Read BOOK SIXTH of Homer's Odyssey A Commentary , free online book, by Denton J. Snider, on

We are now to make one of the chief transitions of the poem, we are going to pass from the Dark Island and the stormy sea to Phaeacia, a bright, sunlit land, where reign peace and harmony. Moreover, we move out of the realm of nature to that of institutions. Still more significant are the central figures of the two localities, both women; one of these we have seen, Calypso, who is now to give way to Nausicaa.

This Book may, therefore, be called Nausicaa’s Book, as she is the leading character in it, imparting to it a marvelous mood of idyllic beauty and womanly purity. She is the person chosen by the poet to introduce the Hero into the new realm, Phaeacia, being in sharp contrast to Calypso, who detained Ulysses in dark Ogygia away from his family, and whose character was adverse to the domestic relation. But Nausicaa shows from the start the primal instinct of the true woman for the home. She is still young, but she has arrived at that age in which she longs with every throb of her heart to surrender her own separate existence, and to unite it with another. She manifests in all its attractiveness the primordial love of the woman for the Family, basis of all institutional life, as well as fountain of the deepest joys of our terrestrial sojourn.

On this account she represents the place of Phaeacia in the Greek world as well as in the present poem; perhaps we ought to add, in the whole movement of civilization. That land may be called the idyllic one, a land of peace and of freedom from all struggle; the borderland between the natural and the civilized spheres. Man has risen out of the grossness of mere sensuous individualism, such as we see in Polyphemus and in other shapes of Fairyland; but he has not yet reached the conflicts of higher forms of society resulting from a pursuit of wealth, from ambition, from war. Here is a quiet half-way house on the road from nature to civilization; a sweet reposeful realm, almost without any development of the negative forces of society; a temporary stopping-place for Ulysses in his all-embracing career, also for individuals and nations in their rush forward to reach the great end. The deep collisions of social life belong not to Phaeacia, nor to Nausicaa, its ideal image.

It is the virgin land, the virgin world, which now has a young virgin as its central character and representative, to mediate Ulysses with itself, the universal man who must also have the new experience. Still she is not all of Phaeacia, but its prelude, its introductory form; moreover, she is just the person to conduct Ulysses out of his present forlorn condition of mind and body into a young fresh hope, into a new world. The Calypso life is to be obliterated by the vision of the true woman and her instinctive devotion to the Family. We are aware that Ulysses has not been contented with the Dark Island and its nymph, he has had the longing to get away and has at last gotten away; but to what has he come? Lost the one and not attained the other, till he beholds Nausicaa, who grasps him by the hand, as it were, and delivers him wholly from Calypso, leading him forth to her home, where he is to witness the central phase of domestic life, the mother.

The organism of the Book easily falls into two parts, one of which portrays Nausicaa at home, the other gives the meeting between her and Ulysses. Yet over this human movement hovers always the divine, Pallas is the active supernal power which brings these events to pass, introducing both the parts mentioned. She is the providence which the poet never permits to drop out. Most deeply does the old singer’s sincerity herein move the reader, who must rise to the same elevation; Homer’s loyalty is to faith, faith in the Divine Order of the World, for this is not suffered to go its way without a master spirit; the individual, especially in his pivotal action, is never left alone, but he fits in somewhere; the Whole takes him up and directs him, and adjusts him into the providential plan; not simply from without but through himself. Such is this poet’s loyalty to his Idea; he has faith, deep, genuine faith, yet unostentatious, quite unconventional at times; a most refreshing, yes, edifying appearance to-day, even for religious people, though he be “an old heathen.”

Such continual recurrence of the God’s interference with the course of events what does it mean? This is unquestionably the fundamental problem with the earnest student of Homer. Let us observe, then, first, that the poet’s principle is not to allow a divine intervention to degenerate into a merely external mechanical act; himself full of the spirit of the God, he puts the divine influence inside the individual as well as outside, and thus preserves the latter’s freedom in the providential order. The faithful reader will never let these movements of the deity drop into mere machinery; when he does, he has lost the essence of Homer. Doubtless it requires an alert activity of mind to hold the Gods always before the vision in their truth; they must be re-thought, or indeed re-created every time they appear. The somnolescent reader is only too ready to spare himself the poetic exaltation in which the old bard must be read, if we would really see the divinities, and grasp the spirit of their dealings with man. Speak not, then, of epical machinery in Homer, the word is misleading to the last degree, is indeed libellous, belieing the poet in the very soul of his art.

