Friday, 2 May 2008

Tea and Cake with Homer

The Odyssey: Trace the use of type-scenes associated with hospitality and feasting.

“Type-scene” is a term invented by critics to describe what Clarke calls “recurring situations which are narrated according to a more or less fixed pattern”[1] in Homeric epic. These recurring situations are not random, but reoccur because they have a particular thematic significance in the poem. They are not entirely rigid: there is a certain amount of flexibility but it is limited. In Jones’ words, “the poet always keeps to the same order of events though he may choose to omit some.”[2] The minutiae of the poet’s variations on the type-scene in the Odyssey are worthy of inspection because they reveal a great deal about the values of Homeric society and the poem as a whole.

The type-scenes I will be discussing in this essay are concerned with xenia, which is the concept of hospitality. The type-scenes of hospitality in the Odyssey follow the observance of a standard protocol: the guest is greeted, shown in, seated, washed (usually the hands, though sometimes a bath and change of clothes is offered) and served food and drink. Only then is it acceptable for the host to question his guest. A bed for the night is then offered if it is needed. There is likewise a protocol for the guest’s departure: the guest excuses himself, the host urges him to stay but then concedes, a final meal is prepared and then the host gives gifts to the guest before he leaves.[3]

These hospitality sequences are central to the Odyssey. In terms of plot, they provide room for Telemachus to find out what happened to Odysseus, they enable Odysseus to get home and they provide a space for stories to be told, thus enabling flashbacks. They also reveal the attitudes behind the customs, expose a character’s true moral “worth” in how well he abides by them and are fundamental to Telemachus’ education. As Griffin writes, they have both an aesthetic and a moral aspect: Telemachus’ elders demonstrate to him how to behave in Homeric society,[4] as his father has not been around to teach him.

That said, the role of host seems to come very naturally to Telemachus, probably on account of his noble parentage. In one of the poem’s earliest scenes, Athene arrives in disguise and, despite being preoccupied, Telemachus jumps up immediately at the sight of a guest: “He made straight for the outer porch, inwardly vexed that a guest should stand at the door so long.”[5] Despite the inconvenience, Telemachus’ greeting is warm and friendly: “Greeting, friend; you shall be made welcome here; afterwards, when you have had your meal, you shall tell us what service you require.”[6] Telemachus adheres perfectly to the hospitality protocol, in spite of his inexperience: Athene’s hands are washed and she is fed before Telemachus starts to lament his situation or ask her anything.[7] Likewise, when she says she’s going, he asks her to stay for the traditional farewell rites of the final meal and giving of a gift, called a xeinon, to be passed down as an heirloom and symbolise the bond between the families.

The particulars of this hospitality sequence reveal far more than the fact that Telemachus has inherited his father’s sense of decorum. He shows a tremendous thoughtfulness and care for the comfort of his guest, seating her away from the boisterous suitors and seating himself lower in a show of deference.[8] The poet provides a stark contrast between this and the behaviour of the suitors, who ignore both the prince and the guest, seat themselves uninvited and help themselves to food and drink, flouting all conventions. This reflects their disrespectful attitude for which they are so sorely punished towards the end of the poem. Another aspect of hospitality conventions is also revealed. Athene says: “I claim guest-friendship with your family from days long past.”[9] This tells us that these bonds between families, based on xenia, could have been formed generations before. Jones elaborates: “They lose nothing of their hold over the xenoi because of this.”[10]

The second hospitality type-scene in the Odyssey is Telemachus as a guest at Nestor’s palace. This is, again, central to the poem’s themes: it contrasts the disorder of Odysseus’ kingdom in his absence with Nestor’s ideal, well-run kingdom, which is perfect in its hospitality and honours both the gods and the king himself. Telemachus arrives during a sacrifice to Poseidon. Everyone is preoccupied, as they were when Athene arrived at Odysseus’ palace. Yet at the first sight of a guest, the entire party gets ready to welcome him and integrate him into sacrificial feast: they “all flocked towards them with friendly gestures, bidding them be seated.”[11] We see in this scene that hospitality in the Odyssey is integrally linked with honouring the gods. The sacrifice is Athene which follows her flying off is described in exacting detail.

