In both Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, the gods and goddesses play a direct role in the fates of the main characters and serve as both guides as they fulfill their destinies while at other times, are petty, cruel, and bent on destruction of the heroes. In this sense, the gods of both tales are quite fickle and have conflicting motives rather than a central, harmonious purpose that is upheld by all in union.
The gods are, in this sense, quite like the human characters whose lives they manipulate and influence; they are all prone to fits of rage, passion, concern, and outright disgust. The mortals in both of these stories are subject to these whims and while they experience favor from divine entity, they may be violently shunned by another. This creates a chaotic element in both of these texts as the wild emotions of the gods and goddesses are beyond control and do not change based on the cunning, will, or sheer might of any of the main characters.
They are volatile, unpredictable, and fickle forces without limit and forces that cannot be altered once set into motion, unless an equal force intervenes. Nonetheless, despite these similarities in the volatile nature of the gods, the concept of their role in fate is different because the gods in both texts view fate differently. Homer’s gods see humans as directly responsible for their own fate whereas there is a more ethereal sense of fate as destiny in Virgil’s epic. The gods shape and manipulate fate in both works with various forms of temptation but to different ends and for vastly different causes and whereas Homer’s epic reflects fate as mutable, in Virgil’s tale, fate reigns supreme, even over the will of the gods.
The opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid immediately prepare the reader for a text driven forward by fate and divine prophesy in addition to the major themes. The poem’s speaker says, “ I sing of warfare and a man at war. / From the sea-coast of Troy in early days / He came to Italy by destiny” (Virgil I.1-3). It becomes immediately clear that there will be great battles between nations, which is implied in the broad, all-inclusive term “warfare” but importantly, the narrator also says, “man at war” in the singular sense, which could be referring to “man” as a species or could also refer to one man in particular. The fact that the speaker goes on to talk about a mysterious “he” who landed upon foreign shores by force of destiny rather than expressed will does imply that this man himself will be at war. The war he wages is both against and with his own fate as he attempts to maneuver his life to obey the higher divine calling. The idea of this man at war with his own fate will become more clear as the text moves on and the various victims of this war Aeneas has with his own destiny—as ambivalent as he is about it—will become more numerous. The most striking example of a victim of this war, for instance, is Dido, who is sacrificed in favor of this greater calling by the gods to abandon the comfort and love and press forward. This opening tone and its thematic preparation for the reader’s sake is not present in Homer’s Odyssey because, despite an enormous influence from divine beings in that text, fate and the gods are treated much differently, despite a similar presence in the lives of both Odysseus and Aeneas.
The gods and goddesses of Homer’s Odyssey exert an enormous amount of influence on the main characters, including Odysseus and his son in particular but as suggested previously, there is no consensus among the gods about Odysseus’ worth. Due to this discordance among the gods about Odysseus, he experiences extraordinary amounts of positive divine intervention in his quest to return home, but the effects of this are often negated or set back due to an equal negative reaction on the part of another, opposing divine entity. In other words, while wit and strength—both human traits in the tale—can overcome most of the obstacles that are central to his quest, especially at the end when the archery contest is devised, acts of strength or reason are powerless, especially in the face of a wrathful god. This means that one of the most volatile and unpredictable elements in this epic are the gods and their influence on the fate of Odysseus, Telemachus (click here for a full character analysis of Telemachus), and other characters. At one point, when in conversation with his fellow divine entities, Zeus, the king of the gods, bemoans how mortals seem aware of this volatility among their gods and goddesses when he says, “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, / compound their pains beyond their proper share” (Homer I.37-40). What he is suggesting is that the gods are not acting in aggressive (or for that matter benevolent) ways out of random desire—they are either provoked or evoked and react accordingly. Nonetheless, this means that for a character like Odysseus who invokes strong feeling among the gods, he is subject to the utmost goodness and at the same time, the most powerful wrath.
Some of divine intervention is allowed to go without a negative response from another, opposing god and the intent and consequences are that of benevolent good. For instance, without the divine intervention by the goddess Athena, it is likely that Telemachus would have fallen victim to the plot by his mother’s suitors to kill him and take over what was rightly his in the absence of his father. For instance, Athena states as she makes her case for Zeus, “But my heart breaks for Odysseus / that seasoned veteran cursed by fate so long—far from his loved ones still, he suffers torments / off on a wave-washed island rising at the center of the seas” (Homer I.57-60). Her pity, especially when she appeals to Zeus about all of Odysseus’ past sacrifices and noble actions, moves the god to take pity as well. This proves to be a rare example in the text of two gods in accordance with one another who work in tandem rather than with opposing motivations. Furthermore, it shows the gods as being capable of basic human emotions and that they do not always act with reckless, violent abandon, but have measured responses, based on the mortal in question.