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The Odyssey

by Homer

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In Homer's Odyssey, what disguise does Athena use?

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The use of disguises is a common feature throughout Homer’s epic The Odyssey , and their use by Athena, goddess of wisdom, courage and justice, and daughter of Zeus, is no exception.  Self-anointed guardian of Odysseus as the latter tries desperately to return home to his wife and son,...

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Athena uses disguises to maneuver among humans and to facilitate the great warrior’s eventual success.  Among the disguises Athena uses in support of her efforts is that of Mentes, king of the Taphians and the son of Antiloches.  The goddess uses this disguise in order to approach and advise Telemachus, son of Odysseus who sets out in search of his father:

“So saying she bound on her glittering golden sandals, imperishable, with which she can fly like the wind over land or sea; she grasped the redoubtable bronze-shod spear, so stout and sturdy and strong, wherewith she quells the ranks of heroes who have displeased her, and down she darted from the topmost summits of Olympus, whereon forthwith she was in Ithaca, at the gateway of Ulysses' house, disguised as a visitor, Mentes, chief of the Taphians, and she held a bronze spear in her hand.”

Later, Athena adopts the disguise another disguise in response to Telemachus’ pleas for help in his journey: “As he thus prayed, Minerva came close up to him in the likeness and with the voice of Mentor.”  It is uncertain whether this reference to “Mentor” is meant to be the same as “Mentes,” as both disguises are used for the purpose of interacting with Telemachus, and the names are certainly similar.  As the first reference occurs in Book I and the second in Book II, and as little is known about Homer and the writing of “The Odyssey,” is probable that “Mentes” and “Mentor” are intended to be the same individual.  It is also possible that “Mentor” is a separate person, an Ithican who offers guidance to the son of Odysseus.

Again, in Book II, Athena uses disguises to interact with humans, in this case in support of Telemachus’ preparations for his voyage in search of his father:

“Then Minerva bethought her of another matter. She took his shape, and went round the town to each one of the crew, telling them to meetat the ship by sundown. She went also to Noemon son of Phronius,and asked him to let her have a ship- which he was very ready to do.”

She again takes the form of Mentor in joining Telemachus as he and his crew prepare their ship and set sail.  It is in the form of Mentor that Athena remains among Telemachus and his crew throughout much of their journey.  In Book VI, she joins with Odysseus in helping him overcome obstacles, acting as spy and scout for the great warrior.  When Odysseus reaches the city of Phaecians – “a people who used to live in the fair town of Hypereia, near the lawless Cyclops” – “she took the form of the famous sea captain Dymas's daughter . . .”

Throughout Odysseus’ journey home, Athena appears in various forms and manipulates images to facilitate the successful conclusion of the former’s decade-long effort at returning to Penelope and Telemachus. 

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