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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 25

IV. The slaying of the Oxen of the Sun has also its searching suggestiveness, and is found in one form or other in the World's greatest Books. Mind destroying mind may be shown as light extinguishing its own luminary; some such hint lies in the symbolism both of the act and its punishment. It is indeed the culminating point of negation—spirit denying spirit. This is the real sin against the Holy Spirit, unpardonable because repentance, all possibility of pardon is denied by the doer of the deed. As I understand him, this is the essence of the sin of Dante against Beatrice, with which she reproaches him in the last part of the Purgatorio. Suggestions of the same kind of guilt may be found in the characters of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Banquo, in whose cases the violation brings on a tragic fate; indeed every true tragedy has some touches of the light-denying or light-defying deed and its penalty. Above all rises in this respect the Faust of Goethe, the theme of which is explicitly intelligence denying intelligence, whereby the human mind becomes utterly negative, begets the Devil, and enters into compact with him for a life of indulgence. While such a state lasts, repentance is impossible.

Some such intimation ancient Homer must have had, and shadowed it forth in this strange symbolic deed. Ulysses having disregarded all he had learned by his long and bitter experience, leaving unheeded the warnings and prophecies of the Supersensible and the Sensible World (Tiresias and Circe), drops back into the sphere of Calypso, and has to serve the senses seven years till will and aspiration lift him again. Such a servitude was not uncommon in Greek legend, Hercules is the very embodiment thereof; even a God, Apollo, Light itself, has to serve Admetus, a mortal, in expiation of undivine guilt.

An important element of structure is to be noted at this point: the poem bifurcates and the reader has to move in two directions. If he wishes to follow the development of Ulysses, (which is indispensable) he must return with the latter to Calypso's Island and trace him through his three grand experiences—Oyggia, Phaeacia, and Fableland. But if the reader wishes to continue in the action of the poem, he must now pass out of Fableland to Ithaca in the company of the Hero. (For this double movement of the Ulyssiad, see pp. 121-8.)

But before Fableland is left behind, its full sweep may be called up once more: from the Upperworld of Earth (Ninth and Tenth Books, both belong together in a general survey), which shows the negation of Greek ethical life and its conflicts, we pass to the Underworld of Hades, which on the one hand is the negation of all Greek sensible existence, and on the other hand is the revelation of the supersensible (soul, idea, world-justice); thence we come back to the Upperworld in which the idea, obtained beyond, is seen struggling with the reality in various negative phases—Ulysses, knowing in advance, is shown in his attempt to realize his knowledge in the deed. Such then, is this grand threefold sweep of Fableland.

One more retrospect: let us glance back at the whole Twelve Books, this first half of the Odyssey, composed of the Telemachiad and the Ulyssiad. Both are parts of one whole; father and son acquire each his special discipline for the coming deed. Both are brought to a recognition of the Divine Order, the son mainly through tradition, the father mainly through experience. Both reach beyond the sensible into the supersensible or ideal realm; Telemachus hears the story of Proteus, which teaches the essence in all appearance; Ulysses descends to Hades and there communes with pure mind without its terrestrial incumbrance, in the case of Tiresias and others. Such is the internal preparation; now they are to do the deed. The idea they possess, the next is to make it real.

Accordingly the action of the poem, with Ulysses as its center, moves next to Ithaca, the realm in which the idea is to be realized: wherewith we enter upon a new grand division of the poem.

(The reader who wishes to study the parallelism between this Twelfth Book and Prospero can consult the author's Commentary on Shakespeare, where it treats of the Tempest. In fact, the entire play, which is also a kind of Fairy Tale, has many correspondences with Homer's Fableland.)

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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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