew food and shelter--he even cites the unwritten laws of Zeus, which compel any host to take good care of his visitors and guests.

The passage spells out the "laws of the home" that dominate life in the ancient world. All people are religiously required to take care of their guests--doing so is a sacred duty among the Greeks, backed up by the power of almighty Zeus. Polyphemus, as we'll see, refuses to abide by Zeus's laws--and in the process, he confirms that he's not just a bad host but an evil person as well.

Book 11 Quotes

Even so, you and your crew may still reach home,
suffering all the way, if you only have the power
to curb their wild desire and curb your own.

Related Characters: Tiresias (speaker), Odysseus
Related Symbols: Food
Page Number: 11.117-119
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Tiresias urges Odysseus to obey the laws of the gods so that he and his crew can return to Ithaca alive and well. Tiresias instructs Odysseus to refrain from killing and eating the famous Oxen of the Sun, the sacred cattle of the god Helios. Tiresias warns Odysseus that if his men kill the oxen, the gods will punish them all very harshly and make their journey back to Ithaca all but impossible.

It's interesting that Tiresias frames Odysseus's challenge as a test of "wild desire." Throughout the poem, Homer will portray gluttony, lust, and other bodily sins as crimes of desiremore than anything else. A true leader, it's implied, can control his desires, and those of his followers, completely: instead of giving in to hunger, thirst, lust, etc., he uses his mind and his willpower to stay strong.

Book 12 Quotes

So stubborn! …
Hell-bent again yet again on battle and feats of arms?
Can't you bow to the deathless gods themselves?
Scylla's no mortal, she's an immortal devastation.

Related Characters: Circe (speaker), Odysseus, Scylla
Page Number: 12.125-128
Explanation and Analysis:

Odysseus has captured the witch Circe, who gives Odysseus advice for how to survive the coming dangers. Circe explains that Odysseus will have to sail past two dangers: the whirlpool known as Charybdis, and the monster known as Scylla. Odysseus believes that he'll be able to fight off Scylla without losing any of his men, but Circe angrily corrects him: Scylla is immortal, and can't be defeated by mere mortals. Odysseus will have to sacrifice six of his own men to feed Scylla if he hopes to get back to Ithaca.

Circe's point of view is interesting: she encourages Odysseus to accept the inevitable; i.e., accept the fact that he's going to have to lose some men in order to get home. She further accuses Odysseus of being overly eager to fight, and suggests that he's hopelessly violent and desirous of glory. In short, Circe is urging Odysseus to accept his limitations, and sometimes take the easier way out. Odysseus is a hero, but he's also mortal, meaning that he'll never be able to beat Scylla. Odysseus's boundless confidence in his own abilities is part of what makes him such a compelling character, but as we'll see, it also makes him reckless and careless at times.

Book 22 Quotes

No fear of the gods who rule the skies up there,
no fear that men's revenge might arrive someday –
now all your necks are in the noose – your doom is sealed!

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker), Antinous, Eurymachus
Page Number: 22.40-42
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Odysseus has revealed himself as the rightful king of Ithaca. The suitors, who have been squatting on his property for years now, beg for mercy. But Odysseus refuses to grant them mercy of any kind: there's nobody who can save them now. Odysseus and his son Telemachus proceed to slaughter every suitor on his property.

It's important to note the obvious pleasure that Odysseus takes in avenging the suitors. While he'll later scold others for rejoicing in the deaths of the suitors, he seems to do exactly that here, gloating that he's tricked them all, and that nobody can save the suitors now. Perhaps Homer believes that Odysseus is entitled to some gloating--he's been trying to get home and regain his throne for years, and now that he's back, he should be able to dole out punishments to people like Antinous who have broken the sacred laws of hospitality and marriage.

Book 24 Quotes

Now that royal Odysseus has taken his revenge,
let both sides seal their pacts that he shall reign for life,
and let us purge their memories of the bloody slaughter
of their brothers and their sons. Let them be friends,
devoted as in the old days. Let peace and wealth
come cresting through the land.

Related Characters: Zeus (speaker), Odysseus
Page Number: 24.533-538
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final pages of the poem, the gods tie up all the "loose ends" in Ithaca. While it's possible that civil war could break out with the return of Odysseus and the slaughter of the suitors (all young noblemen with influential families), Zeus ensures that both sides of the conflict make peace and unite around Odysseus's newly restored leadership. In this way, the gods intervene to ensure a happy ending to the story.

The passage is one final reminder of the relationship between free will and divine intervention. Zeus ties up the loose ends, but only because he's pleased with what Odysseus has accomplished all by himself: i.e., his defeat of the suitors and his reunion with his equally-admirable wife and child. In other words, Zeus chooses to intervene in the lives of the people who deservehis help. After years of war, jealousy, and betrayal, all caused by Helen's abduction from Greece, Zeus decides to shut the book on the whole affair and bring some happiness to the human race (at least in the case of this poem). He rewards Odysseus, out of all those involved in the Trojan War, because Odysseus has proven his own worth as a free human being beyond all doubt.