Princeton’s Wordnet defines hospitality as “[the act of] cordial reception: [or] kindness in welcoming guests or strangers.” Since the start of this semester, we have read about two different journeys in which hospitality plays an important role in fulfilling the destiny of the main character. In Homer’s Odyssey, many examples of this are apparent, whether they are for the benefit or the downfall of the protagonist Odysseus. However, Odysseus is not the only one whom hospitality rules. His son Telemachus also is affected by his hospitality towards others. In Niane’s Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, the theme of hospitality runs thick throughout the narrative, as Sundiata is greatly affected by how the other characters receive him. If it were not for the hospitable acts shown to both of the weary travelers, Odysseus and Sundiata may not have been able to return to their homeland.
The extreme observance of hospitality in the two texts may be compared with the golden rule: treat others, as you would like to be treated. The rule of hospitality may also be applied to the gods. In the time of Odysseus, gods or deities could take the form of humans or alter human appearance. If a stranger showed up at your door, you might not know whether they are mortal or immortal. If you turned away a god or someone loved by the gods, this could anger them and in turn they could avenge your inhospitable act. The gods might respond with not giving you a good harvest or make your life a complete hell, as Poseidon did to the journey of Odysseus.
Good hospitality was to be displayed towards everyone, no matter age or gender. In The Odyssey, not only was Odysseus treated well by the lords of the lands he visited, but, his young son, Telemachus, was treated with respect. In Sundiata, hospitality was not only showed towards men, but also women. When Sassouma forced Sogolon into exile, the neighboring lands and kings she and her children encountered treated them with generosity.
In The Odyssey many hospitable acts were displayed before kings even knew who had ventured to their land. When Telemachus travels to Pylos seeking information about his father, King Nestor treated him and Pallas Athena with much respect. As they approached the citadel King Nestor and his son spotted them. “As soon as they saw the strangers, all came crowding down, urging them to sit. Nestor’s son Pisistratus, first to reach them, grasped their hands and sat them down at the feast on fleecy throws” (Homer 108, lines 39-44). This demonstrates how welcoming the Pylians are towards strangers. This is truly a hospitable greeting because the Pylians were not just carousing around, but in fact were involved in a feast in honor of the god Poseidon. They invited these foreign guests in as if they were members of the royal family to take part in the feast.
Menelaus, like Nestor, treated his guest as part of the royal family before knowing their names. Menelaus provided Telemachus and Pisistratus with food but not just any food but, “He passed them a fat rich loin with his own hands, the choicest part, that he’d been served himself” (Homer 126, 74-75). The Greeks loved to eat and what an honor it would have been to be given the kings slab of meat. He also had women bathe them, rub them with oil, and provide them with warm fleece and shirts to wear.
Before Telemachus was to leave, Menelaus insisted on giving him many gifts but Odysseus’ young son respectfully declined any such gifts. Menelaus insisted on giving him a mixing bowl forged to perfection made of solid silver with a lip of gold made by Hephaestus himself (Homer 144, 692-694). The hospitality shown by Menelaus is a great example of treating others as you would like to be treated. Menelaus, the great and lustrous king, showered his guest with the best of everything, as he would have wanted done for him.
Not only in The Odyssey and ancient Greece was hospitality shown towards strangers, but it also occurred in Sundiata. The first stop on the exile journey of Sundiata was Djedeba. The king there received them with a little mistrust, but mentioned that everywhere the stranger enjoys the right to hospitality (Niane 29). The stay with the king of Djedeba lasted two months and not much is mentioned in the novel of what was given to Sundiata and his family. But the stay with Djedeba emphasizes the point that even though someone may be wary of allowing strangers to stay with them, the act of hospitality is entitled to all strangers who need a place to stay.
Those who were members of the highest social class were not the only ones expected to practice hospitality. Hospitable acts were to be practiced by and towards all social classes. When Odysseus returned to Ithaca, Athena disguised him by dressing him in beggar clothes. She directed him towards the swineherd’s establishment. The swineherd had to save the king from his beastly dogs and after this invited him into his home. The swineherd, Eumeaus, told Odysseus, “It’s wrong, my friend, to send any stranger packing-even one who arrives in worse shape than you” (Homer 303, 64-65). Odysseus told him, “May Zeus and the other gods give you your hearts desire for the royal welcome you have shown me here” (Homer 303, 60-62). The hospitality that was shown towards the beloved king no doubt pleased the gods.
