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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
Fate was of great concern to the Greeks, and its workings
resonate through many of their myths and texts. We see countless
characters who go to great lengths in attempts to alter fate, even
if they know such an aim to be futile. The inability of any mortal
or immortal to change prescribed outcomes stems from the three Fates:
sisters Clotho, who spins the thread of life; Lachesis, who assigns
each person’s destiny; and Atropos, who carries the scissors to
snip the thread of life at its end. These three divinities pervade
all the stories of Greek myth, whether they be stories of gods,
goddesses, demigods, heroes, or mortals and regardless of the exploits
recounted. Nothing can be done to alter or prolong the destiny of
one’s life, regardless of the number of preparations or precautions
taken. This inflexibility applies just as much to Zeus as to the
lowliest mortal, as we see in Zeus’s hounding of Prometheus to divulge
the name of the woman who will bear the offspring that one day will
Though this lesson is somewhat consoling—the way of the
world cannot be bent to match the whims of those in authority—it
is also very disturbing. The prospect of free will seems rather
remote, and even acts of great valor and bravery seem completely
useless. The myths provide an interesting counterpoint to this uselessness,
however. In virtually all the stories in which a character does
everything in his power to block a negative fate, and yet falls
prey to it, we see that his efforts to subvert fate typically provide
exactly the circumstances required for the prescribed fate to arise.
In other words, the resisting characers themselves provide the path
to fate’s fulfillment.
A perfect example is the king of Thebes, who has learned
that his son, Oedipus, will one day kill him. The king takes steps
to ensure Oedipus’s death but ends up ensuring only that he and
Oedipus fail to recognize each other when they meet on the road
many years later. This lack of recognition enables a dispute in
which Oedipus slays his father without thinking twice. It is the
king’s exercise of free will, then, that ironically binds him even
more surely to the thread of destiny. This mysterious, inexplicable
twinning between will and fate is visible in many the stories and
philosophical treatises of the Greeks.
Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy,
Euripides’ plays, and Homer’s two great epics all demonstrate the
irreparable persistence of bloodshed within Greek mythology that
leads to death upon death. The royal house of Atreus is most marked
in this regard: the house’s ancestor, Tantalus, inexplicably cooks
up his child and serves him to the gods, offending the deities and
cursing the entire house with the spilling of its blood from generation
to generation. We see the curse manifest when Atreus himself kills
his brother’s son and serves him up—an act of vengeance for wrong-doing
done to him. Atreus’s son, Agamemnon, then sacrifices his own daughter,
Iphigenia, as he has been told it will procure good sailing winds
for the Greeks to start off to Troy. Rather, this deed leads his
wife, Clytemnestra, to kill him on his first night home, with support
from his cousin Aegisthus, who is in turn avenging Atreus’s crimes.
Last but not least, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra,
comes back to kill his mother and Aegisthus. Only two members remain
in the House of Atreus: Orestes and his sister Electra. Everyone
else has been foully murdered in this bloody chain of events.
Though these characters have brought terrible violence
upon those to whom they owed bonds of love and loyalty, they are
still not wholly condemnable. Orestes knows that he will incur the
wrath of the Furies and the gods in committing matricide. As terrible
as matricide is, Orestes would be even more in the wrong if he let
his father’s death go unpunished. Clytemnestra no doubt follows
a similar rationale, as she cannot allow Agamemnon’s sacrifice of
their daughter to stand unavenged. Even this is not the beginning
of the chain: Agamemnon felt he had no choice but to sacrifice Iphigenia, since
his only other option was to break the oath he made to Menelaus
years before. Indeed, the whole line of Atreus is cursed with such
irresolvable dilemmas, the outcome of divine anger at Tantalus’s
horrific and unprompted sacrifice of his son. In this slippery world
of confusing and conflicting ethics, the only certainty is that bloodshed
merely begets more bloodshed.
In many myths, mortals who display arrogance and hubris
end up learning, in quite brutal ways, the folly of this overexertion
of ego. The Greek concept of hubris refers to the overweening pride
of humans who hold themselves up as equals to the gods. Hubris is
one of the worst traits one can exhibit in the world of ancient
Greece and invariably brings the worst kind of destruction.
The story of Niobe is a prime example of the danger of
arrogance. Niobe has the audacity to compare herself to Leto, the mother
of Artemis and Apollo, thus elevating herself and her children to
the level of the divine. Insulted, the two gods strike all of Niobe’s
children dead and turn her into a rock that perpetually weeps. Likewise,
young Phaëthon, who pridefully believes he can drive the chariot
of his father, the Sun, loses control and burns everything in sight
before Zeus knocks him from the sky with a thunderbolt. Similar
warnings against hubris are found in the stories of Bellerophon,
who bridles the winged Pegasus and tries to ride up to Olympus and
join the deities’ revelry, and Arachne, who challenges Athena to
a weaving contest and is changed into a spider as punishment. Indeed,
any type of hubris or arrogance, no matter the circumstance, is
an attitude that no god will leave unpunished.
The Greeks and Romans incorporated aspects of their ethical
codes in their myths. In a sense, these stories are manuals of morality,
providing models for correct conduct with examples of which behaviors
are rewarded and which are punished. The clearest example is the
story of Baucis and Philemon, an impoverished old couple who show
kindness to the disguised Jupiter and Mercury. Of everyone in the
city, only Baucis and Philemon are generous with their humble hospitality.
Jupiter and Mercury reward them and destroy all the other inhabitants
of the area. The lesson is clear: the gods judge our moral actions
and dispense blessings or curses accordingly.
The idea of these myths as moral guides is not unlike
the Judeo-Christian morality tales in the Bible. However, while
the God of the Bible is an infallible moral authority, the gods
who judge good and evil in classical myth harbor their own flaws.
They have favorites and enemies, often for vain reasons—Hera’s jealousy,
for example, predisposes her against several entirely innocent women—and
are capable of switching sides or abandoning their favorites for
no clear reason, as Apollo does to Hector just as Hector faces Achilles
in combat. Aside from their prejudices, of course, the gods are
poor moral judges because they frequently act immorally themselves, philandering,
raping, lying, and callously using innocent mortals as pawns.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Mythology!