Summer Reading: Homer’s Odyssey, Books 5-8

In preparation for my Classics senior thesis project, I will be re-reading all of Homer’s Odyssey this summer. Last time, I shared my thoughts on Books 1-4. Now, let’s move on to Books 5-8:

Book 5: Hermes arrives on Calypso’ island, Ogygia, and conveys Zeus’ command that it is now time to release Odysseus. The nymph reluctantly relents and tells Odysseus that he can now leave if he wishes, but he does not believe her until she swears an unbreakable oath upon the Styx, the river of the underworld. Odysseus constructs a raft and sails off. Though he is shipwrecked by a storm sent by Poseidon, he does reach the island of Scheria, where he–almost dead at this point–tries to find shelter in the woods.

Book 6: On Scheria, there lives a race of people called that Phaeacians, led by king Alcinous. Athena appears in a dream to Alcinous’ daughter, the young princess Nausicaa, and tells her that, since she is almost ready for marriage, that she ought to go wash her clothes to prepare for a wedding.

She and her handmaidens head down to the river, where they encounter Odysseus, according to Athena’s plan. After Odysseus bathes and receives food, drink, and clothing from the princess, she gives him directions to her father’s palace, but says that they should go into town separately, so she can avoid being seen consorting with strange men.

Odysseus approaches Nausicaa. 1888 painting by Jean Veber.

Book 7: Odysseus, hidden in a swirling mist by Athena, enters the city of the Phaeacians. He arrives at the palace of Alcinous and supplicates the queen Arete, as suggested to him by Nausicaa and Athena. Thereafter, Odysseus receives food and drink, before going to sleep for the night.

Book 8: The next day, Odysseus is treated extraordinarily well by the Phaeacians: they give him many gifts, perform dances and songs for him, and allow him to watch and participate in athletic games with the young men. But the bard Demodocus’ songs, especially those concerning the glories of the Trojan War, seem to cause Odysseus excessive grief, causing Alcinous to finally ask him who he is, where he is from, and why he weeps when he hears of the sufferings experienced by the Greek heroes.

I have already written in a previous post last year that Book 5 represents Odysseus’ symbolic return to life from death. So this time I will discuss a couple of other things that I noticed in these books:

1) Although the Phaeacians seemingly dwell in an idyllic, civilized society, there are hints of menace, suggesting that they may somehow prevent Odysseus from returning home. They are an advanced race: their crops are eternally fresh, their ships magically sail by themselves, and they can create automatons, essentially androids. They grant hospitality to Odysseus, give him shelter, food, drink, endless gifts, and treat him as a guest of honor. Overall, they seem to epitomize the ideals of “civilization”.

However, we are told that the progenitor of the Phaeacians, Nausithoos, was the son of Poseidon and that his mother was the daughter of a cruel, lawless giant. This makes the Phaeacians relatives of the uncivilized Cyclopes, who are also the sea god’s sons. This relationship with the violent Cyclopes is as ominous as the connection with Poseidon, for the sea god hates Odysseus and wishes to make his homecoming painful (because he blinded his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, in Book 9).

Also, Nausicaa warns Odysseus of the unpleasantness of the other Phaeacians. She tells him that they may speak rudely to them if they are seen together, especially since Odysseus is a stranger. Athena keeps Odysseus hidden until he can supplicate the right person (Arete) with the power and willingness to protect him, and the goddess, in disguise, warns him that these people dislike foreigners.

Not only that, but Nausicaa and Alcinous both express the desire for Odysseus to possibly become a husband for Nausicaa: a marriage that would keep him away from his true wife, Penelope. This was indeed precisely what Calypso wanted: to detain him, keep him from leaving, and make him into her spouse. This would be a “threat” to Odysseus.

2) These episodes act as a method of helping Odysseus to re-integrate into society. His experiences at Alcinous’ court are a “training-ground,” so to speak, where he can process his sufferings and restore himself, before returning home.

The songs of Demodocus force Odysseus to confront the reality of what happened to him—and what he did—during the Trojan War. Now that the war is over and Odysseus has re-entered the domestic world, he must find a way—as veterans have always had to—of processing the suffering that he experienced and that he caused, and this occurs through an expression of grief and sorrow.

The Phaeacian court is a safe(r) place for him to recognize and deal with these emotions, but Ithaca—filled with enemies, i.e. the suitors—will be a dangerous place where he must keep himself and his feelings hidden to reach his goals. Odysseus needs to practice handling his emotions before he continues forward with the difficult task of reclaiming his home from the suitors.

Beaten down by years of battles and wanderings, Odysseus is consumed by grief, misery, and sorrow—characteristic of soldiers with what we’d now call post-traumatic stress disorder. His pride and confidence have collapsed, and without them, he can no longer be the great, boasting Homeric hero that he once was. He has lost a key aspect of his own identity.

The athletic contests help him to regain his identity as a hero, by granting him the opportunity to demonstrate his strength and experience against the Phaeacians. He is able to boast proudly of his exploits and revel in the superiority of his abilities, as great heroes in this society are expected to. In this way, Odysseus rebuilds his confidence and begins to repair his identity, which had been shattered after years of suffering.

3) This post is getting quite long already, so I’m going to finish up here with a quick round-up of things I noticed about the consumption of food:

  • Before Odysseus departs from Ogygia, he eats a meal of human food, while Calypso consumes ambrosia and nectar, which are the food and drink of the gods. This emphasizes Odysseus’ choice to reject Calypso and her offer of immortality and to instead return to human society and remain with Penelope, a mortal wife.
  • When Odysseus approaches Nausicaa, he is compared to a fierce lion, driven by its hunger to ravage some livestock. This suggests the severity of his desperation for sustenance, but even so, he manages to control himself: he stands at a cautious distance and begs for help in a long, eloquent speech (which proves persuasive). When his survival is at stake, Odysseus remains the man of endurance and control.
  • The Phaeacians, with their eternally-fresh, maintenance-free crops, do not follow the agricultural practices of ordinary men. This difference in food indicates that they are different from normal humans, as if their unique ties to the gods or their connections to other races, such as Giants and Cyclopes, make them more than human.

That’s it for Books 5-8! Next time, we’ll discuss Books 9-12, featuring tales of Odysseus’ adventures as he tries to get home, as recounted by Odysseus himself to the Phaeacians.

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