Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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What activities does King Alcinous arrange for Odysseus's entertainment?

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Books six through eight of The Odyssey follow Odysseus's time on the island of Phaeacia (books nine through twelve follow Odysseus recounting his famous adventures to the Phaeacians, and book thirteen features him leaving Phaeacia and returning to Ithaca). One should note that none of the Phaeacians actually know who Odysseus is until he tells them his identity in the beginning of book nine. These entertainments are held for a stranger (not insignificant, given the themes of hospitality which run across The Odyssey, concerning the obligations which guests and hosts are expected to uphold). In this encounter, both Odysseus and Alcinous are shown upholding their respective roles in that relationship.

Odysseus first stumbles upon Alcinous's palace in book seven. Here, Alcinous gives Odysseus pride of place at the feast, even giving this shipwrecked stranger his son's own chair at the table. They proceed to eat and drink. Alcinous declares that the next morning they will hold an Assembly to discuss the matter.

During the assembly, Alcinous makes a public vow to assist this unknown stranger in returning home and orders that a ship and crew be readied to carry him homewards. They then proceed to start feasting, while a famous bard sings songs of the Trojan War (which move Odysseus to tears). From here, the Phaeacians proceed to hold a series of contests: races, wrestling, the discus throw, etcetera. When one of the Phaeacians insults Odysseus's own capabilities, Odysseus proceeds to enter the contests himself. This is followed by dancing, with accompaniment provided by Demodocus, who sings a song about the adulterous love affair between Ares and Aphrodite. The Phaeacians then provide Odysseus gifts for his voyage home. After bathing, Odysseus returns to the feast. Here he asks to hear the story of the Trojan Horse and the capture of Troy. This sets up the events of chapter nine, where Odysseus reveals his identity and proceeds to start recounting his own adventures after the Trojan War had ended.

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This incident occurs in Book 8 of the Odyssey. Crucially, we must remember that King Alcinous does not know the true identity of his "guest", Odysseus. Having offered his daughter's hand to his guest, Alcinous calls a meeting of his counsellors, where he proposes to let his guest have a ship so that he can return to his homeland. This suggestion is approved, and Alcinous declares that there will be a feast and games in honour of his guest.

During the feast, a blind bard called Demodocus sings of the quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles at the Battle of Troy. The dramatic irony here is that we know Odysseus' real identity, so it is ironic that everyone appreciates the skill of the Bard and greatly enjoys the music, whilst Odysseus weeps at the revival of painful memories. Alcinous, seeing the grief of his guest, starts the games.

Although Odysseus is invited to participate in the games, he refuses, overcome by his many hardships. This is until one of the young athletes, Broadsea, insults Odysseus and goads him into participation, where he easily wins.

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