This painting, by the Danish artist Wilhelm Marstrand (c. 1810 – 1873), depicts a scene from Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. In the events preceding this scene, Odysseus—the namesake of the poem—had been shipwrecked by angry Poseidon’s great storms. Fortunately, due to the protection of the sea-goddess Leucothoe, Odysseus managed to safely wash ashore upon a river-divided coastline in the land of the Phaeacians, a mythological or legendary people. Once he was on land, the protective baton was passed from Leucothoe to Athena, who ensured that the stranded hero would soon be introduced to new allies that would help him on his journey. As was divinely planned, help came in the form of Nausicaa, daughter of the local Phaeacian ruler. Odysseus, fortunately, had passed out in vegetation near the river that fed into the sea, and this river happened to be a favorite spot used by Nausicaa and her maids to clean laundry and bathe. Much to the stranded traveler’s benefit, it was currently laundry day, so Nausicaa and her companions traveled to the river with armfuls of clothing, as well as some provisions and toys. It was from the loud revelry of these merry women that Odysseus was awakened from his shipwrecked stupor. Homer described the memorable first interaction between these characters:
“So Odysseus, naked as he was, made a move towards these girls with their braided hair; necessity compelled him. Grimy with salt he was a gruesome sight, and the girls went scuttling off in every direction along the jutting spits of sand. Alcinous’ daughter Nausicaa was the only one to stand firm. Athena put courage into her heart and took away the fear from her limbs, and she stood her ground and faced him. Odysseus considered whether he should throw his arms round the beautiful girl’s knees and beg for help, or just keep his distance and beg her with all courtesy to give him clothing and direct him to the city. He decided that as the lady might take offence if he embraced her knees it would be better to keep his distance and courteously plead his case” (Homer, The Odyssey, book 6, approximately lines 120-150).
Such is the scene that is taking place in Wilhelm Marstrand’s painting. It shows Odysseus, clothed only by a handful of strategically placed twigs, speaking with Nausicaa and her companions. Despite his awkward introduction, the shipwrecked hero succeeded in winning over Nausicaa to his cause. She, in turn, helped Odysseus gain an audience with her parents, King Alcinous and Queen Arete. Odysseus and his hosts got along well, and the Phaeacians ultimately agreed to ferry the traveler back to his home in Ithaca.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.