Destiny, curse and free will
We shall understand that the world of ancient Greeks differed greatly from our own. Some notions, ideas, and beliefs that seem to be obvious for us were unknown for them. The idea of destiny and determination is among such issues.
According to myths the history of the world is divided into five Ages. We live in the last fifth Age. The previous one was the Age of heroes. It ended after the death of all heroes that had happened shortly after the end of the Trojan War. Thus, the whole Greek's world as well as all heroes was doomed and there were no alternatives. We may wonder whether it is real “destiny” or “fatalism”. All of us for sure will die but it does not mean we do not have free will. Death is the only event that can be predicted, that's why Greek's notion of destiny was closely connected with death. Destiny was limited to the conditions of death but not life.
Greeks believed that human lives were controlled by Moiras. At first, there were two Moiras responsible for birth and death. Then they evolved into trinity. Initially the world of humans and heroes was controlled only by Olympic gods but at the times of Alexander wars the Greek culture was influenced by foreign religions in which everything was subject to fate. Thus, Olympic gods also became dependent on Moiras. Nevertheless, the roles of destiny, Moiras, gods and free choice are not uniform in Greek myths. Generally, the mortals including heroes are controlled either by destiny or by gods and their free choice is actually predetermined except for several exclusions.
The most vivid example of destiny can be seen in the Oedipus myth. Theban king Laios learned that his son would kill him. In another version of the myth he was told by the Oracle that the only way to save his polis was to be childless. These different beginning are very important as they mean that free will exists at first sight. The king could choose whether to have a child and die from his hand or to be childless. Laios has chosen the first variant and decided to cheat the destiny.
The babe Oedipus was put to the chest and thrown to the sea (left in mountains according to another version). It was equal to death as Greek curse says: “into the mountains or into the sea”. Both areas contain the same message: the child was exposed on a spot from which no escape was possible. Nevertheless, Laios ordered to mutilate baby's feet. At that time it was also fatal. We may wonder why the king decided to do it if the mere placement to mountains or sea already guarantied death for the child. It actually shows how strong Greeks' belief in destiny was. The king supposed that the child could survive by miracle and return to kill him and decided to eliminate this risk by feet' mutilation. Laios was right as Oedipus survived and murdered him. This myth explains that even cheating could not change destiny.
The next story is about Achilles. A son of a sea nymph Thetis he was also predicted to die in battle. His mother decided to save him by dipping him into the Styx rive which made him almost invulnerable. She also sent him to the court of Lycomedes were Achilles had been disguised as a girl for nine years. Nevertheless, the trick was discovered by Ulysses who revealed Achilles and successfully agitated him for the participation in the Trojan War.
We again see that Achilles had a choice. He could continue to live on the island and die infamous but decided to die to obtain glory. Nevertheless, in the other part of the Iliad Zeus is told by Moiras that Achilles will die was sure. Finally, Achilles was shot in the heel which was unprotected when his mother put him into the Styx.
Hence, we again notice a failed attempt to cheat destiny. In both previous myths the reason of predicted death appears at the same moment somebody attempts to cheat fate. In both cases there is a choice which actually was predicted and, thus, determined. These myths show a total determination of the life of Greeks.
The apotheosis of destiny and determination of life may be found in the story of Cassandra. She was a daughter of the Trojans' leader Priam and Paris' sister. She rejected the love of Apollo and was cursed by the god. According to the curse she predicted future but no one believed her words. Cassandra warned her father about Paris who would cause the Trojan War; she asked not to let Greeks' Trojan horse into the city; and predicted Agamemnon about his death. Nevertheless, no one believed her.
The story of Cassandra shows that even knowledge about the future may not change it as it is already determined. Moreover, even predictions themselves are determined. Paradoxically but prophesy is a means of fate in myths. For example, in case Laios had not known his future he would never exiled his son and in turn it would never cause the chain of those events that led to the Laios' death and realization of prediction.
Nevertheless, a myth is not a stable dogma, it changes together with the culture that produces the myth. That is the reason why the issue of unavoidable fate was questioned in some myths.
Cheating destiny from the other side
As we have mentioned before, destiny of Greeks was associated with death and death was not a fact but a one way journey to Hades. Hence, actually Moiras decided the time of departure but what about the return from those dark places? Generally, it was impossible to cross the Styx backwardly because Cerberus secured the Greek's hell. Such transience corresponds with the notion of destiny which cannot be changed. Nevertheless, there were some attempts which we will describe below.
