Athena in the Odyssey

Roark Wilson, Terri Beth Miller
  • Author
    Roark Wilson

    Roark Wilson is an aspiring young teacher with a Bachelor of Arts from Sewanee: The University of the South and a Master of Studies in eighteenth-century literature from the University of Oxford. He has acted as an informal tutor for two years and a saber fencing coach for seven.

  • Instructor
    Terri Beth Miller

    Terri Beth holds a PhD in English language and literature from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She also holds a Master of Arts in English literature from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, and a BA in English from Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tennessee. Since 2005, she has taught literature, writing, and philosophy courses at the university and graduate levels. Though Terri Beth loves books and writing of all kinds, her heart lies especially with British Victorian and Modernist literature, as well as the novels of Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, and, to mix things up a bit, Salman Rushdie!

Learn who Athena is in The Odyssey, an epic poem by Homer. See Athena's role and what she represents. Understand how Athena helps Odysseus and read her quotes. Updated: 12/30/2021

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Who is Athena in The Odyssey?

Who is Athena in the Odyssey? Athena, like the other characters in Homer's epic, comes from a rich and vivid cultural tapestry of ancient Greek myth. Athena is a goddess born directly from Zeus. While the specifics of her conception differ from source to source, they all agree on the events leading up to her birth. Zeus was afflicted with a splitting headache and, in order to alleviate it, asked for his head to be split open. Upon doing so, Athena leaped forth from Zeus' skull fully armed and armored. Within the Odyssey, Athena is the primary godly patron of both Odysseus and his son Telemachus, interceding on their behalf in matters both mortal and divine.

What Did Athena Look Like?

What did Athena look like? The answer slightly differs when comparing the Homeric epics to the wider Greek mythology. Homer consistently applies the epithets "stormy-eyed" and "bright-eyed" to Athena's name in both the Odyssey and Iliad. As such, following artists typically depicted her with lively grey eyes. Furthermore, just as she was when she was born, Athena is dressed in a full set of armor. In wider Greek mythology, Athena wields a spear and possesses the shield Aegis, upon which Medusa's head is embossed.

The particular appearance of Athena rarely becomes relevant in the Odyssey‐she consistently shows herself in a series of disguises. Like other Olympians, Athena can shift shape at will. Unlike the other gods, however, Athena commonly uses her shapeshifting to take a variety of human forms and deceive others.

A statue of Athena in front of the Austrian parliament.

The values of Athena have made her an icon whose symbology is still recognizable and reproduced in the modern day.

Athena's Role in The Odyssey

Athena's role in the Odyssey is quite indirect. While she supports the endeavors of both Odysseus and Telemachus, she can rarely do so directly. She approaches Telemachus in disguise, hiding her identity, while her early attempts to assist Odysseus are commonly mediated by other gods. For Odysseus, Athena takes the role of a divine patron who can promote his concerns on Olympus. For Telemachus, she serves as a mentor and inspiration.

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Athena and Odysseus

Athena is the most consistent aid to Odysseus on his journey. Despite this, her ability to dampen his troubles is very limited early on. She helps him out of sight, or approaches him in disguise. Odysseus provoked the wrath of Poseidon on his journey home, and Poseidon is one of the few gods Athena is unwilling to directly work against. The final lines of Book VI best express her apprehension:

So he prayed and Athena heard his prayer
but would not yet appear to him undisguised.
She stood in awe of her Father's brother, lord of the sea
who still seethed on, still churning with rage against
the great Odysseus till he reached his native land. (Book VI)

Despite her apprehensions, Athena is described as having "compassion" for Odysseus on multiple occasions. It is this compassion that causes her to consistently aid him on his journey.

How Did Athena Help Odysseus?

Athena consistently smooths the challenges Odysseus meets in a variety of ways. The following is a chronological list of Athena's helpful actions:

  • Book V: Athena petitions Zeus to allow Odysseus to escape from Ogygia and return home.
  • Book V: Athena beats down waves and smooths jagged rocks so that Odysseus might safely make it to shore.
  • Book V: Athena "showers Odysseus' eyes with sleep" so that he can rest.
  • Book VI: Athena manipulates the princess of Phaeacia to find Odysseus and bring him into the palace.
  • Book VI: Athena puts a glamour on Odysseus to make him appear stronger and more attractive, wiping away the rough years of trial and shipwreck.
  • Book VII: Athena comes to Odysseus in the disguise of a young girl, leading him to the palace and concealing him from potentially-hostile strangers.
  • Book VIII: Athena disguises herself as the Phaeacian king's herald, going about the town to drum up support for Odysseus.
  • Book XIII: Athena disguises Odysseus upon his return to Ithaca, so that he might learn of the dangers facing him before those dangers recognize him.
  • Book XIII: Athena comes to Odysseus in the form of a shepherd boy, telling him of some of the events of his homeland before finally lifting her disguise and revealing herself as an Olympian.
  • Book XIII: Athena assists Odysseus in burying the treasures he received from the Phaeacians.
  • Book XXII: Athena appears in the form of Mentor, an old friend of Odysseus, to encourage Odysseus in battle. She then deflects spears cast towards Odysseus and Telemachus.
  • Book XXII: Athena brandishes her shield and scatters the amassing suitors in a fit of terror.

