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.
Fate Quotes in Mythology
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.