The Gods

The gods in Homer are a fascinating area of study in terms of Greek religion, and as literary masterpieces. They form a set of divinities completely at odds with modern Christian conceptions of what a god must be to be a god, for they seem extremely human in so many ways, subject to emotions and impulses which are not always the wisest in the situation. Each god in the Odyssey has a carefully defined character and a distinct role to play, both in relation to each other, and with mortals.

The Olympians operate under a rigid hierarchy. Athena could not help Odysseus during his great wanderings because she feared the wrath of Poseidon, as she is the first to admit at XIII.341-343. But even the god of the sea must obey Zeus, who is able without dissent to make his furious brother commute the sentence he has passed on the Phaeacians at XIII.158. His will is always final, and throughout most of Homer, he appears to be virtually assimilated with Fate itself, which is immutable and ineluctable (although see the problematic passage at Iliad XVI.440ff. on a difficulty to this view).

Nevertheless, despite the hierarchy, each of the gods is part of a community in which they are all at ease with one another, holding councils together to discuss the affairs of mortals, as at the introduction of the epic, and never favouring humans over each other. The Iliad makes this distinction more clearly, where the jollity of life on Olympus is often contrasted with the bitter short-lived human struggles at Troy. The Odyssey has less need for such a treatment, as it has less interest in the frailty of mortal life and the breakdown of men's behaviour in society than its counterpart and more in the individual and the power of divine assistance in overcoming the trials of adversity. Athena is a consistent champion of Odysseus (except when she fears Poseidon's wrath) and as such is the main deity in the work, whereas the Iliad has a greater focus on a wider range of Olympians.

A brief summary of the Olympians and their characters follows. Zeus, supreme on Olympus, is frequently invoked as the protector of suppliants. This role of his is important to the motif of guest friendship which is a key theme throughout. His wife Hera is barely mentioned in the Odyssey. Poseidon is far less majestic a figure than his brother. His rage against Odysseus, although he has good reason for hatred, bearing in mind the blinding of his son Polyphemus, leads him to persecute him without mercy until the hero's very death, which Teiresias explains will come from the sea (XI.134). Apollo and Artemis are relatively unimportant. Ares, Aphrodite and Hephaestus mainly feature in the story of Demodocus, but appear little elsewhere. Hermes takes over Iris' role (in the Iliad) as chief messenger of the gods, and comes across as a charming and courteous young man. Athena is a true daughter of Zeus in the virtues she displays throughout the Odyssey. She is not omnipotent, but is the paradigm, in mortal eyes at least of all that embodies intelligence, courage and quick thinking. In the council of the gods at the outset, it is she who formulates the plan to end Odysseus' torment, and when he arrives on Ithaca she devises the disguise of the tramp for him. Nor does she lack a sense of humour - in the meeting with Odysseus mentioned above, she gently teases him for the lies he tells her.

Scholars have often seen the gods in the Odyssey as sometimes representing psychological forces in what might be termed allegorical symbolic representation. On numerous occasions, Odysseus has an emotion or idea thrust into him by the goddess Athena. This has been rationalised by some as Athena representing a psychological impulse and no more. This hypothesis is overly crude and misses part of the point of Homer's portrayal of the gods. Even when Athena casts 'menos' (strength) into her protégé's mind, she is still the same goddess who has such a developed character throughout the rest of the work. As such, she is too complex a figure to stand in for a mere emotional or intellectual response to a situation - she is her own person at all times, not an abstract cipher.

There are a number of lesser gods in the Odyssey. All are far more numinous than any human, but Odysseus is eventually shown to be the master of each, a sign of the magnificence of his heroism. He easily overcomes Circe, though of course he needs the help of Hermes to achieve this, another sign of the strict hierarchy of the gods, where the Olympian is higher than the sorceress. Polyphemus is defeated by Odysseus' stratagem, despite his superhuman status (even if he is not a 'proper' god). Calypso is persuaded to release him at Hermes' behest after seven years of sharing her island and her bed in captivity. The Sirens and Scylla and Charybdis are unable to destroy Odysseus. Thus, his superiority

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