Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

The concept of fate in The Iliad is pretty intense. In Chapter Fourteen and Fifteen Hera is upset that the Trojans seem to be winning the war, so she tricks Zeus to sleep so she can help bolster the Achaeans. Zeus wakes up eventually, just after Hector is wounded, and we learn that no matter what she does, Zeus has already planned how the war will end:  

And let Apollo drive Prince Hector back to battle, / breathe power back in his lungs, make him forget / the pains that rack his heart. Let him whip the Achaeans / in a headlong panic rout and roll them back once more, / tumbling back on the oar-swept ships of Peleus’ son Achilles. / And he, he will launch his comrade Patroclus into action / and glorious Hector will cut him down with a spear / in front of Troy, once Patroclus has slaughtered / whole battalions of strong young fighting men / and among them all, my shining son Sarpedon. / But then, enraged for Patroclus / brilliant Achilles will bring Prince Hector down. / And then, from that day on, I’ll turn the tide of war.  

He goes on to remind us that he’s promised Thetis, Achilles’s mother, to give Achilles great glory in exchange for his short life.  What I find interesting in all this is the messiness of it all. The gods seem just as unwilling to accept fate as the humans. They connive and take sides. Or interfere as much as they can for their own gratification. Yet, what Zeus has decreed is exactly what will come to pass. And there doesn’t seem to be anything anyone can do about that.  

It seems rather frightening to me to rely on a series of gods who have their own interests at heart. I’m not religious in the conventional sense but I was raised within the Judeo-Christian paradigm and am probably more comfortable with the idea that whatever our conception of God is, he/she/it tends to be looking out for us. Not so with the Greek Gods. The legends and stories about the Greek pantheon are powerful cautionary tales but they don’t come right out with a “here are the rules” philosophy. And the gods certainly don’t seem like role models.  

Yet, in this worldview, gods and humans seem a bit more bound together in the untidiness of life. Everyone is in the same boat, making mistakes and suffering for their transgressions or unfulfilled desires. It’s oddly encouraging to think Zeus is willing to sacrifice one of his sons to satisfy a promise. He could just wave a hand and end the war right then and there. Get the whole thing over with. Spare some lives in the process. But no, he’s got to let the whole story play out. That’s more important than anything else.

3 Responses to “Continuing with The Iliad”

  1. Juliette

    This is fascinating – all the more so as it was a set book for me when I was at school. We read parts in Latin. I know what you mean about the God who is somehow ‘looking out for us’. Which edition are using I wonder … I really must not say I will take this on at the present. As I think you may know from my message from one of your Gordimer postings I am immersed in The Lying Days at present. Thank you so much for the recommendation – it is an exceptional piece of writing.

  2. verbivore

    Hi Juliette – I’m using the Robert Fagles translation but my copy is one published by The Folio Society so its this big massive hardbound. I love it!

    I am so glad you are enjoying The Lying Days. I’ve gotten into her third novel now – Occasion for Loving and am finding it just as wonderful as her first two. (Course, I am somewhat biased!)

  3. Juliette

    Oh -but the feel of a book in the hand can play such an important part in the ‘reading’ of a work. My War and Peace was like that – absolutely beautiful and a joy to hold!

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