Thinking Out Loud about The Odyssey, Part 3

The Odyssey, Books VIII-XVI

The emphasis on strangers and hospitality continues in this section of The Odyssey. Being hospitable to strangers is considered a pious act, since Zeus is the god of strangers and suppliants. Those who mistreat their guests are treated as impious, as is the case of the Cyclops in Book IX (219-220, 226) and King Antipathes (243), and Zeus’s wrath is called upon to avenge strangers who were mistreated. Incidentally, it seems that the sole reason the gods are respected is their power, and if their power can be met with equal or greater strength, the being does not have to submit to the god (Cyclops, 220; Poseidon, 290-291). Telemachus knows that the suitors will mistreat Odysseus disguised as a beggar, though Telemachus’ house was a guest haven before the suitors had arrived (335, 340-341). Interestingly enough, though people who are devoted to the gods welcome strangers and give them hospitality, they seem not to do so if the guest is especially hated of the gods. King Aeolus chases Odysseus away when the warrior comes back, and Aeolus states that it is a “crime” to host or help someone who the gods hate (232-233).

Alcinous and Arete welcome and help Odysseus after they are informed of his adverse experiences, which were inflicted by the gods in Book XI (260). Their actions cause them to lose a ship in Book XIII, apparently because they defied the gods (particularly Poseidon) in helping Odysseus (292-293). What, then, should be the response of someone who finds a person cursed by the gods? It seems like they are not allowed to pity and help him, though the gods sometimes do. For example, right before Odysseus enters Circe’s palace in Book X, a god takes pity on him and sends him a stag to hunt and eat (235).

It seems odd that Odysseus is the cleverest of men, but most of his troubles come from folly (231, 233). In addition, it is hard to tell whether Odysseus’ stories are true or whether they are tales that he made up to survive, as the story he tells Athena upon arrival in Ithaca (296, 306, 347). Odysseus is also called a great bard (261), which may relate to the whole story being a song. Athena seems to tell him that now that he is home, he no longer needs to tell untrue stories, but he continues to tell them, for example, to the swineherd.

Finally, this section seems to include several threats to the homecoming of Odysseus and his men: the Lotus eaters (214), the Cyclops (228), Circe (237, 245), the Sirens (272), and of course, Poseidon himself. In these cases, Odysseus is either tempted to stay where he is or his life is threatened. He says that the greatest good is a realm wherein the dwellers have deep joy and can sit and feast around a bard, which seems to be an ordered and peaceful kingdom (211).

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