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Mare Nostrum

The Role of Athena in both the Iliad and the Odyssey

by A. K.


Athena, the Goddess

Divine intervention is a feature of ancient Greek literature. One is amazed and even dumbfounded by the magical myths so frequently referred to. In Greek literature, the gods play an immense role in the lives and fates of the mortal dwellers of the earth. As one examines the gods throughout the myths and epic poems of the Greeks, one recieves a strong impression that the gods "play" with and manipulate mortals and each other. One goddess who exemplifies this is the great goddess Athena. This daughter of Zeus impacted everyone that she came across. The character Athena is "splashed" over Greek works. However, there are specific pieces of Greek literature that tell a great deal about this fiery goddess. This is not a passive goddess. This is an active, involved goddess who, in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, assumes divine leadership and challenges even Zeus himself.

Her Titles

The names and titles associated with this mythical goddess reflect her role as a person of action and leadership. Athena, also spelled Athene, is said to be the goddess of wisdom, battle and war, and certian crafts. Athena is frequently known as "Pallas" or "Pallas Athena." According to Sawyer, Athena took on the extra name to commemorate the death of her friend, Pallas. She had accidentally killed Pallas while they were practicing spears. To show her deep grief, Athena added this name to all of her distinguishing titles. In Homer's epic poem the Iliad , the goddess is given multiple titles which include "Boeotian Athena" (145), "Guard of Armies of Zeus" (145), "Daughter of Zeus whose Shield is Thunder" (242), "Triogenia" (646), and "Thirdborn of the Gods" (646). Lalonde offers the name "Athena Partheons." This name symbolizes her virginity. He also reveals that she is called Minerva by the Romans. In the Odyssey, another treasured epic poem by Homer, Athena is given the title "Hope of Soliders" because she is so active in war (416).

Athena, the patron of the city of Athens, is commonly linked with the subject of war. She is always depicted in armor and is said to be the keeper of Zeus's shield, the Aegis, and his helmet (Sawyer). Athena was even born wearing armor. There are several different versions of the birth story of Athena. However, they all are basically similar. Zeus was supposedly in love with Metis, the Titaniss of wisdom, who was to have Zeus's baby. Zeus had heard that any baby that Metis had would be greater than the father. So, Zeus turned Metis into a fly and swallowed her. After some time, Zeus developed a sharp headache and asked Hephaesios, the blacksmith god, to split his head open with an axe. When he did, Athena "popped out" fully grown and fully armed (Sawyer).

Athena is often represented by wearing the snakes of Medusa on her breast plate and dressed in armor


by A.K.

Relationships with Mortals

Mortals recognized Athena's active role as an influence and intercessor with others. This is what made Athena so "popular" with the Greek people. In the Odyssey by Homer, Athena has an incredible relationship with Odysseus. After reading the epic poem, one can witness the very complete, very extensive bond she develops with not only Odysseus but with the other characters as well. At the opening of the book, Athena begs her father Zeus to allow her to aid Odysseus, so he can go home to his family (Odyssey 1-2). She says,"My own heart is broken for Odysseus" (Odyssey 3). Athena goes as far as enhancing his appearance so that Princess Nausikaa will be sure to help him reach home (Odyssey 105). Once Odysseus reaches the city that Nausikaa leads him to, Athena "pours a sea fog" around him to protect him, and she takes on the form of a small girl in order to show him the way to the palace (Odyssey 111-112). Once Athena leads Odysseus home to Ithaka, she disguises herself as a sheperd boy and makes conversation with her beloved Odysseus (Odyssey 238). However, she eventually transforms herself into her natural state and says:

Two of a kind, we are, contrivers, both. Of all the men alive you are the best in plots and story telling. My own fame is for wisdom among the gods - deceptions too. Would even you have guessed that I am Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus, I that am always with you in times od trial, a shield to you in battle" (Odyssey 240).
Athena demonstrates throughout the Odyssey and in her relationship with Odysseus that she is a goddess of action just as Odysseus is a man of action. She states, "I am here again to counsel with you" (Odyssey 240). It is Athena who plots and plans the fall of the suitors in Odysseus' house. To follow her plan, Athena disguises Odysseus into a beggar and leads him to the swineherd, a faithful servant. There they unite with Telemakhos, Odysseus' son, to carry out the plot of doom (Odyssey Books 13 and 14). Once they go to the palace, the goddess of war and her followers destroy and cast revenge upon the suitors of Penelope. Athena flaunts her warlike qualities creating battle in which her "side" was undoubtedly the victor (Odyssey Book 22). Throught the mist of confusion and blood, Athena makes sure to keep Odysseus and Telemakhos safe. The goddess even "held the night" so that Odysseus and Penelope could have longer to get reacquainted. Homer comments that "she held Dawn's horses" (437).

Athena demonstrates her role as an active leader in her protection of Telemakhos. In the beginning of the epic poem, the Odyssey, she "flies" to him in the shape of Mentes, a Taphian captian, to talk to him and urge him to look for his father, Odysseus. While with him, she sits, drinks, dines, and carries on conversation (Odyssey 415). Later, she also takes on Mentor's figure to talk to him. At the end of the Odyssey, the war goddess enhances Laertes' looks for his reunion with his son Odysseus (Odyssey Book 24). In the final scene, she takes up the form of Mentor once more to bring peace to the bickering people (Odyssey 460).

