Athena among the Phaeacians

Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, DC
[This lecture was presented on April 29, 2015 at the Conference Room of the Athens Archaeological Society. It was sponsored by Center for Odyssean Studies and is made available here by their permission. Click here to download a PDF of the handout that was distributed at the lecture.]
In Book 13 of the Odyssey the Phaeacians bring a sleeping Odysseus to the shores of Ithaca. He is finally home, and for the first time since he left Troy ten years before, Athena, his divine protectress, appears to him openly, standing at his side. The hero and the goddess test each other at first, she with a shepherd disguise and he with a lie about his identity, and he remains wary. But she then reveals herself to him and like long separated friends they are reunited. Putting away pretenses they together plot the destruction of Penelope’s suitors. Athena transforms Odysseus into a beggar and sends him on his way to the swineherd Eumaeus’s hut. The second half of the Odyssey has thus been put in motion.
When Athena reveals herself to Odysseus in Book 13 he is quick to tell her that she has long been absent from his side. He says that she was always kind to him in Troy, but after the war he never saw her board his ship to ward off woes. She replies that she always knew he would return home safely, but after he angered Poseidon by blinding the Cyclops, Poseidon’s son, she had to avoid an open conflict with her father’s brother, the god of the sea.
Odysseus here learns for the first time why he was apparently abandoned by Athena after the fall of Troy. The Homeric audience has known the reason for this since the beginning of the poem, when it was Poseidon’s absence from a council of the gods that first allowed Athena to bring about Odysseus’s release from Calypso’s island. Athena’s activity on Odysseus’ behalf dominates the first half of the Odyssey but the hero is completely unaware of it. In Books 1–4 Athena first takes Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, under her wing. In Books 5–8 she masterminds Odysseus’s reception among the Phaeacians, but she does so from behind the scenes. In their face to face meeting on Ithaca, Odysseus correctly says that Athena helped him among the Phaeacians (13.322–323), but he has apparently inferred this, for there was no sign at the time that he recognized Athena when she met him disguised as a young maiden and led him into the Phaeacians’ city. When Odysseus narrates his own story to the Phaeacians in Books 9–12, Athena is of course absent from it, and we know why. Poseidon’s anger with Odysseus has been mentioned twice in the poem before Odysseus tells his story, first in Book 1, when Poseidon is absent from the gods’ council, and again in Book 6, when Odysseus prays to Athena before entering the Phaeacians’ city. Here we learn further that because of Poseidon’s anger, which would not end until Odysseus reached home, Athena could not appear openly to Odysseus in answer to his prayer. At this point the only part of the story that the audience lacks is the reason for Poseidon’s anger, and this we learn from Odysseus himself when he tells of his encounter with the Cyclops, and how the Cyclops cursed the fleeing Odysseus and Poseidon heard his curse (9.536).
The Phaeacians occupy a unique place with respect to Athena’s presence and absence at Odysseus’s side as his special protectress. Among the Phaeacians Athena is not totally absent, as in Odysseus’s adventures, nor is she totally present, as when he returns home. She is both present and absent, and this is a distinctive feature of the Phaeacian episode. The Phaeacians themselves are liminal creatures, halfway between the unreal world of Odysseus’s adventures—the world of Calypso, Circe, and the Cyclops—and the real world as it is represented in the Odyssey—Ithaca, Pylos, and Sparta. Part of the Phaeacians’ unreality is that they act for Athena, as if in a play which she directs. Zeus lays out Odysseus’ entire nostos in advance, when he sends Hermes to release Odysseus from Calypso’s island. He decrees that the Phaeacians will welcome Odysseus and honor him like a god, and send him home with greater riches than he once won in Troy (5.34–40). But it is Athena’s role to implement this plan, and the Phaeacians thus seem to be actors under her direction.
Athena first sets the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa in motion by appearing to her in a dream. Athena’s purpose is to have Nausicaa find Odysseus, who has escaped from the sea after Poseidon’s storm and the destruction of his raft. In the dream Athena takes on the likeness of a maiden, a dear friend of Nausicaa, who chides Nausicaa for failing to wash the clothes necessary for her wedding. Nausicaa’s wedding is purely potential—there is no actual plan for it—but that makes it all the more effective when announced in a dream to motivate a washing expedition in the morning. Nausicaa, aroused by the dream, heeds its message at once when she awakens, as Athena intended. As Nausicaa proceeds to play her part on the Phaeacian stage, Athena removes herself from the stage. She leaves the land of the Phaeacians entirely, and this is emphasized in the description of her destination, which is mount Olympus itself. The remote splendor of the home of the gods is memorably set forth in the seven-line passage telling us of Athena’s absence at this point in the story. In the drama about to unfold on the Phaeacian shore Athena is thus absent, but at the same time present insofar as she has put a substitute in her place. Nausicaa is a maiden like herself. She is of marriageable age, but we will never see her married. In this way Nausicaa is, like Athena, a perpetual virgin, and it is as such that she will find and rescue Odysseus on the Phaeacian shore.
