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The status of arete in the Phaeacian episode of the

Helene Whittaker
University of Troms⊘, Department of Greek and Latin Studies,

Version of record first published: 22 Jul 2008

To cite this article: Helene Whittaker (1999): The status of arete in the Phaeacian episode of the Odyssey , Symbolae
Osloenses: Norwegian Journal of Greek and Latin Studies, 74:1, 140-150

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The figure of Arete has often been seen as problematic as her presentation by
Nausicaa and Athena leads to expectations concerning her importance which
are apparently not met. This article presents various theories concerning the
significance and role of Arete in the Phaeacian episode and suggests that the
importance of Arete is to be seen as connected with the significance of
Scherie as a borderland between the real world and the fairy tale world of
Odysseus' travels.

In the Phaeacian episode of the Odyssey, the figure of the queen is given par-
ticular prominence, and in Scherie Arete seems to enjoy exceptional power
and influence. When Nausicaa explains to Odysseus how to reach the palace,
she advises Odysseus that when he comes into the main hall, he should first
approach the queen, Arete, in supplication (vi.304-315). Later, when he is go-
ing into the town, Odysseus meets Athena disguised as a young Phaeacian
girl. She gives him the same advice and adds that Arete is honoured as no
other woman, not only by her husband and children, but also by the
Phaeacian people, who revere her as a goddess, and that her good sense is
such that she even settles disputes among men (vii.54—66). Furthermore,
Athena emphasised Aretes importance in the recitation of her genealogy,
which she shares with her husband Alcinous, but in which the emphasis is on
the female.2 By securing her favour Odysseus will have good chances of re-
turning to his home. Accordingly, the queen Arete rather than the king
Alcinous is presented as the key person on whose goodwill Odysseus' further
fate depends.
Commentators have placed much emphasis on the particular authority of
the queen, and Arete has at times been related to the world outside the poem.

I am grateful to Dr. Nannó Marinatos, Dr. Jaakko Aronen, and Professor Minna Skafte
Jensen for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this paper.
Garvie 1994, 173; Rose 1969, 404.


For instance, Graham, in a recent publication, sees Arete as an ideal of the

type of women that the Greeks of the 8th century thought of as appropriate
wives and partners.3 Arete has also at times been related to an idealised pre-
historic past and her prominence has been seen as reminiscent of a once-ex-
isting matriarchy.4
The prominence of Arete is, however, not consistently maintained
throughout the Phaeacian episode of the Odyssey. Alcinous and Arete can also
be seen to conform to the general conventions of Homeric society. Nausicaa,
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when she first introduces herself, mentions only her father, Alcinous, and
adds that the Phaeacians are dependent on the might and power of Alcinous.
When Alcinous and Arete are first encountered in the poem, Arete is within
the palace, spinning with her maids by the hearth, while Alcinous is on his
way to a meeting of the βουλή (vi. 51-55), and throughout Odysseus' stay on
Scherie, it is clearly Alcinous who is in charge.5 Except for a few interven-
tions, Arete remains in the background.
When Odysseus enters the palace and supplicates Arete as he has been
twice advised to do, she remains silent; it is Alcinous who welcomes
Odysseus and provides for his entertainment, and it is he who promises to
convey him home. Arete only speaks when she and Alcinous are alone with
Odysseus. She then questions Odysseus about his identity, homeland, and
how he obtained the clothes he is wearing. The fact that a direct enquiry re-
garding Odysseus' identity comes from Arete rather than from Alcinous is
perhaps significant, and indicative of her exceptional status. When Arete
speaks again, it is after the games when Odysseus has been presented with
gifts by the Phaeacians. She then warns him that he should carefully lock the
chest in which his new possessions are placed in order to guard against theft
(viii.443-445). Later, when Odysseus pauses in the recital of his adventures,
Arete is the first to speak. She praises Odysseus and emphasises that he is her
guest, demonstratively, it might seem, asserting her superior authority. She is,
however, immediately contradicted, almost reprimanded, by the Phaeacian
elder, Echeneus, who explicitly asserts that Alcinous is of the greatest impor-
tance (xi.346), and Alcinous himself, replying to Echeneus, emphatically af-
firms his position as ruler of die Phaeacians. Within the Phaeacian episode,
then, the pre-eminence of the queen rather than the king is a motif empha-

