Athena and Venus
Athena, the goddess of wisdom, rose from Zeus’ head clad in full armor. Zeus had swallowed his wife Metis in fear that she would give birth to a son that would overthrow him as he had overthrown his father Kronos. Athena was frequently thought of as a man because she did not take care of her looks like the other goddesses did. Inventor of the ax, plow and ox yoke and patroness of Athens, Athena was an eternal virgin. In contrast, Venus is the goddess of sensual love and rose from the foam of the sea already as a nubile. Born from Uranus’ genitals, Venus was known to be unfaithful and used her beauty to cheat many men. Two goddesses, the virgin and the unfaithful woman, that could not be more different from one another, yet through their portrayal in Homer’s The Odyssey and Virgil’s The Aeneid, one begins to note the similarities. Although their personalities shaped their methods in different ways, both Athena and Venus share a common goal to protect the mortals, and must do so under Zeus’ rules.
Though both are empowering goddesses, they must turn their heads to the “father of gods and men (1.344)” in order to confirm the security of their mortals2. In the beginning of The Odyssey, Athena asks, “Did not Odysseus / do you grace by the ships of the Argives, making sacrifice / in wide Troy? Why, Zeus, are you now so harsh with him (1.60-62)” as she implores her father to release Odysseus from Calypso’s clutch.1 In which, Zeus then grants permission to send down Hermes to free Odysseus. Similarly, Venus, “with tears in her shining eyes (1.311)” appeals to Jupiter asking why after the Trojans have gone through much toil that they must “find / the whole world closed to them… (1.317-318)”2 Jupiter ensured her that her mortal, Aeneas, would indeed go on to lead his great fate and that his destiny has remained unchanged. Venus and Athena both knew that should fate have destined Aeneas and Odysseus to ruin then they would be incapable of helping the mortals. Thus they must confirm with Zeus (Jupiter) that the fate of their mortals does not lead to destruction.
Once gaining confirmation, from Zeus, the goddesses descend down to the mortal world to help their mortals. Disguised as “a little maid, carrying a pitcher (7.20),” Athena meets Odysseus outside the Phaeacian walls. There the young girl, Athena, provides information of the etiquette of the people and their Phaeacian ways to Odysseus. After guiding him through the city, Athena tells him the history of the royal family and how to win the favor of the queen. This is similar to when Aeneas stumbles across “a Spartan girl, or like that one of Thrace (1.427),” Venus in disguise, who tells him the history of the ruler, Dido2. She then points Aeneas to the direction of Carthage, “Go on then, where the path leads, go ahead (1.551)” and reveals herself as she goes away2. Through disguise the goddesses provide information and advice that would help Odysseus and Aeneas on their epic journey. Though Athena and Venus could have appeared in their god-like forms to guide the mortals, instead they chose to masquerade as mortals—as to why, only the gods know.
Both Athena and Venus share the goal to protect their mortals from more strife, but the methods that they use are distinct from one another. When it comes to manipulation, Athena takes a subtler approach whereas Venus uses a more forthright approach. Athena uses double determination in order to manipulate the humans as when she puts into the head of Ktesippos to throw the foot of an oxen at Odysseus. She never forces mortals into anything, but rather puts thoughts that give them an extra push to do whatever they may not have been entirely inclined to do at first. On the other hand, Venus has no qualms as to forcing women to fall prey to her son’s, Amor’s, arrows of love. This can be seen as when she asks Amor to “breathe invisible fire into her / and dupe her with your sorcery (1.939-940).” Venus uses magic to ignite a burning flame within Dido that would not have occurred without the bewitchment. Athena uses manipulation of the mind while Venus uses enchantments of the heart to safeguard Odysseus and Aeneas.
Another distinction between the two goddesses in each tale is that Athena is driven by the goal to see her mortal, Odysseus, attain greatness and win, while Venus only wishes to see Aeneas happy and flourishing. During Odysseus’ great battle with the suitors, Athena, in the disguise of Mentor, appears to Odysseus for a brief moment before retreating to a top perch and enjoying the show. She never takes it upon herself to slaughter Odysseus’ suitors for she would rather watch her favorite player defeat his enemies. Venus, on the contrary, cannot stop fretting over Aeneas and the journey that he takes. Not only does she ensure that the Carthaginians do not betray Aeneas by forcing Dido to fall into a desperate and fruitless love but also goes so far as to supplicate Hephaistos, god of metal, to make armor for Aeneas as he prepares for battle against the Latins. Even in the Iliad, Venus sweeps Aeneas away from the Trojan battlefield when he is about to face Diomedes, which would have led to his demise. Venus constantly appears to save her son and does everything she can for him. Athena plays a role in Odysseus’ journey so long as she can see her player win, but Venus does everything and anything so that her son may prosper.
The goddess of wisdom and the goddess of love, the virgin and the nubile, Minerva and Venus, Athena and Aphrodite—with many names the two goddesses could not be more different. And yet, Virgil and Homer show them in parallel in The Aeneid and The Odyssey as the goddesses strive to see their mortals, Odysseus and Aeneas, succeed. They are both bound by the rule of Zeus and both have the inclination to mask themselves before facing their mortals. However, their dispositions do take part in their method of protecting their mortals. As one uses an esoteric tactic to guide her hero to greatness, the other uses a blunt scheme in order to get whatever she thinks is best for her protagonist. Similar yet different, Athena and Venus do as they wish to bring their mortals to victory.