The gods and various mythological creatures — from minor gods to nymphs to monsters — play an integral role in Odysseus’s adventures. They may act as puppeteers, guiding or diverting Odysseus’s course; they may act as anchors, keeping Odysseus from journeying home; or they may act as obstacles, such as Cyclops, Scylla and Charbidis, or the Sirens. While Gods like Athena are generally looking out for Odysseus’s best interests, Aeolus, Poseidon, and Helios beg Zeus to punish Odysseus, but because his fate is to return home to Ithaca, many of the Gods simply make his journey more difficult. Below if a brief slideshow of images from Barry B. Powell’s new free verse translation of Homer’s The Odyssey depicting the god and other mythology.
Kirkê is the goddess of magic, also referred to as a witch or enchantress. Odysseus’ arrival to her island is described as follows, “the house of Kirkê, made of polished stone, in an open meadow. There were wolves around it from the mountains, and lions whom Kirkê had herself enchanted by giving them potions” (10.197-199). When several of Odysseus’ men enter through her doors, she turns them into “beings with the heads of swine, and a pig’s snort and bristles and shape, but their minds remained the same” (10.225-227). However, Odysseus receives assistance from Hermes when he is given a powerful herb that wards off the effect any of Kirke’s potions. Odysseus stays with her for one year, and then decides that he must go back home to Ithaca. As mentioned previously, Kirkê tells him that he must sail to Hades, the realm of the dead, to speak with the spirit of Tiresias.
Kirkê Offering the Cup to Ulysses by John William Waterhouse. 1891. Oil on canvas. Dimensions 149 cm × 92 cm (59 in × 36 in). Gallery Oldham, Oldham.
Shipwrecked from the storm that Zeus conjures up to punish him, Odysseus manages to float over to Ogygia where he encounters the nymph and beautiful goddess Kalypso with whom Odysseus embarks on a seven-year relationship with. She is a nymph, or a nature spirit, who acts as a barrier between Odysseus fulfilling his destiny and returning home to Ithaca. In Book 5, Athena says to Zeus, “he lies on an island suffering terrible pains in the halls of great Kalypso, who holds him against his will. He is not able to come to the land of his fathers” (5.12-14).
Kalypso receiving Telemachos and Mentor in the Grotto detail by William Hamilton. 18th century.
Odysseus and Herakles meet in the Underworld, and also encounters Herakles’ daughter Megara and mother Amphitryon. Odysseus recalls seeing Herakles and says, “Herakles was like the dark night, holding his bare bow and an arrow on the string, glaring dreadfully, a man about to shoot. The baldric around his chest was awesome—a golden strap in which were worked wondrous things, bears and wild boars and lions with flashing eyes, and combats and battles and the murders of men. I would wish that the artist did not make another one like it!” (11.570-576).
Herakles crowned with a laurel wreath, wearing the lion-skin and holding a club and a bow, detail from a scene representing the gathering of the Argonauts. From an Attic red-figure calyx-krater, ca. 460–450 BC. From Orvieto (Volsinii).
Odysseus and his men take refuge on the island of Thrinacia (the island of the sun) during their journey. They remain there for a month, but the crew’s provisions eventually run out, and Odysseus’ crew members slaughter the cattle of the Sun. When the Sun god (Helios) finds out, he asks Zeus to punish Odysseus and his men. Helios demands, “If they do not pay me a suitable recompense for the cattle, I will descend into the house of Hades and shine among the dead!” (12.364-366). Zeus agrees and strikes Odysseus’ ship with lightning and kills all of Odysseus’ crew members.
Head of Helios, middle Hellenistic period. Holes on the periphery of the cranium are for inserting the metal rays of his crown. The characteristic likeness to portraits of Alexander the Great alludes to Lysippan models. Archaeological Museum of Rhodes.
Shipwrecked after Poseidon sinks his ship, Odysseus encounters Ino (Leucothea) who takes pity on him. She leads him toward the land of the Phaeacians and says, “Here, take this immortal veil and tie it beneath your breast. You need not fear you will suffer anything. And when you get hold of the dry land with your hands, untie the veil and throw it into the wine-dark sea, far from land. Then turn away” (5.320-324).
Leucothea (1862), by Jean Jules Allasseur (1818-1903). South façade of the Cour Carrée in the Louvre palace, Paris.
In Book 10, The Achaeans sail from the land of the Cyclops to the home of Aiolus, ruler of the winds. He gifts Odysseus with a bag containing all of the winds in order to guide Odysseus and his crew home. However, the winds escape from the bag due to Odysseus’ men believing that the bag contains gold and silver, and end up bringing Odysseus and his men back to Aiolia. Aiolos provides Odysseus with no further help from then on, as he says, “It is not right that I help or send that man on his way who is hated by the blessed gods” (10.72-73). This is to say that Aiolos judges Odysseus’ return as a bad omen.
