Lessons of an odyssey

The treatment accorded to Ulysses was expected of humanityMehru Jaffer This summer I found myself adrift on the Grecian island of Corfu. Nearly a thousand years before the birth of Christ, Corfu was known as the abode of gods only because the manner of the Phaeacians who lived here was divine.In Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses, the hero of the Trojan War, is ship-wrecked on Corfu, the last stop of his wondrous journey that a decade later returns him home to Ithaca. Ulysses must have been quite a sight when he landed at Corfu, with his clothes swept away by the mighty waves of the Ionian Sea, his bloated skin coated with saltwater, and slime streaming down his nose and mouth.This is how Ulysses first appeared to Nausicaa, the Phaeacian princess who played a game of ball with her maids. The young girls shrieked on seeing the unsightly Ulysses and dispersed to different corners of the olive tree-studded grove; except for Nausicaa. The princess was brought up on the principle that it is a matter of shame for a state not to care for other human beings, especially strangers, and to abandon the hungry and the naked to their own fate.On seeing Ulysses Nausicaa philosophised that it is up to him who suffers to know how to endure but it is up to those who have the power to soothe pain and to provide relief. She did not flee from fear of the filthy-looking man or from thoughts of who or what had caused such pathos to Ulysses but declared that having come to such a state as hers he would not want for clothing or whatever else is due to an outcast.Nausicaa was most aware that it is precisely unpredictable moments that force human beings to put into practice ideas of peace, prosperity and care by those who call themselves civilised.  Nausicaa chided her maids, ordering them to return from their place of hiding and reminding them that the Phaeacians have no enemies. According to Homer, Nausicaa said, “Where are you flying to at the sight of a man? Don’t tell me you take him for an enemy, for there is no man on earth, nor ever will be, who would dare to set hostile feet on Phaeacian soil.”Ulysses was overwhelmed at his miraculous rescue but judiciously prevented his naked body from running forth to touch the feet of the graceful maiden in gratitude. From where he stood he claimed that never had his eyes looked upon a mortal such as Nausicaa.“I worship as I look,” he confessed.   After making sure that Ulysses was bathed, fed and clothed, Nausicaa showed the stranger the way to her father’s palace but did not go with him to avoid loose talk. There is a long list of superb values practised by Phaeacian society but it is hospitality that emerges as the most important one.Nausicaa’s parents fed Ulysses and listened to all the adventurers of love and of loss since his victory at the Trojan War, and departure from Troy. Once Ulysses expressed his desperate wish to return home, the Phaeacian ruling family readily arranged a ship laden with gifts. Nausicaa was full of thoughts like, “This is the kind of man whom I could fancy for a husband, if he would settle here. I hope that he will choose to stay.” But her dignity dictated that she bid the married Ulysses goodbye. “Good luck my friend…and I hope that when you are in your own country you will remember me at times. Since it is to me before all others that you owe your life.”Homer’s Odyssey highlights temptations, treachery, revenge, rivalry, the wrath of gods and, of course, war. The epic poem is full of incidents of selfishness and concerns of personal security and prosperity too.But the question is: why should the world I live in be inspired by lesser values mentioned in the Odyssey a little more than the higher ones…I wonder?