Xenia, the Greek concept of hospitality and the guest-host relationship, was, according to M.I. Finley in “The World of Odysseus”, a powerful institution in Ancient Greek times which solidified relationships between peoples and created alliances (100). The guest-host relationship, powered by the observance of xenia, as a social institution was probably something familiar in the life of the contemporary audience of The Odyssey and it’s poet. Indeed, it is worked into The Odyssey as a major theme, and comes to influence the plot in significant ways. For the modern reader, it is difficult to discern the nature of the guest-host relationship and its application without explicitly studying it. Fortunately, an analysis of the episodes in the epic where the guest-host relationship is explored reveals that there is a formula for its development, and that there are certain elements of hospitality necessary for a guest to be properly received. Furthermore, these elements and the function of the guest-host relationship assist the development of the plot, especially in the latter half of the epic when Odysseus must shed his disguise as a guest of Telemachus and come to restore his household.
The guest-host relationship is explored in a number of episodes throughout The Odyssey. Much of the first half of the epic features Telemachus and Odysseus arriving at someone’s lands and being received as a guest; the interactions Telemachus and Odysseus have with their hosts during these episodes reveal the processes in which the guest-host relationship is developed. An analysis of these interactions demonstrates that the development of this relationship is formulaic, as each episode shares a number of common elements of hospitality. These elements include the bath, the feast, the question of who the guest is, the guest-gift, and the promise of transport and protection.
The first episode demonstrating the development of the guest-host relationship is Telemachus’s stay with King Nestor at Plyos. Telemachus arrives at Plyos while Nestor and his people are holding a grand feast, is welcomed by them, and participates in the feasting. Following this, Nestor says “Now’s the time, now they’ve enjoyed their meal, to probe our guests and find out who they are. Strangers – friends, who are you? Where did you sail from, over the running sea-lanes?” (Odyssey 228). Later, he offers Telemachus a gift, the sacrifice of a “yearling heifer broad in the brow, unbroken, never yoked by men. I’ll offer it up to you- I’ll sheathe its horns in gold” (236). The following day, Telemachus is bathed and also clothed by Polycaste, Netor’s youngest daughter, who rinsed “him off now”, rubbed “him down with oil”, and “drew a shirt and handsome cape around him” (238). Following this, Nestor orders for Telemachus to be transported by “horses, a good full-manned team – hitch them to a chariot – he must be off at once” (238). Thus, from Telemachus’s stay with Nestor these major elements of the guest-host relationship are first revealed. Telemachus is feasted by Nestor, questioned on his identity, given a guest-gift, provided a bath and clothed by a female host, and finally provided transportation. During Telemachus’s stay with his next host, King Menelaus of Sparta, the development of the guest-host relationship is again demonstrated and these elements again displayed.
Telemachus arrives at Menelaus’s kingdom and is bathed by the women of Menelaus’s palace, who also “draw warm fleece and shirts around their shoulders” (240). Menelaus then welcomes him with a feast. He tells Telemachus to “Help yourselves to food, and welcome! Once you’ve dined we’ll ask you who you are” (240). Thus, immediately already three elements of the developing guest-host relationship, the bath, the feast, and the questioning of the guest, have again been demonstrated. Menelaus later promises to fulfill the remaining elements of the guest-host relationship by telling Telemachus that “I’ll give you a princely send-off – shining gifts, three stallions and a chariot burnished bright- and I’ll add a gorgeous cup so you can pour libations out to the deathless gods on high and remember Menelaus all your days” (253). Here, then, he offers Telemachus his guest-gift and promises to provide him with horses and a chariot, which can serve as transportation. Because this episode between Telemachus and his host shares these same elements of the guest-host relationship with the earlier episode, it is becoming apparent that the development of the guest-host relationship is formulaic; it requires these showings of hospitality to happen. The next episode, where Odysseus is hosted at the land of the Phaeacians, further demonstrates this.
