Odysseus at the court of Alcinous

In Search of King Alcinous: Who were the Legendary Phaeacians?

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The mythological Alcinous and his kingdom have remained one of the most mysterious and elusive topics of ancient Greek literature. Not much is known of this foreign monarch, or at least not much has survived the test of time. Details of the ruler and his kingdom survive only in the journeys of both Odysseus and Jason, but do those details reflect a now perverted form of reality? Was there an Alcinous prototype ruling over a foreign nation of master seafarers? How much evidence can the ancient narratives provide, and how much of it can be corroborated by archaeology and geography?

Literary Evidence

In every source, it is said Alcinous was not a native to Greece but instead a ruler of the peoples known as the Phaeacians, living in the outskirts of what then was the known world. He was a wise and just leader; favored by both gods and man. We are first introduced to him in the eighth century BC epic, the Odyssey.

It is written that under the direction of the Olympians, and after twenty years away from Ithaca, his native land, Odysseus was freed by Calypso (daughter of Atlas the Titan) from her island, and he eventually washed ashore on the island of Scheria. Remember, ten years was taken from Odysseus for the Trojan War while the remaining ten were for his voyage back from the war. Alcinous was the happy ruler of Scheria with his wife, Arete, his five sons and one daughter, Nausicaa.

...but Athene went to the land and city of the Phaeacians. These dwelt of old in spacious Hypereia near the Cyclopes, men overweening in pride who plundered them continually and were mightier than they. From there Nausithous, the godlike, had removed them, and led and settled them in Scheria far from the bread-eating mankind.

...Alcinous was now king, made wise in counsel by the gods.

Homer, Odyssey, vi. 2-12

In legend, naked Odysseus surprises Alcinous’ daughter Nausicaa and her maids.

In legend, naked Odysseus surprises Alcinous’ daughter Nausicaa and her maids. ( Public Domain )

Homer spent little time in describing the island itself and instead focused on the palace of Alcinous and the way in which he received and entertained Odysseus. While Alcinous treated his guest to the finest Scheria has to offer, Odysseus shared his woeful and often challenging tale with his Phaeacian audience.

The only clues we are given of the Phaeacians and their island is that it was a mountainous island and they were masters of the sea. With a description like ‘mountainous’, it is no wonder that the location of Scheria continues to elude all in search of it.

We also find Alcinous and the Phaeacians in the Argonautica. Written by the third century BCE author and poet Apollonius Rhodius, we read:

There is a fertile, expansive island at the entrance of the Ionian strait in the Ceraunian sea, under which is said to lie the sickle…

of the Phaeacians has been called by the name Drepane…

the Argo came, aided by the winds, from the Thrinacian sea…

Alcinous and his people gladly welcomed the travelers...

Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, iv. 982-997.

The Ceraunian Sea is located just North of the Ionian straight, opening up to the island of Kerkyra (or Corfu). Based on the description provided by Apollonius, Drepane would be associated with Kerkyra.

On the seventh day they left Drepane…

Already they had left behind the gulf named for the Ambracians, already with sails spread wide they had passed the land of the Curetes and the line of narrow islands along with the Echinades themselves.

Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, iv. 1223-1230.

His identification of Kerkyra is further confirmed by the voyage following Jason’s departure of the island.

Map showing the route taken by the Argo as detailed in the Argonautica.

Map showing the route taken by the Argo as detailed in the Argonautica. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Ambracian Gulf was situated along the Ionian Sea. It is South of Kerkyra and North of the island of Lefkada, and on the Greek mainland. The Curetes were a legendary people living along and on the islands of Acarnania. Also, situated along the western coast of the Greek mainland in the Ionian Sea.

After skirting the island of Thrinacia, which held the cattle of the Sun, they came to the island of the Phaeacians, Corcyra, which was ruled by Alcinous.

Apollodorus, Library, i. 9

Additional clues may come from the etymology of the word Phaeacian. It is generally accepted that name derives from the Greek phaios or “gray.” While the color may somehow describe the Phaeacian culture, we are still left speculating its true symbolic purpose. Was it their skin color, eye color, the landscape of their island, or something entirely different?

Comments

from the perspective of the tanned skinned Mediterranean citizen, the Northern European complexion may have appeared to be Grayish in color, the farther north you travel.

I always thought the moving islands in the Jason and the Argonauts could have been icebergs. Perhaps they are talking about NW Europe near Northern France/Britain?

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