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Homer's Odyssey.

A Commentary


Denton J. Snider

The Sigma Publishing Co.
10 Van Buren St., Chicago, Ill.
210 Pine St., St. Louis, Mo.






(1) OCYGIA 129
(2) PHÆACIA 156


(1) WRONG (17-21) 468
(2) PUNISHMENT (22) 495
(3) RECONCILIATION (23-4) 500




The Odyssey starts by organizing itself; it maps out its own structure
in what may be called a General Introduction. Herein lies a significant
difference between it and the Iliad, which has simply an Invocation to
the Muse, and then leaps into the thick of the action. The Iliad,
accordingly, does not formulate its own organization, which fact has
been one cause of the frequent assaults upon its unity. Still the
architectonic principle is powerful in the Iliad, though more
instinctive, and far less explicit than in the Odyssey. It is
reasonable to suppose, therefore, that the poet has reached a
profounder consciousness of his art in his later poem; he has come to a
knowledge of his constructive principle, and he takes the trouble to
unfold the same at the beginning. To be sure, certain critics have
assailed just this structural fact as not Homeric; without good
grounds, in our judgment.

The First Book, accordingly, opens with an Introduction which belongs
to the entire poem, and which embraces 95 lines of the original text.
This portion we shall look at separately in some detail, as it throws a
number of gleams forward over the whole action, and, as before said,
suggests the poetic organism. It has three divisions, the Invocation,
the Statement of the Obstacles to the return of the Hero, and the
Assembly of the Gods, who are represented as organizing the poem from
Olympus. The Divine thus hovers over the poem from the first, starting
with one grand, all-embracing providential act, which, however, is
supplemented by many special interventions of deities, great and small.

_The Invocation._ The first line speaks of the man, Ulysses, and
designates his main attribute by a word, which may be translated
_versatile_ or _resourceful_, though some grammarians construe it
otherwise. Thus we are told at the start of the chief intellectual
trait of the Hero, who "wandered much," and who, therefore, had many
opportunities to exercise his gift. In the second line our attention is
called to the real starting point of the poem, the taking of Troy,
which is the background of the action of the Odyssey, and the great
opening event of the Greek world, as here revealed. For this event was
the mighty shake which roused the Hellenic people to a consciousness of
their destiny; they show in it all the germs of their coming greatness.
Often such a concussion is required to waken a nation to its full
energy and send it on its future career.

Note that Ulysses is here stated to be the taker of Troy, and this view
is implied throughout the Odyssey. Note Achilles is the final Greek
hero; he perished without capturing the city, and in his hands alone
the Greek cause would have been lost. The intellectual hero had to come
forward ere the hostile town could be taken and Helen restored. Herein
the Odyssey does not contradict the Iliad, but is clearly an advance
beyond it.

But Troy is destroyed and now the second grand question of the Greeks
arises: How shall we get back! Only one half of the cycle is completed
by the conquest of the hostile city; the second half is the
restoration. For this disjunction from Hellenic life, brought about by
war, is not only physical but has become spiritual. The theme,
therefore, deals with the wise man, who, through his intelligence, was
able to take Troy, but who has now another and greater problem - the
return out of the grand estrangement caused by the Trojan expedition.
Spiritual restoration is the key-note of this _Odyssey_, as it is that
of all the great Books of Literature.

Here at the start we note two things coupled together which hint the
nature of the whole poem: "He saw the cities of many men and knew their
mind." Not alone the outer habitations of people Ulysses beheld, but
also their inner essence, their consciousness. This last faculty indeed
is the very vision of the sage; he looks through the external sensuous
appearances of men into their character, into their very soul. The poem
will describe many incidents, wanderings, tempests, calamities; but in
them the poetic glance is to behold a great spiritual experience. The
reader of the _Odyssey_ must himself be a Ulysses, to a degree, and not
only "see the cities of many men," but also he must "know their mind."
Then he, too, is heroic in his reading of this book.

