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For some, the concept of retribution and reward from gods is key in the world. This is indirectly shown in The Odyssey by Homer. In this epic, there are many examples showing that characters are greatly affected by the gods when they respond to situations in their experiences in certain ways, but it is equally important to examine the reasons behind these exchanges of actions between the gods and humans. The humans provide services for the gods, and in return, the gods do the same.
The relationship of mutual benefit between Odysseus and the gods Kirke, Athena, and Poseidon reveals the role of gods in Greek culture as drastically important in intervening in the lives of humans.
When Odysseus is leaving the island of Aeaea to head home, the island goddess Kirke advises Odysseus of many obstacles that he will need to overcome on his journey. For example, Kirke warns Odysseus to “steer wide, keep well to seaward; plug [his] oarsmen’s ears with beeswax kneaded soft… let the men tie [him]” [12.
57-62]. Kirke aids Odysseus in his journey home, and without her advice, the hero could have fallen prey to the Sirens, sparking potentially fatal consequences. However, the content beneath the surface is equally important. She tells Odysseus that “one of two courses [he] may take, and [he himself] must weigh them” [12.68-69]. Here, Kirke doesn’t want to “… plan the whole action for [him]” [12.69-70].
Kirke directly says that she will not directly affect Odysseus’ journey. She wishes for Odysseus to make the right decisions by trusting himself, and using his instincts and heroic decision-making skills.
Just as Kirke symbolizes the Greek gods in general (like the others), the warnings she provides here are representative of life obstacles. Kirke is showing that in life, there will be problems that one needs to overcome, with different ways to approach the solution. One should learn to make good decisions and choose the path they think is correct for them. As well as general values, this embodies different Greek cultural values: the value of decision-making and prudence in heroes and the importance of examining what lies beneath the surface in Greek written art. Evidently, Kirke indirectly helps Odysseus by reinforcing his abilities and advising him of obstacles to overcome in his adventure through the Homeric and real world.
While Kirke plays a minor role in the epic, Athena is the paramount goddess in the positive intervention upon humans in The Odyssey. As the most influential goddess, Athena affects Odysseus in several instances throughout the text. For one thing, the goddess repeatedly “[casts] sweet sleep upon [one’s] eyes” [19.699] and “[showers] sleep [so] that [one’s] distress should end” [5.517-518]. She says this many times to various characters, calming them down in times of need. Furthermore, Athena makes visual changes to Odysseus to assist him in carrying out his cunning plans. When Odysseus is with the Phaiakians for the games, Athena “[pours] out her grace upon him, head and shoulders, height and mass—a splendor awesome to the eyes of the Phaiakians” [8.21-23]. Another instance is when Odysseus plans to disguise himself to confront Eumaios. “… [Athena]… shriveled the clear skin of his arms and legs, made all his hair fall out, cast over him the wrinkled hide of an old man, and bleared both his eyes” [13.538-542]. Essentially, Athena assists Odysseus in completing his actions to achieve his goals by disguising him. The gods Athena and Kirke clearly have a positive influence on Odysseus. However, Odysseus is negatively affected to the extreme by Poseidon.
With near-fatal consequences, Poseidon, one of the main antagonists of the story, attempts to sabotage Odysseus’ adventure home. For one thing, “Poseidon, god of earthquake… the island-shaker… struck [the ship] into stone” [13.199-204]. For another, “… the god of earthquake, storming home… Brewing high thunderheads, he churned the deep with both hands on his trident—called up wind from very quarter, and sent a wall of rain… hurricane winds now struck…. [where] Odysseus’ knees grew slack” [5.292-307]. In these two instances, Poseidon attempts to kill Odysseus with storms and gods’ powers. Poseidon releases his anger towards Odysseus in this manner because he holds an eternal grudge against the hero. This grudge survives because Odysseus blinded Poseidon’s son Polyphemos, a Cyclops. Therefore, Poseidon tries to avenge Polyphemos by nearly killing Odysseus at sea, showing that there is the exchange of Odysseus provoking Poseidon to commit these cruel deeds.
Clearly, the gods play the superior role in affecting Odysseus’ journey home. The mutual exchange between the gods and the hero is completed by Odysseus. In the Greek culture, mortals devote themselves to the gods by sacrificing and praying. For example, “Black bulls were being offered by the people to [even] Poseidon… nine bulls apiece to sacrifice” [3.8-11]. Odysseus constantly prays, sacrifices, and overall devotes himself to the gods in his adventure. So, he is returned with help, assistance, and advice from the gods that he does devote himself to (even Poseidon). However, at one point, when Odysseus and his men did not prey to Poseidon, they were harmed a significant amount. This highlights the Greek cultural value of devotion to gods. Another idea valued by the Greeks present in the text is the notion that Athena helps Odysseus because Odysseus is a “real” hero. Just like Athena, Odysseus displays and demonstrates true heroic status with courage, strength, cunning, and more. This shows the Greek value of heroism in people.
Since both the gods and heroic characteristics are representative of Greek culture, they are similar. Ergo, Athena and Odysseus are “similar” in the same way, so presumably Athena helps Odysseus because he embodies the same Greek values that the goddess symbolizes. Essentially, Odysseus is the epitome of Greek values. However, it is also important to note that the gods give the humans some flexibility in making their own decisions, so that they can learn from their experiences and test or evaluate their skills in the real world (like Kirke did with Odysseus). When minstrels passed on the epic stories, it is probable that they wished to pass on the Greek culture onto the next generation. Indeed, this was the overall purpose of Homer’s Odyssey: expressing values, conventions, and culture of the Greeks through a complex and heroic story represented as an “epic.” Homer connects and combines various stories and characters to tell a story that is a symbol for Greek culture itself. The importance of passing on culture in any society in this world is reflected upon by Marcus Garvey: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
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