After ten years, the Trojan War is over and the Achaeans head home. Some heroes of the war, like Nestor, come home quickly to find things pretty much as they left them. Others, like Agamemnon, arrive home to find things considerably changed. Still others, like Menelaus, wander around for a time but eventually return home safely. Odysseus, on the other hand, has been having no end of trouble getting home. As the story opens, we find ourselves in the tenth year since the end of the war, a full 20 years since Odysseus first left his home and wife Penelope to sail off for Troy with the rest of the Achaean forces. Since then Telemachus, the son of Odysseus has grown up without a father wondering if he will ever come home.
Imagine, if you will, that you are in a world that is not of your own. Hear you can walk freely in any form you want. Every word you speak and every action you take can affect the lives of millions and cost them everything. But if you can bring those people together, and engage them in the test of their lives you would have been the savior and protector of those people. This is the role of Athena in Homer’s epic “The Odyssey”. In this essay I will analyze Athena’s major role of protection and guidance throughout the epic, and how her use of disguise and transformation affects their motivation and choices in the epic poem.
Athena the goddess of wisdom and strategy, a shape shifter of many forms, and daughter of Métis and Zeus, plays as significant role throughout “The Odyssey. While she does occasionally judge human actions, the dominant role she plays is to offer challenge and protection to both Odysseus and Telemachus. The goddess Athena becomes their chief protector, and she is seldom far away from Odysseus or his son. Throughout the epic Athena instills confidence into Telemachus and aids him in his travels and journey into manhood. She continually helps Odysseus, giving him advice and practical assistance. Athena’s role is not just that of helping Odysseus and Telemachus; she also helps in their development as characters, teaching them patience, humility, and restraint. From her first act of assistance to her final peacemaking, she is largely responsible for the development and conclusion of the plot.
Telemachus’ daydreams before meeting Athena for the first time: “â€¦sitting among the suitors, heart obsessed with grief. He could almost see his magnificent father, hereâ€¦” (B1:L134-136). Growing up without his father Odysseus, the only knowledge Telemachus knows of him are only the stories told to him by his consorts. With all the suitors roaming freely through the great halls of his father’s palace, chasing after his mother Penelope’s hand in marriage, Prince Telemachus is left hopeless to stop them. Athena uses her great skills of strategy and wisdom to quickly find a way to inspire our hero Telemachus to journey to find his father. She shape shifts into Odysseus’ old friend Mentes, and predicts that Odysseus is still alive and that he will soon return to Ithaca.”Take my words to heart. At daybreak summon the islands lords to full assembly, give your orders to all and call the gods to witnessâ€¦ sail in quest of news of your long- lost father,” Athena declared (B1:L315-325). With these words of encouragement, Athena uses her disguise to influence the prince to find his father. If it not for Athena, Telemachus might have taken his father for dead and encouraged his mother to marry one of her suitors. The journey is also important because the journey of Telemachus plays an important part of him becoming a man on his own.
When Telemachus reaches Nestor’s kingdom, Lord Nestor tells Telemachus the story of his father after the war and what happened to Agamemnon. As Menelaus set sail for Greece immediately after the war, Agamemnon decided to wait a day and continue sacrificing on the shores of Troy. Nestor went with Menelaus, while Odysseus stayed with Agamemnon, and since then Nestor has heard no news of Odysseus. He adds that he has heard that suitors have taken over the prince’s house in Ithaca and that he hopes that Telemachus will achieve the renown his father once had in Ithaca in defense of his father. Suddenly as the old king finished his story Athena “winged away in an eagle’s form and flight” (B3:L410). Nestor, astonished, prayed that Athena will show Telemachus the kindness that she showed Odysseus “Dear boy- never fear you’ll be a coward or defenseless, not if at your young age the gods will guard you so. Of all who dwell on Olympus, this was none but sheâ€¦” (B3:L415-424). Homer chose this moment to show that Athena is truly with the boy and his journey to find his father and protect his family. Athena would quickly become a major part of Telemachus and his journey to find news of his father.