When Odysseus and Nausicaa meet, the image of her chaste virginity is reinforced. The threat of sexual violence is inherent in her encounter with the naked Odysseus, but Nausicaa, standing her ground, shows herself equal to the threat, and Odysseus, for his part, soon acts to remove the threat. The courage that Nausicaa displays here, in contrast to the panic of her maid servants, is that of a virgin warrior. The word for it is tharsos, a quality which characterizes Athena herself as the virgin warrior goddess. It is in fact Athena who puts tharsos in Nausicaa’s heart so that she stands firm at this moment (6.139–140). Athena is not present in person to help Odysseus in his need, but she is virtually present in the figure of Nausicaa.
The interchangeability between Athena and Nausicaa is repeated as the story continues, and Athena now takes Nausicaa’s place. Nausicaa leads Odysseus part of the way to the Phaeacian city, but fearing rumors if she is seen with him by the harbors, she leaves him in a grove sacred to Athena. Odysseus here prays to Athena to make him welcome to the Phaeacians, and she hears his prayer but does not appear openly to him. This is where we are told that Poseidon’s anger prevents her from doing so. When Odysseus then sets out by himself for the city he is met by Athena, disguised as a young maiden, and she takes him the rest of the way into the city (ἔνθα οἱ ἀντεβόλησε θεά, γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη,/ παρθενικῇ ἐικυῖα νεήνιδι κάλπιν ἐχούσῃ, 7.19–20). She has surrounded him with a mist so that he can pass unnoticed by the Phaeacians. Nausicaa had said that Odysseus would easily find someone to show him her father’s palace, for even a child would know it. Nausicaa has thus prepared the way for Athena, as Athena earlier prepared the way for Nausicaa. The two of them do not occupy the stage at the same time. When one is present the other is absent. This was the point of Athena’s departure to Olympus when Nausicaa was first introduced to the story.
When Athena replaces Nausicaa as Odysseus’s guide it is to introduce him to two more actors in the Phaeacian drama, queen Arete and king Alcinous, whom he is about to meet inside the Phaeacian palace. Nausicaa has already told Odysseus to supplicate her mother, the queen, and Athena continues exactly where Nausicaa left off. Athena begins and ends with the queen, telling Odysseus of the unsurpassed honor in which she is held by her husband, children, and people. Athena’s final words to Odysseus repeat Nausicaa’s final words to him, that if the queen is kindly disposed toward him there is hope that he will reach his homeland and see his loved ones (7.75–77).
When Athena finishes her speech she leaves the land of the Phaeacians for the second time. After she had introduced Nausicaa she went to the home of the gods on mount Olympus. Now she crosses the sea to Marathon and Athens, and enters the strong house of Erechtheus (ἵκετο δ’ ἐς Μαραθῶνα καὶ εὐρυάγυιαν Ἀθήνην/ δῦνε δ’ Ἐρεχθῆος πυκινὸν δόμον, 7.79–80). Athena’s first departure was meant to clear the stage for her stand-in as the Olympian daughter of Zeus, the virgin warrior goddess. Now she clears the stage for two other figures, and the question is whether she does so for the same reason as in her first departure, namely that she has introduced a figure who represents herself. When Athena disappears into the palace of Erechtheus in Athens, are we meant to understand that the figure of Arete about to be met inside the palace of Alcinous is also a stand-in for Athena herself?
What is at issue here is the cult of Athena as the city goddess of Athens. In historical times Athena Polias, the city goddess of Athens, was in no way distinct from Athena the Olympian daughter of Zeus. What defined the city goddess to historical Athenians was the power of the virgin warrior goddess, who brought with her the even greater power of her father, the king of the gods. But in Odyssey 7.79–80 we are not dealing with historical Athens, but an earlier Athens contemporary with the Homeric poems, and we do not in fact know who the Athenian city goddess was at that time. The representation of the city goddess of Athens as a virgin warrior goddess can be traced only to about the time of Solon, at the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth century BC, when major changes took place in Athenian society, politics, and religion. In the passage of the Odyssey describing Athena’s departure we are witness to an Athens of a century earlier, and this passage seems to tell us that in her own city of Athens Athena was a mother goddess, and that Erechtheus was not only the king of the city, but the consort of the goddess of this city. The parallel figures of Arete and Alcinous seem to say precisely this.
