The Odyssey Book 1: lines 32-112

Mytikas, summit of Mount Olympus

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This section is the first real scene of the story. On Mt. Olympus, the traditional home of the Greek gods, Athena is addressing Zeus. (The Wikipedia page linked for Zeus is mostly accurate except for the equating of the modern Greek word for the Christian G-d to the ancient Zeus. The same word did exist is ancient Greek as an alternate name for Zeus, but it’s both a separate word and in modern Greek only means the Christian G-d.)

One may notice that Athena, the goddess of stratagems will always be the advocate of Odysseus and his family. Without denying that the Greeks believed to varying degrees in their gods’ existence, one should always bear in mind how in the Greeks’ mind the debates and conflicts among the gods and the actions of the gods would be perceived by mere human beings. When Athena speaks, in the human world Odysseus or Telemachus (as the case may be) would be figuring out a plan and/or putting it into action. Zeus speaks both as the advocate of justice and in his capacity of king of the gods as the spokesman of the gods as a whole. In this way, Zeus personifies the force of justice in the world and more broadly all the assembled forces in the world. So as Athena speaks to Zeus, Odysseus and his family are using their brains to defy the elements in the world which seem united against them.

From the lamentable summary of Odysseus’ woes, the poet goes right into Athena’s speech which begins cunningly with nothing related to Odysseus to all appearances. She remarks that mortals accuse the gods of being unjust, a complaint cued to get Zeus’ sympathetic ear. In the Greek world propaganda and self-promotion were effective, and Odysseus was a master of the art. Yet Athena starts not with Odysseus’ case but with that of Agamemnon, who at this point in the story had been murdered roughly ten years previously on his return home after a ten year absence fighting in Troy. One may contrast the version of this story later told in the Oresteia by Aeschylus.

Odysseus and his men blinding the cyclops Poly...

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From there Athena seemingly moves to the subject of Odysseus and his plight. While Zeus is generally sympathetic, he points out that Poseidon remains steadfastly against Odysseus. The reference to the blinding of Poseidon’s son, the cyclops Polyphemus, hints at events we as the audience will hear about later. Apart from the foreshadowing, we should understand this as indicating that the chief obstacle to Odysseus remains the dangers of the sea. The cyclops is in this sense just emblematic of strange dangers in foreign lands.

At this point Athena then suggests getting Odysseus’ son Telemachus on the move. Young Telemachus has not offended Poseidon or is not going far abroad at sea. Thus we get the endorsement or at least consent of getting things moving on Odysseus’ home-front by Zeus, the embodiment of justice in the world and the voice of the combined forces in the world.

With regard to Telemachus, the chief ambiguity is whether he is being manipulated by others or is using his head himself. Athena’s commentary and her actions leave this ambiguous, as they are largely meant to at this point. For Telemachus, the Odyssey is a coming of age story. That is the portion of the story we’re about to begin with.

N.B.: Also notice the pun on Odysseus’ name in line 62. The epic is filled with such humorous counter-points.

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