What is the importance of Athena in Homer's "The Odyssey?"
In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena was Zeus' daughter, and played a major role in Homer's epic story The Odyssey. As the protector of the hero, Odysseus' son, Telemachus, she helps steer the young man through his journey in search of his father, while also advising and advocating on Odysseus' behalf with her father, Zeus, while Poseidon, god of the oceans and seas, plots Odysseus' demise.
Athena appears throughout The Odyssey in her role as guardian of Telemachus, accepting from her a spear:
"And when they were within the imposing height house, he bore the spear and set it against a tall pillar in a polished spear-rack, where were set many spears besides, even those of Odysseus of the constant heart."
Athena's importance in Telemachus' journey cannot be overstated. Anytime he encountered seemingly insurmountable obstacles, she would provide the assistance necessary for his escape. As Poseidon stirred up the waters, Athena helped Telemachus and his crew prevail:
"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."
Similarly, as Odysseus continues his long journey home, a journey in which encounters no shortage of dangers, Athena comes to his aid in the face of Poseidon's efforts at facilitating the mortals' doom:
"But Athena, daughter of Zeus, took other counsel. She stayed the paths of the other winds, and bade them all cease and be lulled to rest; but she roused the swift North Wind, and broke the waves before him, to the end that Zeus-born Odysseus might come among the Phaeacians, lovers of the oar, escaping from death and the fates."
Athena is Odysseus', and Telemachus', champion among the pantheon of the gods. Her status as daughter of Zeus ensured her survival, but her enemies on Mt. Olympus made it very difficult. In the end, she prevails, which is to say, Odysseus prevails and returns home safely to Penelope and Telemachus.
Athena is the daughter of Zeus, and it is because of Athena's help that Odysseus is able to return home. Throughout the Odyssey, one of the most important themes is that of of cunning, powerful women in the consummation of Odysseus' homecoming.
Odysseus angered Poseidon when, in his deception on the Cyclop's island, he blinded his son Polyphemus. Odysseus arrogantly shouted back to the cyclops his true name, and in return Polyphemus prayed to his father to never allow Odysseus to return home, or if he did see Ithaca again to arrive without any companion.
The Greek term "metis" means cunning intelligence and is derived from a myth about the birth of Athena. This is a trait that Odysseus and all of the great women who aid him in his voyage possess. It is out of admiration for Odysseus' wit and cunning that Athena takes pity on him and desires to help him, often in the form of disguises (Mentor, Ino).
The earliest of Athena's influences appears in book one in her conversation with Zeus. The following passage is from Lattimore's translation of the Odyssey.
'Son of Kronos, our father, O lordliest of the mighty
if in truth this is pleasing to the blessed immortals
that Odysseus of the many designs shall return home, then
let us dispatch Hermes the guide, the slayer of Argos
to the island of Ogygia, so that with all speed
he may announce to the lovely-haired nymph our absolute purpose
the homecoming of enduring Odysseus, that he shall come back.'(1.81-87)
Here Athena's actions ensure that Odysseus will be set free from Calypso's island, and that he will return home. She arranges a path at sea for Odysseus. She also prepares his family in Ithaca who will also be needed in consummating his return. Athena's influence remains essential and supreme until Book 24. Her final deed occurs just as Odysseus, Laertes, and Telemachus are about to fight with the inhabitants of Ithaca who were relatives of the suitors purged from Odysseus' household. She ends the violence restoring order to Ithaca.