Writing Catalog

David Weinberger

Grade: 11

University High School

Instructor: Jim Garrett

Odyssey Juxtaposition Essay

Critical Essay

Odyssey Juxtaposition Essay

In Homer's The Odyssey, hospitality, or xenia, is examined as an important part of Ancient Greek culture. The hospitality code is an essential component of civilized culture in Ancient Greece, and failure to adhere to the code is considered a breach of socially accepted behavior (Somers). Savagery, on the other hand, is the antithesis of civilized behavior and is expressed by a lack of respect for the hospitality code and through criminal behavior. Civilized people, like King Alcinous, follow the hospitality code, while uncivilized people, or monsters, like Polyphemus, do not follow the code. However, some argue that there are superficial similarities between King Alcinous and Polyphemus with respect to their xenia. While there is no doubt that King Alcinous clearly demonstrates xenia, some say that Polyphemus does so as well, albeit in his own way. However, the similarities in their xenia are insignificant. Homer uses the hospitality code, or King Alcinous's xenia versus Polyphemus's lack of xenia, as a juxtaposition and means of exploring the theme of distinguishing between the civilized people and the savages.

The Ancient Greek hospitality code was particularly important during Homer's time because it was common for men to be away from their homes for extended periods of time, and it was essential for travelers to rely on the kindness and assistance of strangers. Additionally, people believed that if they showed xenia to strangers, they would be rewarded with the same hospitality when they were in foreign lands and in need of help. King Alcinous is a prime example of someone who shows xenia and follows the hospitality code above all else. Homer creates the character of King Alcinous as a means of setting the bar by which others' behavior and adherence to the code is measured. Upon meeting Odysseus, King Alcinous invites him to join their feast and offers Odysseus the chair next to him to Odysseus, a seat of honor, occupied by his favorite son: "...sat him down in a burnished chair,/ displacing his own son, the courtly Lord Laodamas/ who had sat beside him, the son he loved the most" (Homer 7.201-203). Although King Alcinous knows very little about his guest, including his identity, he treats Odysseus as a highly honored guest, giving him a seat of honor at his table. He commands his servants to bring Odysseus his best food and wine. King Alcinous again shows his xenia when he hosts an elaborate feast in Odysseus's honor: "I'll lay on a princely feast for all./…come to my royal halls so we can give this stranger a hero's welcome in our palace—/…The king slaughtered a dozen sheep to feed his guests,/ eight boars with shining tusks and a pair of shambling oxen" (Homer 8.45-49, and 8.68-690). Through his depiction of King Alcinous, Homer highlights xenia and the civilized man so that he can later contrast the lack of xenia shown by Polyphemus, thereby illuminating the juxtaposition of civilized man (King Alcinous) versus uncivilized, or savage beast (Polyphemus).

Homer makes the contrast between showing xenia and disregarding it even sharper by pointing out King Alcinous's undeniable and remarkable sensitivity, a human characteristic not found in a savage. King Alcinous's rapt attention to Odysseus's feelings and emotions juxtaposes the theme of civilized versus savage (Somers). When the blind bard Demodocus sings of the battle at Troy and Odysseus weeps, King Alcinous "noticed his guest's tears," (Homer 8.112) and quickly ordered the feast over and the athletic contests to begin. This display of xenia by King Alcinous is unique to a civilized man. A savage, such as Polythemus, would not have the sensitivity to notice his guest's discomfort and hastily pivot to a satisfying distraction. What is remarkable is that King Alcinous acts on his human instincts twice when he notices Odysseus crying and distraught. It is evident that Homer chose these particular situations to juxtapose xenia, or lack thereof, in order to focus on the theme of civilized versus uncivilized. King Alcinous continues to model xenia by showering Odysseus with lavish parting gifts and commanding the nobles of Phaeacia to follow his lead and do the same: "And I will give him this gorgeous golden cup of mine" (Homer 8.480). Like a good host, King Alcinous ensures that Odysseus leaves Phaeacia with gold and treasures to show to the people of Ithaca when he returns home. While the extravagant gifts demonstrate the King's generosity and xenia towards Odysseus, they also symbolize his civility. King Alcinous equips Odysseus with one of his best convoys, a capable and competent crew, and all necessary provisions for his journey home to Ithaca. He shows his true grace and generosity as a host when he says, "All these things are performed for him, our honored guest, the royal send-off here and gifts we give in love. Treat your guest and suppliant like a brother: anyone with a touch of sense knows that" (Homer 8.612-615). King Alcinous treats Odysseus like family, making him as comfortable as possible, which is in sharp contrast to the reception Odysseus receives from Polyphemus. Homer takes this opportunity, by demonstrating King Alcinous's xenia, to set the stage for the sharp contrast in Polyphemus's lack of xenia.

