A maid brought water soon in a graceful golden pitcher
and over a silver basin tipped it out
so they might rinse their hands,
then pulled a gleaming table to their side.
A staid housekeeper brought on bread to serve them,
appetizers aplenty too, lavish with her bounty.
A carver lifted platters of meat toward them,
meats of every sort, and set beside them golden cups
and time and again a page came round and poured them wine. (Book 1, lines 160–168)
In this scene, Telemachus welcomes the stranger—Athena disguised as Mentor—to share the household’s “lavish” banquet, one of many feasts in The Odyssey. Such generosity represents the positive side of the ancient Greek custom of xenia, or hospitality, which required respectful behavior between host and guest. In keeping with these rules, Telemachus offers Athena a “high, elaborate chair of honor” (Book 1, line 152) along with food and drink before even asking for her name. Such a feast is also a way for a host to display his wealth and status.
[T]he people lined the beaches,
sacrificing sleek black bulls to Poseidon,
god of the sea-blue mane who shakes the earth.
They sat in nine divisions, each five hundred strong,
each division offering up nine bulls, and while the people
tasted the innards, burned the thighbones for the god[.] (Book 3, lines 5–10)
This scene describes a religious rite that takes place in Pylos. As the sacrificial bulls will both honor Poseidon and feed the people, this ceremony marries essential elements of Greek daily life—food and religious belief. Almost every action taken by the characters in The Odyssey is influenced by the gods, and religious belief and prayers are never far from thought. Further, the scene highlights the communal nature of this ceremonial feast, uniting the people with the gods who are believed to come down and share in the feast that follows the sacrifice.
Snatching one of my men, he tore him up for dinner—
the other two sprang free and reached the ships.
But the king let loose a howling through the town
that brought tremendous Laestrygonians swarming up
from every side—hundreds, not like men, like Giants!
Down from the cliffs they flung great rocks a man could hardly hoist
and a ghastly shattering din rose up from all the ships—
men in their death-cries, hulls smashed to splinters—
They speared the crews like fish
and whisked them home to make their grisly meal. (Book 10, lines 127–136)
In Book 10, Odysseus and his men encounter the race of Laestrygonians, giant beings who pluck unlucky soldiers from the ship and eat them. Throughout their return from Troy, the men come across several other beings who see humans as nothing more than food. While Odysseus and his men were fierce warriors at the battles of the Trojan War, they are unable to resist these more powerful foes, showing their inherent helplessness. The Laestrygonians’ behavior is implicitly juxtaposed against the far more civilized Greeks; while the giants (and other non-humans the men meet on their journey homeward, such as Charybdis and Polyphemus) see strangers as a meal, the Greeks view strangers as honored guests to be welcomed with food and drink.
So she asked, but I protested, ‘Circe—
how could any man in his right mind endure
the taste of food and drink before he’d freed
his comrades-in-arms and looked them in the eyes?
If you, you really want me to eat and drink,
set them free, all my beloved comrades—
let me feast my eyes.’ (Book 10, lines 422–427)
After Odysseus escapes being turned into a pig by Circe, like she did to his men, he declines to eat the sumptuous food that she serves to him. This rejection of food and drink demonstrates Odysseus’s humanity, compassion, and extreme loyalty to his men. Despite having spent years at sea, as long as his comrades are suffering, Odysseus refuses to partake in the trappings of civilization that are now freely given to him. Unable to enjoy food and drink under these circumstances, he bargains with Circe to force her to transform his men back to their human form. This short scene provides a glimpse into why Odysseus’s family and so many of his contemporaries laud his character and leadership.
My friends, we’ll never carry off this plot
to kill the prince. Let’s concentrate on feasting. (Book 20, lines 272–273)
After Telemachus’s safe return home, the suitors must figure out how to rid themselves of him, but instead of focusing on coming up with a plan that will work, they follow Amphinomous’s lead and decide to sit down and enjoy a meal. Food becomes a symbol for the suitors’ foolishness and self-indulgence. Having occupied Odysseus’s house for many years, they have become accustomed to enjoying his “hulking sheep and fatted goats” (Book 20, line 277) along with other meats, breads, and wine. Their eagerness to let the food distract them contributes to their underestimation of the danger that Telemachus poses. If they had continued to discuss their problem, rather than “reach[ing] out for the good things that lay at hand” (Book 20, line 284), they may have come up with a way to kill Telemachus and thus prevent their own slaughter.