Study Guide

The Odyssey Tradition and Custom

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Tradition and Custom

Book 1

[Telemachos] saw Athene and went straight to the forecourt, the heart within him scandalized that a guest should still be standing at the doors. He stood beside her and took her by the right hand, and relieved her of the bronze spear, and spoke to her and addressed her in winged words: ‘Welcome, stranger. You shall be entertained as a guest among us. Afterward, when you have tasted dinner, you shall tell us what your need is.’ […] [A]nd he led her and seated her in a chair, with a cloth to sit on, the chair splendid and elaborate. For her feet there was a footstool. For himself, he drew a painted bench next her, apart from the others, the suitors, for fear the guest, made uneasy by the uproar, might lose his appetite there among overbearing people […]. (1.118-124, 130-134)

Telemachos shows his hospitality by inviting the guest in as soon as he sees him (well, technically “her,” but Telemachos doesn’t know that), refraining from asking his name and business, and immediately taking him inside, stowing away his effects, and feeding him at a fine table. He is thoughtful enough to consider the effect of the suitors’ uncouth noise on his guest’s appetite and locate him accordingly. In the following lines, we will see Telemachos’s generosity illustrated by the amount of good food he serves to his guest. Of course, his actions are not totally altruistic. He wants news of his father from the guest, but we think this sounds like a pretty fair trade.

Telemachos replied: ‘My guest, your words to me are very kind and considerate, what any father would say to his son. I shall not forget them. But come now, stay with me, eager though you are for your journey, so that you must first bathe and take your ease and, well rested and happy in your heart, then go back to your ship with a present, something prized, altogether fine, which will be your keepsake from me, what loving guests and hosts bestow on each other.’ (1.307-313)

Telemachos shows his hospitality and gratefulness to Athene even though he does not know her true identity; this may be one of the reasons Athene disguises herself, to discern the true nature of various mortals. Clearly, Telemachos passed the test.

(Telemachos:) ‘For all the greatest men who have the power in the islands, in Doulichion and Same and in wooded Zakynthos, and all who in rocky Ithaka are holders of lordships, all these are after my mother for marriage, and wear my house out. And she does not refuse the hateful marriage, nor is she able to make an end of the matter; and these eating up my substance waste it away; and soon they will break me myself to pieces.’ (1.245-251)

Telemachos isn’t just complaining about the obviously rude and disrespectful behavior of the suitors; he’s complaining about a far more serious transgression: that they are breaking Zeus’s rules of hospitality. He also hints at the impending plot against his life.

Then the haughty suitors came in, and all of them straightway took their places in order on chairs and along the benches, and their heralds poured water over their hands for them to wash with, and the serving maids brought them bread heaped up in the baskets, and the young men filled the mixing bowls with wine for their drinking. They put their hands to the good things that lay ready before them. But when they had put away their desire for eating and drinking, the suitors found their attention turned to other matters, the song and the dance; for these things come at the end of the feasting. (1.144-152)

Immediately after Telemachos demonstrates the proper way to act, the suitors come in and demonstrate…the not-so-proper way. The fact that these two passages are placed right next to each other only highlights the contrast.

Book 3

(Nestor:) ‘May Zeus and all the other immortals beside forfend that you, in my domain, should go on back to your fast ship as from some man altogether poor and without clothing, who has not any abundance of blankets and rugs in his household for his guests, or for himself to sleep in soft comfort. But I do have abundance of fine rugs and blankets. No, no, in my house the dear son of Odysseus shall not have to go to sleep on the deck of a ship, as long as I am alive, and my sons after me are left in my palace to entertain our guests, whoever comes to my household.’ (3.346-355)

Nestor shows great hospitality not only because of the Greek tradition, but because Telemachos is the son of his good friend.

(Nestor:) ‘Act quickly now, dear children, and do me this favor, so that I may propitiate first of all the gods, Athene, who came plainly to me at our happy feasting in the god’s honor. Come then, let one man go to the field for a cow, so that she may come with all speed, and let one of the oxherds be driving her, and one go down to the black ship of great-hearted Telemachos, and bring back all his companions, leaving only two beside her, and yet another go tell the worker in gold Laerkes to come, so that he can cover the cow’s horns with gold. You others stay here all together in a group but tell the serving women who are in the house to prepare a glorious dinner, and set chairs and firewood in readiness, and fetch bright water.’ (3.418-429)

Feasting and sacrifice appear to be an intricate part of Greek hospitality, reminding us that the tradition has much to do with piety and reverence toward the gods.

Book 4

(Menelaos:) ‘Surely we two have eaten much hospitality from other men before we came back here. May Zeus only make an end of such misery hereafter. Unharness the strangers’ horses then, and bring the men here to be feasted.’ (4.33-36)

Menelaos’s reasoning for his generous hospitality is one of gratitude for the assistance given him on his way home from Troy.

