The Significance of Eating and the Feast in Homer’s Odyssey
In literature, the act of eating often represents more than a quotidian routine essential to a person’s survival; implicitly, it can underscore character traits and furthermore, give the reader an insight into prevalent cultural ideals and societal norms. Homer’s Odyssey is not only replete with references to the civilized feast as a unifying celebration, but also introduces more deviant forms of eating, particularly when the guest-host relationship has been violated. Consequently, the feast may become an arena for conflict and in extreme cases, even a battleground for acts of cannibalism.
Throughout the epic, civilized feasts are depicted as signs of hospitality, establishing a bond between the guest and the host, and providing a pleasant, welcoming backdrop for storytelling and further celebratory procedures, including sacrifices in honor of the gods. At the outset of the Telemachy, Telemachos and Athene receive a warm welcome from Nestor and his sons upon their arrival in Pylos; after “greeting [them] with [his] hands” (3.35), Peisistratos, one of Nestor’s sons, “seat[s] them at the feasting on soft rugs of fleece […] next to his brother Thrysamedes and next to his father” (3.37-39), integrating them into the family sphere and its celebratory gathering in honor of Poseidon. Subsequently, he “[gives] them portions of the vitals, and [pours] wine for the in a golden cup” (3.40-41), welcoming their arrival and demonstrating his hospitality. The sharing of food and drink at this “communal high feast” (3.66) establishes a cordial relationship between the hosts and the guests, making the latter feel at ease in their new surrounding. Interestingly, it is only after “they had put aside their desire for eating and drinking” (3.67), that Nestor asks of their origin and their reasons for coming to Pylos, emphasizing the importance of the hospitable feast in providing a convivial environment not only for the guests’ welcome, but also for their subsequent sharing of stories and forming of friendships with the hosts. It is worth noting that Nestor’s welcome is not the only instance when an elaborate feast precedes the exchange of tales and the formation of friendships; Menelaos’ entertainment of Telemachos (Book 4) and Odysseus’ welcome by the Phaiakians (Book 8) provide merely two further examples where the hosts exemplify their hospitality prior to the sharing of stories and the holding of diverse athletic contests, once again underlining the import of the feast in unifying the guests and the hosts so that a pleasant atmosphere is established for the ensuing exchange of tales and talents.
Not only do these civilized feasts endeavor to unify the guests and the hosts, but furthermore, they are often accompanied by sacrifices in honor of the gods, bringing together the mortal and the divine realms as a whole. For example, after Athene leaves the feast in Pylos in the form of a vulture (Book 3), Nestor claims that he “will sacrifice [to Athene] a yearling cow, with wide forehead, unbroken, one no man has ever led under the yoke yet” (3.382-384) and subsequently, “pour[s] a libation out to [her]”(3.394) so that she will “be gracious, and grant [him and his family] a good reputation” (3.380). Nestor’s sacrifice of food and drink in honor of Athene not only demonstrates his strong wish for honor, but in a broader sense establishes a relationship between the mortal and celestial sphere. The sacrifice of food and drink in honor of the gods implicitly underlines the control the gods have over the mortals, who in turn can influence them through the provisions, creating a dynamic liaison between humans and gods that defines their interactions throughout the epic as a whole.
However, despite its unifying quality at civilized feasts, the act of eating can also be associated with conflict and often manifests itself a man’s inability to control his desires. The “honey-sweet fruit of lotus” (9.94), for example, not only illustrates the sailors’ surrender to their desire of eating the fruit, but furthermore presents food as a psychological enchantment, as the sailors “wanted to stay there with the lotus-eating people, feeding on lotus, and forget the way home” (9.96-97). The fact that they are weeping when Odysseus seizes them “by force, to where the ships were” (9.98) further underlines the enticing quality of the lotus fruit, so that food becomes an irresistible craving that profoundly affects the actions of the sailors.
In extreme cases, a conflict regarding food may also result in fatal consequences. The sailors’ killing of Helios’ cattle despite Odysseus’ explicit warning exemplifies not only their disregard for Odysseus’ authoritative advice, but once again underscores their lack of self-control. However, unlike their former consumption of the lotus fruits, their slaughter of the cattle could be termed essential to their survival since they find themselves in a state of despair, with “hunger […] exhausting their stomachs” (9.332). Nevertheless, their offense has fatal consequences as Zeus “strike[s] [their] fast ship” (9.387), “dash[ing] it to pieces” (9.388) so that ultimately, they drown as a result of their incapability of to resist their hunger. Here, the consumption of food is tied not only to the critical matter of survival, but also to the theme of mortality, foreshadowing the development of the greater conflict that arises from the suitors’ feasting in Odysseus’ house in Ithaka.