Nestor’s hospitality is indeed impeccable, and a perfect example to Telemachus. He is bathed and dressed by Nestor’s “lovely” daughter.[12] He is seated in the privileged position near Nestor himself and “on soft fleeces.”[13] Nestor tells Telemachus all the relevant information he has about the homecomings of the Trojan heroes, gives him advice and offers his chariot. Like Telemachus himself, he not only obeys the hospitality customs but demonstrates genuine interest in his guest and does everything to ensure his comfort.

Nestor also demonstrates one of the key aspects of Homeric hospitality: personal pride. He won’t hear of Telemachus’ returning to sleep on his ship, saying, “Zeus forbid – and the other deathless gods forbid – that you should go to a ship and away from me, as from some poor unprovided man who had not rugs and blankets enough in his house for guests and himself to sleep softly in.”[14] Zeus is especially important here because one of his names was “Xenios:” he was the patron of guests and supplicants. The Homeric hero was thus under a religious and moral obligation to treat guests and supplicants well.

Telemachus, accompanied by Pesistratus, one of Nestor’s sons, then goes on to stay with Menelaus and another hospitality type-scene ensues. Again, Telemachus arrives at an inconvenient moment, a feast for the wedding of one of Menelaus’ illegitimate sons and the bridal send-off of his daughter Hermione. Menelaus is told of Telemachus’ and Pesistratus’ arrival by Etoeneus, who suggests sending them away, but Menelaus, as a worthy Homeric hero and thus the perfect host, will not hear of it. He is even angered at the suggestion, telling Etoeneus, “You speak with the foolishness of a child.”[15]

The usual hospitality customs follow: the guests receive a bath and new clothes and are told, “When you have had your meal, we will ask you who are.”[16] Menelaus, like Telemachus and Nestor, takes a personal interest in the care of his guests, despite everything else that is going on, and goes beyond what is required of a host. He sees that Telemachus’ and Pesistratus’ horses are fed and stabled and gave them the food “that had been reserved as his own portion,”[17] thus making a personal sacrifice.

This pattern continues at the guests’ departure. Telemachus asks to go and Menelaus consents but, according to custom, asks to host a final meal and collect gifts.[18] He also offers an escort and displays the perfect host’s desire to oblige when he says: “Too much warmness to guests, and too much coldness, are both things that I blame in others. Measure is best in everything; to press departure on one who is loath to go, to hinder it for one who is loath to stay – either thing is as bad as the other.”[19] He offers gifts of horses and a chariot,[20] which Telemachus cannot accept as they are not practical on Ithaca’s landscape.[21] Menelaus is gracious rather than offended, and offers a mixing bowl instead.[22] Helen’s gift, a wedding robe for Telemachus’ future wife,[23] likewise displays the thoughtfulness which characterises the ideal Homeric host.

The hospitality type-scenes in the Odyssey become more varied when we see Odysseus as a guest of the “hypercivilised” Phaeacians. Everything here is done on a larger scale. Menelaus’ palace was grand, but Alcinous’ is magnificent. Odysseus is sat in Alcinous’ favourite son’s glittering chair[24] and, the following day, games and athletic contests are held in his honour. Odysseus impresses the king so much that he is offered his daughter, Nausicaa’s, hand in marriage.[25] The hospitality of the Phaeacians is excessive; even the parting gifts are incredibly lavish. Odysseus is given clothes and gold, amongst others things, by the Phaeacian elders, and everyone in Alcinous’ hall is told to give him a “massive” tripod and cauldron.[26]

