The Odyssey, Book VI

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Odysseus and Nausicaa

Athena prepared the way for Odysseus to meet Alcinous, the king of Phaeacia, who would arrange the next stage of Odysseus’ return home. She went to the bedchamber of Nausicaa, the king’s daughter, disguised as Dymas, one of the princess’ close friends. While Nausicaa was sleeping Athena told her that on the next day she should ask her father to provide her with a wagon drawn by two mules so that she could go to the washing pools outside the city to wash her clothes as she would soon be married and have need of beautiful clothes.

Nausicaa, painting by Frederic Leighton, c. 1878.

The next morning Nausicaa, following Athena’s instructions, requested a wagon from her father, offering to wash not only her own clothes but also those of her father and her five brothers. She was too embarrassed to mention marriage but Alcinous understood what was behind her request and granted it. She loaded the wagon with dirty clothes and her mother brought food and wine and some olive oil for Nausicaa and her female friends and attendants to rub on their bodies after bathing.
When the girls reached the pools they washed the clothes, laid them on the sea shore to dry and, after bathing, they ate and drank. Then they played with a ball, throwing it to each other, and Nausicaa sang at the same time, standing head and shoulders above the other girls in stature and beauty.

As they neared the end of their game Athena arranged for Nausicaa and Odysseus to meet: Nausicaa threw the ball to one of her servants who missed the catch; the ball fell into the river and the girls shrieked, which woke Odysseus.

Concealing his nakedness with a leafy branch Odysseus came out of the bushes and, when they saw him, all the girls except Nausicaa ran away. Athena had given her the courage to stay. He debated whether to wrap his arms round her knees and beg for her help or keep his distance. He decided on the latter. After complimenting her on her beauty, he explained how he came to be shipwrecked on her shore, asked her for some clothes and directions to the city.

Odysseus and Nausicaa, painting by Pieter Lastman, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Nausicaa told Odysseus where he was, who she was and offered to show him the way to the city. She called her servants back and told them not to be afraid of the stranger who meant them no harm: according to the rules of hospitality they must give him food and drink, bathe him and give him clothing.

After bathing himself Odysseus, with Athena’s help looking like a god in beauty and stature, returned to Nausicaa and ate and drank.

The clean clothes were loaded into the wagon and they set off for the city. Nausicaa told Odysseus that he must walk with the servants behind the wagon to preserve her reputation as she was unmarried; people might also think she had chosen a foreign husband and despise her. When they reached the outskirts of the city she told him to wait a while in her father’s gardens, where there was a wood sacred to Athena, then go into the city alone and ask directions to her father’s palace where he should seek out her mother who would be spinning by the firelight; he should beg her help to return home.

Nausicaa returned home and, while he waited as instructed, Odysseus prayed to Athena that he be kindly received by the Phaeacians.

Book V Book VII