Throughout the Iliad there is a deep sense that everything that will come to pass is already fated to happen. For Homer, the Trojan War was already an old story passed down for generations, and the poem is presented from the very beginning as a completed story, “the will of Zeus…moving toward its end.” In the lives of men, the gods are powerful enough to act as fate, spurring them to actions they might not have undertaken on their own, such as Achilles’ decision not to kill Agamemnon or Helen’s return to Paris’ bedchamber, sent forth by Aphrodite. The soldiers of the poem often use the idea of fate to justify their actions, as they reason that the current battle might be their fated time to die. As Hector puts it: “And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it, / neither brave man nor coward, I tell you— / it’s born with us the day that we are born.” In Book VIII, the fate of the war is represented as a scale that Zeus literally tips in favor of the Trojans.
However, Zeus is not all-powerful, and the other gods are capable of deceiving him in order to turn the war to their advantage, at least temporarily. Accordingly, Zeus and the other gods occasionally speak about fate as something not even totally in their control. For instance, the fate of Achilles is foretold by prophecy, although the gods help bring it to pass. Thetis tells Achilles that he has the choice to either return home and live a long life without glory, or die a glorious death fighting at Troy. Paradoxically, Achilles seems to have some choice in his fate, and it is hard to say whether Achilles’ fate is already determined, or whether he controls his fate up until he makes his choice. Achilles decides to fight, knowing that he is sealing his fate when he returns to battle. Ultimately, the relationship between fate and free will in the Iliad remains unclear.
Fate and Free Will ThemeTracker
Fate and Free Will Quotes in The Iliad
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighter’ souls, but made their body carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
Someday, I swear, a yearning for Achilles will strike
Achaea’s sons and all your armies!
O my son, my sorrow, why did I ever bear you?
All I bore was doom…
Doomed to a short life, you have so little time.
I and Achilles…Ah if the two of us
could ever think as one, Troy could delay
her day of death no longer, not one moment.
Maddening one, my Goddess, oh what now?...
Well, go to him yourself—you hover beside him!
Abandon the gods’ high road and become a mortal!...
suffer for Paris, protect Paris, for eternity . . .
until he makes you his wedded wife—that or his slave.
Why so much grief for me?
No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate.
And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you—
it’s born with us the day that we are born.
Mother tells me,
the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies . . .
true, but the life that’s left me will be long,
the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.
One man is a splendid fighter—a god has made him so—
one’s a dancer, another skilled at lyre and song,
and deep in the next man’s chest farseeing Zeus
plants the gift of judgment, good clear sense.
Do as you please, Zeus . . .
but none of the deathless gods will ever praise you…
if you send Sarpedon home, living still, beware!
Then surely some other god will want to sweep
his own son clear of the heavy fighting too.
Ruin, eldest daughter of Zeus, she blinds us all,
that fatal madness—she with those delicate feet of hers,
never touching the earth, gliding over the heads of men
to trap us all. She entangles one man, now another.
Why, she and her frenzy blinded Zeus one time,
highest, greatest of men and gods, they say
Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.
And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am?
The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life
a deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you,
death and the strong force of fate are waiting.
Past the threshold of old age…
and Father Zeus will waste me with a hideous fate,
and after I’ve lived to look on so much horror!
My sons laid low, my daughters dragged away…
Ah for a young man
all looks fine and noble if he goes down in war,
hacked to pieces…When an old man’s killed
and the dogs go at the gray head and the gray beard…that is the cruelest sight
in all our wretched lives!