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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 30

The ship of the Phaeacians in which the passage is made is a miraculous one, and yet prophetic; it is gifted with thought and flies more fleet than a falcon, swiftest of birds. Again the mythical account prefigures the reality, and this little marvelous story of the sea hints, yes, calls for the speed of modern navigation. It is not a matter to be understood; Ulysses, the wise man, knows nothing about it, he is sunk in sleep while making the passage. But the wise man is to come to knowledge hereafter.

He has arrived in Ithaca, and entered a safe port; he, still deep in slumber, is laid on the shore with all his goods and gifts, when the mariners turn back. At this point we have an interesting description of the surroundings, wherein we may observe the poet's employment of nature as a setting for the returned Ulysses. There is the secure haven shutting off the winds and waves of the sea; at the end of the haven stands the olive tree, product of culture, and hinting the civilized world, which Ulysses now enters; it was a tree sacred to Pallas in later Greek legend, and, doubtless, in Homer's time also. Next came the cave of the Nymphs called Naiads, with its curious shapes of stone, the work of the Nymphs to the old Greek eye, but named stalagmites and stalactites in modern speech. Two are the entrances, one for Gods and one for men; both human and divine visitors come thither, it is indeed a point of meeting for the two influences, which is its essential suggestion. Ulysses, lying with his goods beneath the olive tree and near the cave, is under divine protection, which here Nature herself is made to declare. This scenery is not introduced for its own sake, but for the divinity in it, whereof another example is to follow in the case of Neptune.

There have been repeated attempts to identify the locality described by the poet with the present geography of Ithaca. Travelers have imagined that they have found the haven and cave, notably this was the case with Sir William Gell; but the more common view now is that they were mistaken. Homer from his knowledge of Greece, which has everywhere harbors, caves and olive-trees, constructed an ideal landscape for his own purpose, quite as every poet does. He may or may not have seen Ithaca; in either case, the poetic result is the same.

II. The physical transition from Phaeacia to Ithaca is accomplished; while Ulysses is asleep, the poet casts a glance backward at the marvelous ship and at the marvelous land which has just been left behind. Both are henceforth to be forever closed to the real world and its intercourse; the realm of fable is shut off from Ithaca, and from the rest of this poem.

The matter is presented in the form of a conflict between the Phaeacians and Neptune, between the sea-faring people and the sea; clearly it is one of the many struggles between Man and Nature which the Greek Mythus is always portraying, because these struggles were the ever-present fact in Greek life. The God has been circumvented by the speed of the navigators; Ulysses without suffering, without a storm, has reached Ithaca. "No more honor for me from mortals or Gods," cries Neptune, "if I can be thus defied?" He makes his appeal to the Highest God, and we hear the decision: "Turn the ship to a stone and hide the city with a mountain." The first is accomplished in view of the Phaeacians; the second is possibly prevented by their speedy sacrifices to Neptune, and the new decree of the ruler, which forbids their giving further escort over the sea to strangers. At any rate Phaeacia is shut off from the world, and has not been heard of since; there have been no more transitions thence since that of Ulysses. The marvelous ship and the marvelous city vanish forever by a divine act, even by the will of Zeus. Yet, on the other hand, they eternally remain, crystallized in these verses of Homer, more lasting than the rock of Neptune.

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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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