I have laid out elsewhere the case for this reconstruction of an earlier state of Athena’s cult on the Acropolis of Athens (Hippota Nestor, Part III), and it would be futile to try to retrace it here in detail. It is not an easy case to accept for those who concern themselves only with the later historical state of her cult. For the moment I wish to limit myself to only one point which in my view is of the utmost importance, and that is the nature and value of the Homeric evidence. I refer to the parallelism between the two departures of Athena, and what that parallelism implies. To my knowledge Athena’s two departures, while seen to be interesting in themselves, have not been seen as significant for the narrative in which they occur. The reason for this, I suggest, is that Athena herself is not seen to be a different goddess in the two departures. As in historical Athens, so for modern Homeric scholars, there is no distinction between the Olympian goddess of the first departure and the Athenian city-goddess of the second departure. Both are understood to be one and the same virgin warrior goddess, because that alone is who Athena is assumed to be. What this ignores is that the two departures are not the same. The two departures are to different destinations, and this difference should be given a value. If it is not given a value the unspoken assumption is that the variation is merely decorative—that Athena’s second departure could as well be to Olympus like the first, but for the sake of variety a different destination has been substituted. The problem with this is that the implied esthetic is wholly alien to Homeric poetry. Decorative variation characterizes certain kinds of poetry, but Homeric poetry prefers not to exhibit a difference unless the difference is significant. If no real difference is intended, this lack of difference is itself significant, and it is expressed precisely by a lack of variation. In Homeric poetry variation is by its nature significant, not decorative.
If the variation in Athena’s two destinations is significant, it means that not just one of the destinations is significant, but both are. When Athena leaves Nausicaa’s dream and goes to Olympus, it is because she has left behind a figure to represent her as the virgin warrior goddess. By the same token when she leaves Odysseus at the Phaeacian palace and goes to the palace of Erechtheus in Athens, it is because she has left behind a figure to represent her as a mother goddess. It is the second destination that stands out and calls attention to itself, but history has buried its significance. This is all the more reason that we should pay close attention to what the text implies. The text in fact strongly suggests an equivalence between the palace of Erechtheus and the palace of Alcinous—and thus of the figures inside them—by a striking change of subject in mid-line: as Athena enters the palace of Erechtheus, Odysseus heads for the palace of Alcinous (δῦνε δ’ Ἐρεχθῆος πυκινὸν δόμον. αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς / Αλκινόου πρὸς δώματ’ ἴε κλυτά, 7.80–81). The two palaces are thus equated, and this is for a reason.
The passage in the Odyssey telling of Athena’s departure to Athens belongs to the monumental composition of the Homeric poems in late eighth and early seventh centuries BC in Ionia. No other evidence for the cult of Athena Polias in Athens is as old, or as clear in its implication for the nature of this cult. The only evidence that rivals it in age and significance comes from Herodotus and relates to practices which had ended perhaps two centuries before Herodotus’s own time. He relates that the Epidaurians had once brought yearly sacrifices to Athena Polias and Erechtheus as a pair in return for olive wood taken from the Acropolis and used to make statues of two birth goddesses in Epidaurus (5.82.3). Herodotus actually preserves the detail that these two goddesses, Damia and Auxesia, were represented on their knees (5.86.3), and thus in the act of giving birth. The association of Athena Polias and Erechtheus with human procreation did not last, either in general or in this particular instance. Herodotus says that the yearly sacrifices to the couple ended when the Epidaurians lost the statues of their two birth goddesses to the Aeginetans in a war, and the Aeginetans then refused to continue the yearly sacrifices in Athens. The hostilities between Athens and Aegina that resulted from the discontinued sacrifices probably date to the seventh century BC, or to the early sixth century BC at the latest. How much earlier the Epidaurians began offering sacrifices to Athena Polias and Erechtheus as a pair is unknown, but it is safe to assume that the practice was in full flower during the Homeric era in the late eighth and early seventh centuries BC.
I return to the parallelism between Nausicaa and Arete as contrasting representations of the goddess Athena. The parallelism involves more than Athena’s departures to different destinations. Both of the Phaeacian female figures are supplicated by Odysseus in scenes of great dramatic tension, and the underlying reason for the supplication is in both cases the fact that they both represent the goddess Athena. Nausicaa is confronted by Odysseus at the sea shore when he bursts from the underbrush like a lion driven by hunger and she alone stands her ground. He wisely keeps his distance when he addresses her with the words γουνοῦμαί σε, ἄνασσα, “I supplicate you, lady” (6.149). The full meaning of γουνοῦμαί σε, “I grasp your knees,” is not enacted by Odysseus, who keeps his distance, but he is Nausicaa’s suppliant all the same, and she receives his supplication.
Still greater tension accompanies Odysseus’s meeting with Arete, for he has been instructed twice to supplicate the queen. Nausicaa tells Odysseus to pass by her father and throw his hands around the knees of her mother in order to gain his homecoming (6.310–311). The disguised Athena then increases the anticipation for this meeting by her description of the unparalleled honor in which the queen, whom Odysseus will come upon first in the hall, is held by all. In the event Odysseus, covered by a mist, passes unseen through the Phaeacian hall to the queen and the king, and throws his hands around the knees of the queen. When the mist falls he addresses the queen by name and supplicates her with the words: “I come to your husband and to your knees, having suffered many things” (σόν τε πόσιν σά τε γούναθ’ ἱκάνω πολλὰ μογήσας, 7.147).
