An Excess of Xenia: Some Thoughts on the Odyssey (trans. Emily Wilson)

Xenia, usually translated as “guest-friendship”  is an important part of the mores of the ancient Greeks during the Bronze Age;  a person is required to welcome travelers into his home as guests and the expectation is that the host provides a warm place to sleep, good food, a bath, wine and entertainment.  Emily Wilson, in the introduction to her translation writes, “Xenia acquired an extra importance in the era when Greek men were expanding their world.  Travelers, in an era before money, hotels, or public transportation, had to rely on the munificence of strangers to find food and lodging and aid with their onward journey.”

I view the Odyssey as a series of episodes, in rapid succession, that show men either correctly carrying out their duties of xenia or horribly violating the standards and expectations of this social code. It is a blueprint for Greeks on how to act and how not to act in terms of fulfilling one’s duties regarding xenia. Polyphemus, for example, perpetrates one of the most horrible, ugly and disgusting violations of the guest-friendship demands of xenia when, instead of feeding Odysseus and his men, he eats them for his own dinner.  This episode is oftentimes portrayed as a cute fairytale about a one-eyed monster who doesn’t know how to behave.  But in Emily Wilson’s incisive and skillfully efficient translation, the full horror of this episode is laid bare:

Leaping up high, he reached his hands towards my men, seized two, and knocked them hard against the ground like puppies, and the floor was wet with brains.  He ripped them limb by limb to make his meal, then ate them like a lion on the mountains, devouring flesh, entrails, and marrowy bones, and leaving nothing. Watching this disaster, we wept and lifted up our hands in prayer to Zeus.  We felt so helpless.

Another code of conduct that xenia covers is the mutual respect due to a host when one is a guest in another man’s home. A house guest is expected to be polite, grateful and provide a gift to the host. One of the most obvious violations of this concept of xenia in the Odyssey deals with the suitors who have placed a burden on Telemachus and Penelope by overstaying their welcome, eating all of their food and being rude to their hosts. The suitors are the ultimate bad house guests.  One of my favorite passages in the Odyssey is the Phaeacian bard’s tale of Aphrodite and Ares getting caught by Hephaestus in his own home.  The Greek, anthropomorphic gods are also capable of bad behavior, violating xenia and paying the price for it.   Ares is an awful house guest and, much like Paris himself, steals his host’s wife:

Then Ares took her hand and said to her, ‘My darling, let us go to bed. Hephaestus is out of town; he must have gone to Lemnos to see the Sintians whose speech is strange.’ She was excited to lie down with him; they went to bed together. But the chairs ingenious Hephaestus had created wrapped tight around them, so they could knot move or get up.  Then they knew that they were trapped.

And what of Odysseus himself as far as xenia is concerned?  Wilson’s translation of the Greek word polutropos as “complicated” which is used to describe Odysseus in the first line is brilliant.   He certainly relies on his trickery as well as the kindness of strangers to feed him, clothe him, and in the case of Calypso and Circe, sexually satisfy him.  Disguising himself as a beggar in his own home, he provides the ultimate moral test for his wife and son when he observes how they, and others in his household, treat a decrepit old man who is  most in need of food, clothing and shelter.  Penelope, who is the true hero of the epic in my opinion, treats the beggar with a gentle and respectful kindness.

Tricky, selfish, narcissistic, and, yes, complicated.  As a Homeric hero he certainly strives to be the good warrior, the good father, the good master, the good husband.  But even by Homeric standards his lying, cheating and elaborate falsehoods are difficult to see beyond.  Bernard Knox says of Odysseus:

For Achilles a lie is something utterly abhorrent.  But for Odysseus it is second nature, a point of pride. ‘I am Odysseus,’ he tells the Phaeacians when the time comes to reveal his identity, ‘known to the world/for every kind of craft’ (9.21-22).  The Greek word here translated ‘craft’ is dolos.  It is a word that can be used in praise as well as abuse.  Athena uses the word when, in the guise of a handsome young shepherd, she compliments Odysseus on the complicated lie he has just told her about his identity and his past, and it is with this word that Odysseus describes the wooden horse he contrived to bring Troy down in flames.  On the other hand, Athena, Menelaus and Odysseus use it of the trap Clytemnestra set for Agamemnon when he returned home, and it serves Homer as a way back from Pylos. But whether complimentary or accusing, it always imples the presence of what Achilles so vehemently rejects—the intention to deceive.

