My favorite Homeric epic is the Odyssey. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read it. While the Odyssey is certainly a great adventure story, that’s not why I keep returning to the text. I re-read the Odyssey because Odysseus is such a relatable character. Unlike Achilles, the protagonist of Homer’s other great Greek epic, who’s blessed with god-like strength and skill, and focused on the singular purpose of martial glory, Odysseus is entirely mortal and faced with complex tasks: he must balance the roles of warrior and king with those of father, son, and husband; journey through an uncertain world; and survive and thrive by relying on his wits — his mētis or “cunning intelligence.”
Odysseus thus has much to teach the modern man, who’s also trying to do his best by his loved ones and resourcefully navigate a landscape of twists and turns. You could in fact fill a whole book with the lessons to be learned from the Odyssey. Below I share the three that most stand out to me every time I read this ancient epic.
Practice Manly Hospitality
The Odyssey is the tale of a warrior’s heroic journey, but it’s also an ancient guide to etiquette. While we often think of the idea of being a well-mannered “gentleman” as a 19th century, Victorian concept, a similar idea existed in antiquity (even amongst the famously fierce Spartans). A central tenet of the Greeks’ particular code of honor-based etiquette concerned the relationship between host and guest, and appears as one of the most primary and pervasive themes in the Odyssey.
The ancient Greeks had a single word to describe the relationship between a guest and a host: xenia. It’s often translated as hospitality, but it was a hospitality that not only dictated how a host should treat a guest, but also how a guest should treat his host; it was a reciprocal code of manners.
So what did a man have to do to practice good xenia?
Well, a host was expected to welcome into his home anyone who came knocking. Before a host could even ask a guest his name or where he was from, he was to offer the stranger food, drink, and a bath. Only after the guest finished his meal could the host start asking about the visitor’s identity. After the guest ate, the host was expected to offer him a place to sleep. When he was ready to leave, the host was obligated to give his guest gifts and provide him safe escort to his next destination.
Guests in turn were expected to be courteous and respectful towards their host. During their stay, they were not to make demands or be a burden. Guests were expected to ply the host and his household with stories from the outside world. The most important expectation was that the guest would offer his host the same hospitable treatment if he ever found himself journeying in the guest’s homeland.
Once you understand xenia, you start seeing it everywhere in the Odyssey, and notice that trust, stability, and flourishing follow its practice, while misfortune and discord result from its disregard.
Circe turning Odysseus’ men into pigs? Poor xenia.
Odysseus and his men rolling uninvited into the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus and eating his goat cheese without asking, and Polyphemus in turn eating Odysseus’ men instead of offering them a snack? Bad xenia on both sides.
The suitors mooching off of Odysseus’ wealth and trying to hook up with his wife while Odysseus was away? An example of really bad xenia . . . for which they would duly receive their comeuppance.
Examples of good xenia also abound in the poem. It can be seen when Odysseus’ son Telemachus visits Nestor, and Nestor welcomes him with proper hospitality. Odysseus’ loyal swineherd, Eumaeus, exemplifies the quality when he kindly receives Odysseus, even though he doesn’t realize it’s his old master, returned in the disguise of a beggar; Odysseus reciprocates his xenia by telling Eumaeus that he won’t get in the way and will earn his keep. The Phaeacians displayed xenia par excellence when they brought in a naked and shipwrecked Odysseus, bathed him, fed him, put on some athletic games, and then sent him on his way towards Ithaca with lots of golden goodies.
The importance of a strict code of hospitality in the ancient world makes sense when you think about what traveling was like back then. There weren’t any McDonald’s or La Quintas along the roads where you could stop to eat, shower, and sleep. Your safety and well-being while traveling depended on the generosity of complete strangers. You brought in a stranger and treated him well as a host because in the back of your mind, you knew that one day you could be the stranger asking for a place to crash.
While we don’t need to rely on xenia to travel anymore, we’d all be better off if we found ways to live up to its ethos in our day-to-day interactions. Life is just a lot more pleasant and edifying when strangers approach each other with a sense of mutual respect and a “do unto others” spirit of hospitality.
