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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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BOOK 13: ONE MORE STRANGE ISLAND

When Odysseus, the master storyteller, finishes the flashback, the court of Alkinoos is spellbound-"no one stirred or sighed." Think what a compliment it is to the performers at the end of a play or concert if there's a moment of utter silence before the applause. Alkinoos calls on his lords for more gifts, a tripod and cauldron from each one.

NOTE: Alkinoos' remark that the people will be taxed to make up the loss reminds you that you're reading about a feudal society. The democracy of Classical Greece is far in the future, and even that democracy applied only to established male citizens. Slaves and women had no rights.

At dawn Odysseus' many gifts are brought to the ship and stowed. Thighbones are burned to the gods, everyone feasts, the bard sings again.



NOTE: You might do some research on the expression "winedark," which has puzzled scholars for hundreds of years. Homer usually uses it to describe the sea, but here in the epic simile (Odysseus hungers to leave for home as a farmer plowing all day hungers for his evening meal) it describes oxen.

Odysseus thanks and blesses Alkinoos and his people in a heartfelt speech. He gives special thanks to Arete. All are given wine so all may make libations before Odysseus' trip. There is something magical about the way Odysseus is rowed home asleep, and placed, still asleep with his treasure by him, in Phorkys cove at the foot of the olive tree near the cave of the immortal water nymphs, the Naiades. It almost suggests that he is about to waken from a long, incredible dream.

NOTE: The olive tree is a symbol of Athena and an essential element in Greek agricultural economy. Remember that Odysseus slept at the foot of one on Skheria, too.

Poseidon, in a brief scene with Zeus, makes it clear that he is not pleased that Odysseus' last voyage home was so easy. He wants to destroy the Phaiakians' ship and throw up a "mass of mountain in a ring around the city" so the Phaiakians will never sail again. Zeus suggests a milder punishment, to which Poseidon agrees: he lets the ship get within sight of the harbor and then turns it to stone.

Athena covers Ithaka with mist so that when Odysseus wakes he doesn't know where he is. He thinks the Phaiakians may have left him somewhere else, or even have stolen some of his treasure. Athena comes to him as a young shepherd. You have heard about Ithaka before, but she gives the most detailed description yet. The island is too hilly and broken for horses and has no wide meadows, but it does have good soil, grain, wine, rainfall, pasture for oxen and goats, timber, and cattle ponds. The setting of the last half of the story is sharply drawn here.

Notice the false story Odysseus tells the "shepherd." He says the night of the supposed murder was murky, a detail to make the whole thing convincing. Athena is so pleased with his quick invention that she reveals herself to him as a tall, beautiful woman, "I that am always with you in times of trial." Still he doubts, and she likes his caution. She says he is the best of all men alive at plots and stories. His cool, quick detachment is the reason she can never forsake him.

She removes the mist, reveals the details of the cove and Mount Neion, "with his forest on his back." Apparently the islands of the Mediterranean were heavily wooded once, though today many of them are barren. She helps him hide his gifts in the cave and reminds him that for the past three years the suitors have plagued his wife and eaten up his stores and cattle. He realizes he would have wound up like Agamemnon if she hadn't helped him, and begs her to fight at his side in the approaching battle.

Her plan is to disguise him. He must join the swineherd first. Meanwhile she will go to Sparta and fetch Telemakhos home. She turns Odysseus into a bald, wrinkled, bleary-eyed beggar. She dresses him in a filthy tunic, tattered, greasy, and stained. She gives him a mangy buckskin cloak, a staff, and a "leaky knapsack with no strap but a loop of string." Who would guess this wretched beggar is the king? Be prepared for one ironic situation after another.

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