The striking thing about Odysseus’s supplication of Arete, and a stark contrast to his supplication of Nausicaa, is that Arete does not react. She remains silent for fully eighty lines after Odysseus’s appeal to her while Alcinous, who must himself be prodded to act, raises Odysseus from the dust and addresses his appeal for a homecoming. Whereas Nausicaa represents an Olympian goddess, a member of the divine household, Arete represents the cult statue of a goddess who resides in her temple on the Athenian Acropolis. This is how the Homeric audience must have imagined the goddess as she disappeared inside the palace of Erechtheus in Odyssey 7.80. Arete seems to embody that cult statue on the Acropolis, which was there to be supplicated, but would of course not have visibly reacted to the supplication.
Before Odysseus encounters Arete in the palace, she is twice described in terms of the same static image. When Nausicaa tells Odysseus to go directly to her mother once he is inside the palace, she says that he will find her seated by the hearth spinning wool in the firelight (ἡ δ’ ἧσται ἐπ’ ἐσχάρῃ ἐν πυρὸς αὐγῇ / ἠλάκατα στρωφῶσ’ ἁλιπόρφυρα, θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι, 6.305–306). Arete is described in these same terms the only time she appears in the narrative before Odysseus encounters her, namely when Nausicaa awakens from her dream and goes to see her mother and father. Nausicaa finds her mother sitting by the hearth with her women servants, holding the distaff and spinning wool (ἡ μὲν ἐπ’ ἐσχάρῃ ἧστο σὺν ἀμφιπόλοισι γυναιξίν, / ἠλάκατα στρωφῶσ’ ἁλιπόρφυρα, 6.52–53). We do not have any descriptions of the cult statue of Athena Polias in Athens, only Pausanias’s statement that it was made of olive wood, and that it was the holiest object in Athens. There are, however, fifth-century vase paintings on which this ancient cult image has plausibly been seen to be represented, and the posture of the seated figure in these paintings is exactly like that of a woman holding a distaff and spinning wool. Instead of a distaff and spindle, however, various other accouterments appear—a spear or helmet where a distaff might once have been, and a phialē where a spindle might once have been. A gold phialē is among the valuable ornaments of the statue of Athena Polias included in fifth-century inventories recorded on inscriptions. It can be shown that this phialē must have been added to the statue in the late sixth or early fifth century at the earliest, since before that time a phialē does not occur as an attribute of divinities. It looks very much as though the ancient image of Athena Polias was a seated figure spinning wool, and that this image was transformed into a warlike figure, with a spear substituted for a distaff, sometime in the sixth century. The Phaeacian queen Arete is the key to the early form of this sacred image if the image’s posture, despite a change of ornaments, is still reliably represented on the fifth-century vase paintings. The firelight by which Arete spins wool also seems to derive from the statue of Athena Polias on the Acropolis, if what was once a hearth had by the fifth century BC become an elaborate lamp. Pausanias, who attributes this lamp to a fifth-century artisan named Callimachus, has far more to say about the lamp than about the holiest object in Athens located next to it. If we could cast our eyes back from the fifth century to the seventh or eighth century BC on the Acropolis of Athens, I submit that what we would find in Athena’s temple, made of olive wood, would look exactly like the Odyssey‘s description of queen Arete seated by the hearth spinning wool in the firelight.
If Athena Polias in Athens was once a mother goddess this has serious implications for Athenian history, and for a radical transformation which must have taken place in Athenian history after the Homeric era. I will come back to this subject briefly below. But my primary interest is in Homer, and there is an obvious question to be addressed first. What do the Phaeacians have to do with Athens and what does Athens have to do with the Phaeacians? To answer this question we must take a step back and consider who the Phaeacians are in the first place.
To repeat a point made earlier, the Phaeacians seem to exist midway between the unreal world of Odysseus’s adventures and the real world of his homecoming. Their liminal status is expressed in different ways. They were once neighbors of the Cyclopes, but moved away to a new home to escape those overbearing creatures who were too strong for them and brought them harm. They are thus removed from the world of Odysseus’s adventures, but connected to that world nonetheless. In the same way they do not live in the real world, but they are connected to the real world, as when they bring Odysseus home to Ithaca, and as they once traveled as far as Euboea to take Rhadamanthys to see Tityos. Compared to creatures like the Cyclops, but also to Circe and Calypso, the Phaeacians seem quite human, and indeed mortal. When Odysseus takes his leave from the Phaeacians he wishes queen Arete well until old age and death overcome her, as is the way with human beings (13.59–60). The queen in the end has thus receded from her initial eminence as a full-blown image of Athena Polias and become simply herself, a mortal woman. On the other hand the Phaeacians are distinctly more than human—how else could the princess and the queen represent two aspects of the goddess Athena? This more than human quality is well expressed in the Phaeacians’ epithet ἀγχίθεοι, “close to the gods” (5.35, 19.279), for to be “close to the gods” is not to be gods, but also not to be ordinary mortals. It is to be between the two.
