Summary: Book 5


But if you only knew, down deep, what pains
are fated to fill your cup before you reach that shore,
you’d stay right here. . . .

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All the gods except Poseidon gather again on Mount Olympus to discuss Odysseus’s fate. Athena’s speech in support of the hero prevails on Zeus to intervene. Hermes, messenger of the gods, is sent to Calypso’s island to tell her that Odysseus must at last be allowed to leave so he can return home. In reply, Calypso delivers an impassioned indictment of the male gods and their double standards. She complains that they are allowed to take mortal lovers while the affairs of the female gods must always be frustrated. In the end, she submits to the supreme will of Zeus. By now, Odysseus alone remains of the contingent that he led at Troy; his crew and the other boats in his force were all destroyed during his journeys. Calypso helps him build a new boat and stocks it with provisions from her island. With sadness, she watches as the object of her love sails away.

After eighteen days at sea, Odysseus spots Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians, his next destination appointed by the gods. Just then, Poseidon, returning from a trip to the land of the Ethiopians, spots him and realizes what the other gods have done in his absence. Poseidon stirs up a storm, which nearly drags Odysseus under the sea, but the goddess Ino comes to his rescue. She gives him a veil that keeps him safe after his ship is wrecked. Athena too comes to his rescue as he is tossed back and forth, now out to the deep sea, now against the jagged rocks of the coast. Finally, a river up the coast of the island answers Odysseus’s prayers and allows him to swim into its waters. He throws his protective veil back into the water as Ino had commanded him to do and walks inland to rest in the safe cover of a forest.

Summary: Book 6

That night, Athena appears in a dream to the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa, disguised as her friend. She encourages the young princess to go to the river the next day to wash her clothes so that she will appear more fetching to the many men courting her. The next morning, Nausicaa goes to the river, and while she and her handmaidens are naked, playing ball as their clothes dry on the ground, Odysseus wakes in the forest and encounters them. Naked himself, he humbly yet winningly pleads for their assistance, never revealing his identity. Nausicaa leaves him alone to wash the dirt and brine from his body, and Athena makes him look especially handsome, so that when Nausicaa sees him again she begins to fall in love with him. Afraid of causing a scene if she walks into the city with a strange man at her side, Nausicaa gives Odysseus directions to the palace and advice on how to approach Arete, queen of the Phaeacians, when he meets her. With a prayer to Athena for hospitality from the Phaeacians, Odysseus sets out for the palace.

Analysis: Books 5–6

Our first encounter with Odysseus confirms what we have already learned about him from Menelaus’s and Helen’s accounts of his feats during the Trojan War and what Homer’s audience would already have known: that Odysseus is very cunning and deliberative. The poet takes pains to show him weighing every decision: whether to try landing against the rocky coast of Scheria; whether to rest by the river or in the shelter of the woods; and whether to embrace Nausicaa’s knees (the customary gesture of supplication) or address her from afar. The shrewd and measured approach that these instances demonstrate balances Odysseus’s warrior mentality. Though aggressive and determined, he is far from rash. Instead, he is shrewd, cautious, and extremely self-confident. At one point, he even ignores the goddess Ino’s advice to abandon ship, trusting in his seafaring abilities and declaring, “[I]t’s what seems best to me” (5.397). In each case, he makes a decision and converts thought to action with speed and poise. In his encounter with Nausicaa, a telling example of his skill in interacting with people and charisma, his subdued approach comes off as “endearing, sly and suave” (6.162).

While these inner debates are characteristic of Odysseus, they are in some ways characteristic of The Odyssey as a whole. Unlike The Iliad, which explores the phenomena of human interaction—competition, aggression, warfare, and the glory that they can bring a man in the eyes of others—The Odyssey concerns itself much more with the unseen universe of the human heart, with feelings of loneliness, confusion, and despair. Not surprisingly, Homer introduces the hero Odysseus in a very unheroic way. We first find him sulking on a beach, yearning for home, alone except for the love-struck goddess who has imprisoned him there. Although not entirely foreign in The Iliad, this sort of pathetic scene still seems far removed from the grand, glorious battles of the first epic. Even without the linguistic and historical evidence, some commentators consider the stylistic divergence of scenes like this strong evidence of the separate authorship of these two poems.

Commentators are split in their interpretation of Calypso’s extraordinary speech to the gods. Some see it as a realistic, unflinching account of the way things work in the patriarchal culture of ancient Greece: while men of the mortal world and Zeus and the other male gods can get away with promiscuous behavior, society expects females to be faithful at all times. Others understand Calypso’s diatribe as a reaction to this reality. With this interpretation, we find ourselves naturally sympathetic to Calypso, who is making a passionate critique of social norms that are genuinely hypocritical. The question of interpretation becomes even trickier when we consider the relationship between Penelope and Odysseus. The poet seems to present Odysseus’s affair with Calypso without rebuke while looking askance at Penelope’s indulgence of the suitors, even though her faith in Odysseus never wavers. If we understand Calypso’s speech as a criticism of these patriarchal norms, we can see how the text presents two contrary attitudes toward sexual behavior, and Calypso’s speech seems to point out and condemn the unfair double standard that Homer seems to apply to Penelope.