There are different variants about the parents of Orpheus but one of them for sure had a blood of a god. It made Orpheus a hero who traveled with Argonauts for the Golden Fleece. Orpheus had a beloved Eurydice. After her death he decided to return her from Hades. As Orpheus was the best poet and lyre player he charmed gods and they agreed to let his wife from the underworld. Nevertheless, according to the agreement with gods he had to leave Hades without looking back. Eurydice was going after him. Near the exit he noticed that there were no sounds of her steps and looked backward to see whether she was still there. Consequently, he breached the agreement and his beloved left in Hades.
This myth tells again about the attempt to cheat fate that turned to be unsuccessful. Still, there are several important details. First, gods decide to return Eurydice to the life. They are stronger than Moiras in this myth and they can change their verdict. Second, Orpheus is stronger than gods and Moiras as he made them to act in violation of the world order. He almost managed to change the destiny of his wife and failed only due to his own fear but not outer obstacles. It is interesting to mention that his weapon against destiny was not evil cruelty as in case of Laios, nor it was gods' knowledge of Achilles' mother but it was a genial mastership. Hence, this hero attempted to cheat destiny from the other side – not in life but in death.
Dionysus is a god. Nevertheless, his mother was a mortal woman and he spent his life in numerous wars in India. Dionysus was almost killed by Titans but resurrected as his heart was left undamaged. Hence, we may presume that he was also a hero as he had all hero's peculiarities. Dionysus was connected to Orpheus and he also attempted to return his mother from Hades. "Those who, by permission of the Parcae [Moirai], returned from the lower world ... Father Liber [Dionysos]; he descended for Semele, his mother, daughter of Cadmus.". Who was Dionysus? It is well-known that he was a god of wine and madness. Madness is a state that breaks the order of normal mind. “His devotees were temporarily released from everyday life and united with a cosmic force”. Thus, Dionysus has broken the determinism of traditional Greek life by returning his mother (and also his wife Ariadne) to the life. Moreover, he had made them immortal. Dionysus is an ancient Greek god and his possibility to turn people back to life remind about the times when gods but not Moiras were the only controllers of humans' lives.
We can see that the world of Greeks was predetermined, even more, it was timeless. The role of everyone was known and unchangeable. Even the knowledge of the future, even attempts to change the future were predetermined. Thus, free choice was an illusion as at every moment human was controlled by gods. People made their choices and thought that they was free will but how it could be free as it had been known in advance. The Greeks have solved this paradox by rejecting the idea of free will at all though some myths about Dionysus and Orpheus show that the idea of destiny was not monolithic and other interpretations of destiny and free choice existed.
Aaron J. Atsma, Dionysus Myth 2, Theoi Project, 2008, accessed 22 Oct 2010 http://www.theoi.com/Olympios/DionysosMyths2.html#Underworld
Apollonius, The Argonautica, Accessed 22 Oct 2010 http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/13977/pg13977.html
Barry B. Powell, A Short Introduction to Classical Myth ,Prentice Hall, 2002
Jan Bremmer, Interpretations of Greek Mythology, Worcester: Billing and Sons Limited, 1990.
Hesiod, Works and days, ll. 156-169b. Accessed 22 Oct. 2010 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/348/348-h/348-h.htm
Fate in Greek Thought, New York Times, 1897 Retrieved from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10D15FE3D5414728DDDA10A94DB405B8785F0D3
Luke Roman and Monica Roman, Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology (New-York: Facts on file, 2010)
 Hesiod, Works and days, ll. 156-169b accessed 22 Oct. 2010 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/348/348-h/348-h.htm
 Fate in Greek Thought, New York Times, 1897 Retrieved from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10D15FE3D5414728DDDA10A94DB405B8785F0D3
 Jan Bremmer, Interpretations of Greek Mythology (Worcester: Billing and Sons Limited, 1990), 44
 Apollonius, The Argonautica, Accessed 22 Oct 2010 http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/13977/pg13977.html
 Luke Roman and Monica Roman, Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology (New-York: Facts on file, 2010), 110
 Luke Roman and Monica Roman, Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology (New-York: Facts on file, 2010), 381
 Dionysus Myth 2, Theoi Project, Aaron J. Atsma, 2008, accessed 22 Oct 2010 http://www.theoi.com/Olympios/DionysosMyths2.html#Underworld
 Barry B. Powell, A Short Introduction to Classical Myth (Prentice Hall, 2002), 106