Tragedy, Fate and Nemesis



A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?”

And a grown man or woman may wonder,

“What way will the world go? How does it end and,

while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

- John Steinbeck, East of Eden

"There be many shapes of mystery And many things God makes to be, Past hope or fear. And the end men looketh for cometh not And a path there is where no man sought. So hath it fallen here."  

– Euripedes

In our modern-day Western culture it is generally thought that we have control over our lives - we take this for granted, it is our presumed worldview.  But, in many or perhaps even most cultures of the world, the opposite is the norm. These 'other' cultures live in the daily, everyday recognition of greater and more powerful forces than the will and intelligence of an individual.


It is just as obvious to a person of these cultures that the individual does not control his destiny. . . . Rather, they believe, one must live in a constant acknowledgment of the greater force of what could be called 'Fate'.

Carl Jung

"Fate is a superior force: When we are talking about fate we are talking about God, the Divine or the Devil."

- Carl Jung

Outside of our modern age of technology, where man did and does not have so much 'control' over the natural world and lived closer to everything and more obviously at the mercy of natural forces, it was plainly and often painfully apparent that man did not control his world, his destiny or his fate. It is here, in this more original, primitive, environment, that man recognized, believed in and sought to be in harmony with God and lived with a fear of the 'Devil', (or the Gods and nature spirits).


More recently, in the so-called 'New Age' we have become ‘Godless’, especially in the West (and all over that part of the world that is touched by the technology of the West). We no longer feel or see ourselves at the mercy of a superior force or 'law' that we subsequently seek to be supplicate or be in accord with. We have spoiled and lost touch with nature. We no longer stand in humble awe of the mystery of our own and other's fate. We have come more and more to believe that we control our fate and our destiny.


As a culture, from behind the insulated walls of our houses and cars, easily available food and superficial and quickly changing news, discoveries and fashions, we no longer feel deeply into the idea of fate and what it represents. We don't have a lot of stories about it. We lack an understanding of this powerful idea; in fact we rarely consider it.


We no longer recognize the great mystery in which we live and the slender thread on which we live it. We have come to depend on the daily news. We 'eat' the easily available fast food of our 'pop' ular culture.


We no longer recognize true heroes, confusing them with celebrities. We burn mere incense with our medical treatments, addressing only the symptoms of our diseases, instead of changing the actions that produced them and removing the cause. We have become so used to the stench of our sickness that we don't even notice it anymore.


Our failure to appreciate fate or ‘superior force’ results in a psychic blindness peculiar to our modern age and western man in general. Borne upon the great technological advances of our modern-day world, (which fill our minds with ideas and tend to increase our insulation from reality), individuals have come to believe they can control their own destiny and they are in charge of their life.


Tragedy and the tragic nature of all things, this ancient 'truth' of life has been forgotten and with the forgetting of this 'truth' comes the rise of what I call - 'New Age' thinking (a thinking that takes many forms, but, is always based on the fundamental assumption that individuals determine their own destiny and control their life).


People are encouraged in countless workshops and self-help books to create their own reality, to manifest their desires and to visualize down to the last detail what it is they seek to attain. It is thought that if you can see it, if you can visualize it, you can create it.


A view of life as predictable and controllable lies at the basis of such thinking. I agree, that in a petri dish or laboratory, or with a machine, this approach is usually appropriate, but our life is not such a machine. Of course, there are some aspects of life that can be controlled and measured. But the vast majority of life is out of our control. You would certainly agree if you have ever been in an earthquake, a tsunami, a riot, had a terrible accident, sickness or experienced the chaos of war. Of course, such a list can go on and on.


I suggest that a deeper consideration of the ancient ideas of Fate and Tragedy provide a more wholesome, inclusive and humbling truth, a truth that with but a little consideration could give us a glimpse of the 'nature' of Reality, something that cannot be escaped or denied. I suggest that a deeper examination of the ideas of Fate and Tragedy will provide a template with which to understand the situation in which we always and already live.


It is important to see the nature of Reality so we can conform and harmonize ourselves with it so that we do not waste our life in a struggle against something which we cannot change.


