Image Description

The Odyssey: Hospitality

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Homer's "Odyssey" by Robert Garland

Hospitality in a myriad variety of forms is a constant thread that links all the episodes in the poem together. We encounter every kind of host and every kind of guest. I mentioned at the beginning of this course that hospitality, the Greek word is xenia, was extremely important in ancient Greece, as indeed it is, too, in modern Greece. Xenia took the form of a bilateral obligation that bound guest and host together. Both hosts and guests were under the protection of Zeus in his capacity of Zeus Xenios, Zeus protector of guests and hosts. That in itself indicates what a high value was placed on observing the rules of hospitality. This high value was due to the fact that travel in the ancient world was dangerous and the only safe haven when you were on the road was a private dwelling or, better, a palace. We're talking about aristocrats because only aristocrats travelled any distance from their homes. Aristocrats developed ties of guest-friendship as this institution is called, often going back several generations. That's why Telemachus can set off in search of news of his father. He doesn't notify Nestor and Menelaus in advance that he'd like to stay with them for a few nights. He doesn't have to. He's assured of a warm welcome. Hospitality, xenia, extended to strangers. When Odysseus turns up at the palace of King Alcinoüs in a thoroughly bedraggled condition, he is warmly received by his host and hostess.

Homer plays with the concept of xenia in manifold ways throughout the poem. When in Book 1 the goddess Athena arrives at Odysseus' palace disguised as a trader and is observed by Telemachus standing in the forecourt, Telemachus is appalled that there's no-one to attend to her. In this way, Telemachus establishes his credentials as a very decent, upright young man. He doesn't say, "Who the hell are you?" Instead, he invites her inside the palace, sits her down in a chair, and has her served food. Only after his guest has been fed does he ask her/him who she/he is.

It's now that the suitors appear. They represent an archetypical image of xenia gone bad. They are the guests who have outstayed their welcome big time. They are the guests who take over your home, eat you out of house and home, sleep with your slaves, and try to seduce your wife. Calypso, by contrast, who has Odysseus entrapped on her island, is the host or hostess who won't let her guest go – another instance of bad xenia.

The ultimate example of bad xenia, however, is that provided by the Cyclops Polyphemus. When Odysseus arrives on his shore and goes searching for food, he ends up in the Cyclops' cave. Against the better judgement of his companions, he decides to stick around to see if the owner of the cave will give him any presents; to see, in other words, if he will observe the rules of Greek xenia. You might think that when the Cyclops turns up, this horrible giant with a single eye, he might think twice about his decision. He doesn't, however. "I was hoping that you might give me a guest present," he says to the Cyclops, "as is the right of strangers when they turned up at someone's home." Well, we know what happens, the Cyclops, instead of setting food before his visitors as xenia demanded, proceeds to eat them instead. In other words, this is a somewhat comic if at the same time gruesome reversal of the etiquette that bound guest and host together.

Odysseus, by contrast, is the perfect guest who offers his host a guest present – namely wine. Polyphemus drinks it eagerly, gets drunk, and says, "So here's my guest present to you. I'll eat you last, after I've eaten all your companions." Polyphemus, it turns out, has a kind of gallows humour.

The final example of hospitality is when Odysseus, the owner of his house, has to beg at his own table for scraps of food from the suitors. In Book 18, he even has to fight for his right to beg from the resident beggar Irus. This, too, is an inversion of the rules of hospitality. He also has to suffer the indignity of being subjected to both verbal and physical abuse. At the end of the book, he's taunted by the suitor Eurymachus, who says he's an idle devil who sponges off other people's wealth and who then throws a footstool at Odysseus. Odysseus dodges, and the footstool strikes a cupbearer instead.

As I said, Homer uses the theme of hospitality to illustrate each character's moral worth. We understand the Telemachus is a good man because of his hospitable treatment of a stranger, we understand that Odysseus is reckless because he demands hospitality from a creature who knows nothing about the rules of hospitality, we understand that the suitors are morally bankrupt precisely because they abuse hospitality to the utmost. And there's one final example of hospitality that is highly instructive. After they have generously hosted Odysseus and provided him with safe transport back to Ithaca, the Phaeacians are punished by Poseidon. Hospitality comes sometimes with a price tag. It's one more place in the poem where Homer indicates that for all the fancifulness of Odysseus' adventures, his experience is firmly ground in reality.

In the next lesson, we're going to examine another unifying theme in the poem, which takes a variety of forms – female power.

Image Description
Written by

Robert Garland