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Book 8

The Odyssey – Book 8 The Phaeacian Games (Context)

Summary

·        At dawn, Athene goes around the city in town-crier disguise, shouting the news of the stranger's coming and the upcoming feast. Everyone congregates at the palace.

·        At this little meeting, Alcinous orders that a ship and crew be prepared for later that day.

·        The King then invites everyone to the banquet and calls in his blind bard, Demodocus.

·        Demodocus about the fight between Odysseus and Achilles that went down before the Trojan War.

·        Odysseus, his name still unknown to the Phaeacians, sits back to listen to the tale about himself. It brings tears to his eyes.

·        Alcinous orders some sporting games, bragging that when Odysseus goes home, he'll boast to his people of the Phaeacians' athleticism.

·        They play. Homer lists the names of all the men that partake and the winners of each race. You should note that the King's sons make a good showing; Prince Klytoneos wins the foot-race and Prince Laodamas wins the boxing match.

·        It is this very Prince Laodamas, a handsome man, by the way, who invites Odysseus to join in the games.

·        When he proves reluctant, Euryalos (another competitor) jokingly says he doesn't look like the athletic type.

·        Odysseus throws a discus further than any man present has managed so far. (Athene, disguised as a Phaeacian, is the one to measure the distance and announce as much.)

·        Odysseus proudly asks for any man to challenge him. He will take on anyone except his gracious host, Prince Laodamas; and he'll win any contest except the running race, since his long days at sea have weakened his legs.

·        Alcinous wisely asks for Demodocus to come back and sing some more.

·        Demodocus sings the story of the affair between Ares (god of war) and Aphrodite (goddess of love), and of how Hephaestus, Aphrodite's crippled blacksmith husband, got jealous when he found out. The scorned husband wove a net, spread it over the bed, caught the lovers in the act, and shamed them in front of all the other gods.

·        Alcinous orders some dancing to entertain Odysseus and bestows on his guest a few gifts.

·        Euryalos approaches Odysseus & offers him a sword in repentance for his words earlier.

·        Later, after being given a nice bath, Odysseus asks Demodocus to sing about that great man Odysseus in the Trojan horse.

·        Alcinous sees and begs Demodocus to stop since it is upsetting his guest.

·        Finally, Alcinous asks who his guest is and why he grieves so much when hearing about the Trojan War. He silences his bard and invites him to tell his tale, but not before a complete non sequitur in which he tells everyone of a prophecy that one of his ships will be turned to stone and mountains thrown up around his city.


 

The Phaeacians

What is the function of the Phaeacians in the plot of the Odyssey?

 

1.      Alcinous’ palace provides a venue in which Odysseus can tell the story of his wanderings in flashback. All the adventures described in Books 9-12 are being recounted by Odysseus to Alcinous’ court. This fills the audience in on the “missing” section of Odysseus’ voyage (between Troy and Ogygia), some of which we have already had “trailers” for.

 

2.      The Phaeacians provide a way for Odysseus to get back to Ithaca; despite the great distance he has travelled on his wanderings and the fact that he has incurred the enmity of Poseidon. Although even their special status does not save the Phaeacians from Poseidon’s revenge – see Book 13, where he turns the returning Phaeacian ship to stone.

 

3.      Phaeacia acts as a halfway house to prepare Odysseus For his return to reality – after ten years in “fantasy-land!, the last seven of which have been spent on an isolated island with only a beautiful goddess for company, would a direct return to Ithaca be too much of a shock to Odysseus’ system? The few days that he spends in Phaeacia, among civilised company, helps to ease him back into “normal” human aristocratic society.

 

4.      Phaeacia provides a means for Odysseus to return home to Ithaca with material wealth – the lavish xenia gifts from the Phaeacians compensate for all the Trojan war booty that was lost when his ships were destroyed. Odysseus himself is very concerned about the possibility of returning home without booty or material wealth – “Alcinous, I would be happy if you pressed me to stay among you even for a year, as long as you saw me safely back and loaded me with your splendid gifts. It would be a great advantage to me to arrive in my own dear country with more possessions. For thus enriched I would win a warmer welcome and greater respect from everyone who saw me on my return to Ithaca.” (Odysseus, Book 11)

 

5.      The Phaeacians are intended to represent civilisation, in complete contrast to the barbarous Cyclopes; it is no coincidence that both Nausithous (Alcinous’ father, founder of the Phaeacian people) and Polyphemus the Cyclops are both sons of Poseidon. The Cyclopes are barbaric – they don’t observe the rules of xenia, they don’t have an assembly and they live in a state of anarchy without any sort of centralised law code. The Phaeacians, by contrast, are elegant and refined; Alcinous demonstrates a strong grasp of xenia etiquette and he holds an assembly to welcome his guests and introduce him to the Phaeacian people.