Odysseus washes up on the shore of the Phaeacian’s island and comes into contact with Nausicaa, the daughter of King Alcinous. She offers him immediately the hospitality that she can, providing him with “a cloak and shirt for him to wear, they gave him the golden flask of suppling olive oil and pressed him to bathe” (276) and “set before Odysseus food and drink, and he ate and drank” (277). Odysseus is taken to the palace of King Alcinous, where Alcinous promises him transport, saying, “let us press on and grant him escort. No one, I tell you, no one who comes to my house will languish long here” (288). Alcinous orders the lords of Phaeacia to give Odysseus guest-gifts, saying “Come, let’s give him the parting gifts a guest deserves. Let us each contributes a fresh cloak and shirt and a bar of precious gold” (297). Finally, Alcinous asks Odysseus where he is from and who he is, asking him “tell us your own story now, and tell it truly. Where have your rovings forced you?” (301). As was the case of Telemachus’s interactions with his hosts, the interaction between Odysseus and Alcinous again makes use of these key elements to develop the guest-host relationship.
If these episodes demonstrate the successful navigation of the guest-host relationship, then the episode between Odysseus and the Cyclops demonstrates its failure. First, the Cyclops Polyphemus fails to provide Odysseus and his men with food, instead eating it all for himself. As he eats he discovers Odysseus and his men from the light of his flame, and immediately asks them “Strangers! Now who are you? Where did you sail from, over the running sea-lanes?” (307). Seen here is the questioning of Odysseus and his men about their identities, a recurring element in the development of the guest-host relationship. However, in this episode the Cyclops asks this question having not provided his guests a feast, a deviation from the formula of guest-friendship derived from the other episodes. Odysseus responds by saying that he and his men are “Men of Achaea we are and bound now from Troy!” (307), but having recognized that the guest-host relationship has not yet begun to develop, he tells the Cyclops that “we’re at your knees in hopes of a warm welcome, even a guest-gift, the sort that hosts give strangers. That’s the custom. Respect the gods, my friend. We’re suppliants – at your mercy!” (308). Odysseus makes this petition because of Polyphemus failure to uphold his role as host in the guest-host relationship, having deviated from the formula. He tells the Cyclops what the customs of xenia are and tells him that he and his men are suppliants, therefore presenting the Cyclops with the opportunity to provide them with protection and transport, an element of hospitality present in the other episodes. Yet Polyphemus refuses to accept this, and instead begins to kill Odysseus’s men. Here, then, he fails in providing the protection a suppliant is to be given by a host. Later, he promises to give Odysseus a guest-gift, but the guest-gift turns out to be nothing more than a promise to eat Odysseus last. Thus, even though Polyphemus operates within the formula for developing the guest-host relationship by offering a guest-gift, he ‘corrupts’ it by making the guest-gift something intangible, something without worth. His gift is simply to spare Odysseus until he is the last man, and then eat him. Lastly, Odysseus and his men are trapped within the Cyclops’s cave, and only escape by hiding themselves under the Cyclops’s rams. Because of this, it is clear that Polyphemus fails to uphold his responsibility as host to provide his guests transportation, and rather does the opposite by keeping them held in his cave. The episode between Polyphemus and Odysseus stands in stark contrast to the previous episodes, where the guest-host relationship is developed according to a formula and where the hosts uphold their responsibilities. Xenia is largely absent, or corrupted, in this episode.
