Monday, 21 November 2011

Blogging the Odyssey - Book 7

First, the Sparknotes summary:

On his way to the palace of Alcinous, the king of the Phaeacians, Odysseus is stopped by a young girl who is Athena in disguise. She offers to guide him to the king’s house and shrouds him in a protective mist that keeps the Phaeacians, a kind but somewhat xenophobic people, from harassing him. She also advises him to direct his plea for help to Arete, the wise and strong queen who will know how to get him home. Once Athena has delivered Odysseus to the palace, she departs from Scheria to her beloved city of Athens.

Odysseus finds the palace residents holding a festival in honor of Poseidon. He is struck by the splendor of the palace and the king’s opulence. As soon as he sees the queen, he throws himself at her feet, and the mist about him dissipates. At first, the king wonders if this wayward traveler might be a god, but without revealing his identity, Odysseus puts the king’s suspicions to rest by declaring that he is indeed a mortal. He then explains his predicament, and the king and queen gladly promise to see him off the next day in a Phaeacian ship.

Later that evening, when the king and queen are alone with Odysseus, the wise Arete recognizes the clothes that he is wearing as ones that she herself had made for her daughter Nausicaa. Suspicious, she interrogates Odysseus further. While still withholding his name, Odysseus responds by recounting the story of his journey from Calypso’s island and his encounter with Nausicaa that morning, which involved her giving him a set of clothes to wear. To absolve the princess for not accompanying him to the palace, Odysseus claims that it was his idea to come alone. Alcinous is so impressed with his visitor that he offers Odysseus his daughter’s hand in marriage.

This is a short little Book.

Odysseus is now in Skherie, the land of the Phaiakians.  These are people who live at the distant end of the earth, and we discover that they are accustomed to mingle with the gods face to face.  The decor in Alkinoos' palace is suitably extravagant:
Bronze were the walls that stretched this way and that, from the
threshold to the inner rooms, with a cyanus cornice.
Golden were the doors which closed in the well-built house,
and pillars of silver stood on the bronze threshold,
with a silver lintel above and a gold handle.
On each side were golden and silver dogs which
Hephaistos had made with his skilful talents
to guard the house of great-hearted Alkinoos;
they were immortal and ageless all their days.
This is a surreal, alien environment.  It is no place for Odysseus.  The hyper-civilised land of Skherie can no more be home for him than Kalypso's desert island could.

Athene tells Odysseus that he will secure his return to his friend (philoi), his house (oikos) and his homeland (patris gaia) if he wins the favour of Queen Arete.  Odysseus is duly welcomed by the Phaiakian royals in accordance with proper ideas of hospitality, and he is something of a hit with them.  Arete wonders aloud why he is wearing her daughter's clothes, but he gives a conciliatory reply and says that it was his idea not to come to the city openly in Nausikaa's company.

Alkinoos offers Odysseus not only Nausikaa's hand in marriage but also a house (oikos) and possessions (ktémata) among the Phaiakians.  Kalypso has already made him a similar offer, but, again, Odysseus can't accept it.  He makes it clear that he has to return to his fatherland (patris, patré), and that he will die happy if only he can do this:
But I bid you get on, as soon as dawn appears,
and take me, the unlucky one, to my homeland (patrés),
much-suffering as I am - let my life leave me if I
can see my possessions, slaves and great high-roofed house.
Again, we see the importance of honour and reputation.  We are told about how Arete enjoys honour (timé) among the Phaiakians, and Odysseus prays to Zeus that he might grant fame (kleos) to Alkinoos.

The gods are mentioned as giving gifts and woes to men, but we also catch a glimpse of the idea that human destiny is determined neither by humans nor by the gods, but by the fixed determination of Fate and/or the Fates, who spin a thread for each human being when s/he is born:
....But then he
shall suffer whatever Fate and the awesome spinners
spun for him with their thread when his mother bore him.