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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

D. Snider
A Commentary on the Odyssey of Homer - Part II

From, Homer's Odyssey: A commentary
[Please note that the Table of Contents here published, is created by Elpenor and is not to be found in the print version]

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Page 15

So much for Circe in her new relation in the present Book; how about Ulysses? It is manifest that he too is prepared for a fresh experience. He has been in the Underworld and great has been the profit. There he has seen the famous men and women of old and beheld the very heart of their destiny; the Trojan and the Pre-Trojan worthies sweeping backward through all Greek time he has witnessed and in part heard; he has become acquainted with the prophet Tiresias who knows Past, Present and Future, who is the universal mind in its purity from all material dross; he has beheld the Place of Doom and its penalties, as well as the supreme Greek Hero, the universal man of action, Hercules. Nor must we forget that he has run upon a limitation, that Gorgon from whom he fled. Truly he has obtained in this journey to Hades a grand experience of the Past, of all Greek ages, which is now added to his own personal experience. So this Past, with its knowledge, is to be applied to the Future, whereby knowledge becomes foreknowledge, and experience is to be transformed into prophecy. Mark then the transition from the previous to the present Book: when Ulysses comes back to the world of sense, he will at once see in it the supersensible, which he has just behold; he must hear in the Present a prophetic voice, that of Circe proclaiming the Future.

Thus Ulysses is now ready to listen to the coming event and to understand its import. It is to be observed that up to the Eleventh Book he has had experience merely; he took everything as it came, by chance, without knowing of it beforehand; he simply happens upon the Lotus-eaters, Polyphemus, Circe, though the careful reader has not failed to note an interior thread of connection between all these adventures. As to Hades, it is pointed out to him in advance by Circe, though all is not foretold him; but in the Twelfth Book, now to be considered, he has everything in detail laid open to him beforehand. A great change in manner of treatment; why? Because Ulysses must be shown as having reached the stage of foreknowledge through his journey to Hades; hitherto he was the mere empirical man, or blind adventurer, surrendering himself to hazard and trusting to his cunning for getting out of trouble. But now he foresees, and Circe is the voice thereof; he knows what he has to go through before he starts, here in the Upperworld, to which he has come back, and through whose conflicts he is still to pass, for life has not yet ended. Such, we think, is the fruit of that trip to the Underworld, the supersensible is seen in the sensible, and the Future becomes transparent.

Accordingly Circe foretells, and Ulysses foreknows; the two are counterparts. Then he simply goes through what has been predicted, he fills up the outline with the deed.

This is the essential fact of the Book, which is organized by it into two portions, namely the prophecy and the fulfillment; Circe has one part, Ulysses the other. Moreover each part exhibits the same general movement, which has three phases with the same names: the Sirens, the Plangctae on the one hand with Scylla and Charybdis on the other, and the Oxen of the Sun.


As soon as Ulysses, after coming back from Hades, had performed the last rites over the corpse of Elpenor, Circe appears and makes a striking address: "O ye audacious, who still living have gone down to the house of Hades—ye twice-dead, while others die but once." Such is one side of Circe, now rises the other: "But come, eat food, drink wine the whole day;" let us have a Greek festival ere new labors begin. Then Circe holds a private conference with Ulysses, she asked each thing "about the journey to Hades," which, it seems, she must know ere she can foretell the remaining part.

One cannot help feeling in this passage that the poet hints that these prophecies of Circe have some connection with what Ulysses imparts to her concerning Hades. Indeed she repeats what Tiresias had already foretold in reference to the Oxen of the Sun—a matter which she probably heard from Ulysses. Cannot the other two adventures be derived in a general way from the experiences of the Underworld? The Past seems here to furnish the groundwork for the predictions of the Future, and Circe, knowing what has been in the pure forms of the supersensible, becomes the voice of what is to be.

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Cf. Pharr, Homer and the study of Greek * Odyssey Complete Text
Iliad Complete Text * Homer Bilingual Anthology and Resources * Livingstone, On the Ancient Greek Literature
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