There is a wonderful story of Lawrence of Arabia. A story that powerfully and beautifully dramatizes the ancient ideas of tragedy and fate; a true story that contrasts the ideas widely held in the West today (what I am calling - 'New Age,' 'positive' thinking) and those of the more ancient cultures throughout the world (the Tragic view of Life).


Let me tell you a story about that . . .  



T. E. Lawrence

During WWI, Lawrence of Arabia (an Englishman) united many of the 'up-till-then' warring Arab tribes and led them to attack the Turks at the port city of Al'Aqabah which sits at the head of what is called, today, the Gulf of Katherina, a hundred and fifty miles south of the Dead Sea; a place where the modern-day Sinai peninsula, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel all meet.

Al'Aqabah was a key port for all supplies and guns coming through the Suez canal. The city was surrounded on it's back side by a vast 'uncrossable' desert and impassable hills. Considered accessible only by way of the gulf, huge guns had been placed by the Turks at a fort there to guard and secure the water approach. The guns at Aqabah could only face the water. They were not capable of being turned to face the desert for no one had ever crossed that terrible stretch of desert hell known as the 'Devil's Anvil.' Lawrence, after much work, cajoling and consideration with the Arab tribes, had boldly decided to take Al'Aqabah from behind, sweeping in and conquering, unanticipated, from the desert itself.  

To unite the various tribes of Arabs that dwelt in that area, had been a long and considerable task. Now, with his campaign to take Aqabah finally underway, Lawrence and his men began traveling at night, as the sun was too intense to travel during the day across that burning desert. After many days of such travel, one morning, as the first light of dawn broke, it was discovered that one of the men was no longer on his camel.

He had 'obviously' fallen asleep during the night and tumbled off his mount onto the ground, knocking himself unconscious. Everyone knew that a man without shelter from the sun, without water and without a camel would never survive in such a situation. Lawrence insisted that someone go back immediately to rescue the man.


As a 'Christian', Western man, he saw action of this sort as necessary to maintain the sense of rightness, unity and camaraderie upon which he felt their enterprise succeeding. The Arabs, however, to a man, all refused. "No", they said. "He will die." This so-called 'fact' was the law and world view with which they lived their lives. "You cannot change the will of Allah," they argued. "It is written!"

Lawrence, offended with what he thought their too easy acceptance of fate, emphatically replied, "Nothing is written!", and set off, himself, back into the blazing furnace of that desert day to find the man and bring him back. The Arab tribesmen watched him go and hobbling their camels, set up their awnings and tents and made ready to rest and sleep through the day. That evening, after the blazing heat of the day, began to abate, they began to make ready to travel again.

As they did so, on the horizon, they saw Lawrence, on his camel, riding back with the man who had been lost. The Arabs burst out in ecstatic celebration and ran towards him, firing their rifles into the sky and gesticualting wildly. "LAUR-RANCE, LAUR-RANCE, LAUR-RANCE!", they shouted. Lawrence, exhausted and totally spent, was supremely happy. He had proven to these men that they could create their own destiny He had shown that nothing was 'written.'


He became an even greater leader among them; he had demonstrated another way to accept the heavy mantle of God and fate. The Arabs came to believe that perhaps for Lawrence, nothing was written. He was free of the normal constraints that fell upon the rest of them. He was a unique and mighty man. They would follow him anywhere. He would write his own chapter in the book of life and they would be there with him to witness and share in it.

“Good resolutions are checks that men draw

on a bank where they have no account”

   – Oscar Wilde


Several days passed and Lawrence and his group of Arab warriors neared Aqabah. To escape accidental detection, they began to travel during the day and rest at night, sending out scouts ahead of them. As they approached nearer and nearer to Aqabah, tension began to run high among the men. One night, when they had paused to rest and sleep had settled over the camp, several shots rang out and shouts and a raucous turmoil split the night. Lawrence awoke and ran immediately to see what was the problem. The two main (previously antagonistic) tribes which he had worked so hard to unite, were up in arms, bearing torches and guns and shouting threats at each other.

