Where Does Fate End and Free Will Begin?

Note:  The following is the second and last paper I wrote for my World Humanities 1 class.  It deals with the issue of fate vs. free will in Oedipus the King, Macbeth, and the creation story of Genesis.  Please keep in mind that in regards to Genesis, this was written from a literary perspective and only using the information found in the first two chapters.  The paper has been edited slightly to look better as a blog post.

Introduction

Some of the earliest artwork that’s been found, like the cave paintings at Lascaux in France and the Venus of Willendorf, indicates that man has had an interest in the supernatural since before recorded history. Archaeological evidence shows intentional burial of the dead with objects needed in the afterlife as much as sixty-thousand years ago and evidence also exists of the universality of religion in historic and modern times (Ember, Ember and Peregrine 446). This preoccupation with religion has led to the development of complex belief systems throughout history, from the Greek pantheon of gods in ancient Greece to the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which are based on the Jewish Talmud and Torah.

Starting with Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., scholars, theologians, historians and philosophers have speculated about religion. This speculation has sometimes taken the form of literature, such as the creation story in the book of Genesis, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These stories present situations that place man at odds with the supernatural. They pose the question of whether or not man has any control over his own life. Does man have free will, or is he driven by fate to success or failure? Each of the three stories gives us a similar, but different possible answer.

Adam and Eve Were Doomed to Fail

Adam and Eve stained glass window.

Adam and Eve stained glass window.

The book of Genesis is a Jewish religious text, later recognized by both Christians and Muslims, that tells the story of creation. In Genesis, God creates the world and then places man in that world as the pinnacle of His creation. From man, God creates woman and they live together in a paradise on Earth called the Garden of Eden. God also chooses to place the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. He tells Adam and Eve that they can enjoy the rest of the garden as much as they want, but they may not eat from that specific tree. Despite this warning, Eve does eventually eat the fruit of the tree and Adam joins her, causing them to be cast out of the garden.

Is it Adam and Eve’s fate to commit this sin, or do they have free will to avoid temptation? When God creates Adam and Eve, they are created without any concept of right or wrong. They have no concept of morality, because morality requires knowledge of right and wrong, or good and evil. When God places the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, he is setting Adam and Eve up for failure. Despite his instruction to Adam and Eve to not eat from the tree, they cannot be reasonably expected to follow this instruction, since they do not know that disobeying it is wrong.

God also allows evil to come into the garden, in the form of a talking snake, to tempt Eve into doing what God says shouldn’t be done. Even when Eve decides to eat from the tree, she does not do it out of a conscious act of disobeying. She does it because the tree is pretty and the fruit looks tasty: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes … she took of the fruit thereof…” (King James Version, Gen. 3:6).

God could have placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil anywhere in creation, but He chooses to place it in the Garden of Eden, where He also places man. God then tells Adam and Eve that they may not eat from the tree, but does not give them the mental capacity to understand that following His command is the right thing to do. God then allows the snake to tempt Eve. One could reasonably assume that an omniscient, all powerful God did these things for the sole purpose of ensuring that Adam and Eve would sin and fall from grace. Adam and Eve never had a choice in the matter.

(Image of Adam and Eve from The Rector’s Corner)

Laius and Oedipus Ruined Their Own Lives

Oedipus the KingIn Oedipus the King, Sophocles presents a tale showing that a foretold fate can be prevented, but is sometimes brought about by one’s own hands. The story revolves around two key prophecies from Apollo, one given to Laius and one given to Oedipus. Relating the story to Oedipus, Jocasta tells him that the oracle “declared that doom would strike [Laius] down at the hands of a son, / our son, to be born of our own flesh and blood” (Fagles 201). When Oedipus visits the oracle, he is told: “You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring / a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see– / you will kill your father, the one who gave you life!” (Fagles 205).

Both of these prophecies set in motion chains of events that lead to their fulfilment, but not because of fate or an inability to change the future. Laius and Oedipus both make conscious choices, of their own free wills, to act, or not act, on these prophecies, influencing the final outcomes. After hearing the prophecy, Laius could have acted in other ways that would have prevented its fulfilment. Laius could have killed Oedipus himself, or he could have raised him. If he had killed Oedipus outright, the prophecy would have had no chance of coming true. If he had raised Oedipus in Thebes, the boy would have either grown up to love him, or at the least he’d know who his son is. Knowing who his son is would have allowed him to keep an eye on him. Instead, Laius sends the baby Oedipus into the mountains with a shepherd, to die from exposure.

