The Cultural Construction of Chance in the Iliad

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Professor Martin


13 February 2008

Unit 3 - The Iliad; "The Cultural Construction of Chance in the Iliad"

The choices made and actions taken by humans within Homer’s epic The Iliad strongly affect the course of events chronicled within the poem, and the primal elements of chance or fate appear to play an important role in determining the outcomes of many of the events and conflicts faced by those involved. However, a question nonetheless remains over whether chance truly dictates the outcomes, or if instead the wills of the Gods alone decide the results. The article "The Cultural Construction of Chance in the Iliad," written by Dean Hammer and published in 1998, attempts to analyze both the function and nature of chance and fate within The Iliad. Within his article, Hammer fully explores the issue, and relies both upon the original source as well as upon the professional opinions and arguments of several experts and scholars. Hammer’s article also analyzes the subject in an inventive as well as an intriguing manner, and the arguments that he puts forth strongly support the conclusion that Hammer reaches. A wonderful introduction!

Dean Hammer’s article "The Cultural Construction of Chance in the Iliad" endeavors to answer the question of whether or not chance and fate played a role in shaping the events of The Iliad, and by extension whether the ancient Greeks of Homer’s time even ascribed to the notion of random chance and luck. Hammer begins this undertaking by defining, with supportive quotes from multiple scholars, the two dominant viewpoints on this subject. The first opinion supports the concept of fate, pointing out the free will enjoyed by humans and the countless uncontrollable events which humans face every day, even if possible “only by drastically curtailing the role of the gods” (Hammer). Given the apparent randomness attached to many of the often-critical actions or events taken by or confronting humans, such as an arrow that misses its mark or a plague that wipes out an otherwise superior army, luck or fate tends to have an enormous effect. The second opinion denies the existence of random chance within the cultural context of Ancient Greece, and so within The Iliad as well, rejecting “the possibility… precisely because of the prominent role of the gods” (Hammer). Within this school of thought, the will of the Gods, and their near constant meddling within human undertakings, leaves no room for random chance. Because of this, supernatural influence serves to explain every event, large or small. Hammer then turns to The Iliad itself as a source for his theory, citing multiple examples of divine intervention and supernatural occurrence. Finally, Hammer declares his support of the theory stating that chance did not play a role in the outcome of the events within The Iliad, drawing support both from the pervasive and inescapable will of the gods as well as the manner in which the characters within the epic attribute every occurrence, however happenstance, to divine will or supernatural influence.

Despite his support of one theory above another, Hammer nonetheless fully explores both theories with equal depth and intricacy. For example, Hammer admits, against his main thesis pertaining to the infallibility of the will of the Greek Gods within The Iliad, that “great deeds can be crafted even when they run contrary to the perceived intentions of the gods” (Hammer). Hammer also provides impressive corroboration for the assertions within his article, drawing upon the words of a multitude of scholars, historians, and others versed in ancient Greek culture as well as in Homer’s epics. In addition, Hammer draws extensively from The Iliad itself, providing numerous examples from the epic throughout his article to illustrate and substantiate his points. For example, when explaining the tendency of the ancient Greeks to relate unexpected events to the will of the Gods, rather than random chance alone, Hammer relates the instance within The Iliad whereupon Teukros’ bowstring breaks in the heat of battle, preventing his arrow from reaching its mark within Hector’s chest. Rather than attributing this to chance or a faulty bowstring, Teukros glances at Ajax and instead remarks, “See now, how hard the divinity cuts across the plan/ in all our battle” (Homer 15.467-68). Furthermore, Hammer recounts a similar event within The Iliad where a bolt lightening frightens the horses of Diomedes during battle. Again, this logically random event becomes an omen instead, in this case of Zeus’ lack of support for Diomedes, within the minds of those within The Iliad. Finally, the chariot races during the funeral games within The Iliad, and the series of mishaps that occur during them, provides numerous similar examples of what, to the ancient Greeks, appears as omen, divine influence, or supernatural occurrence. Hammer takes full advantage of the events within his article, and draws several persuasive examples from them.

Except for an occasional foray into rather convoluted verbosity, as well as the rare inclusion of indecipherable Greek writing, Hammer retains a consistent level of readability and fluency within his article. Hammer succeeds in explaining a rather complicated subject in almost layman terms, while also managing to translate the often-complicated quotations from his scholarly sources from jargon into a more understandable terminology. For example, after quoting a scholar’s definition of human agency versus domination by the divine world within ancient Greek culture, Hammer summarizes and simplifies the rhetoric with his own interpretation of the quotation: “Simply stated, the gods in the Homeric epics, the Iliad in particular, are everywhere. They watch, take sides, devise plans… and even engage in the fighting. In short, the gods act and appear as forces originating outside the human will” (Hammer). Additionally, the overall organization and format of Hammer’s article lends to it an ease of reading and enhances both the experience and effect of the piece. Hammer also inserts a strong sense of inventiveness and passion into his article, helping to create and maintain a strong interest in his work. For instance, Hammer cites a large variety of sources, helping to create a diversity of material within his article, and often quotes interesting or intense portions of The Iliad, maintaining a level of action within his article often entirely devoid within other scholarly articles. Along with the interest level, Hammer’s article remains consistently well written throughout, and reads as equally professional and comprehensible. Hammer realizes his goal of informing others of his interpretation of chance and fate within The Iliad through his consistently understandable and interesting writing style. Finally, the claims and assertions made by Hammer within his article stay well within the realm of believability, and, while still comfortably pressing the boundaries of general knowledge, stay both persuasively logical and justifiably feasible. By offering expansive supportive quotations from outside sources as well as from The Iliad itself, Hammer’s article provides an enjoyable, although sometimes slightly saturated or heavy, study of chance and fate within The Iliad.

Dean Hammer’s article, "The Cultural Construction of Chance in the Iliad," succeeds in its mission to analyze and elucidate the complex concepts of chance, fate, and supernatural influence within Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. Although perhaps overly studious in some instances, Hammer nevertheless successfully communicates his argument and strongly supports his thesis with sound citations from The Iliad as well as several scholars and experts. His article also induces a new and stirring view of the events of The Iliad, explaining the mentalities and motivations of both the characters within The Iliad as well as Homer and his fellow ancient Greeks. Overall, Hammer’s article proves thought provoking, compelling, and insightful and makes possible a new and enhanced understanding of The Iliad.

Works Cited
Hammer, Dean C.. "The Cultural Construction of Chance in the Iliad." Arethusa 31. 2 (1998): 125-148. CCCCD Lib., Plano, TX. 11 Feb 2008 .

Homer. The Iliad The Norton Anthology of World Literature Volume A. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York: Norton, 2003. 120-225.

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