Classical Studies Guest friendship is the respect from host to guest. The host must be completely hospitable to the guest, but the guest must not be a burden to them. The practice of guest friendship (xenion) was important in Homeric society, as the ancient people believed that the gods mingled among them. The idea of performing poorly whilst hosting a god or goddess would make them incur the wrath of the deities. Using books one, six, nine and 19 in Homer’s The Odyssey, the idea of guest friendship will be illustrated in both the correct and incorrect way using specific examples and quotes.
This is important in The Odyssey, as it is shown in many different contexts in the book, both good and bad, for example, the Suitors bad guest friendship to Telemachus and Penelope, or Nausicaa’s good guest friendship to Odysseus when he washes up on the beach of the Phaeachian people in Scherie. It is also important in that fact that many plot defining notions are established during actions of guest friendship, such as Athene the goddess of war disguising herself as a family friend to encourage Telemachus to search for his missing father Odysseus.
Guest friendship consists of three basic, but important rules, the first being respect from guest to host. The host must be welcoming and hospitable. The servants must relieve them of their gear, whether it be weapons or tools. They must then bring them wine and food, most commonly in the form of breads, oils and assorted meats. If required, the servants will also bathe the guest. Until the needs of the guest have been stated, it is impolite of the host to ask questions of them. The second rule is respect from the guest to the host.
The guest must be thankful and courteous to their host and not make him or herself a burden or overstay their welcome. The third rule, to show the host’s honor of receiving the guest they must give them a parting gift. In Book One of Homer’s The Odyssey there are two major examples of guest friendship, the first being when Athene, the goddess of war, visits Telemachus at his home. She disguises herself as a trusted family friend Mentes, King of the Taphians. Athene predicts that Odysseus is alive and will soon turn to Ithica.
She advises him to call an assembly to announce the banishment of his mother Penelope’s suitors. Pallas Athene is welcomed as any other, as Telemachus “set her spear that he bore against a tall pillar, within the polished spear-stand. ” This shows the first action of guest friendship. He then pulls up a “goodly carven chair” for her to sit on, where the handmaid would wash her feet and serve her “wheaten bread”, “platters of divers kinds of flesh” along with wine. Sticking to the order of the process, Telemachus does not question her until all these have been done.
This is a demonstration of good guest friendship between host and guest as they have a mutual respect. The other example of guest friendship in Book One is a bad one. Tens upon tens of suitors have come and taken more than temporary residence at Odysseus’ estate. They all have a common goal; to court Odysseus’ wife Penelope and take over the kingdom of Ithica. They have no intention of leaving until Penelope selects her next husband, and are eating Odysseus out of house and home. The suitors came into their household and expected proper hospitality to be given to them.
This of course was absolute, as law required it. When they first showed up, Penelope and Telemachus expected them to stay for only a few meals. The suitors more or less encroached on their land and home, and welcomed themselves far more than Penelope and Telemachus wanted them to. The suitors continued to try to court Penelope and feed off of Odysseus’ wealth until he finally came and slaughtered them all. In Book Five of The Odyssey, we experience a different type of guest friendship. The ‘bright-eyed’ goddess Athene pleads with her father Zeus to free Odysseus from Calypso’s grasp on Ogygia.
Zeus agrees, and sends Hermes the messenger god to tell Calypso, “the return of patient Odysseus, how he is to come to his home, with no furtherance of gods or of mortal men. ” Hermes quickly departs. There is an important difference between guest friendship between humans and guest friendship between deities. Instead being served with bread, meats and wine, they are served with ambrosia and nectar. The two forms of sustenance are closely related to each other, and consumption was typically reserved for divine beings. Hermes “comforted his soul with food” as Calypso “spread a table with ambrosia and set it by him, and mixed the ruddy nectar. By this point in the poem (Book Six) Odysseus has left Ogygia and washed up on the beach of Scheria, the land of the Phaeachians.
Athene approaches Nausicaa, daughter of Kind Alcinous, in a dream, disguised as Dymas, “a girl of like age”. She directs her to go wash her clothes, which happens to be where Odysseus is sleeping. He covers his nakedness with a “leafy bough from the thick wood” and humbly pleads for her assistance. He never reveals his identity. Nausicaa then orders her handmaids to “give the stranger meat and drink, and bathe him in the river. Although in this case, Odysseus rejects the offer of the handmaids cleaning him, for he is “ashamed to make [himself] naked in the company of fair-tressed maidens. ” In Book Nine we see another example of bad guest friendship, this time coming from Polyphemus, cyclops and son of Poseidon. This event is a flashback from before Odysseus began his journey home from Ogygia, when he tells the Phaeacians his story and true identity. The wind has swept Odysseus and his men to Ismarus, city of the Cicones. When they arrive they are unaware that the cave they have sought shelter and a host in is the home to Polyphemus the cyclops.
Odysseus demands hospitality for him and his men, but the cyclops disregards the law of guest friendship by talking discourteously about the gods and their customs. The then shows his superiority over humans by eating six of Odysseus’ men. This is a perfect example of bad guest friendship, also considered a crime in Homeric society. Odysseus has finally returned to his kingdom of Ithica by Book Nineteen, but does not reveal his identity, posing as a simple begger. Goddess of war Athene aids him in his disguise and enables him to test the loyalty of his wife and handmaids.
Despite the suitors abuse of guest friendship, it is still provided to Odysseus as if there was no disturbance. One servant, Eurycleia, instantly recognises Odysseus by the distinguising scar on his foot when she washes his feet. He begs of her to keep his identity a secret. Odysseus’ servants show both good and bad guest friendship, with different people treating him in different ways. For example, handmaid Melanto has a dislike for beggars and abuses him, showing her unfaithfullness. When Penelope approaches Odysseus after he has been tended to, she proves her loyalty to him through the good and kind guest friendship that she shows.
In conclusion, the practise of guest friendship was a vital part of the structure of Homeric society. As it was law, it allowed the people to practise showing mutual respect towards each other. It also allowed them to establish friendships, preserve current relationships and gain allies for future happenings, as well as gain wealth in some situations. In Homer’s The Odyssey, there are many examples of both good and bad guest friendship, with their subsequent events showing the consequences of the hosts and guests actions. Sarah Carian Year 12