Book 6 Essays

By Thomas Van Nortwick


Athena, in disguise, comes to Nausicaa in a dream and tells her it's time to do the laundry. 

Odysseus has escaped from the powerful pull of Calypso, but his struggle with the forces of femininity is far from over.  His next encounter will be with a charming young woman, fully human unlike the nymph he has left behind, but carrying much of the same potential to stall the hero’s return home.

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The Phaeacians represent a different form of living from either what we have seen in Ithaka at the beginning of the poem or more recently on Calypso’s exotic island.  Like the nymph, they live far away from others and seem to represent a liminal position on the divine/human continuum, but their benign existence moves Odysseus and us closer to a fully human community, another existential waystation on the journey to Ithaka.  After his motionless sojourn with Calypso, Odysseus now goes into action, sizing up his new surroundings and plotting his return to heroic status.  Although it’s the shortest book in the poem, Odyssey 6 is also among the richest in thematic material, introducing motifs that will recur and build in significance, laying the foundation for Odysseus’s triumphant return to power in Ithaka.

Having tucked Odysseus in under the twin olive bushes on the shore of Scheria, Athena now turns to the next part of her mission, to arrange a meeting with the Phaeacian princess, Nausicaa.  But first, a short primer on the history and culture of the Phaeacians.  They are, it seems, refugees of a sort, having escaped from the bullying of the “overbearing Cyclopes” (5). Their former home was Ὑπερείη “faraway place,” (4) and their flight from the Cyclopes did not take them any closer to other humans. Nausithoos, “Swift Boat,” brought them to Scheria and established a walled town with temples to the gods and divided up the land, a settled kingdom that Alkinoos now rules. Scheria thus joins Pylos, Sparta, and Ogygia as a foil for the troubled society in Ithaka we have glimpsed in the poem’s opening scenes.

As Odysseus makes his way home, he encounters many different modes of living, each with its own particular customs, ranging along a continuum from the atomistic enclaves of the Cyclopes to the sophisticated royal culture of the Spartans; from the divine solitudes of Circe and Calypso, enlivened only by the other forms of life these powerful beings control, to the incestuous realm of Aeolus with its high walls and mated siblings; from the xenophobic Laestrygonians to the alluring Sirens.  And, of course, from the world of the living to the world of the dead.  The poet of the Odyssey seems to have an almost anthropological interest in the varieties of human and non-human organization.  This focus, articulated through the poet’s analogical use of repeated forms, ensures that by the time we return with the hero to Ithaka, the society there appears against a rich backdrop of possibilities.  But more than that, since the places Odysseus visits often reflect the character of their inhabitants—lush Sparta as the home of the somewhat jaded king and queen, the rigidly controlled environs of Aeolus’s kingdom mirroring the king’s function as keeper of the winds, the magical landscape of Calypso reflecting her uncanny powers—the array of different cultures also supplies a context for Odysseus’s complex and sometimes contradictory character.

Athena’s encounter with Nausicaa is brimming with powerful symbols. The young princess has only a cameo role in the drama on Scheria, but who she is and what she says and does are crucial for our understanding not only of her but also, as we will see, of Penelope.  Our first glimpse of her, snugly tucked away in her bedroom, speaks volumes if we know the poet’s traditional style. Her boudoir is richly ornamented, closed off by “shining doors.” She is herself “like the gods” in her beauty and stature. Outside the doorway are two handmaidens, their own beauty a gift from the Graces (15-19). The phrase θύραι … φαειναί (19) is associated in Homer and elsewhere in early Greek hexameter poetry with female sexuality (cf. Il. 14.169; Od. 10.230, 256, 312; Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 60, 236). When Circe opens the θύρας … φαεινὰς of her house to Odysseus’s hapless crewmen, it is a sexual invitation; when Eos closes the θύρας…φαεινὰς to her boudoir with Tithonus inside, that signals the end of their sex life. (See also Od. 192-227 essay.)

The hint of sexuality we might get from Nausicaa’s doorway is quickly dispelled by the presence of the two maidens flanking it.  In Homeric epic, a series of recurring motifs is centered around the theme of “accompaniment.”  For a Homeric male, to be flanked by retainers is a sign of his being in his proper status with the right authority.  In Book 24 of the Iliad, when Achilles leaps to his feet to attend to Hector’s corpse at the behest of Priam, he is accompanied by two θεράποντες (24.572), one sign that he is taking up again the leadership role that he relinquished when he stormed out of the Greek camp after quarreling with Agamemnon (Il. 1.245–303). Homeric women, when they go out in public, must be accompanied by maidservants, a sign of their modesty and, for virgins, their chastity. When Penelope descends to talk to the suitors in Book 18, she has her two ἀμφίπολοι right beside her (18.307). We will see this motif at work later when Nausicaa first meets Odysseus on the beach. For now, the presence of the two ἀμφίπολοι (18) guarding her “shining doors” suggests that any latent sexuality is firmly under control.

A locked door is no challenge for Athena, who wafts into Nausicaa’s bedroom like a puff of wind. The psychic visitation that follows is a familiar event in Homeric poetry. The goddess assumes a nonthreatening disguise and nudges the sleeping princess toward acting on impulses that are usually understood in the world of the Homeric poems to be already present, however submerged, in Nausicaa’s mind. The scene type is flexible enough to cover various situations, with the divine visitor appearing as an eidolon, a kind of ghost (Il. 23.65–106), as an evil dream (Il. 2.5–34), as an anonymous woman in an easily penetrable disguise (Od. 20.30–53) or, as here, a trusted friend (Od. 4.796–807). The most important parallel, as we will see, is Athena’s elaborate visitation in Book 18 (158–205) where the goddess impels Penelope toward a fateful meeting with the suitors.

Interventions like Athena’s here are consistent with the Homeric practice of having the gods initiate significant human action. The meeting that the goddess is arranging will propel Odysseus toward the royal palace and eventually Ithaka. Nausicaa’s character and situation will resonate in various ways throughout the rest of the poem, forming a paradigm for the second courtship of Odysseus and Penelope, which must happen before the hero can finally retake possession of his kingdom. (See Introduction: Odysseus as Trickster and The Trickster Vanishes.) Finally, Nausicaa’s awakening sexuality is the foundation, as we will see, for the more complex reemergence of Penelope from her quiescent seclusion, unleashing the emotional energy that drives her decisions about the mysterious beggar. Tracing the afterlife of Nausicaa in the poem is a good way to observe Homer employing the full potential in his traditional style, seeding the ground with thematic material that will sprout and grow throughout the story.

Athena’s message is the same one that all such visitations are meant to deliver in one form or another: “Still sleeping? You have work to do!” In this case, the work will be in the service of Nausicaa’s coming of age as a young woman. Her marriage is not far off!  She must look her best and cultivate a good reputation.  The imperatives that her “friend” invokes here are social, attached to the proper role for a young woman in Greek society, sanctioned, as Athena assures her, by her mother (25). The other kinds of feelings that might be bubbling up in a young princess are left unsaid here, though they are clear enough to us: she is beginning to be curious about her emerging sexuality.  Both the goddess and later Odysseus play on these latter impulses for their own purposes, as we will see. In the next scene, between Nausicaa and the brine-encrusted stranger, the poet will offer a brilliantly subtle portrait of a girl on the cusp of sexual awareness.

