Divine Intervention, Human Agency, and Fate In Homer's Odyssey
Updated: Mar 16, 2021
Fate, Divine Intervention, and Human Agency in Homer’s Odyssey
“Audaces fortuna iuvat” –Virgil, The Aeneid
Without going too far afield, The Aeneid is in many ways, the Latin doppelganger to Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey respectively. While The Iliad mythologizes the events of the Trojan War from the Greek perspective, The Aeneid does so from the Trojan side, before following Aeneas’s subsequent pilgrimage to the Latin peninsula where he founds Rome. Despite telling the same tale from opposing perspectives, Homer and Virgil share much in terms of narrative structure and mythological underpinnings: while Homer’s epics have been dubbed as something of a “Greek bible,” Virgil’s mythical account of the founding of Rome is considered by some an artifact of propaganda that sought to canonize Caesar Augustus into Rome’s founding mythology. Nonetheless, both texts intersperse their mythological accounts of the Trojan War with bits of historical reality. What both Virgil and Homer do in excess, is depict events as beyond the sphere of human action and agency and hence it is truly uncertain whether fortune does indeed favor the bold—and if so, to what extent. This essay will attempt to sketch and illuminate whether King Turnus of the Rutili’s assertion that fortune smiles upon human beings who are daring in the case of Homer’s Odyssey, or if the superior forces of divine intervention and/or fate are far stronger than human agency.
Divine Intervention and Human Agency Enunciated and Defined
Divine agency or intervention undertaken by the gods in the world of mortals is a persistent theme of Homer’s Odyssey. In order to understand the nature of Homer’s Gods, it may be helpful to compare them with the later, but more familiar, Platonic conflation of God with the “Form of the Good,” who contains within his nature all things that are good and just (and hence all good things on earth emanate from this essential nature). In contrast, the Homeric Gods of the Odyssey are maligned with all sorts of character shortcomings, pitfalls, and maladies. Another way to look at this scenario, is to consider the possibility that for Homer, whatever the gods do or decree is “good” because it is the powerful and immortal gods doing so, whereas for Plato, God or the Form of the Good, is by nature intrinsically and inherently good, because he is the essence of the Good itself and therefore not subject to frailty or depravity, which those with carnal bodies are:
You can say that this thing which gives the things which are known their truth, and from which the knower draws his ability to know, is the form or character of the good. Because it is the cause of knowledge and truth, think of it by all means as something known. But you will be right to regard it as different from, and still more beautiful than, knowledge and truth, beautiful though both of these are . . . The good is something to be prized ever more highly.
Accordingly, the gods of the Odyssey may be classified as anthropomorphic, which means that they have human attributes and characteristics. For example, just as mortals may be consumed by avarice, lust, and vengeance, so too may the immortals of Homer’s Odyssey. One of the only true differentiations that is detectable between the gods and men in the Odyssey is the power which immortals wield over the mortals, the former always keenly aware to remind the latter. As far as essential differences of character or moral disposition suffice it to say that there are few if any; just as men may rape, pillage, steal, lie, and scheme, so too do Homer’s “gods,” who seem to be gods only in so far as they are immortal and more powerful than the men whose deeds they oversee. There are many examples of this in pre-Platonic Greek philosophy, which include many tales of lustful gods raping human women yielding demi-gods as progeny, as well as gods who incessantly scheme against one another in an attempt to subvert Fate.
