Who is Aeolus in the Odyssey?
Aeolus is not the most memorable character in the Odyssey, but his unusual role might make him one of the most interesting!
After escaping both the Lotus Eaters and the cyclops, the hero Odysseus found himself on the island of King Aeolus. The wise and content ruler was not just the king of his floating isle, but was also considered a friend of the gods.
As such, he had a level of power virtually unheard of among mortals. Zeus had made him the keeper and commander of the winds.
Aeolus used this amazing ability to help Odysseus in his voyage. The curiosity of his crew, however, released a storm that blew them off course again just as their homeland came into view.
The keeper of the winds refused to help Odysseus any further, believing that his ill luck was a sign that the gods were angry with him. Without the help of Aeolus, the Odyssey lasted for ten years.
How did a human king obtain the power to command the winds, though? The secrets of Aeolus lie not only in his unique abilities, but also in his unusual family.
Aeolus the Keeper of the Winds
Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, had spent ten years fighting in the Trojan War. Having left behind his devoted wife and newborn son, he was eager to return home when the war had ended.
Early in his journey he had already visited strange lands and met unusual people and creatures. He had lost most of his ships in a storm, avoided the narcotic food of the Lotus Eaters, and escaped the cannibalistic cyclops Polyphemus.
After leaving the island of the cyclops, the ship’s next stop was Aeolia. The floating island was the realm of King Aeolus, who was a friend of the gods.
The king’s island was surrounded by walls of sturdy bronze and his family spent their days in a continuous feast. He had six sons and six daughters who were married to one another, and the entire family lived in peace and comfort.
Aeolus welcomed the Greeks and asked for news of the outside world. Odysseus remained as his guest for a month, telling him about the war and the Greek heroes he had served with.
After the month had passed, Odysseus asked for permission to leave the island. He and his men were eager to continue their voyage home.
Aeolus not only allowed them to leave, but also gave them a powerful gift to help them on their way. The mortal king was a special friend of the gods and had been granted power over the winds.
The keeper of the winds gave Odysseus a large bag make of an ox hide. The sack contained every wind except on.
Zephyr, the West Wind, remained free. Aeolus commanded Zephyr to blow Odysseus’s ship toward Ithaca while the rest of the winds were kept tied away.
Odysseus watched the bag carefully for the next nine days and nights. The West Wind blew the ship steadily in the right direction until Ithaca could be seen on the horizon.
The men were overjoyed to see their home after ten years at war. Odysseus, however, was so overcome with relief that he gave in to his exhaustion and fell asleep.
As Ithaca drew closer, the men turned their attention toward the mysterious bag their captain had been guarding. They were convinced that he watched it so closely because it contained some type of great treasure.
The crew began to grumble among themselves that Odysseus was being cruel and greedy. As their king, he had already taken the largest portion of the spoils of war and now he was hoarding whatever treasure Aeolus had given as well.
The men wanted to at least see what riches their captain could be hiding from them. They pulled on the magical silver string that held the ox-hide bag closed.
Odysseus woke with a start as the winds were released from the bag. The resulting tempest blew the ship far off course and Ithaca quickly disappeared from view.
As the winds returned to their home on Aeolia, they drove the ship back to the floating island.
Odysseus took only one trustworthy man back to the king’s palace. The people were amazed to see him again since the help of Zephyr should have taken him safely home.
Odysseus confessed that his crew’s foolishness and his own exhaustion had led to his return. He asked Aeolus to once again contain the winds to help him reach his home.
The Warden of the Winds refused, however. The failure of Odysseus, he felt, was a sign that the gods were against him and the mortal king could not cross the will of the gods.
Aeolus demanded that Odysseus and his men leave the island immediately. They continued on their journey and, without the supernatural aid of Aeolus, would not reach Ithaca for ten years.
My Modern Interpretation
The character of Aeolus in the Odyssey is an unusual one in many ways.
While later writers characterized Aeolus as a god, Homer made it clear that he was a human king. Despite this, however, he exhibited many powers that would normally be attributed to the divine.
His command over the winds was not the only way in which Aeolus seemed to have more in common with the gods of Olympus than ordinary men. His family, too, was more like that of a god than a man.
The six sons and six daughters of Aeolus married one another, the daughters becoming wives to their own brothers. This type of incestuous family relationship was forbidden by Greek society, but was commonplace among the gods.
Virtually all of the Olympians were closely related; Zeus and Hera themselves were siblings whose parents had also been brother and sister. So the marriages of Aeolus’s children, even more than his power to control the winds, made him seem like a god.
In fact, some modern historians believe that this may have been an earlier characterization of the king. Before Homer referred to him as a human, Aeolus had been identified with a god.
In particular, Aeolus seems to have many similarities with Uranus. Both had powers related to the sky or air and both had twelve children who married one another.
Etymologists have traced the root of Uranus’s name to an Indo-European root that far predates proto-Greek. Since the people of Greece took their gods from many different cultures, it is likely that Uranus was worshipped in some form long before Zeus.
It is possible, therefore, that the earliest versions of the Odyssey were told before Zeus was worshipped in the region. While later Greek mythology had Uranus supplanted by his children, earlier religions may have retained him as an important god.
By the time of Homer, Zeus was considered to be the supreme deity and Uranus had been banished to the upper sky. The character was re-cast, but details such as his family structure remained.
Some historians also believe that the Odyssey may contain some elements of truth. The ancient legends, told long before they passed to Homer, may have once been based on the adventures of a real man.
If that is the case, Aeolus too may have been based on a historic, or pre-historic, ruler. As the legend was passed down and became more fabulous, godly powers were attributed to the helpful king.
It is possible that both theories are equally true. The characters of king and god combined to create a figure that was not divine himself, but still showed power beyond that of a typical human.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Aeolus was the human king of a floating island. He welcomed Odysseus for a month of feasting and comfort before the hero resumed his journey home.
Aeolus was also a friend of the gods and as such had been given the power to control the winds. He sealed the winds in a bag, leaving only Zephyr, the West Wind, free with the command to blow Odysseus toward Ithaca.
The hero’s island nation was in sight when curiosity overcame his crew. Convinced that their captain was hoarding secret wealth, they opened the bag and released winds that blew them away from their destination again.
Aeolus refused to help Odysseus a second time, claiming that his failure to reach his home was a sign of the gods’ displeasure. He ordered the ship to leave his island and Odysseus wandered for ten years, losing his ship and all his men, before returning to Ithaca.
Aeolus is an unusual figure because he displays abilities that are far beyond those of a human being. While later writers claimed he was a god, Homer made it clear that the character was a mortal king who had the favor of the Olympians.
The keeper of the winds can be linked to Uranus by more than just his powers. The fact that his six sons and six daughters all married one another is an additional similarity to the father of the Titans.
Because Uranus was an older version of the sky god than Zeus, it is possible that the earliest stories of Odysseus featured him in this scene rather than a human king. As the mythology developed it was no longer appropriate to use the primordial sky god, so later Greek retellings reimagined the character as a man.
If, as some scholars believe, the Odyssey has historic routes, that also means that both Aeolus and Odysseus could have been based on real people. As the legend incorporated more supernatural elements and divine intervention, Aeolus took on more inhuman powers.
These theories are not mutually exclusive. The unusual figure could be the result of combining an ancient god and a mortal king, with two characters eventually being represented by the same person.
Later writers had no choice but to imagine Aeolus as a god because his characterization was so far removed from that of a human. But Homer’s insistence that he was a mortal man shows us that the character of Aeolus has an origin outside of typical Olympian religion.