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Nausicaa and the Delian Palm: Odysseus' Strategic Epithalamium

Charles D. Stein

This paper explains why Odysseus compares Nausicaa to the sacred palm he visited on Delos at Od. 6.160-169.  With the speech Odysseus extricates himself from a delicate position, wins Nausicaa’s sympathies, and takes an important step toward achieving his homecoming.  Odysseus’ pious story quashes the sexual tension that the narrator has sown in the scene before Odysseus starts speaking and its imagery evokes epithalamic motifs that praise Nausicaa’s grace and beauty without implying any sexual threat.  My analysis reveals the boldness of a rhetorical strategy that confronts the sexual tension of the scene head on, transforms the threat it poses into decorous praise, and thereby turns a difficult situation to Odysseus’ advantage.

In the first section I show how Odysseus uses the image of the palm sapling to defuse two reciprocal tensions set by the narrator and perceived by the characters.  Nausicaa and her maids fear that Odysseus will rape them (Shapiro, Karakantza, Rosenmeyer), and Odysseus, because he suspects that Nausicaa is Artemis in disguise, fears that the goddess might emasculate him like Actaeon (Redfield, Ahl and Roisman).  Odysseus’ story of his pilgrimage to Delos quells the threat of rape by highlighting his reverence and restraint before the palm:  σέβας μ’ ἔχει εἰσορόωντα, 6.161 (Stanford, Harder).  The narrator brings the threat against Odysseus to light through the simile likening Nausicaa to Artemis hunting with her nymphs at 6.101-109.  Although this simile is usually read as a sign of Nausicaa’s beauty and preeminence over her maids (Kakridis, van Nortwick, Hainsworth, de Jong; Garvie, more cautiously; Watrous sees the threat), I argue here that the supposedly ill-fitting details of the simile about hunting are there to evoke Actaeon.  In order not to become another Actaeon, Odysseus chooses to tell the story that has the best chance of securing a pardon from Artemis.

In the second section, I argue that the palm sapling likeness plays the vital role in a speech that draws, selectively, from epithalamic motifs.  That the bride and groom are commonly compared to plants in epithalamic songs has long been noted (Wheeler, Seaford), and epithalamic elements have also been found in Odysseus’ speech (Hague, Rissman), just as marriage themes underlie the Phaeacian episode generally (Woodhouse, Lattimore).  Building on these general observations, I argue here that the poets of epithalamic songs (chiefly Sappho and Catullus) use plant imagery according to specific patterns that reflect the androcentric dynamics of Greek marriages.  The groom tends to appear in the dominant role as a sturdy sapling (Sappho 115V) while the bride is cast in a subservient position, subject to sexual violence, as a flower to be trampled (Sappho 105C V), a sweet fruit to be picked (105A V), or as a grapevine clinging to her (sapling) husband for support (Catullus 62.49-58).  Odysseus defies these norms because he wants to showcase only Nausicaa’s grace and charm without touching on the more violent and sexualized elements that would frighten the princess.

Finally I show that Odysseus uses the sapling likeness to present himself as a father figure to Nausicaa, not in the amorous role of a potential bridegroom.  Comparing the Homeric passages in which ἔρνος and θάλος appear with Odyssey 6 reveals that these words are always used in direct speech by parents about their children (cf. LfGE s.v. θάλος).  Odysseus employs the diction here to reassure Nausicaa by dispelling sexual tension.

Once we understand just how dangerous the subject of sex is for the naked hero, we can better appreciate the boldness of a strategy that broaches the topic but does not escalate the threat.  The narrator aptly calls Odysseus’ speech a μειλίχιος καὶ κερδαλέος μῦθος (6.148).  The balance of sweetness and calculation forms its complex rhetorical texture.  This paper analyzes how Odysseus manipulates imagery to find and keep his balance.

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Homer, Odyssey: Speech and Ritual

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