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 you’ve probably figures out by now, Greek aristocrats were basically 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 heros, probably looks more attractive than your average Phaiakian even when he is covered in sea foam. Odysseus is a man who, whenever he has 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 will read for Thursday. 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 Antinoos, 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?