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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 20

Already we have touched upon the physical basis which underlies this tale. The symbolism we may consider somewhat more closely. The sin against light on the part of the companions is double: they knew better because they had been forewarned, they were not ignorant as when they opened the Bag of Winds. Secondly, they destroyed objects sacred to the grand luminary, they assailed the very source of light. Ulysses has shared in the act also, he too must take his part of the penalty. He is saved, for he forbade the wrong, yet he went to sleep at the critical moment. To be sure the companions were hungry; but that is just the test; if they had had plenty to eat, there would have been no real trial of their fidelity to principle.

The ancient poet, throwing deepest glances into the soul and into the world, beholds the supreme negative act of man, and seeks to clothe it in a symbol. Mind turns against mind, when the man does what he knows is wrong, and the destructive side is doubly re-inforced when he assails light itself, and knowledge slays knowledge. When a person who knows affirms in word and deed that his knowing is a lie, his light puts out a light, he destroys the Oxen of the Sun. What then? It is no wonder that the great luminary threatens "to go down to Hades and there shine among the dead," unless the full penalty is exacted for such a deed. In fact, he is already extinguished mentally for these men, and Zeus, voicing the world-order, can only hurry them off into darkness. Very wonderful is the thought lurking in the symbolism of the old seer: intellectual negation, skepticism, denial, culminating in the negative deed, will at last drive the Sun himself out of Heaven and send him below into the Underworld. It is highly probable, however, that the negative man will be sent down there first, as is done in the present case.

After slaying the Oxen of the Sun and repeating the offense many times, Ulysses and his companions must again meet life, and accordingly they set sail upon the sea, bound for home and country. But such men have not in them the elements of the Return. Storms arise, winds blow, the helmsman is killed by the falling mast, and the ship is struck by lightning. The destructive powers of nature seem to concentrate upon these destroyers; such is the decree of Zeus, carrying out his promise to the Sun; verily the Supreme God could not well do otherwise. Ulysses alone barely saves himself upon a fragment of the mast and keel; manifestly there is a difference between him and his companions, who disobeyed his order. The text says that "the companions feasted for six days," it would seem that he did not; still he is involved in their calamity, though not fully in their guilt. Here is, then, a distinction of importance, since upon it is based the saving of Ulysses, who is yet to have a career.

While Ulysses may not have personally participated in the guilty deed, he was not active against it, he did not apparently seem to restrain the repetitions of it, he was paralyzed in energy. It was his will which was defective, not his intellect; he did not commit the offense, but he did not stop it, and try to conciliate the wrath of the Gods by sacrifices, by what we now call repentance. Hence, while he does not perish, he is still unfinished, incomplete, with a limit to be removed. A training of the Will is to be gone through next, till it be able to do what Reason commands. A new discipline therefore is in store for the Hero after the loss of his ship and his companions.

What will this discipline be? To a degree his entire career must be worked over again from the beginning. Upon his fragment of wood he floats back to Scylla and Charybdis; he falls into the old dualism in one of its phases, for he cannot stay upon the Island of the Sun, the place of unity and rest and light. Indeed have we not just seen him in the fierce conflict between knowing and doing, which he has not been able to unify in the last adventure? So he drops back between the grinding mill-stones of two opposites; one of these opposites, the maelstrom Charybdis, is sucking him in, but he clutches the branches of a large fig-tree overhanging the whirlpool, and holds fast till his mast and keel return to the surface of the water, upon which he escapes.

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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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