The Odyssean Gods

odysseus

Homer’s portrayal of the gods and goddesses in The Odyssey is completely different from the majority of literatures’ handling of the Greek Gods, and even differs from Homer’s previous work, The Iliad. In most of literature dealing with these Greek Gods, including The Iliad, they are seen as true deities: omniscient and omnipresent, blamed or thanked for every bad or good thing that ever happens. However, with The Odyssey, we have a divergence from this literary theme. While the gods and goddesses are still there in The Odyssey, they are not omnipresent. While they are still all-knowing, they are often seen as more aloof than accepting of blame. In fact, while the gods are acknowledged by all of the characters in The Odyssey, they are more background characters, while the focus is on the human star of the epic, Odysseus. Indeed, most of the gods’ and goddesses’ roles in The Odyssey have them interacting with Odysseus.

The majority of the gods mentioned in the story have small roles to play. Ino gives Odysseus a magical scarf to help him float; she also leads Odysseus toward the Phaecians so he can get back to Ithaca. Hermes tells Calypso to let Odysseus go, warns Odysseus about Circe, and takes the suitors’ spirits from Odysseus’s home to the Underworld after Odysseus kills them all. Heracles is seen briefly in the Underworld as a ghost. Aeolus gives Odysseus a bag of wind, but refuses to help him any further after his men loose it prematurely. Helios gets Zeus to destroy Odysseus’s ship after Odysseus’s men kill Helios’s cows. The other four deities—Athena, Poseidon, Calypso, and Circe—have somewhat major roles to play, but still act within this overarching theme of man taking responsibility for his own actions. They might help or hurt the man along his journey; but, for the most part, they sit back and allow humanity to get along as it will.

Overall, the message of The Odyssey could be interpreted as the gods beginning their withdrawal from the everyday lives of humans. This could parallel the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, wherein Adam and Eve have been living every day of their lives walking with God; but then, once they acquire the knowledge of good and evil, God kicks them from the garden and thus withdraws his everyday interaction with humanity. Similarly, the humans in The Odyssey must learn to walk without the gods and take responsibility for their own actions. Zeus himself says as much at the beginning of The Odyssey, “Lo you now, how vainly mortal men do blame the gods! For of us they say comes evil, whereas they even of themselves through the blindness of their own hearts, have sorrows beyond that which is ordained” (Homer, Book I). In other words, Zeus is acknowledging that humans have much more control over their own lives than they take credit for. “What he is suggesting is that the gods are not acting in aggressive (or for that matter benevolent) ways out of random desire—they are either provoked or evoked and react accordingly” (Smith).

This might be Homer’s way of teaching a lesson to all those who would hear his epic poem. Before this, the average man and woman might be quick to blame the gods for all that goes wrong in their lives. Homer was trying to teach them that, while there are those special heroes like Odysseus with whom the gods and goddesses interact directly, the majority of people need to take responsibility for their own actions. This theme can even be seen in the choice of Odysseus as the hero of this tale. He is not a demi-god like Perseus or Achilles; instead, Odysseus is a normal, mortal man, with whom Homer’s audience can identity. However, Odysseus is special—a master strategist, the hero of the Trojan War, and the King of Ithaca. Thus, he draws the favor of Athena, who pleas for Zeus’s mercy on his behalf: “But my heart is rent for wise Odysseus, that hapless one, who far from his friends this long while suffereth affliction in a seagirt isle” (Homer, Book I).

Athena taking favor with Odysseus is another example of Homer helping to transition his audience from thinking of the gods as responsible for everything to taking responsibility for their own actions. He is, in effect, humanizing the gods. Homer is stating that the gods do not act randomly, according to their own whims; instead they have human responses to each situation, and only interfere under special circumstances. Athena’s pity for Odysseus’s situation “shows the gods as being capable of basic human emotions and that they do not always act with reckless, violent abandon, but have measured responses, based on the mortal in question” (Smith).

