Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Greek Hospitality

I tend to have a recklessly casual travel style when it comes to recreational travel (e.g. going to Mt Olympus when it’s closed because I won't be back for a few years). While this often tends to get me lost, I'd be lying if I didn't also admit that this has led to some of my best experiences while travelling.

Having said that, it can also lead to me being at the mercy of the locals. While I'd like to think I have the street smarts to get by, I also have to admit that the kindness inherent in the Greek culture makes it particularly easy.

Maybe it’s because they have had a seafaring culture for centuries / millennia and are accustomed to disoriented visitors arriving from around the world, but I have always had a deep respect for Greek hospitality, an important theme in the Odyssey by Homer, one of my favourite books. This also reminds me of one of my favourite scenes: Book VIII – The Games, when Ulysses meets Euryalus.

Context: Ulysses is lost. It's the whole premise of the book. And throughout, he experiences either kindness or evil from different characters. In this book, he arrives on the shore of the House of Alcinous. During the feast, the blind poet, Demodocus, sings songs of Ulysses' exploits, ironically, not knowing he is in the room. Ulysses' weeping is noticed only by Alcinous, who proceeds to distract his guest by suggesting they compete in athletic competitions instead.

During the competition, Alcinous's son, Laodamas, the best boxer, thinks to invite Ulysses to participate and Euryalus foolishly insults him when Ulysses politely declines due to the ravages of “infinite trouble” he’s experienced making his heart heavy for home. Ulysses proceeds to throw the heaviest disc the furthest distance (without even taking off his jacket) and proceeds to challenge anyone and everyone to any contest of their choosing (except for running due to his old age, and except for Laodamas, Alcinous' son, of course, respecting the role of the host's family). Alcinous politely calls Euryalus an idiot and calls for more festivities, hoping to prove to Ulysses that while the Phaeacians were not known for their athletic prowess, he was hoping to prove that they are exceptionally hospitable: “extremely fond of good dinners, music, and dancing”.

After acknowledging the spectacle of dancing, Ulysses compliments Alcinous, to which Alcinous responds by asking the twelve chief men (thirteen with himself) to give him “a clean cloak, a shirt, and a talent of fine gold”. Having disrespected Ulysses by supposing him to be unathletic and breaking the Greek code of hospitality to foreigners, Euryalus apologizes by giving him a gift: a beautiful bronze sword. Ulysses, making peace with his new friend, accepts the gift graciously, remarking that he hopes Euryalus will never have need of it.

(Read the original as this paraphrasing doesn’t do justice to the original poetry. Plus, there is a hilarious adulterer's story of warning told by Demodocus of Hephaistos, Venus and Aries)

As my highschool english teacher once explained, the concept of gift giving was important in Greek culture in that it emphasized the role of both gift giver and acceptee. It symbolized the greatness of the giver to be able to offer a gift as well as the importance of the recipient by being shown respect through the offer of a gift.


Hospitality Job descriptions said...

The Greeks have been known for their hospitality and politeness, especially when treating guests- whether strangers or not.

Joshua Wong said...

True. I enjoyed Homer's poetry in recounting this particular tale, being a stranger to Greece myself.

maddy said...
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