Her message delivered, the goddess wafts away:

ἡ μὲν ἄρ᾽ ὣς εἰποῦσ᾽ ἀπέβη γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη
Οὔλυμπόνδ᾽, ὅθι φασὶ θεῶν ἕδος ἀσφαλὲς αἰεὶ
ἔμμεναι. οὔτ᾽ ἀνέμοισι τινάσσεται οὔτε ποτ᾽ ὄμβρῳ
δεύεται οὔτε χιὼν ἐπιπίλναται, ἀλλὰ μάλ᾽ αἴθρη
πέπταται ἀνέφελος, λευκὴ δ᾽ ἐπιδέδρομεν αἴγλη·
τῷ ἔνι τέρπονται μάκαρες θεοὶ ἤματα πάντα.

Speaking thus, gray-eyed Athena went away
to Olympus, where the gods’ home stands unchanging,
forever. It is neither shaken by winds nor dampened
by rain, nor does snow ever pile up, but the bright air
spreads cloudless away, and the white light runs over it.
There the blessed gods take their pleasure every day.

Odyssey 6.41–46

Some Classical scholars have been suspicious of this passage, citing its scale and unusual vocabulary for describing the gods’ home. But this modulation of our perspective is normal for Homer, who likes to pull in close and then zoom away, speed up and slow down, to mark a shift between two modes of existence. When Zeus sends Hermes to liberate Odysseus from Calypso, the shift from the timeless world of Olympus to the nymph’s remote island is marked by the messenger god’s laborious donning of his sandals and long journey across the pathless deep. Here, the poet pulls our attention abruptly from the busy life of the young princess, pressed by the urgencies of time and circumstance, toward the magical static beauty of Olympus where the gods live at their unending ease.  The sudden shift leaves us suspended in time and space, suddenly looking down at the polite rituals of Phaeacian society as if from a long distance, both physically and existentially. What conclusions we are to draw about the differences between these two venues is not obvious, only that each offers the chance to think about the other with some detachment.

Further Reading

Heubeck, A. Hainsworth, J. and S. West (ed.) 1989. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. I, Books I-VIII, 289–292. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nagler. M. 1974. Spontaneity and Tradition: The Oral Art of Homer, 64–76.Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Segal, C. 1962. “The Phaeacians and the Symbolism of Odysseus’ Return.” Arion 1: 17–64.

Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 38–39. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 1979. “Penelope and Nausicaa.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 109: 269–276.



Nausicaa asks her father for a cart and mules so she can take her laundry to the shore, where she and her attendants will wash it.

As befits a princess, Nausicaa is “awakened” by the dawn, as if the goddess were another of her handmaidens. The portrait of the royal family that follows presents an ideal household. Nausicaa finds the queen spinning wool by the hearth, surrounded by servants, and meets her father as he is on his way out the door, leading the local lords to assembly.

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The charming exchange that follows continues the theme of happy domesticity. The young princess stands up close to her father—we imagine her gazing up and perhaps batting her eyelashes—and asks to use the special wagon with the high seat so she can go to the springs with the laundry make sure that he and her four brothers can all have clean clothes for official meetings and social occasions. She is, we are told, embarrassed to admit that, presumably acting on the impulses that Athena has stirred, she is also thinking of the clothes she might need for her own marriage. Alkinous, not always the model of tact during Odysseus’s visit, is so here, pretending not to know what is on Nausicaa’s mind.  Of course, she can have the wagon or whatever else she wants.  He will deny her nothing.

Preparations ensue, as servants yoke the mules to the “well-polished” wagon, Nausicaa fetches the clothing, “shining” though in need of washing, and her mother brings supplies for a splendid picnic, food, wine, and olive oil in a golden flask for the girls to anoint themselves with after bathing.  When Nausicaa climbs up and flicks the whip, the mules take off eagerly.  The poet adds one more verse:

οὐκ οἴην, ἅμα τῇ γε καὶ ἀμφίπολοι κίον ἄλλαι.

(She traveled) not alone, but some handmaidens went with her.

Odyssey 6.84

We might think that this detail is unnecessary, since we would hardly suppose that a royal princess would handle laundry duty by herself. But here again Homer summons his traditional style to economical effect. This verse reinvokes the “accompaniment” motif we have seen in the first scene outside Nausicaa’s bedroom. The young princess is not heading into the countryside without the proper emblems of her virginity.  Even the wagon she rides in plays a role in the motif.  The notion of “high up,” which both Nausicaa and her father associate with this particular vehicle (58, 70), has a special meaning here.  The women’s quarters in a Greek household would usually be upstairs, a private refuge away from the prying eyes of strangers. Penelope’s first appearance in the poem marshals these symbols:

τοῦ δ᾽ ὑπερωιόθεν φρεσὶ σύνθετο θέσπιν ἀοιδὴν
κούρη Ἰκαρίοιο, περίφρων Πηνελόπεια:
κλίμακα δ᾽ ὑψηλὴν κατεβήσετο οἷο δόμοιο,
οὐκ οἴη, ἅμα τῇ γε καὶ ἀμφίπολοι δύ᾽ ἕποντο.

The daughter of Ikarios, discreet Penelope,
heard the wonderous song from upstairs.
She came down the high staircase of the house,
not alone, but two handmaidens followed her.

Odyssey 1.328–31

The queen will descend again from her chambers for a crucial encounter with the suitors, during which her marital status is very much at issue, after Odysseus arrives home disguised as a beggar:

ὣς φαμένη κατέβαιν᾽ ὑπερώϊα σιγαλόεντα,
οὐκ οἴη: ἅμα τῇ γε καὶ ἀμφίπολοι δύ᾽ ἕποντο.

So she spoke, and came down from her shining bedroom upstairs,
not alone, but two handmaidens followed her.

Odyssey 18.206–7

Nausicaa’s virginity is guarded not only in her bedroom but even in the family wagon, which keeps her “high up,” intact and away from any threats along the way.

Odysseus is about to meet this young princess, and Homer has been busy making sure we understand who she is and what role she might play in the hero’s future.  She has beauty and stature like the immortals and is guarded by women who themselves have beauty “from the Graces” (18). Gold and shiny things surround her, in her clothes, the doors to her bedroom, the flask that carries her olive oil, even the reins of the mules. She is precious, a lovely ornament to her family, guarded at all times. Such a pampered existence might make a person haughty, but not in this case. Ready to share in the picnic preparations and laundry duties, she mingles happily with her ἀμφίπολοι. “Daddy’s girl,” to be sure, but not completely spoiled.

And for Odysseus, extremely dangerous. In the wider perspective of the poem’s narrative form, Calypso and Nausicaa, so seemingly different, are interchangeable, detaining women who would keep the hero from reaching Ithaka and so bringing the story to its appropriate conclusion.  The restoration of Odysseus to his proper role as king, husband, father, and son is the goal towards which the Odyssey propels us. Certain imperatives accompany this kind of story, and we must accept them if the form is going to make sense. Any collateral damage that Odysseus causes on his way home must be considered less important than his getting there. The suitors might well seem to be relatively normal and healthy young men.  The maids, who the suitors sexually exploited, also engender sympathy, given their powerless situation. But no, they all must die. So too, no qualms should accompany the manipulation of a delightful young princess who wants the hero for a husband.