In the present Book there is not by any means as much divine intervention as in the preceding one; we pass from the lower realm of the water-gods to that of Pallas, the goddess of intelligence, who is the sole active divinity in this Book. She appears to Nausicaa at the beginning in the form of a dream, and bids the maiden look after some washing. Our first question is, why call in a goddess for such a purpose? The procedure seems trivial and unnecessary, and so it would be under ordinary circumstances. But through this humble and common-place duty Nausicaa is made a link in the grand chain of the Return of Ulysses, which is the divine plan underlying the whole poem, and is specially the work of Pallas. To be sure this had no place in Nausicaa’s intention, but it does have a place in the providential scheme, which has, therefore, to be voiced by the Goddess. Yet that scheme does not conflict with the free-will of the maiden, which finds its fullest scope just in this household duty, and brings out her character. She reveals to Ulysses her nature, this is the occasion; she had to be free to represent what she truly was to the much-experienced man. An ordinary wash-day has little divinity in it, but this one is filled with the divine plan. Thus small events, otherwise immediately forgotten, may by a mighty co-incidence he elevated into the sphere of the World’s History, and become ever memorable. That French soldier who threw a camp-kettle over the head of Mirabeau’s ancestor and thus saved him from being trampled to death by a passing troop of cavalry, made himself a factor in the French Revolution, and was inspired by whom, demon or angel?

As already hinted, the structure of the Book is determined by the two interventions of Pallas, which divide it into two portions; these are shown in the following outline:

I. (1.) Pallas appears to Nausicaa in a dream, and gives the

(2.) Nausicaa, when she awakes, obeys the suggestion and
proceeds to the place of the washing.

II. (1.) Ulysses also asleep, lies in his cover not far from the
same spot, when Pallas starts the plan for his waking.

(2.) Meeting of Ulysses and Nausicaa, and the going to the city.

In both parts we observe the same general method; the divine influence, beginning above, moves below and weaves the mortal into its scheme through his own action.


First is a short introduction giving a bit of the history of the Phaeacians, in which we catch a glimpse of their development. They once dwelt near the Cyclops, the wild men of nature, from whom they moved away on account of injuries received; they could live no longer in such a neighborhood. Here we note an important separation, probably a change of life which leaves the ruder stage behind. The colony is led forth to a new land by its hero, who lays the foundation of a social order by building houses, temples to the Gods, and a wall round the city, and who divides the territory. Thus a civil polity begins by getting away from “the insolent Cyclops” or savages. On the other hand, civilized enemies who might bring war, seem not to dwell near the Phaeacians, beloved of the Gods. Beyond all conflict, inner and outer, lies the fortunate realm; it touches the happy mean between barbarism and civilization, though perchance on the road from former to latter; at present, however, it is without the evils which go before it and come after it. As already stated, it is an idyllic world, life appears to be one continued festival, with song and dance of youth. It is not real Greece, not Ithaca, which just now is a land of discord and conflict. What the poet says of Olympus in a famous passage a little further on in this book, seems applicable, in spirit at least, to Phaeacia:

The storm-wind shakes it not, nor is it wet
By showers, and there the snow doth never fall;
The calm clear ether is without a cloud,
And over all is spread a soft white sheen.

1. Now comes the appearance of Pallas, who “like a breath of wind” approaches the couch of the maiden in slumber, and admonishes her about the washing. Some such care the Goddess does impose upon the housekeeper to this day, and if report be true, at times troubles her dreams. It is indeed an important duty, this necessity of keeping the household and its members clean, specially the men, too often indifferent. Young Nausicaa, just entering upon womanhood, is ready for the divine suggestion; plainly she has come to that age at which the Goddess must speak to her on such matters. So much for Pallas at present.

