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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 22

(1) There is the twofold division of the Book, while the other Books of Fableland have distinctly a threefold division. Herewith is coupled the duplication of its content; the second part repeats what is contained in the first part; or the first part tells in advance what is to be done in the second part. Thus the structure images dualism: Thought and Action, Word and Deed, Idea and Reality, Prophecy and Fulfillment. Yet it also hints the oneness in the dualism.

(2) The next point in structure is the threefold subdivision of each of the two parts. That is, now the structural principle falls back into that of the preceding Books of Fableland. Each part has its three main adventures with their respective environments and shapes, quite as each Book hitherto has had. What does this suggest to the reader—this duplication of the threefold form of the Book?

(3) Finally comes the very peculiar structure of the second adventure, which we have above called the Double Alternative. The dualism of the Book we may say, is now doubled, and transformed into the middle one of the three grand trials or exploits which the Hero has to pass through. The monster Scylla is here to be noted, with its six necks and heads, three on each side of the body, wherein again the triple is duplicated, though the body is certainly one. It was this monster which did most harm to Ulysses, snapping up six of his companions in the passage.

Such are the main points in the structure of the present Book, assuredly as great a marvel as anything recorded in the same, when it is once fully beheld. That it is intimately connected with the thought of the Book, is indeed the very form and mould thereof, is felt by every careful reader. But what is this thought? Here the difference begins, and the conflict of opinion ranges over and into fields diverse and far apart.

II. It may be said that the interpretations suggested by these three adventures—with the Sirens, with Scylla and Charybdis, and with the Oxen of the Sun—belong to two extremes; those of Nature and of Mind. Readers and commentators of different character and training will differ; one set will lean to the physical view, the other to the spiritual. It is our opinion that both views can find justification in the poem. We may first look at the physical interpretation.

All these monsters have been supposed to represent perils of navigation, especially in the Italian seas, which were frequented by the early Greek navigator. They have also been located geographically, to be sure in a variety of places. The Sirens dwelt on three dangerous rocks near the island of Capraea, according to ancient authorities; or they were found on the promontory between Paestum and Elea, or even down at Cape Pelorum in Sicily. Why should they not be indeed everywhere! Then they have been supposed to personify the secret dangers of a calm sea, and their song is the music of splashing waters. Undoubtedly a physical substrate must be granted in the case of the Sirens, and in the Mythus generally; still they are truly everywhere, not only in the Italian Sea, but also in the sea of life, and they appear not only to the professional sailor but to every human navigator. Are literal rocks passed by putting wax into the ears of the crew and by tying the captain to the mast? Surely some other peril is suggested.

In the second adventure, the Plangctae (the Claspers, not the Wanderers, as some translations give it), have been located at the Lipari Islands in the Sicilian Sea, where there is strong volcanic action. The well-known Symplegades of the Argonautic expedition which were placed at the entrance of the Euxine, were probably patterned after this Homeric conception, and transferred to the North-east. The two terrors, Scylla and Charybdis, lie in the straits of Messina, according to the accepted view, the former on the Italian side, the latter on the Sicilian. A town named Scilla still exists in those regions, and an eddy in the straits of Messina is still called Charilla (from Charybdis doubtless.) Etymologically Scylla means a bitch, Charybdis is allied with Chaos (from a Greek word meaning to yawn). Later legend gave to Scylla a great variety of forms, which were reproduced in art and poetry. One story represents her as having been a beautiful maiden who was loved by Glaucus, and who was turned into her present monstrous shape by Circe through jealousy, for the enchantress loved Glaucus too. The sucking-in of the waters by Charybdis, and her disgorging of them has been connected with the ebb and flow of the tides. It may also be added that the Plangctae (in the sense of wandering or floating islands) have been supposed to refer to icebergs, some report of which may have reached the Homeric world through the Phoenician sailor, who must have passed outside of the straits of Gibraltar, into the Atlantic.

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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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