The Mortality of Man, As Expressed in the Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh


(Orpheus in the Greek underworld.  On the left, Hades and Persephone are seated on their thrones.  Orpheus is attempting to win his wife’s freedom from the underworld through his beautiful music.)

The final paper that I wrote for ‘World Civilizations: Pre-History to 1500’ dealt with the concept of man’s mortality in the Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh, two examples of epic literature from ancient history.  The Odyssey as we know it today was written down in roughly 700 BC and The Epic of Gilgamesh was composed sometime around 3000 BC.  Today, people look to medical science and wonder if or when immortality will be achieved.  A few hundred years ago, people were questing after the Fountain of Youth (which has a parallel in The Epic of Gilgamesh).  Before that, people looked to magic or grants of eternal life from the gods.  It’s amazing how some aspects of what it means to be human don’t change.  If you’re not a student doing research, this might be dry reading!  Footnotes are at the bottom, along with a bibliography.  The paper was graded and received an A.


The Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back to approximately 3000 BC, is a story that originated in the Mesopotamian area. It has survived to the present in the form of stone tablets and fragments of stone tablets which are being excavated from the ruins of abandoned cities in the modern Middle East.[1] These tablets have been translated by linguists from their various languages and compiled into a readable story by N. K. Sandars. The Odyssey, a Greek tale, was composed and written down in roughly 700 BC[2], but the stories it contains are believed to date from the beginning of the 12th century BC[3]. Prior to being written down, these stories were transmitted from generation to generation orally by professional bards. There is some speculation as to who composed the version used today, but authorship is generally attributed to Homer. Despite the large amount of time that passed between the writing of The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, the stories share many similarities, including an underlying theme of the mortality of man and what it means to die.

Both stories clearly define man’s distinction from the gods, in that men are mortal while the gods are not. In the second chapter of N. K. Sandar’s translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh, titled “The Forest Journey”, Enkidu and Gilgamesh are sitting together and discussing a dream that Gilgamesh has. Enkidu interprets his dream, telling Gilgamesh that “The father of the gods has given you kingship, such is your destiny, everlasting life is not your destiny.”[4] Gilgamesh later agrees by saying, “Where is the man who can clamber to heaven? Only the gods live for ever with glorious Shamash, but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind.”[5] Gilgamesh recognizes the fact that man has a limited life span on earth and that only the gods have power over immortality. This sentiment is echoed by Penelope in the Odyssey when she tells Odysseus that “Men’s lives are short.”[6] Man’s mortality is also expressed in Odysseus’ encounter with Calypso. When Hermes informs Calypso that she is required by Zeus to send Odysseus on his way, she tells Odysseus that he “need grieve no more; [he] need not feel [his] life consumed”[7] there on her island. This demonstrates that man’s time is finite and that it will eventually be consumed and extinguished. She entreats him to stay with her forever and offers him immortality, reminding him that there is a clear difference between them and that without her intervention he will eventually die. She also asks him if his mortal wife, Penelope, can compare to her, an immortal goddess. In his reply, Odysseus affirms that death and old age are unknown to the gods, while at some point Penelope will grow old and die, as all mortals do.[8] In both The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, every man knows that he must eventually die, but there are loopholes. With the assistance of the gods, life can be extended. If Odysseus stays with Calypso, he can be immortal in the sense that he lives forever, but if he leaves, he will age again. This is not true immortality. It is an extension of life. The gods cannot change the fate of man. They can merely delay it. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim is said to be immortal, but his residence seems to be restricted to the island he lives on, presumably because that is where the plant that restores youth grows. One can infer that he is not truly immortal, but gains a modicum of immortality by remaining young through eating the plant, which may be a gift to him from the gods. True immortality is the realm of the gods, and while man may aspire to live forever, he cannot escape his mortality.

