why hospitality matters: ancient poetry edition

I’m looking forward to reading Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, though I will admit to being put off a bit by the intensity of some of the praise, which tends to give Wilson credit for something that Homer does and that is fairly represented in pretty much every other translation. (Thus Alexander Pope and/or William Brooke in 1726: “By Jove the stranger and the poor are sent; / And what to those we give to Jove is lent. / Then food supply, and bathe his fainting limbs / Where waving shades obscure the mazy streams.” Etc. etc.) That emphasis is in the poem, not the translation.

It is a key theme in the Odyssey, though, and one that I often call particular attention to when teaching. This is the second major point at which the importance of hospitality to the stranger appears. Earlier, when Athena (disguised as Mentor) is escorting Telemachus around to see a bit of the world, they arrive at Nestor’s home at Pylos and are welcomed warmly and offered roasted meat and red wine and “deep-piled rugs” to sleep on — but when they come to the much grander home of Menelaus at Sparta they are greeted with considerable suspicion by one of Menelaus’s companions. Now, to be sure, Menelaus chastises the man for not being more generous, but Homer is showing us something here about the difference between a household that’s instinctively and naturally welcoming and, on the other hand, one where the welcome is grudging at best. Mentor wants Telemachus to learn the right way to live, and the right way to live requires hospitality to strangers.

When correcting his companion, Menelaus explains why: Could we have made it home from Troy, he asks, if people had not been hospitable to us? This was not a world, as I remind my students, in which you could drive up to a Holiday Inn and pull our your credit card. We do best when we extend a helping hand to those in need, not least because one day soon we could be among the endangered and dependent.

But the lessons of hospitality don’t come easily to those — like the suitors of Penelope, hanging out in Odysseus’s house and eating his food without earning a damned thing for themselves — who think that what they need will always be within reach. They are spoiled, arrogant, grasping; and in all these respects just the opposite of Nestor and his family, of the princess Nausicaa, and even of Odysseus’s poor old goatherd Eumaeus, who even in his poverty takes care of a man he thinks to be a ragged beggar, because “strangers and beggars come from Zeus.”

So be generous to the homeless because it’s the right thing to do; but if you’re not going to do it because it’s right, do it because someday you may need some generosity yourself. And if you don’t, you could end up like those suitors, whose end is — spoiler alert — not pretty.