Book 5

(Kalypso:) ‘How is it, Hermes of the golden staff, you have come to me? I honor you and love you; but you have not come much before this. Speak what is in your mind. My heart is urgent to do it if I can, and if it is a thing that can be accomplished. But come in with me, so I can put entertainment before you.’ So the goddess spoke, and she set before him a table which she had filled with ambrosia, and mixed red nectar for him. (5.87-93)

Even the gods have traditions of hospitality between one another.

Book 6

(Nausikaa:) ‘But now, since it is our land and our city that you have come to, you shall not lack for clothing nor anything else, of those gifts which should befall the unhappy suppliant on his arrival.’ (6.191-193)

The generosity with which Odysseus is received by the Phaiakians recalls Telemachos’s experience with the various kings he visits.

Book 7

(Alkinoös:) ‘Now, having feasted, go home and take your rest, and tomorrow at dawn we shall call the elders in, in greater numbers, and entertain the guest in our halls, and to the immortals accomplish fine sacrifices, and after that we shall think of conveyance, and how our guest without annoyance or hardship may come again, convoyed by us, to his own country, in happiness and speed, even though it lies very far off […].’ (7.188-194)

Because he doesn’t know who Odysseus is, Alkinoös’s excessive hospitality is based purely on Greek tradition.

But when Alkinoös of the hallowed strength had heard this, he took by the hand the wise and much-devising Odysseus, and raised him up from the fireside, and set him in a shining chair, displacing for this powerful Laodamas, his son, who had been sitting next him and who was the one he loved most. A maidservant brought water for him and poured it from a splendid and golden pitcher, holding it above a silver basin for him to wash, and she pulled a polished table before him. A grave housekeeper brought in the bread and served it to him, adding many good things to it, generous with her provisions. Then long-suffering great Odysseus ate and drank. (7.167-177)

It is important to note that Odysseus receives this royal treatment before revealing his identity as the famous hero who helped the Greeks win the Trojan war. Much like Athene in disguise, he is treated well even in anonymity.

Book 8

(Alkinoös:) ‘[…] one who is your companion, and has thoughts honorable toward you, is of no less degree than a brother […].’ (8.585-586)

The notion of hospitality is so strong in the world of the Odyssey that guests can even be considered part of one’s family.

(Alkinoös:) ‘Here is this stranger, I do not know who he is, come wandering suppliant here to my house from the eastern or western people. He urges conveyance, and entreats us for its assurance. So let us, as we have done before, hasten to convey him, for neither has any other man who has come to my house stayed here grieving a long time for the matter of convoy.’ (8.28-33)

When Alkinoös refers to past visitors “to my house,” we see that this is no special case of remarkable hospitality. Clearly, this is the norm for the generous Phaiakians.


(Laodamas:) ‘Come you also now, father stranger, and try these contests, if you have skill in any. It beseems you to know athletics, for there is no greater glory that can befall a man living than what he achieves by speed of his feet or strength of his hands. So come then and try it, and scatter those cares that are on your spirit. Your voyage will not be put off for long, but now already your ship is hauled down to the sea, and your companions are ready.’ (8.145-151)

We see from Laodamas that there are many different ways to show hospitality; it extends beyond mere provisions to friendly camaraderie.


(Odysseus:) ‘Let any of the rest, whose heart and spirit are urgent for it, come up and try me, since you have irritated me so, either at boxing or wrestling or in a foot race, I begrudge nothing; any of the Phaiakians, that is, except Laodamas himself, for he is my host; who would fight with his friend? Surely any man can be called insensate and good for nothing who in an alien community offers to challenge his friend and host in the games. He damages what it is.’ (8.204-211)

Odysseus shows the behavior of a good guest by refusing to challenge his host and protector. He places so much store by this that he compares it to the cutting away the ground from beneath one’s feet; in other words, insulting one’s host is akin to harming oneself.

Book 9

‘From the start my companions spoke to me and begged me to take some of the cheeses, come back again, and the next time to drive the lambs and kids from their pens, and get back quickly to the ship again, and go sailing off across the salt water; but I would not listen to them, it would have been better their way, not until I could see him, see if he would give me presents. My friends were to find the sight of him in no way lovely.’ (9.224-230)

Odysseus faults his own logic here; he was operating on the assumption that whoever inhabited the cave would follow the traditional rules of hospitality. Of course, that wasn’t the case here.


(Polyphemos, in Odysseus’s tale:) ‘“Stranger, you are a simple fool, or come from far off, when you tell me to avoid the wrath of the gods or fear them. The Cyclopes do not concern themselves over Zeus of the aegis, nor any of the rest of the blessed gods, since we are far better than they […].”’ (9.273-287)

The punishment that Polyphemos ultimately suffers is justified by his refusal here to play by the rules. On the other hand, you could argue if Polyphemos and his people have chosen to live outside of Zeus’s rules, why should they be forced to comply with them? This would be like traveling to another country and chastising them for not celebrating the Fourth of July. Again, the counter-argument would be that Zeus, as the King of the Gods, rules everything and everyone without question. What do you think?