It seems a man from one tribe had been attempting to steal something from a man in the other tribe. When the thief had been discovered, he had shot the man he was stealing from and killed him. Then, the thief/murderer had run back to his own encampment. But, he had been seen and identified. The tribesmen of the man who had been murdered angrily demanded the right to kill the thief immediately. The other tribe, while not condoning the crime, absolutely refused to let members of the 'other' tribe kill one of their own. They would punish him themselves. It was a volatile standoff. The old enmities arose and the unity of the assemblage and the taking of Aqabah hung in the balance. The situation called for immediate action or a battle amongst the men would surely ensue.

Lawrence's voice rang out decisively. "Give me a gun. I will kill him myself. Then both tribes will preserve honor." Lawrence was given a gun and the murderer was brought before him, arms bound behind him and then forced to his knees. In silence both tribes gathered to witness the shot that would fulfill the law. As Lawrence raised the gun to the man's head, the man looked up at Lawrence, and Lawrence saw that the man he was to kill was the very man he had rescued only a few days before from the desert. Lawrence pulled the trigger and the man fell dead. The next day they rode into Aqabah and took the city.

This true story presents a great mystery from beyond the walls of our everyday considerations. What is fate? What is written? For whom is it written? Can it be changed? Are we in control of our lives? Can we ever be?


"Two bums are sitting on a curb downtown and one says to the other, "Do you believe in fate?" "Hell yes!", says the other bum. I sure wouldn't have chosen to be here on my own."  


This is a humorous way of considering a great paradox in our lives. Are we impelled by 'fate' or is it our own actions, our own weaknesses or strengths that bring about our destiny? Is there is such a thing as tragedy or unmerited misfortune? Do we 'deserve' exactly what we get?   






tragedy: 1. a serious play having an unhappy or disastrous ending brought about by the characters or central character, impelled in ancient drama, by fate or, more recently, by moral weakness, pyschological maladjustment, or social pressures.

As is evident in the dictionary definition presented above, there has been a major change in the definition of tragedy. It is extremely important to note and understand that whereas in the ancient world, tragedy was brought about by 'fate', in the modern world it is considered due to some individual 'moral weakness' or lapse.


This latter idea (tragedy as the result of moral lapse), corresponds with the modern idea that every man is directly responsible for his fate through his will and/or moral action. The thinking is that if a man acts well, acts righteously, then all will turn out well for him. In our modern culture, we have very little sympathy for the ancient idea of 'fate' as the cause of tragedy. We tend to hold a person or persons responsible, we blame someone. This 'difference' between the ancient and modern cultures represents profoundly different views of the world.

Isak, Dinesen wrote that the difference between various people of her time could be seen in their views on tragedy.


"The true aristocracy and the true proletariat of the world are both in understanding with tragedy. To them, it is the fundamental principle of God and the key, the minor key to existence. They differ in this way from the bourgeoisie of all classes who deny tragedy, who will not tolerate it and to whom the word tragedy means, in itself, unpleasantness."


- Isak Dinesen, pen name of Karen von Blixen who wrote 'Out of Africa'

Karen von Blixen

In the world of ancient Greece, tragedy was considered such an important idea of consideration, that it formed a complete and separate category of drama. In these ancient plays, tragedy usually involved noble characters with good intentions trying to accomplish great and good purposes.


The 'Tragedy' demonstrated unmerited misfortune, the unhappy or disastrous result of well-intentioned efforts brought about by fate, not just by a 'moral weakness' in which one 'knowingly' does something wrong.


Think of Oedipus killing his father and marrying his mother and then blinding himself when it is revealed to him what he has unknowingly done. The birth parents of Oedipus, King Laius and his wife - Jocasta, had heard a prophecy that their new-born son was fated to kill his Father and marry his Mother. So, wishing to avoid this fate, they pierced their baby's feet with a nail, tied them together and abandoned him on a mountain to die. He was found by a shepherd and taken to the neighboring kingdom of Corinth where he was adopted by King Polybus and his Queen Merope. Hearing rumors that King Polybus and his queen were not his real birth parents, Oedipus went to the oracle at Delphi to ask about his situation. The oracle again prophesied that he would kill his father and marry his mother.


