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Monday, November 14, 2005

LUCK, FORTUNE AND FATE

"This is the third time; I hope good luck lies in odd numbers...
There is divinity in odd numbers, either in nativity, chance or death."
William Shakespeare 1564 - 1616 "The Merry Wives of Windsor" Viii,10

Last week at my Memoirs group, we had an interesting discussion on habits and 'old wives tales'. One of the members who is of Greek descent, brought in a list of the beliefs the Greeks have, many of them going right back to ancient times. One was the discussion about how things happen in threes. For instance, the Greeks with 'spit' (Ptoo, ptoo, ptoo) three times to ward off evil.

"Our concern be peace of mind: some old crone let us seek,
To spit on us for luck and keep unlovely things afar." Theocritus 310-250 BC "Idylls" VII

The "mati", or "eye" is a charm worn to ward of the Evil Eye. I have several of these charms and wear them often.

The 'things come in threes' theory was proven once again on the weekend when I got a phone call early Saturday morning from the Greek Man on the Bus who is an aquaintance I knew when I lived in Athens, and happens to be a friend of the taverna owners where I hang out there. I hadn't heard from Dimitris for awhile and suddenly he called, inviting me to join him one day for coffee. This call was followed by one from my favorite nephew who I also had not heard from for several months. He also invited me for coffee. Then, a third call from a cousin back East who almost never phones except perhaps at Christmas. Was this simply a coincidence or is it true: Things happen in threes?

As far as luck is concerned, I feel fairly lucky, and fortunate too. Because just when I feel at my wits end about things, someone or something happens to help out or change things. I was lucky the other week when a brick came through my window in the middle of the night as I sat at my computer chair. If I'd been in my bed I'd have been showered with shards of glass. And when I found the brick right behind my computer chair I realize how lucky I was not to have been conked on the head! (I actually thought the 'explosion' I heard was a gunshot. Lucky me!)

The ancient Greeks were great believers in Fate and Fortune. It was called "Moira" . The Persians called it "Qismet". So the characters in my novel often talk about fate and fortune, piously appealing to the gods for 'signs' and guidance, just as we do in our modern lives.

In this scene from Part II of "Shadow of the Lion" Alexander the Great's little son questions his Uncle Ptolemy:

The child looked intently at Ptolemy. "What is moira?"
"That is your destiny," Ptolemy explained. "The path the god has chosen for you. It is why your father took his army to Persia. He was following his moira. While he lived, he always walked with the gods and went where they led him. His death was ordained by the gods. The seers foretold his coming to Babylon. They also foretold his death. Alexander was like the fire that falls from heaven. He burned so brightly he lit the sky more brilliantly than the sun. All the world marveled at his deeds and will speak of them fo years to come."

"Leave all else to the gods - "
"Cease to ask what the morrow will bring forth,
and set down as gain each day that Fortune grants."
Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) 65-8 BC "Odes" 1:13
Sometimes the characters in Shadow seized opportunities to improve their good fortune, as did Alexander's half-sister Thessaloniki. (You'll recognize her name. She had a city named after her. But how did that come about?) Kassandros, son of the recently deceased Regent Antiipater, and a long-time rival and enemy of Alexander, plots to seize the Regency by engaging himself to a daughter of the Royal House.

"Let me help you," insisted Kassandros. "Marry me and I will not only put you on the throne, but name a city after you!"

Thessaloniki's eyes narrowed. "Is this a brbie, Sir?"

"I beseech you,Madam," he said in a tone of conciliation. "Do not entrust your kinsman's throne to a foreign child of dubious birthright, who is under the control of a has-been soldier of fortune who cares nothing for your well-being. Give consideration to what I have offered you."

She looked at him silently. "Leave now!" she commanded. Then her voice softened. "I am not prepared to give you my answer now, but I will consider it."

Kassandros bowed with exaggerated deference. "As you desire, Princess. May you prosper."

Thessaloniki turned quickly back to her loom. She knew Kassandros had gone only by the sound of the door closing. She realized her head was aching and her hands trembled so her fingers snagged the threads. Had she insulted him by refusing to answer immediately?

For a long time she sat, until the lamps had burned so low the wicks spluttered in the oil. Kassandros' proposal both startled and confused her and bred in her mind curious thoughts. She needed wise counsel, but who was there to turn to? She was alone and friendless in the palace. Kassandros had offered her protection and a name. A city named in her honour! What other Macedonian princess could claim that? The Regent's son and the King's daughter. Such a combination might well suit both their purposes. How could she turn him down?

She allowed herself to smile. "To prosperity!" she thought.