2. Therewith we touch another fact; the maiden has reached the time when she must think, of marriage, which she instinctively regards as her true destiny in life. Still it does not appear that she is betrothed though “the noblest Phaeacians are wooing thee.” In simple innocence there hovers in her mind the thought of Family, yet she shows a shy reserve even before her father. With that sweet thought is joined the primary household care, which naturally enough comes to her in a dream. Cleanliness is next to godliness is our modern saying; it is certainly the outward visible token of purity, which Nausicaa is going to bring into her domestic surroundings. We may reasonably think that in the present scene the external deed and the internal character mirror each other.

It must be confessed, however, that to the modern woman wash-day, “blue Monday,” is usually a day bringing an unpleasant mood, if not positive terror. She will often declare that she cannot enjoy this Phaeacian idyl on account of its associations; she refuses to accept in image what in real life is so disagreeable. As a symbol of purification the thing may pass, but no human being wishes to be purified too often. Nausicaa’s occupation is not popular with her sex, and she herself has not altogether escaped from a tinge of disrelish.

It is curious to note how customs endure. What Homer saw, the traveler in Greece will see to-day wherever a stream runs near a village. The Nausicaas of the place, daughters and mothers too, will be found at the water’s side, going through this same Phaeacian process, themselves in white garments even at their labor, pounding, rubbing, rinsing the white garments of their husbands, brothers, sons. Not without sympathy will the by-stander look on, thinking that those efforts are to make clean themselves and their household, life being in truth a continual cleansing for every human soul. So Hellas has still the appearance of an eternal wash-day. (See author’s Walk in Hellas, passim.)

Nausicaa obtains without difficulty wagon and mules and help of servants. After all, the affair is something of a frolic or outing; when the task is done, there is the bath, the song, and a game of ball. It is worthy of notice that the word (amaxa) here used by old Homer for wagon, may still be heard throughout Greece for the same or a similar thing. In the harbor of Piraeus the hackman will ask the traveler: “Do you want my amaxa?” The dance (choros), is still the chief amusement of the Greek villagers, and, as in Nausicaa’s time, the young man wishes to enter the dance with new-washed garments, white as snow, whose folds ripple around his body in harmony with his graceful movements. Many an echo of Phaeacia, in language, custom and costume, can be found in Greece at present, indicating, like the Cyclopean masonry, the solid and permanent substructure of Homer’s poetry, still in place after more than 2500 years of wear and tear.


The washing is done now, the sport is over, and the party is getting ready to go home; but the main object is not yet accomplished. Ulysses and Nausicaa are here to be brought together the much-experienced man and the innocent maiden with her pure ethical instinct of Family. In many ways the two stand far asunder, yet in one thing they are alike: each is seeking the domestic relation, each will consummate the bond of love which has two phases, the one being after marriage and the other before marriage. Both are moving in their deepest nature toward the unity of the Family, though on different lines; Ulysses and Nausicaa have a common trait of character, which will be sympathetically found by each and will bring them together.

I. At this fresh turn of affairs there is an intervention of Pallas, not prolonged, but sufficient: “Thereupon Athena (Pallas) planned other things, that Ulysses should wake, and see the fair-faced maiden who would conduct him to the city of the Phaeacians.” The Goddess does not appear in person, as the deities so often do in the Iliad, nor does she take a mortal shape, or move Ulysses through a dream; she simply brings about an incident, natural enough, to wake the sleeping hero. Why then introduce the Goddess at all? Because the poet wishes to emphasize the fact that this simple incident is a link in the providential chain; otherwise it would have no mention. The ball is thrown at one of the servants, it falls into the stream, whereat there is an outcry and Ulysses wakes.

Of course, the latter had at first his usual fit of doubt and complaint, just when the Gods are helping him: “Ah me! to what land have I come! What men are here wild, insolent, unjust, or are they hospitable, reverencing the Gods? I shall go forth and test the matter” and so by an act of will he rescues himself from inner brooding and finds out the truth.

