The Goddess of The Odyssey
There’s a reason that Athena, a goddess, is Odysseus’s patron in The Odyssey.
First of all, she was the goddess of war and wisdom. She wasn’t the patron of brute strength, but of the more calculated, cunning, strategic paths to victory.
She and Odysseus had this in common. They were both strategic thinkers. As the site goddess-athena.org puts it:
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.
It’s worth noting that in Ancient society, these traits weren’t seen as being 100% manly. It was more macho to pick up a sword and charge into your enemies, yelling bloody murder, than to stand back and consider what to do, or to pick up a bow and arrow and pick them off without directly engaging them.
So Odysseus has a feminine patron, the goddess of wisdom and strategy.
Another reason has to do with the nature of the Odyssey itself—what the poem is, or was, and the roles that masculine and feminine forces play in it.
The Odyssey doesn’t stand alone as an ancient work. It’s not even just the sequel to The Iliad. The Odyssey is actually part of a triad of ancient epic poems. The first, which has been lost in the wine-dark sea of history, was called the Cypriad.
So it went:
1. The Cypriad
2. The Iliad
3. The Odyssey
These three epic poems were our ancestors’ hymn to the human pattern of war. They show us the kinds of transformations that have to occur in a man’s heart for him to go from peaceful family man, to brutal killer and warrior, and then back to family man. This shows up in the poems as an interplay between masculine and feminine archetypes.
So first: The Cypriad. I won’t get into too much detail about this (mainly because I don’t have a lot of detail). Basically, The Cypriad sets the scene for the Trojan War. One thing that happens in the poem is that the Greeks all get ready to go to the war. They’re going to be there for 10 years (not that they’re aware of this).
But some idiot in the Greek army offends Artemis, and she calms the winds. Now their fleet can’t sail. No Trojan Warring for you, boys.
UNLESS they sacrifice a young girl—Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia. If this sweet innocent girl is killed, the winds will rise and the war can begin.
This seems unfair.
And it is.
But this is where we see the masculine/feminine archetypes come up. A myth is a poem of symbols. Let’s look at what the symbols are telling us.
These men are going to be at war for 10 years. This requires them to become brutal killers. They cannot bring the sensitive parts of themselves into the hell where they’re headed. There’s no room for fathers, brothers, lovers, or husbands. The Trojan War demands warriors and killers. In order to go, in order to be victorious, the men have to destroy the sensitive parts of themselves.
Iphigenia, the innocent daughter, is a symbol of this.
They have to kill their sweetness if they’re going to go to the Trojan War.
Iphigenia, like a true princess, sees the dilemma and steps up. Even the innocence and sweetness itself says, “You know what? The gods are right. There’s no place for me where you’re going. I have to die if the next chapter is to take place.” She pretty much volunteers.
So they sacrifice Iphigenia and the winds pick up. Which leads us to part 2 of the epic ancient Lord of the Rings-esque trilogy . . .
The Iliad. Not much to say about this one right now. It’s the Trojan War.
One incident that’s relevant to this post takes place in the Temple of Athena, who has steadily supported Odysseus and helped the Greeks win the war.
The incident was this: Cassandra was a Trojan priestess blessed with the gift of prophecy. However, she was cursed so that no one would ever believe her prophecies. She foresaw the sack of Troy, and she tried to take refuge from the Greeks in the Temple of Athena. However, the Greek Ajax (the Lesser) found her, dragged her out, and raped her.
The other Greeks could have punished him or at least said, “Dude, not cool,” but they didn’t bother.
Athena was fucking furious. This was a sacrilege. The Taking of Ilios describes it:
Swift Aias [Ajax the Lesser], son of Oileus, assaulted Cassandra when she took shelter at the knees of the stainless goddess Pallas; and the goddess rejected his violence, and, helper though she had been aforetime, for one man’s sake Athena was angered against all the Argives.
She demanded that when the Greeks try to sail for home, a terrible storm would destroy their fleet and prevent them. Poseidon and Zeus were like, “You know what? You’re right. Fuck those guys.” And many Greeks died in the ensuing storms.
It’s of note, especially in this trilogy where masculine and feminine play such roles, that the Greeks were being punished for a rape.
Now, on to The Odyssey.
Time for the wise hero Odysseus, favorite of Athena, to go home to Ithaca! Hooray!
Or maybe not hooray quite yet.
Remember what the Greeks did before they tried to sail for home? Let Ajax get away with raping Cassandra outside the Temple of Athena? This is a symbol that the sensitive, caring parts of them are still dead.
After 10 years of Trojan Warring, it’s no wonder. Totally understandable that there’s nothing left of sensitivity in you after all that. Totally understandable that you’re nothing but a killer and rapist now. A brute.
But if you want to go home and be with your wife and kids, you’re going to have to return to your own humanity. You’ll need to be a husband, father, brother, lover again—not just a brute.
This is the journey of Odysseus.
This is why Athena is his patron throughout his journey. He needs a goddess on his side, a feminine force. This is why he meets so many women over his years of watery wandering. With every woman and nymph he encounters, a piece of his own feminine side, his sensitivity, his humanity, is restored. He learns to be a lover again. And he goes through dangers and trials that slowly, but steadily, pick off the crew of his ship—his warrior buddies from Troy who want to come home with him.
This is a symbol, too. Odysseus’s men have to die—they symbolize the soldier part of him, the killer part of him. He’s going to have to let the killers within him go, and they are ripped from him in episode after episode of the Odyssey.
