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The Odyssey: The Role of Gods in Human Lifes

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Homer’s The Odyssey is the epic tale of Odysseus and his travels home from the Trojan War, facing monsters, mutiny, and other countless setbacks. Throughout the story, Odysseus is stuck maneuvering between two gods, Poseidon and Athena. Their actions provide an interesting look into the role the gods play in the human lives: more like demigods, it would seem, the gods interfere at times, but in general human destiny is in human control, or in the dominion of fate, which is separate and greater than the will of the gods.

The major conflict of the story begins because of the intervention of a god; Poseidon listens to his son’s prayer for revenge after Odysseus blinds him, begging that, “should destiny intend he shall see his roof again … far be that day, and dark the years between,” (163) and begins to create trouble. Nonetheless, it is worthy of note that it was not the scheming of a god that led Odysseus astray in the first place. He had no particular need to enter to the cave of the kyklops, nor was he tricked. It was only vanity, curiosity, and greed that goaded him into it, eventually even driving him into revealing his name and, we are left to presume, thereby making the prayer of the kyklops that much more effective. Secondly, even though Aiolos does call their voyage “cursed by heaven” (167) when they are blown back to his island, this first ill to befall them has nothing to do with the divine, but again only human weakness. Ulysses does not tell his men what is in the bag of winds (a possible oversight in leadership), and they, seeking treasure, open it up while he sleeps, thereby tossing the ship away from Ithaka.

The world of Homer has room for free will, divine intervention, and also, as the kyklops mentions, fate. Fate seems an idea somehow larger than even the gods, for none of them are willing (or perhaps even able) to circumvent it; Poseidon himself says that although he would like to kill Odysseus, fate does not allow it, and so he will content himself with making Odysseus “suffer all the way” (233). Some things simply must be, despite the desires of gods or man.

The complex interweaving of these forces embodies what Zeus mentions in the very beginning, namely that “greed and folly double the suffering in the lot of man” (2). Zeus suggests that a certain amount of suffering is allotted to man from the outset (fate), but that a full half of it comes about from the mistakes man himself makes. The gods, of course, seem able to mitigate or compound this suffering as the whim strikes them. Athena, for example, offers a lot of aid to Odysseus, including disguising him (fog, the appearance of a beggar), advice, and various other magical tricks, among other things, even lengthening time for him so that he might enjoy his first night back with Penelope. But she does not do everything for him. In the fight, “she gave no overpowering aid” despite her divine powers, because “father and son must prove their mettle yet” (417). Odysseus, also, despite the support of Athena, still must scheme and connive. It is as if the gods can magnify or combat the work of men, but not replace it — as the aphorism goes, the gods can only help those who help themselves. In something of a logical trap, it may even be because of Odysseus’ abilities that she is willing to help him in the first place. His endless strategems are why she says to him, “I cannot fail you, in your evil fortune” (240), although we are left with the feeling that his own abilities still might have been enough to succeed, though perhaps not as smoothly.

One god (Athena) circumventing the will of another god (Poseidon) is interesting for additional reasons, as well. Firstly, contrary to more modern perspectives, it is a second indication of the limitations inherent in Homer’s conception of the gods. When Poseidon is gone, Athena is able to convene a council to help Odysseus, without Poseidon knowing or being able to do anything about it. One cannot imagine say, Yahweh, being tricked in a similar way. The gods are neither all-knowing nor all-powerful, and apparently they can be distracted. Due to these factors, and since the gods appear to have all-too-human limitations regarding the number of things in which they can involve themselves, they are not to be overly depended upon.

The way in which Odysseus is trapped between Poseidon and Athena also evidences that, as considered in the Euthyphro, if there are a variety of gods with conflicting interests, then no one way of living can be pleasing to all of them. Odysseus must struggle with the will of Athena, Poseidon, Helios, Zeus, et al., which is not an easy task. In the Homeric world, then, one might imagine people attempting to get by as best they can and hoping not to attract the ire of any gods, and maybe occasionally even courting favor (through sacrifice, etc.). This stands in stark resolution to a contemporary Christian ideal in which the divine proscribes an entire way of life. Although this is not to say that even in the Homeric world the desires of the gods do not have some impact on behavior. For example, the strict rules of hospitality evidenced many times in the epic seem based both on fear of reprisal from a god and the ever-looming possibility that any random visitor may be a god in disguise. There are also indications that gods eventually enforce justice — as Odysseus suggests happened to the suitors.

One remaining difficulty has to do with how much we believe that everything Homer attributes to a god really is the action of a god. “Some god, invisible” (169), for example, is blamed for the party’s landing of the island of Kirke. Is this really fair, or is it just luck or human action? This question can be applied to many other actions said to be ascribed to gods in the novel, from falling asleep to weather patterns. It is definitely a fair point — Homeric characters themselves seem vague about what to blame for certain turns of events. This notwithstanding, it is clear the gods do impact human life at least sometimes in the Homeric world (i.e., lightning bolts), but the weight their actions are given in human affairs pales in comparison to the much more integral forces of fate and human self-determination.

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The Odyssey: the Role of Gods in Human Lifes. (2018, May 29). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 6, 2022, from
“The Odyssey: the Role of Gods in Human Lifes.” GradesFixer, 29 May 2018,
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