Since the gods of the Odyssey frequently intervene in human affairs, the Odyssey may be read as an account of divine intervention by the pantheon of gods in the affairs of men. There are a multitude of examples of this phenomenon including the poem’s central motif, i.e. that of Odysseus attempting to achieve his destiny of returning home, despite the best efforts of Poseidon to prevent him from doing so. Poseidon, brother of Zeus and god of the sea, horses, and earthquakes, sought restitution and vengeance against Odysseus for blinding his son, the cyclops Polyphemus, while Odysseus and part of his crew were entombed by force in Polyphemus’s lair on the Cyclops’ Island. Escaping Polyphemus’s cave required a daring act of agency and wit on the part of Odysseus and his crew; whereby, Odysseus was able to lather up Polyphemus on wine in order to make him unconscious. While the cyclops slept, Odysseus and his crew drove a spike through the eye of the one-eyed fiend, blinding him in the process. Upon removing the large boulder that covered the opening of the cave in the morning, Odysseus and his crew rode out lashed to the underbelly of Polyphemus’s sheep, which he let out to pasture during the day. After escaping to his ships with what remained of his crew, Odysseus gloated with pride, goading the cyclops on in his rage, making a mockery of his infinitesimal wit by convincing the beast that Odysseus name was “nobody.” This humiliation of Poseidon’s half-divine son by a mere mortal, led to a chain of misfortune for Odysseus and his crew due to frequent interventions on the part of Poseidon against Odysseus and his crew.
In addition to the central motif of struggle over the fate of Odysseus’s return journey between Odysseus and Poseidon, lesser deities also frequently interject themselves in the narrative in a bid to influence fate in a way in which suits their fancy. Besides Poseidon, Athena is arguably the most active deity in the Odyssey: I do not think it would be a stretch to say that Athena is Odysseus’s patron and keeper. In fact, Athena divulges to Odysseus that she has not only been observing and safeguarding him from afar for the entirety of his journey home, but also scheming on his behalf—and once Odysseus lands home in Ithaca and the narrative presses forward towards its climactic “slaughter of the suitors,” it is Athena that tells Odysseus it is time they scheme together once more: “And now I am here once more, to weave a scheme with you.” Athena implies and impresses upon Odysseus that her affinity and affection for Odysseus arises from their similar characteristics: “We’re both old hands at the art of intrigue. Here among mortal men you’re far the best at tactics, spinning yarns, and I am famous among the gods for wisdom, cunning wiles, too.” Athena also aided and abetted Telemachus throughout the Odyssey, helping him to procure a vessel for his own journey to garner news of his father’s fate in which she revealed to Telemachus via omens and signs that his father is still alive, before warning and sheltering Telemachus against a planned attack by the rapacious and ravenous “suitors” upon his return to Ithaca. In light of these examples, it is indubitable that Odysseus’s fate would have been vastly different if not for the machinations and exploits of Athena—whether in the form of Pallas the old man who aided Telemachus, or as herself upon Odysseus’s return to Ithaca towards the end of the narrative.
It is prudent to begin our exposition of human agency in the Homer’s Odyssey with a provisional definition: put simply, human agency is action undertaken by one of the human players in the narrative intended to bring to fruition what they consciously will. In the Odyssey—where gods and other divinities are always plotting and pleading with one another and their human subjects—human agency is often invoked to swerve out of the way of some divine malady or pitfall. Athena went as far to tell Odysseus as much, implying that his task as a mortal is to simply bear the burdens that the gods and fate cast down upon him: “(I am here) to tell you all the trials you must suffer in your palace . . . Endure them all. You must. You have no choice.”
Besides that of Odysseus the prodigal and mightily cunning king being forced to return disguised as a beggar, who suffers injustice at the hands of the grasping and voracious suitors in his own palace, examples of this phenomenon of human agency being utilized as a means by which to avoid tyrannical divine interventions by anthropomorphic gods are innumerable in Homer’s Odyssey. Another such example in the narrative occurred when Odysseus came to the island of Aeolia to see King Aeolus, keeper of the winds. Upon reaching the island, Odysseus was courted and placated as an honored guest (hospitality being another overarching theme of the world of Homer’s Odyssey) for a month. A friend of the gods, Aeolus had been entrusted as “keeper of the winds” by Zeus. Upon telling Aeolus of his plight, the kind and just king gifted Odysseus a brown leather bag which was said to contain the temperamental and tempestuous winds. If the bag were to remain closed for the entirety of Odysseus and his crew’s passage home to Ithaca, they would be ensured fair winds and following seas as opposed to the capricious tumult of Poseidon’s wrath. In this way, the cunning agency of Aeolus and Odysseus was able to circumvent the machinations of Poseidon. Believing Odysseus to be hoarding treasure given from Aeolus for himself, a spiteful and indignant crew opened the leather sack, unleashing the wind that had been contained until that grave moment which drove the ship far off course and back out to sea. Adding insult to injury: the men had unleashed the bag of wind once in the sight of Ithaca while a weary and battle-worn Odysseus slept, finally succumbing to exhaustion after an arduous journey.