2. Now we are to witness the gradual outer approach between Ulysses and Nausicaa, till it becomes internal, and ends in a strong feeling of friendship if not in a warmer emotion. The wanderer, almost naked, with only “a branch of thick leaves bound about his loins,” comes forth from his hiding place, a frightful object to anybody, a wild man apparently.

All the servants run, but Nausicaa stands her ground before the nude monster; being a Princess she shows her noble blood, and, being innocent herself, what can she he afraid of? Thus does the poet distinguish her spiritually among her attendants, as a few lines before in the famous comparison with Diana he distinguished her physically: “Over all the rest are seen her head and brow, easily is she known among them, though all are fair: such was the spotless virgin mid her maids.” Thus is hinted the outer and also the inner superiority which has now revealed itself in the Phaeacian Princess.

Henceforth a subtle interplay takes place between her and Ulysses, in which we observe three main stages: First, the wild man in appearance he steps forth, yet he succeeds in touching her sympathy, wherein her charity is shown; Second, the transformed man, now a God in appearance he becomes, at whose view the maiden begins to show deep admiration, if not love; Third, the passing of Ulysses to the city to which he is conducted by the maiden, who also tells him how to reach the heart of the family, namely, the mother Arête. Thus she seeks to mediate him with her country and her hearth.

(1) Ulysses, issuing from his lair, addresses her in a speech which shows superb skill on account of its gradual penetration to the soul of the fair hearer. He praises first her external beauty with many a happy touch, yet with an excess which seems to border on adulation. This reaches her outer ear and bespeaks his good-will and gentleness at least. Then he strikes a deeper chord: he mentions his sufferings, those which are past, and forebodes those which are yet to be, perchance upon this shore. “Therefore, O Princess, have compassion, since I have come to thee first; none besides thee do I know in this land. Give me some old rag to throw around me, some useless wrappage which you may have brought hither.” Pathetic indeed is the appeal; therewith comes sympathy, the man is no wild Cyclops, whom all Phaeacians still remembered with terror, but a victim of misfortune.

Now comes the culmination of his speech, which shows his keen insight into human nature, as well as his own deepest longing: “May the Gods grant thy heart’s desire –­husband, home, and wedded harmony.” With this praise of domestic life upon his lips he has touched the profoundest chord of her heart; he has divined her secretest yet strongest instinct, and has appealed to it in deep emotion. Yet mark! in the same general direction lies his own dearest hope: he also will return home, to wife and family. Thus he has found the common meeting-place of their souls; the two strike the absolutely concordant note and are one in feeling he the husband, she the maiden.

In her answer she expresses her strong sympathy, her words indeed rise into the realm of charity. It is no mark of baseness to be unfortunate; “but these must endure,” what Zeus lays upon them. Such is the exhortation of the young maiden to the much-enduring man; she has divined too the ground-work of his character. “But now, since thou hast come to our land, thou shalt not want for garment or anything else proper for the needy suppliant.” Then she recalls her attendants, reproving them for their flight, and orders them to give to Ulysses food and drink, oil to be used after bathing, and ample raiment. Nor should we pass by that other expression of hers: “all strangers and the poor are Jove’s own,” under the special protection of the Supreme God, who will avenge their disregard. Such is this ideal world of Phaeacia, still ideal to-day; for where is it realized? The old poet has cast the imago of a society which we are still trying to embody. Well can she say that the Phaeacians dwell far apart from the rest of the nations, “nor does any mortal hold intercourse with us.” Thus, too, she marks unconsciously the limit of her people.

(2) The reader, along with Nausicaa, is to see the transformation of the beggarly wanderer, who, having taken his bath and put on his raiment, comes forth like a God. This is said to be the work of Pallas, “who caused him to appear taller and more powerful, with flowing locks, like the hyacinth.” He becomes plastic in form, beautiful as a statue, into which the divine soul has been transfused by the artist. Such a transforming power lies within him, yet is granted also by a deity; the godlike in the man now takes on a bodily, or rather a sculpturesque appearance, and prophesies Greek plastic art.

The echo of this change is heard in the words of the maiden: “Hear me attendants; not without the will of the Olympians does this man come to us; lately I thought him unseemly, now he is like the Gods who hold the broad Heavens.” Such is her lively admiration now, but what means this? “Would that such a man might be called my husband, dwelling here in Phaeacia!” That note is indeed deeper than admiration.

