“Odyssey” by Homer: Book VII – Gardens and Firelight

Phoenix

In this book, Athena disguises herself as a young girl and guides Odysseus to the palace of Alkinoos, Nausicaa’s father and king of the Phaeacians. Odysseus is awestruck by the splendor of the palace. When Odysseus meets the king and his wife Arete, Alkinoos questions whether Odysseus is a god, to which he replies that he is mortal. Odysseus then tells the story of how he came to Phaeacia while withholding his true identity. Alkinoos agrees to help Odysseus return home and also offers Odysseus Nausicaa’s hand in marriage.

This is a fairly short book, and much of it is description of the palace and gardens, and Odysseus recounting his journey from Calypso’s island. One passage stood out for me, though.

He moved, then, toward the fire, and sat him down
amid the ashes. No one stirred or spoke
until Ekhineos broke the spell—an old man
eldest of the Phaiakians, an oracle,
versed in the laws and manners of old time.
He rose among them now and spoke kindly:

“Alkinoos, this will not pass for courtesy:
a guest abased in ashes at our hearth?
Everyone here awaits your word; so come, then,
lift the man up; give him a seat of honor,
a silver-studded chair. Then tell the stewards
we’ll have another wine bowl for libation
to Zeus, lord of the lightening—advocate
of honorable petitioners. And supper
may be supplied our friend by the larder mistress.”

Alkinoos, calm in power, heard him out,
then took the great adventurer by the hand
and led him from the fire. Nearest his throne
the son whom he loved best, Laodamas,
had long held place; now the king bade him rise
and gave the shining chair to Lord Odysseus.

(Fitzgerald Translation: pp. 115 – 116)

So in this section, we have Odysseus placing himself by the fire and sitting in the ashes. He is then raised from the ashes and given a seat of honor beside the king’s throne. I found this to be a symbolic association between Odysseus and the Phoenix. The Phoenix is one of the most recognizable symbols of rebirth and regeneration, dying in fire and then resurrecting from the ashes. But what I find the most interesting about this is that Odysseus seems to be going through a series of rebirths, with each one being associated with a different element. So in Book V, Odysseus experiences a rebirth through the element of earth, as he is buried beneath the leaves. In Book VI, he is reborn again and this time the rebirth is associated with the element of water, as he is cleansed and purified in the river. Now, in Book VII, we see Odysseus reborn through the element of fire. Homer draws on the various symbols of resurrection, connects them to the elements, then weaves them all together into the hero myth. In my opinion, this is nothing short of poetic genius.

I really have nothing else to say about this book. I’m still in awe. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts and comments. Cheers!

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5 Comments

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5 responses to ““Odyssey” by Homer: Book VII – Gardens and Firelight

  1. Rebirth through elements! That is a brilliant concept, Jeff.

    • Thanks Monika. I just finished reading Book VIII. Are you surprised that the theme is based around singing (air)? I have to say that I am really, really loving this. I’m seeing so much more this time than the previous two times I read it.

      BTW – big weekend: Passover, full moon, eclipse, Easter. Kind of exciting 🙂

      Jeff

  2. Gotta say again, Jeff, I appreciate your insights. The earth, fire and water symbolism would have gone right by me. Glad I’m following along! I found it interesting that the king asked his favorite son to give up his seat to Odysseus. Also I noted a similarity to the Christian concept of (Jesus) God being embodied in the lowliest of humans. (Something about “When you look upon the lowest beggar, you look upon me.”) Of course, Odysseus was not a god, but he was suspected of it, and there he sat in the ashes, like a homeless beggar. What do you make of the way these people treat Odysseus? He lands naked and dirty, could be anybody, and they give him the royal treatment including “Here, take my beautiful daughter.” I suppose this is the way Homer tells us that Odysseus is physically and verbally far superior to normal men. All you have to do is lay eyes on him, and if that doesn’t do it, wait until he starts talking.

    One further comment, now that we’re a little ways into it, just to emphasize the initial impression I reported. I’m so pleased at the readability of it!

    • Hi Jerry. I’m also glad you are following along. Interesting comparison between Jesus and Odysseus. Besides taking the symbolic seat beside the throne, there is also the whole resurrection myth. And I agree, although there is a lot of hidden meaning that can be uncovered, the story itself is really really great and engaging. Cheers!

  3. Pingback: “Odyssey” by Homer: Book VIII – The Songs of the Harper | Stuff Jeff Reads

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