Zeus acquiesces to Athena’s plea and sends Hermes to tell Calypso to let Odysseus leave her island; however, he also reminds Athena that the reason Odysseus was shipwrecked on Calypso’s island in the first place is because Odysseus angered Poseidon by blinding his son, Polyphemus the Cyclops:

Yea, how should I forget divine Odysseus, who in understanding is beyond mortals and beyond all men hath done sacrifice to the deathless gods, who keep the wide heaven? Nay, but it is Poseidon, the girdler of the earth, that hath been wroth continually with quenchless anger for the Cyclops’ sake whom he blinded of his eye, even godlike Polyphemus whose power is mightiest amongst all the Cyclôpes. (Homer, Book I)

This interaction between Zeus and Athena in Book I of The Odyssey is indicative of this message of humanity taking responsibility for their own actions on multiple levels. First, Zeus says as much when he laments how mortal men blame the gods for everything, when most things are made worse by man’s own actions. So here we see the blame shifting away from the gods and towards humanity itself. Secondly, Athena favoring Odysseus because of his status as a wise tactician and master strategist, as well as the way Zeus describes Odysseus as “divine” and “understanding,” takes some of the onus away from the gods as it humanizes them. If the gods suffer from favoritism and other human emotions, then it slightly lowers their status as eternal beings.

A specific example of humans being responsible for their own actions and the consequences of those actions is given in Zeus’s retort to Athena, when he reminds her it was Odysseus’s own fault for incurring Poseidon’s rage. Odysseus had tricked Polyphemus into thinking Odysseus’s name was “Nobody.” If Odysseus had left well-enough alone, Poseidon would never have known who it was that blinded his son. However, as Odysseus tells King Alcinous in Book IX, “’I answered him again from out an angry heart: “Cyclops, if any one of mortal men shall ask thee of the unsightly blinding of thine eye, say that it was Odysseus that blinded it, the waster of cities, son of Laertes, whose dwelling is in Ithaca.”’” If Odysseus had not taunted the Cyclops and revealed his true identity after blinding him, Polyphemus might have not called upon his father Poseidon to enact his vengeance. Odysseus likely recognized the error of his boastful ways, as he admits to King Alcinous it was out of “an angry heart” he shouted his true name to Polyphemus. After just demonstrating his guile by blinding the Cyclops and giving him the false name “Nobody,” Odysseus then acts stupidly, blinded by pride and other human emotions, and gives away his true identity.

This small example of Odysseus acting wise and then undoing it with human stupidity is reflected in the gods’ behavior in this story, also. The gods in The Odyssey exhibit human emotions many times. Applying these humanistic traits to the gods is Homer’s way of bringing the gods down from Mount Olympus and placing them on the same level as humanity. The gods show favoritism and seek petty vengeance, just as humans do. Thus, they are not responsible for every little thing that happens to humanity.

The gods and goddesses in The Odyssey act more like spiritual guides than grand, untouchable beings looking down upon humanity from their lofty Mount Olympus. This change in behavior of the gods is clearly seen in the difference between Homer’s two epics. In The Iliad, which depicts the violent Trojan War, the gods are superlative, supernatural beings. In The Odyssey, which chronicles Odysseus’s long journey home from the war, the gods are depicted in many ways as taking the journey with the hero, guiding him at pivotal points along the way.

This theme of lowering the gods to our level can also be found in the Bible. The gods of The Iliad are comparable to the Old Testament God, sitting atop Mount Sinai, directing his wrath towards an unworthy humanity. Then, in the New Testament, God comes down from the mountain in the form of a human, Jesus, to walk alongside humanity as a spiritual guide. In this way, the New Testament’s Jesus could be compared to The Odyssey’s Athena. This is not to say that the Bible plagiarized Homer or vice versa. Instead, this hints at a deeper, underlying, collective unconscious from which these great stories come. It is a microcosm of human evolution, as told through myth.

Our modern world, with its emphasis on scientific theory above religious mythology, is the natural continuation of this theme. After Homer and Jesus took the gods/God from their/his mountaintop high above us to walk alongside us, science has done away with them altogether. The natural conclusion of this theme would be to take the gods from the mountaintop and place them inside us. No longer are the gods on the mountaintop; nor even are they walking among us; instead, the gods are inside us; therefore, we are gods. This theme is appearing in popular culture now, with the emergence of ideas like the Law of Attraction as depicted in The Secret and books like Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, or even in music like Kanye West’s hit single, “I Am a God,” off his 2013 album Yeezus.

 

 

Works Cited

Homer. The Odyssey. “The Harvard Classics.” 1909-14. Bartleby.com. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

Smith, Nicole. “Fate, Conflict, and the Will of the Gods in Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid.” 2012. Article Myriad. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

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The Odyssean Gods

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