Odysseus before Alcinous, King of the Phaeacians, painted by August Malmström (c. 1829-1901)

This painting, by the Swedish artist August Malmström (c. 1829-1901), depicts a scene from Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. In the prelude to the incident shown in the artwork, Odysseus had been shipwrecked by the angry sea-god, Poseidon, but he was subsequently fortunate enough to wash up on the coast of the land of the Phaeacians, a mythological or legendary people from ancient Greek mythology. While he was recovering on the shore, Odysseus had a chance encounter with a woman named Nausicaa, who happened to be the daughter of the Phaeacian rulers, King Alcinous and Queen Arete. Nausicaa introduced Odysseus to her regal parents, and the Phaeacians welcomed the stranded seafarer with open arms.

Homer described in detail what the royal palace of the Phaeacians might have looked like. Doorways were constructed of gold, silver and bronze; the ceilings lofted high above well-furnished halls; the color scheme was generally dark, but it also gleamed and glowed with reflected light, as polished bronzes and shining blue enamels were used to decorate the surfaces of the mansion. Odysseus, disguised for his own safety by the goddess Athena, was awestruck by the palace as he approached the king and queen. Homer described the scene:

“Patient, good Odysseus stood before the house and drank it all in. When he had admired it to his heart’s content he stepped briskly over the threshold and entered the palace…the much-enduring good Odysseus walked straight up the hall, wrapped in the mist that Athene shed about him, till he reached Arete and King Alcinous and threw his arms around Arete’s knees. At the same moment the magic mist that had hidden him rolled away, and at the sight of this man in their midst a silence fell on all banqueters up and down the hall” (Homer, The Odyssey, Book 7, approximately lines 130-150).

It is this scene that August Malmström re-creates in his painting. Odysseus can be seen kneeling before Queen Arete, with one hand by her knee. Arete calmly listens to what Odysseus has to say, and King Alcinous also restrains himself, albeit with a more befuddled expression. Meanwhile, everyone else in the hall glances over their shoulders at the odd spectacle. Fortunately for Odysseus, the Phaeacians turned out to be incredibly helpful, and they ultimately agreed to ferry the shipwrecked traveler back to his home in Ithaca.

Written by C. Keith Hansley



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