It could be said that Athena is Odysseus’ “Guardian goddess”; after all, she is the Greek goddess of not only Battle, but Wisdom. Her wrath is what causes the Acheans’ difficulty in getting home, but she seems to have a special place in her heart for Odysseus. Her primary role in the epic seems to be for Odysseus; even the interactions she has with other characters are for the hero’s benefit.
In Book 5, Athena stills the waters Poseidon threw against Odysseus’ ship in an attempt to destroy it, avenging the Cyclops. Thanks to the goddess Odysseus and his crew are allowed to make it to shore. Later, in Book 22, Athena comes to the hero’s aid more as a “coach” or mentor than a participant. She doesn’t fight the suitors herself but encourages Odysseus. This shows her faith in his strength and skill in battle. Athena seems to admire this “mere mortal” a great deal.
In her dealings with Telemachus, Athena is equally supportive. She encourages him to cause as much trouble as he can with the suitors, assuring him that his father is indeed alive. She sends him to Pylos and Sparta to earn a name for himself, obviously believing he has the potential to equal his father, if not outshine him. More than anything, she encourages the boy not to give up and to use the wisdom and battle skills he is developing for the good of his homeland.
In addition to being the goddess of Wisdom and Battle, Athena is goddess of the “Womanly Arts.” Penelope’s work at the loom reflects the dreams Athena brings her, again encouraging her to believe that Odysseus will return. She is constantly watching over the other main characters in this way, more a gentle presence than a demanding power. In this, she is an uncharacteristic goddess for a Greek epic.
Odysseus is the central figure in the Odyssey (it is, of course, named after him). He is a prime example of a Homeric Hero – he exhibits strength, skill, determination, courage, and moral responsibility in his actions throughout the epic, and he is fairly consistent with these traits. His most valuable skill is his intellect, which gets him out of situations that would confound a strongman like Hercules. Odysseus’s strength lies in his intelligence, which enables him to escape from the Cyclops in Book 9 and fool his wife’s suitors near the end of the epic.
As the story begins, Odysseus is comfortable on the island of Calypso, his every wish catered to as long as he doesn’t leave. For many men, this would have been enough after the hardships of the Trojan War and an attempted trip home. For Odysseus, loyalty and a love of his home and family win out over sheer pleasure. After escaping from Calypso’s island,...
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Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Odysseus (oh-DIH-see-uhs), a far-roving veteran of the Trojan War who, having incurred the anger of Poseidon by blinding the sea god’s son Polyphemus, a gigantic Cyclops, is fated to roam for ten years before he can return to his homeland of Ithaca. Leaving Troy, he and his followers sail first to Ismarus. In the sack of the Ciconian city, Odysseus spares the life of Maro, a priest of Apollo, who in turn gives the conqueror some jars of potent wine. Gales then drive the Greeks to the country of the Lotus-eaters, from which they sail to the land of the fierce Cyclopes. There Ulysses and twelve of his band are captured by Polyphemus. After Odysseus frees himself and his companions by a clever ruse, leaving the Cyclops maimed and blinded, the band journeys to the Isle of Aeolus. In the land of the Laestrygones, man-eating giants destroy all but one of his ships and devour their crews. At Aeaea, Odysseus outwits the enchantress Circe and frees his men after she has turned them into swine. In the dark region of the Cimmerians, he consults the shade of Tiresias, the Theban prophet, to learn what awaits him in Ithaca. Following the advice of Circe, Odysseus escapes the spell of the Sirens, passes safely between Scylla and Charybdis, and arrives at Thrinacia. There, his remaining comrades are drowned for their impiety in eating cattle sacred to Hyperion. Cast adrift, Odysseus floats to the island of Ogygia, where for seven years he lives with the lovely nymph Calypso. Finally, the gods take pity on him and order Calypso to release him. On a makeshift raft, he continues his voyage. After his raft is wrecked by Poseidon, he battles the waves until he arrives, exhausted, on the island of Drepane. Nausicaä, daughter of the king of the Phaeacians, finds him and leads him to the royal palace. Warmly received by King Alcinous, Odysseus takes part in celebration games and tells the story of his adventures. Alcinous gives Odysseus rich gifts and returns the wanderer by ship to Ithaca. There, in disguise, he meets his son Telemachus, now grown to manhood, routs and kills the suitors who throng his palace, and is reunited with his loyal wife Penelope. Odysseus is the ideal Greek hero, eloquent at the council board, courageous in battle, resourceful in danger, and crafty in wisdom. He is the darling of the goddess Athena, who aids him whenever it is in her power to do so.
Penelope (peh-NEH-loh-pee), his devoted wife, a model of domestic fidelity, skilled in handicrafts. Still attractive in spite of twenty years of anxiety and grief during the absence of Odysseus, she is by custom forced to entertain importunate, insolent suitors whom she puts off from year to year through various stratagems. Until betrayed by her false servants, she weaved by day a burial robe for Laertes, her father-in-law, and at night unraveled her work. The return of Odysseus is for her an occasion of great joy, but first she tests his knowledge of the construction of their wedding bed to avoid being duped by a plausible stranger. Although she is noteworthy for her forbearance and fidelity, there are occasions when she complains bitterly and laments her sad fate.
Telemachus (teh-LEH-muh-kuhs), the son of Odysseus and Penelope, grown to handsome young manhood during his father’s absence. Also favored by Athena, he accuses the suitors of being parasites, journeys to other lands in search of news of his father, and returns to fight bravely by the side of Odysseus when the 112 suitors of Penelope are routed and put to death. His comeliness, manly bearing, and good manners show him to be his father’s son when he meets wise King Nestor and King Menelaus.
Athena (uh-THEE-nuh), also called Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the patron of arts and crafts. Moved by pity and admiration, she becomes the benefactor of Odysseus and pleads with Zeus, her father, to release the hero from the seven-year embrace of the nymph Calypso. Assuming various disguises and aiding him in many ways, she watches over the homeward journey and eventual triumph of Odysseus. Her divine intervention ensures peace between him and the angry families of the slain suitors.
Poseidon (poh-SI-duhn), the earth-shaking god of the sea. The blinding of his giant son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, arouses his anger against Odysseus, and he prevents as long as possible the return of the hero to Ithaca.
Laertes (lay-UR-teez), the aged father of Odysseus. Withdrawn from the royal palace, he tends his vineyards and herds during his son’s absence. Still vigorous, he helps Odysseus and Telemachus repulse a band of angry citizens in their attempt to avenge the death of the suitors.
Eumaeus (ew-MEE-uhs), the devoted swineherd in whose hut disguised Odysseus takes refuge upon his return to Ithaca. Despising the suitors, he fights bravely against them alongside Odysseus, Telemachus, and Philoetius, the neatherd. Though of lowly occupation, he is of noble birth, and he is both slave and devoted friend to Odysseus.
Philoetius (fih-LEE-tee-uhs), the neatherd and a trusted servant in the household of Odysseus. He is forced to provide cattle for the feasts of the suitors, but he resents their presence in his master’s hall, and he yearns for the return of the absent hero. In the great battle in which the suitors are killed, he...
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