Horrified by this and determined to prevent it, Oedipus left Corinth and his, (unknown to him) only 'adoptive' parents and began to wonder through the land, determined never to see his home again where the terrible fate of killing his father might ever occur. Traveling on the way to Thebes, he met his real (and unknown to him) Father, fell into an argument with the man and killed him on the road. Then, after this he answered the questions of the Sphinx and freed the city of Thebes from its curse. Because of his great act and because King Laius had been killed (killer unknown), Oedipus was chosen to be the king and marry his (real-life) Mother, Jocasta, fulfilling the fate predicted for him at birth as well as by the Delphic Oracle on several occasions.


So, in spite of hearing his fate and attempting to avoid it and in spite of his parents hearing their own and their child's fate when he was born and attempting to avoid such a terrible thing, it all came to pass and Oedipus fulfilled the prophecy of the Delphic Oracle perfectly. Was it written?


Consider another well known Greek Tragedy- The great Greek tragedy, Iphigenia, by Euripides, tells of Agamemnon, a king who had asked the best men of all Greece to fight and possibly die for him and his brother, Menelaus in the war on Troy. They sought to retrieve Helen, Menelaus' wife, who had been taken to Troy by Paris, the son of the King of Troy. The men of Greece assembled at Aulis to sail for Troy, leaving their homes, families and country. But, they could not leave the harbor. The fleet was delayed month after month at the port of Aulis. The favorable winds, necessary to get them out of the harbor, would not blow. As long as the winds blew directly into the harbor, there was no way they could depart.


The Delphic Oracle was asked what was the reason for this. The Oracle said that Agamemnon had offended the Gods and the only way he could repent for his deed and the Greek fleet could sail, was if he, Agamemnon, sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia. Now, Agamemnon loved his daughter. He did not want to do this. But, he had asked all the men of Greece to give up their own lives under his leadership. He was the leader of this great host of men. What sacrifice would he make?


King Agamemnon, after great pondering and confusion over what was the right thing to do, decided to sacrifice Iphigenia so that the Greek fleet could sail at Aulis. Iphigenia was brought to Aulis under a guise that she was to marry the great hero - Achilles and sacrificed (Achilles was terribly angered by the use of his name to lure Iphigenia to Aulis and this was the root of the animosity between Agamemnon and Achilles). Ten years later, after the successful conclusion of the Trojan War, and on the very day that Agamemnon returned to his own palace, he was slain by his wife, Clytemnestra in retribution for this slaying of Iphigenia. She killed him


But, this great tragedy does not end there. Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, then killed his mother Clytemnestra. Although angry at the killing of his Father by his Mother and her lover Aegisthus. Orestes did not want to slay his Mother, but it seemed to be his duty as the surviving son to slay the killers of his Father. So, Orestes, too, went to the Delphic Oracle and was instructed to slay the slayer of his Father. He was told, by the Oracle of the God Apollo (at Delphi), to avenge the death of his Father and slay his Mother. Orestes obeyed the oracle and killed his mother and was then pursued and driven mad by the Furies who tortured him terribly for what he had done. What else could or should he have done?


This is a great and complex tragedy and the Greeks found in this story and dilemma a mystery holding truths worthy of contemplation. These three stories (Oedipus, Iphigenia, and Orestes) are but a few of the great Tragedies that have come down to us from ancient Greece. 

Orestes pursued by the Furies after killing his Mother- Clytemnestra

Is our life in our hands?



This is but a taste of the great questions that the Greeks pondered at the dawn of Western civilization. These are some of the underlying issues they considered when they wondered about their life. In the case of Oedipus, even when several people (his parents, Oedipus) were told their fate and sought to avoid it, it still occurred, in spite of their attempts to avoid it. No wonder the Greeks believed in Fate. They marveled that even when people had great hope and ideals and sought to attain something noble, they sometimes were not able to do so and because of this, the Greeks considered tragedy to be worthy of contemplation.