The best way to live both sides of xenia is actually to approach every interaction thinking of yourself as the “host,” even if the dynamic is on equal footing or you are technically the guest of someone else. Whether in terms of actual stays in people’s homes, or simple meetings on the street, you’ll never be a bad “guest” when you always try to be a good “host.” When you perennially see yourself in the host role, you look for ways to ease the burdens of others and make everyone feel welcome, comfortable — “at-home” (even when out and about). You offer social gifts in the form of appreciation, elevation, connection, and enlightenment, so that others walk away feeling filled and leave your orbit better off than when they arrived.
The Odyssey reminds us that everyone is on a long journey, and that we ought to act as way stations for each other, providing the warmth and sustenance folks need to continue on their way.
Boys Need Strong Male Mentors
The most egregious example of lousy xenia in the Odyssey is that of the suitors camping out at Odysseus’ house, eating his food, and waiting for his wife Penelope to pick one of them to be her new husband so they could become the ruler of Ithaca. They treated Odysseus’ servants like garbage and showed no respect to the rightful heir, Telemachus.
Who were these good-for-nothing’s who disregarded the sacred obligations of xenia?
Didn’t their fathers teach them to be better than that?
Well, probably not.
Because the shameless suitors were likely fatherless sons.
We have to remember that Odysseus had been gone for 20 years — ten years battling in Troy and ten years trying to make it back home after the war.
When Odysseus signed on to fight in the Trojan War two decades earlier, he likely brought along most of Ithaca’s able-bodied men to fight with him. A lot of those men probably had young children — many of them boys — that they left with their wives when they marched off to battle.
None of Odysseus’ men made it back home after the Trojan War. So most of the young men in Ithaca likely grew up without a father to show them how to be proper Ithacan gentlemen. Consequently, those fatherless boys probably grew up to become those contemptible, deadbeat suitors. As the theologian Douglas Wilson once said, “If boys don’t learn, men won’t know.”
We’ve written about the important role male mentors play in initiating young men into manhood. Adult men check the shadow side of the emerging masculine energy of adolescent boys, while also teaching them how to harness that energy towards positive ends. Without that tempering and guidance, burgeoning masculine energy can be outwardly destructive and inwardly immolating.
The suitors were the suitors because they didn’t have adult men to shepherd them into manhood.
But what about Telemachus? His dad, Odysseus, wasn’t around when he was growing up, and yet he still matured into a fine young man. Well, it’s likely that his venerable mother, Penelope, kept the memory of his father alive in their home, offered a vision of what noble manliness looked like, and taught Telemachus the kinds of things Odysseus would have wanted him to know.
Nonetheless, even Telemachus felt his lack of masculine nurturing, and still experienced a “father wound.” When he came of age, he set out to learn more about his nature and his telos or aim as a man. Telemachus went in search of his father literally and figuratively; his search for Odysseus was also the search for his own manhood.
Telemachus had mentors to help him along this journey. He visited Odysseus’ old war buddies Nestor and Menelanous to find out what happened to his father. They both treated Telemachus with proper xenia. They modeled what strong, yet mannered manhood looked like. While Nestor and Menelanous couldn’t tell Telemachus where his father was, they did tell him about Odysseus’ glorious deeds. They refined Telemachus’ model of manhood even more.
While not many sons today have lost their fathers to war, they are often essentially fatherless for other reasons, and feel the lack of this rearing in ways both subtle and overt. If you were fortunate enough to be raised well by your dad, seek not only to mentor your own sons in the way of honorable manhood, but to offer some masculine nurturing to these young (and not-so-young) men in your community. It takes a village to raise worthy men. Get involved in the lives of others; step into the arena of public life. Show boys what it means to be both a good man and good at being a man, lest we raise our own generation of ravenous suitors.
For a Strong Marriage, Find a Like-Minded Wife
People tend to forget this, but we actually don’t meet Odysseus until Book V of the Odyssey.
And when we do meet him, he’s looking out into the ocean, weeping.
That’s an interesting way to introduce an audience to an epic hero.
Why is Odysseus crying?
For the past seven years, Odysseus has been held captive on an island by the nymph Calypso. Every day for the better part of a decade, Odysseus has been having sex with a beautiful goddess. He eats the food of the gods. He’s safe. He’s got everything he needs. He’s living the stereotypical dude dream. So why is he so sad?
Because he misses his wife, Penelope.
