Deb Davies(1)

A consideration of the character of Nausithous would not appear to be a helpful exercise. He appears only four times in the Odyssey, as the ancestor of the Phaiacian royalty Arete and Alcinous. Yet the poet places these four appearances very carefully, as we shall see. Moreover, a careful reading also allows us to show the usefulness of narrative theory when looking at the Odyssey in general. Thus, this short paper allows us both to clarify the role of this nebulous character and to show the applicability of narrative theory to an oral text.

Nausithous is first mentioned in the beginning of Book 6 (Od. 6.2-11). The passage begins with Athena's travels, a device which moves the scene from Odysseus on the seashore to the island where he was washed up. The inhabitants are immediately named (Od 6.3), followed by background information about the kingship (Od 6.4-12). The first half of the description consists primarily of a contrast with the Cyclopes, described as "too overbearing" (Od 6.5),(2) a word reserved elsewhere exclusively for the suitors.(3)

There is a direct contrast between Nausithous and the Cyclopes, as described by Odysseus later (Od 9.116-115; 125-130). Nausithous establishes his new city by doing four things: "he has driven a wall about the city, and built the houses,/ and made the temples of the gods, and allotted the holdings." (Od 6.9-10) In other words, he is a leader who takes care of his subjects, leading them away from harm, and establishing them in a city with the necessary safeguards for safety and livelihood. When Odysseus describes the Cyclopes, however, he makes it clear that they neither have, nor desire any of these items. They have no city, in either a physical or political sense (Od 9.112). The Cyclopes have no homes, but instead live in caves (Od 9.113-114). They trust in the gods (Od 9.107), but have no temples. They do not cultivate crops, but live off the land (Od 9.108-111). Lastly, they have no ships, an attribute for which the Phaeacians are justly famous (Od 8.556-563).

Nausithous' life also shows that the only correct way to avoid trouble with a Cylcopes is by leaving the immediate vicinity, a lesson Odysseus learns too late. The passage then ends with the death of Nausithous and the passing of the kingship to Alcinous, although their exact genealogical relationship is not yet made clear.(4)

This passage has several purposes. First, it introduces the Phaeacians as a civilized people, as is shown by the past actions of their king. Second, it establishes Nausithous as an important figure in this history. This, in turn, implies a character who could be important in the narrative and is perhaps already known to the audience. But it seems clear that Nausithous is adapted, or even created, by the author. His name follows the pattern of many other Phaeacians, as it is based on a word associated with ships and the sea.(5) But a clear genealogy of Alcinous would also make narrative sense at this point. In this case, Nausithous need only be mentioned in passing. So what is the particular function of his character?

Nausithous appears for the second time in Arete's genealogy (Od7.54-74), in which we learn his genealogy and the history of his extended family. This passage, unlike that in Book 6, is addressed directly to Odysseus, and only by implication to the audience. In order to interpret Nausithous' role, therefore, we must consider the reactions of both parties to his prominent presence in Arete's genealogy.

Nausithous' genealogy begins with his name (56), then that of his father Poseidon (56), his mother Periboea (57), and his maternal grandfather Eurymedon (58). Once his family history is clear, the genealogy then considers Nausithous' own life: where he ruled (62), and who his sons were, including Alcinous (63). His genealogy ends as a woman's would, by looking at his descendants. In this case, however, it is necessary link to the original focus of the passage, Arete. A description of Rhexenor's death and his only child, Arete, follow (64-66).

The Homeric genealogy seems to address several issues. First, it assigns a clear, and positive role to Nausithous, a name associated with several different genealogies.(6) The name applies either to the son Odysseus and Calypso (Hesiod, Th. 1017), or to the son of Odysseus and Circe (Hyg. Fab. 125). Thus, the mythological tradition clearly ties the name of Nausithous to Odysseus' sexual adventures during his journey home. By assigning the name to Alcinous' father, however, the Homeric narrator has removed one of the less appealing aspects of Odysseus' travels, while keeping the name in the poem.

The immediate digression at the beginning of Arete's genealogy is a fairly standard delay tactic, which heightens interest in Arete. The digression also recalls our introduction to the Phaeacians, in which Nausithous prominently figures, and their migration due to persecution by the Cyclopes. This aspect of their history implies that the Phaeacians will probably be sympathetic to the plight of Odysseus. Third, Nausithous is presented as the generational link between Arete and Alcinous.

Odysseus' reaction to this genealogy, however, is bound to be quite different. He has already expressed anxiety about the inhabitants of the island (Od 6.119-126), which is not surprising, given his past experiences with strangers. The Phaeacians' ancestry, which reveals that they are descended from Poseidon, his personal enemy (Od 1.19-20), surely does not reassure him.(7)

Secondly, the Phaeacians are related to giants (Od 7.59), who in turn are related to the Cyclopes, although the exact relationship between the two races is not clear.

The reactions of Odysseus and the audience to Nausithous are thus not the same. The latter, which knows that Nausithous is a civilized and careful leader, is reassured by the continued emphasis on his character. Odysseus, on the other hand, may feel unease when he hears the ancestry of Arete. The narrative function of Nausithous' character in the poem as a whole, however, is still unclear.

Nausithous' last two appearances (Od 8.564-70; 13.159-187) are closely linked. In the first, Alcinous relates the prophecy of his father, as part of his effort to convince Odysseus that he can and should reveal his whole history (Od 8.536-586). Odysseus is persuaded and finally reveals his true name (Od 9.19-20) and the complete story of his travels. A closer inspection of this passage may reveal why Odysseus finally lets down his guard.