When I look around, it is obvious that I am not in charge of my life. Not in some "I can't get to the store if I want to," way, but, rather in the 'sense' that I can not always get there through my own efforts . . . alone. Perhaps a good metaphor for this is the old-fashioned sailor. He can put up his sails, but he cannot control the wind. He is totally at the mercy of the weather; he is at the mercy of the sea, of storms, typhoons, currents and becalming. Imagine you are out on the vast and moving ocean, perhaps rounding the Cape of Good Hope. You would distinctly feel and notice, as so many have before you, that you are not ultimately in charge of your journey. This was the felt and observed worldview of the Greeks and the ancients throughout the world. This is what people and cultures were acknowledging when they 'sacrificed' to the Gods and the forces of nature. This is the worldview that we have lost because of our separation from nature through technology. This is why and how we have become 'Godless'.


Without a sense of tragedy, we have come to believe that we control our fate and the world is perfectible. We believe that we can get the ideal government or political system, the perfect relationship. We think that if we see it in our mind's eye it will happen. We believe that we can make it happen. This way of thinking has become more prevalent than ever before in the West and this is why I have titled my reflections in this story, "The Loss of the sense of Tragedy and the Rise of New Age Thinking".


"No one ever lived more from day to day than I, or was more dependent on chance. It is the inescapable chain of events that has brought me to this point, rather than I who have caused these things to happen."

-Isabelle Eberhardt, The Oblivion Seekers  

Isabelle Eberhardt

Now let me consider another particular aspect of fate, that force greater than ourselves.

Let us consider an aspect that has sometimes been called the 'Devil' in modern times

but which the ancient Greeks called, Nemesis.  



"Revenge (Nemesis) pursues a person. All things run against.

No disgrace comes alone. Some meet resistance in whatever they do;

for others, everything goes right even though they are dumb."

- Linnaeus

the Goddess- Nemesis

Nemesis, in today's usage, usually refers to the one who seeks to impose retribution.

the ancient Greeks, from whom we have both word and concept,

Nemesis was the Goddess of retributive justice and Divine vengeance.

Darius on throne

Here is a story that gives us an idea of who Nemesis was and what she represented:


When the Persian armies of Darius invaded Greece, they hauled with them, with tremendous effort, a huge piece of exquisite white Parian marble with which, they expected, to erect a trophy, memorializing their victory over the Greeks. They subsequently failed in their quest to do so; met on the plains of Marathon soon after they landed, they were defeated by a smaller Greek force.


They left behind in their retreat, that very same block of white marble. It was taken by the Greeks and hauled thirty miles inland where it was carved into a statue of the Goddess Nemesis by the famous sculptor, Phidias. It stood in Greece in the city of Rhamnus, the principal sanctuary of Nemesis.    


The Greeks made that statue to honor the Goddess Nemesis. She represented a force of life which was out of their hands, both theirs and those of the Persians. She represented the inescapable destiny which determined the life every mortal being. To build a statue to Nemesis, was to honor with awe and reverence the idea of tragedy and fate.


 Nemesis, was one of two younger sisters of the Fates. These two sisters helped the Fates carry out their work. The first of these younger sisters was Tyche or luck, representing chance or capriciousness. Tyche distributed good or bad fortune and the accompanying signs of wealth and progeny irrespective of the industry or virtue of the individual. Notice how she stands with her foot on the shoulder of the man below. It is a symbol of being under the foot of or in submission to luck.


With Tyche, it did not matter who you were or how you acted, she might bless you with good or bad fortune. If you ever go to Reno or Las Vegas you can see a whole city dedicated to Tyche.


Tyche was also called - Automatia, from whom we have the word, 'automatic'.  This referred to her quality of causing things to happen according to her own will, without regard to man's merit. 


The lack of justice of Tyche, was countered and balanced by her sister Nemesis. For, whereas Tyche awarded her blessings indiscriminately, Nemesis was moved by a sense of divine justice.  Nemesis brought low those that soared too high and humbled those who thought themselves mighty.


One way a person could transgress against the Gods in ancient Greece was by an excess of good fortune itself. . . Even though a person may be blessed by all the fruits of Tyche or Luck, Nemesis would inevitably provide the divine retributive and balancing force that would bring low the offending individual.  


The Greeks tell the story of the king of Samos, Polycrates, who became terrified of the incredible good luck that pursued him.