Graham 1995, 14.
See for example Hirvonen 1968, 105-III. See also Pomeroy, 1975, 22-23. For a critical
discussion of the theory of matriarchy in prehistoric Greece see Georgoudi 1992, 449-463. See
also Blundell 1995, 18-19.
Cf. Garvie 1994, 95; Finley 1954, 103.


sised only at certain points, but is apparently of no great significance to the

development of the events of Odysseus' stay on Scherie and his return home
to Ithaca.
Consequently, the figure of Arete has often been seen as problematic be-
cause Nausicaas and Athena's presentation of her leads to expectations con-
cerning her importance and the role she will play in the story of Odysseus'
stay in Scherie, which are not met. Why Arete is given any prominence at all
is a question to which the answer is not immediately evident.6
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It has been suggested that the problem of Aretes significance cannot be re-
solved, and that the explanation must lie outside the text. Finley, for in-
stance, suggests that the contradictions regarding Arete may be the result of
two conflicting traditions on the Phaeacians, which have been imperfectly
amalgamated in the OdysseyJ Hainsworth also considers it likely that the
poet inherited Arete and her story, and that Aretes status cannot be ex-
plained from the text of the Odyssey.% Reece discusses in some detail the the-
ory that underlying the Phaeacian episode is a folktale about a shipwrecked
stranger who, after having defeated all rivals, wins the local princess and re-
veals himself as being of equally high birth. He suggests that the emphasis on
Aretes status can be partially derived from the importance of die bride's
mother in the folktale. Reece also argues that Odysseus' return to Ithaca is
derived from the same folktale motif, and that the Phaeacian episode is to a
certain extent modelled on the Ithacan episode, so that Aretes status can also
be seen to reflect the importance of Penelope.9 Cook would agree that the
portrayal of Arete is to some extent influenced by Penelope, but does not be-
lieve that this provides sufficient motivation for her prominence. Cook ar-
gues in great detail that Scherie should be related to or identified with
Elysium. He further maintains that the description of Scherie contains ele-
ments of Hades, and that it is in the association of Scherie with the death
realm that the prominence of Arete can be most fully understood, as she can
then be seen as a reflection of Persephone.10

Arthur 1984, 18 would seem to minimise the problems of interpretation connected with the
figure of Arete in emphasising that Arete is only said to be honoured more than other women,
and is therefore clearly subordinate to Alcinous in power.
Finley 1954, 103-104.
Hainsworth 1988, 318, 324, 325.
Reece 1993, 110-118.
Cook 1992, 248 (I owe this reference to J . Aronen).


Garvie, on the other hand, while not entirely dismissing the possibility
that in earlier versions of the story of Odysseus' stay among the Phaeacians,
Arete may have had a more important role, suggests that within the context
of the Odyssey as we have it the importance of Arete can be partly explained
by the perfect harmony in which Arete and Alcinous live, and which looks
forward to the reunion of Penelope and Odysseus."
Fenik has argued, in a detailed discussion, that Arete is introduced for a
specific limited purpose. He argues that Nausicaas and Athena's introduction
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of Arete is directed towards the scene in which she questions Odysseus about
his identity and clothes. The importance of this scene is further enhanced by
the time lapse between Odysseus' appeal to Arete and her question to him.
Arete shows herself as the only Phaeacian who fits Athena's description of
them as unfriendly to strangers; her question represents a challenge to
Odysseus. Odysseus must gain Arete's approval and his further fate depends
on how he is able to answer her. Arete thus lives up to the expectations con-
cerning her role, and her importance is realised. Since Odysseus replies bril-
liantly and Arete is won over, after this scene, the motif of Aretes influence is
no longer important and her later interventions are of no significance.12
Rose, in a discussion which emphasises the inhospitable and unfriendly na-
ture of the Phaeacians, also argues that the inconsistency in the portrayal of
Arete is only apparent, and that Arete s approval is crucial to Odysseus who
must win her sympathy before hoping to return home. Rose argues that
Odysseus does not win Arete s acceptance until after he has proved himself as
a storyteller, when she proclaims her acceptance by calling him "my guest".'}
Doherty would also emphasise Odysseus' talents as a storyteller as a clue
to understanding the significance of Arete. She believes that the elaborate in-
troduction of Arete by Athena magnifies her position and adds weight to her
intervention when she praises Odysseus' storytelling in the interlude during
his recital of his visit to the Underworld. Doherty compares Arete to
Penelope and sees them as being presented as the ideal or model female lis-
teners for the tale of Odysseus' adventures.1*
I agree with those who argue that the significance of Arete should be ex-
plained within the terms of the poem itself. It will here be suggested that at