The Cyclops episode demonstrates the failing of a host to provide his guests with hospitality, and can thus be contrasted against the earlier episodes to illuminate further these necessary elements of hospitality. First, Polyphemus asks the identity of the guests before any development of the relationship has begun. It is the first thing, which he does. This is completely unlike the other episodes, where Menelaus, Nestor, and Alcinous have all welcomed their guest and provided him with a feast before asking for their identity. Agathe Thornton makes note of this in her “People and Themes in Homer’s Odyssey“, observing that “guest-friendship implies good manners. The stranger must not be kept waiting. He may be offered a bath and fresh clothes. The main item of hospitality is of course a meal. After the meal, not before, comes the question: who are you? and what is your need?” (39). Thus, the importance of ‘good manners’ is integral to developing the guest-host relationship; the guest must be taken in and served before he is to be questioned about his identity and his purpose. It is the responsibility of the host to provide for his guest before anything is to proceed, despite not even knowing the identity or intentions of the stranger. Next, the Cyclops offers to provide Odysseus a guest-gift, but it ends up being a promise to eat Odysseus last. This is the corruption of the guest-gift, and Thornton says it is “an instance of the flouting of the obligations of the guest-friendship… this is hubris, and the Cyclops is punished by losing his sight” (39). Thus, ‘corrupting’ the guest-gift ruins the relationship between the guest and the host, demonstrating its importance as an element of hospitality. Indeed, it is such an egregious violation of the formula that, as Thornton says, Odysseus and his men punish the Cyclops for his hubris, from which this promise of a ‘corrupted’ guest-gift was derived. Finally, the Cyclops traps Odysseus and his men in his cave, without the intention of letting them go. This is the antithesis of offering his guests transportation and travel to their intended destination, and because of this the Cyclops must be tricked and deceived so that Odysseus can escape. The Cyclops episode demonstrates how a host can fail to uphold the formula of hospitality and hosting a guest, making the ‘correct’ way more apparent. A guest must be provided for before he is to be questioned. This is, again, ‘good manners’ on the part of the host and an integral part of developing the relationship according to Thornton. Though it doesn’t matter whether providing a bath and clothes comes before or after the revelation of the guests identity, for it does both in the analyzed episodes, it does matter that such hospitality is offered and that a meal, the “main item of hospitality” is provided before the guest is questioned. Finally, transportation and protection must be afforded upon the guest during their stay at the home of the host.
The elements of xenia, of hospitality and the guest-host relationship, have thus been revealed by the episodes in which the relationship is explored. Now the application of the guest-host relationship and the role of xenia in shaping the events of the epic can be examined. A, perhaps the, major narrative within the epic is of Odysseus’s journey home, his disguised homecoming, and the reclaiming of his home from the suitors. It’s clear that concealing his identity is something which Odysseus does much of throughout his journey and return. He hides his name from the Phaeacians, where Norman Austin in his “Name Magic in the ‘Odyssey’” says “his tactic is evasion rather than pseudonym, he carries caution almost to the point of incivility” (4). At Ithaca Odysseus practices the same caution, but under a disguise and pseudonym. Odysseus’s disguise, of course, is warranted. Austin makes this clear when he says “A man who is always suspicious of possible treachery, who provokes the hostility of gods and men, and is absent from his home for twenty years has good reason to shield his identity” (5). Odysseus is disguised as a stranger at his home, and thus, as has been revealed by the analysis of the guest-host relationship, must be taken in hospitably as a guest by the members of his household. The end-state of Odysseus’s disguised stay at his home is his killing of the suitors and the revelation of his identity. This, of course, can only be done through the assistance and cooperation of his ‘hosts’. Perhaps, then, xenia plays a role in allowing Odysseus to shed his disguise during his return home and when he is prepared to fight the suitors.
Indeed, the plot of The Odyssey establishes a positive connection between recognition and the observance of hospitality. In Phaeacia and on Ithaca, the hospitable reception of Odysseus as a guest and the development of the guest-host relationship lead to the recognition and revelation of his true identity. In “Disguise and Recognition in The Odyssey“, Sheila Murnagham argues that this demonstrates the “close connection between identity and social position and between the recognition of identity and other forms of recognition or acknowledgment” (91). An analysis of these episodes of hospitality and Odysseus’s interactions with his hosts confirms her hypothesis, and also demonstrates the connection between the successful guest-host relationship and the revelation of true identity.
