The Odyssey: Notes on Fate and Suffering

Prevalent in The Odyssey are the topics of Fate and Suffering. Questions are raised about what forces control our fates, and what the origins of the events that cause our suffering are. The reader is given insights into the common ideologies of the time, and the motivations of the characters to behave in certain ways. Take as example their belief in morals, and how they affected what their fate, i.e., the gods’ opinion about them, were prevalent in the book: (Fitzgerald, 1961) “Young friends, no mortal man can vie with Zeus. His home and all his treasures are for ever. But as for men, it may well be that few have more than I. How painfully I wandered before I brought it home! Seven years at sea . . . But while I made my fortune on those travels a stranger killed my brother, in cold blood,—tricked blind, caught in the web of his deadly queen. What pleasure can I take, then being lord over these costly things? How gladly I should live one third as rich to have my friends back safe at home!” (p.55-56)

This is how Menelaos, richest of the kings at the time of the story responds to Telemakhos’ comment on his splendor rivaling that of Zeus’. He begins by rejecting that statement, then differentiates how he is merely a mortal, rather than Zeus who would live forever. He then states the obvious: he may be the richest man alive, however he contrasts that with the humble sufferings of his life, and how he is no different from any other person who suffers; his wealth comes from the common place of suffering. Instead of using it to widen the social difference between he and poor peasants, he talks about how it was events of the world which led him to being wealthy, and events of the world to which he is forever in debt for his wealth. Through this quote, it can be interpreted Menelaos believes the world is somewhere of unfair suffering, where we are all victims of a malicious culpable world that executes suffering unjustly. Then to ratify this statement, we can see how Odysseus, for no apparent reason except fate, ended up stuck on Kalypso’s island for seven years, or how Paris, son of king Priam, chose to take Helen back to Troy, igniting the Trojan War. Menelaos shows humility in how he understands himself to be part of a much larger and stronger world, of which he has no control. Then, a situation occurs where Menelaos is justified in showing contempt, rather than empathy:

(Fitzgerald, 1961) “Intolerable—that soft men, as those are, should think to lie in that great captain’s bed. Fawns in a lion’s lair! As if a doe put down her litter of sucklings there, while she quested a glen or cropped some grassy hollow. Ha! Then the lord returns to his own bed and deals out wretched doom on both alike. So will Odysseus deal out doom on these. O Father Zeus, Athena, and Apollo!” (p.63)

In his response to Telemakhos’ description of events at the great hall on Ithaka, Menelaos denounces the suitors and threatens them with suffering. Instead of generousity, he conveys anger and repulsion at the notion, and uses demeaning language by reference to as if they were courting a doe’s sucklings, implying that is all they can and are worth to court. Then he appeals to the gods of justice, Zeus, Athena, and Apollo, to be ratified of his own statement. This example of morals—how others should be treated—is very different from the previous example of Menelaos denouncing his own valour, empathizing with the common people. It represents how it seemed just worthy to bear commonality to people who seemed well-intentioned, whilst others deserved scorn. And, arguably, that is still the case in modern times, as we, as people, choose to befriend those who we deem morally similar rather than those who our principles conflict with. However, the stark difference from The Odyssey’s ancient Greece and our own world is how there exists a divine law of the admirable qualities in a person, rather than the unmonitored and unsolidified qualities we, in the modern world, possess.

In The Odyssey, fate and suffering are determined by the will of the gods, as expressed by random events, prophecies and omens, and direct or indirect appearances by the gods. People must conform by the acceptable social standards of politeness, or they are punishable by the gods. In The Odyssey, anyone who acted against moral principle went to the fields of Asphodel, while the good-natured others went to the heavens with the gods. What was determined to be good-natured was rigid and unrelenting. That way, fate was directly based on how people comported themselves in life. Whereas suffering happened even to the best of people, like Odysseus, however it was the response to suffering which could be determined admirable or unadmirable, which in turn determined the person’s fate. If one kept genuinity and humbleness through their life experiences, rather than becoming bitter and revengeful, like the suitors, would likely be rewarded later by the gods, as in Odysseus’ case. In our modern world, though, there is no fate. Our will to behave morally and admirably is instead based on social rules and interpersonal respect. It is less likely our decisions will have as dire consequences as they would in The Odyssey, nor will they condemn us after we die. However, we still suffer identically to characters in The Odyssey, and the only thing we can blame for causing it is the world. Likewise, our approach to overcoming suffering, profiting from our experiences, and sharing kindness to others through everyone’s commonality under this absurd world stays the same. Although the world of The Odyssey is drastically different, holding divine forces and concrete social laws, our world is fundamentally similar, and what issues afflict us, and the basis on which we live among each other, are still the same. Throughout time, even as beliefs change on the source of fate and suffering, these issues are still core to who we are as human beings. It shows how it is impossible to understand: Why do we suffer?, and what is good and what is bad?

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