Fate, Free Will, and the Gods

In a conversation with Thenea about the Gods, free will, and consent, she suggested I (possibly, challenged me to) write a post about free will in ancient Greek thought. She may have a somewhat inflated idea of my scholarship, but I’m willing to give it a try. As you read, keep in mind that this isn’t a polished article by a classics scholar, so much as a gathering of a simple polytheist’s recollections and speculations in an attempt to arrive at a thesis. So, having made my excuses, on to the topic.

My general impression is that the attitude towards freedom, fate, and the gods expressed in the myths and folklore is one of a people beset by forces beyond their control. The world is one in which, for no apparent reason, one may fail despite one’s best efforts, or even be assailed by implacable foes for crimes committed by others generations before ones own birth. The most diligent farmer’s crops may fail because of unexpected drought, the greatest warrior may lose his final battle because of a broken sandal-strap.

In this world, the gods are described as capricious beings of fantastic power, their relationships with mortals turning on whims and passions that are seemingly beyond their control. They are sometimes even powerless to save their favorites, even trapped into the position of killing their beloved mortals despite their love for them. As when Semele, mortal mother of Dionysos, convinced Zeus to grant her a request. He agreed, and then she told him what she wanted. Bound by his word, Zeus revealed himself to her in all his divine power, and the sight burned her to a crisp. Zeus did not want her to die; if he could have spared her, he would have, but he was not able to go back on his word.

I seem to recall reading somewhere–I wish I’d written it down, rather than trusting myself to remember–that the Greeks spoke of passions not as something that originated within a person, but as outside forces acting on a person. When one falls suddenly, rapturously in love/lust (for example), that’s not something within, that’s Eros striking you with his arrow. Herakles murdered his family in a rage, but that rage came from Hera, not his own inner frustrations and fears.

Oedipus did not know he was killing his father and marrying his mother, but his ignorance did not prevent his doom. Odysseus did not plan to spend years stranded on various islands, all he could do was make the best of the situation.

And, of course, the Fates decide the time of one’s birth, the length of one’s life, and the moment of one’s death, and not even the Olympian Gods can change this decree. If one is going to die, one dies. While one can attain apotheosis, or be granted a happy afterlife by divine favor, death itself is unavoidable.

In short, a human in the world is at the mercy of forces beyond their control, sometimes even beyond their knowledge. These forces are also constrained by other forces, and by the necessities of their own function. Frequently, there’s nothing one can do about it. And no one here gets out alive.

One result of this is a heroic ideal of facing death bravely, and going out fighting. If one can’t avoid dying, then one should leave behind a life to be sung of. I can get behind this one; my greatest fear about death is not that I might die horribly, but that I might die and be forgotten.

Another result, one I am less supportive of, is the thought that this rule of greater forces do what they will and mortals do what they can is applied to human behavior. To quote Thucydides, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” While Thucydides lived long after the initial tellings of the myths, and was not always regarded as a good moral example, those words do seem to sum up a good deal of the behavior we see in the stories.

Personally, I feel that while this may be true in the absolute sense, the world is better when the strong act justly and fairly, with mercy and an eye toward the common good. I also understand that one strong person cannot long stand against a many weaker people incensed by what an asshole the strong person has been. And, of course, strength comes in many forms beyond that of brute force and base cunning. Satire comes to mind, as does organized labor. But I digress…

The basic understandings I take from all this into my own practice–aside from that I need to spend more time reading and taking better notes–are:

First, though very powerful, the Gods are not all powerful. They may love us, but they can’t always help us. Sometimes, they can’t help but harm us. Which leads to…

Second, the Gods are constrained to do what they must do in order to fulfill their own functions. The God in charge of your local weather may not want to get you wet, but they can’t make a hole in the rain just for you. This also means that courting a God of madness and drunken ecstasy is probably not good for your sanity and sobriety, even if it is a net gain for your life as a whole.

Third, both of these things are just as true for mortals as they are for Gods. I suspect, but don’t have a strong argument to support, that what we lack in phenomenal cosmic power, we make up for in greater (but not absolute) freedom of thought and action.

Fourth, in addition to limited power and freedom, we also get death! While we may choose to live as if it weren’t so, our lives are limited by the fact that they will end some day–barring the Singularity making us all immortal machine intelligences, of course. Whatever it is one decides one wants to do in life, one only has so much time in which to do it, so try not to waste time Hamleting on about it.

Finally, if we want to live in a good world, and not a vast wasteland of worldsuck, we all–mortals and Gods alike–have to work together to make it good, and to keep it that way. The Gods can’t make the world good without us, or at least, they can’t do it if we’re so wrapped up in shortsightedness and fear that we fight their efforts. And we can’t do it without them, however we understand them.