Athena not only used her power of disguise and transformation to inspire Telemachus however, she also brought together many people to help in his journey, and kept those people strong through all the doubt they had for the heroes success. Before Telemachus even set sail from his home, Athena disguised herself as the prince and brought crewman to his ship: “Gather beside our ship at nightfall- Be there” (B2:L425). Athena brings hope to those who need it the most. Once she learns of her son leaving, Penelope cries at the thought of losing her son Telemachus to the suitor’s plot of ambush against her son. Athena quickly thinks of one more way to help Penelope, by becoming a phantom of Iphthime, sister of Penelope: “Courage! Don’t be overwhelmed by all your direst fears. He travels with such an escort, one that others would pray to stand beside them” (B4:L928-930). Later on, Penelope weeps again but Athena made sure to take care of her:” ‘Daughter of Icarius, wise Penelope, be of good cheer, and let not things distress your heart’â€¦ until bright-eyed Athena cast sweet sleep upon her eyelids” (B16:L451). Athena shows great care for the main heroes of “The Odyssey” and protects those who are too weak to be on their own. A quality of an epic hero is to protect the weak, goddess or not, she proves over and over again that she is a true hero and a protector of the people.
Athena offers not only protection, but gifts to her followers. In “The Odyssey” Athena brings together the skills of women: “For as the Phaeacian men are skilled above all others in speeding a swift ship upon the sea, so are the women cunning workers at the loom, for Athena has given to them above all others skill in fair handiwork, and an understanding heart” (B7:L110). Athena’s heart is pure and it is through her divinity that she grants the power and will to be strong. Before Telemachus grows weary of travel during his journey to find his father Athena urges him to head steadfast home to protect his mother: “Telemachus, do not well to wander longer far from your home, leaving behind you your wealth and men in your house so insolent, that they divide and devour all your possessions, and you shall have gone on a fruitless journey. Nay, rouse with all speed Menelaus, good at the war-cry, to send you on your way, that you may find your noble mother still in her home” (B15:L9-15).
Athena watches over Telemachus like he was her own child sending him on the right wind for his journey home: “And bright-eyed Athena sent them a favorable wind, blowing strongly through the sky, that, speeding swiftly, the ship might accomplish her way over the salt water of the sea” (B13:L292). It is with Athena’s divine powers and blessings both Telemachus and Odysseus are reunited as father and son. Athena truly believes in Telemachus and his people, and brings them closer together with her blessings of strength and wisdom against the many trials the gods have put between him, as well as Odysseus and his journey home.
Athena acts not only as an inspiration but as a protector to our heroes in “The Odyssey”. She continually aids Odysseus, giving him advice and practical assistance. In the climactic scene of the slaughter of the suitors, she actually deflects weapons aimed at him missing their mark entirely (B22: L 268-270). Although her character as a virgin goddess does not allow for a relationship with Odysseus, Athena does hold him in great admiration and affection. They treat each other as equals, as when he recalls her kindness to him at Troy, and when she praises him for his cunning actions. She has a love for Odysseus and his family that only a god can have for their followers.
Athena has remained one of the most commonly alluded to goddesses from mythology and she represents the civilized and intellectual side of war and adversity. She is commonly thought of as a goddess of peace and plenty, contrary to many of the gods around her. She preferred to settle conflict through meditation and only went to war when it was necessary. After the massacre of the suitors, the families of the suitors army tracks Odysseus to Laertes’ house as they have lunch together. Athena, disguised again as Mentor, decides to put a stop to the violence: “And Athena handed down her pacts of peace between both sides for all the years to come” (B24:L599-601). Athena makes the Ithacans forget the massacre of their children and recognize Odysseus as king. Peace is thus restored.
Athena is the caretaker of Odysseus and Telemachus. It is with her help Odysseus can become a stronger, nobler Homeric hero. Telemachus on the other hand, becomes a man by stepping forth on his journey to find his father. Without her push he would not have had the courage to step out of the protection of the palace and into the wild sea where his journey leads him. Who knows what might have happened to Odysseus and his family had Athena not provided the great assistance that she did. In many ways, Athena demonstrates several qualities of a hero; strength, wisdom, courage, and the power to lead. With her divine powers of disguise and strategy, she is the protector of our heroes in “The Odyssey”.