When Odysseus tells Calypso this, she reminds Odysseus that Penelope is mortal. She’s gotten older in the past twenty years. She’s lost her youthful allure. She probably has some wrinkles, crow’s feet, and gray hair.
Calypso, on the other hand, is immortal. She’ll always be nubile and smokin’ hot. What’s more, Calypso tells Odysseus, she’ll give him immortality, so they can spend the rest of eternity together fulfilling his every carnal desire. She details the risks and dangers he’ll face as he sets out to reunite with his older, saggier, ordinary wife. He might die on his journey back home to Penelope. And for what?
Yet Odysseus is unpersuaded by Calypso’s argument; he would rather take the risk of trying to get back to his mortal wife than spend eternity in placating enchantment with a sensual nymph. Having spent seven years knocking boots with a goddess, and finding that he’s still depressed, Odysseus knows he wants more in a relationship.
He wants to be with someone who’s like-minded.
The Greek word for like-minded is homophrosyne, and it’s used throughout the Odyssey to describe the relationship between Odysseus and his wife Penelope.
Like Odysseus, Penelope is savvy and clever. For years, she is able to fend off her suitors by promising to choose one of them after she finishes weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus’ elderly father Laretes. While she appears to work on the shroud each day, each night she undoes her progress so that the task will never be completed.
That’s what Odysseus misses about Penelope — her psyche and spirit. Nothing, not even eternal nymph sex, could replace the connection which exists between two like-minded lovers.
We see the value Odysseus lends to this kind of kinship when he washes up on the shore of the Phaeacians and princess Nausicaa helps him out. In return, Odysseus wishes life’s greatest reward for her — a spouse with whom she is equally yoked:
Nothing stronger or better than that–
When a man and wife hold their home together
Alike in mind: great trouble to their foes,
A joy to their friends, the source of their renown
The like-mindedness of Penelope and Odysseus is also displayed in the aftermath of the latter’s homecoming. Odysseus, with the help of his son, slaughters all the suitors for their violation of xenia. After the bodies are taken away, and the blood’s mopped up, Odysseus waits for Penelope to come out of her room so they can commence their joyful reunion. But Penelope isn’t sure that Odysseus really is Odysseus, so she comes up with a clever test to verify his identity.
When Odysseus asks for a bed in which to sleep, Penelope coyly responds by telling her servant to move her own bed from her room and make it up for him.
Odysseus, who is already vexed that Penelope doesn’t believe he is who he says he is, now explodes with indignation:
Woman –your words, they cut me to the core!
Who could move my bed? Impossible task,
even for some skilled craftsman –unless a god
came down in person, quick to lend a hand,
lifted it out with ease and moved it elsewhere. . . .
a great sign, a hallmark lies in its construction.
I know, I built it myself –no one else. . . .
There was a branching olive-tree inside our court,
grown to its full prime, the bole like a column, thickset.
Around it I built my bedroom, finished off the walls
with a good tight stonework, roofed it over soundly
and added doors, hung well and snuggly wedged.
Then I lopped the leafy crown of the olive,
clean-cutting the stump bare from roots up,
planing it round with a bronze smoothing-adze —
I had the skill –I shaped it plumb to the like to make
my bedpost, bored the holes it needed with an auger.
Working from there I built my bed, start to finish . . .
There’s our secret sign, I tell you, our life story!
Once Penelope hears Odysseus reveal the secret of their unique marital bed, a secret they shared between themselves alone, her knees give way and she begins to sob, knowing that the man before her is truly her long-lost husband. She facilitated this revelation with a test, a trick, something her husband might have done too.
The layers of homophrosyne don’t end there. The shared secret of Penelope and Odysseus’ bed is itself a symbol of their like-mindedness. Relationships are made up of such intimate secrets; inside jokes, pet names, and private memories create an interwoven world that no one on the outside can ever fully enter. When a couple stops creating this entwined universe, their relationship starts to deteriorate.
When Penelope and Odysseus finally reunite in bed, the gods make the night last longer than usual. Why? Well, so they can make plenty of love, of course. But they also spend the night just talking to each other, sharing their thoughts. Penelope tells him her stories of fending off the suitors with her wiles, and Odysseus tells her his stories of using his cunning to make it back home. They use the night to re-fuse themselves in both body, and mind.
Nothing is stronger or better than that.
Check out my podcast about what Homer’s Odyssey can teach us today: