HOMER: The Odyssey [Book XIV]

In Book XIV of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus arrives at the house of Eumaeus, the swineherd. Eumaeus generously feeds and entertains Odysseus and then asks Odysseus about himself. Odysseus, in the disguise of a beggar, claims that he is from the island of Crete, that he fought in the Trojan War, and that he escaped from a slave ship that landed on Ithaca. He also asserts that Odysseus will return home within the next month. Eumaeus does not believe him because several foreigners have already falsely foretold the return of Odysseus. Nevertheless, Eumaeus lodges Odysseus in his house for the night.

Homer uses Eumaeus to reveal more about the character of Odysseus. Eumaeus was Odysseus’ devoted servant before Odysseus left to fight in the Trojan War. He claims that the loss of Odysseus grieves him more than the loss of his own parents because Odysseus was so kind to him. Whatever the audience may think about Odysseus’ penchant for lying, it cannot help but feel sympathy for a man who treats his inferiors with respect and generosity. Arousing sympathy for Odysseus at this point in the epic is important because the final clash between Odysseus and the suitors is soon to come. If the audience does not sympathize with Odysseus, then the slaughter of the suitors will be offensive to them.

Eumaeus also exemplifies the dutiful host in accordance with the Ancient Greek tradition of hospitality – known as xenia. As discussed in previous videos, the Ancient Greeks believed that hosts were obliged to care for strangers and beggars, “for all strangers and beggars are from Jove.” Unlike the previous books, however, in which wealthy hosts – such as Nestor, Menelaus, and Alcinous – entertained their guests, this book places the poor swineherd Eumaeus in the position of host. Despite his poverty, Eumaeus provides Odysseus with as much as he can spare. Better to incur the pains of privation than to incur the wrath of Jove.

This fear of divine justice is an important theme that pervades the Odyssey. Homer has hinted at the comeuppance of the suitors throughout the story. In Book XIV, Eumaeus suggests that the gods will ultimately avenge the suitors’ wickedness. “The fat pigs have to go to the suitors, who eat them up without shame or scruple; but the blessed gods love not such shameful doings, and respect those who do what is lawful and right. Even the fierce conquerors who go raiding on other people’s land, and Jove gives them their spoil- even they, when they have filled their ships and got home again live conscience-stricken, and look fearfully for judgement.” Thus, Homer builds the tension surrounding Odysseus’ encounter with suitors.

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