Athena in The Iliad

Instructor: Brittany Cross

Brittany teaches middle school Language Arts and has a master's degree for designing secondary reading curriculum.

In Homer's classic epic poem, Iliad, gods and goddesses are seen throughout affecting and influencing the lives of mortals. In this lesson we will study Athena, Greek Goddess of Wisdom, a fierce player in the battle between the Greeks and Trojans.

Who is Athena?

Picture a solemn owl, serenely perched on a branch and staring out at the surrounding world, observing every sound, looking for signs of disturbance, contemplating the precise moment to swoop down and attack a scurrying mouse. This wise protector of the forest, this strategic hunter, is Athena, an intelligent, calculating, protective warrior. The symbol of an owl is still commonly associated today with great wisdom, a factor that lead to it being the well-known bird of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom.

Athena is the daughter of Zeus, king of the gods on Mt. Olympus. In fact, she sprang from his head, fully grown and fully clothed in armor. The Iliad is actually the earliest known account of her and portrays her as a fierce warrior in her role as the goddess known for battle. This is somewhat of a contrast to how she is portrayed in other stories where she is usually only warlike for a specific purpose such as defending her home from enemies. In the Iliad, she has a strong desire for the Trojans to lose the war against the Greeks.

Role of a Goddess

Like many women, her intent, purpose, and personality change often as she fills many roles in the Iliad. As a fairly prominent figure in this account of the Trojan War, she acts as a calming force, a fellow fighter, an encouraging supporter, a wise counselor, and a cunning persuader. Most importantly, she helps to demonstrate the theme of free will versus fate in the interactions between mortals and immortals: men vs. gods and goddesses. The people pray to her, beg for her help and wisdom, and call on her in their times of greatest need. So is she a master manipulator? Or is she an assistant of fate?

Go, Greeks, Go!

Most of Athena's role in the epic is defined by the key fact that she hates the Trojans and strives to find ways to support the Greeks, also known as the Achaeans, by offering them the aid of the gods. It is known that she not only intervenes on behalf of mortals in the Achaean army, but also seems to treat the Trojan War like a giant chess game in which men are the pieces and the gods are the hands controlling them. Like many of the gods, she play a massive role in the outcomes of battles and deaths. In Book IV, she is said to 'sweep through the Achaeans urging them into battle,' an unstoppable force of power.

Though Zeus often tries to keep the gods away from the battle, they continually interfere both physically and mentally with the events. Even when Zeus states that he is trying to end the Trojan War and that no gods can interfere without severe punishment, Athena still appeals to him to be able to lend aid to the Achaeans.

Deception in Disguise

In Book IV, a truce has finally occurred between the battling armies. At the request of his wife, Hera, Zeus is willing to reignite the war and abides by her wish that he 'send Athena to rouse war between the Trojans and Achaeans' once again. Like Hera, Athena, too, wants to see Troy destroyed, so she 'assumed the likeness of a man named Laodokos and sought the Trojan bowman, Pandaros.' She manipulates this soldier into causing a painful, but not fatal, wound to Menelaos, thus officially breaking the state of truce between the armies. Disguised, Athena is able to bend the situation to her will.

Gift-Bearer

After the war is once again in full swing with deaths on both sides of the battlefield, Athena continues her influence by giving a young Achaena commander, Diomedes, great courage for the fight. Consequently, he becomes a praise-worthy warrior that day. When disaster strikes and he is wounded, Athena intervenes once again in response to Diomedes's call for aid. More courage is given to him as well as the ability to distinguish men from gods, whom, as we have seen, can disguise themselves easily and do so frequently. He fights and kills many Trojans after being bestowed with these gifts from Athena.

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