Odysseus’ Dirty Linens

The Phaiakians have always been among my favorite people in the Odyssey, and none more so than the young princess Nausikaa.  I like the Phaiakians because of their all-around weirdness (just listen to the names at VIII 118-26!), as well as the delicate balance between hospitality and menace that characterizes their society. After seven years on Kalypso’s island (and three more years of travel spent mostly amidst the company of mythical creatures), Odysseus has finally returned to human society – or has he?  As Poseidon’s favorite people, the Phaiakians clearly partake of the supernatural, and despite the great parties they throw, Telemakhos may have ultimate found himself more at home amidst the strained (but all too human) household of Helen and Menelaos.  One person who seems exempt from all the ambivalent traits of the Phaiakians, however, is Nausikaa, who seems to me to end up as an innocent victim of Odysseus’ relentless desire to return home.

We first encounter Nausikaa in what is surely a strange setting for an epic poem: it’s laundry day on Phaiakia!  I don’t know enough about ancient Greek home economics (fun fact for the business majors amongst you: the English word “economics” derives from Greek oikos, or “household”) to judge whether it would be unusual for a princess to join her maids as they go do the wash  But I doubt it.  As we already discussed last time, Greek aristocrats weren’t anything like what we expect from the movies.  They were more like chieftains or warlords, their palaces simply bigger versions of regular farmhouses.  So it would make sense that Nausikaa would have to do her share of the work, especially since in Greek society, women (even royal women) had a very low standing in general.  Still, why don’t the Phaiakians have a nifty magical gadget for this?

At any rate, Nausikaa has a good reason to be diligent with her laundry, for, as Athena tells her rather bluntly: “Maidenhood must end!” (VI, 38).  She’s looking for a husband in other words, or at least potential husbands are looking for her, since so far she hasn’t shown any inclination to follow up on their proposals (VI, 39-40).  This is the situation in which she stumbles upon Odysseus who, being one of the greatest of heroes, probably looks more attractive than your average Phaiakian even when he is covered in sea foam.  In class yesterday, we talked about how Odysseus, having to choose between physical action (embracing her knees and kissing her garment) and mere words inevitable chooses words.  But I think it’s also worth commenting upon that “Homer” provides us with enough insight into Nausikaa’s psychology to understand why this might be the right course of action: the princess has already had lots of men impose upon her, and I think Athena’s words and her father’s behavior both imply that there’s a certain amount of pressure upon her.  Odysseus, however, stands back: he lets her be herself and make her own decision.

I like this initial scene so much that I think it’s kind of sad Nausikaa plays such a subordinate role in the next two books, the ones we read for today.  Still, there’s a noteworthy exchange between Alkinoos, her father, and Odysseus at the end of Book VII, when Alkinoos somewhat outrageously offers to give her away to a castaway whom he has first met only half an hour earlier: “my daughter should be yours and you my son-in-law, if you remained” (VII, 336-37).  Ever resourceful, however, Odysseus has already foreseen this marriage offer, and cleverly dispelled it several lines earlier: “I prayed her to assist me, and her good sense was perfect; one could hope for no behavior like it from the young, thoughtless as they most often are” (VII, 314-16).  With these words, he is not only flattering Odysseus, but also aligning himself with him – not just as a man, but more importantly as a member of an older generation who can only smile at kids these days.  The ruse apparently works, for when we next see Nausikaa, she’s already resigned to be abandoned: “Farewell, stranger; in your land remember me who met and saved you.  It is worth your thought” (VIII, 492-93).

It’s surely worth a few thoughts of ours as well.  We haven’t talked about women in the Odyssey much, and it’s time that we did so.  And what about the people whom Odysseus leaves behind him on his travels?  Returning home is clearly a noble goal, but is it worth the damage that our hero has to inflict to attain it?

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8 responses to “Odysseus’ Dirty Linens

  1. In the course of his journey home, Odysseus visits various lands, begging for hospatality, yet he gets much more. To be seen as a great hero, he must not only make it back alive, but he must bring great riches back to Ithaka as well. After the hospitality granted to him, Odysseus seems to be humble in accepting gifts, yet we never see him turn down any material goods. He wishes for riches, but won’t stay longer than needed in any one place, and refuses the idea of marriage to Nausikaa, as can be seen in the original blog post. He is meeting his goal, becoming more similar to Menelaous, gaining chest containing “clothing and gold given Odysseus by the Phaiakians” (VIII, 467-470).

    • In Greek society, it was customary to present gifts to a guest of honor, as is the case with Odysseus and Alkinoos. Although this act seems to be out of the goodness of the host’s heart, the host has much more practical ideas behind this presentation. Alkinoos, like all Greek kings and lords, is concerned most about his social status or time in Greek. The lavishing of gifts on Odysseus sends off the message that Alkinoos is so powerful and wealthy that he can afford to give Laertes’ son these incredible gifts without harming his financial situation at all.

