The character of Athena in Homer’s iconic poem, ‘The Odyssey’, is far more than some remote goddess making playthings of frail mortals. She is a guide who helps Odysseus learn what a man, husband, father, and king should be.

Athena and Odysseus

Imagine that you are a young, powerful king of a thriving Greek kingdom. You have a beautiful wife and healthy son to inherit the throne. On top of that, you’ve managed to win the favor of a goddess, Athena, the daughter of the supreme Greek god, Zeus. That’s exactly the situation Odysseus, king of Ithaca, finds himself in at the beginning of Homer’s ancient poem, The Odyssey. It sounds like a pretty sweet deal, right? But everything isn’t as perfect as it’s cracked up to be: Odysseus has been away from home for more than 10 years, fighting in the Trojan War. Troy has finally fallen, and Odysseus and his men can return home at last, but they do the one thing that makes that seemingly impossible: they tick off the god of the sea, Poseidon, by blinding his son, the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus.

Enter Athena. Unlike so many of the other members of the Greek pantheon, or family of gods, Athena is the child of Zeus alone. She sprang fully-formed from Zeus’s forehead, dressed in the full armor of battle. She was never a child. She was not the product of desire or sexual consummation. She is literally the brainchild of the supreme Greek god, and this is why she is considered the Goddess of Wisdom. But Athena is not only wise, she is also associated with innovation and tactical skill. Athena is a warrior goddess in a profoundly patriarchal, or male-dominated, society, and she is a friend to humanity, particularly to her favorite, Odysseus. Though an immortal goddess, in her role as advocate, guide, and protector, Athena teaches Odysseus–and the rest of us–how to be human.

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Bust of Homer
Homer

Athena as Advocate

Odysseus has a pretty tough row to hoe once he makes an enemy of Poseidon, but Athena is a fierce and potent advocate. She uses her supreme intellect to advocate on Odysseus’s behalf before the council of the Gods on Olympus. She demonstrates the power of language and of rational argumentation, a capacity not often attributed to women in the ancient world. Because of Athena’s persuasive arguments before the gods, she saves Odysseus from the full force of Poseidon’s wrath. This goddess, daughter of Zeus, saves a human life where no other mortal or immortal, man or woman, could.

The birth of Athena
Athena

Athena as Mentor

Athena doesn’t just allow Odysseus to get off scot-free for his actions. Athena believes in free will, learning from your mistakes, and in evolving into the best version of yourself. This is why Athena appears before both Odysseus and his son, Telemachus, in the form of Mentor, a wise old man offering sage advice in times of trouble and conflict. Whether they choose to take Athena/Mentor’s wise advice, however, is ultimately up to them.

Sure, Athena could scrub Odysseus and Telemachus of their human frailty. She could make them obey either by force or by mind control, happily following their divinely-appointed course. But then it wouldn’t be free will, and where there is no free will, there is no growth, and Athena is all about growth. Athena wants her human favorites to reap what they sow, to face the consequences of the choices they freely make, and, ideally, to learn from them. This is why she allows Odysseus to suffer for offending Poseidon; this is why she allows him to wander for 10 long years in punishment for his hubris, or the dangerous, almost blasphemous pride that gives Odysseus the audacity to insult such a powerful god.

Athena as Genius of Strategic Warfare

Athena is also the goddess of victory through strategy. Athena is, above all, a shape-shifter, meaning that she can and frequently does take whatever form she needs in order to prevail. This means that in one moment she can appear as the aged Mentor; in another, she can appear as a fearsome warrior, a haggard crone, or a beautiful young woman; or she can appear as her divinely radiant self. Even more important, she can disguise humans at will, and in this way, she helps Odysseus return to his kingdom without detection, enabling him to enter the palace and kill the suitors trying to overtake his throne.

What this all boils down to is the triumph of thoughtful deliberation over brute force. Athena is, after all, the goddess who inspired Odysseus and the Greeks to build the Trojan horse, which enabled the soldiers to enter the city undetected and lay siege to it. This cunning tactic is what finally ended a decade of war and secured the Greek victory. For Athena and the thoughtful warriors she inspires, the cunning chameleon is the one who survives and prevails, while the enraged bull roars recklessly ahead and is cut down.

Athena in armor
Athena

Lesson Summary

Once again, the character of Athena plays a vital role in Homer’s iconic poem, The Odyssey. One of the most powerful gods in the Greek pantheon, she sprang fully-formed and dressed in battle armor from the forehead of the supreme god, Zeus. As such, she is seen as the Goddess of Wisdom and of strategic warfare. In The Odyssey, Athena is the divine benefactor of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, and his family. She advocates for Odysseus before the council of the Gods on Mount Olympus, and she provides Odysseus and his son with sage advice, most often in the form of the aged man, Mentor, as the two confront life’s battles.

Nevertheless, Athena does not use her powers to deny her human favorites free will. She allows them to face the consequences of the choices that they make so that they may grow, evolve, and become the best versions of themselves through their own human effort, rather than through divine predestination.