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. In The Odyssey and other Greek myths, Athena is an essential character and contributes many elements of her complex mythological personality to Greek writing.
Athena is one of the most important goddesses in Greek mythology. In Roman mythology she became identified with the goddess Minerva. Also known as Pallas Athena. Athena sprang full-grown and armored from the forehead of the god Zeus and was his favorite child. He entrusted her with his shield, adorned with the hideous head of Medusa the Gorgon, his buckler, and his principal weapon, the thunderbolt. A virgin goddess, she was called Parthenos (“the maiden”). Her major temple, the Parthenon, was in Athens, which, according to legend, became hers as a result of her gift of the olive tree to the Athenian people. Athena was primarily the goddess of the Greek cities, of industry and the arts, and, in later mythology, of wisdom; she was also goddess of war. Athena was the strongest supporter, among the gods, of the Greek side in the Trojan War.
After the fall of Troy, however, the Greeks failed to respect the sanctity of an altar to Athena at which the Trojan prophet Cassandra sought shelter. As punishment, storms sent by the god of the sea, Poseidon, at Athena’s request destroyed most of the Greek ships returning from Troy. Athena was also a patron of the agricultural arts and of the crafts of women, especially spinning and weaving. Among her gifts to man were the inventions of the plow and the flute and the arts of taming animals, building ships, and making shoes. She was often associated with birds, especially the owl. Through an explanation of Athena’s distinct personality, her relationships are more easily understood
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 the Odyssey 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). The fully grown woman carried many names during her life, although they did not change the way she thought or acted.
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). 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.
From reading 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 by 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). One can see that Athena does what she thinks gives the best result, even if she is faced with stiff opposition from her peers.
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.