Odysseus arrives at the island of Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians, without any outward signs of identity. His interaction with Nausicaa begins the process in which his identity is restored. She provides him with food, a bath, and clothes, transforming his appearance from a naked, brutish state back into that of a civilized man. When he arrives at the palace, King Alcinous honors Odysseus’s requests as a suppliant, as required from a host in order to provide hospitality. He is impressed by Odysseus, and wishes he could incorporate Odysseus into his family as son-in-law by saying, “Seeing the man you are, seeing we think as one - you could wed my daughter and be my son-in-law and stay right here with us. I’d give you a house and great wealth” (286). Thus, the Phaeacian society is able to recognize and acknowledge Odysseus’s merits by offering him a position of honored person, the benefits of which are clear from Alcinous’s offer of a house and possessions along with his daughter. Furthermore, because King Alcinous is offering to incorporate Odysseus into his own family, the offer demonstrates that Odysseus’s social position is recognized as being a member of the kingly class, like he is back at Ithaca. The following day, Odysseus Alcinous arranges for Odysseus to receive guest-gifts from the other leaders of Scheria and seeks to impress Odysseus by holding sporting contests. Odysseus demonstrates his capacity for sports and his physical acumen by winning in the sporting contests. By doing so, he thereby illuminates further his heroic identity as a champion and man of great strength. Alcinous responds to Odysseus’s victory by offering Odysseus a display of Phaeacian dancing with a song about how Hephaestus discovers Ares and his wife Aphrodite in an affair and punishes them for it. He does this so that Odysseus can “tell his friends, when he reaches home, how far we excel the world in sailing, nimble footwork, dance and song” (293), and is thus trying to impress Odysseus with Phaeacian society as he tried with the contest. Indeed, M.I. Finley speaks of the ‘lavish entertainment’ inherent in the institution of hosting a stranger, the guest. Thornton builds upon this by saying that “the very word xenos means both ‘guest-friend’ and ‘stranger or foreigner’. An instance of lavish entertainment of a stranger is, of course, Odysseus’s reception by the Phaeacians” (39).” Odysseus praises the dancing, saying that “you boasted Phaeacia’s dancers are the best – they prove your point – I watch and I’m amazed”. In doing so, Odysseus is fulfilling his portion of the guest-host relationship by being appreciative to his host, and Alcinous reciprocates by suggesting that Odysseus be given another guest-gift. Yet, as Thornton points out, its “no wonder that Odysseus was delighted with this song: in terms of a divine comedy it foretold the triumph of his own intelligence over the Suitors who were wooing his wife” (45) Thus, it is paving the way for Odysseus to reveal his identity, as it recognizes “Odysseus as a mighty intelligence under the image of Hephaestus with Areas, the War-god himself” (45).
Murnagham asserts that, by receiving guest-gifts because of his successful navigation of the guest-host relationship, Odysseus’s “current status as honored guest is formalized in a permanent relationship of guest-friendship. At this point, Odysseus has been recognized by the Phaeacians through the creation of a relationship that is in accord with his proper identity” (98). From this point forth, Odysseus asserts himself more forcefully, asking for a song to be played about the Trojan War, in which he had a decisive role. When the song plays, Odysseus breaks out into tears, and this prompts Alcinous to ask Odysseus who he really is, for that “surely no man in the world is nameless, all told. Tell me your land, your people, your city too, so our ships can sail you home” (300). Odysseus does not conceal his identity any further, as he has been received into a relationship with his hosts befitting of his identity, and because Alcinous frames the question so that Odysseus’s revelation of his name and identity is required for the transport element of the guest-host relationship to be fulfilled.
Odysseus’s identification is thus the inevitable consequence of his reception as a guest-friend by the Phaeacians. It is a process in which Odysseus gives displays of his civilized and heroic qualities, which the Phaeacians respond to by receiving him into a series of roles befitting his identity – suppliant, bridegroom, and guest-friend. The process for the reception of strangers practiced by the Phaeacians has enabled Odysseus to earn his recognition without the help of any external mark of identity. It has allowed Odysseus to integrate himself into a place in Phaeacian society befitting of his heroic character, his identity. Murnagham reiterates this point by saying “This smooth progression from Odysseus’s acceptance into the role of guest-friend to his identification implies an exact match between Odysseus himself and the social role he has attained, between the concealed identity of the destitute and anonymous wanderer washed up on the Phaeacian shore and the attractive figure created through Odysseus’s integrating behavior” (101).
Because this episode demonstrates the positive connection between hospitality and the revelation of Odysseus’s identity, it can be considered the antithesis of the Cyclops episode. Polyphemus refuses to respect the custom of hospitality, telling Odysseus that “you must be a fool, stranger, or come from nowhere, telling me to fear the gods or avoid their wrath… I’ll never spare you in fear of Zeus’s hatred, you or your comrades here, unless I had the urge” (308). As a result, while in the Cyclops’s presence Odysseus keeps his true identity disguised. Indeed, he tricks the Cyclops by claiming his name is “nobody”, the ultimate lack of identity. Thus, it can be concluded that, as the Phaeacian’s hospitality enabled Odysseus to reveal his true identity, the Cyclops’s inhospitality prevents Odysseus from revealing his identity. Further, the disguise he puts on to outsmart the Cyclops is as ‘nobody’, a word denoting no identity. Hospitality, then, leads to the complete revelation of identity; inhospitality leads to its complete concealment.