The only ‘immortality’ left to men is created and maintained in the memories of others through performing glorious and heroic deeds that will be spoken of, hopefully, for all time. It is with this in mind that Gilgamesh encourages Enkidu to accompany him to the Cedar Forest to do battle with Humbaba. Prior to leaving, Gilgamesh prays to Shamash for permission to enter the Cedar Forest, and in the course of explaining his desire, he again reiterates the idea that man cannot live forever and that he has to establish his name in another way. He tells Shamash, “I have looked over the wall and I see the bodies floating on the river, and that will be my lot also. Indeed I know it is so, for whoever is tallest among men cannot reach the heavens, and the greatest cannot encompass the earth.” He goes on to say that he will “set up [his] name where the names of famous men are written; and where no man’s name is written [he] will raise a monument to the gods.” He wants his name “stamped on brick.”[9] He wants glory and he wants to be remembered. He even welcomes the idea of falling in battle to Humbaba, believing that having his name linked to a great battle will ensure immortality in the memories of men. He tells Enkidu during their journey together to the forest that if they fall, they will “leave an enduring name.”[10] Of course, Gilgamesh does not wish for death, perhaps because that would prevent him from finding further glory, but if he dies, then he wants to die in a way that will ensure his name his remembered. The sister story to the Odyssey, the Illiad, says much about finding glory (‘kleos’) and a glorious death, but the Odyssey has no real parallel with this theme, since it is primarily a ‘nostos’ story, a story of homecoming. The only instance in the Odyssey where Odysseus could be said to be seeking glory is during his encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus. During this adventure, Odysseus and his men narrowly avoid being wholly slaughtered by the Cyclops, and while escaping on their ship, Odysseus says, “Kyklops, / if ever mortal man inquire / how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him / Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye: / Laertes’ son, whose home’s on Ithaka!”[11] Because of the nature of the Odyssey as a ‘nostos’ story, a tale of homecoming and the tragedies of war, this act of glory-seeking is set up as the cause of all of Odysseus’ later problems. Humility, or at least the good sense to make a quick escape, would have had him pulling off quietly from the land of the Cyclops, but instead he taunts him, gives his name away, and thus reveals himself to Polyphemus’ father, Poseidon. Poseidon, enraged at Odysseus, takes actions that prevent him from reaching home, dragging out his return to Ithaka into a 10 year long ordeal that he barely survives. The Epic of Gilgamesh places a lot of emphasis on the necessity of seeking glory for one’s name. The Odyssey takes the opposite approach. In the Odyssey, Odysseus’ act of glory-seeking is the cause of the deaths of his whole crew and it is what prevents him from going home to his wife and son directly after the war. The suitors in his house, the suffering and mental anguish of his wife and son, his own suffering, all are a result of seeking glory. So, the Odyssey leaves the reader with the impression that glory alone isn’t enough, which is a theme that The Epic of Gilgamesh transitions to in the later stories.

Gilgamesh’s attitude towards death changes drastically after the encounter with the Bull of Heaven. Ishtar is offended by Gilgamesh and Enkidu and convinces the other gods that one of them must die. This fate falls on Enkidu and rather than dying gloriously in battle, he dies from sickness. Even worse, it is a prolonged sickness that leaves Gilgamesh traumatized. He realizes that “misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of life is sorrow.”[12] Enkidu’s vision of the underworld, where even great men like kings and princes are reduced to bird-men that eat dust and clay, terrifies Gilgamesh. After Enkidu dies, he cries out, “Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead.”[13] Gilgamesh sees that despite the great adventures they had together, Enkidu’s death is still final and a memory of past glories is not enough. Enkidu is still condemned to sit forever in the house of the dead. Gilgamesh suffers because his brother has been taken from him, but also because he does not want to share the same fate. He wants to live. He realizes that a glorious death is still death, but rather than accept it, he sets out to find immortality. This attitude towards death has a direct parallel in the Odyssey, expressed through Odysseus’ accumulating grief at seeing the ravaged state of the shades in Hades.[14] It reminds him of how final death is. In the shade of Elpenor, he sees that death comes to every man, great and small. In the shade of Agamemnon, he sees that death claims the great. In the shade of his mother, he feels his own impending death personally, as well as a more profound sense of loss at the memories and time with family he missed out on by leaving home in search of glory.[15] Even the shades of great heroes like Achilles and Heracles wind up in the realm of the dead, suffering the same fate as all men. They are separated from life and the people they love, as Gilgamesh finds himself separated from Enkidu. Achilles sums it up best, when he tells Odysseus that glory counts for nothing after death, that it is “better… to break sod as a farm hand / for some poor country man, on iron rations, / than lord it over all the exhausted dead.”[16] This is a lesson for Odysseus that he should enjoy every part of life while he can, before he dies, because after death glory means nothing, especially to the dead. Unlike Gilgamesh, he accepts it. After many trials and travels, Gilgamesh encounters his own shade of Achilles, in the form of a woman that lives in the garden of the gods named Siduri. She gives Gilgamesh advice that echoes Achilles’ statement. When she inquires as to why he has traveled so far, he tells her that he is searching for a way to live forever. She replies:

“Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice.”

Siduri tries to get Gilgamesh to see that his quest is futile and encourages him to enjoy the life he has left in him. Man cannot avoid death and there is no amount of glory that can change the fact that after death, a man will sit in the house of the dead, alongside kings and commoners. The important thing to do is to enjoy the world of the living while one still has life, which is a lesson that Odysseus learned by speaking to the shades of fallen friends and family. Life is more important than glory.

Prior to speaking to the shades in Hades, Odysseus was still living for adventure. The experience, especially of seeing his mother, whom he tried and failed to hug, twice, reminded him of how short life is, and what it really means to die. The Epic of Gilgamesh’s parallel for the Odyssey’s shades can be found in Gilgamesh’s encounter with Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh attempts to convince Utnapishtim to give him the secret to living forever by passing a test, which is itself a reminder of how ridiculous it is for a man to want to live forever. Unable to pass this test, Utnapishtim sends Gilgamesh home, but makes sure to reinforce his point through two more examples. Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh a set of clothes to wear on his return journey that will not wear out or show signs of aging. This is a reminder to Gilgamesh that even simple objects will outlive a man. One last spur to drive the point home is the plant that Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh about. It is a plant that will restore a man’s youth to him. Gilgamesh is successful in obtaining the plant, but before he returns with it to Uruk, or is able to use it himself, it is snatched away from him by a snake, reminding him that life is fleeting and cannot be held on to by man. Immortality is for the gods alone.

Despite being written by people from two different cultures, over one thousand years apart, the continuity of ideas regarding the afterlife presented in both works remains remarkably similar. In both The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, the heroes admit outright that they know that immortality is reserved to the gods. In both stories, there are examples of opportunities to extend one’s life, perhaps to a semblance of immortality, but this is an exception, rather than a rule, and is not true immortality. Man has a fate and that fate is to eventually die. Only the gods live forever. In both stories, there is an obvious fear of being forgotten, and to avoid being forgotten, men go out seeking glory, to ensure that their names are remembered. Both stories, though, remind man that the best part of living is being alive and that glory counts for nothing after death. Even glorious heroes wind up in Hades or the house of the dead yearning for the living while the living yearn for the dead. What both of these stories try to impart to readers is that glory isn’t as good as it’s made out to be. Life is amazing and should be cherished by filling our bellies with good things, by dancing, being merry, feasting and rejoicing, because being alive and spending time with loved ones is worth more than lording it over all of the exhausted dead.

[1] Introduction by N. K. Sandars, Penguin Classics edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh.

[2] Page 3, “Date of Composition” section of Stanley P. Baldwin’s CliffsNotes on The Odyssey.

[3] Researchers have used astronomical events depicted in the Odyssey to determine that Odysseus slaughtered the suitors in his home on April 16th, 1178 BC.

[4] Page 70, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[5] Page 71, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[6] Book XIX, Line 386, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.

