Athena: The Goddess as Depicted by Homer
The respect of the ancient Greeks to goddess Athena is unquestionable. She is depicted at the top of the Acropolis as a reminder that the ancient Greeks believed in equal opportunity between men and women. No less, their capital city of Athens was named after her. Known as the wisdom, war, and craft, she is also known for her good leadership as her special city is the birthplace of democracy. Moreover, this female deity – deemed to be wise, not only rejected absolutely the restrictions that gender placed on her individuality, her persona has not betrayed her sex in the power struggles among gods and men.
In the writings of Homer, he redress the balance, treats with a certain flippancy when personifying goddesses: Athena, marvelously faithful to her elect, full of intelligence, biased also and imperious, implacable and utterly devoid of sensibility; Hera, the jealous wife, acrimonious and cross-grained, but fascinating on occasion and even desirable when she cares to take the trouble; and Aphrodite, an epitome of every physical charm, but cowardly, malicious, licentious and stupid into the bargain.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the epic begins on Olympus and ends with the intervention of Athena, which makes peace between Odysseus and the kinsmen of the slaughtered Suitors. Action on earth is accompanied by action, decision, and conflict in heaven, and gods and goddesses intervene in the human world. While Odysseus is brought home and defended by the goddess Athena; without her help he could not leave Calypso in the beginning, nor slay the Suitors in the end. Thus, Homer portrays Athena as Odysseus’ special patron. The bond between them arises from the similarities of their natures; as the Goddess herself puts it in Book 13: We both know tricks, since you are by far the best among all men in counsel and tales, but I among all the Gods have renown for wit (metis) and tricks (1.44).
The Odyssey goes out of its way to identify the story like Athena was the narrator of the story and, in doing so, signals both its concern with issues of gender and its finally conservative position on those issues. Athena has a distinctive role in the Greek mythological tradition as a figure who resolves conflicts between male and female powers. The resolutions she effects involve both the acknowledgment of female strength and the establishment of hierarchies in which the female is subordinated to the male.
The plot that Athena metaphorically weaves in concert with Odysseus supersedes Penelope’s plot with the shroud, which, by the time the Odyssey’s narrative begins, has outlived its usefulness and has been exposed. As the goddess in charge of weaving, Athena is able to perform both the literal handicraft and the more metaphorical devising of plots much more successfully than any mortal. The Odyssey highlights her success as a plotter through the structure of its narrative. With its famously nonlinear plot, the poem establishes a distinction between the events that take place in its own narrative present, which are narrated by the Muses operating through the poet, and earlier events, which are narrated by human characters in flashbacks within the poem. These earlier events include not only Penelope’s temporary scheme to keep her Suitors at bay but also the entire history of Odysseus’ adventures between his departure from Troy and the end of his seven-year stay with Calypso, which is narrated by Odysseus himself in an extensive flashback spanning Books 9 through 12 of the poem (Murnaghan, 1995, p. 64).
Odysseus, by all measures, was fortunate. Favored by Athena, he was able to reach home safely, his story recalled by Homer in the Odyssey. But other heroes of the Trojan War did not fare so well and, by the time Homer began his story of Odysseus’s return to Ithaca, Athena had already dispatched those warriors who had earned her animosity. Those who had insulted the goddess by not offering thanks to her for victory were not allowed to reach home at all, but were subjected to bitter endings engineered by the enraged and vengeful goddess. To inflict maximum torture with maximum efficiency upon her enemies, Athena formed an unusual alliance with Poseidon, a god she never liked but whose power she respected, in order to annihilate the disrespectful warriors with raging sea storms, monstrous waves, treacherous shores, and shipwrecks (Hall, 1997, p. 189). Those heroes who acknowledged Athena’s role in their victory, however, were allowed to return home.
