Some of the world’s most compelling relationships have their roots in classical mythology. Many different religions have stories or ideals that have similarities to the relationships seen in ancient Greek mythology. From the interaction of mortals and gods we see how different writers viewed religion, family, and society. More specifically we see how the gods influence the way of life of a mortal. In Homer’s Odyssey there are many instances where the gods help mortals through their struggles. However, at the same time, there are situations when gods use their power to all but destroy the lives of the mortals who have displeased them. One of the most intriguing relationships between god and mortal is that of Athena and Odysseus. There are many times when Athena gives Odysseus the helping hand needed to succeed in his ventures to return to Ithaca. The roles that the gods play in the Homeric world compared with Euripides and Sophocles have great similarities as well as differences.
Looking at how Athena seems to take care of Odysseus, it seems that the gods, perhaps only Athena, tend to take a liking to mortals occasionally. You could draw the conclusion that Athena seems to like Odysseus’ family. She shows almost as much interest in Telemachos as she does Odysseus. “Likening herself to Mentor in form and in voice: “Telemachos, already your well-greaved companions are seated at the oars awaiting your urging. Let us go, so that we may not long delay from the journey.”
(Book II, pg 26, lines 401-404) In this passage Athena has taken the form of Mentor, a good companion of Odysseus, and has instructed Telemachos “to go in a ship onto the murky sea to learn of the return of my father who is gone so long.” (Book II, pg 23, lines 262-263) Athena then says, “…hereafter you will not be a coward or senseless. If there is really instilled in you the good might of your father and you are as he was to achieve both word and deed, then the journey will not be fruitless or unachieved.” (Book II, pg 23, Lines 270-273) The significance of these lines is that Athena is telling Telemachos, in the form of Mentor, that he will be protected and will indeed find information concerning his father on this voyage. In Book VII, Odysseus walked through the Phaeacians; however they did not perceive him. “She shed a divine fog about him, with kind thoughts in her heart.”(Book VII, pg 89, lines 41-42) The Phaeacians do not take kindly to one coming from somewhere else. Athena, knowing this, shed the fog around him so he could safely get to the house of King Alcinoos. Based on these two passages, Athena seems to have a special place in her godly heart for Odysseus and Telemachos. All throughout “The Odyssey”, Athena acts as the balancing force for Odysseus. She counteracts the situations that Poseidon puts Odysseus in. For the entire book the relationship between Odysseus and Athena, and Telemachos and Athena is constant. It never really changes in any shape or form. She sometimes takes a different form (i.e. Mentor), but generally they know it is Athena. The relationship between Athena, Odysseus, and Telemachos is like that of a mentor or guide. She provides them with information to help them through their troubled times. She also uses her divine powers to give them a leg up on the situations that are trying to hold them back.
Another relationship that is important to look at is quite different than that of Athena and Odysseus. At the end of Book VII, Odysseus’ men slaughter the cattle of The Sun God, Apollo. They were specifically told not to touch his cattle. Apollo is extremely angry about the disrespect shown to him. Zeus helps to destroy Odysseus’ ship and all his men. “I shall smite their swift ship soon with a gleaming bolt into small pieces, and burn it in the middle of the wine-faced ocean.” (Book VII, pg 172, lines 387-388) It is important to note that in this situation, Zeus is acting on the behalf of Apollo. Sometimes Zeus is thought of as an objective figure. Clearly this is not the case in this situation. He understands that Odysseus’ men have disrespected a god, and they should have to pay for it. The relationship between Zeus and Odysseus is not necessarily as horrible as it appears in this instance. Zeus has said that he actually admires Odysseus for his perseverance.
In Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” the relationship that Apollo has with the people of Thebes is not a bad one. It may appear as though he dislikes the city or the people, but he knows the truth about what is going on. We must first look at the city of Thebes. The city is on a downward spiral so to speak. Apollo brings to light the murder of Laius. “Apollo commands us now- he could not be clearer, “Pay the killers back-whoever is responsible.” (Lines 120-123) Apollo knows that Oedipus killed him. He says that the city will not be cleansed of its “miastor” until they catch the murderer of Laius. Apollo is seen in this Sophoclean play as a healer. Not only does he have the ability to heal Thebes from its downfall, he wants to help the people of the city.
When you directly compare the role that Apollo plays in “The Odyssey” with his role in “Oedipus the King” we see two different sides to The Sun God. Homer writes him as an angry disrespected god that wants nothing but vengeance for the theft of his Hyperion Cattle. He cares nothing for the stupid mistakes of the mortal men in Odysseus’ crew. They did not show him proper respect so they must be punished (killed) for it. In “Oedipus the King” Apollo is the god of Thebes. People sacrifice to him and worship him. He is referred to by Sophocles as the healer. He will set the town straight once they get rid of the pollution. The pollution that Apollo refers to is the murderer of King Laius. Apollo is referred to as a nice, people loving god. For the people of Thebes, Apollo is a forgiving and healing god that wants to help his city. This is a constant relationship throughout the rest of this story. The difference in how Apollo is portrayed by Homer and Sophocles shows how the writers, as well as the people, adapt the gods to fit the needs of their societies and way of life.
In Euripides’ “Medea”, the relationship between The Sun God, Hyperion, and Medea is evil. Medea completes her quest of revenge over Jason. She has killed her children and caused him extreme grief. Hyperion provides Medea with an escape vessel to flea from Corinth. The chorus says that gods work in strange ways that often are not revealed to mere mortals. Sometimes they cause events to happen that just don’t seem right. In this particular story, the gods seem to be on the side of Medea. Her husband divorced her to raise his standings in society. The gods did not seem to see this as honorable or noble. This seems to be the reason that they allowed Medea to follow through with her extreme plan for revenge.
The interaction of the divine and mortal varies from the works of Homer, Sophocles, and Euripides. Homer displays the relationship between Athena and Odysseus as one where she helps him through his struggles because of his true natured heart. In Sophocles, Apollo is known as the healer. He is described as a good god that cares about the people of Thebes. This is almost the opposite of the role that he plays in “The Odyssey”. Homer describes him as vengeful god. He wanted Odysseus and his men to pay for taking his cattle. When we see The Sun God in “Medea” he plays a role that is deceitful and mysterious. He gives Medea the means by which she escapes Corinth. Each prolific writer has their own way to show the differences in how the gods interact with mortals. Though the gods are similar in each text, the relationships they hold with mortals vary and change to fit each story.
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