The Phaeacians have the self-proclaimed mythic function of taking mortals on their way in their magical ships whenever anyone reaches them. But since the Phaeacians live far from men this does not seem ever to have occurred except in the case of Odysseus. Even Rhadamanthys, whom the Phaeacians once took to Euboea to see Tityos, presumably did not land on their shore as a storm-tossed wanderer. The Homeric scholia suggest that Rhadamanthys may have been taken in the Phaeacians’ ship from his abode on the Isles of the Blest or in Elysion, with which he was later associated, and brought back home again when his visit was finished. But even this vague possibility lacks any real substance. The simple fact is that the Phaeacians perform their mythic function for Odysseus and for no one else, and the reason for this is that they belong to the Odyssey alone and not to the wider tradition of Greek epic. The surest sign that they had no existence outside the Odyssey is that their self-proclaimed mythic function of giving mortals safe passage is taken from them by the Odyssey as soon as they have brought Odysseus home. On their return voyage Poseidon sees their ship and fulfills his ancient threat to put an end to their role as harmless escorts for all by turning their ship to stone. No epic poem after the Odyssey could again feature Phaeacians in the role of harmless escorts. Nor could poems before the Odyssey have done so, for if they had the Odyssey would have been powerless to put an end to their role, because it would have belonged to the wider world of epic song.
Insofar as the Phaeacians are, as they define themselves, “harmless escorts for all,” they were created for the sole purpose of bringing the hero of the Odyssey back home to Ithaca. But they also have another purpose, which likewise belongs solely to the Odyssey, and that is to listen to the hero of the poem tell his tale of death and return to life, repeated in different ways, in the four books of his adventures. In Books 9–12 the Homeric poets who performed the Odyssey took on the persona of Odysseus. Odysseus thus becomes the poet in these four books, and by the same token his Phaeacian audience represents the Homeric audience in this part of the poem. This is the real key to who the Phaeacians are. They represent the Homeric audience when and where the Homeric poems were created on a monumental scale. I have already stated my view that this process took place in the late eighth and early seventh centuries BC in Ionia. But the Phaeacians make it possible to be more specific about this. We have seen in the case of the princess and the queen that the Phaeacians represent more than themselves. It is time to look at the Phaeacian royal family as a whole, and to follow where this leads.
Alcinous and Arete represent Erechtheus and Athena Polias, as we have seen. But the point of this identification is the queen, Arete, and not the king, Alcinous, except insofar as both Alcinous and Erechtheus are kings who are paired with impressive female figures. Alcinous’s own identity is with a different figure, who is a king like Erechtheus, but who has nothing to do with Athens. Alcinous’s role in the Odyssey is to bring Odysseus home. He says this himself most succinctly when Odysseus interrupts the tale of his adventures and the Phaeacian king and queen offer him additional gifts, which will require him to wait until the next day for his departure. Alcinous reassures him about this, saying that Odysseus’s conveyance home will be a concern to all the Phaeacian men, “but most of all to me,” because he has the royal power (πομπὴ δ’ ἄνδρεσσι μελήσει/ πᾶσι, μάλιστα δ’ ἐμοί· τοῦ γὰρ κράτος ἔστ’ ἐνὶ δήμῳ, 11.352–353). Apart from Alcinous, the king who has the function of “bringing home” in the Odyssey is Nestor, the aged king of Pylos. His function is not stated explicitly, but it is demonstrated in Nestor’s own account of his homecoming from Troy in Odyssey 3. He tells Telemachus the story when Telemachus asks what happened to Odysseus after the war. In contrast to other Greeks Nestor made all the right decisions about his nostos from the moment Troy fell until he was safely home in Pylos. It took him only a matter of days to complete the voyage. But the point of Nestor’s account is not only his own safe return, but whom he did and did not bring with him through the most perilous parts of the journey. Nestor kept Diomedes at his side from start to finish, and he left Diomedes in Argos, his home, before sailing on to Pylos with a god-sent breeze. Odysseus, on the other hand, started out with Nestor, but then turned back from the island of Tenedos to rejoin the half of the army that had stayed behind with Agamemnon in Troy. Unlike Diomedes, who was home in a matter of days, Odysseus would not return home for ten years, and his separation from Nestor was manifestly the reason. Nestor does not say this, but his account implies it. What must also be understood to interpret Nestor’s account is the meaning of his name, which contains the verbal root of nostos, “return home,” but in an active sense. Nestōr is “he who brings home,” and his name was still well understood by the Homeric poets and audience when the Odyssey was composed. The proof of this is in the verb nesei, “will bring home,” which occurs once in Greek, in Odyssey 18.265. More accurately, this verb has been changed to a meaningless form anesei in Odyssey 18.265, but its reconstruction to nesei is all but certain. As long as the verb in this line was correctly understood, so too was the name Nestōr, and this meaning was clearly in the minds of the Homeric poets and audience when the story of the quarrel and separation between Nestor and Odysseus on the island of Tenedos was told. Odysseus separated himself from the figure whose unique ability, as demonstrated in the case of Diomedes, was to “bring home.”
