Jacob Jordaens (c. 1593-1678), a Flemish artist, created this myth-inspired scene. It depicts an episode from Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, in which the poem’s leading character, Odysseus, was washed ashore in the lands of the Phaeacians after being shipwrecked during a storm summoned by the vengeful sea god, Poseidon. Due to the influence of Odysseus’ guardian goddess, Athena, the soaked hero was fortunate enough to be beached at a favorite local spot used by Phaeacian women to wash clothes and bathe. As just so happened, Princess Nausicaa—daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of the Phaeacians—ventured down with her boisterous entourage to the bathing site in order to wash some laundry on the very same day that Odysseus was shipwrecked. 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 Jacob Jordaens’ painting. It shows Odysseus, strategically covered by a leafy branch, in the act of 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.