Destiny: Homer & Shakespeare

Odysseus slaying the suitors

Homer and Shakespeare


Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg:  Ulysses’ revenge on Penelope’s suitors

“Short is the life of man, just like the dew-drop on the tip of a blade of grass;
a bubble appearing on the water when rain falls;
a line drawn on water with a stick;

a mountain stream;
a lump of spittle on the tip of the tongue;

a piece of meat thrown into an extremely hot iron pot;
and a cow being led to be slaughtered, whenever she lifts a leg, she will be closer to slaughter, closer to death.” 
Gautama Buddha

[Do you think anyone else could ever elaborate on the fraility of life, the destiny of the human being with such eloquence, with such vivid imagery?]


It has always been facsinating to come across Shakespearean quotations ringing a bell: that of Homer himself. One of the numerous situations, is that of Human Condition with respect of destiny.

I have been fond of and sad in arguing, with the students, that  man is such a fickle and frail creature. “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport”
[King Lear: Act 4, Scene 1, Page 2] Perhaps, the tragedy of mine, the ultimate tragedy that could befall on a man, contributed in no small measure within me to keep repeating same. bunpeiris

The gods play around with us as cruelly as schoolboys who pull the wings off flies.

 King Lear by William Shakespeare

 “No, no, no life? Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, And thou no breath at all?” King Lear



Three daughters of King Lear: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. If you haven’t read Shakespeare’s King Lear, could you make an educated guess as to which of the three princesses is Cordelia?

Following are some translations of Homer’s The Odyssey [800 B.C.E] on the fraility and ficklenss of the human beings.

Of all the creatures that breath and creep about on Mother Earth, there is non so helpless as a man.
The Odyssey by Homer as translated by E. V. Rieu,
Penguin ISBN 0-14-044001-1

Man is the feeblest of all creature that have their being upon earth.
The Odysseyby Homer as translated by Frederic Will,
Simon & Schuster ISBN 978-1-4165-0036-0

Of all that breathes and crawls across the earth, our mother eart breeds nothing feebler than a man.
The Odyssey by Homer as translated by Robert Fagles
Viking ISBN 0-670-82162-4

Man is the vainest of all creatures that have their being upon earth.
Samuel Butler

Men’s spirits on this Earth depend on the fate the Father of gods and men decrees.


The fight between Ulysses and Irus by Jan Harmensz Muller

Context: Book XV111 117-157 Odysseus warns Amphinomous

Another local beggar comes into the room and tries to move Odysseus. Odysseus frowns and tells him that there is room for both of them. The beggar, named Irus, gets angry and says “Listen to him! the swine can talk your arm off,/ like an old oven woman! With two punches/ I’d knock him snoring,…”Book 18, lines 30-2. Antinous laughs at the challenge and points it out to everyone and tells them that whoever wins may sit and dine with them. Odysseus says he has no business fighting but he will do it because he is hungry. Telemachus tells him that he doesn’t have to worry about a foul blow from one of the suitors because he will watch out for him. Athena gives Odysseus extra strength and bulk so that when he takes his ragged shirt off everyone is stunned at the beggar’s physique. When Irus panics, Antinous mocks him and tells him that he will be sold as a slave if he doesn’t fight. Odysseus wonders to himself how badly he should wound the man and decides just to hurt him a little. They fight and with the first hit Odysseus breaks Irus’ jaw.

Antinous now presented him with the large paunch swollen with blood and fat, and Amphinomus took two loaves from a basket and placed them before him, pledging him from a golden cup: ‘Health, old Stranger, and may good fortune be yours in future, despite your present sorrows’

Resourceful Odysseus replied: ‘Amphinomus, you seem to be a sensible man, as I have heard your father, Nisus of Dulichium, was too. I have heard him named as a wealthy man and a brave one. You are his son it seems, a man of quiet speech. So mark my words, listen to what I say. Of all the creatures that breathe and move on Earth, there is none as powerless as man. As long as the gods grant him success and strength he thinks he will never know future suffering. Yet when the blessed gods instead bring trouble on him, he must endure the pain with whatever patience he can. Men’s spirits on this Earth depend on the fate the Father of gods and men decrees.

I too once had a measure of prosperity among men, but I was seduced by strength and power to many wanton acts, relying on my father and my brothers to help me. Let me be a lesson to men not to be lawless, but to enjoy the gifts of the gods in peace. Here I see the Suitors wantonly wasting the possessions and demeaning the wife of one who will not be away much longer from his friends and his native land. I tell you, he is near, and may some god prompt you homewards, so you need not face him on his return. He and the Suitors will not part without bloodshed, I think, once he is under his own roof.’

          He spoke, and poured a libation, then drank the honeyed wine, and returned the cup to the young nobleman’s hands. But Amphinomus went back through the hall with a heavy heart, with his head bowed, foreseeing trouble. That did not save him from his fate. Athene had already bound him hand and foot, marking him for swift death from a spear at the hands of Telemachus. Now he sat down once more on the chair he had risen from.

Philoetius meets  the begger [Odysseus in disguise]

Odysseus & Philoetius

Then there came a third arrival, Philoetius, the master-cowherd, driving a barren heifer and plump she-goats for the Suitors. They had been brought from the mainland, by the ferrymen who give passage to anyone who appears. He carefully tethered the animals under the echoing portico, then approached the swineherd and questioned him: ‘Who is this new arrival, this stranger, Eumaeus? What ancestry does he claim? Where are his people and his country? An unlucky wretch! He carries himself like a king, but the gods bring trouble on wanderers, kings or no, when they spin the threads of sorrow for them.’

          Saying this, he went over to Odysseus and stretched out his hand in greeting, speaking winged words as he did so: ‘Well met, old man! You’re in the grip of misery now, but good luck to you in future. Father Zeus, you are the most pitiless of gods, without compassion for men who owe their existence to you, bringing us wretchedness and fierce suffering. When I saw you, Stranger, I broke into a sweat, and my eyes filled with tears, thinking of Odysseus, who must be dressed in rags like yours, a wanderer too among men, if he still lives at all and sees the sunlight. If he’s already dead, and in Hades’ House, then alas for peerless Odysseus who put me in charge of his cattle inCephallenian country, when I was just a lad. And now the herd’s increased past counting. Never have broad-browed cattle swelled their numbers more readily for any mortal man. But now strangers order me to bring them for their feast, indifferent to the son of the house, fearless of the gods’ anger, ready to parcel out our long-absent master’s possessions. I keep turning the thing over and over in my mind: it would seem wrong for me to take my own cattle and go abroad, among an alien people, yet it’s worse still to stay here and suffer, in charge of cattle others appropriate. It’s so bad here, I’d have been off ages ago, off to some other powerful prince, if it wasn’t for thinking still about that unfortunate man, wondering if he might still return from who knows where, and drive the Suitors from his house.’

          ‘Cowherd,’ resourceful Odysseus answered, ‘since you seem a good and intelligent soul, and I see your heart is full of understanding, I will speak plainly, and swear a binding oath I speak true. By Zeus above all, and by this hospitable table, and by faultless Odysseus’ hearth I have reached, I swear Odysseus will return while you are here, and if you choose to do so, you will see clearly with your own eyes the slaughter of these Suitors who play the master here.’

          ‘Ah, Stranger,’ the master herdsman replied, ‘if only Zeus, the son of Cronos, would make your words come true! Then you would see the strength I can still show in my hands.’ And likewise Eumaeus added a prayer to all the gods for wise Odysseus’ safe return.

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