The gods play an important role in Homer’s Odyssey, but none is more present or helpful than Athena!
In the Iliad, the gods have prominent and constant roles. They are present in many battles and their influence is apparent throughout the Trojan War.
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The Odyssey shows the gods as involved, but in a much more indirect way. By and large, they seem to have distanced themselves from the affairs of men.
While Poseidon’s anger toward Odysseus drives the story, the god himself rarely appears. Zeus, too, does not make himself directly known to the lost hero.
The notable exception to the distant gods in the Odyssey is Athena. The goddess of wisdom and war plays a vital role as a mentor, advisor, and source of strength.
How important was Athena’s aid in the Odyssey? Without the goddess, Odysseus may never have made it home to Ithaca, and he certainly would not have regained his throne!
Athena as the Hero’s Patron
The goddess of wisdom and war, Athena, was also considered the patroness of heroes. Legendary figures such as Heracles and Perseus often received aid from the goddess on their quests.
While she was a warrior, however, Athena’s greatest gifts were for those who used cunning and intelligence to win their fights. In this, she seemed particularly favorable toward Odysseus.
Athena is an almost constant source of inspiration and assistance in the Odyssey. While she rarely makes herself known early in the travels of Odysseus, by the time he reaches Ithaca she proves to have played a major role in his story.
Before the journey of Odysseus began, he and the other Greek commanders had earned the ire of the goddess by desecrating her temple in Troy. While she appears to have softened toward Odysseus, however, she remains at a distance.
Athena occasionally appears to Odysseus in dreams and indirectly helps him through his voyage. As his journey nears its end, however, she begins to take a more personal role in shaping his actions.
Because the Odyssey is told out of chronological order, Athena’s intervention on behalf of Odysseus occurs in Book 5. By this point the hero has been traveling for almost a decade and Athena finally intercedes on his behalf.
When Poseidon, who had a long-standing grudge against the Ithacan king, is absent Athena petitions Zeus to allow Odysseus to return home. At his daughter’s request, the king of the gods orders Calypso to release Odysseus from her island.
After seven years with the nymph, Odysseus is sent away on a raft. When Poseidon discovers this he sinks the small vessel, but Odysseus is saved by Athena and a helpful sea nymph.
He washes ashore on the island of Phaecia, where Athena disguises herself as a local girl to guide the king’s daughter to Odysseus.
The Phaecians take their guest home, where Athena has been busy guiding the lives of those Odysseus cares about.
When the hero left for the Trojan War, his son Telemachus was an infant. After twenty years, however, Telemachus is grown and his mother, Penelope, is surrounded by would-be suitors.
Athena takes the guise of Mentor, an old friend of the family, to guide Telemachus in his father’s absence. She encourages him to speak out against Penelope’s suitors and, believing the men to be a threat, arranges a ship to take Odysseus’s son to safety Pylos and to seek information in Sparta.
When the suitors learn Telemachus is gone, they conspire to assassinate him when he returns to Ithaca. Once more Athena guides the family, giving courage and wisdom to Penelope to keep her safe.
Odysseus and Telemachus both return to Ithaca at the same time. Athena disguises Odysseus as a beggar so he can sneak into his palace, but removes the disguise and makes him appear strong and youthful when his son finally meets him.
Athena also makes Penelope more beautiful and young looking to prepare for her husband’s return.
And Odysseus and Telemachus work to regain control of Ithaca from Penelope’s suitors, Athena seems even more intent than the king and prince on enacting revenge. Although she bids Odysseus to learn who among them is a good man, she decides that none are worth sparing.
Athena makes Odysseus stronger in preparation for his fight against the suitors. On the day the suitors will compete for Penelope’s hand, the goddess assures him that he will not fail.
Athena may have prevented Penelope from recognizing her husband, but she did inspire the queen to choose a task for the suitors that only Odysseus would succeed at. His bow, which he had left behind when he went to war, had been specially strung in a way only he knew and the suitors were charged with restringing it.
