Gods and Goddesses in Homer's Odyssey - by Anjaleen Zara


Nostos: return journey

Anthropomorphic: human attributes

Hubris: crime against the Gods / excessive pride and arrogance

Homer’s Odyssey is one of the most famous pieces of poetic literature from the ancient Greek world, an epic poem that tells the story of Odysseus’ nostos after the Trojan War. The poem entails the tragic horrors and suffering Odysseus endures on his journey home, and the various encounters he has with foreign civilisations, mythical beings, and most importantly the gods and goddesses, who impact almost every aspect of his life. Homer’s presentation of gods and goddesses within the Odyssey is significant to our modern understanding of how the ancient Greeks perceived and interacted with their gods. The Odyssey highlights important aspects of the nature of the gods, including their power, behaviour, and appearance.

 Goddess Athena and the triumph of God Zeus painting by René-Antoine Houasse (1706)
Goddess Athena and the triumph of God Zeus painting by René-Antoine Houasse (1706)

The scope of their power

While the Olympian gods are often thought of as invincible and unconquerable deities, Homer’s Odyssey provides a different insight into the scope of their power and its limitations. One way in which their powers are limited is through their inability to be omnipresent ­– they cannot be everywhere at once. This is seen in Book 1 when the gods hold council without Poseidon as he is attending a sacrifice of bulls and rams performed for him by the Ethiopians. Poseidon's absence from the assembly of Olympian gods highlights this deficiency in their abilities, quite a contrast from Abrahamic perspectives of God.

The theme of unchangeable fate and destiny in the Odyssey is another factor that can be seen as a limit on their power – even with divine intervention, any prophecy that is foretold in the Odyssey comes true. An example of this is Teiresias’ prophecy in the underworld (Book 11) when he foretells that Odysseus will return home and reclaim his palace and wife from the suitors, despite Poseidon’s numerous attempts to thwart his journey home. Poseidon here lacks the ability to control fate and change it; Odysseus eventually arrives home to Ithaca and claims his palace.

The gods may thereby be seen as beings who are restricted in their power. However, Homer’s use of titles and epithets re-emphasises the roles of the gods. For example, Zeus is given the epithet ‘Zeus the Thunderer’, indicating the authority he has over nature, as well as the title of ‘God of Xenia’ and ‘God of Justice’. He is the deliverer of divine justice and punishes those who commit hubris, conveying to a modern audience exactly how he was perceived in Greek society.

Behaviour and appearance

The gods in the Odyssey are seen to behave in an anthropomorphic way, resembling humans and possessing mortal-like tendencies. Relationships between the gods are explored, such as the illicit affair between Aphrodite and Ares in Book 8. The bard sings of how they were caught sleeping together by Hephaestus, Aphrodite’s husband, landing them in a love triangle. From this, it can be seen how the Greeks assumed their gods to have ‘human’ relations with each other in both a physical and marital sense. The story of Aphrodite and Ares committing adultery also suggests that the gods were flawed beings who made mistakes and held human urges.

The relationship between Polyphemus and Poseidon also shows evidence of the gods’ anthropomorphism regarding familial relations, when Poseidon seeks revenge on Odysseus for blinding his son Polyphemus. This highlights how the Olympian gods were able to reproduce and have children and that the gods experienced emotions like that of humans – on multiple occasions, Poseidon uses nature to express his fury at Odysseus. The relationships between the Olympian deities and their children are important to understand the family values and ties present in Greek society and how vital they were to their culture.

One aspect of the gods that is not exactly clear is their true form. In the poem when gods encounter the mortal characters, they are seen to ‘assume’ a human form and appear to the characters as ordinary mortals. Athene appears to Odysseus in Book 13 as a shepherd but then transforms into a beautiful woman. The gods continuously appear in front of mortals, disguising themselves as humans, but it is unclear whether this is their true form. Nonetheless, their human-like appearance also conveys their anthropomorphism as divine beings.

How the gods interact with mortals

Throughout the poem, it is evident that the gods take an interest in human affairs, with Athene appealing to her father Zeus in Book 1 to let her intervene and approach Telemachus. In multiple books, Athene helps Odysseus in both direct and indirect ways, including appearing to people in dreams, inspiring ideas, and sending omens. She takes a personal interest in Odysseus: she calms the waters when Poseidon tries to sink his vessel and even approaches Odysseus in disguise in Book 13. It is assumed that she acts as a ‘helper’ deity because she is Odysseus’ patron goddess. Her role in the poem is vital to Odysseus’ nostos and his arrival home. She repeatedly saves his life and intervenes with other important characters too, such as Telemachus and Nausicaa.

While Athene assumes the role of the ‘helper’, Poseidon arguably plays the main antagonist, doing all that he can to hinder Odysseus’ journey home. He sends storms and natural disasters as a show of his anger and continuously seeks to ruin Odysseus’ journey. His interaction with Odysseus is mostly through nature and omens, and his ability to control the sea. Through these examples, it is evident that the gods in the Odyssey interact with mortals in various ways, including using nature and omens, or more directly, by approaching them in disguises.

The Odyssey plays an important role in a modern understanding of the Greek gods, but it most importantly highlights how the Greeks perceived their everyday lives to be intertwined with the divine machinations of the gods. The gods and goddesses in the Odyssey play a didactic role, teaching the Greeks how or how not to live their lives (see Aphrodite and Ares’ affair). With all their flaws and human-like behaviours, they in fact offer up a mirror for Greek society itself.

Further reading

Homer’s Odyssey - https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Greek/Odhome.php

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