  2. Throughout Odysseus’ stay with the Phaiakians, he impresses Alkinoos countless times and is showered excessively with gifts. Alkinoos even offers Odysseus a bath, something that was not only rare, but an extremely generous gesture of respect. Clearly, he is held in great honor by Alkinoos and his people. However, for the for first time we see Odysseus become offended and it casts him in a sensitive, almost arrogant light. When Laodamas invites Odysseus to join in the games, although surely a challenge, it seems like a genuine and good hearted invitation. Odysseus replies by saying, “I have more on my mind than track and field- hard days, and many, have I seen, and suffered” (VIII, 162-163). Of course there is no denying that Odysseus has suffered a great deal and has experienced tragedy and misfortune. Yet his response is not appropriate; he acts as if he is above such games and portays himself as pompous. Laodamas counters this reaction by complimenting Odysseus’ athletic stature and Odysseus still fires back with, “That was uncalled for, friend, you talk like a fool” (VIII, 175). He feels misunderstood and wants to prove himself as much more than who he is being perceived as, but shouldn’t he have just agreed to participate right off the bat? After all, he is a guest and has certainly been pampered to extremity. These particular passages show a not-so-humble side to the hero, Odysseus.

    • When I first read the part of the story where Odysseus declines to participate in the games, I thought he was just being humble and didn’t want to show up his gracious hosts. However, after reading the passage a second time I do see your point about Odysseus becoming arrogant especially when he says he has more important things on his mind. I can also see why Odysseus finally does decided to participate. Seareach caused Odysseus’ pride to kick in when he said, “You must have been the skipper of some tramp that crawled from one port to the next, jam full of chaffering hands: a tallier of cargoes, itching for gold–not, by your looks, an athlete” (VIII, 170-173). For a great war hero like Odysseus to have his athleticism called into question is sure to spark a fire deep within Odysseus to bring out his competitive side. Oydsseus even says that Seareach spoke, “heart-wounding words” (VIII, 194). Therefore I can see how Odysseus seems arrogant, but I also see why he decides to finally participate.

  3. As for women in the past few chapters, I’m seeing somewhat of a pattern. Apart from Odysseus’ wife, most of the women we have encountered seem to have their men wrapped around their fingers! For a culture that granted women such limited rights, I’m surprised that they play such an important role within the household. Consider Helen first; she drugs her husband and their guest and then proceeds to interrupt their conversation to offer her own story…. not to mention she caused almost an entire Greek generation to go to war. Furthermore, look at the Phaiakians. Nausikaa, although young and beautiful, knows how how to hatch a good scheme. Upon encountering Odysseus and agreeing to help him, it takes her about an instant to devise the best way for him to enter the city without suspicion. “Here’s how to do it,” she says. Going further she advises, “Note well, now, what I say, friend, and your chances are excellent for safe conduct from my father.” (VI 270-335) Doesn’t sound like she’s done this before, does it? Maybe she isn’t as naive as we first took the girl by the river to be. Also, when instructing Odysseus, Nausikaa warns him that the way to win over her father is through her mother. Why place such an importance on this if women hold no importance in society or in the household?

    • Claire, that’s an exellent point, especially the last remark about the power held by Nausikaa’s mother Arete. I’ve asked classicists about this in the past, and never really gotten a satisfactory answer. The best they seem to be able to do is, “well, Kalypso is a goddess and the Phaiakians don’t seem fully human either – we shouldn’t draw any conclusions from them about how actual Greek society worked.” But Helen IS human, and given the extreme realism of the “Odyssey” in almost all other regards, this strikes me as a weak explanation.

  4. I’m not sure that Odysseus really leaves that strong of an imprint on anyone he sees on his journey home. The Phaiakians seem to encounter travelers quite often (VII 171-180) and are used to be hospitable. They seem more concerned with the imprint that they will leave on Odysseus rather than the harm he could bring to their society (VIII 108-110).

    As for the role of women, I agree with Claire. For such understated roles in society, they play great roles in the household and in some men’s eyes. When Odysseus first addresses Arete, she does not respond but then later during the meal (VII 358-362) she commands the household workers to take care of Odysseus’s sleeping arrangements. Though it is not the most important job, she controls life at the home and makes sure it runs smoothly. She also takes care to recognize that the clothing Odysseus is wearing are those of her own making. I think this shows how involved and attentive the women are to the going ons of society.

    • I agree with the concept that the women of this epic seem to be the homemakers and the ones responsible for maintaining the elaborate palaces of these great men. It is interesting, though, that Helen – the quintessential woman in Greek society – is the ultimate home-wrecker. First, in leaving her marriage bed, her children, and her husband she destroyed the unity of that home. Second, her presence literally and figuratively destroyed the home of her “husband” Paris in Troy. Helen, and the other female characters of the story serve as relative foils for each other. Kalypso is (for lack of a better word) sexy and confident. Nausikaa is naïve. Arete is a powerful woman in her own right, but remains a dutiful wife. All of the women loosely fit an archetypical role. Odysseus experiences the temptress Kalypso and then innocent Nausikaa, while on the voyage home to Penelope who seems to be the middle ground.

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