Speculations on ancient Greeks and fate

April 16, 2009

Having used the magic of the internet to do what we all do so well–namely, put all those pesky opinions of mine out there for all three of my readers to see–I feel like my ruminations on Hippolytus are somehow incomplete. There are people who disagree with me and I want to say things to them so they can say more things back to me, and so here we are, and by “we” I mean me, of course.

There’s no time machine to take sociologists or anthropologists back to before the common era with clipboards and questionnaires, so all we know about the ancient Greeks comes from the materials that have survived to today, either directly from the proverbial horses’ mouths or from other people who were around at the time. I say this as a preface because I am going to follow it up with a bunch of opinions that, grounded in evidence or not, are pretty much impossible to prove one way or the other. Add to that the fact that I am in no way a scholar of Greek history and society, and you’ve basically got a girl with a blog who has something to say and is probably going to get some of it wrong. All I know, I learned in school from a couple of cool guys who may also be wrong, but are at least better educated. All right, enough with the caveats.

So, one way or another, it seems like the gods were a part of Greek life: these people had temples and festivals and statues in their houses and we have all these plays that talk about the gods a whole bunch. They prayed to different gods for different reasons, and sometimes prayed to all of them to cover their bases, but they almost always prayed to Zeus in addition to whoever else warranted a special shout-out. But what could the gods do? Sometimes they could intercede on someone’s behalf, sometimes they couldn’t because another god was doing his thing, and sometimes it seems like they kind of threw up their hands and said, “Nothing we can do, it’s fated.” This is weird when you think about it, because they’re the gods, right? Why should they be bound by fate? Even Zeus apparently can’t get around things that are meant to be, and he’s the head honcho by most standards. But there he is, shrugging his godly shoulders and munching on ambrosia while the mortals get screwed.

Given that the Greeks definitely seemed to believe in destiny, it’s weird to think that they could also believe in free will. In the beginning of Hippolytus, Aphrodite herself shows up and says, “This is how things are going to go down,” and sure enough they do, so it’s tempting to shrug and eat some grapes and blame the gods or fate for the whole shebang. But that’s not what the characters do. They don’t lie around singing the Greek equivalent of “que sera, sera,” perhaps because they don’t get to hear Aphrodite’s helpful speech and so they’re blissfully unaware of the impending mayhem. But then again, what does it matter?

Therein lies the crux of the free will vesus destiny battle, or lack thereof: if you can’t know your fate, then in a sense, it doesn’t matter. You make choices, and those choices will lead you to your fate, but they were still your choices. It’s like being in a maze with a lot of twists and turns and dead ends, and you keep walking forward, trying to get out, picking a direction when you hit a crossroads and hoping for the best, but knowing all the time that the form of the maze has already been set and will lead to the same place no matter how you get there. The gods are above the maze, looking down, able to see all the paths and pitfalls, and sometimes they can move a wall or nudge a person in a particular direction, but they can’t pull the person out of the maze and put them in another one. And sometimes other gods are slipping in more traps, because they can do that too, and sometimes the gods are even right there in the maze at specific spots because they have their own fated role to play.

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