These outcomes are part of the poem’s ruthless logic, however uncomfortable they may make us feel.  For this reason, it is even more remarkable how sympathetic Homer makes both Calypso and Nausicaa, how delicately he depicts the hero’s relationship with each.  Only a great storyteller could take such a risk and pull it off. As the encounter between Odysseus and Nausicaa unfolds, we will see that the poet continues to use his traditional style to keep us fully engaged in the hero’s present struggles while at the same time preparing the way for the final scenes between the royal couple in Ithaka.


Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 78–80. Amherst. The University of Massachusetts Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 26–27. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.



Nausicaa and the other Phaeacian girls arrive at the shore to wash their laundry. The girls play ball together. Odysseus wakes and wonders where he is. 

From her first appearance in the poem, Nausicaa straddles the boundary between naïve innocence and awakening sexuality, a liminal position that Homer represents by various stylistic gestures that point in opposite directions.

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Her bedroom has the golden doors that often signal sexual potential, but the two maidens sleeping outside offer protection for her innocence. That shield fails to keep Athena out, however, and the goddess stirs the young princess’s curiosity about marriage, both as a social institution and, in a more submerged way, as the entrance into sexual maturity. She aims to be a “good girl,” who wants to help her father and brothers look presentable. But at Athena’s urging, she also hopes to make herself ready for marriage, a motive that her father immediately recognizes. She drives happily off for a washing party and picnic with her ἀμφίπολοι, her virginity protected on the way by her “lofty” wagon.

At the river, all is innocence and purity: sparkling clear water, clothes and girls washed clean and dried in the sun. After lunch, the fun continues as the girls play a game of catch and Nausicaa leads them in a song, which reminds the poet of Artemis and her handmaidens:

οἵη δ᾽ Ἄρτεμις εἶσι κατ᾽ οὔρεα ἰοχέαιρα,
ἢ κατὰ Τηΰγετον περιμήκετον ἢ Ἐρύμανθον,
τερπομένη κάπροισι καὶ ὠκείῃς ἐλάφοισι·
τῇ δέ θ᾽ ἅμα νύμφαι, κοῦραι Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο,
ἀγρονόμοι παίζουσι, γέγηθε δέ τε φρένα Λητώ·
πασάων δ᾽ ὑπὲρ ἥ γε κάρη ἔχει ἠδὲ μέτωπα,
ῥεῖά τ᾽ ἀριγνώτη πέλεται, καλαὶ δέ τε πᾶσαι·
ὣς ἥ γ᾽ ἀμφιπόλοισι μετέπρεπε παρθένος ἀδμής.

As Artemis the arrow-shooter goes through the mountains
over lofty Taygetos or majestic Erymanthos
delighting in the wild boars and swift deer,
and with her, nymphs, daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus,
range over the wilds, playing, and Leto is delighted,
for the head and brows of Artemis rise above all the others,
and she is easily distinguished, though all are beautiful.
So the unwed virgin shown forth among the maidens.

Odyssey 6.102–9

The simile underscores Nausicaa’s virginal purity and also her godlike beauty.  Beyond that, the regal bearing we associate with a goddess imbues the young princess with enhanced dignity. She is a young girl who likes to play catch, but she is also a member of Phaeacian royalty. The gravitas carried in the latter role will slowly emerge as she takes charge of the needy stranger.

Virgil channels this latter quality in his reworking of Homer’s simile, describing Aeneas’ first glimpse of the Carthaginian queen Dido as she inspects new building projects:

Quālis in Eurōtae rīpīs aut per iuga Cynthī
exercet Dīāna chorōs, quam mīlle secūtae
hinc atque hinc glomerantur Orēades; illa pharetram
fert umerō gradiēnsque deās superēminet omnēs
(Lātōnae tacitum pertemptant gaudia pectus):
tālis erat Dīdō, tālem sē laeta ferēbat
per mediōs īnstāns operī rēgnīsque futūrīs.

As Diana, on the banks of Eurotas and the peaks of Cynthus,
leads the chorus, and a thousand mountain nymphs
follow her, joined together here and there; she carries
a quiver on her shoulder and strides towering over all;
and joy courses through the quiet heart of Leto.
So Dido strode happily through the crowd,
intent upon the work and her future realm.

Aeneid 1.498–504

Dido seems an unlikely match for a young girl in the grip of new emotions, but Virgil will show her eventually undone by love, used cynically by Juno and Venus, wandering distracted through Carthage. Dido is perhaps the Roman poet’s most striking creation. A tragic casualty of Roman destiny, she is regal and dignified but finally destroyed by the madness of her love for Aeneas. As he so often does, Virgil has pushed beyond the surface of Homer’s portrait, attuned to a part of Nausicaa that is muted at first but resonates later in Penelope’s struggle to resolve the competing forces within herself: the awakening desire to move out of her numbed withdrawal in response to the chaos in Ithaka and the flickering hope that Odysseus might still return. The Odyssey cannot accommodate Roman gravitas, but Penelope’s resourcefulness and determination show an inner strength that Virgil drew on in creating his heroine.

The game of catch winds down and Nausicaa begins to think about heading home, but Athena has other plans. This whole expedition, we are now reminded, was her initiative, and she now moves toward her ultimate goal: Nausicaa must meet Odysseus and lead him to the palace.  The princess’s last toss goes astray, the maids shout, the hero wakes up and ponders:

ἦ ῥ᾽ οἵ γ᾽ ὑβρισταί τε καὶ ἄγριοι οὐδὲ δίκαιοι,
ἦε φιλόξεινοι καί σφιν νόος ἐστὶ θεουδής;
ὥς τέ με κουράων ἀμφήλυθε θῆλυς ἀϋτή:
νυμφάων, αἳ ἔχουσ᾽ ὀρέων αἰπεινὰ κάρηνα
καὶ πηγὰς ποταμῶν καὶ πίσεα ποιήεντα.
ἦ νύ που ἀνθρώπων εἰμὶ σχεδὸν αὐδηέντων;
ἀλλ᾽ ἄγ᾽ ἐγὼν αὐτὸς πειρήσομαι ἠδὲ ἴδωμαι."

Oh no! What sort of people are these, whose land I’ve reached?
Are they arrogant, fierce, and lacking in justice?
Or kind to strangers, with intelligence like the gods’?
That’s the voice of girls wafting around me,
or nymphs, who haunt the steep summits of the mountains
and springs of rivers and grassy meadows.
Am I near people who speak my language?
Come now, I’ll try to see for myself.

Odyssey 6.119–26

We know the voices come from girls, but the poet’s simile has added a mythical penumbra, as Nausicaa and her playmates cavort against a numinous backdrop. In his quandary, Odysseus ranges around the boundaries of human and divine, always a source of energy in the poem. The phrase ἀμφήλυθε θῆλυς ἀυτή (122) recalls the alluring music of Calypso, mysterious sounds that surround the hero and blur the clean edges of consciousness, having the power to distract him from his mission. (See essay on Book 5.43–91) Male bards like Phemius and Demodokus offer stories of the Trojan War, full of paradigms for masculine heroism.  This other kind of singing, which Odysseus has heard coming from Circe’s house and the island of the Sirens, is always dangerous. Nausicaa will indeed be a threat to Odysseus. But as we are about to learn, he could also be dangerous to her.


Further Reading

Austin, N. 1975. Archery at the Dark of the Moon, 193–194; 202–203. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gross, N. 1976. “Nausicaa: A Feminine Threat.” Classical World 69: 311–317.

Mackie, H. 1997. “Song and Storytelling: An Odyssean Perspective.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 127: 77–95.