But not merely knowledge the Hero is to acquire, though this be much;
the counterpart to knowledge must also be his, namely, suffering. "Many
things he suffered on the sea in his heart;" alas! that too belongs to
the great experience. In addition to his title of wise man, he will
also be called the much-enduring man. Sorrow is his lot and great
tribulation; the mighty sea will rise up in wrath and swallow all,
except that which is mightier, namely his heroic heart. Knowledge and
suffering - are they not the two poles of the universal character? At
any rate the old poet has mated them as counterparts in his hero; the
thirst to know drives the latter to reach beyond, and then falls the
avenging blow of powers unseen.

Furthermore, there is a third trait which is still higher, also
mentioned here: he sought to save not only himself but also his
companions. That wisdom of his was employed, and that suffering of his
was endured, not for his own good merely, but for the good of others.
He must think and suffer for his companions; a suggestion of
vicariousness lies therein, a hint of self-offering, which has not yet
flowered but is certainly budding far back in old Hellas. He must do
for others what he does for himself, if he be truly the universal man,
that is, if he be Hero. For is not the universal man all men - both
himself and others in essence? So Ulysses tries to save his companions,
quite as much he tries to save himself.

But he did not do it, he could not do it; herein lies his limitation
and theirs also, in fact, the limitation of the entire Greek world.
What did these companions do? "They perished by their own folly;" they
would not obey the counsel of their wise man; they rejected their Hero,
who could not, therefore, rescue them. A greater wisdom and a deeper
suffering than that of Ulysses will be required for their salvation,
whereof the time has not yet come. He would bring them home, but "they
ate of the oxen of the sun;" they destroyed the attribute of light in
some way and perished. The fact is certainly far-reaching in its
suggestion; a deep glance it throws into that old heathen world, whose
greatest poet in the most unconscious manner hints here the tragic
limitation of his people and his epoch. It is a hint of which we,
looking back through more than twenty-five centuries can see the full
meaning, as that meaning has unfolded itself in the ages. Time is also
a commentator on Homer and has written down, in that alphabet of his,
called events, the true interpretation of the old poet. Still the
letters of Time's alphabet have also to be learned and require not only
eyesight but also insight.

The Invocation puts all its stress upon Ulysses and his attempt to save
his companions. It says nothing of Telemachus and his youthful
experience, nothing of the grand conflict with the suitors. Hence fault
has been found with it in various ways. But it singles out the Hero and
designates three most important matters concerning him: his knowledge,
his suffering, his devotion to his companions. Enough; it has given a
start, a light has been put into our hand which beams forward
significantly upon the poem, and illumines the mazes of the Hero's

Mark again the emphatic word in this Invocation; it is the Return
(_nostos_), the whole Odyssey is the Return, set forth in many
gradations, from the shortest and simplest to the longest and
profoundest. The idea of the Return dominates the poem from the start;
into this idea is poured the total experience of Ulysses and his
companions. The two points between which the Return hovers are also
given: the capture of Troy and the Greek world. Not a mere book of
travels or adventure is this; it contains an inner restoration
corresponding to the outer Return, and the interpreter of the work, if
he be true to his function, will trace the interior line of its
movement, not neglecting the external side which has also a right to

_The Obstacles._ Two of these are mentioned and carried back to their
mythical sources. All the returning heroes are home from Troy except
the chief one, Ulysses, whom Calypso detains in her grot, "wishing him
to be her husband;" she, the unmarried, keeps him, the married, from
family and country, though he longs to go back to both. She is the
daughter of "the evil-minded Atlas," a hoary gigantesque shape of
primitive legend, "who knows the depths of all the sea," - a dark
knowledge of an unseen region, from which come many fatalities, as
shipwreck for the Greek sailor or earthquake for the volcanic Greek
islands; hence he is imagined as "evil-minded" by the Greek mythical
fancy, which also makes him the supporter of "the long columns which
hold Heaven and Earth apart" - surely a hard task, enough to cause
anybody to be in a state of protest and opposition against the happy
Gods who have nothing to do but enjoy themselves on Olympus. Sometimes
he refuses to hold the long columns for awhile, then comes the
earthquake, in which what is below starts heavenward. Of this Atlas,
Calypso is the offspring, and possibly her island, "the navel of the
sea," is a product of one of his movements underneath the waters.