Is appealing for the privileges due under the umbrella of xenia respectful to one’s hosts when it is done under disguise and under false pretenses?  Yes, deception is oftentimes necessary for his survival.  But what about keeping his identity from his wife who is the last to know who he is?  Penelope brilliantly turns the tables on Odysseus by putting him through her own test and calling out his penchant for deception.   As a woman she has little control over what goes on with guests in her house, but she does have control over who sleeps in her bed—her secret, cleverly made bed.  Once again, Wilson’s translation of this passage is keen and trenchant:

Do not be angry at me now, Odysseus!  In every other way you are a very understanding man.  The gods have made us suffer: they refused to let us stay together and enjoy our youth until we reached the edge of age together.  Please forgive me, do no keep bearing a grudge because when I first saw you, I would not welcome you immediately.  I felt a constant dread that some bad man would fool me with his lies.  There are so many dishonest, clever men.

I have to admit that The Odyssey has not been one of my favorite ancient texts.  I’ve always greatly preferred the Iliad.   I had an intense seminar in graduate school on the Odyssey with John Peradotto and at that time, in my early twenties, translating and absorbing an entire book a week was too overwhelming for me.  But Emily Wilson’s literal and precise yet musical translation of the epic has given me a new appreciation of this text.  On a personal note, my thirteen-year-old daughter came home a few weeks ago with a copy of the Odyssey she took out of the library.  The translation was one of those that have been very popular in the past 20 years.  I quickly replaced it with Wilson’s translation.  I think it is an amazing thing that my daughter’s first impression of the Odyssey, and the standard by which she measures all subsequent renditions, will be that of Wilson’s.  She has been coming home every day and describing to me Odyssey’s latest adventures and her impressions of it.  She has asked if she can read the Iliad next.

16 Comments

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16 responses to “An Excess of Xenia: Some Thoughts on the Odyssey (trans. Emily Wilson)

  1. Interesting that you prefer the Iliad to the Odyssey. With me, it’s the other way round. I suppose because the Iliad is about war and heroics, neither of which I like, while the Odyssey feels like it is about the real world, where we are all more than a little villainous and ready to do anything to survive… Although I do agree with you that Penelope is the real hero of the story!

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    • I’ve always had more respect for Achilles and Hector as heroes than Odysseus. And I just like the Iliad’s story better. But this new translation has given me a better appreciation for it.

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  2. I came to the Odyssey via Robert Fitzgerald. I loved that translation (I didn’t study Greek, just the literatures in translation). And later admired Fagles. But the Wilson is really beautifully coherent and visual as well as being so fine to read. There’s a feminine, or feminist, inflection too, that seems radical to me, timely. I love the idea that it would be a young person’s first encounter with the text.

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  3. I recall your apprehension about this new translation. It is so encouraging to hear your learned and positive response. Makes me curious though, in the way that it is often said that science fiction speaks to the present, not the future, how much do you think translations, especially of ancient texts where we often have a deep historical record to select from, speak to their own times? I like to think that classical texts, Greek, Assyrian, Sanskrit and so on are living texts and survive through continual re-engagement.

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    • I think that the concept of xenia is especially important and relevant in the 21st century. How wonderful would it be if we treated refugees by the standards of xenia instead of building walls or passing laws to keep them out. We can still learn a lot from the Bronze Age Greeks. And the best thing about Wilson’s translation is that it is so accessible to a modern audience. That’s precisely why I have it to my daughter.

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      • Thanks for this illuminating post, Melissa, xenia is an aspect of the text that I wasn’t really aware of, not in the way you’ve explained it here.

        Re the new translation: I’ve read both an old Penguin (Fitzgerald?) translation and the Fagles, and I share the apprehension that Joe refers to. Fagles brought The Odyssey and The Iliad to life for me, and having compared the Book 9 scene you’ve quoted above, I’m not really reassured that I’d enjoy the Wilson. What kind of word is “marrowy”? and how weak is the image of ” he ate them like a lion on the mountains” compared to “he bolted them down like a mountain-lion”?” But worst of all is “We felt so helpless” – it sounds so lame, so girly!