Nagler, M. 1977. “Dread Goddess Endowed With Speech.” Archaeological News 6: 77–85.

Van Nortwick, T. 1992. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 100–19. New York: Oxford University Press1.

———. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 27–28. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Wohl, V. 1993. “Standing by the Stathmos: The Creation of Sexual Ideology in the Odyssey. Arethusa 26: 19–46.



Odysseus, naked and caked with salt, appears from behind a bush. The other girls flee, but Nausicaa remains. Odysseus addresses her with a flattering speech. 

The atmosphere is charged as Odysseus emerges from the thicket, his appearance prompting more conflicting signals from the poet. Naked and vulnerable, the hero holds an olive branch in front of his genitals. Yet he reminds Homer of a hungry lion, wind-blown, drenched from rain, prowling in search of food, eyes burning with intensity as he hunts for food among flocks of cattle or sheep.

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Odysseus is about to “mingle” with the girls, even though he is naked. The word μίξεσθαι (136) can mean simply “to go amongst,” but it is also the usual word for sexual intercourse in Greek poetry, and young maidens at play are often a target for abduction and rape in early Greek hexameter (cf. Homeric Hymn to Demeter 4-20; Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 117-25). As he does with Nausicaa, so here the poet portrays Odysseus with symbols that suggest he is both vulnerable and potentially threatening.

Filthy and caked with brine, the stranger looks σμερδαλέος, “fearsome” to the maidens, and they scatter in fear. Not Nausicaa, however:

οἴη δ᾽ Ἀλκινόου θυγάτηρ μένε· τῇ γὰρ Ἀθήνη
θάρσος ἐνὶ φρεσὶ θῆκε καὶ ἐκ δέος εἵλετο γυίων.
στῆ δ᾽ ἄντα σχομένη·

Only the daughter of Alkinous remained, for Athena
put courage in her heart and took the fear away from her body.
She stood firm, facing him.

Odyssey 6.139–41

The phrase οἴη δ᾽ Ἀλκινόου θυγάτηρ μένε (139)—a rare variant of the “accompaniment motif”—sums up neatly the ambiguity in the confrontation. Nausicaa faces the scary looking stranger alone, without the usual company of attendants, a potentially dangerous position for a young girl. She and the others have thrown off their veils, another risky gesture, especially out in the countryside where satyrs may lurk. On another level, both actions might be seen as forward, especially for Nausicaa, given the feelings that her dream seems to have stirred. All the conflicting impulses in the young princess surface in this moment.

Odysseus, meanwhile, must proceed carefully. In his present state of disarray, he might well frighten the young princess and ruin his chances for getting into the good graces of the island’s rulers. Kneeling and grabbing her knees, the usual posture for a suppliant, seems too forward: better to approach her more gently. The speech that follows ranks with his most impressive. He sizes up the young maiden and aims for just the right amount of flattery without coming on too strong. Invoking Artemis—almost as if he had heard the poet’s simile—he signals that his thoughts about the princess are both reverent and chaste. And yet, as he passes on to the possibility that such a vision might actually be mortal, he ever so gently hints that his thoughts have strayed into a different territory. Her family would be thrilled to see her heading to a dance, such a flourishing young shoot.  The word θάλος (157) carries the sense of young, vigorous growth, the kind of virgin that might well be compared to Artemis, but also with fertility in reserve. In short, an excellent future wife. Sure enough, Odysseus next ponders the fate of the lucky man who would lead her into marriage.

The tone is complex here.  We receive the signals sent by Odysseus’s words differently than does Nausicaa. From our perspective, Odysseus is laying it on pretty thick. We know he is speaking to a vulnerable girl, in whom conflicting emotions are swirling. Curiosity about men and sex has recently surfaced inside her, nudged by Athena; at the same time, she is still relatively naïve, happy to play catch at the springs. Since we are not to believe, I think, that Odysseus really contemplates the possibility that Nausicaa is a goddess, Homer runs the risk of having his hero come across to us as a cynical cad, not a heroic survivor. And yet, we also know that Odysseus himself is in a delicate situation, needing Nausicaa on his side but at risk of an entanglement with her that might derail his homecoming.

Homer is probably drawing on traditional material here. A mortal man suddenly confronted with a woman who might be a goddess is a situation ripe with possibilities for the storyteller. The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, a poem composed around the same period as the Odyssey, tells the story of how Aphrodite is forced by Zeus to fall in love (or at least in lust) with Anchises, a prince of the royal family in Troy and father of Aeneas. (See  essay on Book 5.1–42.) The goddess finds her intended paramour herding sheep on Mount Ida and approaches him disguised as a naïve young virgin, telling him that she has been snatched from the chorus of Artemis by Hermes to be his wife and bear him children.  The roles here are the reverse of what we see in the Odyssey, and this poet exploits the irony in the situation to full comic effect. The young prince thinks he will manipulate the apparently innocent maiden and have his way with her. He, like Odysseus, begins with hyperbolic flattery:

χαῖρε, ἄνασσ᾽, ἥ τις μακάρων τάδε δώμαθ᾽ ἱκάνεις,
Ἄρτεμις ἢ Λητὼ ἠὲ χρυσέη Ἀφροδίτη
ἢ Θέμις ἠυγενὴς ἠὲ γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη,
ἤ πού τις Χαρίτων δεῦρ᾽ ἤλυθες, αἵτε θεοῖσι
πᾶσιν ἑταιρίζουσι καὶ ἀθάνατοι καλέονται,
ἤ τις Νυμφάων, αἵτ᾽ ἄλσεα καλὰ νέμονται
ἢ Νυμφῶν, αἳ καλὸν ὄρος τόδε ναιετάουσι
καὶ πηγὰς ποταμῶν, καὶ πίσεα ποιήεντα.

Hail, my lady! Are you some goddess who has come
to my home, Artemis or Leto or golden Aphrodite,
or noble Themis or Athena with glancing eyes?
Or perhaps you are one of the Graces, who accompany
all the gods and are called immortal,
maybe one of the nymphs who haunt the lovely groves
or live here on this beautiful mountain, around
the springs of the rivers and the grassy meadows.

Hymn to Aphrodite 92–99

The assignation proceeds, but afterward the tables are turned when the goddess assumes her divine stature and awakens the young prince. He is terrified and begs her not to punish him:

αὐτίκα σ᾽ ὡς τὰ πρῶτα, θεά, ἴδον ὀφθαλμοῖσιν,
ἔγνων ὡς θεὸς ἦσθα: σὺ δ᾽ οὐ νημερτὲς ἔειπες.
ἀλλά σε πρὸς Ζηνὸς γουνάζομαι αἰγιόχοιο,
μή με ζῶντ᾽ ἀμενηνὸν ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ἐάσῃς
ναίειν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐλέαιρ᾽: ἐπεὶ οὐ βιοθάλμιος ἀνὴρ
γίγνεται, ὅς τε θεαῖς εὐνάζεται ἀθανάτῃσι.

Right away when I saw you, goddess, I knew
you were immortal; you did not tell me the truth.
But I beg by Zeus who wears the aegis,
do not let me live enfeebled among mortals,
but take pity on me, since a man is no longer potent,
when he goes to bed with an immortal goddess.