Like on Scheria, Odysseus’s interactions with those who host him on his home island of Ithaca demonstrate the correlation between hospitality and the recognition of identity. The circumstances, however, are quite different. Whereas on Scheria Odysseus’s disguise was his maintenance of anonymity and his identity safe until he chose to reveal it, on Ithaca his premature recognition could have dangerous consequences, and thus he must actively disguise himself. As on Scheria, Odysseus can only be identified after having been received into relationships that acknowledge his true status and identity. On Ithaca this serves a strategic purpose; he cannot identify himself until he has attained the status of guest of Telemachus and Penelope through the mechanisms of the guest-host relationship, because until then he is vulnerable to the suitors. Thus, he cannot disclose himself and defeat those who are hostile to the laws of hospitality until his various loyal members of the household receive him hospitably. Additionally, the connection between hospitality and recognition of identity reinforces the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters, those who observe the laws of hospitality and those who do not. Accepting the disguised Odysseus as guest becomes tantamount to accepting his return, rejecting him brings about its negative consequences.
Odysseus’s initial interactions are with his swineherd Eumaeus, who confers hospitality upon Odysseus by taking him in as a suppliant and providing him a meal. Recognizing Eumaeus’s hospitality, Odysseus swears that Odysseus’s return is imminent, and that as a reward for his prediction when he returns, “The moment he sets foot in his own house, dress me in shirt and cloak, in handsome clothes. Before then, poor as I am, I wouldn’t take a thing” (369). Thus, Odysseus is framing an element of the guest-host relationship, the clothing of the guest, along the premise of his return. He is proposing as his reward, a gift of clothes, something that constitutes the success of the prediction, the removal of his disguise. Hospitality, then, is connected with the revelation of his identity. The interaction between Eumaeus and Odysseus culminates in a false tale by Odysseus where he hints that he would like to be loaned a cloak, which Eumaeus hospitably loans him for overnight. Because Odysseus’s disguise consists of a state of destitution, for him to be given any new garment diminishes that disguise and, like the guest-gifts from Phaeacia, thus brings him closer to his proper status and identity. However, the hint Odysseus provides for the cloak attempts to illuminate the characteristics of his true identity. He says “Oh make me young again and the strength inside me steady as a rock! One of the swineherds here would lend a wrap… now they spurn me, dressed in filthy rags” (377). Thus, Odysseus characterizes Eumaeus’s lending of a cloak as a hospitable charity but also a denial of Odysseus’s disguise of weakness and old age. It enables the development of Odysseus’s true identity as a strong and heroic character and the diminishing of his disguise to occur without explicitly revealing his identity, at least not yet. Odysseus’s interactions with Penelope later play an important part in bringing about his explicit recognition. She offers him all the elements of hospitality, saying “Come, women, wash the stranger and make his bed, with bed… tomorrow at daybreak, bathe him well and rub him down with oil, so he can site beside Telemachus in the hall, enjoy his breakfast there” (425). Thus, she offers him a bath, a bed, and a breakfast next to Telemachus, so therefore a meal and protection. She is hosting him in a manner befitting his true identity; he has now become a guest-friend of Penelope, a relationship that will have importance later. By providing him the bath, an element of hospitality, Penelope also unintentionally leads to the premature revelation of his identity to the maid Eurycleia, who spots his scar. This allows, however, for Eurycleia to be involved in Odysseus’s plot against the suitors and thus assist his ultimate revelation of identity. The interactions between Odysseus and Telemachus along the lines of guest-host are especially important. Odysseus reveals his identity explicitly to Telemachus early on in his homecoming, but maintains his disguise around him while at his home. Telemachus’s acts of hospitality, specifically his protection of Odysseus from the abuses of the suitors, are designed along the lines of the guest-host relationship but serve a double purpose; his hospitality allows Odysseus to take the steps necessary to kill the suitors and reveal his identity, done through the bow, without facing harm. This protection, an element of the guest-host