[7] Book V, Lines 169 – 170, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.

[8] Book V, Lines 212 – 228, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.

[9] The previous three quotes are from page 72, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[10] Page 77, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[11] Book IX, Lines 548- 552, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.

[12] Page 93, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[13] Page 97, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars.

[14] In “Singers, heroes, and gods in the Odyssey”, Segal reaches this conclusion through the formulaic repetition of the line “When I saw him I wept and pitied him in my heart”, said by Odysseus, upon seeing the shades of Elpenor, his mother and Agamemnon. Page 41.

[15] Segal, Page 42.

[16] Book XI, Lines 579 – 581, Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey.



Baldwin, Stanley P. CliffsNotes on Homer’s The Odyssey. John Wiley and Sons, 2000.

Fizgerald, Robert. The Odyssey. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1998.

Maugh II, Thomas H. “Astronomers hit a homer with ‘Odyssey’.” Los Angeles Times. June 24, 2008. (accessed July 29, 2011).

Sandars, N. K. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.

Segal, Charles. Singers, heroes, and gods in the Odyssey. Cornell University Press, 2001.


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Significance and Consequences of ‘Xenia’ in The Odyssey

A map of places visited in The Odyssey.
A map of places visited in The Odyssey.

(Image from:

This is a paper I wrote for my 100 level World Humanities class.  It deals with concepts of hospitality in The Odyssey.

The guidelines for this paper are as follows:

What is xenia?  What are the basic expectations that come with proper xenia?  List TWO examples of good xenia in The Odyssey, and one example of bad xenia.  (be sure to include at least one example from Books 13 – 24)  What are the consequences, good or bad, of each?  Why is xenia important to civilization?  What does it represent or establish in the minds of people of ancient Greece?

The paper was supposed to be at least 1400 words, double spaced in 12 point font, and in MLA format with a Works Cited page, so you’ll see that tacked onto the end of this so a reader can make sense of the in-text parenthetical citations that I’ll be copying into this blog post.


Odysseus and Athena
Odysseus and Athena

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 (Wilson 370).  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. It was also customary for gifts to be given to the guest, or for a gift exchange to be conducted between guest-friends (Wilson 370).

This complicated guest-host relationship placed equal burden on both the host and the guest, starting with the guest finding a ‘proper’ place to seek xenia. The custom was for the guest to take shelter in a home that fit his social standing, so you would not normally see a beggar looking for hand-outs at the palace of a king, or a noble seeking xenia from a commoner under, ideal circumstances at least.

This custom of xenia also carried a burden of trust, where both the host and guest would have to rely on custom in regards to personal safety. 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 (Biggs, Joseph and Bennet, Mollie), 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 (Homer 153), so giving proper xenia was also a way of showing reverence for the gods, especially Zeus in the form of Zeus Xenios.

(Image above from:

Examples of Xenia in The Odyssey

The Odyssey “may be viewed as a study in the laws of hospitality” (Pitt-Rivers 13) and is full of examples of both good and bad xenia, where good xenia is rewarded and bad xenia is punished. The theme of punishment and reward for how xenia is offered runs throughout The Odyssey, starting with Odysseus’ encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus to his return to Ithaka and eventual vengeance against the suitors. The story relies so heavily on concepts of xenia that The Odyssey 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 (Homer 104 – 108), 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 (Homer 99 – 100), 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 anger the girl, touching her knees.” (Homer 103)), made requests but not forceful demands, and gratefully accepted her gifts and advice. It’s easy to see the result of good xenia here, in terms of how Odysseus profited by it. He eventually encountered Nausikaa’s parents, was well received, entertained, and was sent on his way in a Phaiakian boat to Ithaka, loaded down with treasures.

It’s more of a stretch to see how the Phaiakian’s benefited from their good xenia, since the boat that took Odysseus home, along with its crew, was turned to stone within sight of Skheria Island, their home. It’s possible that the ability to tell future guests that they once played host to the great Odysseus may bring them some fame and honor. Also, because of their remote location, the Phaikians might have become complacent. This incident caused them to become more wary of helping strangers (Homer 235), which could be a good thing for them, especially in a speculative future where other, less hospitable, groups of people move into their area.

