Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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In Homer's Odyssey, what is Athena's role?

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Athena plays a prominent role in The Odyssey and functions as Odysseus's guardian goddess, helping him to return safely to Ithaca and rid his palace of the suitors.

Athena initially expresses her concerns for Odysseus by petitioning Zeus to intervene on his behalf. Zeus listens to Athena and instructs Calypso to let Odysseus leave her island. Athena then disguises herself as Mentor and visits Telemachus. She advises Telemachus to travel to Pylos and Sparta to gather information about his father's whereabouts. The goddess also helps Telemachus escape Ithaca unscathed and visits Penelope in a dream to ease her mind about her son's journey.

In addition to helping Telemachus on his journey and intervening on Odysseus's behalf to escape Calypso's island, she proceeds to calm the treacherous seas and visits princess Nausikaa in a dream to set up a meeting between her and Odysseus. Athena then enhances Odysseus's appearance to make him admirable to the Phaeacians, who provide him with a swift ship to sail back to Ithaca. Athena also protects Telemachus's ship from the hostile suitors as he travels home and disguises Odysseus's appearance. She then makes Odysseus resemble a beggar when he arrives home to Ithaca and supports him during his battle to rid the suitors from his estate.

Overall, Athena plays a significant role and is primarily responsible for helping Odysseus return home after twenty years. Without her intervention, Telemachus would more than likely be murdered by the suitors, Penelope would probably remarry, and Odysseus would remain on Calypso's island.

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By modern standards, the gods have a surprisingly close and hands-on role in the lives of the characters in a Homeric epic such as the Odyssey. The goddess Athena is Odysseus's special mentor, guiding him and others in his family to safety. Her proximity can feel startling to us.

Athena's personal interventions help Odysseus in many ways. For example, she provides protection against the wrath of the sea god Poseidon, who Odysseus enrages by blinding his son Polyphemus. She does this by stilling the seas when Poseidon raises a violent storm against Odysseus and his men.

Athena also helps Odysseus's family members in holding firm as he struggles to arrive home. It is Athena who gives Penelope the dream of weaving and unraveling her weaving every night so as to put off her suitors. Athena imparts important advice to Odysseus's son, Telemachus, while she is disguised as Mentor, and she also advises Odysseus to disguise himself and observe the scene before taking action when he first comes home.

Athena is not far away in heaven, but she often seems to be in a corner of whatever scene Odysseus or his family members happen to be engaging in, ready to actively provide support and intervention when needed, while still allowing the humans to take the lead and make their own decisions.

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Athena's role as a guide is particularly crucial in relation to Telemachus. He has grown up without his father, so he is desperately in need of guidance to help him overcome the enormous challenges he faces. He is forced to watch as his mother's unwelcome suitors take over the palace and disrespect his absent father. Telemachus believes deep down that Odysseus is dead, but he needs to know for sure. However, he is still only a young man, and he lacks the strength, wisdom, and maturity to be able to embark upon his quest.

This is where Athena comes in. Disguised as Mentor, she guides and encourages the young man, giving him the confidence to call an assembly of Ithaca's leaders at which he acquits himself admirably. Thanks to Athena's repeated interventions, Telemachus learns how to conduct himself around kings and other important men, the kind whose support is crucial in his quest to find out what happened to Odysseus. Athena helps Telemachus grow and become a man. Although she helps him, she still allows Telemachus to prove himself and draw upon his newfound resources of strength and courage in assisting his father to rid the palace of Penelope's suitors.

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Athena, the goddess of wisdom, plays a critical role in helping Odysseus reach home. She intervenes with Zeus while Poseidon is away to convince Zeus that it's time to let Odysseus reach home after many years of traveling following the Trojan War. Poseidon had held Odysseus captive on Calypso's island because Odysseus wounded his son, the Cyclops. In addition, Athena inspires Telemachus at the beginning of the epic to go in search of news about his father, and she gives him confidence that he is like his father.

Athena's role is also to use disguise. When she helps Telemachus, she is disguised as Mentes, an old friend of Odysseus's. She also takes on this disguise when she watches Odysseus and Telemachus slay the suitors at the end of the epic. She can also help disguise or dress others. For example, when Odysseus is visiting the Phaeacians, from whom he needs help, she makes him seem more powerful. When he returns home to Ithaca, she first disguises him as a beggar so that the suitors do not yet realize he is home. Athena is the master of disguise and uses it to help Odysseus and Telemachus. 

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Athena's role in the epic The Odyssey is to be Odysseus's guide. She could be so closely connected to him because of his status as a hero in the Trojan War or because he is known for his cleverness and as the "great tactician." Connected by their intellect, Athena is the goddess of wisdom. 

Throughout the novel, Athena kickstarts Telemachus to leave his palace in Ithaca to go searching for Odysseus. Athena makes a deal with Zeus to help Odysseus get off Circe's island and get home safely. 

Athena acts much differently than the other gods and goddesses in the epic. She has close interactions with the characters pretending to be other people. She pretends to be Mentes, Odysseus's mentor, in order to gain Telemachus's trust before sending him away from the palace to look for Odysseus.

Without Athena's guidance and help, Odysseus would not have made it home. 

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What is the importance of Athena in Homer's 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.

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