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The Odyssey: Gods and Humans

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Homer's "Odyssey" by Robert Garland

As I mentioned at the beginning of this course, the human encounter with the divine is an essential ingredient in the epic genre. The first scene in the poem takes place on Mount Olympus, which is where the gods reside. It turns out that they are in a council meeting. We've already seen that the Greeks of Homer's day practiced a rudimentary democracy, and so, we now discover, did the gods. Zeus is the most powerful of the gods, but he doesn't hold absolute sway. He's the chair of the committee, and he's moaning about the fact that humans are always blaming the gods for the bad things that happen in their lives, when in fact, they bring the bad things upon themselves "beyond what is fated." That's an interesting phrase. How can anything happen beyond what is fated? I can't answer that, and I don't suppose the Greeks could either. Anyway, back to Odyssey. It's an interesting note to strike right at the beginning of the poem. Poor old Zeus. You just can't win. Those wretched mortals are always grumbling about their lot in life, but that's not the fault of the gods.

After he's had his little moan, his daughter Athena pipes up. She's chosen her moment. The sea god Poseidon is absent. He's gone off to visit the Ethiopians, described as the most distant of men. He's presumably sent his apologies, as any good committee member should. Poseidon hates Odysseus because he has blinded his son Polyphemus. So Athena exploits his absence to remind Zeus that they need to act on the issue of Odysseus' return to Ithaca. After all, he's a good guy. He sacrifices to the gods. Zeus agrees, dispatches Hermes to Calypso, as we've seen, and the ball has now been set in motion.

Athena doesn't stop there, however. She now heads to Ithaca disguised as the merchant Mentes and encourages Telemachus to go in search of news of his father. Every young person needs a mentor to help them over the threshold from adolescence to adulthood, and this is the role she performs. Telemachus now sets out on a journey – an inward as well as an outer journey – to adulthood.

The attachment that Athena feels towards Odysseus and his family wasn't common in Greek religion. There were countless gods and goddesses, and the best thing to do was to pay your respects to as many as you could for fear of offending someone important. After all, the gods were very jealous. But Athena and Odysseus enjoy a very special bond together. Why?

The explanation is given in Book 13, when Odysseus wakes up on Ithaca, having been conveyed there by the Phaeacians. As soon as he emerges from the cave where he has been sleeping, he comes across a shepherd boy. "Where am I?" he asks the boy. "You're on Ithaca," is the reply. Odysseus doesn't reveal his pleasure at being back home. He's too smart for that. He doesn't want word to get out that he's arrived because he knows he would be in mortal danger, so he proceeds to tell a lengthy lie about being an exile from Crete who committed murder and who took a ship to Pylos, but a storm occurred, and he got blown to Ithaca instead.

Well, you've probably guessed it. The boy wasn't really a shepherd boy. He was the goddess Athena in disguise. She now sheds her disguise, smiles at him, and strokes him with her hand. That's such a beautiful moment in the poem, I always think. And then she says, "It would take a lot to pull the wool over your eyes. You never tell the truth when you can get away with a lie. That's why I'm so fond of you. You're just like me. I can never abandon you, and I'm here now to help you safely integrate yourself back into your home and into your family." Then they both sit down, leaning against the trunk of an olive tree to plot the demise of the suitors. What an image! Goddess and human literally on the same level, chatting like old buddies. No other religious system that I know of obliterates the distinction between human and deity in this way. I have to say I love it.

Athena isn't a constant presence at Odysseus' side. In fact, she's absent from long stretches. Often Odysseus has to battle things by himself. That's life, we might say.

The other most important deity is Poseidon, grievously offended by Odysseus' blinding of his son Polyphemus. But here's the thing. Poseidon isn't a character in the poem in the way that Athena is. He hardly ever makes an appearance and never in relation to Odysseus. He doesn't have to. The sea is his element, and all has to do is stir up a storm. He causes Odysseus to lose all his companions, he destroys his raft, and he makes his homecoming miserable.

There are many other minor deities that populate the Odyssey, such as Calypso and Circe. Odysseus inhabits a world where the divine and the human interact. Mostly the deities are concerned with their own welfare and don't much care about the plight of humans. They certainly aren't arbiters of justice. And yet, a sense of right and wrong does permeate the poem, and this will be the subject of our next lesson.

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Written by

Robert Garland