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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 76


If the last Book was Nausicaa's, this one is Arete's; there is the transition from the daughter to the mother, from the maiden to the wife. Still it is not quite so emphatically a woman's Book, since the wife has to include the husband in her world. Ulysses now goes to the center of the Family, to its heart, that he may meet with compassion. Still she withholds her sympathy at first for a good reason; Arete is not wholly impulse and feeling, she has thought, reflection. So, after all, it is left to the men to take up the suppliant.

Very surprising to us moderns is the picture drawn by the old Greek poet of this woman, and of her position: "the people look upon her as a God when she goes through the city;" her mind is especially praised; she has a judicial character, supposed usually to be alien to women: "she decides controversies among men," or perchance harmonizes them. To be sure her position is stated as exceptional: "her husband honors her, as no other woman on earth is honored;" she is evidently his counselor as well as wife. Thus the poet would have us regard Arete not merely as a person of kind feelings and of sweet womanly instincts, but she has also the highest order of intelligence; she is united with her husband in head as well as in heart, perchance overtopping him in ability. Not domestic simply is the picture, it rises into the political sphere, even into the administration of justice.

Is the character of the woman, as thus set forth, possibly a thousand years before Christ, by a heathen poet in an uncivilized age comparatively, to be a prophecy unto us still at this late date? Certainly the most advanced woman of to-day in the most advanced part of the world as regards her opportunities, has hardly reached the height of Arete. Unquestionably a glorious ideal is set up before the Sisterhood of all time for emulation; or is it unattainable? At any rate the woman in Homer stands far in advance of her later historical position in Greece.

We may now turn to the husband for a moment, Alcinous the King, the man of civil authority who represents the State, whose function is to be the protector of the Family and of whomever the family receives into its bosom rightfully. He is the element surrounding and guarding the warm domestic center; still he seems to have stronger impulses, or probably less governed, than his wife. Distinctly is the superiority accorded to the woman in this discourse of Pallas to Ulysses; possibly the Goddess may have overdrawn the picture a little in favor of her sex, as really Alcinous becomes the more prominent figure later one.

So we catch a very fascinating glimpse of the Phaeacian world. Two prominent characters representing the two great institutions of man, Family and State, we witness; thus is the spirit of the whole poem ethical. Here is no longer the realm of Calypso, the nymph of wild untrained nature, but the clear sunlit prospect of home and country, the anticipation of sunny Ithaca and prudent Penelope to the hapless sufferer. Ulysses sees his own land in the image of Phaeacia, sees what he is to make out of his own island. Verily it is a great and epoch-making experience for him just before his return; he finds the ideal here which he is to realize.

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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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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

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