About Lon Sarver

Lon Sarver is a polytheist priest of Dionysos, living in the San Francisco Bay Area and contemplating (with a healthy amount of dread) making a second attempt at a career in Marriage and Family Therapy. View all posts by Lon Sarver

2 responses to “Fate, Free Will, and the Gods

  • Thenea

    “Herakles murdered his family in a rage, but that rage came from Hera, not his own inner frustrations and fears.”

    Interesting you should bring up this precise example. As I’m writing about apotheosis and the role of the divine allies and antagonists, I’m writing a lot about Herakles and his various adventures and mishaps.

    I interpret that what Hera did what she did to Herakles (whose name literally means ‘Hera’s Glory’ and who will later marry Hebe, Hera’s daughter) to deify him.

    Many deities in the Greek pantheon, especially the Olympians, represent the dichotomy of a thing and its opposite. For example, Apollon is a deity of healing, but is also a bringer of plagues. Ares is notable for bringing war, but also represents the courage required to battle down the evil impulses of the heart in times of peace (see: Homeric Hymn to Ares). Dionysos is a deity of madness, but is also called “Hygiates” or “healer,” most probably because, through catharsis and a deep understanding of psychology, he is able to heal that same madness as well.

    In the Dionysaica, Semele encounters Zeus (to put it mildly), and the aspect of Zeus seen there is the Bacchic Zeus. He is reflecting back at Semele the nature of Thyone, the goddess she is to become. Hera, likewise, is reflecting back to Herakles his rash, untempered nature. Because her dichotomy is Fidelity and Jealousy, it is the latter of these which Herakles suffers from when he receives her essence (shortly after his birth, according to some versions of the myth).

    When I look at these stories where Hera appears to basically be fucking up people’s shit (especially when the people are undergoing apotheosis), it’s usually the case that, if Hera was subtracted from the equation, someone would have died eternally, and through her meddling, instead becomes a deity.

    The way I look at it is this: we all have character flaws. There’s no shame in that. It’s universal. When we encounter deities whose domains are similar to our flaws, we experience them antagonistically. The energy they send us brings these issues to the surface, and continues to do so as long as we have those issues to work through. We see shades and specters of them, just like we see clouds of shmutz in the dish water when we are scrubbing a pot, until, at last, everything runs clean. Deities don’t get to choose our baggage. They don’t pick our hang-ups and prejudices and character defects. They can only choose to hang in there until we’ve worked through our baggage, or leave. If they choose the former, it is out of love, because listening to us whine and howl isn’t exactly on anyone’s list of things to do for fun on a Saturday night. They could be golfing, or eating ice-cream, instead of being vilified.

    Your degree of personal dysfunction with respect to the deity’s role + the intensity of the divine contact = how negatively you experience the deity.


  • Lon Sarver

    I suppose that’s possible. I tend to be suspicious of theories that suggest harm was done to a person for their own good, or that some bad thing one experiences was their own badness reflected back at them. Sometimes, that’s true. Other times, it’s victim blaming or self-deceptive spiritual
    These theories are things better reserved for post-experience analysis, on a case-by-case basis. If we take them to be predictive, or the “real” truth of all such encounters, we run the risk of denying the truth of someone’s experiences.

    Specifically regarding apotheosis, it’s easy to look back at a life (or the story of a life) and fit it to an explanation after the fact. We don’t know what Semele saw in that moment, and neither does the author of the Dionysaica. Perhaps she saw a pre-figurement of the divinity of her son. Perhaps all she saw was blinding light, and then Hades’ hall.

    Nonnus was a poet, writing to glorify Dionysos. It’s not unlikely that he might have taken poetic license with Semele’s death. Nonnus’ account of Zeus and Semele seems, well, too perfect. The parallels are too direct, the detail too rich.

    Taking the tales told of the gods as literal depictions of their character has serious limitations. It’s even chancy, sometimes, with taking these tales as literal depictions of what their mortal followers thought of them. At best, Nonnus was writing what Zeus or Semele told him (in a dream or vision) happened. More likely, he was writing what he imagined would have happened.

    And, thus, it’s possible he was tidying up all the loose ends he saw in other accounts. It’s possible he was making the process pretty and neat.

    My experience of life, even with the gods, is that things are never that pretty and neat, except in hindsight. “It’s all part of God’s great plan” is one of the claims that made me question whether or not the Christianity I’d been raised in was right for me.

    As you might guess, I found that an unsatisfying answer to the question of why life hurts.

    Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. Retconing bad things into good things seems a bit too much like denial for me.


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