Instead of being left to die, Oedipus is given away and becomes the adopted son of the King and Queen of Corinth, where he in turn grows up and receives his own prophecy. When Oedipus hears this prophecy, he makes a conscious choice to leave Corinth, to avoid killing the people he believes are his parents. However, he also makes a choice to not heed the remainder of the prophecy. When trying to escape from an unpleasant fate, shouldn’t one take into consideration the whole prophecy? It’s true that he believes his parents are Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth, but considering the stipulations of the prophecy, he could have chosen to avoid killing or marrying anyone in the future.

When Oedipus encounters a rude traveller on the road, instead of choosing to avoid trouble and run away, he attacks and kills the man, who turns out to be his biological father. When presented with an opportunity to marry, he takes it and unwittingly marries his mother, rather than remembering the prophecy and abstaining from marriage altogether. Through their own actions and their own choices, Laius and Oedipus both fulfil the prophecies they are given.

(Image in this section from KevinStilley.com)

It’s All in the Journey, Because the End Doesn’t Change

Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches.

Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we are presented with yet another way to view fate. While returning from battle, Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches along the road that present Macbeth with two prophecies. The witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, which he is. They then hail him as Thane of Cawdor, which confuses him since there is already a Thane of Cawdor. Finally, they hail him as “…Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” (Orgel 9). Shortly after the witches disappear, Macbeth finds out that he has been named the Thane of Cawdor. The witches do not tell him when these prophecies will come true and whether or not it is a deception on their part, Macbeth takes his immediate naming of Thane of Cawdor as a cue to act to ensure the fulfilment of the third prophecy.

At this point, Macbeth begins to control how he will bring about his own fate. Macbeth and his wife conspire to kill the current king, Duncan, and after succeeding, Macbeth is placed in power. He attains the kingship and his prophecy is fulfilled. However, because of the way Macbeth chooses to reach his prophesied destiny, his reward is short lived, violent and ends in tragedy. If Macbeth had chosen to wait for the prophecy to fulfil itself, he may have been a much older man when he was named king, but the transition would have likely been more peaceful and he might have even sat on the throne longer. In Macbeth, fate is absolute, but how Macbeth attains his fate is optional.

(Image of Macbeth and Banquo with the witches from Wikipedia)

Conclusion

These three works of literature each present a different view of how man is subject to fate. Is man locked into his fate with no chance to escape, like Adam and Eve in the Genesis creation story? Can man avoid fate altogether by acting on prophecy and making the proper choices, as evidenced by Oedipus the King? Or is our fate absolute, with only the way we get there left to our discretion, as in Macbeth? As long as man continues to believe in the supernatural, questions about man’s relationship with the divine will continue to be debated, because there is no way to definitively prove that any particular view is correct.

References

Ember, Carol R., Melvin R. Ember and Peter N. Peregrine. Anthropology: Thirteenth Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010.
Fagles, Robert. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984.
Orgel, Stephen. Macbeth. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000.
Thomas Nelson Bibles. The Holy Bible; Containing the Old and New Testaments; Authorized King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001.

Significance and Consequences of ‘Xenia’ in The Odyssey

A map of places visited in The Odyssey.
A map of places visited in The Odyssey.
(Image from: LordAlford.com)

This is a paper I wrote for my 100 level World Humanities class.  It deals with concepts of hospitality in The Odyssey.

The guidelines for this paper are as follows:

What is xenia?  What are the basic expectations that come with proper xenia?  List TWO examples of good xenia in The Odyssey, and one example of bad xenia.  (be sure to include at least one example from Books 13 – 24)  What are the consequences, good or bad, of each?  Why is xenia important to civilization?  What does it represent or establish in the minds of people of ancient Greece?

The paper was supposed to be at least 1400 words, double spaced in 12 point font, and in MLA format with a Works Cited page, so you’ll see that tacked onto the end of this so a reader can make sense of the in-text parenthetical citations that I’ll be copying into this blog post.

