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.