From this episode, much may be gleaned about the interplay of fate, human agency, and
divine intervention: while it was the conscious genius of Odysseus and Aeolus that acted to subdue the wind inside the leather bag, it took conscious folly on the part of the crew to undo what had been done to avoid the snares of a divine vendetta by one more powerful agent of action (Poseidon) against another (Odysseus). From this interplay where anthropomorphic immortals and mortals act on a stage with and against one another, the concept of agency as conscious action is discernible, tenable, and relatively clear. It is not that the gods are inherently unjust, while mere mortals are wholly innocent bystanders or victims of illicit interventions, but rather that both god and man alike are subject to the passions of anger, avarice, lust, and so on. The differentiating factor between god and man then in the world of Homer’s Odyssey seems to be power and station, rather than inherent and intrinsic differences of character. Similarly, the providential force of Fate however, seems to be something altogether different that neither god nor man may circumvent or overturn. It is also doubtful that either god or man is even able to tangibly detect “Fate,” other than what may be determined from signs and symbols, oracles, or ambiguous feelings and convictions. From reading the Odyssey however, it is abundantly clear that this force of Fate is something that supersedes the wishes and actions of god and man alike. In this way, both god and man are bound by Fate even if it is not entirely clear and able to be perceived before Fate ushers its decree.
What Is the Homeric Conception of Fate?
Fate or Destiny is a providential force at play in Homer’s Odyssey, that transcends the realm of agency—whether human or divine. Still, Fate in The Odyssey is something extremely nuanced and difficult to unravel, for it is Zeus, king of the gods, who seemingly fixes and ordains Odysseus’s fate in Book 5 of the Odyssey, much to the chagrin of the lesser-gods like Athena and Poseidon:
Odysseus shall return and pay the traitors back . . . You are our messenger, Hermes, sent on all our missions. Announce to the nymph with lovely braids our fixed decree: Odysseus journeys home—the exile must return. But not in the convoy of the gods or mortal men. No, on a lashed, makeshift raft and wrung with pains, on the twentieth day he will make his landfall . . . (with) more plunder than he could ever have won from Troy if Odysseus had returned intact with his fair share. So his destiny ordains. He shall see his loved ones, reach his high-roofed house, his native land at last.
This decree by Zeus, king of the gods, in book 5 of the Odyssey proved prophetic as the narrative reached its climax and cessation: just as Zeus willed and enshrined it in the annals of Fate to be, it was—at least mostly. From this passage in particular (and Odysseus’s journey at its whole) a revelation about the nature of Fate as conceived in Homer’s Odyssey is apparent: Fate is something like a general framework of events to transpire, which the various actors—be they gods or mortal men—may only seek to delay or hasten through their agency. In this way, it seems the gods with the obvious exception of Zeus, the most preeminent of all deities, are similarly bound by the dictates of Fate once it has been decided upon by Zeus and/or the deified forces of Fate personified, which may be why the gods frequently fight and scheme among themselves. Just as mortals are powerless to resist and overturn their Destiny in the end, so too are most of the gods despite the power that they hold over mortals whom they rule. The lesson here is clear: strong will and agency are not enough to reverse one’s misfortunes entirely if misfortune be one’s Fate and Destiny. To this end, Hermes commanded the nymph Calypso to release Odysseus from her island at the command of Zeus, for “it was not his fate to die there.” From this revelation, it would seem a secondary conclusion that humans are like a canvas to be acted upon by the gods; thus the mortal agent must brace and endure it if they are to overcome affliction and misfortune—purposefully directed from above, or otherwise.