Introduction

Odysseus and Athena
Odysseus and Athena

One of the most important themes in The Odyssey is the concept of xenia, which is the old Greek word for hospitality. In modern times, hospitality is something we rarely think of, and the first thing that comes to mind is the hotel industry, but in ancient Greece, xenia was not about hotels, or just about etiquette, it was a way of life with many benefits in a world that was still mostly savage.

Xenia was more than just being polite to strangers. It was a set of rules and customs that defined the guest-host relationship between two individuals, two groups of people, or an individual and a group (Wilson 370).  Some basic rules of this relationship were that the guest could not insult the host, make demands, or refuse xenia. Additionally, the host could not insult the guest, fail to protect the guest, or fail to be as hospitable as possible. It was also customary for gifts to be given to the guest, or for a gift exchange to be conducted between guest-friends (Wilson 370).

This complicated guest-host relationship placed equal burden on both the host and the guest, starting with the guest finding a ‘proper’ place to seek xenia. The custom was for the guest to take shelter in a home that fit his social standing, so you would not normally see a beggar looking for hand-outs at the palace of a king, or a noble seeking xenia from a commoner under, ideal circumstances at least.

This custom of xenia also carried a burden of trust, where both the host and guest would have to rely on custom in regards to personal safety. This trust was reinforced by both fear of word getting out that the host had provided improper xenia, and fear of retribution by the gods (Biggs, Joseph and Bennet, Mollie), since one never knew when a traveller might actually be a god in disguise, come to test the level of your xenia. All travellers were seen as sent by Zeus and under his protection (Homer 153), so giving proper xenia was also a way of showing reverence for the gods, especially Zeus in the form of Zeus Xenios.

(Image above from: michaelromkey.typepad.com)


Examples of Xenia in The Odyssey

The Odyssey “may be viewed as a study in the laws of hospitality” (Pitt-Rivers 13) and is full of examples of both good and bad xenia, where good xenia is rewarded and bad xenia is punished. The theme of punishment and reward for how xenia is offered runs throughout The Odyssey, starting with Odysseus’ encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus to his return to Ithaka and eventual vengeance against the suitors. The story relies so heavily on concepts of xenia that The Odyssey could not have been written without it in mind. Almost every encounter between characters gives us demonstrations of how xenia should, or shouldn’t be carried out.

Good Xenia:  Odysseus and Nausikaa

Nausikaa and her handmaids bathe in a stream near the beach, with Odysseus approaching in the background.
Nausikaa and her handmaids with Odysseus in the background.

One of the best examples of good xenia in The Odyssey is that of Nausikaa (Homer 104 – 108), a princess on the island of the Phaiakians. Odysseus had been shipwrecked and took refuge under a bush for the night. Late the next morning, he woke up to the sound of girls screaming while at play with a ball they had accidentally kicked into a nearby stream. Seeing an opportunity for help, he decided to approach them. Emerging from the bushes, rough, ragged, crusted with dried seawater and covered only by an olive branch, he approached Nausikaa and her maids-in-waiting. A natural reaction in this sort of situation would be to run and hide, which is what Nausikaa’s maids-in-waiting did, but Nausikaa, remembering the obligations of xenia, as well as the dream Athena had sent her the night before (Homer 99 – 100), stood her ground and waited for Odysseus, to hear him out.

After he spoke, she used what means she had available to her to offer good xenia to a guest on her father’s island. She called back her maids and reminded them that “Strangers and beggars come from Zeus: a small gift, then, is friendly” (Homer 105). She then directed her maids to take him to the river and bathe him, providing him with oils to rub onto his skin. She provided him with fresh clothing, taken from the laundry she’d washed in the river. She also offered him food and drink. These are all examples of good xenia to a stranger. She took care of his needs and then, afterwards, she even offered a parting gift: information about how he could accomplish his task of getting home. She told him how best to approach her parents and how best to win them over, so he would have a good chance of receiving the help he needed to get home.

Odysseus, for his part, also kept up his side of the obligations of xenia. He calculated how best to seek her aid without insulting her (“In his swift reckoning, he thought it best to trust in words to please her—and keep away; he might anger the girl, touching her knees.” (Homer 103)), made requests but not forceful demands, and gratefully accepted her gifts and advice. It’s easy to see the result of good xenia here, in terms of how Odysseus profited by it. He eventually encountered Nausikaa’s parents, was well received, entertained, and was sent on his way in a Phaiakian boat to Ithaka, loaded down with treasures.

