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Athena's Metamorphosis

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Supporting the Prince: Why Athena’s Metamorphosis was a Strategic Success

Book 1: 118-373, Athena visiting Telemachus as Mentes will be the section under analysis. In Homer’s “The Odyssey” there are many instances of disguise and dissimulation. If you include maintaining your appearance while withholding your name, Odysseus often disguises himself. This is also consistent with part of his personality described as cunning. Comparatively, Athena disguises her whole appearance after determining it necessary to accomplish her goals; representing prudence and wisdom. Furthermore, metamorphosis is also a common phenomenon in the poem and in Greek mythology. Gods transform themselves and have the power to modify other beings to accomplish their goals and interact with their mortals of choice. Be it through not revealing your name, or by changing your appearance, in Book 1, Athena achieves her goals of rousing Telemachus through physical metamorphosis. Sigmund Freud once said that illusions commend themselves to us because they save us pain and allow us to enjoy pleasure instead (Freud 8). In the case of Athena she stands for wisdom, prudence and being a strategic goddess. Disguising herself as Mentes was a successful illusion because it conveyed her message from the correct perspective with a softened act of kindness and support towards Telemachus’ pending plight for his father’s whereabouts. The notion of accomplishing one’s means through metamorphosis questions what truth is versus a question of perspective. It is through multiple perspectives that the metamorphosis of Athena is considered a success. As Athena visits Ithaca her choice of illusion as Mentes is a convincing act because of Mentes gender, social standing, family connection, and encouraging words spoken to Telemachus. He absorbs what she speaks to him, and it succeeds in motivating him because the illusion allowed him to save the pain of having a goddess visit him, and feel good about claiming his manhood. From an evaluation standpoint, Mentes succeeds physically before all else. He is a male stranger who evokes “xenia”, the ancient Greek concept of hospitality, the generosity and courtesy shown to those who are far from home and/or associates of the person bestowing guest-friendship” (The Free Dictionary). He as a stranger is accepted into Odysseus’ home without explanation, and offered food and drink before anything else. Telemachus demonstrates his proper manners in line 143-146, “Greetings Stranger! Here in our house you’ll find a royal welcome. Have supper first, then tell us what you need.” Telemachus immediately draws him away from the suitors assuming the stranger’s knowledge of his father. If the guest were female, or a goddess the suitors would have been distracted and Telemachus could not have communicated with the guest. Two-fold, if the stranger were female if begs the question if Telemachus would have listened or not. As a male, Mentes afforded the luxury of fitting in with visiting Telemachus and calling upon his father’s memory through an almost boisterous reminiscence of glory and war, which transmutes Telemachus’ view of his future. This is confirmed in line 354 when Telemachus thanks the guest for his counsel: “You’ve counseled me with so much kindness now, like a father to a son. I won’t forget a word.” Telemachus has been without fatherly guidance his whole life, which Athena recognizes and uses a male persona to instill confidence in the young prince of Ithaca. Furthermore on the success of Athena’s metamorphosis, she earns Telemachus’ attention through the delivery of a falsehood about her, or rather Mentes’ social standing and relationship with Odysseus. “I see him now. How often we used to meet in the old days before he embarked for Troy.” As lines 241-42 articulate Mentes story, Athena earns Telemachus’ trust by connecting Mentes with Odysseus. Athena using this strategy demonstrates the notion of truth from a trustworthy source through proximity of familial relations. She uses the name of a boy’s father to summon the man from within Telemachus. It is through this illusion of camaraderie that Mentes convinces Telemachus that if only his father were present, he could slay all of the suitors and thus end their burden on Ithaca. Another integral piece to the success of Athena’s metamorphosis is the kindness and politeness with which Athena wisely interacts with Telemachus. She never criticizes his mother, or his role so far in Ithaca since Odysseus’ departure. She offers compliment after compliment to motivate Telemachus such as “the head and the fine eyes”, and “tall and handsome” in order to make him feel capable to claim his manhood. She also only ever offers advice, rather than saying that she knows better as seen on line 321; “I have some good advice, if only you will accept it.” She recognizes the eagerness with which man needs his free will to accept advice and direction, and let’s Telemachus think it is his own doing by always offering knowledge on the premise that it can be accepted by choice. Metonymy is also representative of the progression of Athena throughout the scene. She is welcomed as “stranger” but as she explains herself it quickly changes to “my friend” implying a trust has been formed between her and Telemachus. Perhaps a more finite reason for not showing her physical self to Telemachus was that if mortals saw immortals they would be blinded. Her disguise was to conceal her power. This section of Book 1 also indicates much compassion, wisdom, and the necessity of illusion to portray truth. Illusion permits for portions of the truth to be revealed in digestible portions. Even throughout the Odyssey the process through which metamorphosis occurs is not described or narrated temporally. According to Dr. Frontisi-Ducroux, even ancient Greek texts show that the change in category is simply stated as a sudden event without any transition. There is no descriptions as to how scientifically it happened, just that it did for a reason; to convey truth without conveying identity, thus making the truth more malleable to the individual’s interpretation which creates stronger ownership of the facts presented. What is acceptable throughout Athena’s metamorphosis is also of interest in this section. There is dialogue between Telemachus and Athena, but also instances of stream of consciousness where the, what would have been orator, or narrator speaks as if he is inside Telemachus’ “heart obsessed with grief…he could almost see his magnificent father, here.” This creates an increasingly authentic feeling for the audience as they begin to understand a son’s anguish over life without a king and father. Furthermore what is acceptable as truth in this passage is challenged through the dispute of Athena’s exit on lines 367-68, as “the bright-eyed goddess flew like a bird in soaring flight.” This simile implies that either Athena, the goddess, or Mentes, the man, flew into the air in likeness of a bird from the middle of Telemachus’ manor. Dr. Stephanie West in the Oxford commentary on Homer’s Odyssey suggests that, “it is absurd to image Mentes suddenly levitating towards the roof and squeezing out through a chink in the tiles; we are surely meant to suppose that he suddenly vanished and Telemachus saw instead a bird flying overhead” (West 83). Thus, reliance on the orator’s translation can affect the reader’s understanding of the narrative. Overall there are multiple facets of metamorphosis. The ones present in the physical change of Athena in Book 1 of “The Odyssey” call to question the power of the gods and the strategy of Athena in this situation. Her knowledge to visit as a trustworthy, male character, who was kind, supportive and encouraging successfully motivated Telemachus to her purposes and to his claim to his manhood. For these reasons her disguise is not considered deceitful, but rather a necessary means to an end executed through an illusion.

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