A guide to life: The Odyssey

Is the book a series of impossible but inevitable choices?

The Odyssey, a 3000-year-old epic poem, belonging to an epoch unimaginable by us today, is a story that conveys a certain truth about life that somehow holds true today. Even with the frequent appearances of gods, sirens, cyclops and the likes, Odysseus’s journey is filled with choices that are unavoidable yet impossible to make. Odysseus’s journey, with the numerous sacrifices it entails, is symbolic of life in many ways. The entire journey is a testament to the true prowess of fate and luck, and how controlling one’s life, even if one knows the outcome of their actions, is near impossible.

Firstly, divine intervention in the play is mostly a tool used to help the characters favoured by the divine identity achieve their end goal, whether it be through the use of prophecy, allowing them to see what they cannot, or the alteration of the conditions they are present in. The truth behind the divine intervention, however, is that what is determined by those divine beings is inevitable, regardless of the choices made by the character. The first time we see this is when Hermes, carrying a message from the gods, informs Calypso of the gods decision to end Odysseus’s suffering. Upon hearing this, Odysseus is sceptical of the Gods, after having suffered so much. This presents him with an impossible choice, whether to trust in the gods and finally return home or stay on the island where safety is guaranteed. We see that as per the expectation of Athena, he sets sail, and even though Poseidon attempts to stop his journey, he inevitably makes it to Phaecia. This is testament to the true power divine forces hold on the journey of Odysseus, representative of the forces of luck and fate, and the power they hold on the lives of everyone, and an indication that no matter how much we believe our choices influence a decision, it is ultimately just the natural path of life that we take.

Possibly one of the clearest examples of an impossible yet inevitable choice that has to be made by Odysseus is when Circe informs he has to journey in between Charybdis and Scylla, wherein he will lose either all of his men or six of them. It resembles the famous ethical dilemma of the trolley problem, where it’s impossible to gauge whose life is worth keeping. It is a clear representation of how sacrifices are integral to anyone’s journey in life, and if one cant deal with said sacrifices, it limits their progress. Odysseus even describes it as ‘the most heartrending thing I ever saw in all the time I suffered on the sea’.

In his encounter with Tiresias, we see how even upon knowing his fate one cannot do little to change it. Tiresias clearly states that upon reaching the island of the sun god Apollo, if they slaughter Apollo’s sheep, they will endure more suffering. When Odysseus’s crew eats the cattle of Helius, Zeus ends up creating a dark blue cloud above them, which ends up tearing their ship apart, leaving all of Odysseus’s crew, who escaped the clutches of Scylla, to be devoured by Charybdis, leaving Odysseus in solitude. The line ‘the gods prevented them from reaching home’, and their initial escape from death only to lose their lives to the harsh alternative seems to represent the predetermined nature of life, where when one is meant to meet a certain fate, escaping it but not changing what lead them to that fate (in this case gluttony) will lead to its inevitable conquer.

Finally, we can see how divine power seems to fully influence and therefore determine one’s journey, by looking at the suitors as an example. We can see that their immoral actions eventually catch up to them, as not only does Tiresias prophesize it, Zeus even mentions

Ah how shameless—the way these mortals blame the gods.
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,
but they themselves, with their own reckless ways,

Zeus’s line (above) at the very start of the book (book 1) is significant in the perception that one action, in the end, determines their fate. This grounds the theory of divine intervention, allowing it to apply to life in the sense that one’s actions almost always has an impact on them eventually, a sort of karmic retribution. The predetermined nature of one’s fate based on their actions, only to be ushered along by divine entities is especially clear in the case of the suitors. Tiresias prophesies that Odysseus will ‘match the suitor’s violence and kill them all’. The word “match” strongly suggests the extent of divinely influenced punishment they faced is based on their actions.

While it can be argued that what is willed by divine beings is inevitable, one can argue that is not always the case. Odysseus was initially destined to live a life lost at sea, but eventually, due to his somewhat virtuous nature, wit and protagonist like qualities, divine intervention allowed for his fate to be altered, which is yet another example of how one’s actions heavily influence the inevitable nature of fate.

In the end, the Odyssey suggests that rather than divine intervention, it is ones own choices that lead to their inevitable ‘Fate’, and it is in many ways a lesson about life, in the sense that while the outcome of many things are inevitable, making the right choices, and dealing with impossible ones, can change the end eventually achieved.

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