Garvie 1994, 22, 25, 158. Earlier versions may have been the poet's own rather than inherited
from the tradition.
Fenik 1974, 105-130.
Rose 1969, 404-405. See also Stanford 1968, 64.
Doherty 1991, 145-176. See also Doherty 1996, 107, 118. For a comparison of Arete and
Penelope, see also Rüter 1969, 240-246.


least part of the poetic purpose of the particular authority of Arete, which is
so strongly emphasised by Nausicaa's and Athena's words, is to be seen as
more closely connected with the significance of Scherie in the Odyssey.
In the Odyssey, Homer very clearly distinguishes between the real world
and the fairy tale world through which Odysseus passes on his return home
from Troy. There is a sharp contrast between the real world, represented in
the main by Ithaca, Pylos, and Sparta, and the otherness of the fantastic land-
scapes Odysseus visits between the time of his departure from Troy and his
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arrival home at last on Ithaca.1? The real world can be defined as correspond-
ing to the world of the past as imagined by the poet and the epic tradition. It
is geographically precise and consists of well-known places. After his raid on
the Cicones, Odysseus and his men are blown off course and enter a fairy tale
world. Characteristic of the places visited by Odysseus is their isolation, in-
wardness and lack of social context. These features are moreover emphasised
by geography, as most of these places are islands which lie outside normal sea
routes. The connections to the outside are with gods and monsters and not
with men or human society.
As has been recognised, the land of the Phaeacians is to be interpreted as
an intermediate area, a borderland between the real world and the fairy tale
world. Scherie is linked to the world of Odysseus' adventures in that it repre-
sents the last temptation which Odysseus must overcome before he can re-
turn to the real world, and it is only after the narration of his adventures to
the Phaeacians that Odysseus can at last exit from the fairy tale world and re-
turn home. Furthermore, in Scherie, Odysseus again encounters civilised hu-
man society, and it can be said that his stay there is a preparation for his re-
turn to normal life.16 The significance of the Phaeacian episode is mirrored in
the description of Scherie, which contains elements which associate it with
both the real world and the fairy tale worlds In a sense, Scherie is suspended
between the fantastic and real worlds, and has no contact with either. Scherie
is said to be located far out to sea, at the extremes of the earth, and the
Phaeacians are said to have no contact with other people (vi.8, 204-205).
Isolation, inwardness, and lack of social context are dierefore characteristics
which Scherie shares with the fairy tale world. On the journey from Scherie

Segal 1994, 12; Vidal-Nacquet 1986, 18; Kirk 1965, 128 n.12; Heubeck 1988, 15-16.
Segal 1994, 12-36; Fenik 1974, 54-55; Murnaghan 1987, 92; Garvie 1994, 23, 26; Heubeck
1988, 16; Reece 1993, 101, 119-120.
Segal 1994, 17; Vidal-Nacquet 1986, 26; Garvie 1994, 22-23; Clay 1983, 128-132.
Cf. Clay 1983, 130.


to Ithaca, Odysseus falls asleep, while the Phaeacian ship that had brought
him home is turned to stone on its return voyage. Scherie is like Ogygie or
Circes island: a place to which he can never return. The Phaeacians are re-
lated to the Giants and once lived close to the Cyclopes, who are also de-
scribed as άγχίθεοι. Their world contains elements which link them both to
the divine world and to the fairy tale world of Odysseus' travels. Aronen has
stressed the relationship of the Phaeacians to the Cyclopes and the Giants, ar-
guing that die Phaeacians share the negative characteristics of the Giants and
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Cyclopes.1? Magical features, such as ships which sail without steersmen