Yet, at least initially, there is reluctance in the Phaeacians’ hosting of Odysseus. He is not immediately welcomed in, as Telemachus was, but must put his hands around the queen’s knees in supplication.[27] Even then, Alcinous does not immediately decree that Odysseus should receive the traditional hospitality sequence. This happens at Echenaus’ recommendation, and it is necessary for him to remind the king of the proper way to treat a guest: “It not decent, that a guest should stay sitting upon the ground, in the ashes by the fire.”[28] Alcinous calls an assembly of the elders in order to decide that Odysseus’ request to be returned home should be granted: he does not see it as a duty. Even the games in Odysseus’ honour are marred by Eurylaus’ taunts, and they seem to be more of an opportunity for the Phaeacians to show off than organised for Odysseus’ pleasure. It seems, then, that the Phaeacians, with all their wealth and grandeur, are not as civilised as first appears.

The hospitality sequence of the Phaeacians is starkly contrasted with that of Eumaeus, and the comparison is to Eumaeus’ advantage. Eumaeus is poor, yet his hospitality has all the eagerness which the Phaeacians’ lacked. He ushers in Odysseus, transformed into a humble and fairly unappealing beggar, and calls him “old friend.”[29] When Odysseus later suggests leaving to wander and beg, Eumaeus won’t hear of it and is “much hurt.”[30] Like Menelaus and Nestor, he takes a personal interest in his guest and becomes emotionally involved. Unlike Alcinous, he sees it as his duty to entertain his guest to the best of his ability. He puts down brushwood and his own goat skin coverlet for Odysseus to sit on,[31] and at night he gives him his own cloak and makes his bed by the fire.[32] Eumaeus’ personal sacrifice for the sake of his guest makes his hospitality more valuable. Yet he’s constantly apologising for not being able to offer more.[33] When the other herdsmen come, he tells them to slaughter the best hog on Odysseus’ account. The sacrifice here shows again the inter-relation between hospitality and religious duty in Homeric culture: Eumaeus “did not forget the Deathless Ones, for he was a right-minded man.”[34]

In conclusion, Homer goes to great length to provide variation among these formulaic type-scenes. We see the young, inexperienced but right-minded host amidst a kingdom in turmoil, Telemachus, the older hosts, Nestor and Menelaus, in their ordered and flourishing kingdoms, the luxuriant but reluctant hosts, the Phaeacians, and the humble but affectionate host, Eumaeus. The hosts, and the guests’ experiences, are dramatically affected by the wealth and state of order in their environment. We have also seen how complex and significant a theme hospitality is in the Odyssey, tied into ideas of personal pride and religious duty. These hospitality sequences, and the patterns they provide, are an essential part of the poem’s structure as a narrative.

Fowler, R. (ed.) (2004) The Cambridge Companion to Homer, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Griffin, J. (2004) Homer: The Odyssey, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jones P. (1992) Homer’s Odyssey: A Commentary, Bristol: Bristol Classical Press.
Schewring, W. (trans.) (1980) Homer: The Odyssey, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] Clarke, “Formulas, metre and type-scenes” in Fowler, The Cambridge Companion to Homer, p.134.
[2] Jones, Homer’s Odyssey: A Commentary, p. 9.
[3] Jones, Homer’s Odyssey: A Commentary, p. 14.
[4] Griffin, Homer: The Odyssey, p. 86.
[5] Schewring, Homer: The Odyssey, p. 4.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., p. 4-5.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., p. 5.
[10] Jones, Homer’s Odyssey: A Commentary, p. 13.
[11] Schewring, Homer: The Odyssey, p. 23.
[12] Ibid., p. 34.
[13] Ibid., p. 24.
[14] Ibid., p. 31.
[15] Ibid., p. 36.
[16] Ibid., p. 36.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., p. 179.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., p. 48.
[21] Ibid., p. 49.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid., p. 180.
[24] Ibid., p. 80.
[25] Ibid., p. 83.
[26]Ibid., p. 154.
[27] Ibid., p. 79.
[28] Ibid., p. 79-80.
[29] Ibid., p. 165.
[30] Ibid., p. 185.
[31] Ibid., p. 166.
[32] Ibid., p. 177.
[33] Ibid., p. 167.
[34] Ibid., p. 174.

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