HOMER: The Odyssey [Book III]

In Book III of Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus and the ship’s crew arrive at Pylos in the morning. On the beach, the citizens of Pylos and their king, Nestor, are sacrificing bulls to the god Neptune. After the sacrifice, Nestor welcomes Telemachus and invites him to feast on the newly slain bulls. While dining, Telemachus asks Nestor whether he knows what happened to Odysseus after the Trojan War. Nestor says that he does not, but he encourages Telemachus to travel to Sparta and consult Menelaus about the matter. Nestor provides Telemachus with horses and a chariot, and the following morning, Telemachus and Nestor’s son, Pisistratus, set off for Sparta.

Hospitality is one of the main themes in Book III. Hospitality was so important to the ancient Greeks that they had a word to denote the relationship between guests and hosts – xenia. In accordance with custom, ancient Greek hosts generously provided food, wine, shelter and clothing to travelers. In exchange, travelers provided hosts with news from abroad. The god Jove presided over this relationship and punished those who violated its customs.

Nestor exemplifies the dutiful host. He refuses to allow Telemachus to sleep on his ship. “Do you think I am so poor as to be unable to find comfortable beds both for myself and for my guests? Let me tell you I have store both of rugs and cloaks, and shall not permit the son of my old friend Ulysses to camp down on the deck of a ship- not while I live- nor yet will my sons after me, but they will keep open house as I have done.” Sharing food and shelter is a family activity; and therefore, by participating in this type of relationship, a man recalls that he is not only a member of his nuclear family, but also a member of a much larger family – mankind.

Besides depicting the importance of hospitality, Homer also explores the theme of justice. During Telemachus’ and Nestor’s conversation over dinner, Nestor recounts the story of Orestes, who avenged his father Agamemnon’s death by murdering Aegisthus, the man who killed Agamemnon. “The Achaeans applaud Orestes and his name will live through all time for he has avenged his father nobly.” Justice then, according to the ancient Greeks, is much in line with the principle of an “eye for an eye.”

There were no police officers in ancient Greece, so individuals often administered justice. Thus, Homer concludes that having many strong sons is good for a man because the sons will ensure that their father receives justice. “See what a good thing it is for a man to leave a son behind him to do as Orestes did, who killed false Aegisthus the murderer of his noble father.” This mentality is foreign to modern readers in the West. But most modern readers can empathize with the strong desire for justice that the ancient Greeks displayed.

This strong desire for justice is second only to the ancient Greeks’ strongest aspiration – their desire for immortal fame. Nestor exhorts Telemachus to avenge the wrongs committed by the suitors. “Show your mettle and make yourself a name in history.” As we will see in later books, the ancient Greek afterlife is bleak; and therefore, the ancient Greeks regarded fame as the only means by which to escape the crushing weight of death and insignificance.

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