Odysseus’ Dirty Linen

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?

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5 Responses to Odysseus’ Dirty Linen

  1. Clare Welch says:

    I always have found the way in which women are pressured to marry in the Odyssey a bit upsetting. I realize that the culture of the Ancient Greeks was completely different than ours today, but it still throws me off. Honestly, it makes me glad to live in the modern world even tough at other times I wish I lived in a different time period. The thing I find most affronting about the pressure to marry is that Athena seems to be completely ok with the fact that women should get married as soon as possible; she supports the Greek status quo that a women without a man is either a witch or worthless. This can be seen in how she talks to Telemakhos about Penelope’s seemingly inevitable marriage to a suitor should Odysseus not return and in her persuasion of Nausikaa. Athena is one of the virgin goddesses, that is she never took an immortal husband and swore off men just like Hestia and Artemis. Yet she, the goddess of wisdom who is not pressured or forced to marry purposely forces young maids to think about marriage. I understand the historical context of this epic, and the literary technique used to move the story along, but my twenty-first century self has a hard time with Athena’s agenda here.

  2. Kaitlin says:

    This is unrelated to the questions asked, but it does regard an idea that we have been exploring throughout the poem: hospitality.

    While reading the books about the Phaiakians, I am unable to find their definite stance on hospitality. Professor Boes wrote above that their society is set in a “delicate balance between hospitality and menace,” and I could easily see that throughout these 2 books, especially book VII.

    Athena tells Odysseus that “they do not care for strangers in this neighborhood,” revealing an inherent distrust of strangers, but when the reader actually meets Alkínoös, he is given a feast and entertainment. I suppose what I found most difficult about this was how they constantly changed their stance on if they were hospitable or not, a direct contrast to the Greek culture. So why would this culture be so different? Do you think that it is a hospitable culture, like the Greeks, or one that holds a disdain for strangers?

    • Caitlin says:

      Kaitlin makes an interesting observation about the Greek’s unclear stance on hospitality. One pattern that I noticed was that a native’s reaction to a guest seems to depend on the social status of the native. In Book IV Eteoneus, serving underneath Menelaos, was the person who questioned welcoming Telemakhos into their feast. Menelaos scolded him for even posing the question, and proved very hospitable to Telemakhos. Maybe Athena meant to shield Odysseus from mainly just the townspeople because she knew that as long as he was able to plea directly to Arete, he would be warmly received. It seems like the more wealthy the person, the more hospitable they are.

      • Z Adams says:

        On somewhat of a tangent, that example also showcases Menelaos’ perceptiveness, as he immediately recognizes Telémachos’ stature, whereas the less perceptive members of his court remain oblivious…

    • Erin Rice says:

      I think a point that was brought up earlier that made a great deal of sense was that the people during this time period weren’t sure whether a stranger at the door was a God of actually just a beggar on the street. A comparison that can be made would be the definition of hospitality for royalty versus the pheasants on the street. Replying to Caitlin’s post, I believe that when it states “they do not care for strangers” they may be referring to the people of the “neighborhood” not necessarily the people of royalty he encounters. Athena’s warning may be to protect Odysseus on his way to meet the king and Queen.

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