The story of Odysseus features many interventions, both direct and indirect, by the gods. Athena gives aid to the hero and his son, Zeus orders a nymph to send him on his way, and the ship’s crew steals the cattle of Helios.
One god’s anger, however, fuels the plot of the Odyssey. While Athena, Zeus, and Helios all show anger at some point in the story, Poseidon is the primary antagonist.
The sea god’s hatred for Odysseus caused continous delays and dangers on his voyage home from the Trojan War. A simple journey took ten years to complete, costing the lives of the ship’s entire crew, because Odysseus had angered Poseidon.
Odysseus had attacked one of the god’s sons, but his true crime was an attitude of arrogant self-importance that offended the god of the sea even more.
Early in the story of Odysseus, it was Athena who was angry with the Greek king. Following the desecration of her temple in Troy, the goddess turned against the Greek armies she had supported through the war.
As the Greek fleet left Troy, Athena sent a storm that destroyed many of their ships and scattered the rest. Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, was left with only one vessel and its crew.
After the initial destruction of the Greek fleet, however, Athena seemed to have let go of much of her animosity. The Greeks had been punished but the surviving ships were free to make their way home.
Odysseus and his crew were among the survivors who began to sail toward Greece, but the anger of another god would prevent them from reaching Ithaca for ten full years.
One of their earliest stops on the voyage was on an island that they initially assumed to be uninhabited. They could see no buildings or agricultural lands, but a herd of sheep and goats prompted them to explore further in search of the island’s residents.
Odysseus took twelve of his strongest men and found a crude home in a large cave. When the owner returned, he moved an enormous boulder in front of the cave entrance. The men were locked inside.
The resident of the island was no ordinary herdsman. He was an enormous one-eyed giant, the cyclops Polyphemus.
The bestial man told his guests that he did not care for the gods and their rules. He grabbed two of the crewmen in his enormous fists and smashed them against the wall, eating their bodies in front of their horrified companions.
The next morning, Polyphemus ate two more Ithacans before leaving to take his flock to pasture. He once again locked the survivors in the cave with the heavy boulder.
Odysseus and his men formulated a plan. When the cyclops returned, and ate two more men, they gave him a strong wine Odysseus had been carrying with him.
When the giant passed out from the strong alcohol, the men took up the giant stake they had made that day. Five men held it over the fire until it glowed with heat, then used it to blind their captor.
Odysseus had given his name as Nobody, so when Polyphemus tried to call his brothers for help he claimed that Nobody had attacked him. The other giants ignored their brother’s shouts.
The survivors hid throughout the night and escaped by tying themselves beneath the giant’s largest rams. Although Polyphemus felt each sheep as it passed out of the cave, with his single eye gouged out he could not see where the men had hidden.
The crew of Odysseus’s ship might have escaped without further incident if their leader had not chosen to yell back at the furious cyclops as they sailed away. Although his men urged him to remain silent, Odysseus shouted his real identity as he mocked the blinded giant.
The cyclops swore vengeance, saying that his father Poseidon would heal him. Odysseus mocked him again, saying that not even the god of the sea could heal the monster’s eye.
As the ship sailed away, Polyphemus called out a prayer to his father. He asked for Poseidon to avenge the attack by keeping Odysseus from his destination. If he did make it back, Polyphemus asked, it should be after many years, having lost both his ship and his men, and he should find his homeland in turmoil.
Poseidon listened to his son’s prayer and from that moment on became a sworn enemy to Odysseus. He sent many storms and monsters to attack the Greek king, only allowing him to reach Ithaca after Athena convinced Zeus to intervene.
Even after Zeus commanded that Calypso release Odysseus and help him build a raft to reach Ithaca, Poseidon sent another storm to capsize him. When the Phaecians found the shipwrecked sailor and took him home, Poseidon destroyed their fleet for giving aid to his enemy.
According to some stories, even after Odysseus returned to Ithaca the sea god was not finished with him. Later legends claimed that the famous sailor made a pilgrimage to appease Poseidon, but was eventually killed by a spear tipped with a poisonous stingray barb through the sea god’s machinations.
The blinding of Polyphemus was given in Homer’s Odyssey as the cause of Poseidon’s anger toward Odysseus. The cyclops was the sea god’s son, and he was motivated to avenge the man who had blinded him.
This justification seems unusual, however. Polyphemus had violated the laws of hospitality and shown scorn toward the gods, so the giant’s blinding would typically be seen as a just punishment for his crimes.
Odysseus went further than attacking his cannibalistic captor, however. He needlessly bragged and mocked the giant as his ship escaped.
Even more offensive to Greek sensibilities, he claimed that Poseidon would not cure his son’s wounds. While Polyphemus had committed a greater crime, this denial of one of the gods also put the hero at fault.
Therefore, Odysseus was deserving of punishment too. The greater offense was not the attack on one of Poseidon’s son, but his unnecessary hubris.
Some heroes of Greek mythology, like Heracles, had enemies among the gods because of the circumstances of their birth. Those who were not targeted from their youth, however, often earned the anger of the gods through arrogance.
Bellerophon, for example, was famously favored by the gods. Zeus struck him down, however, when he attempted to reach Olympus without being invited by the gods.
Like Bellerophon, Odysseus attracted the ire of a god through arrogance. If he had simply blinded the cyclops and escaped, Poseidon would not have targeted him.
Odysseus instead mocked his already defeated foe, giving away his identity in the process. Had he not shouted back that he was Odysseus, king of Ithaca, Polyphemus would have continued insisting that a man named Nobody had been his attacker.
The hero also slighted the god when he said that Poseidon would not heal the giant’s mangled eye. To claim that the damage he inflicted was beyond the healing powers of the gods, or that he knew Poseidon well enough to doubt his motivation, was as great an act of hubris as his boasting.
Any scene of similar hubris could have earned Odysseus the enmity of a god. The blinding of Polyphemus itself was not the catalyst for Poseidon’s anger; the hero’s arrogant boasting was what attracted the attention of the sea god.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Aeolus points out that Odysseus’s troubles are a sign of a god’s displeasure. The narrative required the anger of a god, and the hero’s arrogant boasting cast Poseidon as the necessary antagonist.
For the plot of the Odyssey, the identity of the aggrieved god or the circumstances that caused that anger were of secondary importance. Any god could have directed their anger at the hero for any specific event, provided that an insult was given.
The plot of the Odyssey was driven largely by Poseidon’s anger toward Odysseus.
Early in his voyage, Odysseus and a dozen of his men were taken captive by the cannibalistic cyclops Polyphemus. They escaped by fashioning an enormous stake and using it to blind the giant in his single eye.
Odysseus had given his name as Nobody, but as his ship sailed away he yelled back to shore and boasted to the wounded giant, giving his full name and title in the process.
In addition to revealing his true identity, the hero also made statements that seemed to doubt Poseidon’s power. The god of the sea was the father of the cyclops, and Polyphemus prayed to his father for vengeance.
Poseidon filled the necessary role of antagonist in the story of Odysseus. His anger toward the hero was caused not by the blinding of his son, which was a just act following his violence, but by the arrogant boasts of Odysseus himself.