(Polyphemos, in Odysseus’s tale:) ‘“Give me still more, frely, and tell me your name straightway now, so I can give you a guest present to make you happy.”’ (9.355-356)

The Cyclops shows false hospitality towards Odysseus, promising him a lovely gift if he will tell him his name. Readers know that Polyphemos is untrustworthy and suspect a trick.


(Odysseus:) ‘I had with me a goatskin bottle of black wine, sweet wine, given me by Maron, son of Euanthes and priest of Apollo, who bestrides Ismaros; he gave it because, respecting him with his wife and child, we saved them from harm. He made his dwelling among the trees of the sacred grove of Phoibos Apollo, and he gave me glorious presents. He gave me seven talents of well-wrought gold, and he gave me a mixing-bowl made all of silver, and gave along with it wine, drawing it off in storing jars, twelve in all. This was a sweet wine, unmixed, a divine drink.’ (9.196-205)

Odysseus reminds us that there is an exchange between host and guest: the guest must show kindness and good behavior, and the host returns the courtesy. This is why the suitors are not entitled to the hospitality of Telemachos and his mother.

Book 10

(Aiolos, in Odysseus’s tale:) ‘“O least of living creatures, out of this island! Hurry! I have no right to see on his way, none to give passage to any man whom the blessed gods hate with such bitterness. Out. This arrival means you are hateful to the immortals.”’ (10.72-75)

Aiolos no longer shows hospitality to Odysseus because he has squandered his gift.


(Odysseus:) ‘So she spoke to them, and the rest gave voice, and called her and at once she opened the shining doors, and came out, and invited them in, and all in their innocence entered; only Eurylochos waited outside, for he suspected treachery. She brought them inside and seated them on chairs and benches, and mixed them a potion, with barley and cheese and pale honey added to Pramneian wine, but put into the mixture malignant drugs, to make them forgetful of their own country. When she had given them this and they had drunk it down, next thing she struck them with her wand and drove them into her pig pens, and they took on the look of pigs, with the heads and voices and bristles of pigs, but the minds within them stayed as they had been before.’ (10.229-241)

Circe’s hospitality seems proper at first – before she changes her guests into pigs. Looks like the men should have looked this gift-horse in the mouth.

Book 11

(Odysseus:) ‘O great Alkinoös, pre-eminent among all people, there is a time for many words, and a time for sleeping; but if you insists of hearing me still, I would not begrudge you the tale of these happenings and others yet more pitiful to hear, the sorrows of my companions, who perished later, who escaped the onslaught and cry of battle, but perished all for the sake of a vile woman, on the homeward journey.’ (11.378-384)

Though it causes him pain, Odysseus tells his story in order to play the role of a good guest. He repays the generous hospitality with his words.

Book 14

(Eumaios:) ‘You too, old man of many sorrows, since the spirit brought you here to me, do not try to please me nor spell me with lying words. It is not for that I will entertain and befriend you, but for fear of Zeus, the god of guests, and for my own pity.’ (14.386-389)

Odysseus, for the first time, has proven an unworthy guest by telling lies to his host. Eumaios sees this, but overrides his hesitation at this dishonesty out of respect to Zeus. The rules of the gods, we see, are all-important.

The swineherd stood up to divide the portions, for he was fair minded, and separated all the meat into seven portions. One he set aside, with a prayer, for the nymphs and Hermes, the son of Maia, and the rest he distributed to each man, but gave Odysseus in honor the long cuts of the chine’s portion of the white-toothed pig, and so exalted the heart of his master. (14.432-438)

Eumaios honors his guest like a king, taking the cuts usually saved for a lord from the meat and giving them to Odysseus. He also honors him in the same ritual with which he honors the gods, practically equating his guest to a divine being.

Book 15

(Menelaos:) ‘I would disapprove of another hospital man who was excessive in friendship, as of one excessive in hate. In all things balance is better.’ (15.69-71)

Menelaos knows that a host can be just as ill-mannered by being too friendly when such behavior is not wanted by the guest. This is more complicated than we thought.


(Telemachos:) ‘I will not willingly thrust you away from my balanced ship. Come, then, with me. There you will be entertained, from what we have left.’ (15.280-281)

Telemachos shows hospitality even to a complete stranger. This means the laws of the gods are more important than the laws of the mortals.


(Helen:) ‘I too give you this gift, dear child: something to remember from Helen’s hands, for your wife to wear at the lovely occasion of your marriage. Until that time let it lie away in your palace, in your dear mother’s keeping […]. (15.125-128)

Helen shows her graciousness as a hostess by considering Telemachos’s future and family when giving her gifts.

Book 19

(Penelope:) ‘But come, handmaidens, give him a wash and spread a couch for him here, with bedding and coverlets and with shining blankets, so that he can keep warm as he waits for dawn of the golden throne, and early tomorrow you shall give him a bath, anoint him, so that he can sit in the hall beside Telemachos and expect to dine there; and it will be the worse for any of those men who inflicts heart-wasting annoyance on him; he will accomplish nothing here for all his terrible spite […].’ (19.317-325)

Penelope is so generous that she offers a nameless beggar a place by Telemachos’s side, simply for bringing her news of her husband.

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