By Thomas Van Nortwick


In the morning, Alcinous calls an assembly of the Phaeacians to announce his decision about sending Odysseus home. He also orders a feast.

Odysseus begins his stay on Scheria buried naked under a pile of leaves. By the end of the day, he’s tucked in bed in the royal palace, already the leading candidate to be Nausicaa’s husband.

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Yet despite his meteoric rise in status, he remains nameless by his own choice, having ducked the queen’s direct question (7.237). Throughout Books 6 and 7, the poet has been laying the groundwork for the rest of Odysseus’s journey home, using traditional language and repeated narrative structures to foreshadow the climactic events to follow in Ithaka. The hero has passed the first tests, on the beach and in the palace. But further trials await.

The next stage in the hero’s progress begins with a threefold rising, of the sun, the king, and the stranger (see essay on Book 7.1–36):

ἦμος δ᾽ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς,
ὤρνυτ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐξ εὐνῆς ἱερὸν μένος Ἀλκινόοιο,
ἂν δ᾽ ἄρα διογενὴς ὦρτο πτολίπορθος Ὀδυσσεύς.

When rosy-fingered, early-born Dawn appeared,
Alkinous, the hallowed king, rose from his bed,
and Odysseus, Zeus-born sacker of cities arose.

Odyssey 8.1–3

Momentum builds as Alkinous immediately calls the Phaeacians to assembly and Athena gives the occasion her own imprimatur by acting in disguise as the king’s herald, urging the locals on with her enticing description of the stranger’s godlike appearance. The seats in the agora rapidly fill as the citizens gaze in wonder at Odysseus. This excitement is all part of Athena’s plan to bring the hero home and she leaves nothing to chance, making him bigger and taller so he will be loved, admired, and respected by the Phaeacians, and finish strong in the athletic games to come.

Athena has already buffed up Odysseus once, when he meets Nausicaa on the beach:

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.

Athena, born from Zeus, made him look taller and broader, and on his head she set

hair curling like the blooms of hyacinth.

As when some skilled man, whom Hephaestus and Athena

taught every technique, pours gold over silver,

and brings to perfection his graceful art,

so she poured grace over his head and shoulders.

Odyssey 6.229–35

The goddess intervenes again in Book 23 (156–62), prompting the same simile from the poet, when Odysseus has cleaned off the blood from his slaughter of the suitors and must convince Penelope that he is indeed her long-lost husband. In both cases, Athena apparently feels that Odysseus needs a little extra leverage with the woman he is trying to win over. Her intervention here signals that the hero faces another test and must look especially impressive (see essay on Book 6.211–238).

Odysseus has slipped by the first round of questions from Arete about his identity. Now the king returns to the issue almost casually in his speech to the assembled Phaeacians:

ξεῖνος ὅδ᾽, οὐκ οἶδ᾽ ὅς τις, ἀλώμενος ἵκετ᾽ ἐμὸν δῶ,
ἠὲ πρὸς ἠοίων ἦ ἑσπερίων ἀνθρώπων·
πομπὴν δ᾽ ὀτρύνει, καὶ λίσσεται ἔμπεδον εἶναι.

This stranger here—I don’t know who he is—has come wandering to my home,
from people either in the east or the west;
he urges us to carry him on a journey, begging for a firm answer.

Odyssey 8.28–30

We might think that the king would be reluctant to offer conveyance to someone who will not say who he is, but then again, we might also suppose that a father would shy away from giving away his daughter to an anonymous visitor (7.309–16; see essay on Book 7.240–347). In any event, none of this seems to matter to Alkinous. In the next breath, he again guarantees that the Phaeacians will return Odysseus to his home and begins to recruit the crew. We should note that at this point, Odysseus has achieved his (and Athena’s) goal, to get a ride home from the Phaeacians. From the point of view of the plot, then, the poet should be ready to move on to the next part of his story, Odysseus’s account of his adventures before reaching Calypso’s island. But there will be much more to come before the hero leaves Scheria, all of it part of the careful layering of repeated narrative structures that build toward the hero’s trials in Ithaka.

Alkinous now invites the assembled worthies to feasting and merrymaking in the royal palace, including songs from the blind bard, Demodocus (whose condition contributed to the belief in antiquity that Homer himself was sightless; see Homeric Hymn to Apollo 169–73). That the singer is to be performing at dinner signals to us that the scope of the story may be expanding into a wider arena than the isolated society of the Phaeacians. Demodocus will sing three songs, each in its own way pointing well beyond the hero’s immediate circumstances to a wider world where he will be tested yet again.


Further Reading

Heubeck, A. and Hoekstra, A. (ed.) 1989. A Commentary on Homers Odyssey, vol. II, Books IX–XVI, 341–346. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitman, C. 1958. Homer and the Heroic Tradition, 289. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Preparations for Odysseus's departure and for the feast. The bard Demodocus sings about a quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles at the start of the war.

Preparations for the stranger’s journey proceed in regular fashion (πάντα κατὰ μοῖραν, 54). Traditional language and phrasing dominate the first sixty verses of the book, a style that reinforces the sense of orderly occasion informing this opening scene. Playing against this measured pace is the energy of the crew as they get ready to sail.

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We know that the long-awaited return of Odysseus to Ithaka is coming, and our expectation adds an undercurrent of urgency. The poet has us right where he wants us now, and proceeds to tease us, delaying the hero’s departure for over 2500 verses.

Once the ship is in the water, Alkinous summons everyone to the feast. The bard is led in with much ceremony and settled in his silver chair. Once filled to their satisfaction, the guests sit back for the concert, which is to feature the “glorious deeds of men,” (κλέα ἀνδρῶν, 54), songs celebrating the heroic adventures of men like Achilles, Agamemnon, or Odysseus. Demodocus will be a significant part of what transpires in the royal palace. His role in the poem puts him in two overlapping categories, as someone who makes music and as a storyteller. Both are central to the poem’s meaning.

There are two types of music in the Odyssey, either the songs of bards like Demodocus or Phemius, the singer we meet in Ithaka during the poem’s opening scenes (1.153–55; 325–44), or the mysterious music made by female characters (see essay on Book 5.43–91). The narrative songs of bards recount the lives of heroes, agents of civilization, as the Greeks understood that project. In this perspective, human civilization is the masculine product of imposing limit on the power of extra-human forces in the universe, usually portrayed as embodying disorder. Thus, the Olympian regime is the result of Zeus defeating Typhoeus, a storm god, and Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi is founded on the rotting body of the monstrous serpent, Pytho. When Demodocus sings, he celebrates by implication the orderly and just society of the Phaeacians. Phemius’ songs, by contrast, play against the evident disorder in Ithaka with Odysseus gone (1.325–59).

The second kind of music in the poem comes from singers like Calypso and Circe, whose voices seem to have a mysterious power to control other creatures (1.59–74; 10.221–24). This power is not in the service of human order. On the contrary, the sound blurs the clear boundaries that demarcate human experience and can lure heroes from their appointed tasks. The most dangerous example of subversive music is the Sirens, who call men to their deaths with seductive singing. Their art is especially nefarious, as they appeal to men with the promise of imparting knowledge about the Trojan War, a heroic project if ever there was one, but in the end offer only oblivion (12.166200). When Odysseus first lands on the beach at Scheria, he hears the voices of Nausicaa and her maidens playing:

"ὤ μοι ἐγώ, τέων αὖτε βροτῶν ἐς γαῖαν ἱκάνω;
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, or 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 the grassy meadows.
Am I near people who speak my language?
Come now, I’ll see for myself.

Odyssey 6.119–26

The girls’ voices drifting down around Odysseus (ἀμφήλυθε,122), carry the same power to blur edges that Calypso’s name (“I will smother”) commemorates. The music of Demodocus would appear to be safe for Odysseus to hear, though it makes trouble nonetheless, as we will see.

Demodocus is also a storyteller, an art form even more central to the Odyssey’s meaning than music. Everywhere we look in the poem, we see the power of stories. The principal storyteller is Homer, orchestrating his vast and intricate design, but within that edifice, many others hold forth, Phemius, “Mentes,” Nestor, Menelaus, Helen, Demodocus, Eumaeus, Theoclymenus, Penelope, and the master of the form, Odysseus. Between these two levels, the poet and his characters, there is yet another story being told, if we believe Zeus:

"τέκνον ἐμόν, ποῖόν σε ἔπος φύγεν ἕρκος ὀδόντων.
οὐ γὰρ δὴ τοῦτον μὲν ἐβούλευσας νόον αὐτή,
ὡς ἦ τοι κείνους Ὀδυσεὺς ἀποτίσεται ἐλθών;
Τηλέμαχον δὲ σὺ πέμψον ἐπισταμένως, δύνασαι γάρ,
ὥς κε μάλ᾽ ἀσκηθὴς ἣν πατρίδα γαῖαν ἵκηται,
μνηστῆρες δ᾽ ἐν νηὶ: παλιμπετὲς ἀπονέωνται."

My child, what kind of word has escaped the barrier of your teeth?
Haven’t you yourself arranged this plan,
that Odysseus would return to punish these men?
Contrive to send Odysseus back—you can do it—
so he arrives safely in his own fatherland,
and the suitors struggle back to port.