Hymn to Aphrodite 185–90

Virgil may have been thinking of both sources when he has Aeneas encounter Venus, disguised as a young huntress looking for her sisters in the forest outside Carthage:

'ō quam tē memorem, virgō? namque haud tibi vultus
mortālis, nec vōx hominem sonat; ō, dea certē
(An Phoebī soror? an nymphārum sanguinis ūna?),
Sīs fēlīx nostrumque levēs, quaecumque, labōrem
et quō sub caelō tandem, quibus orbis in ōrīs
iactēmur doceās: ignārī hominumque locōrumque
errāmus ventō hūc vāstīs et flūctibus āctī.
multa tibi ante ārās nostrā cadet hostia dextrā.'

“Oh how shall I address you, young maiden? For your face
hardly seems mortal, nor does your voice sound human. A goddess, surely—
the sister of Apollo? Or one of the family of nymphs?—
may you be prosperous and whoever you are, may you ease our labors,
and, under what sky finally, on what shores of this earth
we are landed, please reveal to us. We wander here not knowing
the lands or the people, driven by the wind and vast waves.
Many animals will fall dead, sacrificed before your altars.”

Aeneid 1.327–34

Virgil clearly has the Odyssey passage in mind, given his use of the Diana/Artemis simile soon after. The irony in the Homeric scene, part of the charming, light tone of the entire exchange, here becomes part of Virgil’s persistent questioning of his hero’s fitness for the mission of founding Rome. Allusions to Odysseus in the portrait of Aeneas always portray the Roman leader as inadequate, lacking in the supreme self-confidence of Homer’s hero. Whereas Odysseus uses flattery to manipulate a naive virgin, Aeneas seems quite sincere in his quandary about who this young woman might be. He does not, in fact, recognize his own mother, who is herself manipulating him.

Whether Virgil knew the Homeric hymn, or at least the myth behind it, we might be less sure, but the parallels are tantalizing. If we hear the story of Aphrodite and Anchises in the background of Aeneas’s encounter with Venus (the Roman Aphrodite), then we look on as the Roman hero replays the prelude to his own engendering. Compare Telemachus’ response to the disguised Athena in Book 1, when she asks if he is indeed the son of Odysseus:

μήτηρ μέν τέ μέ φησι τοῦ ἔμμεναι, αὐτὰρ ἐγώ γε
οὐκ οἶδ᾽: οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον αὐτὸς ἀνέγνω.

My mother says I am his son, but I myself
do not know; for who has known his own birth?

Odyssey 1.215–16

We underestimate Virgil’s mastery of Homeric epic at our peril.


Further Reading

Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 39–42. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 1992. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 100–191. New York: Oxford University Press.



Odysseus continues his flattering speech and concludes by asking Nausicaa for clothing and food. Nausicaa responds by introducing herself and offering to help him. She calls her attendants to bathe him and give him food and drink.

Rolling now, Odysseus kicks it up a notch, citing the quasi-religious awe σέβας (161) that has overtaken him as he gazes at Nausicaa, thus providing a smooth segue into his report of a visit to Delos—Artemis again—where he saw a “slender palm tree” (163) that the young princess resembles.

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So far, he has offered flattery without any underlying sexual suggestiveness, but now he inches closer: he would like to grasp her by the knees…but her radiance forbids it! His worshipful tone then points him toward the position he has been aiming at from the beginning, as a pitiful suppliant in need of help, at the feet of a gracious queen (ἄνασσ᾽, 175). After a brief recap of his travails since leaving Calypso’s island, he finally gets down to business: Could she spare some old rags and show him the way to town? In return, he offers his good wishes:

“σοὶ δὲ θεοὶ τόσα δοῖεν ὅσα φρεσὶ σῇσι μενοινᾷς,
ἄνδρα τε καὶ οἶκον, καὶ ὁμοφροσύνην ὀπάσειαν
ἐσθλήν· οὐ μὲν γὰρ τοῦ γε κρεῖσσον καὶ ἄρειον,
ἢ ὅθ᾽ ὁμοφρονέοντε νοήμασιν οἶκον ἔχητον
ἀνὴρ ἠδὲ γυνή· πόλλ᾽ ἄλγεα δυσμενέεσσι,
χάρματα δ᾽ εὐμενέτῃσι, μάλιστα δέ τ᾽ ἔκλυον αὐτοί.”

“May the gods grant whatever you wish for in your heart,
a husband and a home and sweet agreement in all things;
for nothing is stronger and better, than when
a man and woman keep a home together,
united in their thoughts, bringing much pain to their enemies
and joy to well-wishers; and they are in excellent repute.”

Odyssey 6.180–85

These verses resonate on more than one level. In the immediate context, they mark a return by Odysseus to one of his (and Athena’s) principal messages to the young princess: Time for you to find a husband; the stirrings you are feeling are quite appropriate as a prelude to assuming your proper place in society. Meanwhile, of course, the rugged—and scantily clad—stranger is sending other messages, to which the princess will soon show herself to be receptive. But beyond the present situation, this homily speaks to a larger theme in the poem, the yearning for home that drives the hero. Because we have witnessed the existential choice that Odysseus makes to leave the blissful, timeless life that Calypso offers and keep struggling to reach Penelope—who he admits is only mortal and inferior in beauty to the goddess—his words here take on an outsized importance. The bond he envisions for Nausicaa will turn out to be precisely what he finally wins back in Ithaka, and the key to its strength will be the quality of “thinking alike” that he and Penelope show us there. The entire Nausicaa episode provides a paradigm for the submerged courtship we will see in Books 18–23 as husband and wife, each working in his or her own way, find their way back to the bliss that Odysseus foretells here.

Nausicaa responds with some proverbial wisdom of her own, the gist of which is, “Stranger, you seem smart enough, so you know that Zeus gives out prosperity as he wishes, and mortals must do what they can with what they get.  That goes for you.” The tone here fits a royal princess, not the giddy teenager who has just now been playing with her maids. She continues in this grown-up persona, noting that as a suppliant who has come to her town, Odysseus is entitled to her help. She tells him where he is and then introduces herself:

“εἰμὶ δ᾽ ἐγὼ θυγάτηρ μεγαλήτορος Ἀλκινόοιο,
τοῦ δ᾽ ἐκ Φαιήκων ἔχεται κάρτος τε βίη τε.”

“I am the daughter of greathearted Alkinous,
whose power and strength come from the Phaeacians.”

Odyssey 6.196–97

The form of her announcement is striking and unusual.  The verb εἰμὶ appears in the first person singular only in two other places in the poem, when Athena in her disguise as Mentes reassures Telemachus that she will be a worthy helpmeet for him as he heads out on his journey to find out about Odysseus (2.286), and when Odysseus reveals his identity to the Phaiacians (9.19). In neither of these cases does ἐγὼ appear. These are not the words of a timid girl but the proud assertion of a princess, who identifies herself not by her proper name but by her place the royal family.

