Xenia in Homer’s Odyssey: Episodes of Hospitality and Virtue
Living in a major American city, we have no trouble identifying that those in need are all around us. People ask for spare change on the subway so that they can get a meal; people hold cardboard signs that read, “Anything helps.” Throughout history, the less fortunate have always existed in society. It’s not their presence that’s changed, but instead our values as members of society. Of all the people asking for spare change or a token, how many do we walk past without giving a second thought? The expectations as a society for how we regard wayfarers and mendicants have changed greatly throughout time. Xenia in ancient Greek terminology refers to the set of customs and values revolving around hospitality. The ancient Greeks valued hospitality deeply, often offering much more than the bare minimum to those suffering or in need. However, Homer’s Odyssey emphasizes the presence and importance of hospitality in Ancient Greece by portraying it in contrasting manners. This theme is developed throughout the book. Instances of eminent hospitality and abuse/lack of hospitality are both significant to the development of the story’s plot and to the lessons it teaches.
In the beginning of the book, the suitors are introduced. These are men who laze about causing chaos in the home of Telemachos and Penelope, awaiting the day that she gives in and chooses to marry one of them. Their presence carries throughout the book until the end, when Odysseus returns to Ithaka and reclaims what was once his. Believing that Odysseus is truly dead, the suitors eat his food and drink his wine. They pay no respect to his son or his wife, which moves Telemachos to seek out more information about his father’s fate. He says, , “If only the gods would give me such strength as he has to take revenge on the suitors for their overbearing oppression” (56). The suitors abuse Telemachos’ hospitality and invade his life, causing him to pray that the gods give him what he needs to fight back. Still in the beginning of the book, Telemachos meets Menelaus, who welcomes him with great hospitality and warmth?xenia. However, Telemachos must challenge this by requesting honesty regarding his father’s fate. “Do not soften it because you pity me and are sorry for me, but fairly tell me all that your eyes have witnessed” (73). In a way, this pits truth against tact. Hospitality and kindness are present, but must be set aside so that Telemachos can learn what he goes off to learn.
Another instance of conflicting xenia presents itself in The Odyssey when wayfaring Odysseus comes across the Phaiakians, a people who greatly value hospitality. Odysseus first meets Nausikka, the Phaiakian princess. Although he is a sea-tossed and naked stranger, she says, “But, since this is some poor wanderer who has come to us, we must now take care of him, since all strangers and wanderers are sacred…” (107) She offers him clothing and a bath, then shows him to the palace, where he is offered food and drink before his identity is even questioned. The Phaiakians value visitors and make no guest feel unwanted. When hearing his story and learning of his true identity, they take a liking to Odysseus and decide to help him return to Ithaka after showering him with gifts. This leads to the belief that the Phaiakians are a welcoming and kind people. However, the actions of the Phaiakians anger Poseidon, leading to a blight on their apparent hospitality. After taking Odysseus back to Ithaka, Poseidon turns the Phaiakian ship to stone. This brings them to believe that they should no longer open themselves up to strangers and wanderers, as they have been hurt in the process of doing so. What seems to be the apotheosis of hospitality changes entirely after consequences for actions are faced.
As The Odyssey transitions into its final section, Odysseus is disguised by Athena as a beggar. He mustn’t yet reveal his true identity, as he must first seek information on the current happenings of Ithaka. Beggar Odysseus is immediately offered shelter and food by the first person he sees, a loyal swineherd named Eumaios. Though not wealthy or very fortunate himself, Eumaios takes Odysseus in because it’s the right thing to do according his beliefs and those of many Ancient Greeks. Eumaios speaks fondly and sadly of Odysseus, his king and master, though not knowing that he’s in his presence. “Old sir, I will never pay you that gift for good news, nor will Odysseus come into this house again. Be easy…we will then think of other matters.” (214) This reflects well not only on Eumaios as a loyal and trustworthy adherent, but on Odysseus and how he has influenced those that he’s ruled.
Xenia meant more than just being polite to strangers. It was a set of customs that was incredibly important to Ancient Greeks and their society; it was also about holding reverence for the gods and their will. Zeus, king of the gods, was also the god of guests. To respect and welcome a stranger as a wanted visitor in the home meant to respect the gods and who they sent. Not only was it about having integrity and being a good person, but it reflected well on a host to exude strong hospitality and be genuinely welcoming. Xenia in Ancient Greece placed certain expectations on both host and guest, many of which pertained to trust, protection, and gratitude. The topic of xenia in Homer’s Odyssey is one of the main topics developed and emphasized consistently through the book, but it also pertains to our world and country today. In the face of omnipresent hate and xenophobia, there’s a lot to be learned about hospitality from ancient literature. Though many aspects of society have changed, some themes and values remain universal and timeless.
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