Storm-tossed Odysseus fetches up on the shores of Scheria. He has bedded down in a pile of leaves under some olive bushes. While he snoozes, the daughter of King Alcinous gets divine inspiration — to do her laundry. Like Circe and Calypso before her, the princess Nausicaa has marriage on her mind, and so she takes her clothes and her handmaids to the river, not far from where brine-caked Odysseus slumbers.
The ladies fairly froth with youth and beauty, as they wash clothes and play with a ball. When this lands near Odysseus, he jolts awake. “Man of misery,” Odysseus says, “whose land have I lit on now?” He quickly realizes there are young girls nearby. And Homer takes a brief detour into pornographic movie:
“Great Odysseus crept out of the bushes, stripping off with his massive hand a leafy branch from the tangle olive growth to shield his body, hide his private parts. And out he stalked as a mountain lion exultant in his power strikes through the wind and rain…” Book 6: 139-145
Nausicaa is, all, Now that’s what I’m talking about, and offers to help him. After giving Odysseus something to eat and clothes to wear, they all pile back to Alcinous’ marvelous palace. Odysseus can’t believe his luck. A few hours ago, he was freezing-too cold and covered in mud; now he is strolling through the house of the island’s richest man. The idea, from a literary perspective, is that Odysseus slowly gathers strength, from being a “glowing brand in the ashes” to his erotic, animalistic emergence from the shrubs. And eventually to his holding court and his own with a bunch of nobles.
For the man of misery, it keeps getting better. The king and queen make him the guest of honor of a banquet and an athletic competition. And, far more important, they urge him to tell the story of his journey. In fact, this is how Homer tells the reader Odysseus’ story, in a long, wine-soaked monologue in Books 9 through 12.
He had droned on and on, talking about cannibals and nymphs, and then cannibals again, and then nymphs again. And now he basked in the glow of Grecian civility as sizzling beef joints are heaped on platters and wine is sloshed into gold cups. Nobles are won over by his wit and charm. Princesses gape at his broad shoulders.
If he is honest, he will say it is the high point of his trip.
And when Odysseus is all done with his story, King Alcinous is delighted. He smacks his new, wave-tossed friend on the back and urges his nobles, who already have furnished Odysseus with “robes and hammered gold and a haul of other gifts,” to “each of us add a sumptuous tripod, add a cauldron!”
And then the king delivers my favorite lines:
“Then recover our costs with levies on the people: it’s hard to afford such bounty man by man.”
Scheria’s 1 percent greeted the king’s instructions “with warm applause.”
And, so the king loads him down with loot and gives him a ship to sail for home. Thence to Ithaca and, really, the beginning of the story.
Talking point: Nobody loves to hear about Odysseus more than Odysseus. Death toll: 0.