The air of command continues as she chides her handmaidens:

“στῆτέ μοι, ἀμφίπολοι· πόσε φεύγετε φῶτα ἰδοῦσαι;
ἦ μή πού τινα δυσμενέων φάσθ᾽ ἔμμεναι ἀνδρῶν;
οὐκ ἔσθ᾽ οὗτος ἀνὴρ διερὸς βροτὸς οὐδὲ γένηται,
ὅς κεν Φαιήκων ἀνδρῶν ἐς γαῖαν ἵκηται
δηιοτῆτα φέρων· μάλα γὰρ φίλοι ἀθανάτοισιν.
οἰκέομεν δ᾽ ἀπάνευθε πολυκλύστῳ ἐνὶ πόντῳ,
ἔσχατοι, οὐδέ τις ἄμμι βροτῶν ἐπιμίσγεται ἄλλος.
ἀλλ᾽ ὅδε τις δύστηνος ἀλώμενος ἐνθάδ᾽ ἱκάνει,
τὸν νῦν χρὴ κομέειν· πρὸς γὰρ Διός εἰσιν ἅπαντες
ξεῖνοί τε πτωχοί τε, δόσις δ᾽ ὀλίγη τε φίλη τε.
ἀλλὰ δότ᾽, ἀμφίπολοι, ξείνῳ βρῶσίν τε πόσιν τε,
λούσατέ τ᾽ ἐν ποταμῷ, ὅθ᾽ ἐπὶ σκέπας ἔστ᾽ ἀνέμοιο. ”

“Stand still, girls. Where are you going, just because you’ve seen
a man? Surely you don’t think this is some enemy coming at us?
There is no man alive nor could there ever be,
who would come to the land of the Phaeacians
bringing an attack. For we are very dear to the immortals.
We live far from others on the much-eddying sea,
at the very edge, and no other mortal mixes with us.
But this wretched wanderer has arrived here,
and we ought to care for him, for Zeus protects
all strangers and wanderers, and the gift is small but precious.
So give food and drink to the stranger, girls,
And bathe him in the river, where there is shelter from the wind.”

Odyssey 6.199–210

Homer’s masterful characterization of Nausicaa continues. Her words, though addressed to the maidens, are full of signals for her guest. Unlike her flighty companions, she is not afraid of him. Rather, she assumes the role he has suggested for her, of the beneficent host. The charming but naive girl who was ashamed to admit to her father that she might be thinking about marriage is gone, replaced by someone more commanding. Whether this version poses a greater threat to Odysseus’s homecoming remains to be seen.

So arresting is the portrait of Nausicaa that we may miss the poet’s sleight of hand in modulating her passage from pre- to post-adolescence in such a brief stretch of narrative. His economical use of traditional materials in the first scene, the shining doors, the divine visitation, establishes the young princess’s position on the boundary between childhood and maturity as the Greeks understood these stages in a girl’s life. The dream and her reaction to it reveal submerged feelings that Athena stirs and Odysseus plays on. Nausicaa’s shyness with her father about her interest in marriage shows us the young, inexperienced part of her still dominant, but then her response to the stranger propels her into quite a different persona, of the regal princess, fully in possession of her feelings and ready to take charge of a potentially frightening situation.

The poet draws on the symbolic power of traditional material in his description of the washing party. The similes, of Artemis at the dance and Odysseus as hungry lion, the ambivalence of casting off the veils and Nausicaa’s solitary approach to the stranger, all send conflicting signals about the intentions on both sides of the encounter. The question of who is a threat to whom hangs in the air. The poet of Odyssey is a master of this kind of multilayered characterization, driven by a deft modulation between the surface of the story and the pull of underlying traditional symbols. We have seen it already in the figure of Calypso and it will surface again in Circe, coming to a crescendo in Penelope.


Further Reading

Thalmann, W. 1992. The Odyssey: An Epic of Return. New York: Twayne Publishers, 54–56.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 112–114.

———. 2008. Imagining Men: Ideals of Masculinity in Ancient Greek Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 68–72.



Nausicaa's attendants give Odysseus clothing, and he goes off to bathe. Athena makes him look dazzlingly attractive. The attendants give him food and he wolfs it down.

The maids prepare to clean up the salty stranger, laying out clean clothes and supplying olive oil for moisturizing.  Displaying a seemly modesty, Odysseus asks the girls to stand further off and leave the washing to him, as he would be embarrassed to appear naked before them.  Next comes a striking simile:

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τὸν μὲν Ἀθηναίη θῆκεν Διὸς ἐκγεγαυῖα
μείζονά τ᾽ εἰσιδέειν καὶ πάσσονα, κὰδ δὲ κάρητος
οὔλας ἧκε κόμας, ὑακινθίνῳ ἄνθει ὁμοίας.
ὡς δ᾽ ὅτε τις χρυσὸν περιχεύεται ἀργύρῳ ἀνὴρ
ἴδρις, ὃν Ἥφαιστος δέδαεν καὶ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη

τέχνην παντοίην, χαρίεντα δὲ ἔργα τελείει,

ὣς ἄρα τῷ κατέχευε χάριν κεφαλῇ τε καὶ ὤμοις.

ἕζετ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽ ἀπάνευθε κιὼν ἐπὶ θῖνα θαλάσσης,

κάλλεϊ καὶ χάρισι στίλβων· θηεῖτο δὲ κούρη.

Athena, born of Zeus, made him taller
and broader to look at, and on his head
she put thick hair, curling like hyacinth blossoms.
As when some learned craftsman pours gold over
silver, one whom Hephaistos and Pallas Athena
have taught every kind of art, and he creates graceful works,
so the goddess poured grace over his head and shoulders.
Then going apart he sat on the shore of the sea,
glistening with beauty and grace. And the maiden admired him.

Odyssey 6.229–37

The goddess is busy again, working in the hero’s interests. Just being clean again might not be enough to attract the princess, it seems. As we will see, this gambit succeeds, as Nausicaa will soon send out some signals of her own. As it happens, the same simile appears again, verbatim, in Book 23 when Odysseus is bathed after slaughtering the suitors.  In this case the enhancement does not immediately work on Penelope, as it does on Nausicaa. The queen is not a naïve young virgin and has some tricks of her own. The hero will need to work harder to win over his prudent wife (23.152–204). (See essay on Book 5.1–42)

This parallel is yet another sign that Homer had the Nausicaa episode in mind when composing his portrait of Penelope in Books 18–23. In each case, we see a potential mate for Odysseus, whom he must win over to regain his status in Ithaka. Athena orchestrates the meetings between the two, buffing up the hero so he will be at his most attractive. Submerged feelings surface in both Nausicaa and Penelope, initially stirred by Athena, which make them more receptive to the man before them (6.20–47; 18.158–205). Both are uncertain about how to respond to the stranger, drawn to him but constrained by societal notions of propriety. Nausicaa is moving toward marriage, Penelope perhaps toward remarriage. The question is, will Odysseus arrive in time to be the queen’s groom or will one of the suitors take over in Ithaka? The Nausicaa paradigm imbues the later episodes with a rich layering of meaning: Through the rags and dirt, we see Odysseus engaged in a second courtship of his wife, who will prove to be harder to catch than he might expect.

The image of Athena as artist is also suggestive. One of the fundamental sources of energy in the poem comes from the interplay of two different perspectives on human experience and the kind of world imagined by each. On the one hand, there is the story of Odysseus’s heroic struggle to make it back to Ithaka, an example of a popular subject in the Greek literature about the Trojan War and its aftermath. Other versions include the grim story of Agamemnon’s murder by Clytemnestra upon returning to Argos, Ajax’s suicide in the wake of his unsuccessful bid to inherit the arms of Achilles, or Menelaus’ detour into Egypt before reuniting with Helen. Virgil’s reimagining of Homeric epic rests on another postwar struggle, of Aeneas and the other Trojan refugees.

