Friday, July 27, 2018

Threads in the Odyssey: Hospitality

One way of reading the Odyssey is as a series of encounters with various kinds of hospitality. Put another way, this is one of the major threads woven all throughout this epic of weaving. Hospitality necessarily involves food, of course, which is why reading any given book of the Odyssey is likely to give one a hankering for cheese, wine, and mutton. I think it was Fielding that referred to it as "the eatingest epic."

There seem to be three kinds of hospitality that Odysseus encounters:

1) Right hospitality, that gives gifts, offers entertainment, exchanges and reinforces cultural norms through storytelling, sacrifice, eating, and other forms of ritual bonding. The Phaeacians are the best example of this. Closest in kinship to the gods of all mankind, the Phaeacians are good at entertaining perhaps because they are used to entertaining the gods face-to-face. Most importantly, the Phaeacians do not just show Odysseus a good time: they let him go, they prepare him for his journey, they send him on his way richly repaid for all his trials. This is the telos of proper hospitality: to send the guest or suppliant on his way again, better and richer than he was before; to send him to his homecoming well-equipped and well-prepared for what he will find there.

2) Oppressive hospitality, which we see from people who are either on the fringes of human society or on the divinity spectrum. Calypso both, course, but also the lotus-eaters. These are people who give gifts, but who make a prisoner of the guest by refusing to speed them on their way.

3) Monstrous hospitality, which we see from monsters and from evil men. Polyphemous the Cyclops is the arch example of this. He is "hospitable" in that he "offers lodging" -- i.e. he locks Odysseus and his men in the cave and refuses to let them go. He offers a "guest-gift" in that he promises to eat Odysseus last. He has his guests for dinner instead of having them over for dinner. One of the things that is stressed when the Cyclops are introduced is that they are lawless, and live "every one for himself," without king or laws. This designates them as barbaric and sub-human, and their hospitality matches. On the other side of the guest-host relationship, the Suitors are committing similar crimes.

Good old Nestor shows #1 to Telemachus, but very nearly verges on #2, so much so that Telemachus eventually has to slip away so as not to be smothered by the old man's affections and get on with his quest.

In the house of Menelaus, Telemachus finds perfect hospitality. (Not to mention the fact that Helen finally confirms the legitimacy of his parentage, something Telemachus has been worried about since the beginning of the poem). It's only then that he's equipped to head back to Ithaca, rendezvous with his father, and clean house.


Currently reading: How to be Un-Lucky, by Joshua Gibbs
Current audio book: The Odyssey, by Homer (trans. Fagles)
Currently translating: Hervarar saga

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