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The Significance and Role of the Theme of Hospitality

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In Ancient Greece, when the world was still young and vastly unexplored, people relied on good faith in welcoming strangers in their lands hoping that the favor shall also be repaid in kind in the future when they too shall travel. There were poor means of communication between tribes, cities or small communities separated by a wide expanse of empty land and the open sea. Anyone who decides to set out on an epic voyage to uncharted territories can only trust the unspoken tradition of hospitality among people scattered in unknown places.

One can not depend solely on personal renown to be allowed access in strange lands.

Similarly, while the fame and reputation of Odysseus did precede him throughout the lands, it was not so much because of his prominence that helped him through his voyage. Rather it was due to the practice of unconditional altruism which played an important role in Odysseus’s travels. It is the principle of doing to others what one wishes that others do in return.

It is the unspoken bond of humanity among individuals who were then too few in the world and had each other to ask for assistance as brothers and comrades in the nascent world The theme of travel and wandering prevails in the Homer’s Epic, the Odyssey.

After the fall of Troy, Odysseus with his small army set out to sail for home. However, he was destined to suffer years of torment and agony because Poseidon, among a number of other gods, wanted to prevent him from ever succeeding while the rest of the gods in Mount Olympus pitied him and wanted him to succeed.

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Just like the harsh and uninviting ocean storms, Odysseus’ fate was tossed and turned by the whims of these gods. He was subjected to numerous trials and tests during his protracted journey home until he finally reached Ithaca and proved to be seaworthy, so to speak, in all respects (Aylen, 1964).

Yet travel only underscores the salient theme of hospitality during the ancient era. Travel was prevalent during that time of exploration and the growth of Western civilization. People traveled for commerce and trade including the exchange of goods and ideas. Trade routes were established specifically to satisfy a society’s needs to go beyond their borders and establish different friendly relations with other states (Aylen, 1964). Trade routes were also developed to make sure that voyage to and fro is very convenient, safe and fast.

Along trade routes and other important nautical highways were small tribes peppered along the shorelines. One or two may be hostile and unaccommodating to seafarers but even if most of them are highly suspicious of strangers, they still treated them with kindness even extravagance (1964). To everybody’s minds, it is most likely that people will continue to pass by routes and highways of exchange and its better to treat them well as opposed to driving them away and creating feud than friendship. A visitor today may be one’s host in the future. Likewise, a stranger that passes now might become a good friend eventually.

Hospitality, the ready and willing cordial welcome of guests from strange lands, made voyage in the ancient world possible and better. The desire for adventure, to travel and to discover new places will have been a nightmare if people did not practice amicable attitudes to strangers. The benefits of being hospitable to seafarers outweigh the risks of treating strangers like friends into one’s home. Put differently, the risk in turning away visitors is more costly resource-wise than providing feasts and unlimited assistance to whoever is need of help (Aylen, 1964).

It is true that the host, in order to show goodwill, have to go the distance of putting up expensive festive celebrations or sacrifice the best of what little resource he may have in his storehouse, but these things are necessary costs before reaping the benefits of being kind to a stranger who might later turn out to be a king or some rich merchant. Hospitality, in other words, is an investment in the future (1964). Ties of blood and friendship are created or destroyed by the practice of this tradition.

Odysseus’ adventures and other incidental stories in Homer’s Odyssey evince the importance of hospitality in the sparsely populated ancient world. The different ways in which he and his men were welcomed in strange lands spelled either good tidings or disaster for them as the guests of honor and for the hosts. The mythical undertones that gird the motives of the hosts to give assistance in an ostentatious fashion merely attribute the sense of the divine in an otherwise natural and practical way to create stronger and long-lasting friendships.

Book III of the epic, where Athena goaded Nestor to assist Telemachus in his business, was an adornment. It supports the traditional claim that hospitality was completely sanctioned by the gods. Anyone who fails or transgresses this tradition had to answer to the gods. In the same vein, Nestor provided food, shelter and a decent means of transportation for Telemachus, who was out in an important errand, upon the advice of the mentor god (Kitto, 1990). The fact that Nestor gave without question is instructive on the point that any material gifts to the hosts are just as good as altar sacrifices to the gods.

