Below is one of the pivotal scenes in Odysseus’ long journey home and the point at which he leaves behind the fiefs and realms of the gods for those of mortal men. Leucothea’s short cameo and brief words in the scene leave quite a few questions for the average reader. Who is she? What is with the veil? Why isn’t she afraid of Poseidon’s wrath? Why did she save Odysseus?
But Leucothea, the White Goddess, saw him, she who once had mortal speech as Ino of the slender ankles, Cadmus’ daughter, but now in the deep is honored by the gods. She pitied Odysseus, driven on, surrounded by dangers, and she rose from the waves like a sea mew on the wing, settled on the close-knit raft, and spoke to him: ‘Poor wretch, why has Poseidon, the Earth-Shaker, dealt you such fierce suffering, sowing the seed of endless misery for you? Yet for all his anger, he shall not destroy you quite. You seem a man of sense, so do as I tell you. Strip off these clothes, and let the wind take your raft, while you swim hard towards the Phaeacian coast, where you are destined to escape the waves. And take this veil, and wind it round your waist. It has divine power, and you need not fear injury or death. But when you clasp the land, unwind it once more, and cast it far out onto the wine-dark sea, and turn your eyes away.’ The Odyssey 5.22-30 Homer
Leucothea was once the princess Ino of seven-gated Thebes in Ancient Greece. Running from the wrath of her husband, she with her child Melicertes leapt into the sea where her new sisters the Nereids graciously received them and Zeus deified them as Leucothea and Palaemon. Keep in mind that even as Ino, she was no mere mortal. Ino was the aunt and foster mother of the Olympian deity Dionysus. Her mother was born to two other Olympians. One sister was a goddess and another nephew also a god. Still Leucothea had been mortal once.
Odysseus is of course, the long-suffering hero of the Odyssey. He spent 10 years at the siege of Troy and was in his tenth year trying to get home to his wife Penelope. Just prior to this scene Odysseus was released from the care of the lovely Calypso. The goddess Calypso loved the hero, going so far as to say, “make your home with me, and be immortal, no matter how much you long to see that wife you yearn for day after day…Then resourceful Odysseus replied to her: ‘Great goddess, do not be angry at what I say. I know myself that wise Penelope is less than you, it’s true, in looks and stature, being a mortal, while you are immortal and ever young. Even so I yearn day after day, longing to reach home, and see the hour of my return.”[i] Calypso with a little nudge from the gods of Olympus, helped the hero on his way, she “bathed him and dressed him in scented clothes, and watched him set out (on a raft). The goddess had placed a skin filled with dark wine on board, and a larger one of water, and a bag of provisions, full of many good things to content his heart, and she sent a fine breeze, warm and gentle” [ii]
As to the veil, goddesses used them in many ways. Medea used her silver veil to avoid seeing Jason murder her brother. It also protected her from the blood splatter to follow. [iii]Amidst tragedy in her son’s life Thetis when summed to Olympus made sure to cover her head with “a dark-hued veil, than which was no raiment more black” [iv] In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter; sharp grief seized the mother's heart; she tore the head-dress upon her ambrosial hair, and threw her dark veil down…” when her daughter was kidnapped. When she found out her brother was party to the crime; in her anger at Zeus, Demeter veiled herself in clouds and she deserted the gatherings of the gods. Apollonius Rhodius records[v] that in an attempted rape, the Giant Tityus, boldly dragged off the Titaness Leto by her veil. Upon the ramparts of Troy Helen, sister to the Castor and Polydeuces recalling all she left behind one day “veiled herself in white linen and, weeping large tears, she left her room.”[vi]
As Aphrodite famously lent her girdle (cestus) to Hera for magical purposes in the Iliad, so Leucothea chooses to lend the drowning hero something he can tie about his waist. The imperishable veils of the goddess come in shades of saffron, night, shining, celestial blue and star-spangled. Walter Burkett in several books suggests that Leucothea’s veil was purple due to her association with the mysteries of Samothrace. [vii] Initiates into the Mystery wore similar purple garb “to protect themselves from the danger of the sea”. [viii]
Poseidon is the god of the sea, reputed to be as powerful as his brother Zeus, king of the gods. And his heart was full of anger against the storm tossed hero, because of Odysseus’ blinding of his son the one-eyed giant Polyphemus.[ix] Admittedly, Polyphemus ate several of Odysseus’s crewmates and it was all a matter of self-dense, but gods aren’t overly understanding. As witnessed by the debate over the patronage of Argos by Hera and Poseidon. When the River Inachus and two neighboring rivers judged against Poseidon, the sea god drained the water from their beds.[x] So, we might wonder at Leucothea’s calmness before the quick-tempered master of the deep.