Here we touch a peculiar vein in the mythical treatment of the Odyssey.
The fairy-tale, with its comprehensive but dark suggestiveness, is
interwoven into the very fibre of the poem. This remote Atlas is the
father of Calypso, "the hider," who has indeed hidden Ulysses in her
island of pleasure which will hereafter be described. But in spite of
his "concealment," Ulysses has aspiration, which calls down the help of
the Gods for fulfillment. Such is the first obstacle, which, we can
see, lies somewhere in the sensuous part of human nature.

The second obstacle is Neptune, whom we at once think of as the
physical sea - certainly a great barrier. The wrath of Neptune is also
set off with a tale of wonder, which gives the origin of Polyphemus,
the Cyclops - a gigantic, monstrous birth of the sea, which produces so
many strange and huge shapes of living things. But Neptune is now far
away, outside of the Greek world, so to speak, among the Ethiopians.
This implies a finite element in the Gods; they are here, there, and
elsewhere; still they have the infinite characteristic also; they
easily pass from somewhere into everywhere, and Ulysses will not escape

Such, then, are the two obstacles, both connected far back with
mythical beings of the sea, wherein we may note the marine character of
the Odyssey, which is a sea-poem, in contrast with the Iliad, which is
a land-poem. The physical environment, in which each of these songs has
its primary setting, is in deep accord with their respective
themes - the one being more objective, singing of the deed, the other
being more subjective, singing of the soul.

And even in the two present obstacles we may note that the one,
Neptune, seems more external - that of the physical sea; while the
other, Calypso, seems more internal - that of the soul held in the
charms of the senses.

_The Assembly of the Gods._ The two obstacles to the return of Ulysses
are now to be considered by the Gods in council assembled. This is,
indeed, the matter of first import; no great action, no great poem is
possible outside of the divine order. This order now appears, having a
voice; the supreme authority of the world is to utter its decree
concerning the work. The poet at the start summons before us the
governing principle of the universe in the persons of the Olympian
deities. On the other hand, note the solitary individual Ulysses, in a
lonely island, with his aspiration for home and country, with his
plan - will it be realized? The two sides must come together somehow;
the plan of the individual must fit into the plan of the Gods; only in
the cooperation of the human and divine is the deed, especially the
great deed, possible. Accordingly we are now to behold far in advance
the sweep of the poem, showing whether the man's purpose and hope be in
harmony with the government of the Gods.

Zeus is the supreme divinity, and he first speaks: "How sorely mortals
blame the Gods!" It is indeed an alienated discordant time like the
primal fall in Eden. But why this blame? "For they say that evils come
from us, the Gods; whereas they, through their own follies, have
sorrows beyond what is ordained." The first words of the highest God
concern the highest problem of the poem and of human life. It is a
wrong theology, at least a wrong Homeric theology, to hold that the
Gods are the cause of human ills; these are the consequences of man's
own actions. Furthermore, the cause is not a blind impersonal power
outside of the individual, it is not Fate but man himself. What a lofty
utterance! We hear from the supreme tribunal the final decision in
regard to individual free-will and divine government.

Not without significance is this statement put into the mouth of Zeus
and made his first emphatic declaration. We may read therein how the
poet would have us look at his poem and the intervention of the Gods.
We may also infer what is the Homeric view concerning the place of
divinity in the workings of the world.

