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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 27

Herewith the theme of the Book is suggested: the Return. Physically this was a return from the Trojan War, which is the pre-supposition of the whole Odyssey; all the heroes who have not perished, have to get back to Hellas in some way. These ways are very diverse, according to the character of the persons and the circumstances. Thus we touch the second grand Homeric subject, and, indeed, the second grand fact of the Greek consciousness, which lies imbedded in the Return (Nostos). A short survey of this subject must here be given. We have in the present Book several phases of the Return; Nestor, Menelaus, Ulysses are all Returners, to use a necessary word for the thought; each man solves the problem in his own manner.

Now what is this problem? Let us see. The expedition to Troy involved a long separation from home and country on the part of every man who went with it; still this separation had to be made for the sake of Helen, that she, the wife and queen, return to home and country, from which she had been taken. Her Return, indeed, is the essence of all their Returns. We see that through the war they were severed from Family and State, were compelled to give up for the time being their whole institutional life. This long absence deepens into alienation, into a spiritual scission, from mere habit in the first place; then, in the second place, they are seeking to destroy a home and a country; though it be that of the enemy, and the act, even if necessary, brings its penalty. It begets a spirit of violence, a disregard of human life, a destruction of institutional order. Such is the training of the Greeks before Troy. The wanton attack of Ulysses and his companions upon the city of the Ciconians (Book Ninth) is an indication of the spirit engendered in this long period of violence, among the best and wisest Greeks.

Still, in spite of the grand estrangement, they have the aspiration for return, and for healing the breach which had sunk so deep into their souls. Did they not undergo all this severing of the dearest ties for the sake of Helen, for the integrity of the family, and of their civil life also? What he has done for Helen, every Greek must be ready to do for himself, when the war is over; he must long for the restoration of the broken relations; he cannot remain in Asia and continue a true Greek. Such is his conflict; in maintaining Family and State, he has been forced to sacrifice Family and State. Then when he has accomplished the deed of sacrifice, he must restore himself to what he has immolated. A hard task, a deeply contradictory process, whose end is, however, harmony; many will not be able to reach the latter stage, but will perish by the way. The Return is this great process of restoration after the estrangement.

Many are the Returners, successful and unsuccessful in many different ways. But they all are resumed in the one long desperate Return of Ulysses, the wise and much-enduring man. In space as well as in time his Return is the longest; in spirit it is the deepest and severest by all odds. The present poem, therefore, is a kind of resumption and summary of the entire series of Returns (Nostoi). In the old Greek epical ages, the subject gave rise to many poems, which are, however, at bottom but one, and this we still possess, while the others are lost. Spirit takes care of its own verily.

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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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