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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 53

Book Eighteenth. Ulysses, as beggar, has now gotten a foothold in his own house. He has made the transition in disguise from the hut to the palace; he has tried his preliminary test upon the Suitors, the test of charity, and found out their general character. He is not recognized, on account of external disguise in part; yet this disguise has its internal correspondence.

The present Book is one of warnings; on all sides the Suitors are admonished of the day of wrath which is coming. In Homeric fashion they are told to change, to repent, to cease their wrong-doing. We observe three parts: first is the conflict with the beggar Irus, foreshadowing the conflict and outcome with the Suitors; second is the appearance of Penelope, the female Ulysses in craft and in disguise, here hoodwinking the Suitors; third is the male Ulysses, in craft and in disguise, observing, testing, planning fate for the guilty.

I. Ulysses has assumed the part of a beggar, but he finds a real beggar on the ground ready to dispute his right. Irus, this mendicant, has a character on a par with the Suitors, violent, inhuman, insolent; he is, moreover, one with the Suitors in taking other people's property for nothing. There is no doubt that the poet casts an image of the Suitors in the portrait of Irus, who acts toward Ulysses the beggar, as they do toward Ulysses the ruler. It is manifest by word and deed that his humble life has not given him the training to charity.

The result of the competition between the real and the disguised beggar is a fight, which is urged on by the Suitors for the sport of the thing; Antinous is specially active in this business, which is a degraded Olympic contest. Homer too shows his love of the athlete by his warm description of the body and limbs of Ulysses, who "showed his large and shapely thighs, his full broad shoulders, his chest and sinewy arms," when he stripped for the contest.

There can be only one outcome of such a fight under such circumstances, especially in an heroic poem. But is not Ulysses himself inhuman and uncharitable toward his poor beggar rival? Certainly he does not deal with him gently, and the modern reader is apt to think that Ulysses ought now to have his own test of charity applied to himself. Still his defense is at hand: Irus sided with the Suitors, had their character, Telemachus says they favored him; he is harsh and merciless to his seeming fellow-beggar, and so he gets his own, though Ulysses at first warns him, and wishes to be on good terms with him: "I do not speak or do thee any wrong, nor do I envy thee getting alms; this threshold is large enough for both of us; thou art a beggar as well as I. So beware my wrath." Surely a sufficient warning, which, if unheeded, draws down the fateful consequences.

But the chief justification of the poet lies in the fact that this contest with Irus is sent before the main conflict as a prototype and a warning. The Suitors looked on and saw the miserable beggar completely undone; "they threw up their hands and nearly died laughing;" a case of blind fatuity, for they were soon to be in the place of Irus, every one of them. A little later Telemachus suggests the connection: "Would that the Suitors might droop their heads overcome in our house, as now Irus sits at the hall gate with drooping head like a drunken man, and cannot stand erect or walk home, since his dear limbs have been loosened."

Another note of warning is given specially to Amphinomus, who had extended a very friendly salutation to Ulysses after the victory, and who was the most honorable man of the Suitors. Ulysses again resorts to fiction in order to convey his lesson, "Many were the wrongs I did;" hence my present condition. "Let no men ever work injustice," such as these Suitors are guilty of; the avenger "I now declare to be not far away from his friends and his country." Hence the warning: "May some God bring thee home" at once, for bloody will be the decision. But Amphinomus does not obey, though "his mind foreboded evil;" he remained in the fateful company and afterwards fell by the hand of Telemachus.

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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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