Such being the command of Zeus, the interpreter has nothing to do but
to obey. No longer shall we say that the Gods in this Odyssey destroy
human freedom, but that they are deeply consistent with it; the divine
interference when it takes place is not some external agency beyond the
man altogether, but is in some way his own nature, veritably the
essence of his own will. Such is truly the thing to be seen; the poem
is a poem of freedom, and yet a poem of providence; for do we not hear
providence at the very start declaring man's free-will, and hence his
responsibility? The God, then, is not to destroy but to secure human
liberty in action, and to assert it on proper occasions. Thus Zeus
himself has laid down the law, the fundamental principle of Homer's
religion as well as of his poem.

Have the Gods, then, nothing to do in this world? Certainly they have,
and this is the next point upon which we shall hear our supreme
authority, Zeus. He has in mind the case of Ægisthus whom the Gods
warned not to do the wicked deed; still he did it in spite of the
warning, and there followed the penalty. So the Gods admonish the
wrong-doer, sending down their bright-flashing messenger Hermes, and
declaring through him the great law of justice: the deed will return
unto the doer. Zeus has now given expression to the law which governs
the world; it is truly his law, above all caprice. Moreover, the God
gives a warning to the sinner; a divine mercy he shows even in the
heathen world.

The case of Ægisthus, which Zeus has in mind, is indeed a striking
example of a supreme justice which smites the most exalted and
successful criminal. It made a profound impression upon the Greek
world, and took final shape in the sublime tragedy of Æschylus.
Throughout the _Odyssey_ the fateful story peeps from the background,
and strongly hints what is to become of the suitors of Penelope, who
are seeking to do to Ulysses what Ægisthus did to Agamemnon. They will
perish, is the decree; thus we behold at the beginning of the poem an
image which foreshadows the end. That is the image of Ægisthus, upon
whom vengeance came for the wrongful deed.

The Gods, then, do really exist; they are the law and the voice of the
law also, to which man may hearken if he will; but he can disobey, if
he choose, and bring upon himself the consequences. The law exists as
the first fact in the world, and will work itself out with the Gods as
executors. Is not this a glorious starting-point for a poem which
proposes to reveal the ways of providence unto men? The idea of the
Homeric world-order is now before us, which we may sum up as follows:
the Gods are in the man, in his reason and conscience, as we moderns
say; but they are also outside of man, in the world, of which they are
rulers. The two sides, divine and human, must be made one; the grand
dualism between heaven and earth must be overcome in the deed of the
hero, as well as in the thought of the reader. When the God appears, it
is to raise man out of himself into the universal realm where lies his
true being. Again, let it be affirmed that the deities are not an
external fate, not freedom-destroying power, but freedom-fulfilling,
since they burst the narrow limits of the mere individual and elevate
him into unity and harmony with the divine order. There he is truly

Thus we hear Zeus in his first speech announcing from Olympus the two
great laws which govern the world, as well as this poem - that of
freedom and that of justice. The latter, indeed, springs from the
former; if man be free, he must be held responsible and receive the
penalty of the wicked deed. Moreover, it is the fundamental law of
criticism for the _Odyssey_; freedom and justice we are to see in it
and unfold them in accord with the divine order; woe be to the critic
who disobeys the decree of Zeus, and sees in his poem only an amusing
tale, or a sun-myth perchance.

But here is Pallas Athena speaking to the supreme deity, and noting
what seems to be an exception. It is the case of Ulysses, who always
"gave sacrifices to the immortal Gods," who has done his duty, and
wishes to return to family and country. Pallas hints the difficulty;
Calypso the charmer, seeks to detain him in her isle from his wedded
wife and to make him forget Ithaca; but she cannot. Strong is his
aspiration, he is eager to break the trance of the fair nymph, and the
Gods must help him, when he is ready to help himself. Else, indeed,
they were not Gods. Then there is the second obstacle, Neptune; he,
"only one," cannot hold out "against all," for the All now decrees the
restoration of the wanderer. Verily it is the voice of the totality,
which is here uttered by Zeus, ordering the return of Ulysses; the
reason of the world we may also call it, if that will help the little
brain take in the great thought.

