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Throughout The Odyssey, Athena’s intentions toward Odysseus are unclear. Although, it is continuously repeated that Poseidon is preventing Odysseus from coming home, Athena might actually be one of the reasons he has been away from Ithaca for twenty years. There is evidence that supports the argument that Athena is in love with Odysseus. This would explain why she delayed “The Achaeans’ Journey Home from Troy” (1.376), and why she also helps him reach home. Zeus seems to also be aware of her feelings towards Odysseus and shows that he notices his daughter’s intentions by repeating throughout the epic “Come now, wasn’t the plan your own?” (5.25-26).

When the king is on Calypso’s island, she complains to Zeus that her “heart breaks for Odysseus” (1.57). She emphasizes that Odysseus is in pain, that Calypso is trying to “spellbind his heart with suave, seductive words” (1.67), and that he is far from his loved ones. However, she never once argues that Odysseus should be given the opportunity to live happily with his wife, nor does she mention Penelope’s name. In fact, it seems that her heart is breaking because she is jealous that Calypso might someday win his heart, or that Odysseus might never accept Calypso’s offer, which would prove that Penelope will always have his heart. The nymph even suspects that Odysseus is being taken away from him by “unrivaled lords of jealousy” (5.131), which seems to be the case. Homer points out that “Poseidon had gone to visit the Ethiopians worlds away” (1.25), making the audience believe that Athena is taking this opportunity to request Odysseus’ return to Ithaca solely because his only threat and obstacle is absent. However, given her inconsistent support of Odysseus, it seems that she realizes that if he has been able to stay “loyal” (he sleeps with Calypso, but he never falls in love with her) to Penelope for seven years, he will continue to reject the nymph’s offer.

Athena notices that Odysseus spends “all his days… wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish” (5.173-174) as he longs to see his wife (5.231). However, she hopes that since he is not giving up on his love for his wife, Penelope will lose hope that her husband is coming home and remarry. In fact, she tells Telemachus to encourage his mother to remarry “if the spirit moves her” (1.316). She also directly tells Penelope “I cannot tell you… whether he’s dead or alive. It’s wrong to lead you on with idle words” (4.940-942) because if the queen hears from a god that her husband is alive, she will never remarry. This would go against Athena’s master plan and would destroy all hope that Penelope will give in to temptation.

Nestor also narrates that “so many met a disastrous end, thanks to the lethal rage of… Athena” (3.149-150). Zeus was persuaded to lengthen Achaeans’ return home “to appease Athena’s dreadful wrath” (3.161). Shortly after, he comments on the goddess’s relationship with Ithaca’s king emphasizing that “she lavished care on brave Odysseus… [he’d] never seen the immortals show so much affection as Pallas openly showed him” (3.251-252). It is important to notice that Athena is not described as seductive like Calypso, but instead Nestor’s statement shows that she is attempting to take the role of his wife by being affectionate and “standing by [Telemachus’s] father” (3.252). Menelaus reintroduced the concept that jealousy was the reason Odysseus was prevented from returning home when stating “But god himself, jealous of all this, no doubt robbed that unlucky man… of the day of his return” (4.201-203). This continuous blame on Zeus who granted Athena’s wish and emphasis on her affection towards Odysseus grows the suspicion that her love for him is the reason he was not granted a short journey home.

When Poseidon is enraged to find out that Odysseus is no longer a captive of Calypso, he attempts to drown her. While Athena fails to save him the first time, she inspires him with courage that saves him the second time Poseidon attacks and she caringly “showered sleep upon his eyes… delivering him from all his pains” (5.544-546). As he sleeps peacefully, she specifically convinced Nausicaa to go wash her clothes, giving the princess the opportunity to help Odysseus once she finds him on the shore. However, Homer emphasizes Nausicaa’s beauty and Athena purposely “made him taller to all eyes, his build more massive now” (6.253-254), which shows that perhaps the goddess is hoping that Odysseus will fall for Nausicaa and lose his desire to return home. However, I believe Athena only sees the princess as a potential distraction that will delay his journey home, increasing the possibility that Penelope will lose hope.