(viii.557—63) or the immortal gold and silver watchdogs which guard
Alcinous' palace (vii.91-94), are other indicators of the strangeness and oth-
erness of Scherie.
The Phaeacians' particular relationship with the divine world is most ob-
vious in the shared meals with the gods (vii.201-202). Furthermore, they live
in a permanent state of luxury and blessedness characterised by lack of strife.
Alcinous and Arete are closely related, which may reflect the marital relation-
ships of the gods.20 The description of Scherie has elements of paradise. The
royal palace shimmers with gold, silver, and bronze, and Alcinous' garden
bears fruit in all seasons (vii.82-132).21 The fertility of Alcinous' garden is said
to be dependent on Zephyros, which associates it with Elysium, which, like
Scherie, is located at the ends of the earth (iv. 563-567).22
However, compared to the monsters and supernatural beings Odysseus
previously encountered in his travels, the Phaeacians are normal and ordi-
nary, and live in an organised society.23 They are also mortal beings. Features
which connect Scherie with the real world and places such as Pylos or Sparta
are evident. The Phaeacian town has a harbour and is surrounded by city
walls. There is an agora and temples to the gods. The Phaeacians excel in
their navigational skills, but they are also farmers. The description of Scherie
has often been seen as that of a model Greek colony.^ Skafte Jensen, who
stresses the normality rather than the supernatural features of Scherie, also
sees it as a model of a Greek city state at peace and contrasts it with Troy.2*

Aronen 1998. See also Rose 1969, 392-393.
They are first said to be born of the same parents, but the relationship is later specified as
being that of uncle and niece, and it has been argued that τοκήων must mean ancestors rather
than parents. See Stanford 1974, 322; Garvie 1994, 172-173; Hainsworth 1988, 324.
Schubert 1996, 259; Thesleff 1981, 37-38.
Lincoln 1980, 151-164; Cook 1992, 242.
Cf. Garvie 1994, 24.
Jensen 1990, 40; Graham 1995, 10.
Jensen 1990, 40-42.


It is in Scherie's position as a borderland between the fairy tale world and

the real world that the particular authority accorded to Arete is to be seen. It
will here be argued that her position is to be interpreted as an element which
associates Scherie with the fairy tale world rather than as a feature of the real
world of the Odyssey.
Cantarella has argued that Homeric women are victims of a fundamen-
tally misogynist ideology which views women as weak, fickle, and untrust-
worthy, and which excludes them from political power and participation in
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public life. Although this view of the profoundly misogynist nature of the
Homeric poems may be exaggerated, it is clear that male and female roles
were sharply defined and clearly distinguished, and that social and political
power was part of the male sphere of activity.26 Penelope, who in her hus-
band s absence can be said to possess a form of legitimate power, is not able
to keep order on Ithaca, but her failure indicates that she belongs to the real
world and therefore cannot move outside the boundaries of the female role.27
Athena describes Arete as a woman whose life is not limited to the domestic
sphere, and who exercises influence in the public domain. The abnormality
of her position is particularly evident in the fact that she is even said to settle
disputes among men.
In the Odyssey, female power is associated only with goddesses or non-hu-
man beings such as Calypso, Circe and the Sirens. The authority of Arete can
therefore be seen as an element of the fairy tale world which links Arete to
the female characters whom Odysseus has encountered in his wanderings,
and who posed a threat to his safe return home.18
When Odysseus arrives in Scherie, he is alone and has been driven there
by a storm after many days at sea. He is washed ashore, takes refuge under
some bushes and falls into a heavy sleep. When he awakens he is in complete
ignorance as to his whereabouts, and he wonders not surprisingly whether he
is among a savage and violent people or among a hospitable people
(vi.119-121). When he comes out from his hiding place in the bushes and im-
plores Nausicaa to help him, he is at first reassured by her normality and
friendliness. His uncertainty, however, concerning the hospitality and help-
fulness of the inhabitants of the place is reawoken first by her description of
the Phaeacian town dwellers as arrogant (ύπερφίαλον) and then even more by

