Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Homer’s Odyssey: Book 8

“When young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more” (8.1), Alcinous gathers lords and captains of Phaeacia together to honor the guest, Odysseus, and prepare to send him on his way. He calls in Demodocus, “the faithful bard the Muse adored / above all others, true, but her gifts were mixed / with good and evil both: she stripped him of sight / but gave the man the power of stirring, rapturous song” (8.72-75). After some feasting and drinking, the bard sings of “The Strife Between Odysseus and Achilles” (8.89). Odysseus buries his face in his cloak to hide his tears.

Alcinous is the only one who notices how upset Odysseus is and shifts gears towards sports: “Now out we go again and test ourselves in contests, / games of every kind — so our guest can tell his friends, / when he reaches home, how far we excel the world / at boxing, wrestling, jumping, speed of foot” (8.118-121). Alcious has been reading the Iliad, Book 23! It’s going to be so awesome that even Demodocus is “keen to watch the contests” (8.126).

The young champions such as Topsail, Riptide, Rowhard, Sternman, Breaker, Swing-Aboard, et al., compete. Odysseus is invited/challenged to participate: “It’s fit and proper for you to know your sports. / What greater glory attends a man, while he’s alive, / than what he wins with his racing feet and striving hands?” (8.169-171). Odysseus demurs and is taunted. He fires back, “Indecent talk, my friend. / You, you’re a reckless fool — I see that. So, / the gods don’t hand out all their gifts at once, / not build and brains and flowing speech to all” (8.191-194); “Not even / a god could improve those lovely looks of yours / but the mind inside is worthless” (8.203-205). Odysseus heaves a discus further than they could imagine possible.

Odysseus mentions his skill with the bow, with the brief tale of how he received it — the one he will be using many books from now. He’s no slouch with spears either. Alcinous praises him and calls for dancers, of which he is proud. The bard sings a song about Aphrodite and Ares, available in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The two gods carry on an affair, though she is married to Hephaestus. When Ares quotes Paris and Zeus from the Iliad — “Quick, my darling, come, let’s go to bed / and lose ourselves in love! Your husband’s away” (8.331-332) — one can guess the effect on Odysseus. Hephaestus ensnares the two with a subtle net and calls to the other gods to see the shameful couple, but they have a laugh.

After the bard’s song there’s more acrobatic dancing, resting, bathing, feasting, and another song from the blind bard. “Homer” inserts a moment of product placement: “From all who walk the earth our bards deserve / esteem and awe, for the Muse herself has taught them / paths of song. She loves the breed of harpers” (8.538-540). This time the song focuses on the end of the Trojan War; and Odysseus breaks into tears again, this time described with an interesting epic simile: “as a woman weeps, her arms flung round her darling husband….” (8.588ff). Alcinous again sees Odysseus’ breakdown, calls off the song, and publicly requests that Odysseus declare his identity. “So don’t be crafty now, my friend, don’t hide / the truth I’m after. Fair is fair, speak out! / Come, tell us the name they call you there at home — / … / Surely no man in the world is nameless, all told” (8.616-620). But Alcinous delays a response with a tangent concerning the prophesy that although his people are known as good hosts, generously escorting their guests by sea, this annoys Poseidon who will one day crush their ships “and pile a huge mountain round about our port” (8.638), which we can tell will destroy their economy, their culture, their identity as a people. But where was I? Oh, yes, tell us your story, stranger.

Odyssey: Book 9
Odyssey Index