Like all epic poems, The Odyssey is a cultural document that embodies the values of the society that created it, providing insight into ideas of heroism and virtue during the poet’s day. The most important value at the core of The Odyssey is hospitality, a social custom common to nearly all pre-modern societies and essential to ancient Greek social structure. Hospitality, also called “guest-friendship,” was a social ritual expected of men in the Greek world. Under the rules of hospitality, men would be expected to host visitors, providing them with food, a bath, friendship gifts, the promise of safety for the night, and safe escorted travel to their next destination. In return, guests would be expected to pose no threat to the life or property of their hosts and to return the favor if their hosts should turn up at their homes in the future. This idea underlies nearly every section of Odysseus’s journey, from his encounter with the Cyclops to his stay among the Phaeacians to his defeat of the greedy suitors. The Odyssey can be thought of as a manual for a host of how to (and how not to) show hospitality to a guest and vice versa.

Read more about the use of epic poetry to embody cultural values in Virgil’s The Aeneid.

Telemachus, the focus of the first four books of The Odyssey, provides an early example of good hospitality as both a host and a guest. In Book 1, Athena comes to Ithaca in disguise as the hero Mentes to convince Telemachus to go in search of news of Odysseus. The narrator makes it clear that Telemachus is the only one in the household to treat the guest with the proper respect: “straight to the porch he went, mortified that a guest might still be standing at the doors…he clasped her right hand and relieving her at once of her long bronze spear, met her with winged words: ‘Greetings, stranger! Here in our house you’ll find a royal welcome. Have supper first, then tell us what you need.’” As is proper for hosts, Telemachus welcomes his guest and provides food and drink before even asking the guest’s identity. Telemachus’s behavior is especially notable because of the lack of attention paid by the rest of the household. Likewise, Telemachus displays proper behavior for a guest at the courts of Nestor and Menelaus in Pylos and Sparta, respecting his hosts’ households and treating them with honor.

The true exemplars of good hospitality in The Odyssey are the Phaeacians who host Odysseus when he washes ashore near their town. In Book 6, Odysseus meets Princess Nausicaa, who, despite the threat of a strange man and the possibility of becoming the subject of rumor, offers him food and help reaching the city of Scheria. Her parents, King Alcinous and Queen Arete, are similarly hospitable. Before asking Odysseus’s name, they provide him with food, entertainment, and lodging. Alcinous considers hospitality part of his sacred duty to the gods, declaring, “Mix the wine in the bowl, pour rounds to all our banqueters in the house so we can pour out cups to Zeus who loves the lightning, champion of suppliants—suppliants’ rights are sacred.” In Book 8, the king and queen even stop a performance of an epic poem when its subject matter, the Trojan War, causes Odysseus to burst into tears. After Odysseus reveals his identity and tells his story, the Phaeacians convey him to Ithaca and leave him on the shore with numerous precious gifts, the ultimate hospitable act.

Just as the Phaeacians are the pinnacle of good hospitality, the Cyclops represents the most extreme example of bad hospitality toward one’s guests. Whereas the Phaeacians do not ask Odysseus’s identity until after they have taken care of his physical needs, the first thing the Cyclops asks of his Greek visitors is their identities: “‘Strangers!’ he thundered out, ‘now who are you? Where did you sail from, over the running sea-lanes?’” Odysseus begs that the Cyclops respect the gods and the customs of hospitality, but the Cyclops claims not to care about the gods or their customs: “We Cyclops never blink at Zeus and Zeus’s shield of storm and thunder, or any other blessed god—we’ve got more force by far.” Next, instead of providing his guests with a meal, he makes a meal of them, snatching up two of the men and eating them raw. Finally, when Odysseus asks the Cyclops for a “guest-gift,” an official token of the guest-friend relationship, the Cyclops offers his sarcastic spin on the custom: he’ll eat Odysseus last.

In The Odyssey being a good guest is of equal importance to being a good host, and the suitors represent the worst possible behavior for guests entering the household of a stranger. Telemachus describes their behavior in Book 2: “They infest our palace day and night, they butcher our cattle, our sheep, our fat goats, feasting themselves sick, swilling our glowing wine as if there’s no tomorrow—all of it, squandered.” In Odysseus’s absence, the suitors take advantage of the lack of a male head of household to consume his entire livelihood in the hopes that Penelope will eventually agree to marry one of them. While normal guest-host bonds are about equal relationships, the suitors pervert this by taking advantage of the weakened household because there is no leader to stop them. This moral outrage, although somewhat less intense for modern readers, would have made the suitors’ deaths at the end of the poem a supremely satisfying conclusion for ancient Greek audiences.