Odysseus risks not only his life but his virtue more than once in the course of his travels. Homer would never have suggested such a sentiment as “Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever.” It is only the clever Odysseus who succeeds in being good and so returning to his wife. Odysseus’ cleverness may indeed strike us sometimes as being inconsistent with plain honesty, but Homer justifies him by giving him a god in his own image to guide him. Athena directs not only his actions but those also of his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus. She tells all parties what she thinks is good for them, and encourages Telemachus to find out for himself what news of his father he can. As she explains, a young man needs to see the world and meet difficulties for himself. In fact, Homer is rather fond of pointing out alternatives to make the rightness of a decision conspicuously clear. The Odyssey is a guide to ancient etiquette, a comedy of manners in which manners are not at odds with morals (Post, 1951, p. 15).
After the council of the gods, Athena goes to Ithaca to send Telemachus in search of his father, while Hermes goes to Calypso to order the release of Odysseus. At Ithaca, we see the troubles of Penelope and Telemachus that are caused by the many suitors who feast daily and threaten the estate with ruin. Telemachus might order his mother to go home to her parents and take the suitors with her, but conscience forbids him to lay constraint upon a free woman. Penelope must make her own decision; he can hold out for another year. Not only the gods but the state is brought into the picture when Telemachus warns the suitors in public assembly that their violation of the rights of Odysseus as well as his own will be punished. The rest of Books 1-4 tells the story of his adventures at Pylos and Sparta as he seeks news of his father. The suitors plan to slay him on his return, thus deepening the blackness of their guilt. Penelope’s right to stay on in her husband’s house as long as his death is not certain, or until she chooses to leave of her own accord, is recognized by Telemachus (Book 2.130-145).
In the second half of the Odyssey, which recounts the recognitions of Odysseus by friend and foe in Ithaca and the slaughter of the suitors, Athena is busily at work. With her help a few righteous fight against many wicked and triumph. Homer uses her to effect the mutual recognition of Odysseus and Telemachus, which must not be allowed to compete with the great recognition of husband and wife after the slaying. Father and son are the nucleus of an intrigue against the suitors which requires the cooperation of Penelope for its success. She must propose the competition for her hand among the suitors that will enable Odysseus to get in position unexpectedly with his bow and shoot them down helpless and trapped. Yet her part in the intrigue is carried out without any recognition on her part that her missing husband is at hand. Athena is as useful in enabling Odysseus to remain unrecognized by his wife as in insuring his recognition by his son. Such a difference in technique, when observed, leaves no doubt that the author of the Odyssey was a great original genius, no matter how much material he may have taken from others (Post, 1951, p. 18).
Athena is also useful in relieving Penelope and to some extent Odysseus of any criticism when their part in the tale is to cheat and deceive. Penelope’s success in getting presents from the suitors by arraying herself in all her charms is due to a suggestion of Athena and receives the approval of Odysseus. It is an odd feature of the story that it should seem to be dangerous to Odysseus to be recognized by his wife, and that Athena should help him with his disguise and should make Penelope unobserving when he is recognized by the nurse Eurycleia who bathes him in his wife’s presence. But it adds to our liking for the warmhearted and yearning Penelope that she should be unable to conceal her joy if she had once recognized her husband. Homer and his audience liked their women sincere and simple, incapable of carrying on an intrigue. The scenes between Penelope and Odysseus in disguise, in which he keeps his role of beggar while she pours out her heart, thus add another to Homer’s scenes of temptation by good women. Odysseus must be hard and cruel until the suitors are out of the way. All his wit and self-control are taxed. The function of Athena in enabling Penelope to assist her husband’s plot while apparently not recognizing him has been mentioned. It is clear that Homer has reasons for postponing the recognition by Penelope. Son is loyal to father as a matter of course, and men may be expected to plot together against foes. Penelope had nothing to lose materially by a change of husbands. Even her son had been warned in a dream not to trust his mother to look after his interests when the time should come for her to marry again. Such suspicion seems unworthy of Penelope, but it is precisely the vulgarity of these suspicions that makes her actual conduct seem surprising in its nobility. Thus, Athena constantly interprets to Odysseus and Penelope their mutual roles, while father and son speak freely together.
