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by Alfred de Grazia




The Love Affair, as I shall call it, is a story of how the arrogant god of war, Ares, made love to the Golden Goddess Aphrodite in the bed she was supposed to share with her husband, Hephaestus, the lame blacksmith god. Hearing of their adultery from Helios, the sun-god, Hephaestus fashioned an invisible net that trapped the pair in bed. Returning from a pretended trip, he called upon the gods to witness their guilt and would release them only on the promise of the sea-god, Poseidon, to stand bail for the disreputable Ares.

Perhaps this was the first bedroom farce of literature. Its producer, in a manner of speaking, was the Goddess Pallas Athena, patron of the arts and crafts, daughter and favorite of Zeus, father of the gods. She was born some centuries before 1500 B. C. [1] and was originally envisioned in the planet Venus.

Athena was not only the producer of the 'Love Affair' but also of the Iliad and the Odyssey, as I shall seek to show: so she was not a novice in the field of dramaturgy. Her versatility was proverbial. She probably inspired the magnificent setting of Phaeacia and directed the scene closely. She sang it in the guise of the god-inspired Demodocus. Like Shakespeare she acted in her own plays: as herself, she planned the occasion for the story, and in the person of Odysseus, was the honored member of its audience. "I am Pallas Athene, Daughter of Zeus, who always stands by your side and guards you through all your adventures," she reminds Odysseus at one point.

Odysseus's name means "troublemaker" or better "the inveterate troublemaker." Writes George Dimock, "In the Odyssey odyssasthai means essentially 'to cause pain (odynė) and to be willing to do so. '" [2] In her unruffled and sanguine way, often behind the scenes, Athena is the world's greatest troublemaker, as we shall soon learn.

Though she is a mistress of disguises, Athena permitted a picture of her natural human form to develop over the centuries. E. V. Rieu, who has provided one of the many translations of the Odyssey that are available, writes that "we may think of her as a tall and beautiful woman, with brilliant eyes, clad in the white robe, with the aegis, a goatskin cloack, across her breast, a crested helmet on her head, and a long spear in her hand." [3] Sometimes an owl and a snake accompany her. However, we would warn that Athena's appearance is as varied as her characterizations, and her names are so many that some are still to be unearthed.

"Most vivid and alive of Homer's gods," writes Rieu, "she dominates the Odyssey. And this is true even though there are moments when we are at a loss to say whether the poet means us to imagine her actual presence or to understand only that his characters are exercising the motherwit which she personifies."

The whole story of the Odyssey itself can be retold briefly here. The saga begins with an assembly of the Gods. Athena catches her father Zeus reminiscing on the just killing of an evil man, and, taking advantage of the absence of Poseidon, reminds him that the worthy Odysseus has still not reached home, although it is the tenth year after the destruction of Troy; for seven years he has been detained by the nymph Calypso on an island. And for three years before then, he had wandered: he had sacked a town, landed among the lotus-eaters who relished an amnesia-promoting vegetable, and had been captured by a giant man-eating Cyclops whom he blinded in order to escape.

This proved to be unfortunate. The Cyclops was a son of Poseidon, whose enmity now marked Odysseus for unending disasters.

The wanderers landed on the floating island of Aeolia where they were treated royaly. Upon departing, Odysseus was given a bag of rushing winds that was not to be opened, and granted a fair breeze for home. But his crew, acting in the typically greedy and impetuous manner that was to destroy them all ultimately, opened the pouch in envy of its supposedly precious contents. The fierce winds escaped; the way was lost. A landing among savage Laestrygonians brought a slaughter of many of the company. Fleeing, they found the island of the witch, Circe. After some difficulties (she changed a number of the men into pigs for a time), they conciliated her and spent a luxurious year at her palace.

Upon his departure, Circe gave Odysseus means of discovering his own fate and reviewing the history of many a departed soul through a visit to Hades and a talk with the seer Teiresias. Pausing at Circe's island afterwards, Odysseus received further instructions that would carry him past the seductive Sirens, and through the narrow straits between Scylla, a grasping monster, and Charybdis, a swallower of ships.

However, he is overruled by his men when he begs them to sail past the Island of the Sun. They land, and are kept ashore by storms until out of supplies. While Odysseus sleeps, the crew seize and eat the fat cattle of Helios. The Sun protests to Zeus (Jupiter) who destroys their ship and lets Odysseus drift alone for nine days until washed up on the shore of Ogygia, the island of Calypso. Seven years pass.

Then it is that, following upon Athena's plea, the order of Zeus moves him on and he was sailing well until Poseidon, returning from a visit among the Ethiopians, spied him and dashed his little boat to pieces. The nymph Ino helped him to stay afloat and Poseidon turned away, satisfied. Athena smoothed the winds and seas so that he might survive, and arranged for him to fall into the hands of the Phaeacians.

Now it is to the Phaeacian episode that I shall attend closely, but a few words more will bring the story to an end. Odysseus is transported from Phaeacia, with many gifts, and laid upon Ithaca, asleep. Athena appears to him and advises him: his wife, Penelope, still withholds her choice of a betrothed, though it is demanded of her by her many suitors, who meanwhile feast at the expense of the palace. His son, Telemachus, also faithful, is young and indecisive. Odysseus is to go first in disguise among his people, then to prepare his weapons, then, with the help of his son and two loyal slaves, to challenge and slaughter the suitors. So he does, and wins back his possessions and his wife. A final battle with the surviving opposition ensues but Athena calls Odysseus off, for he is supported but warned by Zeus. "So spoke Athene, and he obeyed, and was glad at heart. Then for all time to come a solemn covenant betwixt the twain was made by Pallas Athene, daughter of Zeus, who bears the aegis, in the likeness of Mentor both in form and in voice" [4] . Thus ends the Odyssey.

Notes (Chapter 1: An Athena Production)

1. William Mullen, "A Reading of the Pyramid Texts," III Pensee No 1 (1973), 10; pp. 13-4.

2. George E. Dimock, Jr., "The Name of Odysseus," in George Steiner and Robert Fagles, eds., Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays, New York: Prentice Hall, 1962, p. 106.

3. The Odyssey, Penguin edition, introduction.

4. A. T. Murray, translator, Homer: The Odyssey, 2 vols. (New-York: Putnam's Sons, 1919), II, 443. Mentor was the lifetime guardian and advisor of Odysseus. He had been left behind when Odysseus sailed for Troy. (All line references to the Greek text will be to the Murray translation.)

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