Summary and Analysis
King Alcinous and Queen Arete rule the seafaring Phaeacians on the island of Scheria. The morning after Odysseus’ rugged landing, Athena (disguised as a friend) sends their daughter, Nausicaa, and some of her handmaidens to wash clothes near the spot where the beleaguered hero has collapsed. Nausicaa is a classic nubile beauty and seems somewhat attracted to the wayfaring stranger. She tells him how to find the palace and endear himself to the queen, thus insuring his safe passage home. Odysseus follows her instructions and is received hospitably at the royal household. He eventually reveals his identity and welcomes the Phaeacians’ offer to return him to Ithaca. First, however, he will tell them of his wanderings. These stories take up the next four books (nine through twelve), the best known part of the epic.
The Phaeacian section of the Odyssey seems most likely influenced by fairy tales or folk legends. It fits a genre, found in many cultures, in which a beautiful, innocent young girl, often a princess, is attracted to a rugged, handsome stranger who usually is older and always more experienced. Sometimes the two end up together; more often, the man makes an impression on the younger woman (with varying degrees of intimacy) and moves on. Even in modern times, this is a popular theme in fiction and drama. In this case, Odysseus acknowledges the charms of the virgin Nausicaa but is intent on returning to Penelope. There is no room for dalliance as there was with Circe or Calypso.
Phaeacia certainly is a Utopia. With minor exceptions, the people are decent, civilized and kind. Although Athena (now disguised as a young girl) warns Odysseus that the local men “never suffer strangers gladly” (7.36), the truth is that there is a long tradition of hospitality and assistance to needy visitors. The Phaeacians are known for going out of their way to return a helpless stranger to his homeland. This exceeds even the generous welcome that we usually find in the Odyssey and is consistent with the locals’ devotion to Zeus, protector of lost wanderers and champion of suppliants. Odysseus refrains from assuming the position of a suppliant with Nausicaa, perhaps because she lacks any real power to help him, perhaps because dropping to his knees and hugging her legs might be embarrassingly intimate for the young maiden and cause her to take offense. He has no such reservations with Queen Arete and is granted mercy.
The island itself is a paradise. We learn that the Phaeacians once lived dangerously close to the warlike Cyclops, but their godlike king in those days, Nausithous, moved them to this land of plenty. Luxuriant orchards, featuring apples, pears, figs, pomegranates and more, bear fruit year round (7.129 ff.). Vegetables and grains are in abundance. No one goes hungry on Scheria.
Phaeacians are not great warriors, but they excel at seamanship, dancing and sports. During an exhibition of athletic skills, a youngster called Broadsea embarrasses King Alcinous by openly mocking Odysseus and challenging his athletic skills. The great Ithacan promptly hurls a discus farther than any of the younger men could manage. He is equally adept at wit and conversation, convincing his hosts that this is no ordinary wayfarer. When Demodocus, the blind bard, sings of the exploits of those at Troy, Odysseus weeps, causing King Alcinous to suspect that a hero of the Trojan War is among them. Odysseus finally identifies himself and agrees to recount the story of his wanderings.
A recurring theme throughout the epic is the conflict between appearance and reality. Athena is a master of disguise, appropriately appearing in whatever form best suits her purpose. She is also one of the first great makeover artists. When a character under her care, such as Telemachus or Odysseus, needs to look impressive, she devotes her talents to the task. As he prepares for the celebration in his honor (8.20-22), for example, Odysseus receives a typical touch-up. Athena makes him look taller, more massive, more splendid in every way. Of course, the hero of the Trojan War is no stranger to disguise. He posed as a beggar to enter Troy and initiated the ruse of the giant wooden horse filled with Greek warriors, a story retold here (8.559 ff.) by Demodocus. Odysseus’ return to Ithaca will be eased by further disguise. Throughout the story of his wanderings, which he is about to recite, the theme of appearance vs. reality complicates and enriches his quest.
Artemis goddess of the hunt, twin sister of Apollo.
brine sea water, salt water.
Apollo god of archery.
sceptered invested with authority.
Ares god of war, lover of Aphrodite.