Cantarella 1987, 24-33. For a more positive view of the attitude of the Homeric poems
towards women, see: Arthur 1984, 13-19; Lefkowitz 1987, 508-513; Raaflaub 1997, 639-641;
Blundell 1995, 57.
Cf. Blundell 1995, 56.
Cantarella 1987, 33; Schein 1995, 19-21; Blundell 1995, 51-52, 55.


her advice concerning his entrance into the palace, where he is told to ignore
the king and appeal to the queen because it is on her goodwill that his safety
will depend.
When Odysseus later meets Athena in disguise she tells him the same
things, but adds much detail. Athena tells Odysseus not only that the
Phaeacians are arrogant, but that they in fact intensely dislike strangers, and
she gready emphasises Aretes exceptional status. As a result, Odysseus re-
alises that he has not yet left the fairy tale world o f his previous misfortunes
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and adventures. The emphasis placed on the potential unfriendliness of the

Phaeacians as well as on the exceptional power o f the queen functions as a
warning to Odysseus that he may still have to undergo further trials and dan-
gers, and prepares him to see Arete as a person whose malevolence may fur-
ther increase his sufferings. The possible hostility of Arete is also pointed to
in Athena's recital o f her genealogy, where Odysseus and the poem's listeners
are informed about her descent from Poseidon, the god whose anger towards
Odysseus has run as an undercurrent through most of his adventures.^
Nausicaa's words may only have slightly disturbed Odysseus, but Athena's
confirm his suspicions about the possibly sinister nature o f the place in which
he finds himself. In a sense, Nausicaa's words anticipate those o f Athena,
which have a much more explicit import for Odysseus. There is also irony, as
Nausicaa speaks unaware o f the effect that her information about the Phae-
acians and die importance o f the queen must have on Odysseus.
The necessity for caution and wariness is further impressed on Odysseus
when Arete does not answer his appeal and Alcinous has to be reminded by
the elder Echeneus o f his duties with regard to hospitality towards strangers
before there is any reaction. When Alcinous later mentions the relationship
between the Phaeacians and the Cyclopes and Giants, Odysseus' fears can
hardly have been laid to rest (vii.205-206). Significantly, when Arete first
speaks to Odysseus, her words seem unfriendly and suspicious.3°
After their initial shock at the appearance o f the stranger within the
palace, the Phaeacians show themselves to be generous in rJieir hospitality,
and Alcinous readily promises to help Odysseus reach home. Arete does not
show herself openly hostile nor does she in any way oppose Alcinous'
promise to convey Odysseus home, although her first words to Odysseus are
not overly friendly. Although any fears Odysseus might have would seem to

Cf. Rose 1969, 392-393.
Cf. Fenik 1974, 99, 127-128; Garvie 1994, 26. Hainsworth 1988, 317, on the other hand,
thinks that Arete's words only represent the normal questioning of a guest after he has been
given food and wine.


be unfounded, he avoids revealing his identity on several occasions. When

Alcinous makes it clear in a circumlocutory fashion that he expects the
stranger to reveal his identity, Odysseus answers by asserting that he is not a
god, but only a mortal who has suffered much; he also replies evasively to
Arete s direct enquiry.31 The revelation of his name to the Cyclops when he
thought that he was on the point of escape had allowed the Cyclops to curse
him and prolong his sufferings. Odysseus has, it would seem, been impressed
by the need for caution by the words of Nausicaa and Athena, and is there-
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fore wary of revealing his identity until he can feel certain that Arete is not
hostile to him. In the end, Odysseus only reveals his identity after Arete has
addressed him a second time, warning him to lock carefully the chest con-
taining the gifts he has received from the Phaeacians. For Odysseus, her
words signal that she anticipates his departure and has no wish to keep him
from reaching home.3z
In conclusion, the motif of the exceptional authority of the queen on
Scherie as relayed through Nausicaa's and Athena's words serves, as does their
emphasis on the xenophobic nature of the Phaeacians, to characterise Scherie
as a place partly belonging to the fairy tale world of Odysseus' travels. Its pri-
mary function would seem to be to tell Odysseus that he has not yet returned
to the real world, and to warn him that he might still have to face further
dangers before reaching home. Odysseus is thereby led to believe that Arete
might be dangerous to him, which provides the motivation for his long delay
in revealing his identity.
It is certainly possible that in earlier versions of the Phaeacian episode,
Arete played a more important role and acted as a formidable hindrance to
Odysseus' safe return from Scherie to Idiaca. However, the inconsistency be-
tween the emphasis placed on her exceptional power and influence by
Nausicaa and Athena and the fact that throughout the Phaeacian episode,
Arete is clearly subordinate to Alcinous, can also be seen as corresponding to
the ambiguity of Scherie as a place which belongs neither to the fantastic
fairy tale world nor to the real world, but has features which connect it with

