The Value of Hospitality

Cory Biggs Melissa Joseph Mollie Bennet Dustin Manning Jonas Schrodt


C101 Links

Other Links


The Value of Hospitality


Why So Hospitable?

            Hospitality in Homer’s time was well shown through long travels such as Odysseus' in The Odyssey as well as the guest-friend relationship, known as xenia.  There are many possible reasons why hospitality was more prevalent in those times.  Traveling in Homer’s time was much more extensive and lengthier than in modern times.  The less advanced methods of transportation used in Homeric times, such as by boat or by foot, were much slower than modern forms of transportation.   Because of this, many more nights were spent away from home in many different locations.  Also, there were not hotels or inns where travelers could pay and stay the night.  Even if there were, travelers probably could not afford to pay for every night they were gone.  Because of this, travelers had to rely on the hospitality of others for shelter, food, and protection.  There was, however, some payment for this hospitality in the form of a gift exchange.  Another possible reason for this hospitality was the fact that there were not nations that would allow travelers to enter their territory safely.  Without such hospitality, strangers could be captured or even killed for entering a foreign land.  The Greek guest-friendship xenia may have been formed from this.  Xenia is the Greek relationship between two people from different regions.  This allowed for the members of the relationship to safely travel into the other member’s territory and receive a place to stay and something to eat.  Another possible explanation for the amount of hospitality shown is that the Greeks believed the gods wanted them to show hospitality to anyone who showed up at their homes.  It was also believed that turning away someone and not providing them this hospitality would result in some form of punishment from the gods.  Finally, hospitality could have been used to spread ones name and bring them a sense of fame if they would provide a high standard of hospitality to strangers.  It also could have been a way to show how wealthy one was.  These can be shown from this quote from The Odyssey: 

“Come, friend, and give me something; for you seem to be no lowly man among the Greeks, but their most noble lord-indeed a chief.  So you should offer more than others can-I’d make you famous then in endless lands.  I, too, was once a man of means; my house was rich; I often gave to vagabonds, whoever they might be, who came in need” (Homer, p. 351).

            Is hospitality as customary now as it was in Homer’s time, and if not, why?  It seems as though modern people do show hospitality towards others, but in a different way than those in Homeric times.  It is not custom anymore to provide food, protection, and shelter to a stranger that arrives at someone’s door.  This could be because there are hotels and restaurants almost anywhere one can go.  There is no need to for someone to ask for these.  Also, protection is not a large concern for most travelers, especially in the United States.  Hospitality is still shown, however, in modern society.  For example, when someone’s car breaks down most people would welcome them into their homes and help them in any way they can without even asking who they are.  Also, most people know of someone, be it family or friend, in a different city that would welcome them and provide them with a place to stay and food, which is similar to the xenia in Homer’s time.  Although the hospitality customs of Homer’s time are not still around, there are similarities to them and hospitality is still visible.


Fear of Gods

            Throughout The Odyssey there are many ongoing themes, but one of the most important themes of this story is the tradition of Greek hospitality or xenia.  This type of hospitality was very unique and it played an important role in the ancient Greek society.  As a matter of fact, this kind of hospitality was so unique that it almost seems unbelievable, because very few societies have behaved in this manner towards their guests.  From the very nature of this behavior, one can easily come to the conclusion that the people of ancient Greek society were truly hospitable.  However, fear of the gods, rather than pure decency, is a possible cause of the actions of ancient Greeks towards their guests.

            The hospitality of ancient Greek society is very clearly seen throughout the Odyssey.  During the travels of both Odysseus and Telemacus, one can easily see how strangers were greeted and treated upon their arrival to a new place.  It seems as if strangers were invited in for a feast, showered with gifts and luxuries, and then asked who they were and what their business was.  As anyone can see, this type of hospitality is very unusual and distinctive.  Not very many cultures would treat strangers in this manner.  Therefore we are led to believe that there is some other reasoning behind all of this generosity.

            The people of ancient Greek society did not show all of this hospitality solely out of the goodness of their hearts, but rather they did it for the gods.  During this time, hospitality was treated as a test from the gods.  In Book XIV on page 275 Eumaeus says: “for it is Zeus who sends to us all beggars and strangers; and a gift, however small, means much when given by a man like me…”  This means that it is the god Zeus who demands magnificent hospitality upon all mortals.  Since hosts had no way of knowing who their visitors were, they were forced to treat every visitor as if they were a god.  By treating every guest like a god, there is no mistake of accidentally treating a god differently, just in case one was to show up at their door disguised as a stranger.  This appears to be done through fear, not generosity. 

            The fear of the gods’ wrath is seen in many of Odysseus’ travels.  Many of the hosts ask Odysseus to pray for their happiness to the gods in return for their hospitality.  This leads us to believe that they only shower him with gifts and feed him because it is what the gods want.  There is, however, an adventure where Odysseus is not shown good hospitality.  This adventure is the encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus.  When entering the cave of Polyphemus, Odysseus relies on the expectation of hospitality and helps himself to food and shelter.  When Polyphemus returns, however, we see that he does not follow the rules of Greek hospitality.  The reason he does not abide by these rules is because his father is the god Poseidon.  He does not fear the wrath of the gods because he feels his father will protect him.

