One of the most important components of our life as human beings is the feeling and the knowing that we have a purpose.
As cultural commentator David Brooks observes in his book “The Road to Character,” “A mature person possesses a settled unity of purpose.” But whether a sense of purpose is needed for maturity or not, philosopher Richard Smoley comments in his “Inner Christianity” that “Nearly everyone feels it at some point or another: Each of us has the sense, however faint, that there is some unique purpose for which we have been called into being and which no one else can fill.” Aside from anything else, this feeling that there is a purpose is characteristic of “high well-being,” as author Gail Sheehy said.
And as soon as we start thinking about it, we realize that if there is a purpose to our lives, then also there is a sense of “fate” or “destiny.” The purpose leads us to a fate whereby we achieve something or, perhaps more importantly, become somebody in the sense of being more than we once were, as in the acorn has become the oak tree, and not somehow been blasted, withered, or wasted away—its potential lost.
When individuals have this strong sense of purpose, it often seems to them that other people and events somehow cooperate in helping them achieve their purpose, which becomes their fate. These cooperative events and people appearing in one’s life have a synchronistic element. In other words, they are not linear or logical but seem to spring out of nowhere, and yet they seem to coincide with our need just at the right time.
Scholar David McNally notes in “Even Eagles Need a Push” that synchronicity accompanies the committed person—and purpose and commitment, of course, go hand in glove. Carl Jung, the great psychologist, defined synchronicity as “circumstances that appear meaningfully related yet lack a causal connection.”
Back to the Ancients
But we don’t really need modern psychology to tell us about fate, because the ancients themselves were heavily preoccupied with the topic. For example, writing about the ancient Egyptians, Canadian Egyptologist Donald B. Redford said that “there were three forces (or deities) associated with one’s fate.” The three Egyptian deities are matched in Norse mythology with the three Norns or Nornir at the Well of Urd, and this corresponds closely with the three Greek Fates or Moerae.
Why three? Well, one reason must be the fact that time itself has three dimensions: past, present, and future. The web of fate, therefore, must be woven from (1) some antecedent point to (2) the present and then (3) spun into a future, which the individual does not know but believes in.
One account of fate in Greek mythology holds that the king of the Gods, Zeus, mated with the Titaness Themis (meaning “justice”), who was the goddess of fixed order. With her, he produced the Fates, the seasons, good order, and justice and peace. This suggests that Zeus himself was above fate and that his will was fate.
However, another strong tradition suggests otherwise. According to classicist Robert Graves in “The Greek Myths,” the Pythian priestess once confessed to an oracle that Zeus himself was subject to the Fates because they were not his children but parthenogenetic daughters of the Great Goddess Necessity, against whom not even the gods could contend. The Great Goddess Necessity is also called “The Strong Fate.”
This view is born out in the greatest literature of the Greeks, the “Iliad.” In it, for example, we find that despite his great love for his son Sarpedon, Zeus cannot reverse his son’s fate, which is to die at the hands of Patroclus. Zeus, then, is more an executor of fate rather than its source.
That said, the Greek myths attest in plenty to divine and human efforts to change, alter, or reverse fate. Zeus himself, forewarned that the child of Thetis the nymph would be greater than his father, neatly sidesteps copulating with her and so avoids his own defeat.
In fact, this particular maneuver leads to Thetis’s giving birth to Achilles, the famous warrior at Troy who seems to have been given a choice by the three Fates: a long life of ease and obscurity or a young death and immortal glory? We know which he chose, but was it the right choice? In the companion epic, “The Odyssey,” we find the shade of Achilles bemoaning his fate, as he tells Odysseus: “I’d rather serve as another man’s laborer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead.” He realized his fate, but there seems to be a sting in its tail.
Apollo, the god of prophecy, was deeply indebted to King Admetus. So Apollo gets the Fates drunk and extracts from them the promise that if anyone would die on Admetus’s behalf, Admetus might continue to live; in other words, to delay Admetus’s fate—delay his fate, but not stop or change it.
Indeed, one may work around the Fates as Perseus did in getting them to reveal the whereabouts of Medusa so that he might fulfill his own destiny and slay her. But to actively seek to stop fate has dire consequences. Perhaps the most dramatic example in Greek mythology would be of Asclepius, the physician. He raised Hippolytus from the dead for the goddess Artemis, but Hades and the three Fates were so scandalized by this breach of cosmic etiquette that they demanded Zeus kill Asclepius with a thunderbolt. It is not the fate of humans in Greek mythology to come back from the dead! But if the Asclepius story is the most immediately dramatic example, it is not the most famous.
The most famous example of an individual in Greek mythology seeking to avoid fate is surely Oedipus. The oracle in this case said that this child would kill his father and wed his mother. His parents attempted to prevent this, as did Oedipus himself. Here, unwittingly, all their actions conspired to fulfill the prophecy.
How the story of Oedipus fascinates us! This is partly because (unlike the demigod heroes such Herakles, Theseus, Orpheus, Perseus, and so on) he is just an ordinary man. He did not have superhuman powers but, like us, wrestled with fate in a world of gods and monsters. His humanity makes his struggles all the more relevant, insightful, and intense as we see ourselves in him.
In Part 2 of this article, I am going to look at Oedipus’s attempt to escape his fate, and also compare it to another famous example of someone defying their fate, but from another literary tradition: namely, the story of Jonah. In the case of Jonah, God gave him an express mission—a synonym for purpose, really—and Jonah deliberately defied it. Deliberately? Unwittingly? Let’s explore what these two stories tell us in more detail in Part 2.