relationship, is evident when Telemachus dresses down Ctesippus for throwning an oxhoof at Odysseus, saying “You can thank your lucky stars you missed our guest… Else I would have planted my sharp spear in your bowels. … Enough. Don’t let me see more offenses in my house, not from anyone!” (450). The most important act of hospitality Telemachus and Penelope perform is allow Odysseus access at the bow, and thus access to the tool that he uses to kill the suitors and reveal his identity. Penelope refutes the suitors’ petitions against Odysseus receiving the bow, saying “how impolite it would be, how wrong, to scant whatever guest Telemachus welcomes to his house” (459). Thus, referring to Odysseus as a guest, she makes it clear that a stranger will be treated hospitably by Telemachus and her and therefore will have access to the bow. Telemachus frames the matter in terms of a guest-gift, an element of the guest-host relationship, by saying that “Of all the lords in Ithaca’s rocky heights or the islands facing Elis grazed by horses, not a single one will force or thwart my will, even if I decide to give our guest this bow- a gift outright- to carry off himself” (460). Telemachus and Penelope are asserting their wills as hosts, and as such are defending their right to provide Odysseus, their guest, hospitality by giving him the bow. Of course, once in the hands of Odysseus the bow is used to kill the suitors, and as he does so he reveals his true identity as Odysseus.
This episode demonstrates again the correlation between hospitality and the revelation of true identity. Telemachus and Penelope act as hosts confer hospitality upon Odysseus, eventually enabling him access at the tool necessary to reveal his identity safely and reclaim his house, while loyal members of his household take steps to reveal his identity through hospitable actions beforehand. An additional importance of this hospitality is in how it distinguishes those who provide it from those who do not. As was seen by the episode with the Cyclops, inhospitality leads to the concealment of identity and punishment. Those who are hospitable to Odysseus in the episode on Ithaca are his loyal servants, while those who are inhospitable to Odysseus are the suitors. Accordingly, the suitors are the ones who fail to recognize Odysseus in any manner until a weapon is in his hands, and are killed. Those who provided hospitality to Odysseus, meanwhile, are spared. Indeed, the suitors, like the Cyclops, corrupt the elements of the guest-host relationship in a number of instances. Alcinous, a prominent member of the suitors, refuses to provide the disguised Odysseus with food, saying “What spirit brought this pest to plague our feast? Back off!” (413) and then proceeds to throw a stool at Odysseus. Thus, Alcinous is failing to provide the main item of hospitality. Later, Ctesippus corrupts the guest-gift. He says “How impolite it would be, how wrong to scant whatever guest Telemachus welcomes to his house. Look here, I’ll give him a proper guest-gift too” (449) and then throws an oxhoof at Odysseus. Thus, like in the episode of the Cyclops, the corruption of an element of the guest-host relationship brings about the concealment of Odysseus’s identity from the suitors as well as a punishment. In this case, the punishment is death at the hands of Odysseus.
An analysis of the episodes where the guest-host relationship is developed reveals it’s necessary formula and the elements of hospitality involved. They include the bath, the feast, the questioning of the guest, and the offer of transportation. Contrasting these episodes to the episode of the Cyclops, which demonstrates the failure of host hospitality, further illuminates these elements. An understanding of what constitutes the guest-host relationship and xenia allows the reader to then understand its role in The Odyssey and recognize that the role it plays is significant. Hospitality, as has been demonstrated, leads to the revelation and recognition of concealed identity. This is of great significance because a major element of the main narrative of the epic is Odysseus’s disguised homecoming, and in order to reclaim his house he must be able to shed his disguise. Hospitality and the development of the guest-host relationship between Odysseus and Telemachus and Odysseus and Penelope enables Odysseus to take the steps necessary to secure his position back in his household, discern who is worthy of punishment and who is not, get his hands on the tool used to kill those who deserve punishment, and thus reveal his identity and reclaim his household. Hospitality is the medium through which this crucial moment in the epic is built up to and through which it can be sparked.
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