This image is a Roman mosaic from the House of Dionysos and the Four Seasons, 3rd century AD, Roman city of Volubilis, capital of the Berber king Juba II (50 BC-24 AD) in the province of Mauretania, Morocco. The Romans loved to decorate their floors with themes taken from Greek myth, and many have survived.
Zeus is the ruler of Mount Olympus and all of its inhabitants, and is referred to as “the son of Kronos, god of the dark cloud who rules over everything” in the Odyssey (13.26-27). Though he does not have a predominant role in the Odyssey, his presence is felt as he is the main consulting force of the other deities. He makes an important declaration about the notion of free will in Book 1, and goes on to point out that he sent his messenger Hermes to warn Aigisthos not to kill Agamemnon, but yet the mortal chose not to follow the advice. Zeus says, “And now he has paid the price in full,” in response to Aigisthos’ death. In other words, he believes that the gods can only intervene to a certain degree, but the mortal world has the ultimate control over their own fate.
Statue of a male deity, brought to Louis XIV and restored as a Zeus ca. 1686 by Pierre Granier, who added the arm raising the thunderbolt.
Hermes weighing souls (psychostasis). In Book 5, Hermes, messenger of the gods, is sent to tell the nymph Kalypso to allow Odysseus to leave so he can return home after several years of being detained on the island of Ogygia. Hermes is also known as the god of boundaries, and as such he is Psychopompos, or “soul-guide”: He leads the souls of the dead to the house of Hades. In a sense, Odysseus is dead, imprisoned on an island in the middle of the sea by Kalypso, the “concealer.” Here the god is shown with winged shoes (in Homer they are “immortal, golden”) and a traveler’s broad-brimmed hat, hanging behind his head from a cord. In his left hand he carries his typical wand, the caduceus, a rod entwined by two copulating snakes. In his right hand he holds a scale with two pans, in each of which is a psychê, a “breath-soul” represented as a miniature man (scarcely visible in the picture). Athenian red-figure amphora from Nola, c. 460 BC, by the Nikon Painter.
When Odysseus is on the witch-goddess Kirkê’s island (discussed later), she tells him that he must sail to Hades, the realm of the dead, to speak with the spirit of Tiresias. The underworld is described by Odysseus as a place where “total night is stretched over wretched mortals” (11.18-19). While we do not meet the god Hades directly, his realm is explored by Odysseus. During his time spent in the underworld, Odysseus meets many different people who he had met or been directly influenced by at different points in his life, including his former shipmate Elpenor, his mother Anticleia, and warriors such as Agamemnon, Achilles, Ajax, Minos, Orion, and Heracles.
Hades with Cerberus (Heraklion Archaeological Museum)
Poseidon holding a trident. Poseidon is the Greek god of the Sea, or as referred to in the epic poem, “the earth-shaker.” The god is long haired and bearded and wears a band around his head. The trident may in origin have been a thunderbolt, but it has been changed into a tuna spear. Corinthian plaque, from Penteskouphia, 550–525 BC. Musée du Louvre, CA 452
Approaching the Phaeacian princess Nausicaä for the first time, Odysseus asks, “are you a goddess, or a mortal? If you are a goddess, one of those who inhabit the broad heaven, I would compare you in beauty and stature and form to Artemis, the great daughter of Zeus” (6.139-142).
Wearing an elegant dress and a band about her hair, Artemis carries a torch in her left hand and a dish for drink offerings in her right hand (phialê), not her usual attributes of bow and arrows. She is labeled POTNIAAR, “lady Artemis.” An odd animal, perhaps a young sacrificial bull, gambols at her side. Athenian white-ground lekythos, c. 460-450 BC, from Eretria.
Aphrodite and Ares
Referred to as the “godlike” visitor, Odysseus is honored during a Phaeacian celebration hosted by Nausicaä’s parents. During the ceremony, a poet named Demdokos plays a song on his lyre, “the love song of Ares and fair-crowned Aphrodite, how they first mingled in love, in secret, in the house of Hephaistos” (8.248-250).
The adultery of Ares and Aphrodite. Clad only in a gown that comes just above her pubic area, Aphrodite holds a mirror while her half-naked lover, Ares, sitting on a nearby bench, embraces her and touches her breast. The device that imprisoned them is visible as a cloth stretched above their heads. Such paintings were especially popular in Roman brothels in Pompeii. Roman fresco from Pompeii, c. AD 60.
Athena is the most influential goddess, and a catalyst for the events in the story the Odyssey. She is not only the goddess of wisdom, but also of strategy, law and justice, and inspiration among others, and is referred to consistently in the book as “flashing-eyed Athena.” At times in Homer’s epic poem, she acts as a puppeteer throughout Odysseus’ journey as she guides his movements and modifies his and her own appearance to accommodate Odysseus’ circumstances advantageously.
Marble, Roman copy from the 1st century BC/AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor. Related to the bronze Piraeus Athena.
Barry B. Powell is Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His new free verse translation of The Odyssey was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. His translation of The Iliad was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. See previous blog posts from Barry B. Powell.
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