On his way to the palace of Alcinous, the king of the Phaeacians, Odysseus is stopped by a young girl who is Athena in disguise. She offers to guide him to the king’s house and shrouds him in a protective mist that keeps the Phaeacians, a kind but somewhat xenophobic people, from harassing him. She also advises him to direct his plea for help to Arete, the wise and strong queen who will know how to get him home. Once Athena has delivered Odysseus to the palace, she departs from Scheria to her beloved city of Athens.
Odysseus finds the palace residents holding a festival in honor of Poseidon. He is struck by the splendor of the palace and the king’s opulence. As soon as he sees the queen, he throws himself at her feet, and the mist about him dissipates. At first, the king wonders if this wayward traveler might be a god, but without revealing his identity, Odysseus puts the king’s suspicions to rest by declaring that he is indeed a mortal. He then explains his predicament, and the king and queen gladly promise to see him off the next day in a Phaeacian ship.
Later that evening, when the king and queen are alone with Odysseus, the wise Arete recognizes the clothes that he is wearing as ones that she herself had made for her daughter Nausicaa. Suspicious, she interrogates Odysseus further. While still withholding his name, Odysseus responds by recounting the story of his journey from Calypso’s island and his encounter with Nausicaa that morning, which involved her giving him a set of clothes to wear. To absolve the princess for not accompanying him to the palace, Odysseus claims that it was his idea to come alone. Alcinous is so impressed with his visitor that he offers Odysseus his daughter’s hand in marriage.
The next day, Alcinous calls an assembly of his Phaeacian counselors. Athena, back from Athens, ensures attendance by spreading word that the topic of discussion will be the godlike visitor who recently appeared on the island. At the assembly, Alcinous proposes providing a ship for his visitor so that the man can return to his homeland. The measure is approved, and Alcinous invites the counselors to his palace for a feast and celebration of games in honor of his guest. There, a blind bard named Demodocus sings of the quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles at Troy. Everyone listens with pleasure except Odysseus, who weeps at the painful memories that the story recalls. The king notices Odysseus’s grief and ends the feast so that the games can begin.
The games include the standard lineup of boxing, wrestling, racing, and throwing of the discus. At one point, Odysseus is asked to participate. Still overcome by his many hardships, he declines. One of the young athletes, Broadsea, then insults him, which goads his pride to action. Odysseus easily wins the discus toss and then challenges the Phaeacian athletes to any other form of competition they choose. The discussion becomes heated, but Alcinous diffuses the situation by insisting that Odysseus join them in another feast, at which the Phaeacian youth entertain him and prove their preeminence in song and dance. Demodocus performs again, this time a light song about a tryst between Ares and Aphrodite. Afterward, Alcinous and each of the young Phaeacian men, including Broadsea, give Odysseus gifts to take with him on his journey home.
At dinner that night, Odysseus asks Demodocus to sing of the Trojan horse and the sack of Troy, but as he listens to the accomplished minstrel he again breaks down. King Alcinous again notices and stops the music. He asks Odysseus at last to tell him who he is, where he is from, and where he is going.
Odysseus’s stay at Alcinous’s palace provides the reader with some relief as it bridges the narrative of Odysseus’s uncertain journey from Calypso’s island and the woeful exploits that he recounts in Books 9 through 12. Ironically, for all of his poise, Odysseus cannot remain at peace even when he finds himself outside the direct influence of the wrath of various gods. His melancholy at the Phaeacian games prompts an insult from Broadsea, which in turn provokes an intense series of challenges between Odysseus and the Phaeacian youths. His tears at Demodocus’s song attract Alcinous’s attention and ultimately force him to reveal his identity and relate the history of his anguish-filled journey. Additionally, though he makes no mention of it again after Book 8, Homer has already hinted that Odysseus has aroused the affection of Princess Nausicaa—just a short while after escaping the demanding attentions of the divine Calypso.
The tension between passion and constancy is particularly strong in Books 7 and 8. Homer sustains it not only through subtle allusions to Nausicaa’s blossoming love for Odysseus but also through Demodocus’s rather unsubtle and greatly detailed song about the illicit affair between Ares and Aphrodite. Though its discussion of the planned trysts between the two lovers and the cleverly wrought trap used by Aphrodite’s cheated husband, Hephaestus, to catch the adulterers in the act ends the song on a light note, the song clearly has relevance for the morose and dejected Odysseus. It invites us to recall his helpless transgression with Calypso and points to the future, when, like Hephaestus, Odysseus will take vengeance upon those who have tried to steal his bed.
The contrast between the Phaeacian youths’ naïve glory-seeking and Odysseus’s somberness despite having achieved considerable glory highlights how Odysseus’s painful experiences have matured him. Inexperienced in life’s hardships, the youths act rashly, as when Broadsea insults Odysseus, to attempt to demonstrate their manhood. The exhortation of the youth Laodamas to Odysseus, “What greater glory attends a man . . . / than what he wins with his racing feet and striving hands? / . . . throw your cares to the wind!” illustrates the youths’ simplistic preoccupation with physical prowess (“racing feet,” “striving hands”) (8.170–172). Odysseus, on the other hand, though clearly capable of besting the youths in athletic competition, exudes poise in the face of the youths’ carefree brazenness, exerting himself only to defend his honor after Broadsea’s insult. His retort that “[p]ains weigh on my spirit now, not your sports,” displays his prioritization of the more grave concerns of family and loss over the trivial concern of glory for its own sake (8.178). Likewise, Nausicaa’s immature attraction to Odysseus proves insignificant to him and cannot trump his desperate longing to return home.
Because he figures so prominently in the episode at Scheria and because the content of his first song so closely resembles that of the Iliad, commentators have often tried to equate the bard Demodocus with Homer. This interpretation, which seems to be the origin of the belief that Homer was blind, suggests that Homer inserts himself into his own story. Though intriguing, we should remember that the performance of oral poetry played a much greater role in pre- or semiliterate cultures like the Greek world of the Iliad and the Odyssey than it does today or did even in the later, classical period of Greek history. While Demodocus’s songs, such as that about Ares and Aphrodite, contribute much to our interpretation of the Odyssey, we should hesitate before concluding that they hold the key to decoding the identity of Homer. That Demodocus and his songs occupy a surprisingly large portion of Book 8 may owe simply to the culturally important role that oral poets played in Homeric life.
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Odysseus covered his mens ears with beeswax, because they would never want to go back home listening to the sirens.
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