The Odyssey
Homer
Contributed by Joslyn Justiniano

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Book 7-8
Summary

Summary: Book 7

Odysseus is on his way to the palace of Alcinous, the king of the Phaeacians, when he is stopped by a young girl, actually Athena in disguise. She guides him to the palace by covering him in a mist to avoid the Phaeacians, who are kind but somewhat xenophobic people, from harassing him. Athena also advises Odysseus to seek help from Arete, the wise and strong queen who will know how to get him home.

Once Odysseus reaches the palace, Athena departs from Scheria to her beloved city of Athens. Odysseus sees that the residents of Scheria are holding a festival in honor of Poseidon. He is struck by the splendor of the palace and the king Alcinous’s opulence. As soon as he sees the queen Arete, he throws himself at her feet, and the mist about him dissipates.

The king wonders if this traveler might be a god but Odysseus declares that he is indeed a mortal, though he does not reveal his real identity. Odysseus explains his predicament and the king and queen gladly promise to see him off the next day in a Phaeacian ship.

In the evening, when the king and queen are alone with Odysseus, queen Arete recognises the clothes that he is wearing as ones that she herself had made for her daughter Nausicaa. She asks Odysseus about it and Odysseus recounts the story of his journey from Calypso’s island and his encounter with Nausicaa that morning. Here he admits that Nausicaa gave him the set of clothes to wear. Odysseus claims that it was his idea to come alone to absolve the princess for not accompanying him to the palace. King Alcinous is so impressed with his visitor that he offers Odysseus his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Summary: Book 8

King Alcinous calls an assembly of his Phaeacian counselors next day. Athena, back from Athens, ensures huge attendance by spreading the word that the topic of discussion will be the godlike visitor who recently appeared on the island. During the assembly, Alcinous proposes providing a ship for his visitor so that the man can return to his homeland. His proposal is approved and Alcinous invites the counselors for a feast and games in honor of his guest. Demodocus, a blind bard, sings of the fight between Odysseus and Achilles at Troy. Everyone listens with pleasure but Odysseus weeps at the painful memories of that war. The king sees Odysseus in grief and ends the feast so that the games can begin.

At one point, Odysseus is asked to participate in the games including boxing, wrestling, racing, and throwing of the discus. Odysseus is still in trauma and he declines. Broadsea, a young athlete, insults him, which pricks Odysseus' pride into action. Odysseus easily wins the discus throw event and challenges the Phaeacian athletes to any other competition.

The situation turns ugly but Alcinous diffuses it by insisting that Odysseus join them in another feast. There, the Phaeacian youth entertain him and prove their preeminence in song and dance. Demodocus sings again, this time a light song about meeting between Ares and Aphrodite.

At the end of the feast, Alcinous and the young Phaeacian men, including Broadsea, present Odysseus gifts to take with him on his journey home. During the dinner that night, Odysseus asks Demodocus to sing of the Trojan horse and the sack of Troy. As he listens to the minstrel, he breaks down again. King Alcinous stops the music and asks Odysseus to tell him who he is, where he is from, and where he is going.

Analysis

The Alcinous’s palace provides the reader with some comic relief as it bridges the narrative of Odysseus’ uncertain journey from Calypso’s island and the woeful exploits that he recounts in Books 9 through 12. Odysseus, though with a lot of poise, cannot remain at peace even when he finds himself outside the direct influence of the wrath of various gods. His melancholic nature at the Phaeacian games prompts insult at him from Broadsea, which fuels a series of challenges between Odysseus and the Phaeacian youths.

His shedding of tears at Demodocus’s song attracts Alcinous’s attention and he is forced to reveal his identity and relate the history of his painful journey. Though Homer makes no mention of it again after Book 8, the poet has already hinted that Princess Nausicaa has a soft corner for Odysseus, a development that comes soon after escaping the divine Calypso. In Book 7 and Book 8, the conflict between passion and constancy is particularly strong.

Homer sustains the tension in two ways; through the subtle allusions to Nausicaa’s blossoming love for Odysseus and through Demodocus’s song about the illicit affair between Ares and Aphrodite. The song ends on a light note with a discussion on secret meetings between the two lovers and cleverly-laid trap by Hephaestus, Aphrodite’s husband, to catch the two lovers in the act. The song obviously has relevance for Odysseus. For the Greek audience, it recalls Odysseus' uncomfortable relationship with Calypso and points to the future where Odysseus, like Hephaestus, will take revenge from the suitors of his wife Penelope.

On one side are the naive Phaeacian youths who seek glory and on the other is a sombre Odysseus who has matured after encountering many glorious and painful experiences in life. The maturity in Odysseus' character and the recklessness in youths' life, such as Broadsea, due to the lack of hardships highlight the contrast in the two phases of man's life. Young Laodamas exhortation to Odysseus, “What greater glory attends a man... / than what he wins with his racing feet and striving hands? / . . . throw your cares to the wind!” brings out the youths’ simplistic preoccupation with physical prowess (“racing feet,” “striving hands”) (8.170–172). Odysseus, though, capable of defeating the youths in athletic competition, exudes poise in the face of brazenness and defends his honor only after Broadsea’s insult. His curt reply, “pains weigh on my spirit now, not your sports,” shows his urgency over more grave concerns of family and loss than the petty thought of glory for its own sake (8.178). Nausicaa’s fascination for Odysseus is also insignificant to him and it cannot overpower his desire to return home. Bard Demodocus figures prominently in the episode at Scheria and the content of his first song resembles closely to that of a song in the Iliad, it is for this reason commentators have often equated him Homer. This interpretation, which seems to have given birth to the belief that Homer was blind, implies that Homer has incorporated himself into his own story. The tradition of oral poetry played a big role in the semi-literate cultures like the Greek world of the Iliad and the Odyssey than it does today or in the classical period of Greek history. Demodocus’ songs about Ares and Aphrodite are of great help to our interpretation of the Odyssey. But they are not enough to conclusively decode the identity of Homer. No doubt, Demodocus and his songs occupy a large portion of Book 8 but they may owe their existence to the culturally important role of oral poets in Homer's life.

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