King Polycrates

Always mindful of the necessity of preventing the retribution of Nemesis, he offered greater and greater sacrifices of his good fortune to her, trying to placate this 'irresistable and inevitable' force of fate and balance, but, his luck only became more and more phenomenal. After another incredible great good fortune had been visited upon him, Polycrates went out in a ship and threw a most treasured and priceless ring into the sea as an offering to Nemesis. Then he retired to his palace and a few weeks later prepared a great feast to honor the gods.


A great many fish were caught for the celebration and when the cook cut one open, there in the belly of the fish was the ring that Polycrates had thrown into the sea. The ring was returned to Polycrates. Struck with this ominous sign of the refusal of his sacrifice, Polycrates was sickened and soon after, assasinated.  


To the ancient Greeks, the ideas of Nemesis and her sister Tyche, are inextricably woven together with fate and tragedy. I believe they still are. They are like unwanted children to our current thinking, our culture and 'parents' who tell us we control our own fate and can manifest our desires. It is not impossible to direct our destiny, of course we can do that. But, again, we cannot ultimately and finally control our lives or fate and if we live long enough, we will see many instances of unsought for results and events. The realization of life as tragic is a fact that is noticed and a wisdom that is gained by those who are older, not by the idealistic young.


Consider how many factors go into any circumstance. Although things are predictable to an extent, they are not so completely. . . this is what Tyche or luck represents. But one does not need to go to Las Vegas or Reno to realize this truth. Life itself represents a gamble, even to the best prepared and most sober and in the soberest of enterprises.


Would anyone accuse General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces during WWII of being a negative or sloppy thinker? Yet, Eisenhower wrote out an admission of failure on a scrap of paper on the eve of the Normandy invasion. He kept it in his wallet to be issued as a press release if the D-Day invasion of the European mainland in World War II turned out to be a failure. It read:  


"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactorily foothold, and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and navy did all their bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone."  


-Ike Eisenhower-June 5, 1944-the eve of the Normandy invasion (Misdated by Eisenhower "July 5")-On display in the National Archives in Washington D.C.

Eisenhower with troops 24hrs before D-Day

Eisenhower, in spite of a tremendously thorough planning, was aware of the huge and potentially 'terrible' amount of factors outside of his control. It humbled him. His letter was an example of being prepared for all circumstances, and, of the recognition of both fate and Nemesis. He recognized superior forces to the ones he had assembled, not only the Germans, but the unknown. He did not haul a block of marble for his victory like Darius, so that he could be immortalized. Instead, he planned for defeat. Eisenhower both took responsibility for his actions and realized that the results of his actions were beyond his control. He recognized both God and Devil and was humbled by that recognition.


Eisenhower spent months going over plans and scenarios for the landing on the European continent. He visualized every detail of the Normandy invasion as if the fate of civilization was at stake, and it was. But, he also was conscious of and planning for defeat and failure. In this, he represented a man still in touch with the ancient idea of tragedy.



Another Way to Look at Tragedy


“God created the Law of Karma and then retired.”

- Mahatma Gandhi


In Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, there is no such thing as tragedy. Everything happens according to the Law of Karma. Gandhi suggests above that God 'retired', once the Law of Karma had been created, for nothing else was needed. In Hinduism and Buddhism, according to whether one does good or evil, one will ultimately receive the fruits of his actions. It is the Law.

According to the Indian philosophy of karma, the fruits of action are gathered and then expressed over many lifetimes and it is difficult to judge a person on what we can observe in only one life. The great sages of the East have said that the ability to rightly judge another is is most subtle.


So, how do we understand fate? How does one understand the Law of Karma? I don’t know for sure, but, I hope I have deepened the questions you might ask in his consideration.


I have noticed that I do not control my life, nor, I believe, does anyone else completely control theirs. I notice, that In spite of all that we do to make something happen, it may not happen and in spite of everything we do to prevent something from happening, it may happen.


Far from being an error or lack of the person or group which tries and fails to accomplish something grand, it may be something else…




‘It is written”


and life is tragic, or fated


after all.

I personally believe there is both Fate or destiny and 'Free will'. I believe they both operate within the context of the law of karma. This suggests that things only 'seem' tragic. I am hoping to clarify that one day- God Willing, or, at least, make the dilemma still deeper.