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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 36

It is true that this sport of comic disguise began in the previous Book with Pallas. But can the mortal hide himself from the deity, specially from the deity of wisdom? Hence the Goddess tears away the mask with a smile, and there follows the recognition. But at present it is the mortal who is the victim of disguise, by virtue of his limitations. Still the mortal, when he cannot see, can believe, and so transcend these same limitations. Thus it is with Eumaeus, his mistake is a comic nullity.

In the hut of the swineherd, there is no domestic life, the woman is absent. This condition is specially ascribed to the present state of things in Ithaca. Eumaeus, though he be a slave, could have a household, "a dwelling and ground and wife," if his old master were at home. Even now he has his own servant, bought with his own wealth. Slavery was not a hard condition in the house of Ulysses; it was domestic in the best sense probably. Indeed the slaves were often of as high birth as their masters, who in turn might be slaves in the next fluctuation of war. Eumaeus himself was of kingly blood, and he retains his regal character in his servitude.

Ulysses has now reached the fortress which is to be the rallying-point of his army of three heroes, and from which he is to issue to the work of the time. But that is hereafter. In the present Book, we have his play with Eumaeus, his disguise, which assumes three main attitudes. First, he is passive, chiefly asking and listening; thus he gets out of Eumaeus what information he wishes; then he plays an active part in his disguise, telling his own history under the mask of fiction; finally he assumes an open disguise, that is, he tells of one of his artifices at Troy, and then states his present object in telling it. The simple Eumaeus, however, does not suspect him in all these transformations. Still we may notice in the swineherd a strong feeling of oneness with the stranger, an unconscious presentiment of who he is.

I. The approach of Ulysses to the lodge of Eumaeus is an experience which one may have in the mountains of Greece to-day. We can find the same general outline of a hut with its surrounding fence and court, in which domestic animals are penned, particularly during the night. Then there is that same welcome from the dogs, which issue forth in a pack with an unearthly howling, growling and barking at the approaching stranger, till somebody appear and pelt them with stones. Often must the wandering Homer have had such a greeting! The hospitable swineherd, Eumaeus, the poet must have met with in his travels; the whole scene and character are drawn directly from real life. A similar reception we have had in a remote pastoral lodge, dogs included. But the modern pedestrian will hardly employ the ruse of Ulysses, that of sitting down on the ground and letting his staff drop out of his hand. He will use his weapon and grasp for a stone everywhere present on the Greek soil, though the fight be unequal. Still the sentence of Pliny (Nat. Hist. VIII. 61) deserves always to be cited in this connection: impetus eorum (canum) et soevitia mitigatur ab homine considente humi; as if dogs in the height of their rage might be touched with the plea of piety.

The character of the swineherd straightway shows itself by his conduct toward this poor hungry stranger, a vagabond in appearance. To be sure, hospitality was and is a common virtue in Greece; but Eumaeus saw at once in the wretched looking man his master "wandering among people of a strange tongue, needing food." Therefore come, old man, and satisfy yourself with bread and wine. Such is the strong fellow-feeling warming the hearth of that humble lodge. Misfortune has not soured the swineherd, but he has extracted from it his greatest blessing—an universal charity. This is not a momentary emotion, but has risen to a religious principle: "All strangers and the poor are of Zeus;" such is the vital word of his creed. He is a slave and has not much to share; "our giving is small but dear to us;" very dear indeed, a mite only, but it is as good as a world. Well may we call him, with the poet, in the best sense of the title: "the divine swineherd." We should note too that the poet addresses Eumaeus in the second person singular, with a tone of loving familiarity very seldom employed elsewhere in his two poems. Was there some intimate personal relation figured in this character which we still seem to feel afar off there in antiquity?

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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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