Episode 51 The Masked Goddess (Part 12 of How to Have a Mythic Adventure)
Click on the link below to listen to the audio version (5:58).
I’ve been saying that the gods in these stories often leave much for the heroes to interpret. This does not mean, however, that the gods cannot provide clues for the heroes’ benefit. In many of the world’s sacred stories, such clue-giving is the primary means of communication between gods and humans.
The goddess Athena could easily tell young Telemachus that his father Odysseus is still alive, but she does not, even though she wants him to go out and find his father. Instead, she comes to Telemachus disguised as an old seafarer. (This is from Homer, The Odyssey, Robert Fitzgerald, trans. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1963), book 1.) She tells him that his father is rumored to be alive, and she advises him to discover if the rumor is true. He takes her advice, but he meets opposition from some of the locals who want to keep him at home. Athena comes to his aid, but again only in disguise—this time as his trusted friend Mentor (book 2).
Telemachus sails for Pylos and speaks with old Nestor, from whom he hopes to obtain news about his father. Nestor knows nothing about Odysseus’ whereabouts, but he suggests that Telemachus travel to Sparta and ask Menelaus, whose voyage home was long and roundabout. Meanwhile, Athena remains with Telemachus. She knows full well where Odysseus is, but she continues to masquerade as Mentor.
Telemachus travels to Sparta and speaks with Menelaus, and it is there that he learns the truth: his father is alive, but a nymph is holding him captive on a deserted island.
Telemachus has had to work hard to receive this important news, but Menelaus, too, obtained it only after a struggle. During his voyage home, Menelaus was himself in desperate need of information. He knew that the shape-shifting god Proteus could tell him what he needed to know, but he also knew that the god would not answer his questions willingly. To receive information from Proteus, one must lay hold of the god and hang on tight. If Menelaus and his men could get their hands on Proteus and hold him no matter what, then eventually he would give up and answer whatever questions they asked (book 4).
That is what they did: they approached Proteus while he was sleeping and held him tight. The god awoke, startled. He changed into a lion, but they did not let go of him. He became a serpent, but they held tight. He even turned himself into water, but somehow they hung on.
At last the god surrendered and answered the questions they had come to ask. During their conversation, Menelaus happened to learn about the fate of Odysseus.
Athena could have saved everybody a lot of trouble by telling Telemachus the truth right in the beginning, but that is not how greatness is achieved in Greek myth. Telemachus and Menelaus both benefit from their struggles. To make things easier for them would be to cheat them out of the opportunity to accomplish great things.
Later in the story, Athena appears before Odysseus in disguise, too, but he is so far along in his development that such treatment is not necessary (book 13). He plays his part so expertly that Athena smirks and reveals herself to him. Making him her co-conspirator, she then disguises him and advises him to play the role of a vagabond. In his case as in Athena’s, the masquerade serves a purpose: it allows Telemachus, as well as Odysseus’ wife Penelope, to demonstrate their greatness under trying circumstances. To reveal his identity prematurely would make the game too easy for all the contestants, besides alerting Odysseus’ enemies to imminent danger.
Please click on the audio file for my brief commentary.