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Her Plotting Heart

Throughout The Odyssey, Odysseus is plagued by disaster after disaster. If it’s not being shipwrecked, it’s being held against his will. If he doesn’t have a mutinous crew, he has a crew that is constantly dying and being killed. In his venture home, Odysseus seems to have very few gods that are helping him, and more that are trying to bring him to ruin, whether it be because of destiny or because of hatred. For some reason that has yet to be made clear, his journey home seems to be a project for Athena.
​At the news that suitors are coming for Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, Athena asks for Zeus’ permission to visit Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, in order to urge him to look for his father. She gives him instructions, step by step, on how to inquire about the whereabouts of his father and what to do if he discovers that his father had really fallen with the rest of his comrades in Troy that hadn’t returned home. Disguised as Mentes, one of Odysseus’ friends, Athena visits Telemachus and assures him that once Odysseus returns home, he will kill all of the suitors and Telemachus will no longer have to entertain the thought of these men who are so persistent to wed his mother (1.309).
​Athena seems to be present at many of the segments of Odysseus’ journey back home that are helping him. The olive tree is a representation of Athena. The olive tree and different components of it are present at different points in Odysseus’ travels. When Odysseus awoke on Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians, he was greeted by Nausicaa. Nausicaa had been greeted by Athena, who had encouraged her to go to the washing pools to wash her clothes (6.44). Little did Nausicaa know, Odysseus was lying not too far from the washing pool. When he greeted Nausicaa, he was wearing “a leafy branch from the tangled olive growth to shield his body, hide his private parts (6.140).” This is a sign that Athena was present and played a role in the discovery of Odysseus on Scheria.
​Athena makes her presence again in the disguise of a young girl to guide Odysseus to King Alcinous’ palace. This is where Nausicaa told Odysseus to ask her mother, Arete, for help on his venture home, even if his home was “a world away (6.342).” Disguised as a young girl, Athena guides Odysseus to the palace by taking a road that is “sacred to Pallas (6.320).” This is another sign of Athena’s importance to Odysseus’ return home. While taking this road, Athena gives background information on Arete and King Alcinous. She tells of how Arete “can dissolve quarrels, even among men (7.85),” suggesting that Arete is very close to Athena in her wisdom. After Athena and Odysseus part ways, he arrives to the courtyard of the palace where “succulent figs and olives swelling sleek and dark (7.134),” lay waiting in the garden, thus giving a sign that Athena is present in the palace as well. Just as she encouraged the actions of Nausicaa to go to the washing pool to discover Odysseus, she could be encouraging the king and queen to grant Odysseus’ request to go home, which they allow.
​When Odysseus is asked to tell stories of his ventures, he wanders upon the story of the land of the Cyclops. When the Cyclops Polyphemus holds Odysseus and some of his men captive, Odysseus hatched a plan and he gives credit to Athena for allowing him to carrying out this plan (9.355). In order to escape the Cyclops, Odysseus launches a sharpened club made of olive wood and hoisted it high “with its stabbing point, straight into the monster’s eye (9.427).” The use of the olive wood not only suggests that Athena was present in some manner for the attack on Polyphemus, but that she may have been responsible for Odysseus construing the concept of not killing the Cyclops, but rather injuring it so that his Cyclops friends could remove the boulder that was blocking the exit to the cave.
​After injuring Polyphemus, Odysseus does a very foolish thing, and taunts the Cyclops. Odysseus seems to be aware that Poseidon is the father of the Cyclops. This can be assumed when he assures Polyphemus that “no one will ever heal your eye, not even your earthquake god himself (9.582),” referencing Poseidon. To this, Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, prays to his father. He prays that “Odysseus… never reaches home,” and that if he does reach home “let him come home late and a broken man-all shipmates lost, alone in a stranger’s ship-and let him find a world of pain at home (9.590).” Homer assures the reader that “the god of the sea-blue mane, Poseidon, heard his prayer (9.597).” Because of his foolishness in the episode with the Cyclops, Odysseus is doomed by Poseidon, who will shipwreck him plenty times.
​Unbeknownst to Odysseus, Athena is trying to help him to return home. She plots time after time to find people that will help Odysseus in his journey back to Ithaca. Signs of Athena are displayed throughout the account of Odysseus’ return home. It is simply in the eyes of the reader to uncover.

21 Responses to “Her Plotting Heart”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Destiny,

    This is a thoughtful account of Athena’s influence in the Odyssey. Zeus suggests at least twice (5.25-29 and 24.527-530) that the plan for Odysseus to return is Athena’s (though Athena has her doubts [24.524]). As we have noted in class, olive trees and branches are important to the plot at several points, and you do a good job of discussing some of them. Some others are the olive shaft that blinds Polyphemus, the olive wood raft on Ogygia, and the olive tree bed on Ithaca. I like the point about Odysseus using the olive twigs to cover himself on Scheria.

    Though your account of the Cyclops at the end seems a touch out of the flow of your essay, it does raise a couple of interesting questions. One is whether Athena is present even there. Though she does not make herself manifest and though Homer does not tell us whether she is there, Odysseus does note that “some god breathed enormous courage through us all” after he gave his rousing, motivational speech (11.426). Was Athena helping him, even then?

    Why she left him on Ogygia for seven years is also worth thinking about.

    KH

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