(Another in the occasional postings of essays by my late friend Bhishma Xenotechnites)
ANCIENT GREEK ETYMOLOGIES OF FATE
MOST OF OUR FORMAL English words for Fate, Fortune and Destiny come from Latin : “fate” is from the past participle of fari , “to speak,” and was for the Romans something decreed or pronounced by the gods ; the root of “fortune” is fors, “chance” ; “destiny” comes from destinare, “to determine.” ( “Lot” and “luck” are obviously Anglo-Saxon. )
For the ancient Greeks , however , happenstance ( also Anglo-Saxon ) was imagined rather differently : their most common verbal expressions came from words whose root sense is to distribute or parcel out. The main one of these seems to be meiresthai , “to receive as one’s lot or portion” ; connected words include meros , “part,” and , probably best known , moira, “fate” ( i.e., one’s portion ) , personified as Moira , or the Moirai , the Fates one finds named in Hesiod’s Theogony , the Daughters of Night ( Nyx ) : Klōthō ( “Spinner” ) , Lákhesis ( “Apportioner” ) and Atropos ( “Unturnable” ) ( 213 , 217ff. ; with a different genealogy, 901ff. ). Moira is one of the forces of Fate invoked in the Iliad ( Book 24.209 , for example ). “Destiny” they also derived from this root , using a perfect passive participle , “the allotted” portion , heimarmenē ( moira ) , associated later with Stoicism , “the bit of Fate with your name on it” ; a similar participle , peprōmenon , the portion “that has been bestowed ,” from a defective verb ( *poro ) meaning “to give or bestow ,” came to mean “destined” or “fated.”
The proliferation of names for Fate in Homer is remarkable : kēr is “the doom of death” ( Iliad 9.411 , for example ; Hesiod identifies the Kēres ( pl. ) , Theogony 217 ; the number of dismal forces named in the passage 211-32 is alarming ). ( There are two sorts of kēr in Homer , it may be useful to note : the preceding , with a rising intonation ( kér ) , and kêr , with a falling intonation, meaning — and cognate with — “heart.” ) Aisa ( perhaps related to aitia , “cause” ) is commonly invoked in Iliad as “due portion” ( 1.416, for example ). Another verb meaning to apportion , daiein , gives us a familiar noun for a god of fate ( among other things ) , daimon , later transformed through Latin into “demon.”
( Two important Greek words that have to do with allotment , portion or distribution that don’t carry the sense of fate or doom are nemein , with a meaning of apportionment that extends to the pasturing of animals as well as to custom and law ( nomos ). And klēros, “allotment,” or “lot,” in the sense of drawing lots , was a key concept of ancient Greek society and property ; the root and sense survive in English “clerk ,” “clergy.” )
Three final words : yet another for Fate , potmos ; this one comes from the verb piptein , “to fall.” And the main Greek word for ( good ) fortune , luck , chance, often personified , Tyche ( Tukhē ) , whose related verb is tunkhanein , “to hit ,” “to happen ( or chance ) to be.” And an unrelated but vitally important word , anankē , “necessity.”
The size and nature of this vocabulary of fate invite us to consider ancient Greek attitudes as compared with those of the modern era , in which we like to think we have some control over our own fates. The idea of “free choice” or “free will ,” however , is a relatively recent and quite Western idea that may have its origins in medieval Christian philosophy. It does not come from the Greeks , yet we stubbornly look for it there : in the original Introduction to his celebrated 1951 translation of the Iliad , Richmond Lattimore wrote that the tragedy of Achilles , his early death , “is a result of his own choice” ( p.48 ). In a recent review-essay on the Iliad , its history , and its English translations ( “Battle Lines ,” The New Yorker, 7 November 2011 ) , Daniel Mendelsohn writes ( p.78 ) that the hero Achilles “had been allowed to choose between a long , insignificant life and a brief , glorious one.”
Disrespected by Agamemnon , the Greeks’ commander , Achilles threatens to take his men and abandon the fight against Troy. He explains to his comrades the double destiny his goddess-mother Thetis has told him he carries toward his death ( dikhthadias kēras thanatoio, 9.411 ) , described by Mendelsohn as “a choice.” Does he himself choose whether to return home, or stay and fight ? Is it his choice to allow himself to be persuaded by his companion Patroclus to let him venture into the fight with the Trojans and Hector , in Achilles’s own armor , only to be killed by Hector ?
Patroclus’s death ( which we see aided by the shadowy presence of the god Apollo ) must be avenged by the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles , who is thus forced to join the fight and “choose” the briefer , heroic life. He acknowledges to his mother , come to console him over the loss of Patroclus , that “all these things the Olympian [ Zeus ] brought to accomplishment” ( 18.79 ) ; and his mother : “I must lose you soon , my child , since it is decreed ( potmos hetoimos ) your death must come soon after Hector’s” ( 18.95-6; all translations are Lattimore’s ). What are the wishes of a mortal against the force of the gods’ decrees ? And can even the gods themselves escape the decrees of the Fates ?
In his influential book , The Greeks and the Irrational ( 1951 ; The Sather Classical Lectures at the University of California , Berkeley ), the distinguished scholar E. R. Dodds wrote , “To ask whether Homer’s people are determinists or libertarians [ advocates of free will ] is a fantastic anachronism : the question has never occurred to them…” ( p.7 ) ; “Some have pointed out that Homer had no word for act of choice or decision. … I should rather say that Homeric man does not possess the concept of will... and therefore... not... of ‘free will’ ” ( p. 20, note 31 ) . Thus Achilles’s tragedy , like other famous tragedies of antiquity, was not one of free choice , but a tragedy of the inexorability of Fate.
Bhishma Xenotechnites xii.2011