Homer gives his audience moral and political solutions and makes it final and authoritative by using Athena as deus ex machina, just as she is used in the political tragedies of Athens. For the first and only time she restrains, instead of inciting, Odysseus to action. She puts a stop to his pursuit of the kin of the suitors after he has won a battle with the help of his father Laertes and his son Telemachus, as well as his loyal supporters in the community. Here Athena appears for the first time among many as the representative of political unity in Greek literature. Possibly this scene inspired the pageant of the tyrant Peisistratus, when he calmed the fears of his fleeing opponents by sending before him in a chariot a woman dressed and armed as Athena. She was declared to be Athena, introducing Peisistratus as her representative, urging the Athenians to receive him without misgiving. Presumably, the Athenians recognized the theatrical aspect of this piece of propaganda, but it was effective propaganda nevertheless. The sentiments with which we view a patriotic pageant are not necessarily false or misleading. Certainly, the Athenians approved of such representations of Athena in their theater, if we may judge by the number of her appearances in extant drama. Thus, Homer lays down a pattern not only for comedy, but for political tragedies that recount legendary history for purposes of propaganda –for example Eumenides, Ion, Andromache, and others. In Ion and Andromache, Euripides interwove the reunited family with his political plot. Only in New Comedy are these strands at last separated. So long did it take to throw off the clogging influence of Homer, who inserted the family within the framework of the state in the dull though statesmanlike ending of the Odyssey (Harsh, 1950).
Athena’s nature is true to her origins. Her unique combination of male and female traits makes her the ideal child for Zeus, one who resembles her father but does not threaten to displace him or to disturb the world order he controls. She is a warrior goddess who possesses the highly prized masculine qualities of strength and cunning in battle, but she lacks the brutality and irrationality of the male war god, Ares. Thus she is closely identified with civilization and with the victory of civilization over barbarism, as in the Greek victory over the Persians (from the Greek perspective), commemorated in Athens in the temple of Athena Nike. She is associated with the city as an institution and with civilized crafts, especially the male craft of shipbuilding and the female craft of weaving. How Athena’s warrior identity is tempered by her femaleness can be seen in an anecdote about her birth, which forms the subject of the brief Homeric Hymn to Athena. When Athena bursts forth from Zeus’ head fully armed and brandishing a spear, the gods are deeply alarmed and the cosmos reels in horror until she strips her armor from her shoulders, at which point Zeus rejoices (Burkert, 1985, 139-43).
At the same time, Athena possesses none of the dangerous qualities typically associated with women – as in Odyssey in which the uncovering of the female body proves entirely reassuring and unseductive makes clear. Above all, Homer portrays goddess Athena as a virgin, who avoids the volatile realm of sexuality and the divided loyalties of marriage and motherhood. Although the Homer’s Odyssey has done much to indicate the importance of women to the functioning at home and to its preservation, women are notably absent from its concluding pageant. Even Penelope, who has contrived to preserve Odysseus’ household in his absence and who has helped to create the biological tie between Odysseus and his son, is partially hidden from view in the inner part of the house. Instead, Odysseus has at his side the one female figure on whom a male hero can most surely depend: the goddess Athena, who devotes to his cause both her masculine ability as a fighter and her feminine skill as a weaver of plots.
Burkert, W. (1985). Greek Religion, trans. J. Raffan. Cambridge, Mass: Oxford.
Hall, Lee. Athena: A Biography. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1997.
Harsh, P. W. (1950). Penelope and Odysseus in Odyssey XIX, American Journal of Philology, 71, p. 1-21
Homer. (1990). Odyssey, Penguin (paperback), 541 pp.
Murnaghan, Sheila. (1995). The Plan of Athena. The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer’s Odyssey. Ed. Beth Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press.
Post, L. A. (1951). From Homer to Menander: Forces in Greek Poetic Fiction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.