Fate or Free Will: "Odyssey" Book Discussion Questions

These questions will be a starting point for our discussion on Feb. 1.

The passages are noted like this: 1.1-10, which means “Book 1. Lines 1-10.”


1.    In 1.270-272, Telemachus confides his woes to the goddess Athena (and gives the audience a little back story!).  He says,

“[O]nce this house was rich, no doubt, beyond reproach
when the man you mentioned still lived here, at home.
Now the gods have reversed our fortunes with a vengeance --
wiped that man from the earth like no one else before.”

Earlier, while speaking to the other gods about another famous son, Aegisthus, Zeus says,

  “Ah, how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods.
  From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,
  but they compound their pains beyond their proper share.”

This is a culture where incongruous human events are often attributed to the supernatural. “The supernatural” means the gods, who are entities that have many human attributes and failings. Knowing that capricious gods can intervene at any time, how would a person living in such a world be motivated to act? What is Telemachus’ mood in the first quote? Is Zeus’ exasperation justified?

2. In Book 3, during his account of the Trojan War, Nestor discusses Agamemnon’s wish to change his fate:

“He meant to detain us there and offer victims,
anything to appease Athena’s dreadful wrath --
poor fool, he never dreamed Athena would not comply.
The minds of the everlasting gods don’t change so quickly.”

Agamemnon performed a ritual sacrifice in hopes of changing the course of events. In hindsight, Nestor calls him a “fool."  Why is this considered foolish? Is there anything Agamemnon could have done? Should he have just resigned himself to fate?

3. Zeus decrees the conditions of Odysseus’ homecoming in Book 5, lines 32-46. This occurs after Odysseus has been trapped on Calypso’s island for seven years. Zeus sends the messenger god, Hermes, to tell Calypso to release Odysseus on a “lashed, makeshift raft.” This passage is interesting for two reasons: first, because Zeus has a say in many minor details of Odysseus’ journey, and second, because Calypso, who is a supernatural being, is as much a pawn as Odysseus in this battle of wills between Zeus and Poseidon. Does Calypso, as a supernatural being, have free will? 

4. In Book 9, the readers learn the origin of Odysseus’ woes after the Iliad.  In Alcinous’ court, he recounts his story, and his encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemous proves to be fateful indeed. In order to blind Polyphemous, Odysseus needs a little luck:

“And now I ordered my shipmates all to cast lots –
who’d brave it out with me
to hoist our stake and grind it into his eye
when sleep had overcome him? Luck of the draw:
I got the very ones I would have picked myself,
four good men, and I in the lead made five . . .” (9.370-375). 

Odysseus’ luck changes, however, when his arrogance gets the best of him. After blinding Polyphemous and escaping his cave, Odysseus cannot resist taunting the Cyclops with his name, address and identifying details (9.558-562). Polyphemous replies that an old prophecy had finally come true and curses Odysseus with an invocation to Poseidon (9.584-595). 

The nature of Fate in ancient Greece is complicated. If Odysseus had not shouted his name, would Polyphemous have pieced it together from the old prophecy? Did his will, his desire for fame, curse him? More to the point, are Zeus and Poseidon fated to champion Odysseus and Polyphemous, respectively? Did Odysseus and Polyphemous meet by chance, or were they placed in each other’s paths for a reason?
5.  In book 12, Odysseus’ men pay the price for slaughtering some sacred cows. Odysseus tells his shipmates to leave the cattle alone (12.345-348), but they ignore his warning and condemn themselves to shipwreck (12.413-418). Or did they? Did the men exercise free will, or were they fated to kill the cattle?

6.  In light of question 5, consider the instructions and prophecy that Tiresias gives Odysseus in the Kingdom of the Dead (11.111-157).  Read this passage carefully. 

a) In (11.125-128), Tiresias tells Odysseus that if his men spare the cattle, all may make it to Ithaca. Then, Tiresias says that if they slaughter the cattle, “I can see it now: your ship destroyed, your men destroyed as well.” Again, was there really a choice for the men to make, or was this outcome inevitable?
b) Tiresias then tells Odysseus “And even if you escape, you’ll come home late” (9.129). Does this mean that Odysseus may not survive this episode, even after Athena has pledged his protection?
c) Finally, Tiresias closes with “All that I have told you will come true” (9.156). How can this statement be true if Tiresias gives him instructions and choices to make?

7.  After Odysseus arrives in Ithaca, he finds his house overrun with suitors for his wife’s hand. Now the tensions between fate and free will switch from Odysseus to the suitors. In Book 18, one of them, Amphinomus, seems like “a good man of sense” (18.145) to Odysseus, who warns him to leave the house by saying, “may some power save you, spirit you home before you meet him face-to-face” (18.167-168).  Amphinomus does not leave but goes back to his seat in the hall:

  “Amphinomus made his way back through the hall,
  his heart sick with anguish, shaking his head,
  fraught with grave forebodings . . .
  but not even so could he escape his fate.
  Even then Athena had bound him fast to death
  at the hands of Prince Telemachus and his spear.
  Now back he went to the seat he’d left empty.” (18.174-180)

Does Amphinomus have any agency here?  Was there any possibility that he could have left the hall after Odysseus’ warning? Why did he condemn himself?