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The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems
ascribed to Homer (the first being “The Iliad”), and considered to be among the
most historically significant to the Western canon of literature. The story
narrates the journey home (or nostos) of legendary hero Odysseus as he
encounters mishaps, mutiny, and adventure during his return to Ithaca from the
war against Troy. Similar to most epic tales, the Odyssey has quintessential
themes weaved throughout its narrative meaning the tale consists of roles
played by forces outside the realm of physical reality. In the case of the
Odyssey, these forces are known as the Odyssean Gods. The Gods become integral
forces working around the events of the story both in terms of framing the
narrative and in the tale of poem itself. The Gods identified in the Odyssey
help to give context to both the story and the storyteller, assist readers to
distinguish valued characteristics in a hero in the ancient Greek world, serve
to identify the distinctive nature of the characters by the relationship they
share with certain characters and also by allowing readers to consider the
contrast between different characters and the Gods (Dotta 2008).

In the story itself, the Gods intervene in different ways:
directly, indirectly, discreetly and voluntarily. The Gods actively take place
in the storyline and are considered to be more than just an outside force.
However, regardless of the use of Gods as characters, the Odyssey remains
primarily a story in which the focal point are the mortals and the Gods are a
mere subset to the plotline. Alike most other epics, the Odyssey holds a
consistent relationship between the Gods and the narrator. From the beginning
of the poem, there is an invocation to the muse as the narrator asks for inspiration
as he prepares himself to tell the story of Odysseus:

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“Tell
me, Muse, about the man of many turns…

 Begin
the tale somewhere for us also, Goddess, daughter of Zeus”

Also, readers are informed of the discussions between the
Gods, for instance, the discussion between Zeus and Helios:

“Father
Zeus, and you other blessed, ever -living Gods, take vengeance on the
companions of Laertes’ son Odysseus…” 

The fact that we are informed of the conversations held
between the Gods alludes to the idea that Homer is part of a superior group of
people who can commune with the ancient Gods. He gives access into the epic to
the mortals. The acknowledgment to the muses together with the insight of
divine discussions presents homer as a respected and an almost blessed member
of a selected few. Therefore, his narrative is validated and readers take his
word as the truth. Therefore, it is important to observe how the Gods almost
lend their approval to readers to accept Homer’s word as the truth. This
affirms his version of the tale and readers can trust that it is an accurate
retelling of the story since the Gods themselves have entrusted him to be the
divine conveyer of their words. The Gods in the Odyssey not only inform us of
the standing, and status of the narrator but also provide insight on the
characters personalities. A lot can be understood about a character and whether
they are the hero or the villain by closely examining the characteristics of
the Gods and their relationships with the different characters.

When we observe and compare the Gods and the mortals in the
storyline, for instance, we can see how Penelope is cast to be the antithesis
of Aphrodite, the Goddess of sexual love and beauty. While Penelope is
portrayed as the cunning, devoted and loving wife of Odysseus, Aphrodite is
depicted as vindictive and ill-disposed. Readers undoubtedly view Aphrodite
negatively and thus decide that, as her opposite, Penelope is the story’s
heroine. We can also consider Odysseus’ similarity to the clever and diligent
Hephaestus, whose positive characteristics are seen in Odysseus on his journey
home, such as endurance and intelligence. Yet another example of how the Gods
in the Odyssey serve to characterize those in the story. Comparing Penelope to
Aphrodite positions readers to view her in a positive manner, someone who the
Gods consider to be virtuous; and in the case of Odysseus by paralleling him to
Hephaestus, God of fire, craftsman, stone masonry and the art of sculpture, as
equally as clever and hard working.

We can also consider Odysseus’ relationship with Athena, and
how throughout the epic she focuses on helping him. She too is likened to
Odysseus in the sense that both are natural leaders who are cunning and
successful at war. Take for instance the following quote:

“Both
of us are skilled in shrewdness, since you are by far the best of mortals in
plans and stories, and I among all the Gods am famed for planning and
shrewdness”.

Athena holds Odysseus in high esteem, which for a mere
mortal to be treated as such by a powerful Olympian Goddess is uncommon. Readers
are once again positioned to regard Odysseus as a true hero because there is a
kind and helpful God such as Athena herself who believes in him, and if a
Goddess can see the good qualities in him, we too are more likely accept these
qualities that make him a fitting hero. Therefore, the function of the Gods in
the Odyssey serve to position characters in a more positive light through their
relationships with them.

Thus far we have considered how the Odyssean Gods serve as
abstract plot devices that frame the narrative, the narrator Homer and certain
characters. Another noteworthy function of the Gods in this epic is how they at
times, directly and indirectly, intervene. Their interference either aid or
hinder the bold hero’s journey home. The most important roles are those played
by Athena, and Poseidon.

Poseidon, the wrathful sea God, who is angered by the
incident between Odysseus and the Cyclops favours Polyphemus and severely
inhibits Odysseus’ travels home by wrecking his raft and causing Odysseus to
lose all his crewmen. In the tale, Poseidon is regarded as Odysseus’ main enemy
as he repeatedly sabotages Odysseus’ journey home and causes the hero strife by
interfering with his affairs. 

Although at many times, Gods such as Athena worked to assist
Odysseus and often other characters, appearing in the dreams of Odysseus’ wife
and occasionally imploring the Gods on Odysseus’ behalf. From the beginning of
the epic she approaches Telemachus in disguise and encourages him to being his
journey, which ultimately serves to help Odysseus. In the beginning Telemachus
hesitates to stand up to the ill-mannered suitors: once “Athena shed a divine
grace” does Telemachus build up the strength to confront the suitors and
express his disdain for them. She assembles a group of companions for
Telemachus, and helps him to slip away in the night in a ship she also found
for him while the suitors stay in a “sweet slumber.” Athena repeatedly whispers
words of encouragement to Telemachus before his voyage and also when being
questioned by Nestor. Athena does not hold back her generosity for Odysseus –
helping him with the battle he face in Book 22 and in the beginning of Book 5
after the wreckage of his ship.

Some minor cases of divine intervention are for example the
time Aelous tried to help Odysseus by providing him with a bag of wind
(although the bag of wind worked against their favour), or how Zeus, who was
fond of Odysseus, would often send messengers to assist him.

From these interventions, we can see that the God’s are not
simply faceless deities that serve as outside forces, but serve as characters
themselves in the epic. Poseidon is the antagonist who is bitter towards our
hero, whereas Athena is the knowledgeable, helpful mentor who lends a helping hand
to everyone along the way. It is considered whether the Gods in the Odyssey are
truly Godlike or if a mortal being could have easily played the parts of
Poseidon and Athena. Since most cases of intervention are indirect such as an
advisory nudge from Athena in the form of words or a shipwreck brought on by
Poseidon, a mortal could very much so have played the roles of these Gods in
the story.

The tribulations Odysseus is
faced with are somewhat natural, steeped deeply in the realms of what
mother-nature is capable of, and whilst not expected to befall someone
concurrently, somewhat muted in comparison to what the Gods could truly
unleash. What is equally as interesting as the story itself, is the tactics the
Gods deploy against Odysseus. The Gods are mythological deities of
insurmountable power, knowledge, and wisdom, who, if they wished, could
obliterate their folly with a click of their fingers; and yet, the structure
and selection of their tests ring as, for lack of better word, tame. Therefore,
whilst the crux at the heart of the narrative propelling the Odyssey forward is
the rigorous testing of the protagonist, and mere mortal, Odysseus, by the
Greek pantheon of Gods, the Gods do not necessarily have the final say. 

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