Athena is the divine force behind Odysseus’s journey, as we have seen. In Book 5 and again in Book 24, Zeus notes that she has already arranged for the hero’s successful return and triumph over the suitors (5.21–27; 24.477–81). With the repeated simile, Homer seems to be pointing to the goddess as the artistic director of Odysseus’s heroic return, a kind of story-within-a-story. His triumph over the suitors, to which the poem’s dominant rhetoric gives primacy over all other considerations, will reaffirm his roles as king, husband, father, and son, all of which have been vacant in Ithaka for twenty years. Behind the imperatives in this perspective lie other assumptions, that Odysseus, gone for twenty years, can simply take up where he left off, that the lives of others will reshape themselves around the imperatives of the returning hero. Into Athena’s heroic world the poet has allowed two inconvenient facts, that Telemachus has reached manhood and must find his way on his own and that Penelope may not be content to remain celibate—forever, if necessary—rather than find a new husband. In pursuing their own goals, each character provokes a crisis after Odysseus returns to Ithaka, Telemachus by posing a potential threat to Odysseus’s kingship, Penelope by endangering his status as her husband.

The fairytale qualities of Athena’s return story play out against the backdrop of a different world, the one inhabited by Odysseus in his persona as the anonymous stranger who arrives in each new place on his way home from Troy and waits to reveal his identity until he feels safe. (See Introduction: Two Worlds.) This dynamic informs several episodes in Books 6–22, his stay with the Phaeacians, with Polyphemus the Cyclops, with Circe, with Eumaeus in the Ithakan countryside, all building to a glorious crescendo in his triumph over the suitors and fraught reunion with Penelope and then Laertes. In each case, Odysseus arrives unknown and relatively powerless and then, having negotiated the challenges of the local scene, returns to his heroic persona in a triumphant recognition scene (9.1–38, 500–5; 10.325–35; 16.186–91; 23.205–30; 24.321–44). In these situations, when Odysseus’s heroic identity does not at first afford him leverage over others, he experiences the world from the perspective of the ordinary non-heroic person and must make his way by his wits. We, meanwhile, observe how the relationships he forms assume a different scale of values, in which his status does not separate him from others, but rather offers the chance to bond with them.

The clash of these two modes of experience appears most clearly in Books 14 and 15, when Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar, encounters his faithful swineherd Eumaeus. The two men form a warm connection, based on the life stories they exchange, Eumaeus’s tough childhood and rescue by the noble Laertes, the beggar’s adventures at sea. At this point, the alternate worlds of the poem suggest two radically different views of the relationship. From the perspective of Athena’s heroic return story, the beggar is never authentic, only a disguise covering the hero’s true identity. The stories he tells are purely fiction and the friendship between two men down on their luck is not genuine. If the swineherd knew he was sitting across from his master, he would never presume to be his friend. The world of the heroic return is strictly hierarchical, based on the relative status of each member, which is based on kleos, the measure of heroic greatness.  The anonymous stranger, on the other hand, can form a friendship with the swineherd based on shared suffering and kindness offered to someone in need.

The Odyssey, like most enduring works of the imagination, reveals a more complex view of human experience than its dominant narrative represents.  Odysseus’s fame, the basis of his status as hero, depends on being known and admired by others, and on the separation this status enforces between him and lesser mortals.  In the episodes where he is initially without this leverage, especially in the Eumaeus episode, Homer explores the advantages and disadvantages of anonymity and, by implication, of heroic glory. By witnessing the growing bond between the beggar and swineherd, something not possible in Athena’s world, we begin to see the heroic exploits of Odysseus in a larger context: Kleos brings one before the admiring gaze of many but allows intimate contact with few. Heroic status and the power it brings must be guarded from the predations of others and can thus bring isolation. The exchanges in the Ithakan countryside are hampered by none of these considerations of power and status. Strangers with apparently little leverage in the world can form friendships without worrying whether their property will be safe. A rough cloak can be shared without ceremony, meals without calculation of profit and loss.  The principal medium of exchange between the two men is the very experience of pain and trouble; a good story repays the host who feeds the storyteller. This implicit critique of heroic values adds depth and richness to the return narrative, and it begins with the Phaeacians.


Further Reading

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 45–82. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.



Nausicaa gives Odysseus instructions on how to enter the town and find the palace of her father, King Alcinous. 

The subtle characterization of Nausicaa continues. Athena’s intervention has worked, apparently tapping into the feelings that the goddess stirred in the dream.

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"κλῦτέ μευ, ἀμφίπολοι λευκώλενοι, ὄφρα τι εἴπω.
οὐ πάντων ἀέκητι θεῶν, οἳ Ὄλυμπον ἔχουσιν,
Φαιήκεσσ᾽ ὅδ᾽ ἀνὴρ ἐπιμίσγεται ἀντιθέοισι·
πρόσθεν μὲν γὰρ δή μοι ἀεικέλιος δέατ᾽ εἶναι,
νῦν δὲ θεοῖσιν ἔοικε, τοὶ οὐρανὸν εὐρὺν ἔχουσιν.
αἲ γὰρ ἐμοὶ τοιόσδε πόσις κεκλημένος εἴη
ἐνθάδε ναιετάων, καὶ οἱ ἅδοι αὐτόθι μίμνειν.
ἀλλὰ δότ᾽, ἀμφίπολοι, ξείνῳ βρῶσίν τε πόσιν τε."

Listen, my white-armed servants, that I might say something.
The gods who hold Olympus are not unwilling for
this man to mingle with the godlike Phaeacians.
Before now, he looked to me to be an unsuitable sort,
but now he seems like one of the gods who rule the heavens.
If only the man to be called my husband were like this one,
one living here, if only he would be pleased to remain here.
But come, my servants, give the stranger some food and drink.

Odyssey 6.239–46

The princess signals that she has begun to fantasize about marrying the handsome stranger—note the verb ἐπιμίσγεται (241) with its sexual undercurrent—but is at pains to maintain her dignity before him and her servants, following her wistful projection with some brisk orders for the maids and detailed instructions for the stranger. The picnic is over, and she efficiently packs up the laundry and yokes the horses. This bustling is important to the portrait, as Nausicaa busies herself with chores she might well have assigned to the servants, to divert attention from her growing interest in the stranger. 

Along with more flirting comes further information about the Phaeacians. Though they have had little contact with other mortals since Nausithoos settled them far from the Cyclopes (2–8), their town has features that would be familiar to an 8th-century audience: surrounded by walls, set on a peninsula with harbors on both sides, a temple to Poseidon, and an agora. As we might expect, their citizens are expert sailors and shipbuilders. They are not, the princess tells us, interested in bows and quiver—which is to say, war.  Alkinous will return to these latter qualities later, when he says that his people are not as good at boxing and wrestling as they are at dancing, warm baths, and elegant clothes (7.246–49). They are a refined civilization, perhaps even a little soft by the standards of heroic culture. Odysseus has entered a society that exists in a fantastic middle zone between Calypso’s timeless cosmos and the ordinary human world of Ithaka, scarred by war and soon to be visited by violence. The poet’s anthropological interest in the varieties of human experience will continue in Books 9–12, as Odysseus tells the story of his adventures with monsters, witches, ghosts, and seductive singers.