Odyssey 5.22–27

Athena has been complaining that the gods are doing nothing to release Odysseus from Calypso’s clutches. In answer, Zeus is essentially saying that she has already arranged for him to succeed in his mission. To put it another way, there is another story being told that has already been composed by Athena, the heroic return of her favorite. The tension in the poem between the goddess’s story and the wider world that Odysseus encounters on the way home is a major source of energy in the poem.

Demodocus first sings a song about something that appears nowhere else in Greek epic, a quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus at a banquet of the gods, which delights Agamemnon because it has been prophesied by the oracle at Delphi and from which follows some kind of catastrophe for Greeks and Trojans. The song and its meaning in the context of the banquet at Scheria are obscure at best and have prompted much speculation from scholars about where it might fit in the epic tradition. For our purposes here, what is important is the effect that the story has on Odysseus. His reaction is part of an intricate web of associations that depend on the kind of repeated narrative structures that characterize Homeric poetry.


Further Reading

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.

Pucci, P. “The Song of the Sirens.” Arethusa 12: 121–132.

Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 50–54. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homers Odyssey, 27–28. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Wohl, V. 1993. “Standing by the Sthamos: The Creation of Sexual Ideology in the Odyssey. Arethusa 26: 23; 34.



The song of Demodocus makes Odysseus hide his face and weep. Alcinous announces the start of the games, beginning with a foot race.

Upset by the bard’s song, Odysseus covers his face with his cloak and weeps. We have seen this kind of reaction before, when Telemachus hears stories about his father in Sparta:

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ὣς φάτο, τῷ δ᾽ ἄρα πατρὸς ὑφ᾽ ἵμερον ὦρσε γόοιο.
δάκρυ δ᾽ ἀπὸ βλεφάρων χαμάδις βάλε πατρὸς ἀκούσας,
χλαῖναν πορφυρέην ἄντ᾽ ὀφθαλμοῖιν ἀνασχὼν
ἀμφοτέρῃσιν χερσί.

So [Menelaus] spoke, and in [Telemachus] the longing for his father brought tears.
Hearing his father’s name, he let tears fall from his eyes to the ground,
holding a purple cloak in front of his eyes
with both hands.

Odyssey 4.113–16

Familiarity with Homer’s style prompts us to think further about similarities between the two scenes. Hearing about heroes from the Trojan War brings an emotional response from both men, but the parallels extend further. Seeing his guest’s reaction, Menelaus guesses who Telemachus is, though it falls to Helen to name him (4.140–46). Alkinous is also sensitive to his visitor’s reaction:

Ἀλκίνοος δέ μιν οἶος ἐπεφράσατ᾽ ἠδ᾽ ἐνόησεν
ἥμενος ἄγχ᾽ αὐτοῦ, βαρὺ δὲ στενάχοντος ἄκουσεν.

Only Alkinous understood what he did and noticed,
sitting next to him and hearing him groan deeply.

Odyssey 8.94–95

Later in the same scene, hearing a song about the ruse of the Trojan Horse will again lead to Odysseus weeping into his cloak, with the exact same language describing Alkinous’s response (533–34). But there the sequence will end with the naming of Odysseus.  

The link between weeping and recognition that we see here and earlier in Menelaus’s palace will come into play three more times in the poem, all in crucial situations. When the beggar meets with Penelope alone in Book 19, hearing his false story about meeting Odysseus on Crete causes her to weep, which Homer describes in one of his most beautiful similes:

ὡς δὲ χιὼν κατατήκετ᾽ ἐν ἀκροπόλοισιν ὄρεσσιν,
ἥν τ᾽ Εὖρος κατέτηξεν, ἐπὴν Ζέφυρος καταχεύῃ:
τηκομένης δ᾽ ἄρα τῆς ποταμοὶ πλήθουσι ῥέοντες:
ὣς τῆς τήκετο καλὰ παρήϊα δάκρυ χεούσης,
κλαιούσης ἑὸν ἄνδρα παρήμενον.

As when snows melts on the peaks of the mountains,
snow that the West wind piles up and the East wind thaws,
and the rivers overflow with its melting,
so her lovely cheeks were softened with the running tears,
as she wept for her husband, who was sitting beside her.

Odyssey 19.205–09

Earlier in their meeting, Penelope asks the beggar point blank who he is, and he declines to answer, saying that to speak of such things is too painful for him (104–22). Now, once recovered from her weeping, she presses again:

νῦν μὲν δή σευ, ξεῖνέ γ᾽, ὀΐω πειρήσεσθαι,
εἰ ἐτεὸν δὴ κεῖθι σὺν ἀντιθέοις ἑτάροισι
ξείνισας ἐν μεγάροισιν ἐμὸν πόσιν, ὡς ἀγορεύεις.
εἰπέ μοι ὁπποῖ᾽ ἄσσα περὶ χροῒ εἵματα ἕστο,
αὐτός θ᾽ οἷος ἔην, καὶ ἑταίρους, οἵ οἱ ἕποντο.

Now, stranger, I think I will test you,
to see if you truly entertained my husband
there in the halls with your godlike companions, as you say.
Tell me what kind of clothing he wore on his body,
and what kind of man he was, and those who followed him.

Odyssey 19.215–19

Odysseus knows the right answers, of course, as he does earlier on Scheria when Arete asks him the same question (7.233–39), but again he avoids revealing his identity.

The poet continues to feed the energy building around the issue of the beggar’s identity in a lengthy digression about how Odysseus got his name and the origin of a scar on his leg (19.386–466). Then Odysseus chooses the old maid Eurykleia to wash his feet and when she sees the scar, she knows:

τὴν γρηῢς χείρεσσι καταπρηνέσσι λαβοῦσα
γνῶ ῥ᾽ ἐπιμασσαμένη, πόδα δὲ προέηκε φέρεσθαι:
ἐν δὲ λέβητι πέσε κνήμη, κανάχησε δὲ χαλκός,
ἂψ δ᾽ ἑτέρωσ᾽ ἐκλίθη: τὸ δ᾽ ἐπὶ χθονὸς ἐξέχυθ᾽ ὕδωρ.
τὴν δ᾽ ἅμα χάρμα καὶ ἄλγος ἕλε φρένα, τὼ δέ οἱ ὄσσε
δακρυόφι πλῆσθεν, θαλερὴ δέ οἱ ἔσχετο φωνή.
ἁψαμένη δὲ γενείου Ὀδυσσῆα προσέειπεν:
“ἦ μάλ᾽ Ὀδυσσεύς ἐσσι, φίλον τέκος: οὐδέ σ᾽ ἐγώ γε
πρὶν ἔγνων, πρὶν πάντα ἄνακτ᾽ ἐμὸν ἀμφαφάασθαι.”

The old woman, taking his leg in the palms of her hands,
knew the scar as she handled it and let the foot drop.
His shin fell in the basin, and the bronze rang out.
The basin tilted to one side and the water ran out on the ground.
Joy and pain seized her mind at once, and her eyes
filled with tears, and her swelling voice was held back.
Grasping Odysseus by the chin, she spoke:
“You are Odysseus, then, dear child. I did not
know you before, until I touched you all over.”

Odyssey 19.467–75

This should be the dramatic moment when Penelope finally recognizes Odysseus, but Athena is not ready for the beggar to be revealed and prevents the queen from seeing the exchange. Odysseus threatens the nurse with death if she reveals his secret, and the disguise holds for a little longer.

The conjunction of weeping and recognition appears once more in the poem, when Penelope finally acknowledges Odysseus as her husband, after tricking him with her ruse about moving the marriage bed (23.177–204). Now the moment of revelation, which the poet has been building toward since Odysseus arrived on Ithaka, finally comes:

ὣς φάτο, τῆς δ᾽ αὐτοῦ λύτο γούνατα καὶ φίλον ἦτορ,
σήματ᾽ ἀναγνούσῃ τά οἱ ἔμπεδα πέφραδ᾽ Ὀδυσσεύς:
δακρύσασα δ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽ ἰθὺς δράμεν, ἀμφὶ δὲ χεῖρας
δειρῇ βάλλ᾽ Ὀδυσῆϊ, κάρη δ᾽ ἔκυσ᾽ ἠδὲ προσηύδα:

So [Odysseus] spoke and her knees and inward heart went slack,
as she recognized the clear proofs that Odysseus had given her.
Bursting into tears, she ran right up and threw her arms
around Odysseus, kissing his head and speaking to him:

Odyssey 23.205–8

In three of these passages, at Sparta, after Demodocus’ second song, and after the slaughter in Ithaka, weeping leads directly to the revelation of the hero’s identity. In the other three, after Demodocus’ first song, during the beggar’s interview with Penelope, and the near miss when Eurykleia sees the scar, the poet draws on what appears to be a traditional association in his art language to tease, leading us right up to the moment when we’re expecting to hear Odysseus’ name, then making us wait.

In this series of scenes, spanning the poem from beginning to end, we see the power of Homer’s mastery of repeated narrative structures. Each time the story cycles through the passage of Odysseus from anonymous stranger to glorious hero, the poet builds excitement by feeding our expectations, signaling the fulfillment of a traditional narrative pattern, and then holding back. When Penelope finally gives in and acknowledges Odysseus as her husband, the moment is freighted with all the energy from the previous cycles, a crescendo bearing the impress of the poet’s extraordinary art.