It’s more of a stretch to see how the Phaiakian’s benefited from their good xenia, since the boat that took Odysseus home, along with its crew, was turned to stone within sight of Skheria Island, their home. It’s possible that the ability to tell future guests that they once played host to the great Odysseus may bring them some fame and honor. Also, because of their remote location, the Phaikians might have become complacent. This incident caused them to become more wary of helping strangers (Homer 235), which could be a good thing for them, especially in a speculative future where other, less hospitable, groups of people move into their area.

(Image above from: xtec.net)


Good Xenia:  Odysseus and Eumaios

Another example of good xenia in The Odyssey is Odysseus’ reception by Eumaios (Homer 248 – 249), a swineherd on his estate in Ithaka. Even though Odysseus appeared to be a homeless, wandering beggar, he was still received well by Eumaios. He was immediately invited in for food and drink: “Come to the cabin. You’re a wanderer too. You must eat something, drink some win, and tell me where you are from and the hard times you’ve seen” (Homer 248). Eumaios even arranged his own bed as a bench for Odysseus to sit down, reminding Odysseus that “…rudeness to a stranger is not decency, poor though he may be…” (Homer 249). When evening came, Eumaios made a bed for Odysseus and even offered him his own cloak to keep him warm during the night. This level of courtesy towards a man, who, for all appearances, was nothing more than a beggar, shows Eumaios’ dedication to proper xenia. Odysseus continued to stay with Eumaios for multiple days, but at no point did Eumaios ever insist that he leave. He offered as much hospitality as he could to Odysseus, trusting in the customs of xenia that Odysseus would make no unreasonable demands or overstay his welcome.

For his part, Odysseus made no demands of Eumaios and did not threaten or insult him, despite his humble offerings. In fact, Homer repeatedly indicates Odysseus’ pleasure at Eumaios’ actions. Eumaios’ hospitality, and later his help, enables Odysseus to reclaim his house and get rid of the suitors. Because Eumaios treated Odysseus to good xenia, and proved his continuing loyalty to him during the conversations they had while Odysseus was in the guise of a beggar, his life was spared when Odysseus slaughtered the servants who had turned against him and against his house.

Bad Xenia:  Odysseus and The Suitors

Odysseus slaying his wife's suitors after returning to Ithaka.
Odysseus slaying his wife’s suitors after returning to Ithaka.
(Image from: FrogStorm)

One of the most obvious examples of bad xenia in The Odyssey is the treatment of Odysseus’ house, and Odysseus himself, by the suitors who, in his absence, have come to his home seeking his wife’s hand in marriage. The mere fact that they came to his house, seeking Penelope’s hand in marriage, isn’t necessarily wrong. Odysseus had been gone for nearly 15 years when the suitors showed up. There had been no solid news of him, and no one had any idea if he were alive or dead. What makes their behavior bad xenia is the way they went about it. They imposed themselves on the household, devouring the livestock, consuming the wine, insulting their host, Telemakhos, and refused to leave when their presence and intentions toward Penelope were obviously not wanted. Penelope tells the suitors in the hall, “Others who go to court a gentlewoman, daughter of a rich house, if they are rivals, bring their own beeves and sheep along; her friends ought to be feasted, gifts are due to her; would any dare to live at her expense?” (Homer 325) She also later reminds them, “suitors indeed, you commandeered this house” (Homer 393). The suitors even made plans to kill Telemakhos, to get him out of the way so they could further their goal of obtaining Penelope’s hand and dividing the spoils of the house. Since Odysseus was, in fact, still alive and master of his house, all of these transgressions of xenia can be seen as transgressions of xenia against Odysseus.

Additionally, when Odysseus returned home, though in disguise, the suitors continued to show bad xenia. Antinoos was particularly vicious to him. As he made his rounds of the suitors’ tables, in the guise of a beggar asking for hand-outs, Antinoos threatened him with violence, mocked him by calling him a pest, and then threw a stool at his back that hit him (Homer 326). These actions, along with further demonstrations of bad xenia on Antinoos’ part and from all the suitors in general, show us the exact opposite of what good xenia is.

