Homer has described to us the phenomena of the ocean under the form of a myth; this [art] is very desirable in a poet; the idea of his Charybdis was taken from the ebb and flow of the tide, and was by no means a pure invention of his own, but derived from what he knew concerning the Strait of Sicily.1 And although he states that the ebb and flow occurred thrice during the four and twenty hours, instead of twice,
we must suppose that he said this not through any ignorance of the fact, but for tragic effect, and to excite the fear which Circe endeavours to infuse into her arguments to deter Ulysses from departing, even at a little expense of truth. The following is the language Circe makes use of in her speech to him:
“ (Each day she thrice disgorges, and each day”
Thrice swallows it,")2Odyssey xii. 105.
And yet when Ulysses was ingulfed in the eddy he was not lost. He tells us himself,
“ Each day she thrice disgorges, and each day”
Thrice swallows it. Ah! well-forewarn'd beware
What time she swallows, that thou come not nigh,
For not himself, Neptune, could snatch thee thence.3Odyssey xii. 105.
And then having waited for the timbers of the wreck he seized hold of them, and thus saved himself. Circe, therefore, had exaggerated both the peril, and also the fact of its vomiting forth thrice a day instead of twice. However, this latter is a hyperbole which every one makes use of; thus we say thrice- happy and thrice-miserable. So the poet,
“ 'It was the time when she absorb'd profound”
The briny flood, but by a wave upborne,
I seized the branches fast of the wild fig,
To which bat-like I clung.4Odyssey xii. 431.
“ Thrice-happy Greeks!5”Odyssey v. 306.
“ O delightful, thrice-wished for!6”Iliad viii. 488.
Any one, too, might conclude from the passage itself that Homer even here hinted at the truth, for the long time which the remains of the wreck lay under water, which Ulysses, who was all the while hanging suspended to the branches, so anxiously desired to rise, accords much better with the ebb and flow taking place but twice during the night and day instead of thrice.
“ O thrice and four times.7”Iliad iii. 363.
Every word of this indicates a considerable length of time, especially when he prolongs it to the evening, not merely saying at that time when the judge has risen, but having adjudicated on a vast number of cases, and therefore detained longer than usual. Otherwise his account of the return of the wreck would not have appeared likely, if he had brought it back again with the return of the wave, before it had been first carried a long way off.
“ Therefore hard”
I clench'd the boughs, till she disgorged again
Both keel and mast. Not undesired by me
They came, though late; for at what hour the judge,
After decision made of numerous strifes
Between young candidates for honour, leaves
The forum, for refreshment's sake at home,
Then was it that the mast and keel emerged.8Odyssey xii. 437.