Good Xenia:  Odysseus and Eumaios

Another example of good xenia in The Odyssey is Odysseus’ reception by Eumaios (Homer 248 – 249), a swineherd on his estate in Ithaka. Even though Odysseus appeared to be a homeless, wandering beggar, he was still received well by Eumaios. He was immediately invited in for food and drink: “Come to the cabin. You’re a wanderer too. You must eat something, drink some win, and tell me where you are from and the hard times you’ve seen” (Homer 248). Eumaios even arranged his own bed as a bench for Odysseus to sit down, reminding Odysseus that “…rudeness to a stranger is not decency, poor though he may be…” (Homer 249). When evening came, Eumaios made a bed for Odysseus and even offered him his own cloak to keep him warm during the night. This level of courtesy towards a man, who, for all appearances, was nothing more than a beggar, shows Eumaios’ dedication to proper xenia. Odysseus continued to stay with Eumaios for multiple days, but at no point did Eumaios ever insist that he leave. He offered as much hospitality as he could to Odysseus, trusting in the customs of xenia that Odysseus would make no unreasonable demands or overstay his welcome.

For his part, Odysseus made no demands of Eumaios and did not threaten or insult him, despite his humble offerings. In fact, Homer repeatedly indicates Odysseus’ pleasure at Eumaios’ actions. Eumaios’ hospitality, and later his help, enables Odysseus to reclaim his house and get rid of the suitors. Because Eumaios treated Odysseus to good xenia, and proved his continuing loyalty to him during the conversations they had while Odysseus was in the guise of a beggar, his life was spared when Odysseus slaughtered the servants who had turned against him and against his house.

Bad Xenia:  Odysseus and The Suitors

Odysseus slaying his wife's suitors after returning to Ithaka.
Odysseus slaying his wife’s suitors after returning to Ithaka.

(Image from: FrogStorm)

One of the most obvious examples of bad xenia in The Odyssey is the treatment of Odysseus’ house, and Odysseus himself, by the suitors who, in his absence, have come to his home seeking his wife’s hand in marriage. The mere fact that they came to his house, seeking Penelope’s hand in marriage, isn’t necessarily wrong. Odysseus had been gone for nearly 15 years when the suitors showed up. There had been no solid news of him, and no one had any idea if he were alive or dead. What makes their behavior bad xenia is the way they went about it. They imposed themselves on the household, devouring the livestock, consuming the wine, insulting their host, Telemakhos, and refused to leave when their presence and intentions toward Penelope were obviously not wanted. Penelope tells the suitors in the hall, “Others who go to court a gentlewoman, daughter of a rich house, if they are rivals, bring their own beeves and sheep along; her friends ought to be feasted, gifts are due to her; would any dare to live at her expense?” (Homer 325) She also later reminds them, “suitors indeed, you commandeered this house” (Homer 393). The suitors even made plans to kill Telemakhos, to get him out of the way so they could further their goal of obtaining Penelope’s hand and dividing the spoils of the house. Since Odysseus was, in fact, still alive and master of his house, all of these transgressions of xenia can be seen as transgressions of xenia against Odysseus.

Additionally, when Odysseus returned home, though in disguise, the suitors continued to show bad xenia. Antinoos was particularly vicious to him. As he made his rounds of the suitors’ tables, in the guise of a beggar asking for hand-outs, Antinoos threatened him with violence, mocked him by calling him a pest, and then threw a stool at his back that hit him (Homer 326). These actions, along with further demonstrations of bad xenia on Antinoos’ part and from all the suitors in general, show us the exact opposite of what good xenia is.