In other words, Nestor showed his best form of hospitality in consideration of accumulating favors from the gods, if not militate the possibility of incurring the wrath of the gods. Being hospitable had a two-pronged effect, one that redounds positively to the host as a friend to the guest and the host as a favored individual in the eyes of the gods (Kitto, 1990). Subsequently in Book IV, Homer reveals subtly another good reason why hospitality was an important element in the epic. At first, upon the arrival of Telemachus and Nestor’s son, a messenger reported to Menelaus that “there are two strangers here, two men who look

as if they are descended from great Zeus” and asked politely, “so tell me if we should, on their behalf, take their fast horses out of harness, or send them off to find some other host who’ll welcome them as friends” (Book IV, Lines 31-40). The herald was both being courteous and cautious at the same time. He apprises to Menelaus that visitors, who looked like Greeks, were at their doorsteps and awaited the king’s instructions whether or not to accept them as guests or send them off to another place where they shall also be welcomed.

The fact that the herald seemed a bit hesitant to allow the visitors in does not lessen the sense of hospitality in the epic. If anything, the question was addressed to the king taking into account the fact that they were presently engaged in other festivities. At any rate, Menelaus, hurriedly dispatched the notion and with playful chiding, told the messenger to tarry no longer in calling Telemachus and his companion and letting them in, saying: “Before today, Eteoneus, son of Boethous, you haven’t been a fool. But now you talk just like a silly child.

For both of us often feasted on the hospitality of other men before we got back here, hoping that Zeus would give us some relief from later suffering (emphasis supplied). So unhitch those horses the strangers brought, and bring the men inside, so they may dine” (Book IV Lines 42-50). The lines in italics bespeak Menelaus anxious anticipation to finally have the opportunity to repay the favors he had been getting ever since he left for Troy. Indeed, he has enjoyed the hospitality of strangers in different lands and now is the best time to return the favor to another stranger.

It is in the hope of perpetuating the cycle of hospitality as a tradition which turns full circle in his acceptance of two strangers and shall be repeated in the future when Menelaus himself shall travel again. Also, it bears stressing that Menelaus had no idea who these strangers were before welcoming them in with such gusto. It was only when the strangers had entered and set properly before the tables of festivity before Menelaus started to asked who they were and what brings them to his place right after they shall have dine with him. To wit: “enjoy our food and once you’ve had your meal, we’ll ask you who you are.

For in you two your parents’ breeding has not been destroyed—since you are from a royal human stock, from god-nurtured kings who wield a scepter […] Worthless men could not father men like you” (Book IV, lines 61-67). More importantly, when Menelaus invoked Zeus in kind and in favor to justify the need to welcome the strangers in, the epic reveals yet another layer in the theme of hospitality (Kitto, 1990). Zeus was actually in fact the god of travelers and of hospitality (1990). He favors those who treat visitors well and guests who behave themselves properly while being accommodated (1990).

This reciprocity of kindness and courteousness is embodied in the traditional concept of the Xenia, where both the host and the guest follow certain predetermined divine rules in terms of hospitality. The host must provide necessary assistance to his guests and treat him as a part of the household, whilst the guest must not desecrate the honor granted to him. The host must not ask impertinent questions or if he must, out of polite curiosity, it can only be done after the guest has fully settled himself in and satisfied his needs.

When the time comes for the guest to depart, the host shall, or regularly will, give a parting gift to bid the guest farewell and god-speed in his journey. Xenia is a Greek ancient custom of treating strangers as friends in the household. The practice of which has been so pervasive that it has partaken the nature of a ritual that still bears persuasive force even among modern societies in the Western world (1990). Otherwise, a person who does not observe the rite of the xenia or practically of hospitality, the consequences are dire either with respect to the gods’ fury or men’s retribution (1990).

