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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 58


First then is the divine obstacle, which has to be removed by the Gods in Homer, when the individual is ready to have it removed. This obstacle is at present centered in the Goddess Calypso, the marvelous concealer and extinguisher of the Hero in her island Ogygia. Neptune is not here spoken of, though his element, the sea, is mentioned as something which must also be met and transcended; the Hero through his own will can surmount this difficulty. Verily Calypso is the grand spiritual hindrance of Ulysses, and, to help him get rid of it, the Olympians assemble and start the movement, the conditions being that he is internally prepared to be helped by the Gods. Of the latter fact we shall note a number of indications hereafter.

Of this divine activity in removing the first obstacle we may distinguish three phases:—

1. The council of the Gods on Olympus under the presidency of Zeus, and the decree there.

2. Hermes is sent by the supreme deity to Calypso, with the decree.

3. Calypso imparts the decree to Ulysses, who soon sets about doing his part.

In this brief outline we see the descent of the divine influence from Zeus the Highest, through Hermes messenger of the Gods, to Calypso, a local subordinate deity, down to the mortal Ulysses who is to get the benefit thereof. Thus the poet makes his world-order ready for the deed of the man, who is now to act with all the energy of his being, and not lie back expecting the Gods to do everything for him. Such is the situation between the divine and human sides, of which we shall elaborate the former a little more fully.

1. The council of the Gods in which the matter is now discussed, seems somewhat like a repetition of the one at the beginning of the First Book, which indeed starts the whole poem. At present we may suppose that the poet wishes to recall that first council and its decree to the mind of the reader, inasmuch as the latter is now to begin the second grand division of the poem, the Odyssey proper, or Return of Ulysses.

Pallas takes up the complaint and arraigns Providence on an ethical ground: the good king is forgotten and the good man suffers. To the face of the Supreme Ruler she draws the conclusion: "Let not any sceptered king henceforth be kind to his people and recognize justice, but always let him be harsh and work unrighteousness." Then she cites the unhappy lot of Ulysses. But Zeus throws the charge back upon Pallas, for she already had laid the divine plan that Ulysses was to take vengeance on wrong-doing suitors, and Telemachus she could save "by her skill," if so she chose. Here Pallas again hints as she did in the First Book, the two lines on which the poem moves (Telemachus and Ulysses), and she also notes the two present obstacles (Calypso and the sea) in the way of the Return of Ulysses.

The divine activity begins work at once: Zeus sends Hermes to Calypso with the Olympian decree. Ulysses, however, is to reach home "without any escort of the Gods or of mortal men;" that is, he must exercise his own free-will tremendously, there is to be no special intervention of the Gods without the corresponding human effort. Note this passage as indicating the consciousness of the poet respecting divine help; it is not to take the place of free agency, but to complement the same. The Hero will have to sail on a raft, "suffering evils;" but he will reach "the land of the Phaeacians, near of kin to the Gods," where he will be "honored as a God," and will be sent home with abounding wealth, "more than he would ever have received at Troy, returning unharmed with his share of the booty." Such is the promise of the world-governor to the self-reliant man; this promise is not fate but foresight on the part of the Supreme God. "Thus is the Hero destined to see again his friends," namely by means of a small raft or float, which he alone must control in his own strength, without the help of God or man. Such is the reward of heroic endeavor, proclaimed by Zeus himself.

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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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