The Fates, or Moirae, as they are known, are the personified deities of Fate that work to bring to fruition what has been decreed by the forces of Divine Providence. In the case of Homer, it is Zeus—the most supreme of all the gods of Olympus—that decides upon Fate: “there is no way for another god to thwart the will of storming Zeus and make it come to nothing.” In other Greek myths however, it seems the Fates are a power above the gods unto themselves:
The Moirae are better known as the Fates. Their origins vary from one myth to another; they are sometimes described as being the children of Zeus and Themis, in other places as the offspring of Erebus and Nyx . . . the Moirae represented the fate of mortals and descent from the personification of immutable cosmic laws . . . The three Fates (Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos) thus determined the events of a person’s life and the timing of its ending. They might give someone a terrible existence for no discernible reason, and do not seem to have been amenable to persuasion by sacrifice or similar means. However, the Fates were strongly allied to the Olympian gods and fought alongside them when necessary.
This reality of a disparity in the understanding of Fate in the Odyssey, presents the reader with an additional nuance to apprehend when attempting to unpack the complicated and sometimes ambiguous nature of Fate in The Odyssey. It would seem, that once decided upon and fixed into being by Zeus, Fate in the Odyssey takes a sort of inevitability that trumps contingency and agency on the part of immortal gods and man alike. How this force operates is somewhat nebulous and difficult to discern, but in the case of Odysseus, Fate seemed to act as a sort-of divine conviction and longing that motivated him to do whatever it took to achieve his destiny. When pleading with the goddess Calypso, Odysseus demonstrated his intense conviction and longing for his home of Ithaca and wife Penelope, that would seem to defy logic and human reason if it were entirely of his own faculty, as Calypso had offered to make Odysseus immortal if only he would forsake his destiny:
Look at my wise Penelope. She falls short of you, your beauty, stature. She is mortal after all and you, you never age or die . . . Nevertheless I long—I pine, all my days—to travel home and see the dawn of my return. And if a god will wreck me yet again on the wine-dark sea, I can bear that too, with a spirit tempered to endure. Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now in the waves and wars. Add this to the total—bring the trial on . . . And now, withdrawing into each other’s arms they lost themselves in love.
In this scene, Odysseus implores Calypso to not stand in the way of him achieving his Destiny. And yet, after his speech, he retreats into the goddess’s arms and proceeds to make love with her, demonstrating a disconnect between his all-consuming sense of duty to press on with his homebound odyssey to Ithaca, and his will to remain with the superior goddess. For certain, love interests are not an entirely rational matter and yet, this scene and many others like it, lead one to conclude that in the world of the Odyssey, human beings no matter how great, do not possess true freedom of will and the agency to act upon it. Instead, humans are at the mercy of scheming and incessantly intervening immortals and the fixed force of Fate, which is the codified will of Zeus, king of the gods. And yet, there remains a duty and imposition to bear the burdens that one is presented with in accordance with the Divine decree of Fate which falls within the realm of individual human agency. While it seems that Fortune likely smiles slightly more favorably by those who possess the courage, strength, and vigor to bear their burdens that lie beyond the realm of human agency—and are instead nestled in the bosom of Divine Providence—to what degree agency actually impacts and overturns one’s Fortune seems very limited.
The Gods Must Also Acquiesce to Fate
A few lines later, Homer presents the reader with a depiction Odysseus’s divine foil and nemesis, Poseidon, that is revealing in more ways than one:
But now Poseidon, god of the earthquake, saw him (Odysseus) . . . sailing down the sea and it made his fury boil even more. He shook his head and rumbled to himself, ‘Outrageous! Look how the gods have changed their minds about Odysseus . . . Just look at him there, nearing Phaecia’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!’
