Sunday, 4 December 2011

Blogging the Odyssey - Book 8

First, the Sparknotes summary:

The next day, Alcinous calls an assembly of his Phaeacian counselors. Athena, back from Athens, ensures attendance by spreading word that the topic of discussion will be the godlike visitor who recently appeared on the island. At the assembly, Alcinous proposes providing a ship for his visitor so that the man can return to his homeland. The measure is approved, and Alcinous invites the counselors to his palace for a feast and celebration of games in honor of his guest. There, a blind bard named Demodocus sings of the quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles at Troy. Everyone listens with pleasure except Odysseus, who weeps at the painful memories that the story recalls. The king notices Odysseus’s grief and ends the feast so that the games can begin.

The games include the standard lineup of boxing, wrestling, racing, and throwing of the discus. At one point, Odysseus is asked to participate. Still overcome by his many hardships, he declines. One of the young athletes, Broadsea, then insults him, which goads his pride to action. Odysseus easily wins the discus toss and then challenges the Phaeacian athletes to any other form of competition they choose. The discussion becomes heated, but Alcinous diffuses the situation by insisting that Odysseus join them in another feast, at which the Phaeacian youth entertain him and prove their preeminence in song and dance. Demodocus performs again, this time a light song about a tryst between Ares and Aphrodite. Afterward, Alcinous and each of the young Phaeacian men, including Broadsea, give Odysseus gifts to take with him on his journey home.

At dinner that night, Odysseus asks Demodocus to sing of the Trojan horse and the sack of Troy, but as he listens to the accomplished minstrel he again breaks down. King Alcinous again notices and stops the music. He asks Odysseus at last to tell him who he is, where he is from, and where he is going.

In this Book, the civilised character of the Phaiakians continues to be apparent.  We are in a world of law, custom, manners and decorum.  Even confrontations turn out ok in the end.  A brief dispute between Odysseus and a Phaiakian called Euryalos ends up being defused and concluded amicably.

One sign of the Phaiakians' civilisation is their observance of the key Greek practice of "guest-friendship", xenia (or xeinosyné in more authentically Homeric Greek).  This, in essence, required a host to offer generous hospitality to a guest who arrived at his door, and included the giving of xeinia, or guest-gifts.  Telemakhos has already benefited from xeinosyné on his travels, while the suitors who are occupying Odysseus' palace are perverting the institution with their misbehaviour.  In this Book, of course, it is Odysseus who is the guest.

The bard Demodokos is sometimes thought of as a cameo appearance of Homer himself (insofar as there was an individual "Homer").  His light-hearted song about the adultery of Ares and Aphrodite has attracted critical attention since antiquity.  Gladstone, in his Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, ascribed it to "the influence of a perverted religion" and contrasted it with "the peculiar purity of [Homer's] mind".  There has been some disagreement as to what, if anything, it means in the broader context of the plot.  If nothing else, it resonates with the theme of marital fidelity and infidelity which underlies the story of Odysseus, Penelope and the suitors.

Demodokos' other songs highlight the painfulness that memory has for Odysseus.  He cries twice when he is reminded of his sufferings.  His priority remains to secure his return (nostos) to his homeland (patré, patris).  Euryalos says when making up with him after their contretemps:
May the gods grant that you see your wife and come to your
homeland [patris], since you have long suffered woes far from your friends.
"Friends" is the translation of philoi, which has a broader meaning than the English term and includes family and other household members.

Finally, we are reminded once again of the importance of kleos, renown.