            As anyone can see, the people from ancient Greece were very hospitable. It is possible, however, that this Greek hospitality comes from the fear of the gods, and not only from pure politeness.  Not only can this be seen in the story of The Odyssey, but it can be seen in other ancient Greek stories as well.


The Unwanted

            There are many things in life that come unwanted, and there are also things in life that we must do unwillingly.  In The Odyssey, providing hospitality often fell into these unwanted areas.  There were instances in this epic poem where Odysseus was offered and/or provided hospitality that he did not necessarily want, and there was also one major illustration of characters that felt obligated to provide hospitality that they did not want to provide.

            The fact that Odysseus wanted to get home to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus, is undisputable.  When speaking with Alcinous, he once said, “…For if a man is far from his own home and parents, then even if he is housed in opulence within that foreign land, no thing he finds can be more sweet than what he left behind” (Homer, p. 170).  This statement proves how Odysseus felt about the hospitality he had been offered and/or provided, and how he much more longed to be home.  Calypso, a fair goddess, had wanted to keep Odysseus in her cavern as her husband, but he refused.  Círce also tried to keep Odysseus in her halls and keep him there as her mate, but her attempts failed as well.  Although both of these women had fine homes and fine things to offer him, their hospitality was too much for Odysseus.  He instead left each with the goal of returning to Ithaca and reclaiming his family and his home. 

            Another case where hospitality came in an unwanted abundance was when Telemachus encountered Nestor.  It was here that Telemachus found himself more welcome than he wanted.  Nestor seemed to enjoy Telemachus’ company and entertained him by telling him many stories.  While Telemachus appreciated all the hospitality in this instance as well, he just wanted to continue his journey and learn about his father’s whereabouts.

            Throughout his journey, Odysseus also begins to reject hospitality when he finds himself encountering troubles at each place he comes to.  Eventually he is the only man left alive.  When he first wakes up on the island of Schería, he says, “What misery is mine?  What mortals must I meet in this new land that I now touch?” (Homer, p. 119)   The hospitality he is offered is unwanted because he has begun to question the motives of the people he meets.  He starts to wonder if they are actually kind or if they are only trying to please the gods with their hospitality. 

            On the opposite side, back at home, Telemachus and Penelope found themselves feeling obligated to provide hospitality when they did not necessarily want to.  The suitors came to their home and expected proper hospitality to be offered to them.  Because of the importance of hospitality back in those times, most people assumed it.  In the case of the suitors, however, there was a larger assumption made on their part.  When the suitors first showed up at the doors of the palace, Penelope and Telemachus intended for them to stay for a feast or two.  The suitors more or less intruded and welcomed themselves far more than Penelope and Telemachus had wanted them to.  Even after the prophecy of Halithérses, who said: “Odysseus…won’t stay away from those he holds most dear; he is already near; and he has planted the seed of death and slaughter for the suitors…” (Homer, p. 28), the suitors remained in the palace and continued to feast and try to impress Penelope until Odysseus returned and slaughtered them.      


Hospitality… Or Else!

            Hospitality in today’s world has become little more than being friendly and considerate to your guest.  There are no universal rules for the conduct of the host or the guest; much less a threat of violence if a person does not behave in a certain manner.  The Odyssey, takes its reader to a very different world of rules and manners.  In the story, the importance of hospitality goes beyond being a gracious host; there is a threat of violence if the host or guest does not fulfill their responsibilities.

            When Odysseus arrives on Kirké’s island, his men are being turned into animals and he goes to confront the witch.  On his way to met with her Hermes advises him on how to deal with the witch.  The ways in which Odysseus must deal with Kirké is by threatening her with his sword.  There are a few factors that may have motivated Hermes to help Odysseus confront Kirké.  One very important reason is that the goddess was violating the code of conduct between host and guest and not even a goddess can violate the rules.  From her confrontation with Odysseus, Kirké was taught a lesson by the other gods so that she would become more hospitable. 

            The meeting with the Cyclops, Polyphemos, is another violent example of what happens with there is a violation between host/guest relations.  When the Cyclops decides to eat rather than welcome Odysseus and his crew, the men poke his eye out.  This event does not bother the gods at all.  The father of the Cyclops, Poseidon, is only upset by the event because it was his son who was hurt.  Zeus even praises Odysseus after the event by claiming that, “There is no mortal half so wise” (Homer, p. 3).  This statement proves that violence was an acceptable answer when a host was not gracious. 

            The most violent reaction to the disregard of the responsibilities between a host and his guests occurs when the suitors are killed.  These men were not only killed with the gods’ permission, but they were killed with the help of the gods.  Even when Odysseus wants to warn Amphînomos, the only suitor with honest intentions, he is bound to the palace by Athena. 

            Violent penalties for not respecting the “rules” of hospitality are not only found in the world of the ancient Greeks.  In the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorra three angels search in the city for someone who will welcome them into their home. When they do not find anyone inside the city, they travel to the home of Abraham.  According to the story, Abraham was recovering from a circumcision and in a great deal of pain when he saw the strangers.  Even with his pain he welcomed the strangers and was saved from the destruction of the city. 

