Who would have thought that washing clothes could be fun? A social occasion even? But this is what happens in the Odyssey when a bunch of girls go out to the river to do the laundry and run into a stranded hero.
Not that it’s quite by chance.
Nausicaa, daughter of the Phaeacian king, has a dream - or, rather, a Dream - in which she is told to get the laundry and go to the river to wash. The dream is from the goddess Athene, who wants to help Odysseus, and takes the form of Nausicaa’s best friend, Dynas.
So, in the morning, Nausicaa and her friends go off down to the river, not far from the beach, with all the palace laundry in a cart driven by our heroine, plus a picnic lunch and wine packed by Nausicaa’s Mum, Queen Arete, and cheerfully wash everything in the river before settling down for lunch and playing ball while they wait for the clothes to dry.
See what I mean about washing clothes being fun?
As they play games, a badly thrown ball wakes up the shipwrecked Odysseus, who stands and asks Nausicaa where he is and please, could he borrow some clothes to get into town.
The Princess obliges, as well as feeding him and letting him get washed, and soon Odysseus is at the palace, where he is made welcome and tells the story of his adventures. Eventually the Phaeacians take him the rest of the way home and leave him on the beach at Ithaca with some gifts.
Nausicaa is such a delightful teenager, complete with best friends, and gets on with everyone. It must be such a relief for Odysseus to finally meet some nice people and a young woman who isn’t trying to keep him as her lover.
Robert Graves has suggested that not only did a woman probably write the Odyssey, because of all the domestic detail(Nausicaa’s mother is already busy weaving when she gets up in the morning and goes to ask her parents if she can go clothes washing), but that the author was Nausicaa. He wrote a novel about it, Homer’s Daughter.
The 1950s film Ulysses, with Kirk Douglas, is worth a watch.
It was a pleasant break to find our hero not being menaced by monsters or held prisoner by some goddess wanting him as a toy boy. But now, back to the standard Greek myth! The story of Narcissus!
|Narcissus. Public Domain|
Narcissus is a beautiful young man who has never seen his reflection. His mother has had some advice from the seer Tiresias that Narcissus will live a good long life as long as he never sees himself.
Echo is a nymph with a pretty voice who got into trouble with Hera for distracting her with funny stories while Zeus was busy with other women. Hera lets her keep her voice, but only allows her to repeat what other people have said.
So - a woodland. A beautiful boy and a girl who is smitten with him, but can’t tell him so. And - fatally - a pool. No, nobody drowns. But fatal anyway.
Echo lets Narcissus see her. He gets annoyed with her for repeating him and he certainly isn’t interested in a romance. Flinging her aside, he turns to the pool.
You probably heard this story in primary school and know what happens next, but I’ll say it anyway. The boy sees his reflection in the pool and, like a budgie in front of a mirror, falls deeply in love, thinking it’s someone else looking back at him. Unlike a budgie, he doesn’t get distracted, and keeps staring at himself till some god turns him into a flower.
This is what we call a narcissus flower today, the humble daffodil.
Whether the flower was named for the myth or not, I don’t know, but we certainly use the term narcissist for someone who thinks more about himself than others and has no empathy for anyone else. I’m sure we can all think of someone who fits this description!
As for poor sad Echo, she faded away till there was nothing left of her but her voice, still only able to repeat what someone else says.
Tomorrow we will meet Orpheus, a King of Thrace who went on the voyage of the Argo, but is best known for what happened to his wife...