HOMER: The Odyssey [Book VIII]

In Book VIII of Homer’s Odyssey, Alcinous, the King of the Phaeacians, calls a council, where it is agreed that the Phaeacian citizens will provide Odysseus with a ship and crew to convey him home. After the meeting, athletic contests are held in honor of Odysseus. The games include running, wrestling, boxing, and discus-throwing. Despite being old and wearied by his travels, Odysseus participates in the discus-throwing competition and out-throws all other competitors.

After the games, Alcinous hosts a feast at which the famous bard, Demodocus, sings about Mars’ and Venus’ love affair and about the night when the Grecians finally conquered Troy by use of the infamous Trojan Horse. Odysseus weeps upon hearing the bard sing of the Trojan War. Alcinous notices Odysseus in distress, orders the bard to stop singing, and encourages Odysseus to explain why he is weeping and to reveal who he is.

In this book, Homer emphasizes the Ancient Greek value physical beauty. “Every one was struck with the appearance of Ulysses, for Minerva had beautified him about the head and shoulders, making him look taller and stouter than he really was, so that he might impress the Phaeacians favorably as being a very remarkable man.” To the Ancient Greeks, physical appearance reveals much about a man’s character. They value beauty and they value those who possess it. Minerva makes Odysseus beautiful and physically imposing to gain him favor with the Phaeacians and to persuade them to provide assistance to Odysseus, implying that the more beautiful someone is, the more inclined people will be to help him.

Homer also illustrates the Ancient Greeks’ love for athletic competition. One of Alcinous’ sons remarks that “there is nothing that does any one so much credit all his life long as the showing himself a proper man with his hands and feet.” This love for competition reveals a strong drive to ascend and conquer, a drive that the Ancient Greeks frequently display throughout their history.

Besides athletic games, the Ancient Greeks also enjoyed listening to bards. Bards, like Homer, plucked a lyre while singing about famous exploits of gods and heroes. The name of the bard in this book is Demodocus. Many scholars believe that Demodocus, who is blind, is an analog of Homer, whom scholars also believe was blind.

Demodocus first sings about the love affair between Mars and Venus. Vulcan, who is Venus’ husband, knows that Venus is having an affair with Mars, so he contrives a trap for them in his home and then pretends to leave for a distant country. Mars and Venus lie down on Vulcan’s bed and are then ensnared in the invisible chains. Vulcan returns to his home and beckons the other gods to come and see the shameful pair. The gods mock Venus and Mars.

Next, Demodocus sings about the night when the Grecians set flame to Troy with the aid of the Trojan Horse. But while he is singing the tale, Odysseus begins to weep. “He wept as a woman weeps when she throws herself on the body of her husband who has fallen before his own city and people, fighting bravely in defence of his home and children. She screams aloud and flings her arms about him as he lies gasping for breath and dying, but her enemies beat her from behind about the back and shoulders, and carry her off into slavery, to a life of labour and sorrow, and the beauty fades from her cheeks.” This is a chilling analogy and illustrates the brutality and despair that awaited the families of vanquished armies. This passage, along with others, is an inspiration for many of the excellent Ancient Greek Tragedies concerning the fates of the survivors of war.

Finally, the songs of Demodocus reveal that the Ancient Greeks did not regard suffering and war as objections to life or inducements to adopt pessimism. On the contrary, they regarded war as a a cause for celebration. Alcinous, speaking of the Trojan War, asserts that “the gods arranged all this, and sent them their misfortunes in order that future generations might have something to sing about.” This attitude towards war and suffering is almost entirely foreign to men of the modern West. Many atheists and non-believers emphasize the cruelty and irrationality of the world as an objection to the belief in gods. The Ancient Greeks, on the other hand, considered war a festival for both gods and men to delight in.

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