The Importance of Xenia in The Odyssey and it’s Consequences One of the most important themes in The Odyssey is the concept of xenia, which is the old Greek word for hospitality. In modern times, hospitality is something we rarely think of, and the first thing that comes to mind is the hotel industry, but in ancient Greece, xenia was not about hotels, or just about etiquette, it was a way of life with many benefits in a world that was still mostly savage. Xenia was more than just being polite to strangers. It was a set of rules and customs that defined the guest-host relationship between two individuals, two groups of people, or an individual and a group. Some basic rules of this relationship were that the guest could not insult the host, make demands, or refuse xenia. Additionally, the host could not insult the guest, fail to protect the guest, or fail to be as hospitable as possible. A certain level of trust would eventually have to be established. This trust was reinforced by both fear of word getting out that the host had provided improper xenia, and fear of retribution by the gods, since one never knew when a traveller might actually be a god in disguise, come to test the level of your xenia. All travellers were seen as sent by Zeus and under his protection, so giving proper xenia was also a way of showing respect for the gods, especially Zeus. The Odyssey by Homer may be viewed as a study in the laws of hospitality and is full of examples of both good and bad xenia, where good xenia is rewarded and bad xenia is punished. The idea of punishment and reward for how xenia is offered is seen throughout The Odyssey, examples being Odysseus’ encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus on his return to Ithaka and the eventual revenge against the suitors. The story relies so heavily on concepts of xenia that it can be argued that The Odyssey probably could not have been written without it in mind. Almost every encounter between characters gives us demonstrations of how xenia should, or shouldn’t be carried out. Good Xenia: Odysseus and Nausikaa
One of the best examples of good xenia in The Odyssey is that of Nausikaa, a princess on the island of the Phaiakians. Odysseus had been shipwrecked and took refuge under a bush for the night. Late the next morning, he woke up to the sound of girls screaming while at play with a ball they had accidentally kicked into a nearby stream. Seeing an opportunity for help, he decided to approach them. Emerging from the bushes, rough, ragged, crusted with dried seawater and covered only by an olive branch; he approached Nausikaa and her maids-in-waiting. A natural reaction in this sort of situation would be to run and hide, which is what Nausikaa’s maids-in-waiting did, but Nausikaa, remembering the obligations of xenia, as well as the dream Athena had sent her the night before, stood her ground and waited for Odysseus, to hear him out. After he spoke, she used what means she had available to her to offer good xenia to a guest on her father’s island. She called back her maids and reminded them that “Strangers and beggars come from Zeus: a small gift, then, is friendly” (Homer 105). She then directed her maids to take him to the river and bathe him, providing him with oils to rub onto his skin. She provided him with fresh clothing, taken from the laundry she’d washed in the river. She also offered him food and drink. These are all examples of good xenia to a stranger. She took care of his needs and then, afterwards, she even offered a parting gift: information about how he could accomplish his task of getting home. She told him how best to approach her parents and how best to win them over, so he would have a good chance of receiving the help he needed to get home. Odysseus, for his part, also kept up his side of the obligations of xenia. He calculated how best to seek her aid without insulting her, “In his swift reckoning, he thought it best to trust in words to please her and keep away; he might...
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