Further Reading

Fenik, B. 1974. Studies in the Odyssey, 5–60. Hermes Einzelschriften 30. Wiesbaden: F. Steiner.

Murnaghan, S. 1987. Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey, 3–9. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 45–50. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.



Laodamas challenges Odysseus to join the games. When Odysseus expresses his reluctance, Euryalus mocks him. 

Seeing his guest in distress, Alkinous calls off the concert and invites everyone outside for some athletic contests. Homer signals the shift in focus with a sonorous catalog of the contestants’ names, raising the stylistic register to mark the shift from private suffering to public displays of prowess.

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This diversion serves the poet’s purposes in several ways. Athletic games are the ideal venue for displaying the aggression that marks Homeric warfare, but without the tragic tone. Not surprisingly, the Iliad provides the major example, in the funeral games for Patroclus that Achilles arranges in Book 23 (236–897). Since we have already learned from Nausicaa that the Phaeacians avoid war (6.201–5) and will soon hear from Alkinous that singing and warm baths are preferred to violent contests of strength (8.246–49), athletic contests provide a surrogate seedbed for conflict in this apparently mild-mannered society. The description of the various contests here gives away the poet’s real aim. So brief as to be almost shorthand, covering four contests in twelve verses, it clears the way for his preferred subject, insults, and a quarrel.

Two sons of Alkinous decide that they should invite the stranger to compete, and Laodamas floats the idea. The sailor looks a little beat up, but that’s probably from hard living at sea, not old age:

"δεῦτε, φίλοι, τὸν ξεῖνον ἐρώμεθα εἴ τιν᾽ ἄεθλον
οἶδέ τε καὶ δεδάηκε. φυήν γε μὲν οὐ κακός ἐστι,
μηρούς τε κνήμας τε καὶ ἄμφω χεῖρας ὕπερθεν
αὐχένα τε στιβαρὸν μέγα τε σθένος·"

“Come, friends, let’s ask the stranger if he knows
and has mastered any kind of game. His build isn’t bad,
thighs and calves, arms and upper body,
a powerful neck and great strength;”

Odyssey 8.133–36

A mild enough beginning, but the temperature of the exchange gradually rises. Laodamas issues the invitation, with a couple of slight provocations tucked in—compete if you know how; you’ll get your ride home soon enough—and Odysseus is not pleased: I have better things to do than play games, sonny; I’ve been out there trying to get home for a long time and now I’m reduced to begging your father for help. The king’s other son now jumps in and turns up the heat further:

τὸν δ᾽ αὖτ᾽ Εὐρύαλος ἀπαμείβετο νείκεσέ τ᾽ ἄντην·
"οὐ γάρ σ᾽ οὐδέ, ξεῖνε, δαήμονι φωτὶ ἐίσκω
ἄθλων, οἷά τε πολλὰ μετ᾽ ἀνθρώποισι πέλονται,
ἀλλὰ τῷ, ὅς θ᾽ ἅμα νηὶ πολυκλήιδι θαμίζων,
ἀρχὸς ναυτάων οἵ τε πρηκτῆρες ἔασιν,
φόρτου τε μνήμων καὶ ἐπίσκοπος ᾖσιν ὁδαίων
κερδέων θ᾽ ἁρπαλέων· οὐδ᾽ ἀθλητῆρι ἔοικας."

Euryalus answered him and started a quarrel:
“You don’t seem, stranger, to know about
the kind of contests practiced now by many people,
but are more like a man who makes his way in an oared ship,
the leader of sailors who are businessmen,
caring about cargo, looking out for merchandise
and grasping for profits. You’re no athlete.

Odyssey 8.158–64

Despite the polite reception that Odysseus has received from the Phaeacians so far, the hostility of local men toward strangers that Nausicaa foresaw, and Athena has been guarding against, has finally surfaced (6.27389). Homer has been hinting in various ways that the serene surface of Phaeacian society may not be the whole story. Alkinous’ initial faux pas when greeting the stranger and Arete’s pointed questions have created a mild sense of unease about the dynamics of the royal family, which the poet now builds on. Not that this taunt is out of character for a royal prince. Though Euryalus (no relation to Penelope’s suitor of the same name) and Laodamas would hardly be rivals for their sister’s hand in marriage, the new arrival has received a lot of attention since appearing on the beach, and some testosterone-fueled displays from young men used to being the center of attention is not surprising.

Nothing in this passage is jarring from a naturalistic point of view, then. At the same time, we can see Homer working on another level. An underlying narrative pattern found all over early Greek literature, of evil in the past, the stranger’s arrival in a new place, followed by death, makes its first full-scale appearance in the episodes on Scheria (see essay on Book 7.37–77). There will be no literal death here, but Homer has kept the suffering caused by the Trojan War and its aftermath before us from the beginning, and the anonymous stranger makes his debut in the poem on the beach. The disguised hero, meanwhile, has preserved his anonymity thus far despite several polite requests from his host and hostess to reveal who he is. He has arrived in a new place as a stranger and as at pains to preserve that status for now. Doing so gives him some leverage over the locals, as he can scout out the situation before coming clean. The poet now arranges for a minor conflict, as if to underscore the stranger’s need for caution. Events to follow will lay in more details, as Homer continues to tune our ears for the ultimate version of the paradigm in the Ithakan royal palace.


Further Reading

Beye, C. 1987. Ancient Greek Literature and Society, 2nd ed., 156. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Rose, G. 1969. “The Unfriendly Phaeacians.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 100: 387–406.



Odysseus angrily takes up the challenge to enter a contest, and easily throws the discus farther than any of the other contestants. 

Euryalus has poked the bear, and there will be consequences. But first, a homily from the sailor:

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τὸν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπόδρα ἰδὼν προσέφη πολύμητις Ὀδυσσεύς·
"ξεῖν᾽, οὐ καλὸν ἔειπες· ἀτασθάλῳ ἀνδρὶ ἔοικας.
οὕτως οὐ πάντεσσι θεοὶ χαρίεντα διδοῦσιν
ἀνδράσιν, οὔτε φυὴν οὔτ᾽ ἂρ φρένας οὔτ᾽ ἀγορητύν.
ἄλλος μὲν γάρ τ᾽ εἶδος ἀκιδνότερος πέλει ἀνήρ,
ἀλλὰ θεὸς μορφὴν ἔπεσι στέφει, οἱ δέ τ᾽ ἐς αὐτὸν
τερπόμενοι λεύσσουσιν· ὁ δ᾽ ἀσφαλέως ἀγορεύει
αἰδοῖ μειλιχίῃ, μετὰ δὲ πρέπει ἀγρομένοισιν,
ἐρχόμενον δ᾽ ἀνὰ ἄστυ θεὸν ὣς εἰσορόωσιν.
ἄλλος δ᾽ αὖ εἶδος μὲν ἀλίγκιος ἀθανάτοισιν,
ἀλλ᾽ οὔ οἱ χάρις ἀμφιπεριστέφεται ἐπέεσσιν,
ὡς καὶ σοὶ εἶδος μὲν ἀριπρεπές, οὐδέ κεν ἄλλως
οὐδὲ θεὸς τεύξειε, νόον δ᾽ ἀποφώλιός ἐσσι."

Glaring from under his brows, many-minded Odysseus spoke:
“Friend, that was not well said; you seem like a reckless man.
So it is that the gods do not give graces to all
men, neither in stature nor wits nor skill at speaking.
One man may be less handsome to look at,
but the god puts comeliness in his words, and others
look on him with delight; he speaks faultlessly,
with pleasing modesty, and stands out among those gathered,
and they look on him like a god as he goes through the town.
Another is beautiful, godlike to look upon,
But his words are not crowned with grace, as is the case
with you, whose beauty shines forth, and not even
a god would make it otherwise, but your mind is empty.”

Odyssey 8.165–77

A roundabout way to tell the young man he’s a nitwit, we might think. But the speech serves two purposes for the poet. It showcases Odysseus’s own skill as a speaker, but more importantly, it brings up again the theme of appearance and reality, which has surfaced so often before in the poem. The craggy sailor doesn’t look like much to the swaggering young men, but they’re in for a surprise.

Now comes the big moment. Rising up (ἀναΐξας, 186), the weathered stranger grabs an even bigger discus than the one the Phaeacians have been using and lets it fly. The poet has some fun with the next image:

βόμβησεν δὲ λίθος· κατὰ δ᾽ ἔπτηξαν ποτὶ γαίῃ
Φαίηκες δολιχήρετμοι, ναυσίκλυτοι ἄνδρες,
λᾶος ὑπὸ ῥιπῆς· 

The stone hummed, and the Phaeacian men, who ply
the long oars, famous sailors, fell to the ground
as the stone flew over their heads.

Odyssey 8.190–92

The nasty hum of the discus while the spectators—including the two princes, one assumes— hit the deck is a delicious touch. But our immediate delight is only the beginning of the complex reaction this moment is meant to evoke. The powerful toss reveals the formidable force of an epic hero, and the function of the sailor’s homily on deceiving appearances becomes clear. Beneath all the grimy wrinkles lurks Odysseus. He is not identified here, because the poet is building slowly toward that big revelation, teasing us by raising expectations that will go unfulfilled a little longer. But the narrative rhythm replicates what we will see later in the evening and several times thereafter, the anonymous hero rising in the esteem of his hosts, gaining leverage until he reemerges as Odysseus. We see here the importance of having the princes speak for the sailor’s competitors. In the aristocratic view of epic heroism, excellence is inherited through blood, and some guy who washes up on shore naked is not expected to emerge victorious over royalty. Note that the first to hail the stranger’s mark is Athena, who always appears in support of the story she has arranged, Odysseus’s successful defeat of the suitors and the reestablishment of right order, with all its aristocratic hierarchies affirmed, in Ithaka.