What is astonishing in this passage—if one takes Poseidon for what he actually says—is the apparent ignorance of a so-called divine god, as it would not seem that a usual attribute of divinity is a lack of knowledge about the circumstances of the world at large and the players in it, but this is exactly what Poseidon confesses to (and is infuriated by) in the aforementioned passage. Afterwards, Poseidon proceeds to afflict harm on Odysseus by riling up the seas with a tempest that sets Odysseus adrift and shipwrecked before he takes safe harbor in a river—which apparently falls outside the jurisdiction of Poseidon. In this way, Poseidon plays the foil to the hero Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. It does not seem wise to conclude that Poseidon is necessarily acting against Odysseus of his own accord, but rather he has been chosen by Zeus to be the god that acts against Odysseus—while Athena is Odysseus’s divine patron and protector. The whole dynamic is confounding and mysterious, but it does not seem that any of the players possess true agency upon closer scrutiny, which may be defined as the means to take action in the pursuit of enacting one’s will and thereby have the potential to alter Fate. If Fate is fixed once decided and decreed by Zeus, what power do the players truly possess to not only impact, but overturn their pre-ordained Destiny? Accordingly, Poseidon constantly acting as a thorn in the side of Odysseus seems to only harden and strengthen the resolve of Odysseus to achieve his Destiny. Similarly, while Poseidon may seek to delay the inevitable, it seems doubtful that all of his wrathful scheming had the potential to bring Odysseus to his ruin, as that necessary conclusion (Odysseus' eventual return home) had to occur at some point, or else Zeus would not be who he said he was, i.e. the most supreme of all the Gods of Olympus.
Re-evaluating Human Agency and A Shocking Conclusion
With the nebulous force of Fate now explicated to the degree that it is possible, the conception of human agency must be amended and adapted. Earlier the example of Odysseus’s men opening the bag of wind in the sight of Ithaca was presented as an act of agency—albeit one of folly. A similar example of folly is the men eating the sacred cattle on the island of Helios after being instructed by Odysseus not to, which resulted in the men being turned to swine and other animals and extended and complicated Odysseus’s return journey. Another example of folly in (seemingly) “conscious” agency occurred when Odysseus and his men ate lotus flowers, causing the men to lose track of time and their destiny to press on, but instead indulge continuously in a psychedelic stupor.
On the surface, actions such as these have led many to conclude that Odysseus and his men, brought upon themselves their own tribulations and—in some cases—ruin. Based on the audible admission and acquiescence of Poseidon, Calypso, and Odysseus to the force of Divine Fate as decreed by Zeus, it would seem that if lesser gods and mortal heroes lack the power to enact desires of the will and alter the course of Fate, then the only logical deduction is that groveling sailors and soldiers lack agency to perhaps an even greater extent. If this be true, to what extent Odysseus’s men can be held accountable for their “actions” is uncertain and difficult to ascertain.
And hence our inquiry is at an end with the startling conclusion that no players in the Odyssey possess true and genuine agency, which may be defined as the ability to influence and potentially alter one’s Fate or Destiny through conscious action. With this revelation, it would seem that the only entity with true agency in Homer’s Odyssey is Zeus, who decreed the Fate of Odysseus in Book 5. While other gods may seek to alter and inhibit human players from achieving their pre-ordained Destiny, they are incapable of altering Fate once it has been decided. The Moirae or Fates then, work hand in hand with Zeus to bring to fruition Zeus’s Divine Plan by inculcating sentiments and convictions in the various players in order to spur them to action or inaction. The limited role of human agency then, becomes that of acquiescence to the forces of Divine Providence and Fate, while humbly and sacrificially bearing the burdens (or blessings) dealt one’s way. And thus in a roundabout manner, one may say that Fortune does indeed favor the bold and willing embracer and acceptor of one’s Fate.
 Plato, The Cambridge Companion to Plato's Republic, ed. Giovanni R. F. Ferrari, trans. Tom Griffith, 14th ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012), 215-216.  Homer, The Odyssey, ed. Bernard Knox, trans. Robert Fagles (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2006), 296.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid., 153.  Ibid., 156.  Ibid.  Martin J Dougherty, Greek Myths and Legends, ed. Sarah Uttridge, vol. 1 (London, UK: Amber Books Ltd., 2019), 97-98.  Ibid., 159.