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.