The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poemsascribed to Homer (the first being “The Iliad”), and considered to be among themost historically significant to the Western canon of literature. The storynarrates the journey home (or nostos) of legendary hero Odysseus as heencounters mishaps, mutiny, and adventure during his return to Ithaca from thewar against Troy. Similar to most epic tales, the Odyssey has quintessentialthemes weaved throughout its narrative meaning the tale consists of rolesplayed by forces outside the realm of physical reality. In the case of theOdyssey, these forces are known as the Odyssean Gods.
The Gods become integralforces working around the events of the story both in terms of framing thenarrative and in the tale of poem itself. The Gods identified in the Odysseyhelp to give context to both the story and the storyteller, assist readers todistinguish valued characteristics in a hero in the ancient Greek world, serveto identify the distinctive nature of the characters by the relationship theyshare with certain characters and also by allowing readers to consider thecontrast 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 placein the storyline and are considered to be more than just an outside force.However, regardless of the use of Gods as characters, the Odyssey remainsprimarily a story in which the focal point are the mortals and the Gods are amere subset to the plotline.
Alike most other epics, the Odyssey holds aconsistent relationship between the Gods and the narrator. From the beginningof the poem, there is an invocation to the muse as the narrator asks for inspirationas he prepares himself to tell the story of Odysseus:”Tellme, Muse, about the man of many turns… Beginthe tale somewhere for us also, Goddess, daughter of Zeus”Also, readers are informed of the discussions between theGods, for instance, the discussion between Zeus and Helios: “FatherZeus, and you other blessed, ever -living Gods, take vengeance on thecompanions of Laertes’ son Odysseus..
.” The fact that we are informed of the conversations heldbetween the Gods alludes to the idea that Homer is part of a superior group ofpeople who can commune with the ancient Gods. He gives access into the epic tothe mortals. The acknowledgment to the muses together with the insight ofdivine discussions presents homer as a respected and an almost blessed memberof a selected few. Therefore, his narrative is validated and readers take hisword as the truth. Therefore, it is important to observe how the Gods almostlend their approval to readers to accept Homer’s word as the truth. Thisaffirms his version of the tale and readers can trust that it is an accurateretelling of the story since the Gods themselves have entrusted him to be thedivine conveyer of their words.
The Gods in the Odyssey not only inform us ofthe standing, and status of the narrator but also provide insight on thecharacters personalities. A lot can be understood about a character and whetherthey are the hero or the villain by closely examining the characteristics ofthe Gods and their relationships with the different characters. When we observe and compare the Gods and the mortals in thestoryline, for instance, we can see how Penelope is cast to be the antithesisof Aphrodite, the Goddess of sexual love and beauty. While Penelope isportrayed as the cunning, devoted and loving wife of Odysseus, Aphrodite isdepicted as vindictive and ill-disposed.
Readers undoubtedly view Aphroditenegatively and thus decide that, as her opposite, Penelope is the story’sheroine. We can also consider Odysseus’ similarity to the clever and diligentHephaestus, whose positive characteristics are seen in Odysseus on his journeyhome, such as endurance and intelligence. Yet another example of how the Godsin the Odyssey serve to characterize those in the story. Comparing Penelope toAphrodite positions readers to view her in a positive manner, someone who theGods consider to be virtuous; and in the case of Odysseus by paralleling him toHephaestus, God of fire, craftsman, stone masonry and the art of sculpture, asequally as clever and hard working.
We can also consider Odysseus’ relationship with Athena, andhow throughout the epic she focuses on helping him. She too is likened toOdysseus in the sense that both are natural leaders who are cunning andsuccessful at war. Take for instance the following quote:”Bothof us are skilled in shrewdness, since you are by far the best of mortals inplans and stories, and I among all the Gods am famed for planning andshrewdness”.
Athena holds Odysseus in high esteem, which for a meremortal to be treated as such by a powerful Olympian Goddess is uncommon. Readersare once again positioned to regard Odysseus as a true hero because there is akind and helpful God such as Athena herself who believes in him, and if aGoddess can see the good qualities in him, we too are more likely accept thesequalities that make him a fitting hero. Therefore, the function of the Gods inthe Odyssey serve to position characters in a more positive light through theirrelationships with them. Thus far we have considered how the Odyssean Gods serve asabstract plot devices that frame the narrative, the narrator Homer and certaincharacters. Another noteworthy function of the Gods in this epic is how they attimes, directly and indirectly, intervene.
Their interference either aid orhinder the bold hero’s journey home. The most important roles are those playedby Athena, and Poseidon. Poseidon, the wrathful sea God, who is angered by theincident between Odysseus and the Cyclops favours Polyphemus and severelyinhibits Odysseus’ travels home by wrecking his raft and causing Odysseus tolose all his crewmen. In the tale, Poseidon is regarded as Odysseus’ main enemyas he repeatedly sabotages Odysseus’ journey home and causes the hero strife byinterfering with his affairs. Although at many times, Gods such as Athena worked to assistOdysseus and often other characters, appearing in the dreams of Odysseus’ wifeand occasionally imploring the Gods on Odysseus’ behalf.
From the beginning ofthe epic she approaches Telemachus in disguise and encourages him to being hisjourney, which ultimately serves to help Odysseus. In the beginning Telemachushesitates to stand up to the ill-mannered suitors: once “Athena shed a divinegrace” does Telemachus build up the strength to confront the suitors andexpress his disdain for them. She assembles a group of companions forTelemachus, and helps him to slip away in the night in a ship she also foundfor him while the suitors stay in a “sweet slumber.” Athena repeatedly whisperswords of encouragement to Telemachus before his voyage and also when beingquestioned 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 5after the wreckage of his ship. Some minor cases of divine intervention are for example thetime 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 wasfond of Odysseus, would often send messengers to assist him. From these interventions, we can see that the God’s are notsimply faceless deities that serve as outside forces, but serve as charactersthemselves in the epic. Poseidon is the antagonist who is bitter towards ourhero, whereas Athena is the knowledgeable, helpful mentor who lends a helping handto everyone along the way. It is considered whether the Gods in the Odyssey aretruly Godlike or if a mortal being could have easily played the parts ofPoseidon and Athena. Since most cases of intervention are indirect such as anadvisory nudge from Athena in the form of words or a shipwreck brought on byPoseidon, a mortal could very much so have played the roles of these Gods inthe story. The tribulations Odysseus isfaced with are somewhat natural, steeped deeply in the realms of whatmother-nature is capable of, and whilst not expected to befall someoneconcurrently, somewhat muted in comparison to what the Gods could trulyunleash.
What is equally as interesting as the story itself, is the tactics theGods deploy against Odysseus. The Gods are mythological deities ofinsurmountable power, knowledge, and wisdom, who, if they wished, couldobliterate their folly with a click of their fingers; and yet, the structureand 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 isthe rigorous testing of the protagonist, and mere mortal, Odysseus, by theGreek pantheon of Gods, the Gods do not necessarily have the final say.