At the end of his journey, all of his men are dead. Poseidon has crashed Odysseus’s ship and everything that Odysseus identified with as a warrior has been stripped from him. He’s left clinging to a piece of driftwood in the violent sea, barely hanging on, and he washes up on the shore of an island. His identity has been stripped away. He’s almost dead.
And this is where the trilogy of poems comes full circle, because Odysseus meets another little girl.
Remember Iphigenia? Who had to die so the men could become monsters?
She’s reappearing here in another form, with another name—she’s Nausicaa, daughter of Alkinoos. She’s sweet, she’s innocent. She’s a lamb.
And at this point, Odysseus looks like hell. Homer makes of point of describing him as being a fucking mess—and surely terrifying to any little girl. This is from The Odyssey:
So came out rustling, like a mountain lion, rain-drenched, wind-buffeted, but in his might at ease, with burning eyes—who prowls among the herds or flocks, or after game, his hungry belly taking him near stout homesteads for his prey. Odysseus had this look, in his rough skin advancing on the girls with pretty braids; and he was driven on by hunger, too. Streaked with brine, and swollen, he terrified them, so that they fled, this way and that. Only Alkinoos’s daughter stood her ground, being given a bold heart by Athena, and steady knees.
She faced him, waiting.
The test is: If Nausicaa sees him and runs, if beauty flees the beast, then Odysseus has not shed his killer self. He’s still too brutish to go home. If Nausicaa sees him and does not run, if she is not afraid, then he has regained his humanity and sensitivity, and he is ready to go home to his wife and child.
Odysseus passes the test. The innocent girl sees him and is not afraid. She takes him back to her parents’ hall, where he’s fed and clothed and cleaned up, and given a ship to sail home to Ithaca.
It’s a beautiful metaphor that innocence judges the worth of a man. (Goddamn, mythic poetry rocks.)
Every step of the way, Athena is there for Odysseus. She is his guide, his guardian, and his advocate. She nudges him to follow his intuitions, and directs him to the friends who can help him, and the feminine forces who will help restore the parts of himself that he has lost. (The biggest holdups to Odysseus’s journey are the wrath of Poseidon, and the goddess/nymphs Kalypso and Circe.)
But the feminine is not a benign force in The Odyssey. I mean, sure, there’s Iphigenia and Nausicaa, but they only represent one aspect of the feminine.
Athena is no sweet innocent. She’s a fucking badass. And some of the other feminine forces are downright dangerous. They forcefully strip away everything that Odysseus cannot take home with him. (He’s not going to give up his friends and crew willingly. They have to die.)
He is stuck with Kalypso the nymph, where he experiences years of tenderness and pleasure, a slow-healing balm after 10 years of war and pain. She swears to him that her help is genuine:
Earth be my witness in this, and the wide heaven above us, and the dripping water of the Styx, which oath is the biggest and most formidable oath among the blessed immortals, that this is no other painful trial I am planning against you. I am only advising you to do exactly what I would do myself, in your place. I am dealing with you quite straightforwardly; my heart is not made of iron, and I am very sorry for you.
He gets caught up with the sorceress Circe, who makes it clear that his men are animals by actually turning them into animals (and we know for sure he can’t restore his humanity as long as they’re with him, even though he saves them in this instance).
[Circe fed them wine] but she drugged it with wicked poisons to make them forget their homes, and when they had drunk she turned them into pigs by a stroke of her wand, and shut them up in her pigsties. They were like pigs—head, hair, and all, and they grunted just as pigs do; but their senses were the same as before, and they remembered everything.
Circe then seduces Odysseus, and he stays with her for a year.
She and Kalypso are both tempting and dangerous in that they seem to sidetrack Odysseus from his journey. But they both ultimately express goodwill toward him, and send him on the next leg of his journey with good advice for facing what comes.
Another tempting, dangerous force is the Sirens, feminine bird-monsters who lure sailors to their death with seductive songs. Considering the Greeks’ history of rape, it’s important for them to master their lust, or they will be destroyed by it. As Circe warns Odysseus:
First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.
(The Sirens remind me of Medusa a bit, in that they’re monstrous feminine forces that punish men for lust and rapey ways.)
Scylla and Charybdis are feminine forces as well—one is a deadly whirlpool, the other is a vicious monster, and Odysseus is forced to navigate his ship between them. At this point his men are still with him. He asks Athena, “Holy shit—how am I gonna get my men through these two dangers alive? If I navigate away from Charybdis the whirlpool, I’ll sail right into Scylla’s lair! There’s got to be a way!”
And Athena shakes her head sadly. Here’s the exchange between them:
Odysseus: “Only instruct me, Goddess, if you will, how, if possible, I can pass Kharybdis, or fight off Skylla when she raids my crew?”
Athena: “Must you have battle in your heart forever? The bloody toil of combat? Old contender, will you not yield to the immortal gods? That nightmare cannot die, being eternal evil itself — horror, and pain, and chaos; there is no fighting her, no power can fight her . . .”
So these two deadly feminine forces are unavoidable. They are going to kill Odysseus’s crew, and he cannot fight them. He is required to not be a warrior in this instance.
There’s much more going on in The Odyssey than I could analyze in a single blog post, and there are multiple interpretations of it. But this gives a good idea as to Athena’s role, and the role of the feminine in this epic poem. The feminine is dangerous, supportive, and healing all at once . . . and we can even say it’s Odysseus’s motivation in the first place, since his goal is to return to his wife, and take his place as the husband, father, and king that he’s meant to be.
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