In Homer’s Odyssey, the deities play a vital role in protecting mortals, while also serving as enforcers of morality and justice. Each god has its own area of influence and interest and frequently intervenes in the lives of mortals. As enforcers of morality, the gods punish mortals acting in corrupt ways. Their justice is often harsh and unforgiving, warning mortals of the consequences of immoral behavior. Mortals appear to be at the mercy of the gods’ desires, demonstrating a significant power imbalance between the two. As a result, mortals constantly sought to appease the gods and earn their favor to ensure their safety and success. This article will explore the role of 6 key ancient Greek gods from Homer’s Odyssey.
1. Poseidon: The Punisher
The mighty Poseidon, the god of the sea, plays a crucial role in Homer’s Odyssey, influencing the fate of mortal characters through his wrath and vengeance. He is described as an unforgiving god punishing those who dare to challenge him or his domain. Poseidon’s anger towards Odysseus stems from the latter’s actions in blinding Polyphemus, the god’s son.
When Odysseus and his crew become trapped on the island of the one-eyed giants known as Cyclopes, one of them, Polyphemus, captures them and starts to devour them. To escape, Odysseus cleverly blinds Polyphemus and escapes under the bellies of his sheep. The Cyclops then calls upon his father, Poseidon, to seek revenge. This results in a series of trials and tribulations for Odysseus on his journey home, as Poseidon unleashes storms that lead to shipwrecks, punishing him for his transgressions. Poseidon’s wrath serves as a cautionary tale against the arrogance of mortals who believed they could defy the gods while emphasizing the inescapable power that the deities possessed.
After this event, Odysseus arrives on the island of the Phaeacians. Poseidon then devises a plan to further punish him. He convinces the Phaeacians to abandon Odysseus on a deserted island as punishment for blinding his son, delaying Odysseus’ homecoming even further. Poseidon’s actions in the Odyssey go beyond expressing his anger towards Odysseus. They serve as a powerful demonstration of the control that the gods have over mortals and the impact their actions can have on them. By inflicting hardship and prolonging Odysseus’ journey, Poseidon’s actions accentuate the extent to which the gods can shape the destiny of mortals and alter the course of events in the mortal world. In ancient Greece, the gods were viewed as omnipotent beings; their wrath was capable of bringing complete destruction upon mortals. This power disparity is exemplified in Poseidon’s actions towards Odysseus, as he inflicts immense suffering upon him and his crew for their supposed transgressions against him.
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2. Athena: The Protector
Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, warfare, and craft, is an integral character in the Odyssey being deeply invested in the success of Odysseus. Athena exhibits her guardianship over Odysseus from the beginning of the story, taking a keen interest in his welfare and proactively working to ensure his safe return to Ithaca.
In Book 1, Athena assumes the guise of Mentes — an old friend of Odysseus — and appears to Telemachus — Odysseus’ son — urging him to stand up to the suitors and seek information about his missing father. Through her guidance, Telemachus sets out on a journey to learn about his father’s whereabouts, instigating the events of the narrative. As the story unfolds, Athena remains an essential ally to Odysseus, providing him with valuable assistance and support on his perilous journey. She appears to Odysseus in various forms, such as a young girl, an old friend, and a shepherd, offering him direction on how to navigate the challenges he faces.
As the goddess of wisdom, Athena represents the power of intellect and strategy in overcoming challenges. In Book 13, she advises Odysseus to assume a beggar’s guise to assess his servants’ loyalty and plan his attack on the suitors. Her guidance is essential to Odysseus’ triumph in defeating the suitors and reclaiming his home and kingdom. While wise and knowledgeable, the goddess is also empathetic and compassionate towards mortals. Her commitment to helping Odysseus is motivated not solely by her divine responsibilities but also by her admiration for his cunningness and resourcefulness. Throughout the epic, Athena serves as a constant presence, directing and protecting Odysseus, as he navigates through the myriad of challenges he faces on his journey. Her direction proves instrumental in helping him to overcome obstacles such as Polyphemus, Circe, and the Sirens.