Nestor, who pointedly did not bring Odysseus home after the Trojan war, is replaced in the story of the Odyssey by Alcinous, and Alcinous, who does now bring Odysseus home, is meant to be seen as precisely a second Nestor. A suspicion that Alcinous is Nestor in a new form is aroused when the Phaeacians are first introduced in Odyssey 6. When Athena comes to the Phaeacians’ city to put them in play, we are told something about them, how they once lived near the overbearing Cyclopes, and how a figure named Nausithoos took them and settled them in Scheria, far away from traveling men. Nausithoos founded the Phaeacians’ new city by extending a wall around it and building houses, by making temples of the gods and dividing the fields, but now he had died and Alcinous ruled in his place (6.3–13). Alcinous here has the same profile as Nestor. Nestor’s city of Pylos was founded by his father Neleus, who left his native Thessaly to found a new city. In Odyssey 3 we are reminded of Nestor’s father when Nestor rises early in the morning to arrange a sacrifice to Athena, whom he had recognized as Telemachus’s companion the previous day, and he sits down on polished stones on which his father Neleus had once sat. But Neleus had died and now Nestor sat on these stones holding his scepter (3.404–412). Both in Pylos and in Scheria the city-founder is the father of the present king, and the same line is used to tell of the father’s death in both cases: ἀλλ’ ὁ μὲν ἤδη κηρὶ δαμεὶς Ἄϊδόσδε βεβήκει, “but he had already succumbed to death and gone to Hades,” 3.410, 6.12. The line occurs only in these two places and of these two figures in Homer.
Suspicion about Alcinous’s status as a second Nestor becomes a certainty when the disguised Athena tells Odysseus about the king and queen he is about to meet inside the Phaeacian palace. We have already seen how Athena reveals the hidden identity of the queen by going to Athens at the end of her speech and entering the palace of Erechtheus. Before she does this, however, she reveals the hidden identity of the king by giving his genealogy (7.54–66). This genealogy, which spans four generations, is a perfect replica of Nestor’s genealogy. We already know two of the generations, that of the city-founder and that of the present king, whose function it is to “bring home.” The two earliest generations comprise a sinner who destroys both himself and his people by rivaling the gods, and this sinner’s sole surviving daughter, who mates with the god Poseidon and gives birth to the founder of a new city. This is the very particular shape of Nestor’s genealogy and every detail of it is reproduced in the Phaeacian genealogy. But the Phaeacian genealogy also adds a fifth generation which does not correspond to Nestor’s genealogy. Arete is made the daughter of a deceased brother of Alcinous named Rhexenor. Arete, in accordance with regular Greek custom, has married her father’s brother when her father died, and this gives Arete a convenient parentage, which she would otherwise lack as the stand-in for Athena Polias. Alcinous in this way takes the place of his dead brother, and this goes to the heart of Nestor’s own myth—a deliberately hidden myth that I have investigated elsewhere (Hippota Nestor, Parts I and II). Nestor is a twin who has lost his brother, a great warrior, whose place Nestor takes. This myth is the basis of Nestor’s role in the Iliad, which features the warrior side of his dual nature. His myth, which is never directly expressed in Homer, is evoked in the Phaeacian genealogy by the name of Alcinous’s brother, Rhexenor, “breaker of men.” This name, which elsewhere occurs only as an epithet of Achilles in the Iliad, identifies Alcinous’s dead brother, whose place Alcinous has taken by marrying his daughter, as a warrior. The Phaeacians are not a warlike people, and the name Rhexenor is puzzling beside their other mostly sea-related names, but not when Nestor and his myth are understood as the point of it. Rhexenor is in fact the keystone of the genealogy that establishes Alcinous as a second Nestor.
The royal family of Miletus were called the Neleids. [1] They traced their ancestry to king Neleus, the founder of Pylos. Nestor’s brother Periclymenus—the warrior whose place Nestor took—came next after Neleus in this family’s line of descent. Periclymenus’s line moved from Pylos to Athens at the time of the return of the Heraclids, four generations after Periclymenus himself, and became kings of Athens. The second of these kings in Athens was Codrus, famous for his sacrificial death, which prevented the Dorians from conquering Athens. Codrus had two sons, one of whom, Medon, succeeded him as king, and gave the name Medontidai to succeeding Athenian kings through the end of the royal period. The other son was named Neleus, like the original ancestor of this family, and he founded the city of Miletus. The royal family of Miletus, the Neleids, thus had a double origin to their name, first as descendants of the founder of Pylos, and then as descendants of the founder of their own city.
The Phaeacians have a king and queen, Alcinous and Arete, who evoke the origins of the Neleids, the royal family of Miletus, at two stages in their history, Pylos and Athens. Nestor represents Pylos in the Homeric poems, and king Alcinous is a second Nestor. Athena Polias represents Athens, and queen Arete embodies the city goddess of Athens. Arete is also a generation younger than Alcinous, her father’s brother, and this difference corresponds to the two successive stages in the Neleids’ family history, Pylos and Athens.