In the role of the guest, the suitors insulted their host by overstaying their welcome, by making unreasonable demands on the house in terms of provisions, and by attempting to kill Telemakhos. In the role of the host, the suitors failed to provide proper xenia by insulting their guest, Odysseus, by injuring him instead of protecting him from harm, and by not being as hospitable as possible. Their bad xenia was well rewarded, since Odysseus was home with the blessings of Zeus, who avenges bad xenia, and Athena, Odysseus’ patron goddess. As Odysseus prepared to draw the first arrow, Zeus sent an omen signalling his approval, a loud thunderclap. Still playing up to his role, Odysseus proved himself by firing the arrow through the rings on the axe-heads, and then turned bring an end to the mockery the suitors had made of his house. Antinoos, the most vicious of the suitors, was the first to fall. In the end, all of the suitors died, and the disloyal servants with them. Bad xenia met with a bad end.

Importance of Xenia in Greek Civilization

The custom of xenia was, to the Greeks, the mark of civilization in the late 12th century BC, a time when most of the world was still savage. This is evident by Odysseus’ statement: “Now, by my life, mankind again! But who? Savages, are they, strangers to courtesy? Or gentle folk, who know and fear the gods?” (Homer 102) This was his reaction when he woke up on the island of Skheria and heard Nausikaa and her maids screaming while playing with their ball. He wondered if the people of the island would show courtesy (xenia), or if they were savages that had no regard for Zeus Xenios. This shows us that any place that did not practice xenia was considered uncivilized.

Besides being a measure for determining who was civilized and who wasn’t, it was an important part of the religious aspect of their life. Since they believed that Zeus was the patron god of travellers seeking xenia, honoring a guest was the same as honoring Zeus. Failure to honor a guest was to risk incurring the wrath of the gods. Xenia was also a good way for Greeks to develop reciprocal relationships with each other, creating bonds of trust between members of city states, and more importantly between the nobility of the city states. These bonds of xenia could prove useful if one friend were attacked. He could call on the people he’d shown good xenia to, to aid him in seeking reparations, or for making war. Hopefully, though, if good xenia is practiced by all, then hostilities would not be a problem, because proper respect would be shown by both the guest and host, reducing the chances of conflict. In this way, the Greeks’ sense of community is greatly aided by the relationships created through xenia.

Showing good xenia could also be a way of spreading fame for your house or country. When Odysseus is on the island of the Phaiakians, as part of King Alkinoos entertainment (his xenia toward Odysseus) he presents the Phaiakian dancers, in the hope that Odysseus would, “on his return tell his companions we excel the world in dance and song, as in our ships and running” (Homer 132). Later, when Odysseus is in his own house posing as a beggar, he implores Antinoos to give him a bit of bread, telling him, “Let me speak well of you as I pass on over the boundless earth” (Homer 324). In other words, he would tell others he met of Antinoos’ good xenia and raise his reputation and fame. Of course, that’s not what happened in that instance, but it’s still obvious that providing good xenia was beneficial to reputation and fame. Xenia was as important a part of Greek civilization as government, reinforced by religion and constantly producing beneficial results for all parties involved.


Conclusion

The Odyssey, with all of its examples of both good and bad xenia, offers us a look into the world of the Greeks, and the importance this cultural element played in their daily lives. Throughout the story, bad xenia is punished and good xenia brings rewards to those who offer it. It was religious, it was beneficial, and it distinguished the Greeks from their barbarian neighbors. The Odyssey, as well as being an entertaining story, reinforced the ideals of civility among the Greeks who heard it. Today, in addition to being a reference tool to better understand the Greeks, The Odyssey is just as entertaining, enlightening, and exciting to read.

Works Cited

Biggs, Cory, et al. The Value of Hospitality. n.d. 27 March 2011.
Homer. The Odyssey. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1998.
Pitt-Rivers, Julian. “The Stranger, the Guest and the Hostile Host.” Peristiany, J. G. Contributions to Mediterranean Sociology. The Hague: Mouton, 1968.
Wilson, Nigel Guy. Encyclopedia of ancient Greece. Psychology Press, 2006.