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The Role of Athena in the Odyssey - by Peter Xiao

Athena is considered to be the most important goddess in the Odyssey given the number of her appearances and also the importance of her intervention. The main role of Athena in the Odyssey is her role as the patron goddess of Odysseus and his family. She manifests this important role through her divine intervention in different episodes of the Odyssey. During the start of the Odyssey, Athena intervenes directly in order to stir in Telemachus a desire to learn about the aresteia (great deeds) of his father. She eventually triggers the start of the Telemachy (the first four books of the Odyssey concerning Telemachus’ journey), which is the transformation of Telemachus from an amateur young boy into a man who is now qualified to carry the name of Odysseus. Athena also intervenes in time to help Odysseus many times. Athena transforms the appearance of Odysseus when he lands in the land of the Phaecians in order to win the favour from Nausicaa, the daughter of Alcinous, the king of the Phaecians as well as helping him upon his return to Ithaca.

So-called “Mattei Athena”. Marble, Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor. Related to the bronze Piraeus Athena.

So-called “Mattei Athena”. Marble, Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor. Related to the bronze Piraeus Athena.

Athena shares a special relationship with the hero Odysseus. She is his patron goddess and she will always intervene in time to assist him when he is in danger. The goddess herself explains this special relationship with Odysseus in Book 13 of the Odyssey. The goddess exclaims emotionally that ‘And yet you did not recognise Pallas Athene, Daughter of Zeus, who always stands by your side and guards you through all your adventures.’ As the goddess suggests, Athena is the guardian of Odysseus when he is in trouble. This special favour by Athena is won by Odysseus through his reverence and loyalty to her. The goddess and the hero also share the same quality of being resourceful and wise. Unlike other Homeric heroes who achieve their aresteia through courage and bravery, Odysseus achieves his glory and great deeds through his cunning and wisdom.

As the household goddess of Odysseus’ family, Athena also has a responsibility to help his son. Therefore, she decides to intervene in Book 1 to encourage Telemachus to undertake a journey to Pylos and Mycenae. Athena believes that Telemachus will gain his own aresteia through learning the aresteia of his father from famous Homeric heroes like Nestor and Menelaus. Telemachus must build up his own kleos (glory), but Athena provides him with a clear direction. The transformation of Telemachus as a result of the intervention by Athena is huge. When Telemachus is first introduced, he is a young man in despair and doesn’t know what to do. His household wealth has been consumed by the suitors and he can’t do anything to stop the transgression and recklessness of the suitors. He is also hopeless when it comes to the return of his father. He has complained to Athena multiple times that he believes his father will never return. Following his journey to Pylos and Mycenae, Telemachus becomes more confident and responsible. He has now understood the meaning and responsibility of being the son of Odysseus, the great king of Ithaca. Following his trip outside Ithaca, Telemachus starts to take more responsibility for being the master of the house and is now giving orders that even his mother must follow.

Athena also intervenes when Odysseus is in trouble. After bidding farewell to Calypso in Book Five, Odysseus was shipwrecked in a storm created by Poseidon and was brought to the lowest point of his journey. He arrived in the land of the Phaecians without any clothing like a wild beast. It is Athena who commands Nausicaa to wash her clothes by the river in order to receive Odysseus and offering him hospitality. This intervention by Athena is absolutely crucial to the nostos (homecoming) of Odysseus as Odysseus then goes to the Palace of Alcinous and recites his journeys to the Phaecian nobles. This intervention by Athena is important to the digression of the events in the Odyssey.

The Odyssey is an epic about the journey of Odysseus and as the patron goddess of the protagonist, Athena has an important role to play. Athena must honour her special relationship with Odysseus by helping his son to gain his own kleos through the journey to Mycenae and Pylos. She must also encourage Telemachus to keep the faith that his father is still alive and will eventually return home. Finally, Athena must also intervene at the necessary stage when Odysseus is in trouble and in danger. The nostos of Odysseus is a result of Zeus’ divine will and Athena carries out this divine will through her intervention.

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