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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 52

While he is on the way to the city with Eumaeus, he has his preliminary skirmish. They meet the goatherd Melanthius, who at the sight of the beggar breaks out into abuse. There is an inhuman note in his speech, which we may regard as one result of the present disorder of the country. Doubtless the swineherd and the goatherd were rivals, and showed a professional jealousy; but Melanthius had extracted from his humble calling a disposition quite opposite to that of Eumaeus, and had become disloyal to his master's House.

The approach to the palace is indicated by the song of the bard and the noise of feasting guests. Still the disguised Ulysses is recognized by one living object: his old dog Argo, who dies on the spot out of joy at seeing his master again. Full of sentiment and tenderness is the description; it has a modernity of touch which will be often noticed in this second half of the Odyssey. Much comment has been bestowed upon the incident; but its most striking characteristic is its symbolism. The old dog, neglected now, full of vermin, hardly able to crawl, yet loyal in his heart; why should he not receive the praise of Eumaeus, who tells of his former skill in the chase! The dog Argo images the House of Ulysses at present; to such straits has fidelity come. A famous statement here by Eumaeus cannot be passed over: "The day which makes the man a slave, Zeus takes half his worth away." True generally of men, but not of the slave who utters it, he being the fate-compeller.

Ulysses now applies his test of charity to the Suitors. He goes around to them, asking for alms, like a beggar, that he might observe them all, and "know who was better and who was worse." But in the end not one of them was to be spared. Such was the supreme test, that of charity; how will the Suitors treat the poor beggar? Will they behave toward him as Eumaeus has? Not by any means; the test calls out the worst suitor of the lot, Antinous, who finally hurls a stool at the supposed intruder. The other Suitors give something, not their own; still they share in the guilt. Is this test of charity, selected by the poet here, a true test of such characters? One result of the present violation of law and order is inhumanity, cruelty, disregard of the fellow-man. Especially marked is their contrast with Eumaeus, who, in response to the harshness of Antinous, says: "The famous men of earth (such as the seer, the doctor, the builder, the bard) are invited to the feast; no one would invite a beggar to an entertainment." Still the beggar is here to be invited. A ring of modern sentiment is surely heard in this passage; the subjective element of Christendom seems embodied in that swineherd a thousand years before its time.

The poet does not leave out of this Book the previous tendency of Ulysses to romancing. In the talk with Antinous he begins another tale or rather the old one, with Egypt and Cyprus in the background. It is, in substance, the story of the attack on the Ciconians, which Ulysses cannot help telling when he looks back toward his Trojan period. Here again it is truth in the form of fiction.

Meantime the uproar has called forth Penelope, who desires to see the strange beggar. The wish is conveyed to Ulysses, who artfully requests that the interview be deferred till night-fall; the wife might see through his disguise. The time for this recognition has not yet come. She wishes to hear of her husband, thinks of him in some such pitiable plight as this beggar is in; she shows sympathy. A charitable disposition is indeed a characteristic of the whole household, nurses and all; misfortune has brought its blessing. Herein the contrast with the Suitors is emphatic, they are a stony-hearted set, trained by their deeds to violence and inhumanity.

Eumaeus praises the minstrel talent of Ulysses; the poet endows his hero with the gift of song in this poem; compare the praise given by Alcinous to the singer of Fableland. So Achilles in the Iliad was found by the embassy singing the glory of heroes. Nor must we pass by that deeply-grounded belief in the good-luck which comes from a sneeze. Telemachus sneezes at the right moment, and Penelope interprets the omen, with a smile, however, which hints a touch of humorous incredulity. Finally we may reflect upon that true Homeric view of the world indicated in the words of Telemachus: "All these matters will be cared for by myself and the Immortals." These are the two sides working together throughout the poem.

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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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