In contrast to King Alcinous's display of xenia, Polyphemus, the cyclops son of Poseidon, does not show Odysseus xenia because he is an uncivilized savage. He does not respect the hospitality code and fails to welcome Odysseus as his guest or treat him with respect, as King Alcinous had done. Polyphemus is a savage and therefore does not abide by the hospitality code; rather, he "welcomes" Odysseus and his men by eating several of the crew: "Lurching up, he lunged out with his hands toward my men/ and snatching two at once, rapping them on the ground/he knocked them dead like pups—-/their brains gushed out all over, soaked the floor—-/and ripping them limb from limb to fix his meal/he bolted them down like a mountain-lion, left no scrap,/devoured entrails, flesh and bones, marrow and all!" (Homer 9.324-330) and locking-up the rest of the men for future meals. The hospitality code requires a host to welcome guests and treat them with honor and respect when they arrive at the land of the host. Polyphemus's disregard for the hospitality code is not surprising, however, because he is a savage. Savage beasts do not care about hospitality, and this is the crux of the juxtaposition that illuminates the difference between civilized and uncivilized. According to Bloom's, "…we can see in this episode/ the ultimate perversion of xenia, the obligations of guest-friendship. To protect and/ accept strangers is a mandate enforced by Zeus himself," (Bloom's). Polyphemus does not hold himself to the standards of "guest-freindship" and does not fear the wrath of the gods, as civilized men do. Homer cleverly contrasts Polyphemus's lack of xenia with that of King Alcinous in order to juxtapose civilized versus uncivilized behavior. Bloom's also notes that: "Odysseus several/ times comments that the Cyclopes do not till any fields, that they are lawless, each man/ legislating his own home, and that they do not fear the gods. Lacking these three/ fundaments of civilized life, they neglect the basic moral obligations that accompany them" (Bloom's). It is this point precisely, that savages are lawless and unconcerned with civilized norms, such as the hospitality code, that focuses the reader on the juxtaposition of xenia between King Alcinous and Polyphemus, which serves to illustrate the theme of civilized versus uncivilized.

It can be argued that Odysseus expects xenia upon his arrival at a new land. Odysseus believes that he is entitled to xenia, respect, and a gracious welcome because he is civilized and adheres to the hospitality code when he has visitors. Odysseus openly displays his entitlement for a warm welcome when he arrives at the island of the Phaeacians, saying: "But since we've chanced on you, we're at your knees/in hopes of a warm welcome, even a guest-gift, the sort that hosts give to strangers. That's the custom./ Respect the gods, my friend. We're suppliants—-at your mercy!" (Homer 9.300-303). Odysseus is not disappointed by King Alcinous, who is the consummate host and abides by the tenets of the hospitality code. Odysseus is greeted with a warm welcome, several feasts with entertainment by a bard, and even an athletic contest in his honor. He is sent-off with lavish gifts and a ship and crew to get him safely back to Ithaca. The second instance where Odysseus expects xenia is when he and his crew arrive at Polyphemus's cave. It is important to note the stark contrast here. Homer depicts King Alcinous as civilized and a magnificent host, contrasted by Polyphemus, a savage cyclop. While Odysseus senses that he might have wandered into the cave of an unfriendly, and perhaps uncivilized host, he is unwilling to forego a warm and proper welcome, as instructed by the hospitality code. He remarks: "But I would not give away—-/and how much better it would have been—-/not till I saw him, saw what gifts he'd give" (Homer 9.256-258). Odysseus refuses to leave Polyphemus's cave because he believes he is entitled to xenia, even after he and his crew entered when Polyphemus was out of the cave and drank his wine and cheese without first being offered. Odysseus fully believes that he is deserving of xenia and has no plans to leave the cave until Polyphemus returns and bestows xenia upon him. Upon later reflection, Odysseus realizes his mistake in not leaving initially, as it occurs to him that he has encountered a savage who does not respect the hospitality code. Odysseus's entitlement for xenia, no matter the situation, causes him unnecessary trouble with Polyphemus that could have been avoided. Homer distinguishes here the juxtaposition of xenia to highlight the theme of civilized versus uncivilized.

The hospitality code is an essential component of civilized culture in Ancient Greece, and failure to adhere to the code is considered a breach of civilized behavior. King Alcinous shows xenia to Odysseus, while Polyphemus fails to do so. This is not surprising given the fact that King Alcinous is civilized, and Polyphemus is a savage (Somers). Civilized people, like King Alcinous, follow the hospitality code, while uncivilized people, or monsters, like Polyphemus, do not follow the code. Homer contrasts the different approaches to xenia by King Alcinous and Polyphemus as a means of discussing the larger theme of civilized people versus savages (Somers).