“The Odyssey” Reading Response
In his encounter with Polyphemus, Odysseus justifiably broke the law of xenia as evidenced by his ulterior desire to visit the cave, his plunder of the host’s cheese, and his blinding the one-eyed giant with a wooden beam. Xenia is the concept of hospitality, courtesy, and generosity shown to guests and travelers. Worried that an unknown traveler may be a powerful god in disguise, ancient Greeks strived to follow the law of xenia with any foreigner or guest they encountered. They did this with the hopes of receiving a reward and avoiding godly wrath. Xenia was not simply a set of manners or customs; rather it was also comprised of religious obligations, with the belief that the god Zeus, or Zeus Xenios, “…oversaw appropriate observation of the xenia laws.” (Potter)
Based on the axiom of a mutual respect, xenia is severed by a lack of duty on either side. “Undesirable hospitality and a bad reception of that hospitality ultimately results in a break in the sacred guest-host relationship.” (Biggs) An analysis of the examples in this epic poem reveal that there is a formula for the development of xenia, with several elements necessary for a guest to be properly received. (Knipfer) According to the formula, the host welcomes a guest into their home with food, drink, and a bath. The host should not ask any questions until the guest is both satisfied and comfortable. Finally, upon the guest’s departure, the host will endow them with a gift and the promise of transport and protection.
How it works
In The Odyssey, there are numerous examples of xenia in play—both good and bad. In the beginning, Telemachus visits the courts of Menelaus and Nestor and is welcomed in accordance to this law. However, the 108 suitors of Penelope display apathy for the law and disregard it altogether, “eating [them] out of house and home.” (Homer, Book IV) The role of xenia is vital to the story of The Odyssey as “the moral/heroic quality of the majority of characters is determined (or reflected) by their adherence to, or rejection of, the conventions of xenia.” (Potter) Odysseus’ episode with Polyphemus demonstrates a failure to uphold the law of Xenia. Polyphemus deviated from the formula by immediately asking, “Strangers, who are you? Where do you sail from?”, skipping the previously required steps of welcoming and providing hospitality. (Homer, Book IX) In fact, the Cyclops Polyphemus eats a number of Odysseus’ men rather than giving them food, drink, and a bath. Odysseus reminds the Cyclops of his duty to provide hospitality but is met with disdain for the law and Zeus. It is evident that Polyphemus violated the law of xenia and had no intention to follow it. Despite bringing a gift of wine to Polyphemus, Odysseus did not follow the spirit of the law of xenia. Odysseus said numerous times that he didn’t believe the Cyclopes “would respect neither right nor law” and didn’t take “account of their neighbors.” (Homer, Book IX) If Odysseus already knew that Polyphemus wouldn’t respect the law of xenia there would be no purpose in visiting his cave, unless there were an ulterior motive to his decision. It is my belief that Odysseus visited Polyphemus to steal his goats believing he had the protection and approbation of the gods. It is evident that Odysseus exercised poor judgement in visiting the Cyclops. Not only did Odysseus steal cheese from his host, he ultimately blinded the one-eyed monster.
This is the antithesis of xenia. Instead of being a gracious guest, Odysseus does the opposite and causes harm to his host. Despite the failure of the host to follow the law, the guest accompanied him in abandonment of xenia. While Odysseus did break the law of xenia, it is evident in the text that he was justified in his action to do so. Zeus gave his approval of Odysseus’ actions by saying, “there is no mortal half so wise.” (Homer, Book I) Odysseus was justified by the fact that Polyphemus technically broke the law of xenia first by asking his guests questions without providing a meal. However, being justified does not mean that Odysseus followed nor fulfilled the law. In fact, justification is a legal term signifying acquittal, meaning that the person is not guilty of the crime with which the person has been charged, not necessarily innocent of any wrongdoing. Since the law of xenia was broken by Polyphemus, Odysseus was under no obligation to fulfil the law. It is my belief that Odysseus had little intention to follow the law, given his parti pri, or preconceived view, of Polyphemus.
In conclusion, the text provides overwhelming evidence that Odysseus broke the law of xenia during his encounter with Polyphemus. This is established by Odysseus’ statements about the lawless nature of the Cyclopes, and his possible ulterior desire to visit the island cave. Additionally, it is made clear that Odysseus broke the law of xenia by stealing and blinding the host. Furthermore, it seems that Zeus’ approbation of Odysseus’ actions and the dual responsibility of guest and host to fulfil the law of xenia justify and warrant this response. Despite the justification of his actions, Odysseus did break the law of xenia in his encounter with Polyphemus in The Odyssey.
- Biggs, Cory, et al. “The Value of Hospitality.” The Value of Hospitality, Union College, minerva.union.edu/wareht/gkcultur/guide/8/web1.html. Accessed 3 May 2019.
- Homer. “The Odyssey.” Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/files/1727/1727-h/1727-h.htm. Accessed 3 May 2019.
- Knipfer, Cody. “The Development of Xenia and Its Role in The Odyssey.” A Really Cool Blog,27 Nov. 2012, www.reallycoolblog.com/the-development-of-xenia-and-its-role-in-the-odyssey/. Accessed 3 May 2019.
- Potter, Ben. “The Odyssey: Be Our Guest with Xenia.” Classical Wisdom Weekly, 19 Apr. 2013, classicalwisdom.com/culture/literature/the-odyssey-be-our-guest-with-xenia/. Accessed 3 May 2019.