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  • Kerostasia, The Dictates of Fate, and the Will Of Zeus in the Iliad

Death speaks:

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, "Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me." The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, "Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?" "That was not a threatening gesture," I said, "it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."1

The atmosphere of inevitability—most importantly meeting or avoiding death—pervades the Iliad. One encounter seemingly intertwined [End Page 273] with the threads of fate occurs near the end of the Iliad, when Homer presents the climactic contest between the great hero Achilles and Hector, the defender of Troy. Achilles chases Hector three times round the walls of Troy and then—on the fourth turn—Zeus performs the following action (22.209–13):

Then father Zeus balanced his golden scales (inline graphic . . . inline graphic), and in them he set two fateful portions of woeful death (inline graphic), one for Achilles and one for Hector, breaker of horses. Balancing it in the middle, Zeus raised it high, and the fated day (inline graphic) of Hector sank down: it went toward the house of Hades, and the god Apollo left him.2

At this point, Athene rushes in to help Achilles slay Hector. With the loss of its champion fighter, Troy too is destined to fall. In this first passage, Zeus weighs two "fateful portions of woeful death"—inline graphic—in his scales. The one that drops signals it is that hero's day to die. The Greek term for this is kerostasia, literally, the weighing of an individual's death.3 I wish to explore the significance of kerostasia in the Iliad. While there are only two instances in the Iliad, the act of Zeus setting out the scales represents a view of how the events at Troy came about—the view, namely, that certain events are destined to occur. After Zeus' action, the death of Hector is a foregone conclusion. The possibility of a divine rescue is precluded.

We find, however, that the poet of the Iliad juxtaposes a contrasting view of what happened between the Greek and Trojan armies locked in battle. According to this second perspective, heroes are not wholly subservient to fate—rather they make decisions which determine the course of subsequent events. The effect of this juxtaposition is that we in the audience are apparently left without one consistent "world-view" regarding—in [End Page 274] modern terms—fatalism and free will.4 These two perspectives cannot be logically reconciled. The poet seems to swing back and forth, now activating the monolithic view of a narrow, unyielding path of destiny, now suppressing such an idea and activating instead a sense of openness and unpredictability for the course of events at Troy.5

This tension between contradictory movements is also evident at the divine level and at the poetic level. The gods contemplate acting against what had appeared to be unavoidable, and the poet suggests episodes which would violate the epic tradition. The purpose of this paper is to examine where and how the poet switches between these contradictory alternatives, between the controlling force of destiny and the autonomous action of heroes (and of the gods and the poet). My main point is that this dynamism between fixedness and...


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