From a different perspective, the sailor’s winning toss can appear as the triumph of an underdog, upsetting the social hierarchy, represented by the royal princes. This view reflects the world of the anonymous stranger, an outsider who enters the settled precincts of the powerful and injects new energy. Odysseus occupies this persona for most of the poem, infiltrating various societies and effecting changes that are not always welcome to the locals. The wisdom and richness of the Odyssey has everything to do with the poet’s ability to keep both perspectives, and the values they dramatize, alive in the story (see the Introduction).

An analogous situation later in the poem, for which this one is the paradigm, prompts the same kind of dualling perspectives. Iros, a mean-tempered beggar, comes across Odysseus, himself now disguised as a beggar in rags, in the forecourt of the royal palace in Ithaka and orders him to scram. Odysseus tries to defuse the tension at first, offering to share the doorway to the palace. Iros continues to fling insults at the newcomer until Antinous, a leader of the suitors, notices the dispute:

ὦ φίλοι, οὐ μέν πώ τι πάρος τοιοῦτον ἐτύχθη,
οἵην τερπωλὴν θεὸς ἤγαγεν ἐς τόδε δῶμα.
ὁ ξεῖνός τε καὶ Ἶρος ἐρίζετον ἀλλήλοιϊν
χερσὶ μαχέσσασθαι: ἀλλὰ ξυνελάσσομεν ὦκα.

Friends, never has anything happened to match this,
the entertainment a god has brought to this house.
The stranger and Iros are threatening to fight
each other hand-to-hand. Let’s hurry it along.

Odyssey 18.36–39

The dynamic we see on Scheria recurs here, a sympathetic stranger confronted by a younger man, on whose side are local aristocrats spoiling for a fight. If anything, the edginess is more pronounced here, as the visitor is more of an outsider, his opponent is nastier, and the spectators are clearly eager for bloodshed.

After some further discussion of the arrangements for the fight, with Euryalus and Antinous, the two leaders of the arrogant suitors on one side and Telemachus on the other, the stranger steps into the ring:

ὣς ἔφαθ᾽, οἱ δ᾽ ἄρα πάντες ἐπῄνεον: αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς
ζώσατο μὲν ῥάκεσιν περὶ μήδεα, φαῖνε δὲ μηροὺς
καλούς τε μεγάλους τε, φάνεν δέ οἱ εὐρέες ὦμοι
στήθεά τε στιβαροί τε βραχίονες: αὐτὰρ Ἀθήνη
ἄγχι παρισταμένη μέλε᾽ ἤλδανε ποιμένι λαῶν.
μνηστῆρες δ᾽ ἄρα πάντες ὑπερφιάλως ἀγάσαντο:

So [Telemachus] spoke, and they all agreed. But Odysseus
tucked up his rags around his loins, and his thighs appeared,
splendid and huge, and his wide shoulders shown forth
and his chest and brawny arms; but Athena,
standing beside the shepherd of the people made his limbs bigger.
And the suitors in their arrogance all gazed at him, astonished.

Odyssey 18.67–72

Once again, appearances have been deceptive; once again, Athena is on hand to strengthen her favorite’s case; and once again, the underdog wins, flattening the hapless Iros with one punch, much to the delight of the suitors, to whom this is all a game. Verses 68–70 here echo Laodamas’ assessment of the sailor he invites to join the contest in Book 8:

          φυήν γε μὲν οὐ κακός ἐστι,
μηρούς τε κνήμας τε καὶ ἄμφω χεῖρας ὕπερθεν
αὐχένα τε στιβαρὸν μέγα τε σθένος·

          His build is not bad,
thighs and lower legs and both arms above
and thick neck and strong chest;

Odyssey 8.134–36

The Phaeacian games, like so much of Books 7 and 8, are part of the paradigm Homer is establishing for later events in Ithaka. When tracking this kind of technique in the poem, we need to step back from the particulars of the two venues, Scheria and Ithaka, and listen for the underlying rhythms and structures. The beggar who fascinates Penelope in Ithaka is walking in the footsteps of that sailor who washes up on the Phaeacian beach and wins over both the nubile princess and her mother the queen. Both personae have one foot in the bright heroic world that Athena is intent on reestablishing with Odysseus reinstalled as king, husband, father, and son, and one in the unglamorous but wider world of the outsider, the wanderer, the adventurer, where Odysseus lives for most of the story. Both worlds are alive in the poem simultaneously, available to us as we follow Odysseus home.


Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 96–99. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Fenik, B. 1974. Studies in the Odyssey, 153–171. Hermes Einzelschriften 30. Wiesbaden: F. Steiner.



Odysseus challenges the Phaeacians to compete with him, boasting that he's the best at everything—except running, since being at sea for so long has weakened his legs. Alcinous tells him that the Phaeacians are best at running, sailing, and dancing. 

Buoyed by his victory over the local bullies, Odysseus grows expansive. He’ll throw the discus again, at least as far and maybe farther! If anyone wants to try him in another kind of contest, boxing, wrestling, or a footrace, he’ll not refuse. Anyone, that is, except Laodamas:

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ξεῖνος γάρ μοι ὅδ᾽ ἐστί· τίς ἂν φιλέοντι μάχοιτο;
ἄφρων δὴ κεῖνός γε καὶ οὐτιδανὸς πέλει ἀνήρ,
ὅς τις ξεινοδόκῳ ἔριδα προφέρηται ἀέθλων
δήμῳ ἐν ἀλλοδαπῷ· ἕο δ᾽ αὐτοῦ πάντα κολούει.

For this man is my host, and who would fight with his friend?
That man is witless and good for nothing,
who would challenge his host in some contest
in a strange country. He gets in his own way.

Odyssey 8.208–11

A small lesson for the bystanders in etiquette, it would seem, in the same tone as his recent homily on the varieties of human excellence (167–77). While uttering what seem to be harmless observations on the way the world works, Odysseus is now testing the leverage he has won for himself, hedging his self-assertion with good manners. He ventures a little further in his self-revelation: He’s pretty good at most games, and in fact, he’s very good at archery, and would be the first to hit one of the enemy. Only Philoctetes among living heroes is better with a bow. He wouldn’t try his hand with any of the famous heroes of the past, of course, Herakles or Eurytus, who fought against the gods, and maybe he’s too old now to do much in a footrace.

At this point, Alkinous intervenes to defuse the tension, as he did when he saw Odysseus weeping. The stranger is right to be angry after being insulted, and Euryalus must apologize to their guest for his rudeness. The Phaeacians are not really that good at the more violent sports, preferring singing, dancing, and warm baths. So why not have some dancing and invite Demodocus back for another song?

Odysseus has gained some prestige among the locals with his victory. He is careful not to push too hard yet but builds on the standing his physical abilities have won by showing some awareness of his social obligations as a guest—he’s not just some rough-edged seaman who doesn’t know how to behave. Now the conventional wisdom he displayed in his earlier speech appears in a different light. With these careful distinctions he makes about what contests he can and cannot win, he is situating himself among the general run of men without revealing too many particulars just yet. He does perhaps take a chance by mentioning archery, something the hero Odysseus is well known for, and then ranking himself right after Philoctetes, another warrior presumably known to those who have heard the stories from the Trojan War. But then again, he and we know that the Phaeacians are an isolated people, who might not know that much about that conflict and its aftermath.

With this finely tuned scene, the poet shows us the intelligence and tact that Odysseus is known for. By providing a relatively safe venue for conflict, Homer gives his hero a chance to take the temperature of his surroundings, creating, for the Phaeacians and for us, a persona that seems to be relatively open, while revealing little about who exactly he is. As we have noted above, nothing that Odysseus has said or done since Alkinous promised a ride home (8.26–40) has advanced the basic plot in any major way. Instead, the poet has been using the portrait of the Phaeacians and their mysterious guest to build the paradigm he will use in the poem’s final episodes. As he does so, he modulates the flow of information to keep our interest, drawing us in with portraits of the royal family on Scheria and the emerging persona of their guest, then expanding the context within which we view these characters. The games have shown the stranger’s skill at self-presentation, his prodigious physical abilities but also his intelligence and worldly experience. Meanwhile, Demodocus’ songs broaden the horizons of the narrative in another way, introducing the Trojan War and its aftermath. His next song will draw on a different, but equally evocative subject.


Demodocus sings about how Hephaistos caught Aphrodite and Ares in bed together.

After the tense exchanges on the athletic fields, Homer lightens the mood, imagining the scene at Hephaestus’ house as the two divine lovers meet for what might now be called a “nooner.” The poet invites us to give ourselves over to the spirit of the scene, relishing the naturalistic touches that bring the experience closer to our everyday existence, where we can identify with the emotions of the gods as if they lived in our world.

