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.
Fate, the Gods, and Free Will ThemeTracker
Fate, the Gods, and Free Will Quotes in The Odyssey
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.