Her calm before the storm-tossing and earth-shaking Olympian might have to do with what she was and what she did. Leucothea was a “demi-god” or demi-goddess more accurately. Born of Harmonia; daughter of Ares and Aphrodite and the hero Cadmus, she was half deity and half mortal. The demi-gods generally classified as mortal, were not the weaklings the gods make them out to be. Apollo for one made the rather snide comment in Book 21 of the Iliad “wretched mortals, now full of life, eating the earth’s fruit, now fading away and falling like the leaves”
However, when the Giants attacked Olympus, the gods would have lost the war for supremacy of the universe except for two things. One, if the giants found the herb of invulnerability they would win. Or if the gods could enlist the aid of Heracles; the greatest of the demi-gods. Zeus forbade Helios, Selene and Eos (Sun, Moon and the Dawn herself) to shine while he found the herb. According Hesiod in the Theogony, Heracles and the demi-god (turned Olympian) Dionysus joined the side of the Olympian. But evidence from the decoration of major temples suggest that Achilles, Bootes, and the Discouri, all demi-gods also joined the gods. So, let’s do the math here. If the giants are more powerful than the gods and the demigods are mightier than the giants. That could lead some demigods to think they are more powerful than the gods. See “Five Reasons for Fighting the Fates” for additional arguments.
But, Leucothea had another reason to be confident that she could rescue Odyssey without retribution from Poseidon. It was her job. After the defeat of the Titans, the victors gathered at the city of Mecone, elected Zeus king and divided all the honors and privileges. Each god, man and beast was given inviolate rights and the gods their various domains. Consider what Laura Slatkin has to say in The Power of Thetis, “The most startling silence in the voluble divine community of the Iliad is the absence of any reproach made to Thetis for her drastic intervention in the war.” That might be because Thetis was in some way exercising the authority granted her years before. Thetis like Leucothea is a rescuer of those fallen into the sea. “She there received Dionysus on his flight from Lycurgus, and the god, in his gratitude, presented her with a golden urn. When Hephaestus was thrown down from heaven, he was likewise received by Thetis.”[xi] Leucothea’s area of responsibility; her sphere of influence was rescuing mortals adrift on the briny deep with “her son Palaemon they help sailors beset by storms."[xii] . Rescue seemed to be the specialty of demi-gods. Witness Glaucus of Anthedon in Boeotia, a fisherman, who had the good luck to eat a part of the divine herb, which Cronus sowed, and which made Glaucus immortal marine deity.[xiii] Another example is the brothers of Helen of Troy, Castor and Polydeuces, also called the Dioscuri “The Dioscuri are deliverers of men on earth and of swift-going ships when stormy gales rage over the ruthless sea.”[xiv]. Rescuing sailors was there job and in general, they could expect interference on occasion from other deities but no outright denial of their prerogatives.
Additionally in answer to the question of who Leucothea is, Mills sees her as an agent of limnality.[xv] She aids Odysseus in his transition from the goddesses Circe and Calypso via herself a demi-goddess at birth to the mortal women Princess Nausicaa and Queen Penelope. From the sea to the shore. From life through the gray waters of death to life again. From eternal life as a god to inevitable death as a man.
So, now Odysseus’ rescue continues.
His knees gave way, and his arms fell slack, his strength exhausted by the sea. All his flesh was swollen, and streams of brine oozed from his mouth and nostrils. So he lay there, breathless, speechless, with barely energy enough to stir. But as he revived his spirits rose, and he unwound the goddess’s veil and dropped it into the ocean-bound flow: the current sweeping it downstream, so it was soon in Ino’s hands. Odysseus turned from the river, sank into the reeds and kissed the earth, giver of crops: and deeply shaken he communed with his valiant spirit: Bk V:452-456
Our naked hero is soon rescued and dressed by Princess Nausicaa of Phaeacia. Why was the goddess Leucothea insistent on getting her scarf back? Because, according to Donald H. Mills it was magical. “”The focus of this gift centers on the immortal and life-giving veil she offers the hero…it has the implicit power to confer immortally (hence) she says to Odysseus, “there is no need for you to suffer, nor to perish.” [xvi] It was magic just like the herb Glaucus consumed that him invulnerable to death. Like the ambrosia and nectar, Calypso offered Odysseus at their final meal. To keep Leucothea’s veil had the same effect as staying with Calypso and wearing her scented garments, to become a god. Which meant Odysseus lost himself, his glorious destiny, his famous return and the loving arms of his wife Penelope
[i] Odyssey Bk V 198-202.
[iii] Argonautica of Apollonious 4.468-474
[iv] Iliad 24.93
[v] Argonautica 1.758
[vii] Homo Necans page 132, Greek Religion page 267
[viii] Scholiast to Apollonius Rhodius 1.917
[ix] Homer, Odyssey 13.341
[x] Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 15. 4
[xi] Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology
[xii] Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 28 :
[xiii] Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
[xiv] Homeric Hymn 27 to the Dioscuri
[xv] The Hero and the Sea: Patterns of Chaos in Ancient Myth
[xvi]The Hero and the Sea: Patterns of Chaos in Ancient Myth