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Such an effort of imagination is needed if we bear in mind that the gods of Homeric epic are immortal, ageless, omnipotent (at least in the world of mortals) and omniscient. Their existence has no limits and therefore no meaning in and of itself. Nothing they do within their own sphere matters because they cannot be permanently harmed, cannot change. The humiliation that Hephaestus feels as a cuckold and that he in imposes on the lovers can only be humorous, no matter how much the smith god huffs and puffs with indignation. Why does Hephaestus need another god to spy on the lovers if he already knows everything? How can the journey to Lemnos be interrupted partway, if the god could simply beam himself instantly anywhere he wants?

Homer is not bothered by these kinds of inconsistencies, if it means that he can hold his audience in the spell of the moment. The poem is not meant to satisfy the qualms of professors poring over it with commentaries, but to carry the rest of us along in its wake, clothing the large questions about human experience it often addresses in familiar dress of everyday life. So, we delight in imagining Helios, the god of the sun, peeking from behind a cloud to catch the illustrious war god sneaking in for his assignation. We see Hephaestus ostentatiously pretending to head out of town (perhaps whistling?), Aphrodite slipping back home from a visit to her father to wait for her lover, and then listen as Ares, the suave seducer, whispers in the ear of his intended, as if she, the divine embodiment of lust, needed coaxing.

The fun will continue for a while longer, but we should pause to note the connections that the poet suggests and seeming contradictions they imply. Hephaestus has fashioned a δόλος (“trick,” 276, 282) to catch the lovers, precisely the weapon that Odysseus will soon proudly embrace when he identifies himself to the Phaeacians:

εἴμ᾽ Ὀδυσεὺς Λαερτιάδης, ὃς πᾶσι δόλοισιν
ἀνθρώποισι μέλω, καί μευ κλέος οὐρανὸν ἵκει.

I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, famous among mortals
for the study of tricks of all kinds, and my fame reaches the heavens.

Odyssey 9.19–20

Thus, the song that Demodocus sings offers Hephaestus as an avatar of Odysseus, who defeats the superior strength of the suitors through trickery as the smith god triumphs over his more powerful antagonist. Here we encounter apparent contradictions in the poem’s plot and principal character. To restore right order to his kingdom, Odysseus must defeat the suitors, agents of disorder in in his household. But to get back safely to Ithaka, he must subvert order elsewhere, using disguise, lying, and other forms of deception to gain leverage over those in power who might impede him on his way back from Troy. And some of those figures who would keep him from his heroic mission are themselves tricky agents of disorder, like Calypso (7.245) and Circe (9.32). To further complicate matters, the wife he must initially deceive to win back is herself a match for him in her craftiness (cf., e.g., 19.137; 23.173–230).

These contradictions reflect the two worlds that coexist in the poem, one created in the heroic return story orchestrated by Athena and the other, wider world through which Odysseus passes in disguise, populated by ordinary people who must struggle to hold their own. In Book 19, we learn that Odysseus was named as an infant by his grandfather Autolycus, a famous trickster:

          ὃς ἀνθρώπους ἐκέκαστο
κλεπτοσύνῃ θ᾽ ὅρκῳ τε: θεὸς δέ οἱ αὐτὸς ἔδωκεν
Ἑρμείας: τῷ γὰρ κεχαρισμένα μηρία καῖεν
ἀρνῶν ἠδ᾽ ἐρίφων: ὁ δέ οἱ πρόφρων ἅμ᾽ ὀπήδει.

          [Autolycus] who excelled
in thievery and false oaths. A god gave him these skills,
Hermes, for he had pleased him by burning the thigh pieces
of lambs and kids, and the god freely gave him his favor.

Odyssey 19.395–98

Hermes, like Odysseus, can be an agent of both order and disorder. As the messenger god, he supports the Olympian regime, guiding souls to the Underworld (24.1–4), delivering Zeus’ orders to Calypso and the magic drug moly to Odysseus for Athena (10.274306). At other times, as his sponsorship of Autolycus suggests, he plays the role of the trickster, a folktale figure that appears in many cultures. In this latter role, he works against the established order, penetrating the strongholds of the powerful to combat stasis and sterility, a force for creative change. Odysseus plays this role in Ithaka when he insinuates himself into the corrupt regime of the suitors to shake up their nefarious plans—but of course he does so to restore order. Paradox persists.


Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 100–101. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Hyde, L. 1998. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, 55–80. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.



The song of Demodocus, continued. The male gods assemble, and Poseidon agrees to pay Ares' penalty for him.

The guilty lovers, caught in Hephaestus’s ingenious net, fuel the smith god’s anger: Aphrodite wants Ares for his muscles and handsome face, while her husband’s misshapen limbs get no respect from her. It’s all his parents’ fault and he is going to demand his bride price back from Zeus!

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His wife is beautiful but lacks self-control. Homer does not let the lovers speak and the trap will not let them move, so they provide a frozen tableau. (The poet does not tell us if they were caught in flagrante delicto or during foreplay.) Other male gods gather to enjoy the show, though the goddesses stay away out of modesty, so the gathering becomes a kind of stag party, complete with leering and winking from Hermes and Apollo.

The tone here remains entirely bourgeois, like a scene from a racy sitcom. Though the Odyssey has come to be called a comedy (see Introduction: Narrative Form), it has few scenes that could provoke laughter, and Demodocus’ song has remained an audience favorite. We have noted that the entire episode offers a paradigm for later events in Ithaka. Looking at the language more closely, we can see some darker aspects of the passage that offer insights into the poet’s other aims in creating it besides entertainment.

                              ἀμφὶ δὲ δεσμοὶ
τεχνήεντες ἔχυντο πολύφρονος Ἡφαίστοιο,
οὐδέ τι κινῆσαι μελέων ἦν οὐδ᾽ ἀναεῖραι.

                               The cunningly wrought
chains of subtle Hephaestus poured down around them,
and they could not move their limbs nor get up.

Odyssey 8.296–98

The verb ἔχυντο is telling. The chains settle all around the two lovers like sleep (19.590), gently falling leaves (5.483, 487; 19.443), or the soft mist that Athena sheds over Odysseus (7.143). Pouring down, the chains suggest a soft blurring of the bed’s edges. The action of Hephaestus’ trap recalls another kind of blurring, when Odysseus hears the voices of Nausicaa and her maids on the seashore, “surrounding” him: ὥς τέ με κουράων ἀμφήλυθε θῆλυς ἀυτή (6.122). The verb ἀμφήλυθε carries the same flavor as ἔχυντο, the soft edged power also present in Calypso’s name (“I will smother”) (see essay on Book 9.47–81). Hephaestus has caught Ares in a humiliating situation, making him an object of ridicule by his fellow gods. But the cuckold’s revenge has other dimensions: by immobilizing Ares, Hephaestus nullifies the war god’s swift motion, something Hephaestus cannot ordinarily match; with chains that drift down and surround the lovers like the voices of nymphs or Calypso’s amorphous, feminine power, he emasculates his tormentor.

The amusement of Hermes and Apollo seems lighthearted enough, in tune with the overall tone of the episode, but again, some of the language here prompts further thought.

ἄσβεστος δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐνῶρτο γέλως μακάρεσσι θεοῖσι
τέχνας εἰσορόωσι πολύφρονος Ἡφαίστοιο.
ὧδε δέ τις εἴπεσκεν ἰδὼν ἐς πλησίον ἄλλον·
"οὐκ ἀρετᾷ κακὰ ἔργα· κιχάνει τοι βραδὺς ὠκύν,
ὡς καὶ νῦν Ἥφαιστος ἐὼν βραδὺς εἷλεν Ἄρηα
ὠκύτατόν περ ἐόντα θεῶν οἳ Ὄλυμπον ἔχουσιν,
χωλὸς ἐὼν τέχνῃσι· τὸ καὶ μοιχάγρι᾽ ὀφέλλει."

Unquenchable laughter rose up among the blessed immortals,
as they looked upon the contrivance of crafty Hephaestus.
And thus one would look at the one next to him and say,
“Wrongdoing doesn’t prosper. The slow one has overtaken
the swift, as the slow-footed Hephaestus has run down Ares,
who is the fastest of the gods who hold Olympus,
even though he is lame, and Ares must pay the penalty for adultery.”

Odyssey 8.326–32

Compare the gods’ tone here with their response to Hephaestus on another occasion upon Olympus near the beginning of the Iliad. Zeus has agreed to help Thetis by making the Greeks suffer for not giving Achilles what he wants, provoking a jealous tirade from Hera, in turn prompting an angry exchange between the two. Hephaestus, alarmed at the prospect of a major brawl, urges his mother to calm down and have a drink:

ὣς φάτο, μείδησεν δὲ θεὰ λευκώλενος Ἥρη,
μειδήσασα δὲ παιδὸς ἐδέξατο χειρὶ κύπελλον:
αὐτὰρ ὃ τοῖς ἄλλοισι θεοῖς ἐνδέξια πᾶσιν
οἰνοχόει γλυκὺ νέκταρ ἀπὸ κρητῆρος ἀφύσσων:
ἄσβεστος δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐνῶρτο γέλως μακάρεσσι θεοῖσιν
ὡς ἴδον Ἥφαιστον διὰ δώματα ποιπνύοντα.
ὣς τότε μὲν πρόπαν ἦμαρ ἐς ἠέλιον καταδύντα
δαίνυντ᾽, οὐδέ τι θυμὸς ἐδεύετο δαιτὸς ἐΐσης,
οὐ μὲν φόρμιγγος περικαλλέος ἣν ἔχ᾽ Ἀπόλλων,
Μουσάων θ᾽ αἳ ἄειδον ἀμειβόμεναι ὀπὶ καλῇ.

