Escaping, after seven years, the loving grip of the nymph Kalypso, Odysseus’ nostos (homecoming) continues as he washes up on Scheria. Meanwhile, Nausikai wheedles her father into allowing her take a wagon and servants to wash clothes in the nearby river; Athene had imparted the idea in the guise of a much-loved friend whilst Nausikai?? was asleep. The scene at the river is pastoral and idyllic; there is, perhaps, a ‘Grecian-urn quality’2.
We are treated to a description of the leisurely washing of both the clothes and the girls themselves, and, after eating, the maids and mistress threw off their headscarves to play ball. Though all are beautiful, Nausikai?? ‘stood out clear in her beauty’ (6. 109). We may quite easily assume that there could be nowhere more pleasing for Odysseus to be. When he does awake, to the sound of shrieking girls (their ball had fallen into the whirling river), Odysseus, vigilant as ever, believes first that he may be in a land of savage, anarchic people.
Covering his manhood with a branch, he sets out to explore. Only Nausikai?? stood firm as he, a horrible sight, approached. Deciding not grasp her knees in his near nakedness, he nevertheless supplicates her verbally with his characteristic charm. Beginning by eloquently emphasising her beauty, even suggesting (perhaps flirtatiously) the happiness that this will bring to her future husband, Odysseus concludes his ‘wooing’ with an outline of his troubles and needs.
The most striking theme of this passage seems to be, ironically, the most ambiguous: that is marriage or entanglement, specifically the ‘many hints at a possible (yet impossible) marriage of Odysseus to Nausikai?? ‘3. The muse has told us that the ‘gods had fated’ Odysseus’ nostos (1. 17-18) and yet our certainty of this fact may waver at certain intervals throughout the poem. We already know, of course, from his internment with Kalypso that he does not value fidelity to the extent that Penelope does (5. 119, cf. 1. 342-343). The combination of red-blooded Odysseus and goddess-like Nausikai??
may lead us to infer, from themes of similar ancient poetry, that rape, at least, is the almost necessary outcome: ‘Greek heroes rarely leave sexual opportunities unrealised’4. One interesting conclusion is that the erotic subtext, with the ensuing theme of marriage, ‘probably has deep roots in folktale’5 before being adapted for this poem, explaining the disparity between expected and actual outcomes. That, nevertheless, does not make any romantic motif that may exist irrelevant; it simply diminishes its status in the narrative.
However, there are never any explicit declarations of love or lust. Most memorably, when it later comes to visiting her parents, Nausikai?? makes Odysseus go alone for the very reason that ‘one of the cruder ones’ may assume forthcoming marriage between the two (6. 273-288). The comparison of Nausikai?? to Artemis by Odysseus has relevance here (6. 150-152). Not only does it have the sophisticated irony of echoing the poet’s simile6 (cf. 6. 101-108), but ancient listeners would surely have known that Artemis was goddess of childbirth and the hunt7.
The former patronage evidently keeps the situation ambiguous, but the arguable importance of the latter patronage can be explained by another simile: while Odysseus as a mountain lion is ostensibly the predator exploring his new surroundings (6. 130-134), Nausikai?? seems to be the one in control of the whole situation (‘the hunt’). Artemis is also goddess of virginity7 and Nausikai?? reflects this in that she is seemingly not afraid of rape occurring, unlike her maids: her innocence (and status), interestingly, makes her the one best able to take control.