            In both the Bible and The Odyssey violent penalties are given as a threat to anyone who is not hospitable and accommodating to their guest.  Because of this, it is not difficult to see that hospitality was one of the most important aspects to both societies.


Given and Received

            As we have seen, hospitality plays a major part in the Odyssey, but the actual hospitality is not as important as the way that that hospitality is received, and the consequences of that reception.  For our first example we will look at how the suitors respond to the hospitality given to them at the house of Odysseus.   Throughout the duration of Odysseus’ absence, the suitors are treated well, and in response to this, they refuse to leave when asked.  The suitors are fed and housed, and after a number of years they overstay their welcome.  In response to this Telemachus, prompted by Athena, informs the suitors that his father is returning home and they are all to vacate Odysseus’ home.  The suitors, in turn, ignore him and continue to eat drink and be merry, at the cost of Telemachus and Penelope’s household.  What are the consequences of these actions taken by the suitors?  Although the primary consequence is their death, they also lose the hand of Penelope.  None of them are able to pass the test of stringing the bow of Odysseus except Odysseus himself.  This is followed by the main consequence of the suitors’ execution at the hands of Odysseus and Telemachus.  By not respecting the hospitality given by Penelope, they set the stage for their own deaths.

            Our next instance of hospitality occurs on the island of the Cyclops.  The Cyclops meets Odysseus and his crew with undesirable hospitality.   Although not without cause the Cyclops’ reaction and subsequent actions against Odysseus and his crew ultimately resulted in an attack on him.  Although the hospitality of the Cyclops was objectionable the reaction of Odysseus, in the form of blinding the Cyclops, brings only more trouble onto himself.  Since the Cyclops was Poseidon’s son Poseidon was angered and brought about more problems for Odysseus and his crew.  Just like with the suitors, undesirable hospitality and a bad reception of that hospitality ultimately results in a break in the sacred guest host relationship.

            Next we shall look at Odysseus’ stay on the island of Calypso.   Here he is met with exceptional hospitality.  Odysseus received this hospitality well and continued to please Calypso.  Only at the end did he ever try to refuse her hospitality and leave, and even this caused no serious problems.  Here we have an example of the guest-host relationship working well.  Calypso is provided with a companion, even if it was not permanent, and Odysseus was provided with shelter, provisions, and protection for his men.  In the end it proves to be a beneficial situation for them both.

            We have examined only a few instances of how the reception of hospitality is pivotal to the plot of Homer’s Odyssey.  The suitor’s reception of the hospitality provided by Penelope and Telemachus was negative; therefore the consequences of that reception were not what the suitors had wanted.  On the island of the Cyclops, Odysseus’ reaction, although somewhat warranted, resulted in only more complications for both the guest and the host.  The final example showed how a healthy guest-host relationship resulted in an advantageous situation for both parties involved.  All of these situations are excellent examples of the repercussions of not providing good hospitality, and how the consequences of this affected the story of The Odyssey.


Images(in order of appearance):

“Odysseus and Calypso,”  This image depicts Odysseus with Calypso, who held Odysseus on her island while he was in exile.  This image also shows how the rules of hospitality apply even when holding someone captive.

“Polyphum.” Polyphemus was a Cyclops and the son of Poseidon.  In The Odyssey, Polyphemus disregards traditional hospitality towards Odysseus and Odysseus blinds him.

“Odysseus Meets Nausicaa,”  This image shoes the scene for The Odyssey where Odysseus meets nausicaa.  It also shows how the Greeks would show hospitality towards any stranger.

The Hospitality of Abraham,”  This is a painting showing Abraham being treated with much hospitality, which was discussed above.




C101 Links:

Layers of Meaning in The Odyssey   If you would like to learn more about some of the hidden themes throughout The Odyssey, such as spiritual growth, loyalty, perseverance, and hospitality, take a look at this site.  We discussed one of these themes, hospitality, and the other themes on this webpage are very interesting as well. 

Telemacheia   This page also discusses hospitality and gives greater insight to how it was shown to Telemachus in the first four books of The Odyssey.  The page also focuses on other issues Telemachus dealt with. 

The Diseased Household in The Odyssey   Check out this page to read more about how hospitality was shown and abused in Odysseus’ own home.  This page also covers other fascinating topics such as bad service, authority and marriage and how they take place in Odysseus’ household.       




Other Links:

This link is an essay that goes into more detail about how the theme of hospitality was used throughout The Odyssey.

This website deals with the hospitality industry today.  Here you will find a great deal of current issues and news relating to hospitality.

This website discusses how hospitality is important to have a better life and healthier relationships.

This is a great essay discussing the need for hospitality and what could happen if society resorts to hostility instead of hospitality.

This webpage talks about Odysseus as a stranger and how various characters throughout The Odyssey show hospitality towards him.





Allen, Mandlebaum(trans.), The Odyssey of Homer, Bantam, 1991.