On another note, a perusal of Menelaus’ and his subjects’ attitude towards their guests, who had an air of royalty and superiority, will uncover another dimension of the concept of hospitality. Curiously enough, both the messenger and Menelaus noticed a semblance between them and the two strangers. They both automatically assumed that Telemachus and his companion were of divine and royal origin. As such, they were moved to treat them to which their station in life properly deserves. A whole feast befitting a king was given in honor of Telemachus.

In addition, arguing that Telemachus was not a king, his Greek appearance perhaps inspired a sense of kinship with Menelaus being both Greeks. Indeed, if men had a tendency to behave altruistically towards individuals who physically resembled them, they might indirectly be doing their own kind a huge favor by being hospitable to Greek strangers. Menelaus, like other Greeks, had a kin-like tendency to identify with strangers who closely resemble oneself physically. This kind of natural response would lead to the providential growth of one’s race.

At a time when Greeks moved around little or heavily throughout the region, chances are high that any random individual that pays a visit may be close kin to the host, not just in terms of ties of friendship but even through blood-lines. Thus, being nice to any stranger who look similar or appears to share the same qualities as one may possess, could have a positive survival value in the long run. In this sense, Homer seems to imply that being hospitable to strangers is more than just showing good manners and courtesy.

In a time when the Greeks were holding off invaders from their lands it is but wise to know your allies and treat them well, for in the off chance that the nation-states have to unite in battle against foreign belligerent armies, the person you welcome today might be the very person fighting with and for you in war. Menelaus, being a warmonger himself, knows this too well and at the sight of a fellow Greek in need of help, he had no qualms in giving him what he, as a member of a race, rightly deserves.

Homer continues to wax different dimensions of hospitality in Books V-VIII which stresses the importance of Xenia and the concept of hospitality in the survival of Odysseus in his journey. At around this time, Odysseus has recently departed the place of Calypso. He set out to sail in a raft but was constantly being harassed by Poseidon who determined to kill him. Odysseus had been washed over to alien shores but was lucky enough to find people willing to give him some assistance.

However, Homer casts a shadow of doubt as to the genuine motives of the people who came to the aid of Odysseus. Upon Odysseus’ unplanned arrival at the land of the Phaeacians, he was met with several people who were wondering who he was. There is an air of foreboding and caution since in all appearances and circumstances Odysseus was a total stranger. Athena while disguised as stranger admonished Odysseus that: “The people here are not fond of strangers—they don’t extend a friendly welcome to those from other lands, but put their trust

in their swift ships to carry them across vast gulfs of the sea” (Book VII, lines 40-45). Nonetheless, after Odysseus, who was then covered in mist which later dispersed, prostrated himself before the attendants inside the palace, he was welcomed to dine and sleep in the palace if only because they were wary of strangers but had a heart for those who pay homage properly viz. by being pious suppliants. The attendants of the palace were not as welcoming as the Greeks.

Yet they gave him something to drink, clothe himself and sleep on until Alcinous the king would pass wise judgment on the best way to treat Odysseus. Thereafter, king Alcinous bid the Phaeacians to extend a little warmth of kindness to Odysseus before he sets out for his home again with a sacrifice to be made to Zeus. The king made it clear that in no way was Odysseus to be ill-treated or harm precisely because for such a long time the gods have yet to show their true form and the stranger before them might be one of the gods.

Odysseus was quick to reply that he was an ordinary man stranded and lost at sea. The wise and timely words of Odysseus gained the approval of everyone in the majestic palace. King Alocinous even offered his daughter in marriage so then their line would continue to produce wise men like him. At this point, Odysseus, with his cunning and resourcefulness, had finally earned not only the respect of the Phaeacians but his keep during his stay at the palace (Book VII, Lines 380-400).

Later in Book VIII, the brand of hospitality shown by the Phaeacians is beginning to look more obvious. Athena knows well that the Phaeacians were not good with strangers and as such, in order to compel respect and awe among them, Athena “poured an amazing poise on him [Odysseus], across his shoulders and his head and made him look taller and more powerful, so the Phaeacians would welcome him, and he would win from them respect and awe (Book VIII, Lines 18-24). Indeed, as it were, people are moved to show generosity and courtesy in varying levels of motivation.

