William Smith, Ed. in A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology explains ‘Moira’ as signifying “a share,” and as a personification “the deity who assigns to every man his fate or his share,” or the Fates. In Homer’s poems Moira is fate personified, which, at the birth of man, spins out the thread of his future life, follows his steps, and directs the consequences of his actions according to the counsel of the gods. Homer’s The Iliad (C.700 BCE) presents to us a war that was predestined. The outcome of war, losses in battle and lives of men are all spun by fate, while the gods and goddesses can only manoeuvre the series of events that lead to that fate. Similarly, in Vyasa’s The Mahabharata, Krishna says that the war between the Kaurvas and Pandavas was also inevitable and predestined, essential for sin to be purged and the wheel of life to take its course. Towards the end of the epic, Gandhaari even curses Krishna for not stopping the war that claimed so many lives, reinstating the idea that despite divinities on Earth, the war took place as destined. In this essay, I shall compare The Iliad and The Mahabharata and attempt to analyse how destiny and fate become central underlying themes in epics.
A parallel emerges between the two texts in their female characters who, on the surface, caused a war. Helen of The Iliad is a conflicted character. She is found weaving a robe covered with the images of war, reflecting her guilt. It also reveals her as a speller of destiny because she seems to be aware of the outcome of this great war. This scene also resonates of Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey where she too engages in the symbolic act of weaving. Whether Helen’s involvement with Paris was seduction or abduction, is ambiguous. In book three, Aphrodite, protector of Paris, saves him from Menelaus’ sword (as by fate, it was not his time) and calls upon Helen to join her husband in the bedroom. Here we find Helen protesting to Aphrodite’s divine designs but is quickly hushed by the goddess. Lead Beater in Homer’s Iliad states, “Helen is presented in the light of her own struggle, the struggle of a virtual prisoner who claims she would like to be reunited with her original husband, Menelaus… Her offensive argumentation with Aphrodite seems to lead us to the conclusion that Helen considers herself somewhat of a pawn, moved at will by the goddess and Aphrodite’s protégé, Alexander… In this indissoluble link between Homeric man and Homeric god, Aphrodite is in Paris, just as she is, to a certain degree, in Helen.” Helen fuels the war by staying with Paris, so was her fate, as well as the fate of thousands of people in the war. This can be compared to the birth and marriage of Draupadi in The Mahabharata who was born out of the fire because she had a destiny to fulfil. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in her novel The Palace of Illusions suggests that Draupadi was in love with Karna but was married to his half-brother Arjuna because that was her fate.
Arjuna from The Mahabharata was destined to be the greatest warrior on earth. For this, Eklavya was forced to cut off his thumb. Ergo, mortals stand powerless in the face of the all-powerful destiny. Likewise, Achilles was destined for glory and Hector had to fall before him. B. C. Dietrich in The Spinning of Fate in Homer brings to our notice that Moira “in The Iliad… is pictured as spinning the fate of a person.” Hecuba says of her dead son that at birth Moira spun this fate for Hector, that he should be devoured by dogs, far from his parents:
“No: all we can do now is sit at home and weep for our son from here. This must be the end that inexorable destiny spun for him with the first thread of life”
Another instance of destiny as a blind force is when Hera proposes to save Achilles for the time being but afterwards he may suffer whatever Destiny spun for him at birth:
“Achilles should not suffer any harm at the Trojan hands today, though later on he must endure what destiny spun for him with the first thread of life when his mother bore him.”