The Neleids of Miletus seem to have been instrumental in promoting Panionian unity, the final result of which was the Ionian dodecapolis, a union of twelve Panionic cities. The Neleid genealogy was extended to other cities of the dodecapolis besides Miletus, apparently to give the union a common ideology. King Codrus was given other sons besides the two, Medon and Neleus, who founded eponymous kingships in Athens and Miletus, the Medontids and Neleids respectively. These further Codrids, who were seen as Codrus’s illegitimate sons, were said to have founded other cities of the dodecapolis, and a Codrid founder became the token of the Panionic status of these other cities. Not every Panionic city claimed a Codrid founder, but most did.
The Phaeacians are not meant to represent one powerful family that ruled in Miletus, but the entire dodecapolis, which celebrated a common festival called the Panionia in a place called Panionion on cape Mykale. Nestor, whose twin myth goes back to Indo-European origins, has his twin myth deliberately hidden in Homer in favor of a tradition that he was one of twelve sons of Neleus. These twelve sons match in number the twelve cities of the dodecapolis, but they are a purely notional group, only two of whom, Nestor and Periclymenos, have real substance. The only son of Neleus associated with a particular city among the twelve cities is Periclymenus, the ancestor of the royal family of Miletus, and he is mentioned only once in the Homeric poems (Odyssey 11.286). Nestor, who plays prominent roles in both Homeric poems, cannot be associated with a particular Ionian city, any more than the ten other supposed sons of Neleus can. The Neleids of Miletus, whose pedigree is the basis of Panionian ideology, did not wish to call attention to themselves. What they wanted instead was to foster a Panionic community in their own image.
The Homeric audience, which the Phaeacians represent in the Odyssey, came together from the twelve cities of the Ionian dodecapolis to celebrate their common festival, the Panionia. This festival, I believe, is where the Homeric poems were created on a monumental scale. The Phaeacians’ festive nature, focused on song, dance, and games, reflects an actual festival attended by the Homeric audience. Historical sources for the Panionia belong mostly to a later period, but there is enough in the historical record to place the origins of the festival in the late eighth and early seventh centuries BC, contemporary with the creation of the Homeric poems. The creation of Panionism and the creation of the Homeric poems go together as parts of the same historical process.
The last Neleid king of Miletus was named Leodamas. He gained the kingship of Miletus by his success in a foreign war, defeating the city of Carystus in Euboea. Leodamas had a rival for the kingship, but the rival failed in his own foreign war, and Leodamas was thus made king. There had been a kind of contest between the two figures which was settled in this way. Historians of the Augustan era considered Leodamas a model of autocratic rule and we know of him at least in part for that reason. He was much loved by his people according to these same sources. His story had a tragic end when he was assassinated by his rival and his rival’s party. Leodamas’s own followers assassinated the rival in return, and this brought the kingship in Miletus to an end. A different form of government replaced it from then on. Leodamas, who defeated a city in Euboea, probably dates to the period of the Lelantine war, and thus to the Homeric era as it is usually dated. He is a good candidate for the Neleid king who, according to my historical model, promoted both Panionism and, in the context of Panionism, the Homeric poems.
We have yet to consider another important member of the Phaeacian royal family. This is the royal prince, Laodamas, whose name is that of the last Neleid king of Miletus, but in its Homeric rather than its Ionic form. Laodamas, who is Alcinous’s favorite son, is the future king of the Phaeacians. This future king, with the name of an actual king of Miletus, seems meant to complete the tableau of the Panionian past represented by the Phaeacian king and queen by bringing this past down to the present. To the first two stages of this past, Pylos and Athens, Laodamas seems meant to add a third stage, namely the Ionian present of the Homeric poets and audience. This may seem to run counter to the idea that the Neleid kings of Miletus did not wish to call attention to themselves, but if prince Laodamas represents a living king, he does so with a very delicate touch. His part in the Odyssey is modest in the extreme. When Alcinous raises Odysseus from the dust in the Phaeacian palace, he makes a place for him by beckoning Laodamas from his seat, and Laodamas complies without demur. If this is meant to reflect on the historical king of Miletus, it is an honor merely to give up his seat to the great hero of the past. Even more significant is the episode in the Phaeacians’ games when Odysseus is provoked by a Phaeacian youth to seize a rock and hurl it beyond the other marks. After his throw Odysseus delivers a stinging rebuke to the youth, which also touches Laodamas, who stands by silently after having initiated this scene of real contention. The “instruction of princes” delivered by the great hero in this scene reaches outside the poem itself if the Phaeacian future king, who hears the instruction, represents the last king of Miletus. The implied relationship of the historical king to the hero of the poem is entirely unassuming, apart from the implication of a relationship at all, and this, to be sure, is extraordinary.
The festival of the Panionia, fostered by the city of Miletus and its Neleid kings, and by king Leodamas above all, is the cradle of the Homeric poems as I reconstruct it. The cradle did not last forever, or even for very long. Leodamas was assassinated and the Neleid kingship came to an end in Miletus, and the celebration of the Panionia itself soon came under threat from rising powers close by, first the Lydians, then an incursion of Cimmerians, and finally the Persians. The festival full of poetry and song that can be inferred for the Panionia from the portrayal of the Phaeacians in the Odyssey turned into what is attested historically, when the cities of the dodecapolis met at Panionion to consider how to defend themselves against overwhelming forces pitted against them. But at this point the Homeric poems were an accomplished fact. A guild of rhapsodes on the island of Chios, the Homeridai, were instrumental in preserving the poems intact, most likely still in the oral form of their creation. The poems became the centerpiece of the Panathenaic festival in Athens in the sixth century BC, and it was most likely from the Homeridai of Chios that a canonical version of the poems came to Athens, and was tightly controlled there for accurate reperformance.
