Thursday, 17 November 2011

Blogging the Odyssey - Book 6

First, the Sparknotes summary:

That night, Athena appears in a dream to the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa, disguised as her friend. She encourages the young princess to go to the river the next day to wash her clothes so that she will appear more fetching to the many men courting her. The next morning, Nausicaa goes to the river, and while she and her handmaidens are naked, playing ball as their clothes dry on the ground, Odysseus wakes in the forest and encounters them. Naked himself, he humbly yet winningly pleads for their assistance, never revealing his identity. Nausicaa leaves him alone to wash the dirt and brine from his body, and Athena makes him look especially handsome, so that when Nausicaa sees him again she begins to fall in love with him. Afraid of causing a scene if she walks into the city with a strange man at her side, Nausicaa gives Odysseus directions to the palace and advice on how to approach Arete, queen of the Phaeacians, when he meets her. With a prayer to Athena for hospitality from the Phaeacians, Odysseus sets out for the palace.

Odysseus has now come to the far-off land of Skherie, which is inhabited by a people called the Phaiakians.  He is initially unsure where they are located on the spectrum of civilisation.  He wonders whether they show the paradigmatically civilised qualities of welcoming strangers and being pious to the gods:
"Are they arrogant and wild and without justice,
or do they welcome strangers and think piously?"
He doesn't have long to find out.

The heroine of the Book is Nausikaa, the teenage daughter of the local king, Alkinoos.  She is one of Homer's more memorable characters.  The book starts with Athene appearing to her disguised as one of her girl friends and telling her that she'd better go and wash her clothes because she's reached marriageable age and she needs to look good for her wedding.  When she meets Odysseus, she quickly marks him down as husband material, but she's reluctant to be seen hanging around with him in public in case people start talking.  She hints to Odysseus that she's interested in him, but also lets him know that she's a good girl who doesn't knock around with men before marriage.

For his part, Odysseus treats Nausikaa with gallantry.  When he first begs her for help, he decides not to grasp her knees in the traditional Greek way in case the gesture is misunderstood - so he keeps his distance and says "I grasp your knees" instead.  He's not called "crafty Odysseus" for nothing.  This is what he has to say to her, laying it on with a trowel:
I grasp your knees, my lady.  Are you god or mortal?
If you are one of the gods who live in wide heaven,
I say that Artemis, the daughter of great Zeus
is most like you in beauty and stature and height;
but if you are one of the mortals who live on earth,
thrice-blessed are your father and your lady mother, and
thrice-blessed are your brothers: greatly must their hearts
always be warmed with delight because of you,
when they see you in your prime entering the dance.
That man is more blessed in his heart above all others -
the man who gives you a rich dowry and takes you home.
For I have never seen such a mortal with my eyes,
neither man nor woman.  I feel awe to look at you.
After the wildness and unreality of Kalypso's desert island, we are back in something approaching civilisation - a place of manners, courtship customs and chivalry.  However, Skherie is still no fit home for Odysseus, for reasons that will become clear soon.

Finally, it is worth quoting Homer's wistful description of the gods' home, Olympus, which is implicitly contrasted with the flawed and hazardous world of human beings:
....silver-eyed Athene departed to
Olympus, where they say the gods' eternal seat is.
It is not shaken by winds, nor ever wet by
rains, nor does snow fall on it, but the cloudless
air is spread over it, and bright light is upon it.
There the blessed gods spend all their days in joy.