The Odyssey depicts numerous gods and goddesses whose sole purposes are to exude their power and force down on the characters of the epic. In many respects, these gods and goddesses reflect forces of nature or
natural beings. However, Athena’s contributions and actions in The Odyssey are quite different from the others. Athena’s role is more than simply acting as the goddess of wisdom and war craft. Athena acts as a catalyst for motivation and change upon Odysseus and Telemachus. In this sense, Athena’s role can be compared to that of a guardian angel, watching over Odysseus and Telemachus. She motivates and guides the father and son, educating and strengthening them through guidance and self discipline, rather than acting on their behalf.
Athena and Telemachus have a relationship which perhaps could be compared to the relationship between a teacher and a student. Athena acts as Telemachus’ teacher in that her primary interest is to see Telemachus make the transition from a boyhood to manhood. Athena takes such a keen liking to Telemachus mainly because the two are characteristically similar. Both Athena and Telemachus have practical and keen minds, while also being brave and bold. Athena gives Telemachus his first “test” in initiating his transition towards manhood by sending him on a journey to claim a name for himself. In Book I, Athena decrees that Telemachus should set out on a journey spanning over Pylos, Nestor, and Sparta (Lines 324-228). Athena claims that Telemachus should either gather news about the condition and locations of his father, or if Odysseus us dead, Telemachus should return to Ithaca as king. This journey is symbolic of a “coming of age” trip for Telemachus. Telemachus leaves Ithaca as a boy and travels to far away lands. There he will visit strangers, and in turn gain knowledge, wisdom, and maturity, and return to his homeland as a less of a boy, and more of a man. Athena’s role as a guardian angel over Telemachus is also foiled in her initiating this journey for Telemachus. Telemachus, understandably being only a young boy at the beginning of his journey is apprehensive about his wellbeing. In Book II, Athena reappears to Telemachus, disguised as Mentor, and reassures Telemachus that he will be safe and protected throughout his journey (lines 285-288). Athena essentially puts the guidance and courageous spirit of the great warrior Odysseus into the heart and soul of young Telemachus, intending that the thought of Odysseus’ legacy will not only protect and soothe Telemachus, but also aid in his transition to manhood.
Athena’s keen liking of Odysseus also certainly has a great deal to do with the personal connections between the two. Athena is the goddess of battle while Odysseus is a mighty and powerful warrior. Athena takes an especially unique liking to the commonality between herself and great Odysseus. Just as Athena did with Telemachus, she also plays the role of both the teacher and student relationship, with an overtone of guardian angel presence with Odysseus. In Book V, Odysseus is caught in the middle of a violent storm at sea which Poseidon creates in disgust for the god’s behavior in his absence. Odysseus’ boat is destroyed and he is left vulnerably drifting at sea. After initially being saved with Ino’s veil, Athena appears and gives Odysseus guidance and instruction to grip to a ledge and save himself. If not for Athena’s instruction, Odysseus may have perished (lines 443-450). In this instance, Athena acts as both a teacher and guardian angel to Odysseus. Athena gives Odysseus instructions to save himself, but does not do the work for him. Surely Athena could have used her powers to pluck Odysseus from the violent seas and place him on land, but instead, Athena teaches Odysseus to save himself. Athena is more concerned with her role to watch and guide Odysseus, but as demonstrated in this situation, Athena would prefer to see Odysseus prevail and succeed on his own. Athena’s dual role of a teacher and guardian angel also appears in the great battle in Odysseus’ palace. In book XXII, Athena (disguised as mentor) appears at the scene of the battle after Odysseus calls upon him (Mentor disguised) to join him in the battle. However, Athena does not join in yet. Rather, she puts she confidence, power, and strength into Odysseus’ mind that he and Telemachus have the power to fight back against the suitors. Athena goes on to state that it is up to Odysseus and Telemachus, now teamed together as a true father and son, to prove their courage and fortitude in the form of battle (lines 249-264). Again, Athena does not immediately engage in the battle, although she does shortly after. However, Athena prefers to encourage and guide Odysseus and Telemachus, making them personally and mentally stronger. Of course Athena could have used her powers to overthrow the suitors initially, but she prefers to toughen the father and son, and witness their strength and successes rather than act on their behalf.
Athena also acts as a guardian angel as well as an advocate for Odysseus. In book V, in an assembly with the gods (with the exception of Poseidon), Athena speaks on Odysseus behalf for the gods to have mercy on Odysseus, for he has simply lost his way (lines 9-23). In this instance, Athena knows the true good of Odysseus, and that he simply is confused and out of his normal element. However, Athena knows Odysseus’ legacy, and that he is simply a victim of cruel fate. Thus, she gives him not only a chance with the chance with the other gods, but a chance with herself.
Athena is unquestionably a figure whose purpose is to guide, watch over, and teach both Odysseus and Telemachus throughout their journey. Athena also develops the two as leaders, warriors, and more importantly, their growth as human beings and men. It is not coincidence that many of Athena’s appearances are in the identity of Odysseus’ old friend Mentor. The name Mentor is a simile for counselor or teacher, which is exactly the role which Athena assumes throughout The Odyssey. If not for Athena’s presence, all hope for Odysseus and Telemachus may have been lost. Perhaps Athena’s presence was the sole catalyst which reunited Odysseus and Telemachus as father and son, and returned control of Ithaca back to the hands of Odysseus.