"Do you wish to roam farther and farther?
See! The Good lies so near.
Only learn to seize good fortune,
For fortune's always here."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749 - 1832 "Remembrance"

But will the new Regent, Polyperchon, be so fortunate when he appeals to the god for counsel in bringing peace to the Greek city states and appeasing the Athenians?

The shrine was in a grove of sacred oaks. The clearing trilled with birdsong. Polyperchon was alone in the grove yet, even in the stillness, he could feel a Presence and his nape prickled. In the midst of the wood was the most sacred spot, a small-roofed colonnaded temple adorned with paintings and statues of bronze and marble. Here the holy altar stood, guarded by Zeus' eagle, its wings spread wide. A curl of smoke rose from the alter stones and the semll of burnt offering hung in the air.

He stpped forward. Last year's oak leaves rustled under his feet. He bowed and made the proskynesis, bringing his right hand to his lips to kiss the tips of his fingers. He burned an offering of frankincense on the altar and spread his hands to invoke the god with the proper praises and epithets.

"Oh Zeus, much honoured, Zeus supremely great, to Thee these holy rites I consecrate, my prayers and expectations. King Divine, be favourable to me, Father Zeus, and what I shall undertake, according to my prayers."

He prayed that he would receive the God's guidance in all that must be done to save the peace. He knew he was holding the destiny of Athens in his hands. What if the Athenians rejected his edict? He recalled the battle at Chaironeia after Thebes and Athens had refused Philip's treaty. General Phokion had urged them to heed the oracles at Delphi and accept it, but he had been laughed down by Demosthenes who derided Philip and said that everyone knew Philip had bribed the Pythia. The resulting slaughter and defeat had been a complete victory for Macedon, acknowledging Philip as Grand Hegamon, supreme war-leader of Greece. But could he, Polyperhcon, lead his country to victory again if the city states rebelled?

He was not a pious man, but he calle ddown Zeus' power, invoking the god for wisdom in his actions and success in his conquest.

"Father Zeus, Send me a sign now, and I will follow your command."

He felt the great carved eyes of Zeus' eagle bore into him. A chill draught brushed by him and the breeze ruffled the leaves of the sacred oaks. He thought of the fleet he must raise, and the army he must deploy to bring order to Athens. He wondered what Antipater would have done and what he should do in Antipater's place. And Alexander? And Philip? Their legacy was too great for him, but he must do his best for Macedon.

And so we too face our "Fortunes" and our "Fate". And are we the masters of the way things turn out? Why is it that someone who is passionate with life is suddenly snatched away by accident or terminal illness? Is it fate? Why do things happen, good or bad? Is it just a matter of 'luck' like winning the lottery? (Or me, winning a trip to Malaysia?) How much is simply coincidence like the three phone calls I got on Saturday morning, or escaping injury from a flying brick and exploding window?

"Lead me, Zeus, and you, Fate, wherever you have assigned me.
I shall follow without hesitation; but even if I am disobedient and do not wish to,
I shall follow no less surely."
Cleanthes 3300-232 BC from "EPICTETUS, Enchiridion." sec. 53









5 comments:

Daisy Dexter Dobbs said...

Thoroughly enjoyed the Shadows passages, Wynn. This is such a fascinating topic. Diverse backgrounds, beliefs and individual experience will, naturally, color the perceptions of those answering your questions.

I don’t believe in random coincidence or luck. My personal journey has instilled the conviction that everything happens for a reason. Whether an experience is so blissful and filled with elation that it saturates the soul with light; or so dismal and anguished it sucks the light out like a vacuum; or seemingly inconsequential, there is always a reason; a message; a lesson. While often veiled and difficult to decipher, the significance becomes evident at some point, sometimes years later. Each message or lesson presents an opportunity for growth, for the evolution of our soul and for the prospect to move one step closer to fulfilling our life’s purpose. While we can’t always control the things that happen to us, we alone have the choice as to how we react to any given situation. In that way, yes, we become the masters of our fate.

At least that’s my take on things. ;-)

Sam said...

In France there are lots of old superstitions and old wives' tales. Things happen in threes is a common saying here too.
Actually the saying goes, 'Bad things come in threes' (I just wrote trees and had to go back and change that, lol)
I wonder if it's not because of the three old women who cut the thread of people's lives? Or was it something else in Greek mythology? (Will have to look that up, now I'm intrigued, lol)

Wynn Bexton said...

I think there were three Fatesin Greek mythology. Must check that too! And even in Shakespeare remember the 3 crones in MacBeth?

And of course, on the other side, there is the Holy Trinity.

Debra Young said...

Nice work, Wynn! Hope you're feeling better. d:)

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