Only towards the end of the epic does Athena make her assistance known to Odysseus. She mostly intervenes in disguise or from afar, without the knowledge of mortals, as befits her clever and scheming nature.

Analysis of Athena

Athena is the Greek goddess of wisdom, craft, and battle. As such, she is renowned for her cleverness or—as Athena herself puts it—"cunning wiles." Athena deserves her reputation, as her many interventions in the mortal realm showcase. The goddess rarely acts directly, instead provoking others to action while in disguise or placing glamours to deceive others. Furthermore, Athena seems quite willing to adopt the faces of other, very real individuals, as demonstrated by her willingness to appear in the form of the Phaeacian herald to sway crowds. When compared to the actions of other divine entities—namely Poseidon, whose expressions of power consist of potent storms and fleet-shattering waves—Athena's attempts at misdirection and illusion in the Odyssey paint her as an incredibly patient figure who doesn't always care to have her name associated with her deeds.

What Does Athena Represent?

What does Athena represent? Outside of her domains of craft, wisdom, and battle, Athena mirrors Odysseus within the Odyssey. When first unveiling herself to Odysseus in all her divine splendor, she tells him this:

"Any man—any god who met you—would have to be
some champion lying cheat to get past you
for all-round craft and guile! You terrible man, foxy, ingenious, never tired of twists and tricks—
so, not even here, on native soil, would you give up
those wily tales that warm the cockles of your heart!
Come, enough of this now. We're both old hands
at the arts of intrigue. Here among mortal men
you're far the best at tactics, spinning yarns,
and I am famous among the gods for wisdom,
cunning wiles, too." (Book XIII)

Narratively, Athena and Odysseus possess many of the same positive traits, yet Athena's traits are amplified in a manner that befits a deity. They are both clever and prone to cunning stratagems. However, Athena's schemes are backed by more power and are ultimately more successful. These shared traits create a certain kinship between her and Odysseus (or, if kinship is too strong a word, compassion.) Because Athena's presence is consistently positive for the primary characters, with Athena providing a great deal of assistance to Telemachus, Penelope, and Odysseus, she takes on a guiding role and appears much more compassionate than other deities in the poem. This is partially misguiding—Athena is just as capable of being petty and vengeful as other deities, as the Odyssey mentions temporarily:

"Ajax, now, went down with his long-oared fleet.
First Poseidon drove him onto the cliffs of Gyrae,
looming cliffs, then saved him from the breakers—
he'd have escaped his doom, too, despite Athena's hate,
if he hadn't flung that brazen boast, the mad blind fool." (Book IV)

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Frequently Asked Questions

Why is Athena important in the Odyssey?

Athena is the primary deity present in the epic. While other gods do make appearances and the watchful eye of Zeus hangs over the proceedings, Athena constantly supports Odysseus both directly and indirectly.

How did Athena help Odysseus in the Odyssey?

Athena consistently manipulates events around Odysseus to receive him more favorably, such as taking the form of the Phaeacian king's herald and drumming up the support of a crowd. On multiple occasions she places glamours around Odysseus, making him appear stronger and more handsome, or more dirty and diminished.

How is Athena described in the Odyssey?

Homer commonly applies the epithets "stormy-eyed" or "bright-eyed" to Athena. The eyes are a frequent focus in more casual descriptions, too—they sparkle, flash, gleam and blaze.

Ignoring eyes completely, Athena is oftentimes referred to as "watchful," or "daughter of Zeus," or (more rarely) "whose shield is storm and thunder." Because of her variety of disguises, her physical appearance or garb is rarely mentioned.

What is the relationship between Athena and Odysseus?

Athena is the divine patron of Odysseus, projecting his affairs into the heavens and protecting him from (or dampening) the malicious influence of other deities. She also guides him through many situations or provides solid advice, thereby taking a mentorly role.

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