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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 114

Accordingly we have next the curse of the Cyclops denounced upon the head of the transgressor. This curse is to be fulfilled to the letter, the poet has fully shown the ground of it, Ulysses has really invoked it upon himself, it lies in his deed. Possibly Polyphemus, when he offered to give the dues of hospitality and to send the guest home, was merely using the words of deception, which he had just had the opportunity of learning, and was trying to get possession of his enemy's body. Doubtless it was well for Ulysses to keep out of the giant's hands. But that does not justify his speech, which was both cruel and blasphemous.

Hear then the curse of the Cyclops, which hints the great obstructing motive to the return of Ulysses, and marks out the action of the poem; "Give Ulysses no return to his home; but if he returns, may he arrive late and in evil plight, upon a foreign ship with loss of all his companions, and may he find troubles in his house." Of course Neptune heard the prayer, had to hear it, in the divine order of things. The curse lay inside of Ulysses, else it could not have been fulfilled; he himself could drop from his humane and religious mood in adversity and become a savage in prosperity. His chief misfortunes follow after this curse. But for the present he escapes to Goat Island, though another portentous rock is hurled at him by the Cyclops. There he sacrifices to the Highest God, Zeus, who, however, pays no heed—how is it possible?

Such is this far-reaching Fairy Tale, certainly one of the greatest and most comprehensive ever written. It shows a movement, an evolution both of Polyphemus and Ulysses; this inner unfolding indeed is the main thing to be grasped. It is worth the while to take a short retrospect of the five leading points. (1) The completely negative character of the Cyclops as to institutions, religion, and even the physical man. (2) This negative being is negated by the man of intelligence, who puts out his eye, nullifies his strength by drink, and thwarts all help for him by a punning stratagem. (3) He is made to help his enemies escape from his cave by the skill of Ulysses who turns the force of nature against nature. (4) The Cyclops reaches self-knowledge through Ulysses, who tells his wrong and its punishment, who also tells his own name: whereat the Cyclops suddenly changes and makes a humane offer. (5) Ulysses changes the other way, becomes himself a kind of Cyclops and receives the curse.

This curse will now follow Ulysses and drive him from island to island through Fableland, till he gets back to Ithaca with much suffering and with all companions lost, where he will find many troubles. In this manner the return of Ulysses becomes intertwined with Polyphemus and this Fableland, which furnish an underlying motive for the third Part of the Odyssey (the last 12 Books). The curse here spoken is still working when Ulysses reaches home and finds the suitors in possession. Verily his negative spirit lies deep; in cursing Polyphemus, he has cursed himself.

Thus the impartial poet shows both sides—the guilt as well as the good in Polyphemus and in Ulysses. The man of nature has his right when he offers to transform his conduct, and it shows that Ulysses still needs discipline when he scorns such an offer. Polyphemus too is to have his chance of rising, for he certainly has within himself the possibility. Has not the poet derived the noble Arete and Alcinous and institutional Phaeacia from the savage Cyclops? But Ulysses negatives Polyphemus just at the start upward. The character which he showed in sacking the city of the Ciconians is in him still, he is not yet ready to return.

The Ninth Book has thus run through its three stages and has landed us in pure Fableland. These three stages—the attack on the Ciconians, the Lotus-eaters, the adventure with the Cyclops—may now be seen to be parts of one entire process, which we may call the purification of the spirit from its own negative condition. The man, having become destructive-minded (oloophrōn) must be put under training by the Gods, and sent to battle with the monsters of Fableland.

So we advance to the next Book with the certainty that there is still some stern discipline in store for the wandering Ulysses.

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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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