(3) The third phase of this little play is the bringing of Ulysses to the city and home of Nausicaa. He, having satisfied his hunger, and being ready to start, receives some advice from the maiden, who seeks to conduct him at once to the center of the home. They will pass first through the outlying country, which shows cultivation; then they will go up into the city, with its lofty tower and double harbor; the seafaring character of the people is especially set forth by Nausicaa, whose name is derived from the Greek word for a ship. Particularly we must notice her fear of gossip, which also existed in Phaeacia, ideal though the land was. She must not be seen with Ulysses; men with evil tongues would say: “What stranger is this following Nausicaa? Now she will have a husband.” The sharp eye of Goethe detected in this passage the true motive; it is love, always having the tendency to deny itself, which dictates so carefully this avoidance of public report; the thing must not be said just because there is good reason for saying it. Her solicitude betrays her feeling. In pure simplicity of heart she pays the supreme compliment to Ulysses, likening him indirectly to “a God called down from Heaven by her prayers, to live with her all her days.” Still further she intimates in the same passage, that “many noble suitors woo her, but she treats them with disdain, they are Phaeacians.” To be sure she puts these words into the mouth of a gossipy and somewhat disgruntled countryman, but they come round to their mark like a boomerang. Does she not thus announce to the much-enduring man that she is free, though under a good deal of pressure? All this is done in such an artless way, that it becomes the highest art something which she does not intend but cannot help. Surely such a speech from such a source ought to repay him for suffering shipwreck and for ten years’ wandering.

We cannot, therefore, think of calling this passage spurious, with some critics both ancient and modern. The complaint against it is that the young Phaeacian lady shows here too much reflection, in conjunction with a tendency to sarcasm foreign to her life. But we find it eminently unreflective and naïve; the very point of the passage is that she unconsciously reveals the deepest hidden thought and purpose of her heart to Ulysses. With all her being she must move toward the Family, she would not be herself unless she did; yet how completely she preserves modesty and simple-heartedness! Nor is the sarcastic tinge foreign to young girls. So we shall have to set aside the objections of Aristarchus the old Greek, and Faesi the modern German, commentator.

But the final instruction of Nausicaa is the most interesting; the suppliant is not to go to the father but to the mother. Nay, he is to “pass by my father’s throne and clasp my mother’s knees,” in token of supplication; then he may see the day of return. Herein we may behold in general, the honored place of the mother as the center of the Family, its heart, as it were, full of the tender feelings of compassion and mercy. In the father and king, on the other hand, is the man of the State with its inflexible justice, often putting aside sympathy and commiseration with misfortune. The woman’s heart may indeed be called the heart of the world, recognized here by the old poet and his Phaeacians.

This mother, however, is in herself a great character; she is next to have a Book of her own, which will more fully set forth her position.

The character of Nausicaa, as here unfolded in the ancient poet, has captivated many generations of readers since Homer began to be read. The story has lived and renewed itself in manifold forms; it has that highest power of a genuine mythus, it produces itself through all ages, taking on a fresh vesture in Time. In old Hellas the tale of Nausicaa was wrought over into various shapes after Homer; it was transformed into a drama, love-story, as well as idyl. The myth-making spirit did not let it drop, but kept unfolding it; later legend, for instance, brought about a marriage between Telemachus and Nausicaa. Our recent greatest poet, Goethe, also responded mightily to the story of Nausicaa; he planned a drama on the subject, of which the outline is to be found in his published works. He did not find time to finish his poem, but there is evidence that he thought much about it and carried it around with him, for a long period. One regrets that the German poet was not able to give this new transformation of his ancient Greek brother, with whom he has manifested on so many lines an intimate connection and poetical kinship. In portions of the Italian Journey specially we see how deeply the Odyssey was moving him and how he was almost on the point of reproducing the whole poem with its marine scenery. But Nausicaa in particular fascinated him, and it would have been the best commentary on the present Book to have seen her in a now grand poetic epiphany in the modern drama of Goethe.