In the Karna Parva, Karna knows it’s impossible to beat the two ‘Krishnas’, but he takes responsibility for the fight as there’s no one else who would. Karna seems to emphasize that he has no choice in the matter and that his hands have been bounded by fate. But Krishna, who’s the ‘right’ voice of the text, brings in the Hindu belief of ‘karma’ when he addresses Karna, “It is generally seen that they that are mean, when they sink into distress, rail at Providence, but never at their own misdeeds.” This seems to imply that it’s one’s karma, in other words, one’s choices that decide what’s coming for one. The sway between karma and fate is never really decided in the text. In The Iliad, fate is all encompassing. It is obeyed by both gods and men once it is set, and neither seems able (or willing) to change it. It was considered heroic to accept one’s fate honourably and cowardly to attempt to avoid it. But in similar cases in The Mahabharata, fate does not predetermine all human action. Instead, it primarily refers to the outcome or end, such as a man’s life or a city such as Troy. For instance, before killing him, Hector calls Patroclus a fool for trying to conquer him in battle. Patroclus retorts:
“No, deadly destiny, with the son of Leto, has killed me,
and of men it was Euphorbos; you are only my third slayer.
And put away in your heart this other thing that I tell you.
You yourself are not one who shall live long, but now already
death and powerful destiny are standing beside you,
to go down under the hands of Ayako’s’ great son, Achilles”
Here Patroclus alludes to his own fate as well as Hector’s to die at the hands of Achilles. Upon killing Hector, Achilles is fated to die at Troy as well. All of these outcomes are predetermined, and although each character has free will in his actions, he knows that eventually his end has already been set. Troy is destined to fall, as Hector explains to his wife in Book 6. Also, Achilles and Hector themselves make references to their own fates—about which they have already been informed. Fate plays a huge role in the outcome of events in The Iliad. It is the one power that lies even above the gods and shapes the outcome of events more than any other force in the epic. Humans are mere puppets in the hands of gods in the Greek tradition. Meanwhile in Indian, there’s an equal emphasis on choice, or one’s karma.
“It has been observed that the action of The Iliad could be conceived even without any intervention of the gods. Others argue that nothing happens in the poem without the prompting of the gods”, says Paolo Vivante in “Fate, the Gods, and Mythology.” The Iliad: Action as Poetry. Although they may play a part in how fate runs its course, even the gods are bound by fate, “the extent to which Zeus is “bound” by fate–as opposed to the clear “binding” of mere mortals–is left ambiguous. Almost always, the gods (and goddesses) act in order to make sure that things turn out as fate decrees… it seems that the gods are more guided than limited by fate’s necessity” as expressed by Robert C. Solomon in On fate and fatalism. Some readers believe that the gods play a more vital role than fate does, however, as quoted above the gods are merely pawns in the role of fate, as mortals are pawns to the gods. During the battle between the Achaeans and the Trojans, Zeus controls every move, he decides who wins, who loses, and how far the battle drags on. Looking closer however, Zeus does not determine who gets killed by who, otherwise he would have protected the children of his fellow gods so as not to anger them. For example, the son of Ares was killed, angering him and bringing him to attempt to take revenge on the Achaeans. Had Hera not stopped him, he would have ruined Zeus’s plans to bring Achilles to glory. After learning of his son’s death though, we see that Ares even mentions his own fate, “Now don’t be surprised, my good Olympians, if I go and pay out those Achaeans for my son’s death! Yes, even if my fate is to be struck by a thunderbolt from on high, and I have to lie with a heap of corpses in the blood and dust!” This quote makes us believe that the gods know that even they are controlled by fate, and that they cannot stop how their life ends. If the gods could control fate, then Zeus would have also protected his son, Sarpedon, from dying at the hand of Patroclus. He could not do so because if Sarpedon had beaten Patroclus, then Achilles would not have gone after Hector so that he may gain glory. Instead, Zeus simply allowed fate to take his sons life and he sent Death and Sleep to take Sarpedon back to Lycia. By doing this he did not change fate, he simply decided what happened to the body after he died, showing that the gods cannot control fate as easily as many people believe.
In my opinion, everything that happened in The Iliad was influenced by the gods, but determined by fate. The people in The Iliad strongly believe in fate, they let it run their lives and they accept it. Andromache believes that after Hector’s death she will become enslaved and her son will be killed in spite, Achilles believes that he will die in Troy, and the warriors in each army know that if they are destined to die that they will die defending honour and their countries. The characters of The Iliad understand that the death, destruction and loss that came along with the glorious war, was for the fulfilment of fate, destiny and Moira.