The poems were changed to some degree by the Panathenaic phase in their transmission, but not greatly. The poems had already been created on a monumental scale in Ionia, and Athenian changes occurred mostly at the edges. The passage in Odyssey 7 where Athena goes to Athens and enters the palace of Erechtheus has sometimes been suspected of a sixth-century Athenian origin, but these lines, as I hope to have shown, are quintessentially Ionian. There is, however, another Homeric passage in which Athena and Erechtheus appear, namely the Athenian entry to the Catalogue of Ships in Iliad 2, and this passage is very different from the one in Odyssey 7. In the Athenian entry to the Catalogue of Ships the city goddess of Athens is no longer a mother goddess, but the virgin warrior goddess we know so well, the daughter of Olympian Zeus. By the same token Erechtheus in this passage is no longer Athena Polias’s consort who receives sacrifices together with her, as both once received sacrifices from the Epidaurians on the Athenian Acropolis, but a mortal hero, who is separated from the goddess, and who receives his own sacrifices after his death. The Athenian entry to the Catalogue of Ships was most likely composed in Athens in the period of changes to the cult of Athena Polias that I would date to the time of Solon. Early Athens, as evoked in the Phaeacian episode in the Odyssey, has a completely different valence from the Athens projected by the Catalogue of Ships, which has introduced Athens’ changed view of itself in the sixth century. The two cases of Athenian influence are not at all the same. The earlier of the two passages is, in its view of Athens, pure Ionian.
The Odyssey bids farewell to the Phaeacians on an ambiguous note. Poseidon has fulfilled his ancient threat to stop them from acting as harmless escorts for all, but he also threatened to wall them off with a mountain, and we are not told whether or not he carried this threat out. The last we hear of the Phaeacians they pray to Poseidon not to fulfill this part of his threat. The ambiguity is consistent with the Phaeacians as the creation of the Odyssey, who exist only to bring Odysseus home. In the end they lose the possibility of ever performing this mythic function in the future. Still, if the Phaeacians were once reached by a storm-tossed sailor, they should still be reachable again, but the Odyssey cuts even this possibility short. One could search forever for the Phaeacians and still not find them if Poseidon has hidden them behind a mountain wall. In the end the Phaeacians are meant to be unreachable. One need not bother to look for them anywhere in the real world.
The possibility of being walled off behind a mountain fits the Phaeacians at the level of the story, but it also fits their role of representing the Homeric audience. If that audience was conscious of the precarious situation of the Panionia, which would disappear as the cradle of epic soon after the Homeric poems had been given birth, they may have seen themselves under the same threat as the Phaeacians who represent them in the Odyssey. The Ionians would of course survive, but they might not survive as what they had been, the audience that took part in the birth of the Homeric poems.


The interpretation of the Phaeacians presented above applies to the Ionian phase of the Homeric poems. It was then, in my view, that the Odyssey created the Phaeacians as a representation of the contemporary Homeric audience. The Phaeacians’ fate is left deliberately ambiguous in the Odyssey when they pray to Poseidon to be spared from oblivion and the narrative leaves them at that point, the outcome unresolved. The ambiguity, whichever way it might come out, does not secure for the Phaeacians a place in the real world, but is instead consistent with their being cut off from the real world forever. For just as they will no longer come to real places like Ithaca in their magic ships, so no one who goes looking for them—assuming they can be reached at all in ordinary ships—has any guarantee of finding them not hidden away, and impossible to detect. This is the Odyssey’s elegant way of saying that the Phaeacians do not really exist. But the same ambiguity that is consistent with what the Phaeacians really are, namely a representation of the Homeric audience, was put to a different use in Homeric tradition after the Ionian phase. The possibility left open by the Odyssey that Poseidon spared the Phaeacians allowed the Corcyraeans, Corinthian colonists, to claim that they were the Phaeacians, and that no mountain had walled them off. Poseidon, it seems, had spared them. Gregory Nagy has explored the Corcyraean appropriation of the Homeric Phaeacians and its effect on the text of the Odyssey. His most recent treatment was his lecture last year in this venue. [2] In an essay of my own in 2012 I have suggested that this appropriation of the Homeric Phaeacians was made by the Corinthian epic poet Eumelus at an early date, soon after the Ionian phase of Homeric epic. [3]


[ back ] 1. For the remainder of the paper, concerning Miletus and Ionia, see the full discussion in Hippota Nestor, Part IV.
[ back ] 3. “New Light on the Homeric Question: The Phaeacians Unmasked,” footnote 6 in particular (