So [Hephaestus] spoke, and white-armed Hera smiled,
and smiling she took the goblet out of her son’s hand.
Then starting from the left, Hephaestus served the other gods,
pouring sweet nectar for each from the wine jar.
And unquenchable laughter rose among the blessed immortals,
as they saw Hephaestus bustling through the house.
And so all day until the sun went down, they feasted,
neither was anyone’s hunger denied a fair serving,
nor the gloriously beautiful sound of Apollo’s lyre,
and the Muses sang in harmony with their lovely voices.

Iliad 1.595–604

The “unquenchable laughter” of the Homeric gods in both passages has a cruel edge, prompted by their amusement at the limitations of others. Hephaestus’s disability is the direct cause of their merriment in the Iliad. While the derision in Demodocus’ song is aimed at Ares, part of the fun for the immortal audience comes from the unlikely victory of their diminished sibling. We are reminded that while both scenes seem to resemble human experience, it is only a superficial likeness. The laughter of Homer’s gods always carries a cruel edge because their nastiness never has any consequence for them. To put it more succinctly, only the fact of mortality requires us to have virtue.


Further Reading

Carson, A. “Putting Her in Her Place: Women, Dirt, and Desire.” In Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient World, D. Halperin, J Winkler, and F. Zeitlin, (eds), 135–169. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 51–52. Princeton: Princeton University Press.



Demodocus finishes his song, which is followed by dancing.

Not everyone is amused by the adulterers’ plight. Poseidon asks Hephaestus to release Ares, promising that the war god will pay the appropriate penalty to the gods for his transgression. Hephaestus refuses: What if Ares skips out without paying? How would Hephaestus levy the punishment then? Poseidon replies that he will pay if Ares does not.

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This offer Hephaestus cannot refuse, and once released, the lovers skulk away, Ares to Thrace, a suitably wild and warlike spot for him to recover his dignity, Aphrodite to Paphos, her shrine, where attendants bathe her and apply soothing ambrosial oil, then dress her in fresh clothing, returning her to her pristine beauty. We sense that for these two divine miscreants, the unpleasantness of their failed assignation will fade quickly.

The light, anthropomorphic façade over the events remains, as we are encouraged to see the situation through the lens of human experience: omnipotent beings can have their feelings hurt and behave vindictively; there are apparently established procedures on Olympus for handling adultery, complete with fixed penalties; if Ares gets away clean, his irresponsible behavior will cause intractable inter-deity difficulties for Poseidon; and in a patriarchal system, only the plight of the male god need be addressed; his paramour—though a divine being with limitless powers herself—will be covered by whatever happens to him.

Why does the poet choose Poseidon to object? One answer may be that someone has to get the lovers out of the trap, and Poseidon, as one of the Big Three deities who divide up the earth, sky, and underworld, has sufficient clout to convince Hephaestus. But Homer rarely does anything that does not serve his larger purposes in the poem. Hephaestus has been standing in for Odysseus in Demodocus’ song, the clever underdog who uses trickery to overcome an apparently stronger opponent. Meanwhile, Odysseus and Poseidon have some history that may have some bearing on the situation here. As we learned in Book 1 (19–20; 68–71), Poseidon holds a grudge against Odysseus for maiming his son, Polyphemus the cyclops (details to follow, 9.371–402) (see essay on Book 9.461–566). He may not kill his adversary, because Zeus has already decreed that he must tamp his anger down (1.77–79). Nevertheless, Poseidon takes what opportunities he can to make the return journey harder for Odysseus, smashing his raft after he leaves Ogygia (5.282–312) and punishing the Phaeacians for taking him home from Scheria (13.128–83). Following the pattern of surrogate players in the song, then, his well-founded animosity toward Odysseus makes Poseidon is the obvious choice to oppose Hephaestus.

Though the song of Demodocus, an enclosed narrative with its own internal logic, seems to stand apart from the rest of the events on Scheria, the light tone of the narrative provides a vehicle for the poet’s foreshadowing of darker events to come in Ithaka. These qualities are consistent, as we have seen, with everything that happens during the hero’s visit to the Phaeacians. Starting on the beach with the charming exchange between Odysseus and Nausicaa and continuing through the stranger’s entrance into a closed society, almost all the events have a double significance. Odysseus’ careful approach to the young princess, flirtatious but not too aggressive, points forward to his delicate and crucial negotiations with Penelope, as does his interrogation by Arete. The athletic games provide a denatured version of the violence that awaits the hero in the Ithakan palace, the benign conclusion of the competitive friction between the king’s sons and the sailor standing in for the bloody slaughter of the suitors. Then the foreshadowing takes a different form, an amusing detour into the fantastic world of the Olympian gods, in which the life-and-death struggle of the returning hero is refracted through the comic lens of divine squabbling, where the dark threats of Hephaestus and social anxieties of Poseidon can have no permanent impact.

After the song, Alkinous invites two men to perform what seems to be somewhere in between a game and a dance, involving patterned steps and a large red ball. The poet is careful to note that the king chooses only those two men, because σφισιν οὔ τις ἔριζεν, “no one could compete with them” (371). The song of Demodocus has eased the tension of the sailor’s exchange with the king’s sons by shifting the focus from potentially disastrous human conflict to divine comedy. Now we have a further modulation of tone, as the contentious, testosterone-laden athletic contests are folded into a carefully controlled set of movements with competition removed. It is as if the edgy chemistry of the games has been filtered through the necessarily light-hearted atmosphere of Olympus and can now be safely returned to the human world of Scheria.

Conflict was necessary to the poet’s long term, paradigmatic goals for the episode, but now that element is subordinated to the overriding imperative to get the hero on his way to Ithaka, a project that has been on hold since the beginning of Book 8 (26–40). The Phaeacians would seem to be unlikely aggressive xenophobes, and it has taken considerable artistry by the poet to cast them in that role.  As we move toward the end of Odysseus’s sojourn on Scheria, the pent-up energy behind the mystery of the stranger’s identity, which Homer has carefully tended, would seem to be coming to a boil. The poet has us just where he wants us.


Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 101–103. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.



Alcinous and Arete gather presents to give to Odysseus. 

Demodocus’ song has washed the tension from the air, and the dancing serves as an emblem of the spirit of graceful cooperation that settles over the palace. Reconciliation and celebration mark the occasion, as Alkinous tells his son Euryalus to apologize to the sailor and invites the twelve assembled nobles to join him in offering guest gifts to the stranger.

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Euryalus responds with a handsome apology and gives Odysseus a decorated sword. As the sun sets, the gifts from the other kings come pouring in to be placed at Arete’s feet. Before the feast, the stranger is to have a bath. Suitably refreshed, he can then survey his gifts (including a golden cup from the king), enjoy his dinner, and hear another song from Demodocus. The naked sailor has come a long way since he washed up on the beach.

We have noted the ways in which the events in Book 8 foreshadow Odysseus’s trials to come in Ithaka, but this part of the episode also has antecedents from earlier in the poem. The impressive queen, the generous king, a feast for a visiting stranger, complete with lavish gifts, all echo the visit of Telemachus to Sparta. Early in that episode, Menelaus’ memories of Odysseus stir weeping in Telemachus, who covers his face in embarrassment and draws the king’s attention. Helen then identifies him as Odysseus’s son, completing the familiar pattern (4.113–54; see also essay on Book 9.82–115). After dinner, Helen drugs the wine to blunt the melancholy feelings that are raised as both king and queen reminisce about Odysseus. The stories continue the next morning, when Menelaus remembers being trapped by adverse winds in Egypt on the way home from Troy, the intervention of a friendly nymph who directs him to her father Proteus, and the latter’s prophecy about Menelaus’s future fate.

Telemachus’ adventures in Sparta form the foundation for a web of recurring interconnected narrative patterns that will inform the rest of the poem. Homer uses the link between weeping and recognition, as we have seen, to build expectations in us, which he can fulfill or postpone, manipulating the pace of the story to suit his dramatic purposes. In Telemachus’s case, weeping into his cloak in response to stories about his father leads promptly to Helen identifying him as Odysseus’ son. The poet will draw on the energy from that pattern in the present episode soon. Likewise, the long story that Menelaus tells right after Helen identifies Telemachus, about his struggle to get home after Troy and in particular his captivity in Egypt, foreshadows the analogous but much longer story of Odysseus, which will follow the revelation of his own identity in Books 9 through 12.

While Arete’s servants prepare a bath for Odysseus, the queen brings out a decorated chest from her bedroom. She packs it with the many gifts that she, Alkinous, and the Phaeacian citizens have brought for their departing guest. She does not, however, seal the chest, but invites the hero to do so, saying that he must see to the security of his wealth personally. The queen has come to see the once bedraggled stranger as someone capable of managing wealth, another sign of his rise in status. Odysseus goes to work, and we hear that he uses a knot he learned from Circe, whom the hero has encountered earlier in the chronology of the story, but we will not meet until Book 10. Odysseus is delighted to finally step into the tub, since he hasn’t had a decent bath since he left Calypso’s island, where he was looked after “like a god” (453). The issue here is not just cleanliness, since he has in fact bathed on the beach, but rather status. He is about to get the treatment that marks him as a hero, something he has been working toward ever since he arrived.

