Tag Archives: Xenia

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.

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