But we must not forget the other side. This divine power is not simply
external; the mighty hand of Zeus is not going to pick up Ulysses from
Calypso's island, and set him down in Ithaca. He must return through
himself, yet must fit into the providential order. Both sides are
touched upon by Zeus; Ulysses "excels mortals in intelligence," and he
will now require it all; but he also "gives sacrifices to the Gods
exceedingly," that is, he seeks to find out the will of the Gods and
adjust himself thereto. Intellect and piety both he has, often in
conflict, but in concord at last. With that keen understanding of his
he will repeatedly fall into doubt concerning the divine purpose; but
out of doubt he rises into a new harmony.

When the decree of the Highest has been given, Pallas at once organizes
the return of Ulysses, and therewith the poem. This falls into three
large divisions: -

I. Pallas goes to Ithaca to rouse Telemachus, who is just entering
manhood, to be a second Ulysses. He is to give the divine warning to
the guilty suitors; then he is to go to Pylos and Sparta in order to
inquire about his father, who is the great pattern for the son. Thus we
have a book of education for the Homeric youth whose learning came
through example and through the living word of wisdom from the lips of
the old and experienced man. This part embraces the first four Books,
which may be called the Telemachiad.

II. Mercury is sent to Calypso to bid the nymph release Ulysses, who at
once makes his raft and starts on his voyage homeward. In this second
part we shall have the entire story of the Hero from the time he leaves
Troy, till he reaches Ithaca in the 13th Book. As Telemachus the youth
is to have his period of education (_Lehrjahre_), so Ulysses the man is
to have his experience of the journey of life (_Wanderjahre_). Both
parts belong together, making a complete work on the education of man,
as it could be had in that old Greek world. This part is the Odyssey
proper, or the Ulyssiad.

III. The third part brings together father and son in Ithaca; then it
portrays them uniting to perform the great deed of justice, the
punishment of the suitors. This part embraces the last twelve Books,
but is not distinctly set forth in the plan of Pallas as here given.

Such is the structure of the poem, which is organized in its main
outlines from Olympus. It is Pallas, the deity of wisdom, who has
ordered it in this way; her we shall follow, in preference to the
critics, and unfold the interpretation on the same organic lines. Every
reader will feel that the three great joints of the poetical body are
truly foreshadowed by the Goddess, who indeed is the constructive
principle of the poem. One likes to see this belief of the old singer
that his work was of divine origin, was actually planned upon Olympus
by Pallas in accordance with the decree of Zeus. So at least the Muses
have told him, and they were present. But the grandest utterance here
is that of Zeus, the Greek Providence, proclaiming man's free will.

Very old and still very new is the problem of the Odyssey; with a
little care we can see that the Homeric Greek had to solve in his way
what every one of us still has to solve, namely, the problem of life.
Only yesterday one might have heard the popular preacher of a great
city, a kind of successor to Homer, blazoning the following text as his
theme: God is not to blame. Thus the great poem has an eternal subject,
though its outer garb be much changed by time. The soul of Homer is
ethical, and that is what makes him immortal. Not till we realize this
fact, can we be said in any true sense, to understand him.


The Introduction being concluded, the story of Telemachus begins, and
continues till the Fifth Book. Two main points stand forth in the
narrative. The first is the grand conflict with the suitors, the men of
guilt, the disturbers of the divine order; this conflict runs through
to the end of the poem, where they are swept out of the world which
they have thrown into discord. The second point of the Telemachiad is
the education of Telemachus, which is indeed the chief fact of these
Books; the youth is to be trained to meet the conflict which is looming
up before him in the distance. Thus we have one of the first
educational books of the race, the very first possibly; it still has
many valuable hints for the educator of the present age. Its method is
that of oral tradition, which has by no means lost its place in a true
discipline of the human spirit. Living wisdom has its advantage to-day
over the dead lore of the text-books.

Very delightful is the school to which we see Telemachus going in these
four Books. Heroes are his instructors, men of the deed as well as of
the word, and the source from which all instruction is derived is the
greatest event of the age, the Trojan War. The young man is to learn

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