It could be purely out of the kindness of one’s heart, the desire to be repaid in turn in the future, to help a kinsman, or it could well probably be shown out of respect, fear and awe. As in the case of Odysseus’ stay with the Phaeacians, he had nothing else but his wisdom and the guidance of Athena to merit the approving welcome of his hosts. Although the Phaeacians were not famous for being so accommodating to strangers, they still observed the rituals of hospitality and Xenia by offering their guest a means to get back home—fifty handpicked men of the finest caliber and a ship to sail with as well.

On the part of the Odysseus as the guest of honor, when provoked into an experiment of skill and strength, did show some remarkable feats but spurned suggestions of having to wrestle with his host lest his fortunes may turn (Book VIII, 40). Thus far, Homer has shown how people of the ancient world have embraced and perceived hospitality as a part of their customs and way of life. Hospitality was presented as a tool to earn favors and forge relationships among men, and as an unconditional gift to which the reward is the sense of satisfaction from being able to lend a hand to those in need.

However, hospitality may lend itself to abuse what with the fact that people seem to be kind and generous all the time. Such abuse of hospitality is not without a fitting punishment at the instance that a guest desecrates the honor of the host. Book IX of the epic, narrates Odysseus’ experience with the Cyclops. He recounts that when he left to check their ship his men wantonly killed a number of sheep in the midst and casually ate what they could grab their hands on. Odysseus had a share in the loot as well and even went inside the cave which was the house of the terrible Cyclops.

But when the master of the house arrived, in trembling and fear-inspiring fashion, none of the supplications of Odysseus neither his wise and calculated words had an effect to the Cyclops (Book IX, Lines 331-339). The Cyclops was angry because uninvited strangers ate some of his prized sheep and even slept on his abode. The Cyclops bellows that he was not afraid of Zeus. Thus, he had no business whatsoever neither had he any divine obligation to show kindness to the trespassers. He can do whatever he wanted with the strangers who were presently trapped inside the cave (Book IX, Lines 300-310).

In the same breath, Homer attributed the inhospitality with the fact that Odysseus and his men failed to pay the proper respects to their host. They went on pillaging resources without asking for permission. The Cyclops would have been more lenient had they observed the rites as visitors. At any rate, the Cyclops is a being beyond the control of established rules and laws of men. This was a creature who did not answer to the gods. It was an independent and free-thinking uncivilized brute that could do as he please without fear of incurring the wrath of the gods.

Furthermore, the Cyclops did not fit the ideal host precisely because he had nothing to gain from feeding, clothing and accepting into his home strangers who come his way. At the least, strangers who pass by are nothing but piecemeal desserts to him. The Cyclops was only interested in entertainment and food, and cared little about the problems of stranded seafarers. Then again, as a host who had performed poorly in attending to his visitors, the Cyclops suffered his just punishment. Odysseus and his men crafted a scheme to escape and in the process gorged the only eye of the Cyclops, depriving him totally of the sense of sight.

What worse punishment can there be to a Cyclops than to take from him his one eye for being inhospitable? The lack of hospitality in Book IX of the epic and in other parts signifies the untamed and wild aspects of the ancient world. It is true that there are many who are willing and able to render aid to strangers with such generosity and kindness. Yet it is equally true that there are some who are not so keen in helping out people in need. The ancient world has a collection of creatures and beings of this sort.

Driven by selfishness and self-serving interest, they see little benefits in spending resources, time and energy to outsiders. Not even the divine and universal laws of gods and men’s customs and traditions have the power to compel them to do the right thing. Such creatures are uncivilized and nothing can be expected from them but hostility and danger. Wise words can not trick them to do something against their brutish nature. As independent creatures, they rely on themselves for support and livelihood. Anyone who intrudes into their domain is readily met with a poor or lack of kind treatment.

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The Significance and Role of the Theme of Hospitality. (2017, Mar 21). Retrieved from

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