Cf. Rose 1969, 393. See Fenik 1974, 7-18 for a discussion of theories regarding Odysseus' long
silence regarding his identity. Fenik (1974. 53-55) has demonstrated that a constant pattern in
the Odyssey is that all important identifications are retarded in order to create suspense, and
that the poet exploits a stranger's namelessness to produce an elaborate range of ironies and
emotions. Fenik does not believe that Odysseus has any practical reason for concealing his
identity from the Phaeacians. See also Murnaghan 1987, 8; Webber 1989, 1-13; Most 1989,
Cf. de Vries 1977, 113-122. On Odysseus' identification of himself in connection with
Demodocus' song see Fenik 1974, 43.


both. At times in the narration of Odysseus' stay on Scherie, the emphasis is

on the strange and magical features of Scherie, while at other times the nor-
mality of the Phaeacians and their world is most prominent." It can be ar-
gued that the poet does not exploit the motif of female power in Scherie fur-
ther, and so it is allowed to lapse, as it has fulfilled its function in the plot.
It would also seem appropriate to speak of thematic misdirection, in
which authoritative predictions anticipate events that do not take place.34 As
discussed by Morrison, this is a literary technique by which the audience is
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misled in order to promote suspense. In the Phaeacian episode of the Odyssey

the audience is led to believe, through the predictions of Nausicaa and
Athena, that Arete will play a much more prominent role in the development
of events on Scherie than she actually does. Although the audience has been
told that the Phaeacians will treat Odysseus like a god and bring him safely
home with many gifts (v.36-38), the emphasis on the extraordinary status of
Arete leads to uncertainty and suspense concerning the outcome of Odys-
seus' stay on Scherie.

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Lecture held in Tromsø, June 6,1998 during the Symposium Myth and Symbol (forthcom-
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Athens 1999).
Arthur, M. 1984: "Early Greece: The Origins of the Western Attitude Toward Women", in: J .
Peradotto and J.P. Sullivan (eds.), Women in the Ancient World, The Arethusa Papers, Albany,
Blundell, S. 1995: Women in Ancient Greece, London.
Cantarella, E. 1987: Pandora's Daughters: The Role and Status of Women in Greek and Roman
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Cook, E. 1992: "Ferrymen of Elysium and the Homeric Phaeacians", The Journal of Indo-
European Studies 20, 239-267.
Doherty, L.E. 1991: "The Internal and Implied Audiences of Odyssey 11", Arethusa 24, 145-176.
Doherty, L.E. 1996: Siren Songs: Gender, Audiences, and Narrators in the Odyssey, Ann Arbor.
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Finley, M.I. 1954: The World of Odysseus, Harmondsworth.
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Garvie (1994, 24, 345) points out that the Phaeacian ships are once said to be magical, but in
other passages they seem like ordinary ships.
See Morrison 1992, 73-93 for the term and a discussion of its occurrence in the Iliad.


Graham, A.J. 1995: "The Odyssey, History, and Women", in: B. Cohen (ed.), The Distaff Side:
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Hainsworth, J.B. 1988: in: A. Heubeck, S. West, and J.B. Hainsworth (eds.), Λ Commentary on
Homer's Odyssey I: Introduction and Books I-VIII, Oxford.
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University of Tromsø
Department of Greek and Latin Studies