Bathed, anointed, and dressed in fine robes, Odysseus sets out to join the other men drinking wine. At this point, Nausicaa suddenly reappears:

          Ναυσικάα δὲ θεῶν ἄπο κάλλος ἔχουσα
στῆ ῥα παρὰ σταθμὸν τέγεος πύκα ποιητοῖο,
θαύμαζεν δ᾽ Ὀδυσῆα ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρῶσα,
καί μιν φωνήσασ᾽ ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα·460
"χαῖρε, ξεῖν᾽, ἵνα καί ποτ᾽ ἐὼν ἐν πατρίδι γαίῃ
μνήσῃ ἐμεῦ, ὅτι μοι πρώτῃ ζωάγρι᾽ ὀφέλλεις."

          Nausicaa, graced with beauty from the gods,
stood by the pillar that supported the roof,
and gazing at Odysseus, was amazed;
addressing him, she spoke winged words:
“Goodbye, stranger, and when you are back home,
think of me, the first one to save your life.

Odyssey 8.457–62

Note that the princess is not accompanied by handmaidens, as we would expect of a young woman in the presence of men (see essay on Book 6.127–61). Instead, the poet imagines her standing at the edge of the hall, perhaps looking shyly from behind the pillar. Homer reminds us of the first meeting on the beach, where Nausicaa was also alone, without her maidens, who had fled in fear of the scruffy stranger. But much has changed since then. The precocious young princess who boldly confronted the naked man, drawing on her regal status to hold her ground, now defers to the handsome hero, shyly reminding him of their meeting. Then she could dream of marrying him, but now he has emerged as someone striding by out of her reach.

These verses offer a charming coda to the relationship that began so tentatively on the beach, a fleeting echo of the verses in Book 7 that rounded off the initial encounter between Nausicaa and the stranger (7.1–13; see also essay on Book 7.1–36). The dynamic of the relationship has changed, and the differences are instructive. Nausicaa seems less assertive, but her status in the Phaeacian kingdom has not changed. Rather, it is Odysseus who has evolved in her eyes from the helpless mendicant to a handsome, confident man. This latter persona comes through clearly in his answer to Nausicaa, generous in acknowledging her role in helping him on his way. The changes in Odysseus reflect the last stage of the narrative pattern that began with him naked and anonymous on the beach, a stranger who had to prove himself to the locals, building leverage until he can safely reassume his heroic persona. That last step has been dangled before us since the beginning of Book 6. Though the plot has been idling since Book 7 (186206), this stasis does not mean that what happens on Scheria is unimportant to the poem’s thematic structure. On the contrary, what we witness is the creation of Odysseus as we are to know him in this story. Many stories about Odysseus would no doubt have been circulating when the Odyssey first appeared in something like the form we have now, and some in Homer’s audience would have preconceived ideas about his character. But the hero of this poem comes into being for us through its verses, whatever other versions might have been available. And that figure, part famous hero, part anonymous wanderer, first comes into sharp focus for us on Scheria.

Odysseus’s new status is marked in various ways as the evening draws near, the queen deferring to his expertise in sealing the chest with its precious contents, Nausicaa’s coy deference to the rehabilitated stranger, and perhaps most striking, his uneventful bath. There is evidence elsewhere in the poem that being bathed can make a man vulnerable. Helen gets Odysseus, who is disguised as a beggar, to let his guard down and reveal his secrets after she bathes him in Troy (4.235–64); Nausicaa wants to have her maidens bathe the hero on the beach, but he demurs, saying he does not want the girls to see him; after he emerges from washing, Athena thinks it necessary to enhance his attractiveness, which has a noticeable effect on the young princess (6.224–45); after he returns to Ithaka, again disguised as a beggar, Odysseus nearly lets himself be recognized when his old nurse washes his feet (19.467–502); finally, Athena feels the need once more to enhance Odysseus’s looks after he emerges from bathing once the suitors are dead (23.152–62). Given the presence of this recurring theme, we might expect that Odysseus’s bath would bring the need for another intervention by Athena, but he needs no such protection now. Instead, his allure leaves Nausicaa in awe of him.

The stranger seems to be at the peak of his powers. So much so that the poet throws in apparently offhand references to Circe and Calypso, two powerful females who hold the hero in their power elsewhere in the poem. Neither they, nor Nausicaa, once herself a potential detaining woman for Odysseus, can delay his march toward heroic authenticity. Now we are more eager than ever for his triumph, which Homer has pointed toward in so many ways since he arrived among the Phaeacians. All that remains is the final step, for him to be recognized as Odysseus, but the poet will make us wait just a little longer.


Further Reading

Anderson, W.S. 1958. “Calypso and Elysium.” Classical Journal 54: 2–11.

Clarke, H. “Telemachus and the Telemachia.” American Journal of Philology 84: 129–145.

Olson, D. 1989. “The Stories of Helen and Menelaus (Od. 4.240-89) and the Return of Odysseus.” American Journal of Philology 110: 387–394.

Pedrick, V. 1988. “The Hospitality of Noble Women in the Odyssey.” Helios 15: 85–104.



Odysseus and the Phaeacians feast. Demodocus sings a song about the Trojan horse.

Demodocus now sings his final song, about the Greeks in their wooden horse and the destruction of Troy. Like his first song, it brings tears to the hero’s eyes. Homer has been teasing us with the prospect of Odysseus emerging from his disguise into his full heroic glory, and this time he will deliver.

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In retrospect, we might say that Book 8 is structured around the three concerts, beginning with the obscure tale of a quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus, followed by the interlude on Olympus, which provides some comic relief after the tension arising from the games, and now reaching a crescendo with the exploit that defines Odysseus’s great strength as a hero, his cunning intelligence and self-control. This last song reaches back again to Sparta and Helen’s memory of Odysseus, disguised as a beggar to spy on the Trojans (4.244–64), but also looks forward to Ithaka, where disguised as a beggar, he will penetrate the royal household, gathering intelligence for his final conquest of the suitors.

The sacking of a city in war was one of the most powerful narratives in the imagination of the Greeks. It encompassed wholesale destruction, with fire and bloodshed, but also the terrible aftermath, with the looting of precious treasure, male captives slaughtered, and women enslaved. Surprisingly, neither of the Homeric epics offers a full description of Troy’s destruction. Not until Book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid do we see the full horror of Troy’s fall. But the specter of that catastrophe looms over the Iliad from beginning to end. And the nostoi, or “stories of heroes returning from Troy,” one of the most popular topics in Greek literature, all begin with the sack of Troy. The Odyssey, the most famous of those returns, recreates the event metaphorically, with Odysseus as the disguised agent, penetrating his own palace and destroying the corrupt regime of the suitors from within.

Homer invokes images of fertility in the bard’s song and puts them to ironic use:

Ἀργεῖοι, τοὶ δ᾽ ἤδη ἀγακλυτὸν ἀμφ᾽ Ὀδυσῆα
ἥατ᾽ ἐνὶ Τρώων ἀγορῇ κεκαλυμμένοι ἵππῳ·

The Argives were already sitting around famous
Odysseus, hidden by the horse, in the Trojans’ assembly grounds.

Odyssey 8.502–03

The Greeks are “hidden” in the horse’s belly, as if it were about to give birth to the death of Troy. The soldiers are its deadly children, ready to pour down out of the womb (ἐκχύμενοι, 515), like the deceptive chains of Hephaestus (ἔχυντο, 297; see essay on Book 8.250–94). Cloaked (κεκαλυμμένοι, 503) in their secret lair, which the Trojans have benightedly enclosed (ἀμφικαλύψῃ, 511) in their citadel. The participle κεκαλυμμένοι, from καλύψω, is freighted with meaning in the poem, conjuring up the threat for males of being smothered, erased, by powerful female forces (cf. ἀμφικαλύψας, 5.493; see essay on Book 5.408–493). Odysseus has just escaped from the embodiment of that power and struggled almost all the way back to his heroic self on Scheria. The female power to create and nurture is also, in the imagination of the Greeks, potentially annihilating.

Linking Odysseus to the deceptive strategy for sacking Troy confirms the central paradox we have noted in the song of Ares and Aphrodite (cf. essay on Book 8.250–94). Odysseus, who as a famous hero struggles to escape being existentially erased by Calypso and other feminine forces who would keep him from reasserting his heroic identity in Ithaka, himself adopts the persona of the anonymous stranger, happy to use disguise to cover up his own identity if it helps him get what he wants. He is a new kind of hero in the epic tradition, nimble and sensitive to the people around him, using his intelligence and cunning to manipulate others, rather than overpowering them with physical force. Such strategies are anathema to Achilles, who never holds back whatever is inside him. Responding to Odysseus’s speech urging him to put his anger at Agamemnon aside for the sake of his fellow soldiers, he is characteristically blunt:

ἐχθρὸς γάρ μοι κεῖνος ὁμῶς Ἀΐδαο πύλῃσιν
ὅς χ᾽ ἕτερον μὲν κεύθῃ ἐνὶ φρεσίν, ἄλλο δὲ εἴπῃ.