Alcinous' speech is structured around a loose ring composition,(8) at the center of which is the description of the Phaeacian ships (Od 8.557-563) and the prophecy of Nausithous (Od 8.564-571). Aristaracus, like many later commentators, was uncertain about the purpose of this passage and therefore athetized it.(9) As with the speech of Athena to Odysseus, however, it may be advantageous to look at this passage from the point of view of Odysseus, the recipient of the information.

Alcinous asks for the same information Arete does when she first meets Odysseus (Od 7.236-239). But he does so in a more oblique fashion than his wife. Alcinous first reveals his sensitivity to his guest's emotions when he stops the song of Demodocus without directly questioning Odysseus about the reasons for his weeping (Od 8.536-543). Next, he reminds his unnamed guest that the Phaeacians have been excellent hosts, giving him presents and promising to take him home (Od 8.544-547). Alcinous then asks Odysseus for his name and his lineage (Od 8.548-556). But he does not end his speech there, as we might expect. Making a loose connection between Odysseus' journey home and the ships that will take him there, he enters into an apparent digression about Phaeacian ships (Od 8.557-563), followed by the threat that they face at the hands of Poseidon (Od 8.564-571). Finally, Alcinous returns to the real purpose of his speech, asking about Odysseus' travels and the sorts of people he encountered (Od 8.572-576). The speech ends with the subject that Alcinous refrained from addressing directly at the beginning: the reasons for Odyssesus' grief (Of 8.577-586). Alcinous has demonstrated the hospitality of the Phaeacians. Odysseus must now respond in kind.

Odysseus' concerns, expressed when he first washes ashore at Scheria (Od 6.119-126), are finally allayed. Alcinous has proved to be a sensitive, caring and generous host, as his actions and speeches make clear. Further, Odysseus now knows that the Phaeacians are "hospitable to stranger, with a godly mind" (Od 6.121). Odysseus' last worries are assuaged by the center piece of his host's speech. He learns that the Phaeacians' particular gift, the ships without sailors, are threatened by Poseidon, his own personal enemy. Since Athena originally revealed to Odysseus that the Phaeacians, through Nausithous, are descendants of Poseidon, hearing the prophecy given by a son of Poseidon reassures him that they will sympathize with his plight. Further, since the prophecy does not say why the god will destroy the Phaeacians, Odysseus need not hide his identity any longer. Moreover, the repetition of Odysseus' own words (Od 6.120-121 = 8.575-576) emphasizes Alcinous' sensitivity to his guest's fears.(10) Alcinous, although himself hospitable, recognizes that others are savage and violent, and without justice. This recognition is the final assurance for Odysseus, who now chooses to reveal his name and tell the story of his travels.

So Nausithous, who was a symbol of Odysseus' concern when he appeared in Athena's speech. A change in roles of Nausithous, from leader to prophet, leads to a change in Odysseus' behavior, as he finally reveals his name and true history.

The last mention of Nausithous (Od 13.159-187) is at the end of the Phaeacian episode. The prophecy has come true, and the Phaeacians are sacrificing in an attempt to avert the further anger of Poseidon. This passage, like the first one in which Nausithous appears, is at the level of the Homeric narrator. The appearance of the Phaeacians' ancestor, although unnamed in the second pssage, gives a sense of completion.(11)

Thus Nausithous seems to have two narrative functions. First, he marks the beginning and end of the Phaeacian episode. Second, when he appears in the speeches of characters in the text, he is a touchstone by which Odysseus can judge the Phaeacians. At first, he is concerned about their relationship to Poseidon. Then he realizes that they also are threatened by the god. So Odysseus will not answer Arete's short formulaic questions, but only responds to Alcinous after a long delay and further reassurance.


1. Deb Davies was visiting assistant professor of classics for 1992-93 during the absence of Tom Sienkewicz in Italy as Director of the ACM Arts of Florence program. She received her Ph.D. in Classics from the University of Michigan in 1992. A related version of this paper was presented as a convocation program.

2. All translations from Lattimore, R. trans. The Odyssey of Homer (New York, 1965).

3. Od. 2.266, 324, 331; 4.766, 769; 17,482; 20.375; 21.361, 401; 23.21.

4. See J. S. Clay, "Goat Island: OD. 9.116-141," Classical Quarterly, 30 (1980), 261-264, for a bibliography and a discussion of the relationship between the Phaeacians and the Cyclopes.

5. Kamptz, H. von Homerische Personennamen: Sprachwissenschaftliche und historische Klassifikation (Göttingen, 1982) 28, 73-74, 105, 198-199.

6. W. H. Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der Greiechischen und Romischen Mythologie (Leipzig, 1897-1902), Vol. III, 42 lists three characters named Nausithous, including the Homeric genealogy.


8. The structure is theme based: Trojan War, song, and Odysseus' grief: 536-541 matches 577-586; Guest-friendship: 542-549 matches 575-576; Requests for information: 550-556 matches 572-574.

9. See app. cit. Also Heubeck 1988, ad loc.

10. These two lines are used twice elsewhere by Odysseus: when he arrives at the land of the Cyclopes (Od 9.175-176), and when he arrives at Ithace (Od 13.201-202).

11. Of course, the audience is left uncertain as to the complete fulfillment of the prophecy. This deliberate ambiguity allows later authors to postulate an alliance between Nausicaa and Telemachus.