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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

D. Snider
A Commentary on the Odyssey of Homer - Part I

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 102

7. The fact that Ulysses must tell his own story is deeply coupled with the following characteristic: these four Books of Fableland are essentially a confession. From beginning to end we observe it to be an account of shortcomings and their results; we find the acknowledgment of error in the very statement of the transaction. He confesses to Alcinous and the Phaeacians his negative attitude to the State and the consequences thereof; he confesses to Arete in what way he has violated her institution. Here lies the necessity: this confession is absolutely needful to his soul to free it of its negative past. He has become conscious of his condition, and utters his confession to these people who are the opposite of it, and thus gets rid of his limitation. The psychologic ground of his telling his own story is that he must.

To be sure, this is all done in a mythical form, which is somewhat alien to our method of making a confession. Then Homer does not moralize by the way, he does not usually approve or condemn; he simply states the deed and its consequences. His procedure is objective, truly artistic, letting the thing speak for itself. The modern reader, however, likes to have moral observations interspersed, which will stir up his sentiments, and save him the trouble of thinking the matter out for himself.

Yet Ulysses, on the other hand, is always striving to reach out of his error, to transcend his limitation. His mistake flings him to the earth, but he gets up again and marches forward. Thus he asserts his own infinite worth; he is certain to reach home at last and accomplish the grand Return.

But he does not bring back his companions. These often seem to be lower unheroic phases of human nature, which the hero must throw off in the course of his development. In general, they may be considered to be in him, a part of himself, yet they are real persons too. This rule, however, will not always apply. Still his companions are lost, having "perished by their own folly," while he is saved; the wise man is to live, the unwise to pass away.

The pivotal sin committed by Ulysses in Fableland is against Neptune, who is angry because Ulysses put out the eye of his son Polyphemus. So the God, after the affair of the Oxen of the Sun, becomes the grand obstacle to the Return, and helps to keep the hero with Calypso. Such is the mythical statement in which three conceptions seem to blend. (1) Neptune is the purely physical obstacle of the sea, very great in those early days. (2) Nature has her law, and if it be not observed, the penalty follows, when she may be said to be mythically angry. If a man jump down from a high precipice, he violates a law of nature, gravitation, and she executes him on the spot, it may be; she is always angry and quick to punish in such cases; but he may climb down the height and escape. In like manner a man, undertaking to swim across the sea, encounters the wrath of Neptune; but he may construct a ship, and make the voyage. (3) Finally there is the ethical violation: we shall see in the narrative, how Ulysses, after appealing to humanity, becomes himself inhuman and a savage toward Polyphemus, who then curses him and invokes father Neptune with effect. So the God visits upon Ulysses the punishment for his ethical offense, which is the main one after all. In this way Fableland through the story of Polyphemus contains a leading motive of the Ulyssiad, and thereby of the whole Odyssey, and Ulysses is seen to be detained really by his own deed.

8. The general structure of these four Books is simple enough. They form a series of adventures, with three to a Book. Though the connection seems slight on the surface, there are inner threads which bind intimately together the separate adventures; one of the points in any true interpretation is to raise these threads to light. The general movement of the whole may be regarded as threefold: the sensible world (two Books), the supersensible Hades (one Book), the sensible world a second time (one Book). Very significant are these changes, but it is hardly worth while to forecast them here; they must be studied in detail first, then a retrospect can be given, as the contents of the four Books will be present in the reader's mind. We may now say, however, that this sweep from the sensible into the supersensible, and back again to the sensible, has in it the meaning of a soul's experience, and that the second sensible realm here mentioned is very different from the first.

The central fact of Fableland is, accordingly, that the man must get beyond the realm of the senses, and hold communion with pure spirit, with the prophet Tiresias, and then come back to the real world, bringing the wisdom gained beyond, ere he can complete the cycle of the grand Return.

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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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