I hate like the gates of Hades that man
who holds one thing in his mind and says another.

Iliad 9.312–13

In this and in other ways, Achilles and Odysseus represent starkly contrasting views of what constitutes heroism. Choosing a short but glorious life over a long but undistinguished existence defines Achilles’s essence as a hero. Odysseus, by contrast, will do or say anything to ensure that he survives to reclaim his place in Ithaka. Perhaps Demodocus’ first song is not entirely mysterious in this context. Highlighting the differences between the two heroes may be part of Homer’s larger project in Books 6–8, bringing to life before us the central character of his poem.


Further Reading

Pucci, P. 1987. Odysseus Polytropos: Intertextual Readings of the Odyssey and the Iliad. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Thalmann, W. 1992. The Odyssey: An Epic of Return, 61–63. New York: Twayne Publishers.



Odysseus weeps, and Alcinous makes Demodocus stop singing. Alcinous asks Odysseus who he is. 

The third song from Demodocus again reduces Odysseus to tears, and prompts a remarkable image from the poet:

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ταῦτ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἀοιδὸς ἄειδε περικλυτός· αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς
τήκετο, δάκρυ δ᾽ ἔδευεν ὑπὸ βλεφάροισι παρειάς.
ὡς δὲ γυνὴ κλαίῃσι φίλον πόσιν ἀμφιπεσοῦσα,
ὅς τε ἑῆς πρόσθεν πόλιος λαῶν τε πέσῃσιν,
ἄστεϊ καὶ τεκέεσσιν ἀμύνων νηλεὲς ἦμαρ·
ἡ μὲν τὸν θνήσκοντα καὶ ἀσπαίροντα ἰδοῦσα
ἀμφ᾽ αὐτῷ χυμένη λίγα κωκύει· οἱ δέ τ᾽ ὄπισθε
κόπτοντες δούρεσσι μετάφρενον ἠδὲ καὶ ὤμους
εἴρερον εἰσανάγουσι, πόνον τ᾽ ἐχέμεν καὶ ὀιζύν:
τῆς δ᾽ ἐλεεινοτάτῳ ἄχεϊ φθινύθουσι παρειαί·
ὣς Ὀδυσεὺς ἐλεεινὸν ὑπ᾽ ὀφρύσι δάκρυον εἶβεν.

So the famous bard sang his song. But Odysseus
melted, and tears ran down his cheeks from under his eyelids.
as a woman weeps, clutching her beloved husband,
who has died before the city, fighting for his people,
warding off the pitiless day from the city and its children.
And she, seeing him dying and gasping for breath,
winds herself around him and wails shrilly. But striking her
from behind on the back and shoulders with their spears
the men drag her into slavery, to suffer pain and misery,
and her cheeks are marred with most pitiful anguish.
So Odysseus shed pitiful tears from under his brows.

Odyssey 8.521–31

The many strands of connection between both the song, the simile, and other major themes in the poem are difficult to untangle. The song celebrates Odysseus’s mastery of deception, the quality he himself cites to identify himself to the Phaeacians (9.19). The fall of Troy will be reenacted in Odysseus’s penetration of his own palace in Ithaka, where he will play the role of the deceptive Trojan Horse to bring down the corrupt regime of the suitors. Yet the simile links Odysseus not to the invading conquerors, but to the enslaved women who have lost their husbands. There is another such reversed simile in the poem, describing Penelope’s joy at finally seeing her husband:

ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἂν ἀσπάσιος γῆ νηχομένοισι φανήῃ,
ὧν τε Ποσειδάων εὐεργέα νῆ᾽ ἐνὶ πόντῳ
ῥαίσῃ, ἐπειγομένην ἀνέμῳ καὶ κύματι πηγῷ:
παῦροι δ᾽ ἐξέφυγον πολιῆς ἁλὸς ἤπειρόνδε
νηχόμενοι, πολλὴ δὲ περὶ χροῒ τέτροφεν ἅλμη,
ἀσπάσιοι δ᾽ ἐπέβαν γαίης, κακότητα φυγόντες:
ὣς ἄρα τῇ ἀσπαστὸς ἔην πόσις εἰσοροώσῃ,
δειρῆς δ᾽ οὔ πω πάμπαν ἀφίετο πήχεε λευκώ.

As when land appears welcome to swimmers,
whose well-made ship Poseidon has wrecked
in the sea, pounded by the wind and heavy waves,
and a few swimmers escape toward land from
the gray sea, and thick brine covers their skin,
overjoyed, they step on land, escaping evil,
so was her husband welcome to her as she looked at him,
and she did not release him from her white arms.

Odyssey 23.233–40

The simile could apply much more closely to Odysseus, when he sees land after Poseidon smashes his boat in Book 5 (itself prompting a striking simile: 5.394–99). The effect of this kind of reversal is not easy to define, but the passage seems to blur the boundaries between Odysseus and Penelope.

If we look at the language of the simile here, we find more blurring. Odysseus “melts” (τήκετο, 522) after hearing the song. Forms of the verb τήκω appear six times in the Odyssey apart from this passage, in Book 11 (201) when the ghost of Odysseus’ mother describes her death from longing for her son, in the simile from Book 5 (396) about Poseidon wrecking Odysseus’ boat, and four times in the description of Penelope’s anguished reaction to hearing news of her husband from the beggar in Book 19 (204, 207, 208, 264). The simile here in Book 8 links the weeping Odysseus to his mother, who died of grief for her lost son, and to his wife, who weeps in response to news about her long-lost husband, delivered, unbeknownst to her, by the husband himself in disguise.

The rich matrix of emotion in these passages eludes definitive analysis. With Odysseus about to embark the final leg of his journey home, Homer marshals the resources of his traditional style to turn our eyes back to the hero’s brilliant campaign to enter and destroy Troy from within, then immediately complicates the tableau by reminding us of the gruesome toll that triumph took on the most helpless of its victims. That pain then migrates through repeated imagery to the royal palace in Ithaka, where the queen, who has herself been under siege from the suitors, waits longingly for her husband to save her and their kingdom, suffering the same kind of pain as does the anonymous woman in the simile in Book 8, through the agency of the same man. Most tantalizing of all is the blurring of the boundaries of Odysseus’s identity, as he merges with his victims, including his own wife, suffering as they do the consequences of his triumphs.

This potent mix of imagery adds to the already complex character we have seen emerge on Scheria. Part powerful warrior, part anonymous underdog, relying at times on his physical strength, at times on his formidable intelligence, the figure who comes into focus before us assumes yet another layer of richness in these final verses before he reappears in his full glory. The ultimate manipulator of others enters, for a brief moment, into their inner world, at once a conqueror and a vulnerable victim.

Foley, H. “’Reverse Similes’ and Sex Roles in the Odyssey.” Arethusa 11: 6–26.


Alkinous, most patient of monarchs, finally confronts Odysseus with the ultimate question: who is he, where is he from? By having his hero withhold this vital information until the very end of his sojourn on Scheria, Homer allows us to absorb the full complexity his character through his various interactions with the Phaeacians. What we witness is something much richer than what would be revealed if the hero had identified himself earlier. Odysseus begins to emerge through the memories of other characters in the poem’s first four books, then appears at his lowest point, a helpless love slave of Calypso. By refusing the nymph’s offer of an eternity of anonymous pleasure in favor of a desperate struggle to survive in a limited existence, he marks the first outlines of his character. An intervention from Zeus, nudged by Odysseus’s fierce defender Athena, frees him for a time, before Poseidon takes vengeance for the injury to the Cyclops, leaving the hero bobbing and sputtering in the sea. Another intervention, this time by a kindly nymph, delivers him to the beach on Scheria at the beginning of Book 6.

Beginning as a naked, vulnerable stranger, Odysseus slowly wins the confidence of the Phaeacians, overcoming their suspicions. In his masterful handling of the young princess, the bluntness that characterizes his interactions with Calypso gives way to keen observation, delicacy, and tact, qualities that he will draw on frequently during his stay on Scheria. The king and his sons offer a different kind of challenge, requiring a carefully calibrated self-assertion. The queen, a more persistent interrogator than her husband, prompts clever evasive action from the hero. Throughout these various encounters, Odysseus clings to his anonymity, waiting for the right moment to reveal his identity. Meanwhile, the poet is creating his hero before our eyes, shading in more complexity with each scene.

The songs of Demodocus expand the background for Homer’s story. The obscure quarrel with Achilles, then a comic transfiguration of the coming battle with the suitors in Ithaka, and finally reaching back to the war at Troy, another transfiguration of the poem’s climax, this time tinged with suffering. The simile following this song completes the layered characterization that the poet creates in the Phaeacian episodes, using the resources of his poetic tradition to weave a complex tapestry, connecting Odysseus’s emergence from anonymity on Scheria with both the adventures of Telemachus in Sparta and the final triumph over the suitors. Both sides of Odysseus’s character are on display in Books 6 through 8, the powerful hero who can overcome resistance with his physical gifts and the crafty descendent of Autolycus, getting his way through deception. The balance, judging from the final verses of Book 8, tips toward the latter persona. In the next four books, Odysseus’s narration of the struggles that brought him to the shores of Scheria, this version of the hero will continue to predominate, as the hero deploys his many strengths against a fantastic array of opponents.

Suggested Citation

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