Although she is also not present throughout the Cyclops episode, Odysseus implies that Zeus’s daughter inspired him by stating that “some god breathed enormous courage through us all” (9.426) because she is known for being by his side and for giving courage to mortals. It is shown throughout The Odyssey that Athena does the bare minimum for her loved one to stay alive because she eventually acknowledges that he is fated to return. She knows that every time she helps the glorious mortal she puts him a step closer to home and wants to continue prolonging his journey in hopes that Penelope will remarry.

Towards the end of the epic, Athena’s love for Odysseus is further emphasized as her behavior convinces me of her intentions. Returned in Ithaca, they have an intimate conversation as Athena “who always stands beside you, shields you in every exploit: thanks to me the Phaeacians all embraced you warmly” (13.341-343) seems to be declaring her love for him. She proceeds by explaining her plan to him. Athena, appearing “beautiful, tall” (16.179), is the one who insists that he reveals himself to Telemachus. In addition, she gives them guidance throughout the plotting of the suitors’ death, and also helps during the fighting. “Athena stood beside him” like a wife supporting her husband (18.80). When Agelaus threatens to kill Odysseus and his son, “Athena hit new heights of rage” (22.234), which also shows that she truly cares about him and would rather he be alive even if it means that he will spend the rest of his life with Penelope.

Regarding Penelope’s reunion with Odysseus, Homer seems to want the audience to believe that Athena is acting out of kindness in making the night longer for the couple. However, she only does it because she knows it will make Odysseus happy despite the fact that it kills her inside. In fact, her eyes, which play a crucial role in identifying her feelings throughout the epic, are described as “afire” (23.388) because she is burning of jealousy.

Based on the end of The Odyssey, it seems that she sent Telemachus traveling by sea to give him the opportunity to mature and return with the ability to help his father fight against the suitors. She took care of Telemachus like he was her own son. In fact, he even tells her “you’ve counseled me with so much kindness now, like a father to a son” (1.354-355). Athena knows that Odysseus cannot survive against the suitors without the support of Telemachus. On the other hand, the prince cannot support his own father if he does not mature and learn to be authoritative towards the vultures of his palace. It seems that Zeus is aware of her plan throughout the epic especially since he repeats at the very end “My child,… come now, wasn’t the place your own? You conceived it yourself” (24.527-529). The last piece of evidence that shows that Athena truly loves him is her ability to let him go at the end, so he may be happy with Penelope, the one his heart desires.

 

 

 

21 Responses to “Athena in Love with Odysseus”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Allissa,

    I think this is a good job of trying to make sense of a quite difficult theme: Athena’s treatment of Odysseus. The typical interpretation is that she is trying to help him get home. As we have seen, this can’t be the whole story–there is the wrath of Athena to contend with. However, I like your twist on things: that Athena’s wrath is principally jealousy; that she loves Odysseus; that she is trying to delay his journey home; but that she eventually realizes that he is fated to return, and perhaps love as a result means letting him go.

    As you point out, Athena never mentions Penelope’s name to Zeus or even implies that Odysseus wants to go home to see her. And you very astutely point out that Athena refuses to tell Penelope that Odysseus is alive. Now why would that be? It’s a very strange passage. But your account is a reasonable one and certainly gives the passage a plausible rendering.

    One minor textual quibble: you state that Athena says at 5.231 that Odysseus longs to see his wife. But this is actually Calypso (talking to Odysseus). However, this only amplifies your point; it would be odd for Athena to ever speak of Penelope in that way.

    One thing we never explored that much in class (although I mentioned it) is Athena’s “paternal” treatment of Telemachus. It is odd that she takes such an interest in him–it isn’t clear that Odysseus needs his help. Is she trying to prepare him to take the throne? We know Odysseus must leave again soon.

    And that brings up the final point. Where will Odysseus die? “Far from the sea” certainly doesn’t sound like Ithaca, although “all of my people” throws a complicating light on things. But might this prophecy somehow mean that Odysseus, like Heracles, will be taken to Olympus (and not just to Hades)? Might Odysseus then be able to be with Athena?

    This is entirely speculative and, as far as I know, there isn’t any ancient tradition of this. But it fits with your thesis, and you have made a compelling case for that thesis. So one wonders.

    Good work

    KH

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