Even though the swineherd could not provide the extravagant baths, bedding, and food of kings, he still gave Odysseus the best of what he had. Odysseus was invited by the swineherd to sit down on a pile of brush and twigs covered with the skin of a shaggy wild goat, which was the swineherd’s own good bedding. He fed the king scrawny pigs that were freshly slaughtered. This was the best food that could be offered by the swineherd because the suitors who overran the home of Odysseus took the fattened pigs. The hospitality shown by the swineherd proves that one does not have to offer the best of things to show hospitality towards strangers.
Hospitable acts were not expected only to be shown towards the living, but the deceased deserved the same rights. In Sundiata, when it came time to leave Mema and return to Mali, Sogolon passed away. Sundiata said to the king, “King, you gave me hospitality at your court when I was without shelter…In any case, allow me to bury my mother before I go” (Niane 46). The king was outraged that Sundiata wanted to leave his country and at first refused. But either it was fear, or out of respect he had for Sundiata, or a combination of both, Sundiata got his wish. Burial grounds were provided for Sogolon in the country of Mema. Showing hospitality towards the dead is as important towards showing it towards the living.
Hospitality was not to go unnoticed either; hospitable acts were expected to be repaid when the time arose. A great example of repaying hospitality came from Menelaus. Telemachus and Nestor’s son arrived outside the gates of Menelaus’ estate and lord Eteoneus runs through the halls and delivers the news to the battle-hardened king and ask, “Should we unhitch their team for them or send them to someone free to host them well”(Homer 125, 33-34)? Menelaus responds hastily, “Just think of the hospitality we enjoyed at the hands of other men before we made it home…And bring them in strangers, guest, to share our flowing feast”(Homer 125, 38-39, 41-42). Menelaus wants to show the same hospitality to those who visit his land just as the rulers showed him when he was in need.
Political alliances also proved to be good situations to practice hospitality. One of the stops on the exile journey of Sundiata and his family was the region of Ghana. When they arrived they were greeted by the king’s brother who made them comfortable and brought water for them to quench their thirst. After Sogolon explained where they were from and why they were in exile the king, Soumamba, responded, “No one has ever found our hospitality wanting. My court is your court and my palace is yours” (Niane 34). The reason for easy welcoming of the strangers was the history of the relationship between Mali and Ghana. The king also said to his brother, “Brother, look after our guests. Let Sogolon and her children be royally treated and from tomorrow let the princes of Mali sit among our children” (Niane 34).
Another hospitable act in Sundiata, which involved alliances between nations, happened again in Mema. This alliance had to do with the family relationship of two kings. Upon their arrival at Mema, the sister of the king greeted Sogolon and her family and housed them in a wing of the palace. They were recommended by Soumaba to come to Mema, and after showing the king of Mema, Moussa Tounkara, a letter from Soumamba the king said, “My cousin Soumaba recommends you and that is enough. You are at home. Stay here as long as you wish” (Niane 36). Sundiata became so beloved by the people and the king that he became viceroy and even secured a spot as heir to the throne of Mema. This is example of hospitality starts out as a friendly gesture, and evolves into a new set of hierarchal position for the traveling family. The hospitality shown by the people of Mema allowed the exiled royal family of Mali to become pretty much citizens of this new country.
The act of hospitality is prevalent in both the Odyssey and Sundiata. Not only do kings of regions and countries practice this act, but hospitality is expected to be practiced by everyone regardless of their social class. Hospitality should be shown towards everyone regardless how the two parties affiliate with one another. Hospitality goes along way in the stories of Odysseus and Sundiata. It creates relationships with lands that others fear, like the region of Ghana in Sundiata. It also creates relationships with those who have no prior relationships to those of foreign lands, like Telemachus creates with the comrades of his father. If only this type of hospitality was prevalent in society today our world would be a much more friendly and fearless place to live.
Fagles, Robert. The Odyssey. New York: Penguin, 1996.
Niane, D. T. Sundiata: an Epic of Old Mali. Harlow: Longman, 2006.
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