 

6.      Phaeacia provides a point for Athene to re-establish direct support to Odysseus again (as Hermes has been helping him during his time with Circe & Calypso). Athene appears in three different guises in Phaeacia: as a young girl carrying a pitcher; as a herald summoning everyone to the assembly; and as a bystander at the Phaeacian games, commenting on Odysseus’ amazingly long discus throw.





Is Phaeacia Transitional between Fantasy and Reality?

 

·        At the edge of the world.  The location of Phaeacia is described as remote, at the edge of the world. In Book 6, we are told that the Phaeacians used to live in Hypereie (Beyond-land) and were neighbours of the Cyclopes. Nausithous, Alcinous’ father, brought them to the land of Phaeacia, “far from ordinary hard-working people”. We can tell how remote Phaeacia is from Greece, as Alcinous says that he will ensure Odysseus reaches home, even if it is “more remote than “Euboea”.

 

 

·        Xenophobia. This remoteness means that the Phaeacians receive few visitors and rarely come into contact without outsiders. This means that they are suspicious of strangers and have a xenophobic attitude. Nausicaa tells Odysseus that the Phaeacian nobility would see it as an insult if she were to marry a foreigner rather than one of them – this is why she does not think it appropriate for him to accompany her to the town.

 

·        Favourites of the gods / No experience of warfare. Nausicaa says in Book 6: “There is no man on earth, or ever will be, who would dare to set hostile foot on Phaeacian soil. The gods are too fond of us for that.”  This emphasises one of the major utopian elects of Phaeacia that the Phaeacians have no enemies – no one ever comes to sack their cities or raid their cattle. Warfare doesn’t seem to feature in their list of priorities – in Book 8, Alcinous proudly tells Odysseus that they excel & delight in dancing, hot baths, nice food, nice clothes etc. Alcinous claims in Book 7 that the gods do not usually disguise themselves when they visit the Phaeacians. This is slightly ironic in view of the fact that Athene assumes three different disguises during the time Odysseus stay on Phaeacia.

 

 

·        Poseidon as Patron God. Nausithous, found of the Phaeacians, was the son of Poseidon and Periboea, a descendant of the giants. Arete is Alcinous’ own niece as well as his wife. Nausicaa tells Odysseus that a temple of Poseidon, with stone foundations, stands in the city nest to their assembly place. Fortunately for Odysseus, there is also a sacred grove for Athene – not the “cultural amalgamation” here – Homer mentions a temple with stone foundations, yet also retinas a tradition of an earlier period, when gods were worshipped in sacred groves.

 

·        An opulent lifestyle & an abundance of good things. The semi-mythical status of Phaeacia is confirmed by their climate and the fact that fruit ripens all year round. Alcinous’ own palace is incredibly lavish – it has bronze walls topped by a frieze of a dark blue enamel, gold doors, silver doorposts and silver lintels. The entrance is guarded by gold and silver dogs, made by Hephaestus. The opulence of Alcinous’ palace far exceeds that of any normal human king – Telemachus is very impressed by Menelaus’ palace in Sparta, but it is nothing compared to Alcinous’ home.

·        A seafaring race. Phaeacian personal names are almost all puns on ships and seafaring (note all the lists of competitors in the Phaeacian Games in Book 8) – this emphasises their link with Poseidon, their remote (island?) location and the importance of ships and the sea in their lives. The names Nausithous and Nausicaa both contain the component naus, which is the Greek word for ship. Their ships are able to cover “impossible” distances in a short time.

 

·        Memories of a matriarchal society? Both Nausicaa & Athene tell Odysseus to make his supplication directly to Arete (when he arrives at the palace, he is to walk straight through the great hall, go up to Arete and clasp her round the knees). We are also told that the Phaeacian regard as a goddess and even ask her to settle disputes between men. At one point in Book 11, she refers to Odysseus specifically as “my guest”. The role of Arete has been much debated – some commentators have seen her status as evidence that the Odysseus preserved references to a much earlier time when society was matriarchal and women played a much more important role in politics and religion. The word “Arete” in Greek means “goodness, excellence” and is usually used by Homer to describe masculine virtues. 

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