The absence of Odysseus: part two


Pupils over the years have discussed whether Athene was in love with Odysseus. One sixth former was sure of it, and explained how, in her view, Athene loved Odysseus in the purest and most unselfish way: not wanting him for herself, but desiring what was best for him; devoting all her efforts to getting him home; giving him victory over the Suitors; protecting his son and—especially significant—encouraging and comforting his wife.

“Furthermore,” she went on, “look at this!” She rose from her desk and pointed to a picture on the wall. It was the bas-relief of Athene grieving at a tombstone (see under Images menu). “It’s got to be her at Odysseus’s grave.”

This was interesting: I had been told that the sculpture was a generic one of Athene mourning for the dead of her city in the Peloponnesian War.

Students have noted how the interventions of Athene are decisive in Odysseus’s arrival home and in his escaping death at the hands of the Suitors. Without her, he would not have prevailed. Other immortals who help him include Aeolus, Hermes and Leucothoe, the last named ‘taking pity on him’ and lending her veil to protect him from injury or drowning; and then there is the river god who welcomes him into Phaeacia in answer to his prayer. But the Odyssey is about a man rescued, protected, brought home and restored by a goddess.

There are those gods who, for their own satisfaction, want him never to go home: Poseidon from hatred, and Calypso from love of the most possessive kind. But with Calypso, there is pathos: no, Odysseus does not want to live and sleep with her and put on immortality; he wants to be mortal and go home to his Penelope.

He has already stayed a year enchanted by Circe, the ‘goddess with plaited hair’ who was beginning to transform him until his men called him to order, and he does not want it: he wants his wife and son.

In Homer, as in Shakespeare, the more one looks, the more is to be found: and a question is often answered by a return to the text.

Next post: Myth, legend and folktale.

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