Girls in their childhood and adolescence have been—and still are—traduced in literature: but some creations, like Jane Eyre, Jean Louise Finch or even Matilda Wormwood, have left an impression of something true.
Nausicaa has held the imagination of readers in a different way. Homer does not elaborate her character. He uses his technique of giving just enough detail to start the listeners imagining the rest. She has no connection with Odysseus’s home or kingdom, and he sees her for a few days. But in the story she is both functional and symbolic.
Her function is to welcome Odysseus back into the world of mortals, which he has not encountered for eight years; to remind him of the home and life that he has lost; and, with her parents, to give him courage for the battle still to come. All this happens in the dreamlike space of Phaeacia—an island that is midway between two worlds. It is one night’s sailing from Ithaca, but there is no suggestion that Odysseus can ever find his way back there.
When bidding farewell to Nausicaa, Odysseus says that if he arrives home, “I will even there pray to you as to a god all my days, for you, maiden, have given me life.” Why does he wish to deify her? Perhaps because an unmarried girl had a place in Greek consciousness typified by the worship of Persephone. She could be symbolic of new life and of hope.
There is more symbolism. Homer says that when she is playing with the ball in the company of her maids, she looked like ‘Artemis the Archeress.’ And when Odysseus emerges and addresses her for the first time, he compares her to ‘Artemis, the daughter of almighty Zeus’. Artemis was the goddess of borders, boundaries, and new beginnings; and Nausicaa has met Odysseus on the border of her father’s kingdom after he has come in from the sea. This girl is starting to think about marriage, and she has no intention of leading the life of Artemis. But she does personify that goddess’s function of taking people across borders.
Nausicaa has already learnt the virtues of courage, thoughtfulness and the self-restraint that curbs natural impulses. And so she also represents civilisation, just as Polyphemus, who laughs when he hears the name of Zeus, typifies the opposite.
Next post: Intelligence.