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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 59

III. This banquet is noticeable, inasmuch as Telemachus asserts the mastery in his own house and defies the Suitors. He honors the beggar as his guest, and gives warning that nobody insult the poor stranger, "lest there be trouble." A number of Suitors show their ill feeling; one of them, named Ktesippus, flings a bullock's foot at Ulysses "for a hospitable present," at which the latter "smiled in sardonic fashion," but said nothing. Telemachus, however, reproves the agressor with great spirit, and asserts himself anew against all deeds of violence. One of the more reasonable Suitors, Agelaus, makes a speech, which commends Telemachus but insists upon his ordering his mother "to marry the man who is best and who will give most presents." In reply Telemachus declares that he does not hinder the choice of his mother, but that he will not force her to marry. "That may God never bring about." (Theos without article.)

Now follows a series of miraculous signs, prodigies, mad doings, which prefigure the coming destruction. Insane laughter of the Suitors, yet with eyes full of tears, and with hearts full of sorrow: what does it all forbode? Here comes the seer Theoclymenus with a terrible interpretation uttered in the true Hebrew prophetic style: "The hall I see full of ghosts hastening down to Erebus; the sun in Heaven is extinguished, and a dark cloud overspreads the land." The Suitors bemock the prophet, who leaves the company with another fateful vision: "I perceive evil coming upon you, from which not one of you Suitors shall escape." More taunts are flung at Telemachus who now says nothing; he, his father, and his mother, witness the mad banquet, which is a veritable feast of Belshazzar, and which has also its prophet. The Hebrew analogy is striking.

Book Twenty-first. The test presented in many a tale is here introduced at the turning-point of destiny. The Bending of the Bow and skill in the use thereof are incidents in the folk-lore of every people. The theme is naturally derived from a social condition, in which the bow and arrow are the chief weapons of defense and offense, employed against human foes and wild animals. Hence the strong man, the Hero, is the one able to bend the strong bow and to use it with dexterity. Such a man uses the chief implement of his time and people with the greatest success, hence he is the greatest man. So we have the test of bending the bow, which simply selects the best man for the time and circumstances.

In recent interpretations of mythology, this employment of the bow and arrows has been connected with the sun and its rays. Ulysses is declared to be really a sun-god, a form of Apollo, deity of archery; he shoots his arrows which are sunbeams and destroys the Suitors, who are the clouds obstructing his light, and wooing his spouse, the day or the sky. It is also noteworthy that on this very day of the slaughter of the Suitors, there is a festival in Ithaca to Apollo, god of light and archery. This is usually regarded as the New Moon (Neomenios) festival. Antinous refers to it (l. 259) and proposes to defer the contest on that account. But Ulysses is made to shoot on the festal day of the sungod.

There is no doubt that mythology is closely connected with Nature, out of which it develops. In the Vedic hymns we see this connection in the most explicit manner, and threads of the old Aryan Mythus can often be picked out in Homer. Still we must recollect that it was the archer man who first projected the archer god out of himself, and it is no explanation of Ulysses to say that he represents the sun-god; rather the sun-god represents him. Moreover, the ethical purpose of Ulysses in slaying the Suitors is the soul of the poem, which is to find its adequate interpretation in that purpose and in that alone. The incident of Bending the Bow is wrought into a grand scheme of indicating the ethical order of the world.

The three divisions of the Book we shall briefly note, observing how the bow rejects the unfit, and selects the right man.

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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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