Ancient Greece is known for its beautiful theaters and its skilled poets. One of the most famous ones at that time and famous even now is Homer. Nobody knows who he actually is but the works that he has created are far more than magnificent. The Odyssey and The Iliad are two poems that turned into myths, have actually been accepted as part of the history of the Greeks. The Odyssey is a story about a hero from the Trojan War who struggles to get home to his family and when he finally does he faces the suitors who he fights and defeats with the help of the gods and his son who he hasn’t seen for around twenty years. The gradual development of the plot, the actual, end of the book is easily noticed. A big role in that development plays hospitality or as Homer calls it the xenia. Odysseus’ journey on his way back to his island Ithaca contains numerous details about hospitality and what it is to be a good or a bad host. His voyage is based on the kindness and the warmth of the people. There are gods and humans, and giants that do not appreciate the hero but he deals with them and we meet with the actual plot of the story, his homecoming.
Warmth and kindness are presented within every visit described in the book. Homer draws a very good picture of how guests are welcomed, what entertainment they are given and the way they are send on their way. The picture is filled with kindness and warmth. We could say that the kind of hospitality presented in the book is hardly seen today. The different steps of welcoming some one are really interesting. The host is bathed and fed right after his arrival no matter who he is. Hosts do not really present the question that identifies their guest until later on, after he has been well rested and entertained. A great example of this is when Telemachos and Athene, in the body of Mentor, visit Nestor. When Nestor sees the two men he has never seen before he has a feast with his sons and companions. In the sight of the strangers they all stand up and greet them. The first thing that is done is to find a place for the two guests on the table and to feed them.
” But when they had put aside their desire for eating and drinking,
first to speak was the Gerenian horseman, Nestor:
‘Now is a better time to interrogate our guests and ask
them who they are, now they have had the pleasure of eating'”
In this quote we see some of the interesting customs of welcoming a guest. They are even more emphasized in the visit of Telemachos and Nestor’s son to Menelaus, in Sparta. More specifically in the words of Menelaus to his servant when he is asked if the strangers should be send away:
” Eteoneus, son of Boethoos, you were never
a fool before, but now you are babbling nonsense, as a child
would do. Surely we two have eaten much hospitality
from other men before we came back here”
Then he tells his servant to bring the guests to be feasted. Another great custom is seen when Menelaus sends Telemachos and Nestor’s son on their way. He gives them precious and expensive gifts.
What is the reason for this customs? What is their meaning and significance?
If this friendliness did not exist among the characters in the book, Odysseus would never be able to go to his homeland, Ithaca. There would not have been a homecoming that long, and may be the plot of the story would have been different, if Homer did not introduce the detaining of Odysseus at Kalypso’s island. The goddess is in love with the mortal and for a long time tries to persuade him to be her husband, only the will of the hero is to go back to his wife and already grown son. Even though holding him against his will, Kalypso is a very good hostess. She never harms Odysseus’s. She cooks for him and bathes him but never uses her powers in a negative way. She even promises that she would make him immortal if he marries her. There is warmth and kindness again, the two important elements of xenia. The time spend on Kalypso’s island helps pieces of the story, other than Odysseus’ journey home and important for its plot, to be developed.
Really significant are the Phaiakians. Without their help Odysseus would have never been home in time to organize the murder of the foolish suitors and take his place as a leader of the Ithacans. Alkinoos and Arete, king and queen of the Phaiakians, show such good hospitality. They entertain and feed the tired and
1- Book III, lines 67-70
2- Book IV, lines 30-36
lost hero and help him rest. The customs of receiving a guest are again emphasized here. The guest is being bathed, fed, entertained and then asked who he is. In this visit of Odysseus we meet with his journey, before he ends up on Kalypso’s island. We see how one visit leads to the other and how they are all connected. If one does not occur then the next do not either. The Phiakians not only entertain Odysseus but
they give him gifts and they take him to his homeland. There, Athena changes his physical appearance so he can plan his revenge on the suitors. The first one he meets with after his return is Eumaios and that visit helps him find out about the suitors the situation in the palace. Eumaios is really warm to Odysseus even though he doesn’t recognize him. He shows good hospitality and he explains how much he misses his master and that he dislikes the suitors. Odysseus’ mask that Athena creates helps him recognize the people still loyal to him and Eumaios is one of these people. In this visit Telemachos finally meets his long gone father.
Another important part of the story that helps build its plot and is also connected with hospitality is the way the suitors are entertained and welcomed in the palace. Homer has established specific rules and customs that a host should follow and Penelope is a follower of these rules. The suitors no matter what their purpose of stay is and no matter who they are a warmly welcomed in the palace and are constantly fed and entertained. They cannot be forced to leave just because the rules that the society Homer meets us with has establish. It would be really inhospitable and therefore Penelope and everybody else have to put up with the suitors and offer them everything they have until they decide to leave. Instead of leaving they take advantage of the free food and entertainment and not only that but they constantly trouble Penelope with their marriage proposals. Feasting and wasting Odysseus’ fortune and belongings they are presented as haughty people that only care about eating and drinking. They are being really bad guests and are punished on the end, punished by the man whose belongings, wife, son, and servants they abuse for so long.
“You dogs, you never thought that I would any more come back
from the land of Troy, and because of that you despoiled my household,
and forcibly took my serving women to sleep beside you,
and sought to win my wife while I was still alive, fearing
neither the immortal gods who hold the wide heaven,
nor any resentment sprung from men to be yours in the future.
Now upon all of you the terms of destruction are fastened”
3- Book XXII, lines 35-41
These are the words of Odysseus, mad with the destruction the suitors have caused to his home. He kills them all, right before they are about to eat. He kills Antinoos right when he is about to drink from the wine.
The suitors do not deserve the food that is being served to them because of their cruelty towards the host and the hostess. That is the reason Odysseus plans their murder right before they eat so that can be emphasized. The “good food” falls on the ground when Odysseus’ arrows strike the suitors and their blood mixes with it. May be Homer felt sorry for the suitors and he, through the mix of dirty blood and “good food” purifies the suitors and cleans their souls.
The Odyssey is a book that grabs its reader with its story about Odysseus and his final homecoming. There would be no homecoming or he would have been home too late to save his wife and son from the “haughty” suitors if there was not the good hospitality of the people he visits. Everybody Odysseus meets on his way has helped the story progress by their bad or good hospitality. Therefore xenia plays a very significant role in the plot of the story.
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