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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 98

2. The next important thing is to observe how the poet is going to locate, and environ this negative world. As it is the opposite of the civilized order of Hellas, he throws it outside of Hellenic boundaries. Over the Greek border somewhere it has to be placed; thus it passes easily from the known to the unknown, out of the civilized to the barbarous, out of the natural, to the supernatural.

All this we feel at once in the narrative. It is true that the first destructive deed, the attack upon the Ciconians, occurs within the limits of historical Hellas, in a region well known; but this act is the prelude and the example, the offenders are at once borne to the Lotus-eaters, who have the faintest touch of historical reality, and thence to Polyphemus who is wholly fabulous. In this realm of pure fable they stay till the end, having been cast out of Greece by the poet on account of their hostile spirit.

Moreover we should note that they move about on the sea, that most unstable element, in contrast to the fixed land; on the one there is order and law, on the other caprice and violence. Yet certain fixed points are set in this uncertain domain, namely the islands, which however, are wholly separated from Hellas and her life, and have inhabitants of their own, strangers to Hellenic influence. Ulysses and his crew will pass from island to island, each of which will show its meaning in some way antagonistic to Greek spirit. Out of the pale they all lie in the boundless billowy waters; thus the Odyssey in this part becomes a sea poem, while in the other two parts it is essentially a land poem. The Greek was and still is a native of both sea and land which are physically interwined and bound together in Greece as in no other portion of the globe. His great poetical book envisages his country as well as himself.

The main point, however, is that Fableland being negative to the Greek world is put outside of all of its known geographical limits, and thus becomes the setting for the marvelous story. It may here be added that Grimm's Tales have a similar border which lies between civilized life and the forest, since the forest was, for our Teutonic ancestors, the fairy realm, in which their supernatural beings dwelt for the most part. Out of culture back to nature the human being sometimes has to go and have strange communings with the spirits there; such is often the movement of the Fairy Tale. But who are these spirits or weird powers dwelling in the lone island or in the solitary wood?

3. This question brings us to the pivotal fact of all Fableland: it is ruled over by a new order of deities, not Olympians; the poet, throwing it out of Hellas below, throws it out of Olympus above. Indeed what else could he do? The Gods of Greece are the protectors of its institutions, State and Family; they are the embodiment of its spirit, of its civilization. But a spirit is now portrayed which is negative to Greek spirit, which denies and defies it in its very essence; the result is a new set of supernatural shapes which dominate the separated world. The negation also must be seen taking on a plastic form, and appearing before the Greek imagination.

The deities of Fableland, or its supernatural powers, are therefore opposite to the deities of Olympus. Hence their shape is changed, they can be even monstrosities, such as Polyphemus, the Laestrigonians, Scylla and Charybdis. Circe and Calypso are beautiful women, yet not natural women, in spite of their beauty; there is something superhuman about them, divine, though they be not Olympians. Shapes of wonder they all seem, unreal, yet in intimate connection with mankind. Moreover they are local, attached to a given spot, or island; they are not universal, they have no general sway like the Olympians; limited, confined, particular is their authority, which the human being can and must transcend.

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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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