In the role of the guest, the suitors insulted their host by overstaying their welcome, by making unreasonable demands on the house in terms of provisions, and by attempting to kill Telemakhos. In the role of the host, the suitors failed to provide proper xenia by insulting their guest, Odysseus, by injuring him instead of protecting him from harm, and by not being as hospitable as possible. Their bad xenia was well rewarded, since Odysseus was home with the blessings of Zeus, who avenges bad xenia, and Athena, Odysseus’ patron goddess. As Odysseus prepared to draw the first arrow, Zeus sent an omen signalling his approval, a loud thunderclap. Still playing up to his role, Odysseus proved himself by firing the arrow through the rings on the axe-heads, and then turned bring an end to the mockery the suitors had made of his house. Antinoos, the most vicious of the suitors, was the first to fall. In the end, all of the suitors died, and the disloyal servants with them. Bad xenia met with a bad end.

Importance of Xenia in Greek Civilization

The custom of xenia was, to the Greeks, the mark of civilization in the late 12th century BC, a time when most of the world was still savage. This is evident by Odysseus’ statement: “Now, by my life, mankind again! But who? Savages, are they, strangers to courtesy? Or gentle folk, who know and fear the gods?” (Homer 102) This was his reaction when he woke up on the island of Skheria and heard Nausikaa and her maids screaming while playing with their ball. He wondered if the people of the island would show courtesy (xenia), or if they were savages that had no regard for Zeus Xenios. This shows us that any place that did not practice xenia was considered uncivilized.

Besides being a measure for determining who was civilized and who wasn’t, it was an important part of the religious aspect of their life. Since they believed that Zeus was the patron god of travellers seeking xenia, honoring a guest was the same as honoring Zeus. Failure to honor a guest was to risk incurring the wrath of the gods. Xenia was also a good way for Greeks to develop reciprocal relationships with each other, creating bonds of trust between members of city states, and more importantly between the nobility of the city states. These bonds of xenia could prove useful if one friend were attacked. He could call on the people he’d shown good xenia to, to aid him in seeking reparations, or for making war. Hopefully, though, if good xenia is practiced by all, then hostilities would not be a problem, because proper respect would be shown by both the guest and host, reducing the chances of conflict. In this way, the Greeks’ sense of community is greatly aided by the relationships created through xenia.

Showing good xenia could also be a way of spreading fame for your house or country. When Odysseus is on the island of the Phaiakians, as part of King Alkinoos entertainment (his xenia toward Odysseus) he presents the Phaiakian dancers, in the hope that Odysseus would, “on his return tell his companions we excel the world in dance and song, as in our ships and running” (Homer 132). Later, when Odysseus is in his own house posing as a beggar, he implores Antinoos to give him a bit of bread, telling him, “Let me speak well of you as I pass on over the boundless earth” (Homer 324). In other words, he would tell others he met of Antinoos’ good xenia and raise his reputation and fame. Of course, that’s not what happened in that instance, but it’s still obvious that providing good xenia was beneficial to reputation and fame. Xenia was as important a part of Greek civilization as government, reinforced by religion and constantly producing beneficial results for all parties involved.


The Odyssey, with all of its examples of both good and bad xenia, offers us a look into the world of the Greeks, and the importance this cultural element played in their daily lives. Throughout the story, bad xenia is punished and good xenia brings rewards to those who offer it. It was religious, it was beneficial, and it distinguished the Greeks from their barbarian neighbors. The Odyssey, as well as being an entertaining story, reinforced the ideals of civility among the Greeks who heard it. Today, in addition to being a reference tool to better understand the Greeks, The Odyssey is just as entertaining, enlightening, and exciting to read.

Works Cited

Biggs, Cory, et al. The Value of Hospitality. n.d. 27 March 2011.

Homer. The Odyssey. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1998.

Pitt-Rivers, Julian. “The Stranger, the Guest and the Hostile Host.” Peristiany, J. G. Contributions to Mediterranean Sociology. The Hague: Mouton, 1968.

Wilson, Nigel Guy. Encyclopedia of ancient Greece. Psychology Press, 2006.