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Stories from the Odyssey by H. L. Havell

The maternal grandfather of Odysseus


Where

life is held so cheap, opinion is not likely to be very strict in matters of property. And we find accordingly a general acquiescence in "the good old rule, the ancient plan, that they may take who have the power, and they may keep who can." Cattle-lifting is as common as it formerly was on the Scottish border. The bold buccaneer is a character as familiar as in the good old days when Drake and Raleigh singed the Spanish king's beard, with this important difference, that the buccaneer of ancient Greece plundered Greek and barbarian with fine impartiality. A common question addressed to persons newly arrived from the sea is, "Are you a merchant, a traveller, or a pirate?" And this curious query implies no reproach, and calls for no resentment. Still more startling are the terms in which Autolycus, the maternal grandfather of Odysseus, is spoken of. This worthy, we are informed, "surpassed all mankind in thieving and lying"; and the information is given in a manner which shows that the poet intended it as a grave compliment. In another passage the same hero is celebrated as an accomplished burglar. So low was the standard of Homeric ethics in this respect; and even in the historical age of Greece, want of honesty and want of truthfulness were too often conspicuous failings in some of her most famous men.

Even more shocking to the moral sense is the wild ferocity which sometimes breaks out in the language and conduct of both men and women. The horrible

practice of mutilating the dead after a battle is viewed with indifference, and even with complacency, by the bravest warriors. Even Patroclus, the most amiable of the heroes in the _Iliad_, proposes to inflict this dastardly outrage on the body of the fallen Sarpedon. Achilles drags the body of Hector behind his chariot from the battlefield, and keeps it in his tent for many days, that he may repeat this hideous form of vengeance in honour of his slaughtered friend. When the dying Hector begs him to restore his body to the Trojans for burial he replies with savage taunts, and wishes that he could find it in his heart to carve the flesh of Hector and eat it raw! And Hecuba, the venerable Queen of Troy, expresses herself in similar terms when Priam is preparing to set forth on his mission to the tent of Achilles.

Turning now to the more attractive side of the picture, we shall find much to admire in the character of Homer's heroes. In the first place we have to note their intense vitality and keen sense of pleasure, natural to a young and vigorous people. The outlook on life is generally bright and cheerful, and there is hardly any trace of that corroding pessimism which meets us in later literature. Cases of suicide, so common in the tragedians, are almost unknown.

In one respect, and that too a point of the very highest importance, the Greeks of this age were far in advance of those who came after them, and not behind the most polished nations of modern Europe. We refer to the beauty, the tenderness, and the purity of their domestic relations. The whole story of the _Odyssey_ is founded on the faithful wedded love of Odysseus and Penelope, and the contrasted example of Agamemnon and his demon wife is repeatedly held up to scorn and abhorrence. The world's poetry affords no nobler scene than the parting of Hector and Andromache in the _Iliad_, nor has the ideal of perfect marriage ever found grander expression than in the words addressed by Odysseus to Nausicaae: "There is nothing mightier and nobler than when man and wife are of one mind and heart in a house, a grief to their foes, and to their friends a great joy, but their own hearts know it best."[1]

[Footnote 1: Butcher and Lang's translation.]

Hospitality in a primitive state of society, where inns are unknown, is not so much a virtue as a necessity. Even in these early times the Greeks, within the limits of their little world, were great travellers, and their swift chariots, and galleys propelled by sail and oar, enabled them to make considerable journeys with speed and safety. Arrived at their destination for the night they were sure of a warm welcome at the first house at which they presented themselves; and he who played the host on one occasion expected and found a like return when, perhaps years afterwards, he was brought by business or pleasure to the home of his former guest. Nor were these privileges confined to the wealthy and noble, who were able, when the time came, to make payment in kind, but the poorest and most helpless outcast, the beggar, the fugitive, and the exile, found countenance and protection, when he made his plea in the name of Zeus, the god of hospitality.


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