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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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BOOK 8: THE SONGS OF THE HARPER

At dawn in Book 8, Athena, disguised this time as a crier, draws a crowd of citizens, announcing the presence of a stranger in town. Alkinoos asks for volunteers to crew the visitor home, and invites the citizens to a feast at the palace. Animals are sacrificed and cooked for the banquet. A blind poet (an earlier tradition said that Homer was blind, though modern scholarship does not support this idea) sings a song of Troy, making Odysseus cry. You can see how Homer is building up to the revelation of the stranger's identity.

NOTE: The Phaiakians participate in games like a modern track meet. The nautical names of the participants make us aware that they know the sea-the "winedark," "violet," "foaming" sea, as Homer calls it. We have names that mean occupations, too, such as "Smith" and "Wheelwright," but they don't have much impact when Mr. Smith sells real estate and Ms. Wheelwright manages a bank.



When the stranger is invited by Seareach to participate in the games, he refuses, saying he is too preoccupied with his troubles and too eager to go home. Seareach doesn't like this answer. He insults Odysseus, saying he refused because he is a bum with no athletic skill. Naturally Odysseus is provoked and proceeds to hurl a discus farther than anyone else. Angry, he challenges all comers in racing, wrestling, boxing, archery, anything but sprinting-he says his legs have been made flabby by so many years at sea.

Alkinoos' answer is tactful. The Phaiakians are not boxers, he says. They like to race on land or sea. They especially like feasting, storytelling, dance, and song. The bard is called again and tells the story of Aphrodite's infidelity with Ares. It's a risque story, perhaps chosen to divert the ruffled guest. Aphrodite's husband, the crippled god of the forge, Hephaistos, fashions a net that snares the guilty pair while they are making love. They cannot move apart or get up. Then Hephaistos invites the other gods to come and look.

NOTE: This story is told in The Iliad as well. It may be one of the set pieces Homer inserts into his narrative, giving himself a breather while entertaining his audience with what was apparently a popular tale.

Dancers and jugglers entertain the guests. Then Alkinoos calls for twelve lords, and himself to make thirteen, each to give Odysseus a cloak, a tunic, and a bar of gold. Alkinoos calls on Seareach to apologize, which he does with good grace, giving Odysseus a broadsword. Alkinoos gives Odysseus his own gold wine cup. From Odysseus' tears, Alkinoos may already have guessed who he is. These are extremely generous gifts.

A bath is provided for Odysseus, and his gifts are stowed for later travel. When he emerges from the bath and is dressed in a fresh tunic and cloak, he sees Nausikaa shyly waiting beside a pillar to say goodbye. Notice what each one says. Women of all ages and sorts seem to find Odysseus irresistible, and he adroitly manages not to break their hearts.

At the dinner banquet Odysseus cuts a tasty morsel of pork from his own portion and has it sent to the bard as a little gift. Then he requests the story of the Trojan horse. The story makes him cry, and at last Alkinoos asks him straight out to tell who he is.

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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer
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