        “Lurching up, he lunged out with his hands toward my men
        and snatching two at once, rapping them on the ground
        he knocked them dead like pups –
        their brains gushed out all over, soaked the floor –
        and ripping them limb from limb to fix his meal
        he bolted them down like a mountain-lion, left no scrap,
        devoured entrails, flesh and bones, marrow and all!
        We flung our arms to Zeus, we wept and cried aloud,
        looking on at his grisly work – paralysed, appalled.” (Fagles, 9780140268867, p.220)

        I think this poetic version shows the enormity of the horror, and instead of invoking helplessness as an emotion it shows that the men were *bodily* incapable of action, men of action who’d seen all kinds of horror on the battlefield, now frozen into paralysis by this gruesome sight.

        BTW I used to read the Gillian Cross illustrated edition to my Year 5 & 6 students, and our discussion focussed on the ethics of the Cyclops story. Though we did not have the concept of xenia at our disposal, we were all agreed that Odysseus is at fault from the beginning (as Homer would have expected his listeners to understand). In Polypehmus’ absence, they enter his cave, inspect it thoroughly and after toying with the idea of stealing what they find there and running away, they sit down and make themselves at home, eating his cheeses. And then when Polyphemus returns home, we get Odysseus bragging (as usual), lecturing Polyphemus about his obligations to give succour to strangers and threatening Zeus’s revenge if he doesn’t, plus lying about where his ship is. Although my students of course did not approve of Cyclops they were none too impressed with Odysseus either – which shows, I think the value of unpacking these stories with this age group as moral issues still very relevant to our own time, discussing violations of the social code, the complexities of right and wrong, the difference between vengeance and justice, and most important of all, inspecting closely the motivations of the one telling the story, in this case, Odysseus once again justifying everything he did and representing his own actions as cunning responses to the evil of the Other, in order to avoid the blame for having lost his men.

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      • HI Lisa,

        I think that Emily Wilson’s translation, which is simple and direct, is perfect for a 21st century audience. Fagles and Fitzgerald were great for the late 20th century, but I think moving forward we needed an updated version and she has given us that. Each new generation requires its own, unique translation. Of course, readers tend to prefer the translation they first read. It would be hard for me to find a better translation of the Fagles Iliad which I am especially partial to. For students who have less and less familiarity with classics, Wilson’s translation, I think, is very accessible. Some of her modern words are a bit jarring though (her use of crepes and pigtailed Athena really bothered me).

        I think your students have fallen into the common trap of judging Odysseus by our own, modern mores. The whole idea of xenia is that Odysseus and his men are traveling, tired and hungry. They would fully expect that the dweller of that cave would offer them food, shelter, etc. The expectation would be that when the Cyclops finds them in his home, he would be happy to offer them his food and would insist that they take more than they even found. Of course, in the 21st century you would never go into someone’s home and help yourself. But what Odysseus and his men did was not rude, it was what any Greek would have done in the same situation. But Polyphemus does not adhere to the mores or standards of civilization. He doesn’t just deny them the gifts of xenia, but devours them as his own meal. Odysseus had every right to lecture him about xenia since his violation of this social code is gross and horrible.

        Where I think Odysseus does go wrong is that he can’t keep his mouth shut and reveals who he is. This arrogance causes more grief for him and his men. If he had let Polyphemus continue to think he was “nobody” then he would have suffered less. But the hubris of a Homeric hero won’t let him be a “nobody.”

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  4. Such an interesting post Melissa. Emily Wilson’s translation sounds like it really hits the spot. And so wonderful that your daughter is discovering the classics! 😀

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  5. Emily came to my work (Seamus Heaney HomePlace) last year to talk about her translation and was utterly fascinating. I plan to read her translation soon.

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  6. When I went to Athens two years ago for the first time, I did not read any tourist guides as preparation, but I did re-read Homer and my Greek mythology book. Great stuff!

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  7. Thank you for this fascinating post.

    Do I dare say I haven’t read the Illiad or the Odyssey? It’s on ly mental TBR, always put forward. To be honest, I wouldn’t know which translation to choose and this choice is crucial for an enjoyable reading trip.

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  8. Kent

    I’ve only read the beginning of Wilson’s version so probably shouldn’t comment, but hey when have I ever let good sense get in my way. I thought her style seemed a little flat footed… or pedestrian or something… which I’m guessing was intentional… that she’s going for clarity and readability. Still though, being a bit old fashioned, I like to see a little English on the ball. You know, make it dance every now and again. That said, her version would be perfect for high school students.

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