3. Zeus: The Mediator
Zeus, king of the gods, wields immense influence in the Odyssey. As the most powerful deity, his decisions have far-reaching consequences for the narrative. Throughout the epic, Zeus is presented as a just and impartial god, primarily concerned with upholding the laws of hospitality and punishing those who violate them. Often, he is invoked and prayed to by characters in need of hope and protection. In a moment of desperation, while Odysseus is stranded on the island of Calypso, he turns to Zeus, praying to the king of gods to provide a way for him to escape and return to Ithaca. In response to his plea, Zeus ultimately grants his wish. In another instance, when Athena implores Zeus to aid Odysseus in Book 1, the king of gods agrees to assist, revealing his concern for the well-being of mortals.
However, Zeus also symbolizes power and authority, underscoring the value of obedience and respect for leadership in ancient Greek society. This is exemplified in Book 9, where Odysseus’ crew ignores the gods’ warnings not to harm Helios’ cattle, prompting Zeus to obliterate his ship and crew with a thunderbolt. This moment stresses the consequences of ignoring divine authority.
4. Hermes: The Messenger
In the Odyssey, Hermes plays a minor role in communicating important messages and instructions to other characters. This is particularly observed in Book 5, where Hermes is sent to Calypso’s island to demand the release of Odysseus, who has been held captive there for seven years. In this scene, Hermes embodies the role of a diplomatic messenger, emphasizing the gods’ will and urging Calypso to comply while acknowledging the difficulties of releasing a lover. Furthermore, Hermes assumes a protective and guiding role towards the Odyssean characters. This is exhibited in Book 1, when he appears to Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, in a dream, counseling him to seek help from other kings to search for his father. Similarly, Hermes warns Odysseus of the dangers of Circe’s magic and provides him with a special herb to protect himself.
Hermes’s association with trickery and deception is also significant. In Book 24, he leads the souls of the suitors to the underworld using his magical powers to create a passage and deceive them into following him. By bridging the gap between these two worlds, Hermes’ interventions demonstrate his crucial role in facilitating communication and negotiation between the divine and mortal realms.
5. Circe: The Enchanter
Goddess and enchantress, Circe, remains a fascinating and alluring figure possessing magical abilities that enable her to transform men into animals. However, her character is also defined by her relationship with the protagonist, Odysseus, providing him with important advice on his journey homeward.
Initially, the witch turns Odysseus’ men into swine after they land on her island. However, Odysseus resists her magic and forces her to release his men. This confrontation culminates in a complex dynamic between the two characters, with Circe emerging as a love interest for Odysseus. Ultimately, this leads to Circe’s providing crucial advice to Odysseus, warning him about the Sirens, Scylla, and Charybdis, in addition to instructing him to visit the underworld and seek the guidance of the prophet Tiresias.
Moreover, Circe’s role in the epic can be interpreted as a comment on the power dynamics between men and women in ancient Greek society. As a powerful and independent goddess, she challenges traditional gender roles and expectations, utilizing her intelligence and magical abilities to exert control over those around her. It is important to note, however, that she is only afforded this power through her status as a goddess.
6. Calypso: The Detainer
Calypso, daughter of Atlas, was a nymph and goddess known for her beauty and her powers of enchantment, particularly over men. However, despite her power and status, Calypso’s character is primarily defined by her relationship with the Odyssey’s protagonist, Odysseus, and the challenges that arise from detaining him on her island. The nymph represents a temptation for Odysseus to abandon his responsibilities as a mortal man and embrace the pleasures of the flesh. She even offers Odysseus the gift of immortality, but ultimately, he chooses to return to his mortal life and embrace the challenges of his journey.
Although she does possess genuine affection for the hero, Calypso is driven by her desire for power and control over him. She uses her powers of enchantment to keep him on her island, manipulating him emotionally and psychologically to satisfy her own needs. In the fifth book of the Odyssey, Hermes is tasked by Zeus to travel to Calypso’s island and request the release of Odysseus, who has been kept captive for seven years. Calypso, having fallen in love with Odysseus and wishing to keep him on the island as her eternal lover, resists Hermes’ demands and argues that the gods themselves engage in similar behavior in an attempt to justify her own actions. Despite her status as a goddess and her ability to manipulate mortal men, she is unable to overcome the will of the gods and is forced to release Odysseus.