When only the supposed beggar managed to string the bow, the battle begins. Athena helps Odysseus and Telemachus kill all the wicked men, both striking at foes herself and protecting them from harm.
When Odysseus and Penelope are finally reunited, Athena holds back the dawn to give them more time together. He then goes to be reunited with his elderly father even as the families of the suitors move toward revenge.
Athena helps Odysseus a final time by preventing a civil war on Ithaca. She gives his father the strength to strike down the leader of the suitors’ families, then commands the people of Ithaca to disperse and accept Odysseus as their returned king.
My Modern Interpretation
Athena often helped the heroes of Greek mythology, but she is especially present in the story of Odysseus.
Throughout his story, the heroic king is marked by his wit and intelligence. He often uses cunning to escape the many dangers he faces.
This characterization makes Odysseus particularly aligned with Athena. The goddess of wisdom was believed to prioritize strategy in war rather than just brute force.
This alignment is not entirely left to the reader’s interpretation. Athena herself tells Odysseus that he is like her because she knows many tricks as well.
While Athena is the goddess of knowledge, she uses a lack of knowledge to help Odysseus. The disguises and deceptions she employs to keep both her own identity and that of the hero secret are her most frequent form of assistance.
By depriving others of the knowledge of her plans and Odysseus’s arrival, Athena allows the hero to succeed in his quest to return home and enact revenge on the suitors who tormented his wife and son.
Athena does not just keep knowledge from others, however. She also imparts great knowledge.
Much of her aid is not given to Odysseus himself, but to his son Telemachus. While his father performed heroic feats, the prince was personally advised by the goddess.
By guiding Telemachus without revealing her identity, Athena helps the young prince to grow into a future ruler. While he begins the Odyssey uncertain of how to deal with his mother’s suitors and the threat to his own position, Athena helps him to become more commanding and confident.
In this way, the goddess does more than reunite the father and son. She serves as a surrogate to Telemachus, giving him the lessons in leadership he would have been taught by Odysseus.
The gods kept Odysseus away from home throughout Telemachus’s childhood, first through the Trojan War and then with Poseidon’s hatred toward him. By guiding Telemachus, Athena helped to make up for the actions of the gods.
The final book of the Odyssey describes the reunion of Odysseus and his son with his own father, the former King Laertes. Just as Telemachus has been deprived of his father’s lessons, Laertes has also suffered from Odysseus’s absence.
Athena restores the elderly king’s strength and vitality, helping to erase the affects of the hardships he has faced. By the end of the Odyssey, Athena’s intervention has restored the proper relationships between the generations of Ithacan rulers and ensured that the kingdom will remain peaceful and prosperous.
Laertes comments that he is pleased to see his son and grandson as near equals in valor. Both former kings restored, Athena’s guidance of Telemachus ensured that the line of strong Ithacan rulers would continue and the country would not permanently suffer because of its king’s long absence.
Athena serves as a patroness to Odysseus during the Odyssey. While her influence is indirect during the hero’s travels, she plays a vital role in the events that take place in Ithaca.
Athena personally petitions her father, Zeus, to allow Odysseus to return home after ten years at sea. When Poseidon tries to intervene, Athena saves the hero’s life and brings him to those who will help him.
In Ithaca, Athena is even more closely involved. She takes on the role of Mentor, an old woman, to guide Telemachus and help him grow into a confident leader.
She keeps the prince safe against the increasingly dangerous machinations of his mother’s suitors until Odysseus can return. When the father and son are reunited, she gives them the wisdom and strength to outsmart and overpower the men who have taken over their palace.
Finally, Athena ensures that no further violence will spring from the deaths of the suitors. When their families seek vengeance, Athena forbids escalation of the conflict.
Athena does more for Odysseus than help him regain the throne for himself. She restores vitality to both him and his father and guides his son in his absence.
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While the Trojan War and the Odyssey, both caused by the actions of the gods, weakened the state of Ithaca, the assistance provided by Athena left the country stronger and more stable instead of permanently ruined.