The gods of Odysseus’ time had a much more ubiquitous influence than any twenty-first mind-set can fully grasp. The subjects of art (both visual and musical), the beneficiaries of countless sacrifices, and the recipients of ceaseless prayers and demands, the Greek deities commanded much attention from their loyal followers. In addition to fulfilling their spiritual needs, the gods and their interactions served as explanations for natural phenomena. They meddled far more often than is believed of the God of Judeo-Christian origin. Perhaps the god that best represents this pervasive omnipresence is “young Dawn with finger tips of rose,” (XII, 9) responsible for bringing forth each new day. Simply put, the gods, out of either necessity or desire, entangled themselves quite frequently in the goings-on of the mortal world.
While the gods may have interacted daily with the mortal realm as a whole, it was rare when they chose to concern themselves with a specific mortal, and even rarer still when they intervened on multiple occasions. And so when Athena chooses to insert herself so often, and so prominently in Odysseus’ life, she calls attention to the relationship. Usually in some sort of disguise – ranging from the old family friend Mentor to a humble shepherd – Athena never fails to assist Odysseus in his efforts to return home to Ithaka. Whether it’s pleading with her father Zeus, altering Odysseus’ appearance, or physically appearing to Odysseus, it is clear from the get-go that Athena’s sight never strays from this god-like mortal for long.
Recognizing her prevalence in Odysseus’ journey prior to his homecoming, it comes as no surprise that Athena, Goddess of War, would choose to assist Odysseus in his battle against the suitors. It does seem counterintuitive, however, that Athena remains hidden during the majority of the fray. In fact, rather than offer any sort of physical assistance, Athena first spurs on Odysseus with her words. After Odysseus’ initial appeal, Athena actually turns to insulting him asking, “Where is your valor?” (XXII, 250) Unlike most circumstances concerning Athena, her motives are actually revealed here, as we keep reading. Her explanation for offering such “fighting words,” (XXII, 262) but no “overpowering aid – not yet,” (XXII, 263) is that “father and son must prove their mettle still.” (XXII, 264) With this addendum, we are able to understand Athena’s goading and criticizing as perceptive instead of foolish. She pushes Odysseus and Telemakhos to their limits before offering assistance, just as a mother might wait to snatch her teetering toddler just moments before he falls. In this way, Athena forces Odysseus to gain yet more self-knowledge (as if he hasn’t garnered enough, yet) and glory before overcoming this final battle.
It is not necessary to list all the occasions in which Athena offers assistance to Odysseus – we can call many to mind with little effort. What I’m interested in, however, is how this constant intervention alters other mortals’ views of Odysseus. It seems that many perceive this divine guidance as a measure of Odysseus’ worth and potential. If he were simply a nobody, he would not attract such attention, one might reason. I can’t help but wonder, however, if this “dependence” might also be seen as just that – a lack of independent value. I think it’s safe to say that Odysseus would have died long before reaching Ithaka if it hadn’t been for Athena. Do Athena’s saving interventions make Odysseus’ achievements any less impressive? Or do they lend even more value to the accomplishments he does secure?
In Book XXII, the battle against the suitors has the potential to give Odysseus glory beyond even what he has managed to attain. And yet, even his renewed spirit in the fight is a result of Athena’s provocation. How does this shape our view of the outcome and Odysseus’ ultimate role in it? How do you think this would affect the opinions of Odysseus’ mortal peers if they were to know the details of the relationship between Athena and him?
Additionally, at what point does help from the divine actually deter from the character and accomplishments of the mortal? In short, how much is too much?