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Hospitality in Homer's Odyssey
The first four books of Homer’s Odyssey depict certain instances of hospitality which are filled with generosity. One reason for the importance of this hospitality could have been a respect for foreigners, who were completely at the mercy of their hosts, especially when hosts had themselves been foreigners. A second reason why hospitality may have been important was to see if the guest was disguised as an enemy.
In Book 4, Homer tells how Telemakhos and Pallas Athena (disguised as Mentor) visited Menelaos in Sparta. When Eteoneus, the King’s aide, asked whether he should welcome the guests, Menelaos replies, “before this, Eteoneus, you were never a fool … we’ve both been entertained as guests before we came back home again … so unharness the horses; bring the strangers to the banquet.” (p. 33 Hull translation). This comment illustrates the fact that Menelaos, as host, had had the experience as foreigner before, especially when he was at war and had encounters with both friends and foes in distant lands. He empathizes with the position his guests are in, and Telemarkos and Athena were bathed and fed before they were questioned.
In book three, Telemarkos and Athena go to visit the wise Nestor in Pylos where they are welcomed and well-cared for. In his wisdom, Nestor recognizes Athena for who she is, and offers up a holocaust to her the following morning (p. 30). In embracing the company of foreigners and showing the proper hospitality, hosts both warded off the fury of gods visiting as disguised guests as is portrayed in the Odyssey, but in reality, it also may have been a way of making friends of enemies who came to scout the land. The in-depth inquisitions after the guests were fed may have been not only innocent curiousity, but also a way to weed out ill-intentioned visitors. This can be seen in Nestor’s wise inquiry, “Who are you, stranger? [Are you] recklessly roving the sea as pirates do while staking their lives and bringing ills to alien people?” (p. 23). Hosts not only had to be prepared to entertain gods, but also protect themselves and their land.
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Whatever the reason for hospitality, be it a socially acceptable norm due to the circumstances of the times, or for the sake of protection against gods or invaders, hospitality was a vital aspect in ancient Greek culture. Its importance is seen especially with the foreshadowed deaths of the suitors who had been deeply inhospitable in the first book when Athena visited Odysseus’ house (p.3). Lack of hospitality in ancient Greek culture, as depicted by Homer, was an unforgivable deed.