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The will of Zeus and the time of the Iliad

Yukai Li

Yale University

The will of Zeus, Dios boulē, is a concept of particular importance to the interpretation of the Iliad, not least because it implies that the poem results from a particular purpose and is therefore fundamentally interpretable. Beyond the certainty that it is important, however, we quickly encounter two related problems: What does the will of Zeus will, and how does it relate to the agency of fate which is also at work? The latter question comes to especial prominence where Zeus seems to be paradoxically depicted as both decreeing the course of future events yet also yielding to the predestined fate of men. This paper argues that Zeus in the Iliad embodies the retroactive temporality of the poem, and offers a reading of the paradox as exemplary of the way time works in Homeric poetics.

Time in the Iliad is governed by the notion that the present is incomplete in itself and the expectation of a meaning that will only come in the future. This is demonstrated in the lack of surprise in the poem, where unexpected events are not greeted with surprise and bewilderment, but as the retroactive revelation of a hidden meaning that was already present from the very beginning. Agamemnon’s reaction to the Pandarus’ breaking of the truce and wounding of Menelaus is exemplary (IV. 155-7), because instead of interpreting the truce as something that first meant peace and only subsequently war when it is broken—with surprise intervening to mark the change of meaning—for Agamemnon the wounding of Menelaus only belatedly revealed that the truce has always meant misfortune. The retroactive operation that reassigns to events the meaning they always already had is also shown in the vignettes which accompany the deaths of minor warriors like Skamandrios, who is described as a fine huntsman (V. 49-58): the hunt and the favour of Artemis which he enjoyed in life are retroactively assigned the meaning which they always had, as that which would not be enough to save him from death at the hands of Menelaus.

This paper argues that, just as Agamemnon maintains an openness to the prospect that present events will gain a retroactive meaning, what the will of Zeus wills is the openness that the prospect of retroactive meaning imposes on the present. Zeus differs from every other character in that he wills openness so perfectly that the retroactive meaning which is to come actually overtakes itself and manifests as Zeus’ decree. This is what produces the paradoxically redundant configuration in which Zeus first seems to decree a particular outcome, and only afterwards consults his scales to find out that what is fated is precisely the outcome he decreed. This reading of the relationship between the will of Zeus and the agency of fate, which integrates both within the poem’s retroactive temporality, is thus able to supplement and to correct (1) Murnaghan’s (1997) identification of the will of Zeus with the mortality of man, which would fix the meaning of the Dios boulē and deny the poem’s openness; (2) Allan’s (2008) conception of the Dios boulē as the rationalising principle of epic history, which takes epic as a totalisable whole; and (3) Morrison’s (1997) observations on the tension between predestination and freedom on the levels of the heroes, the gods, and the poet, which correctly notes the parallel tensions but is unable to explain their presence except as the creative will of the poet.

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Time as an Organizing Principle

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