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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 13

II. The second communication from Hades to the Phaeacians through Ulysses comes from the Trojan Past, and is voiced by the three most famous heroes of the Iliad—Achilles, Agamemnon, Ajax (the last one, however, does not speak, but acts out his communication). All three are tragic characters, are the victims of fate, that is, of their own fatal limitations. Such is the world-judgment here, it is really pronounced by themselves upon themselves in each case. Agamemnon states his own guilt, Achilles shows his limit by his complaint, Ajax does not need to speak. Ulysses simply listens and sees; now he tells the story of Troy and its heroes anew to the Present, indicating how they have put themselves into Hades.

The intimate connection between this part and the preceding part of Tiresias is plain. The prophet has forecast the law which rules these heroes also; they are truly illustrations of his prophecy, or of its underlying principle. They expose the heroic insufficiency of that Trojan time; they are the negative, tragic phases of greatness, which have also to submit at last to the law of compensation. Thus is the illustrious Trojan epoch judged and sent down below; but mark! Ulysses, of that same epoch, survives, is present, and is singing the judgment.

III. The world-justice which ideally underlies the prophecies of Tiresias in the first part of the present Book, and which is the secret moving principle in the fates of the three Greco-Trojan heroes in the second part, becomes explicit, recognized and ordered in the third part, which is now to be given. There is first the world-judge, Minos, famous for his justice during life, distributing both penalties and rewards in the Netherworld. Secondly we see the condemned ones, Orion, Tityus, Tantalus, Sisyphus (mark the significant reduplication of the root in the names of each one of them). All four are represented as having wronged the Gods in some way; they have violated the Divine Order, according to the Greek conception; hence the tribunal of world-justice, now organized and at work in Hades, takes them in hand. To be sure, the text of Homer does not say that they were sentenced by the decree of Minos, but such is certainly the implication. These four had a common sin, to the Greek mind: they sought to transcend the limit which the Gods have placed upon finite man, hence the image of their penalty lies in the endless repetition of their acts, which is also suggested in their names. Orion has always to pursue and slay the wild beast, never getting the work done; the liver of Tityus grows and swells afresh (root from tu, meaning to swell, Latin tumor) though being consumed by the vultures; in like manner Tantalus and Sisyphus have ever-repeated labors. Such is the glimpse here of the Greek Hades of eternal punishment. Now comes the curious fact that the heroic man through labor and suffering can rise out of this Hades of finitude; he can satisfy the demand of world-justice, and rise to Olympus among the blessed Gods. Such was Hercules, and such is to be Ulysses, who now having seen the culmination of Hades and heard its prophecy of his future state, leaves it and returns to the Upperworld.

Undoubtedly these thoughts of future punishment and reward are very dim and shadowy in Homer; still they are here in this Eleventh Book of the Odyssey, and find their true interpretation in that view of the life to come into which they unfolded with time. The best commentary on this Book, we repeat, is the Divine Comedy of Dante, the grand poem of futurity, which carries out to fullness the order, of which we here catch a little glimpse.

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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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