Athena shows this same leadership and action in the Iliad as well. When this epic poem commences, a struggle exists between Achilles and Agamemnon. Athena comes to Achilles and warns him of his rage. She promises him gifts if he holds himself from quarrling (Iliad 84). During the action of the Trojan war, Athena assists the Achaean lines frequently. She goes to the Trojan Laodecus and fools him into shooting Menenlaos with an arrow to break the truce that had been called on the war (Iliad 148). However, to protect her beloved Achaean Menelaos, she forces the arrow to "deflect down the belt" instead of killing him (Iliad 149). Throughout the entire book, she "spurs them on" which motivates the Achaean causing them to strive for victory. She also gives Diomedes, an Achaean warrior, strength and daring (Iliad 164). She "puts spring into the limbs of Tudides, his feet, his fighting hands and helped him with fight orders" (Iliad 168). The goddess of battle fought as other Achaean soliders might have. "She levered Sthenelus out of his car. A twist of her her wrist and the man hit the ground" (Iliad 191).

Even the Trojans recognize her power and leadership. Theano prays to Athena to stop Diomedes (Iliad 206-207). However, because of her great dislike of Trojans, she does not listen to their prayers. Homer even has Athena say,"Let Hector die a thousand deaths!" (Iliad 243). It is elementary to see how intensly Athena makes contact with mortals by just few examples. Other gods and goddesses are involved in these works, but none are so explicit and immense as the deeds of Athena.

Athena conspires with Hera to plot the destruction of Troy


by A. K.

Relationships with Other Immortals

From reading the Iliad and the Odyssey, one can begin to form an image of Athena's relationships with her peers, the other gods and goddessess of ancient Greece. Through the interactions between this goddess and other supreme beings, one can witnessAthena's beliefs that she is superior to the other. Athena assumes leadership bt taking action, making decisions, and intervening for good and evil. In the Odyssey, Athena begs Zeus to allow her to give Odysseus aid on his passage home, against the efforts and wishes of Poseidon, the Sea god (Odyssey 4). In Homer's other epic poem, the Iliad, she tells Ares, the god of war, not to fight. She advises him to leave the matter of the outcome of the Trojan war to Zeus. However, Athena continues to fight for the Achaean side (Iliad 165). Homer also protrays this goddess of wisdom as mimicking and making fun of Aphrodite when she had gotten struck in the wrist by Diomedes (Iliad 178). She tells Zeus not to let Aphrodite onto the battlefield anymore (Iliad 178).

However, when immortals will help her achieve what she is yearning for, she works beside them suppressing her superiority. For example, she works almost almost nonstop with Hera to plot the total destruction of Troy. She also helps Apollo with the deul between Ajax and Hector to "break" the war (Iliad 216). One of Athena's works that is thought to be one of her greatest of superiority and dominance is the myth of how the Trojan war came to be. One is able to see her view of herself as "the fairest" in this story.

Relationship with Zeus

At times Athena feeling of superiority and dominance was appearent not only to other divine beings, but ot Zeus as well. At many points Athena seems to directly or indirectly challenge Zeus' authority. It can not be known whether she did this acidentally or purposely. Homer, in the Iliad, makes us aware of several interactions between the Almightly Zeus and the "grey-eyed goddess". Homer writes,"As Zeus mocked them, they [Athena and Hera] huddled together to continue plotting Troy's destruction" (Iliad 146). The continuation of what they were doing proved that they were not ashamed or embarrassed at being mocked by the god of gods, Zeus. If she feared Zeus, she would have perhaps stopped and taken up "plotting" out of his view. Homer also states that "Athena provokes the Father" when she teases Aphrodite in the battle setting (Iliad 178). During the Trojan War, Zeus declares that the gods must stay out of the war and leave the out come to him. Despite his command, Athena, along with Hera, goes in their chariot to go to earth. However, Zeus catches them. After some pleading, he lets them go anyway (Iliad 189). This shows that the goddesses are testing Zeus. It takes another test, of the same action, to find out exactly where Zeus would "draw the line." This time when they leave in their chariot, Zeus sends Iris to bring them back. Zeus says," Let her find out what it means to fight against her father" (Iliad 244). Zeus mocks them and gets angry (Iliad 245-46).

Despite all of his warnings, Athena still proceeds to do as she pleases begging Zeus," We'll keep clear of the war but let us still offer tactics to save them [Achaeans]" (Iliad 232). Here we find Athena contradicting herself. By that statement, one can assume that Athena is just telling Zeus what he wants to hear. She is still continuing on with her plans. Homer also has the war goddess sya things such as "Zeus hates me now" and " I want to be his darling grey-eyed girl again" (Iliad 243). These things suggest that she either was accidentally or purposely disobeying Zeus. Another might say that since she was born of Zeus, she had a close understanding bond with him that the others do not have. Either way, one can definitly observe her feelings of dominance over the others.

The goddess Athena is definitely a dominant figure, accepting no authority except perhaps Zeus. When thinking of this outstanding goddess, one thinks of her relationships and extensive contact with many mortals. The Greeks favored her because she was a woman goddess of rare quality. Women were never protrayed with the masculine characteristics of Athena, such as her need for dominance and passion for war. This makes her more appealing and puts her in a class above all the rest. By reading both the Ilaid and the Odyssey, one can recieve a clear, precise view of Athena.

Works Cited

  • Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Viking Penguin, 1990.
  • Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Books, 1962.
  • Lalonde, Stephen. 10 August 1997. Online. 8 October 1999 .
  • Swayer, Emily. November 1996. Online. 11 October 1999 .

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This page was created by A. Kerestes. Last revised 3/30/00.

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