Athena's final intervention in this plot that she has created and guided throughout constitutes an endorsement of the Homeric oikos, the hereditary extended household to which Odysseus has made his arduous, glorious Return. The oikos is identified as the basis of Odysseus' power, as Athena creates an invincible fighting force out of three generations of his family. Athena's action also reveals the oikos as the sphere in which Odysseus can enjoy the unqualified success that distinguishes him from other heroes; she assures a happy ending to his story by cutting it short just as he begins to move aggressively beyond the boundaries of his estate. 21 Yet if Odysseus' story, like Achilles', ends with the gods imposing limits on the individual hero, Zeus' proposal to Athena makes it clear that that limitation will be painless: Odysseus will retain his preeminence in Ithaka, and the entire population will flourish. The hero's violent obliteration of his rivals will go unavenged for the sake of peace.
The image of the oikos celebrated in this final episode is dominated by men; it is encapsulated in the unbroken male heritage represented by Laertes, Odysseus, and Telemachos. Through a plot constructed around the danger posed by Penelope's Suitors, the Odyssey presents the oikos as having to be protected by force, and that means that it can function properly only with a male hero at its center. Although the poem has done much to indicate the importance of women to the functioning of the oikos and to its preservation, women are notably absent from its concluding pageant. Even Penelope -- who has contrived to preserve Odysseus' household in his absence and who has helped to create the biological tie between Odysseus and his son -- is hidden from view in the inner part of the house. Instead, Odysseus has at his side the one female figure on whom a male hero can most surely depend: the goddess Athena, who devotes to his cause both her masculine ability as a fighter and her feminine skill as a weaver of plots, devising an end to his story that is at once the restoration of society and the fulfillment of his desires.
This essay is dedicated to Jane Espy Gordon, whose early arrival prevented it from being finished on time. My thanks to Beth Cohen for the good grace with which she tolerated the delay and for helpful editorial comments.