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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 105


The first sentence strikes the leading thought: "The wind, bearing me from Troy, brought me to the Ciconians." Troy is the starting-point, the background out of which everything moves. After the fall of the city Nestor gives an account of the disputes of the Greek leaders and their separation (Book III. l. 134 et seq.); Ulysses is driven alone with his contingent across the sea toward Thrace, where he finds a city in peace, though it had been an ally of Troy. "I sacked the city, I destroyed its people;" he treated them as he did the Trojans, "taking as booty their wives and property." Such is the spirit begotten of that ten years' war in the character of Ulysses, a spirit of violence and rapine, totally unfitted for a civilized life, at bottom negative to Family and State. This is the spiritual starting-point from which he is to return to home and country through a long, long, but very needful discipline.

He is well aware that he has done something for which vengeance awaits him, so he urges his companions to flee at once. But they would not obey, they stayed there "drinking much wine and slaughtering sheep and oxen along the sea-shore." Revel and feasting follow, till the Ciconians rouse the outlying neighbors and drive the Greeks to the ships, with the loss of six companions for each ship. Such is the first incident after the Trojan War, showing clearly the destructive phase thereof, which has been drilled into the character by so long a period of bloodshed.

This is not yet Fairyland, but a real people and a real conflict. The Ciconians in the later historic time of Herodotus still dwelt in Thrace. Grotius in his famous book On the Rights of Peace and War cites the present instance as a violation of international justice. The grand positive ground of attacking Troy is not found here; there was no Helen detained in wrongful captivity. The sack of Ismarus pictures the evil results which spring from all war, even the most just. Again we must affirm that this deed of wrongful violence is the start toward the great Return, and hints what has to be overcome internally by the journey through Fairyland.

Later we find a fact, not here mentioned, pertaining to the sack of the city of the Ciconians. Ulysses had saved Maron, the priest of Apollo, who in gratitude gave him the strong wine with which he overcame Polyphemus in the cave. His merciful deed thus helped him conquer the monster of nature. But in general it is plain that Ulysses, though desiring to get back to an institutional life, is not ready by any means for such a step; he is in reality hostile to the very essence of institutional life. He is too much like the suitors now to be their punisher.

All put to sea again, to be tossed on that unruly element, with their little vessels exposed to wind and wave. "They call thrice by name each one of their dead companions" ere they set out; the meaning of this invocation has been much discussed, but it probably rests upon the belief that they could thus call the souls of the deceased to go along with them to home and country. The fact that just six were lost from each ship was made the ground of an assault upon Homer in antiquity by Zoilus, famed as the Homeromastix, or Homer's trouncer.

The great sea with its tempests is now before them, heaving and tossing; after the attack upon the Ciconians we can well imagine that this storm has its inner counterpart in the soul of Ulysses. Does he not show within himself a deep scission—between his desire to return and his deed? At any rate he is borne forward; when he sought to round Maleia, the southern point of Greece (now Cape St. Angelo), and sail home to Ithaca, he was carried out to sea by the winds, beyond the Island Cythera, across the main toward the coast of Africa. Thus he is swept outside the boundaries of Hellas proper into a region dimly known, half-mythical; he cannot make the sharp turn at Maleia, inside the Greek world; he must go beyond it and there reach his final experience. Not simply physical is this description, else it would be a mere statement in geography; it is also spiritual and hence rises into poetry.

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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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