Nausicaa returns to matters at hand, as coy hints and firm instructions follow. First a reassertion of her authority: ἐγὼ δ᾽ ὁδὸν ἡγεμονεύσω, “I will lead the way” (261). The stranger seems “not to be thoughtless,” (258), so perhaps he can follow instructions.  She will make sure he meets with the best men of the town, but the danger is that certain uncouth types (ὑπερφίαλοι, 274) might spread malicious gossip:

καί νύ τις ὧδ᾽ εἴπῃσι κακώτερος ἀντιβολήσας·
"τίς δ᾽ ὅδε Ναυσικάᾳ ἕπεται καλός τε μέγας τε
ξεῖνος; ποῦ δέ μιν εὗρε; πόσις νύ οἱ ἔσσεται αὐτῇ.
ἦ τινά που πλαγχθέντα κομίσσατο ἧς ἀπὸ νηὸς
ἀνδρῶν τηλεδαπῶν, ἐπεὶ οὔ τινες ἐγγύθεν εἰσίν·
ἤ τίς οἱ εὐξαμένῃ πολυάρητος θεὸς ἦλθεν280
οὐρανόθεν καταβάς, ἕξει δέ μιν ἤματα πάντα.
βέλτερον, εἰ καὐτή περ ἐποιχομένη πόσιν εὗρεν
ἄλλοθεν· ἦ γὰρ τούσδε γ᾽ ἀτιμάζει κατὰ δῆμον
Φαίηκας, τοί μιν μνῶνται πολέες τε καὶ ἐσθλοί."
ὣς ἐρέουσιν, ἐμοὶ δέ κ᾽ ὀνείδεα ταῦτα γένοιτο.
καὶ δ᾽ ἄλλῃ νεμεσῶ, ἥ τις τοιαῦτά γε ῥέζοι,
ἥ τ᾽ ἀέκητι φίλων πατρὸς καὶ μητρὸς ἐόντων,
ἀνδράσι μίσγηται, πρίν γ᾽ ἀμφάδιον γάμον ἐλθεῖν.

And now one of these inferior types would meet us and say,
“Who is this big handsome stranger following Nausicaa,
and where did she find him? Now he’ll be a husband for her.
She might have saved him when he was thrown off the ship
of some alien men, since there are none other close by.
Or maybe a god, much prayed for, came down to her,
from the heavens and will keep her for all her days.”
So they will say, and this would be a scandal against me.
And I would disapprove of any girl who would act that way,
that is, against the will of her of her father and mother,
mingling with men before she is properly married.

Odyssey 6.275–88

Having veered close to her secret desires—μίσγηται again (288)—Nausicaa preserves her dignity with her prim disapproval of wanton bad girls who would act on the impulses she herself is feeling.

Further Reading

Rose, G. “The Unfriendly Phaeacians. Transactions of the American Philological Association 100: 387–406.

Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 42–44.



Nausicaa finishes giving her instructions to Odysseus, telling him where to find the palace and instructing him to approach her mother the queen first when he enters. Odysseus prays to Athena. 

Before driving off in her wagon, Nausicaa gives the stranger one more set of instructions: to avoid the wagging tongues of locals, he should walk with the servants behind the wagon until they come within shouting distance of the city, then wait in a grove sacred to Athena until the entourage has reached the city and approach the city alone.

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The poet conjures an amusing tableau for us here, of the brawny warrior trudging along behind the wagon while the princess leads the way, flicking her whip over the mules.  This will be the last time we will see Nausicaa exerting her regal authority, putting herself firmly in the driver’s seat to counter the vulnerability brought on by her feelings for the stranger.

Nausicaa predicts that Odysseus, once inside the palace, will find the same kind of tranquil domestic scene she left when heading out for the picnic: the queen by the hearth, surrounded by her servants, the king sitting on his throne, drinking like a god. Her next piece of advice has prompted much discussion from scholars: Odysseus should bypass Alkinous and go directly to Arete to plead for help. If the world of the Odyssey is basically patriarchal, why would a suppliant approach the queen? Addressing all the issues, anthropological, literary, and textual, raised by this question is beyond the scope of our essay; we can at least consider, though, whether Nausicaa’s advice makes any sense in the context of our understanding of the poem. From the storyteller’s point of view, arranging an encounter with a prominent woman for the stranger fits with the ongoing focus on power and gender in the poem. Arete is yet another in the series of female figures with whom the hero must negotiate his return to Ithaka. Her meeting with the stranger prefigures that of Penelope with the beggar. Here the role of potential marriage partner is absent, having been displaced onto Nausicaa, but in both cases the hero’s first challenge is to win over the queen.

But if Arete presents a dignified figure, Alkinous at first might seem a slender reed for Odysseus to lean on. Though we get no hint of disrespect for her father from Nausicaa, from our perspective he gets off to a shaky start as a host. Once Odysseus has approached Arete, the king must be prompted by one of his subjects (7.153–66) to acknowledge the suppliant as a good host should do. Then after Odysseus gives a brief account of what brought him to Scheria, Alkinous seems to overcompensate by enthusiastically offering the stranger Nausicaa in marriage on the spot (7.311–16). As the episode progresses, Alkinous settles into his regal position and discharges his duties appropriately. Perhaps his unsteady beginning is meant to present a negative paradigm for Odysseus, demonstrating the necessity for exerting masculine authority, another way in which the scenes in the Phaeacian palace prefigure Odysseus’s return to his own home.

Nausicaa drives off and effectively disappears from the story, apart from an uneventful description of her arrival at the place (7.1–13) and a later cameo appearance, just before Odysseus begins the narrative of his adventures (8.461–62). Her character is one of Homer’s small masterpieces, a young princess unwavering in her command of a potentially dangerous encounter while struggling with new and bewildering emotions.  To get Odysseus from the seashore to the city did not require the poet to create the kind of subtle and insightful portrait we find in the young princess.  As she herself says, “a mere child” (πάϊς … νήπιος, 300) could lead him to the palace. Her importance, as we have seen, is twofold: 1) A naïve and innocent contrast to the powerful Calypso, she nonetheless represents a genuine threat to the hero’s homecoming who, like the nymph, must be handled with supreme tact; 2) Her situation and response to it prefigure in various ways that of Penelope at the end of the poem.


In Book 6, we see, for the first time in the poem, Odysseus entering a new and unfamiliar society as an anonymous stranger.  His enforced exile on Calypso’s island only ends because Athena convinces Zeus to send Hermes to effect the hero’s release. The nymph’s powers establish the nature of the threat the hero faces from controlling female forces and the paradigm will reappear in various forms throughout the story, right up through the final reunion with Penelope in Book 23. Once on Scheria, Odysseus must use all his skills to win over the locals so that they will help him to reach home again. He will delay revealing his heroic identity until he feels sufficiently confident that his campaign has succeeded. In the interim, Homer begins to explore the interplay of celebrity and namelessness that will grow in richness as the poem proceeds, providing us with a view detached from the imperatives of Athena’s heroic return story. Odysseus finally reveals his identity to the Phaeacians at the beginning of Book 9, and then launches a rendition of his adventures before reaching Calypso’s island, in the course of which the journey from unknown stranger to glorious hero will play out twice more before he reaches Ithaka, in the cave of the Cyclops and on the island of Circe. Once he is home, the pattern will recur twice more, on the farm with Eumaeus and finally in the royal palace. Each repetition adds layers of meaning to the original paradigm, enriching the poet’s meditation on the riddles of human identity and its role in the creation of meaning in human life.


Suggested Citation

Thomas Van Nortwick and Rob Hardy, Homer: Odyssey 5–12. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2024. ISBN: 978-1-947822-17-7.