Caves, Dining Halls, and Civilization in Homer’s Odyssey.

[Note: As part of my course in Homeric Greek, each student had to write a paper analyzing a key term or set of terms in the Odyssey.  Three of us are blogging our papers for my upcoming blog carnival.  This one is based on my paper, though obviously pruned!]

Homer skillfully uses terms for living spaces to demarcate civilized from uncivilized people.  This adds to the characterization of Odysseus as a hero “of many twists and turns” (πολυτροπος) who traverses and masters both the civilized and uncivilized worlds.

The most fundamental distinction in dwelling places in Homer is the division between cave-dwellers and house-dwellers.

Those who live in a cave (σπέος and ἄντρον):

  • Polyphemus and other Cyclopes
  • Kalypso, who slept with Odysseus “in hollowed caves”
  • Skylla
  • local deities and spirits, including the water-nymphs of Ithaka

Those who live in a house with a dining-hall (μέγαρον):

  • Odysseus
  • Other great lords: Agamemnon, Menelaos, Alkinoous
  • Zeus and other Olympian gods
  • Circe on her pleasure-island

Only civilized people or gods live in a house with a dining-hall.  In the Homeric world, the dining hall was not only was the physical center of a house and the location of its central hearth.  It was where socializing happened, where ξενοι (stranger-guests) were received, where feasts took place.  The term μεγαρον does not refer to the entirety of a house (δωμα).  But it is often used to refer to the most important part of the house, where the action happens.

What’s the difference?  Cave-dwellers are uncivilized.  They are lawless and do not interact with others of their kind, whether human or god.  Since they do not meet in assemblies, there is no need for them to have a room of their house devoted to dining with guests.  Polyphemus eats, sleeps, and receives his guests all in one giant cave.

For Homer, law and assembly define civilization for both mortal creatures and gods.  Cyclopes observe neither laws nor hospitality etiquette.  Just as the (quasi-)human cyclopes are lawless and ignore custom living in caves, so do the local deities who also live in caves.  This is clear in book five, when Kalypso remarks to Hermes that he does not come around to her island very often.  Kalypso is out of communication with the Olympian assembly of the gods.  Like other nymphs in the epic, she is not in assembly with the other gods.  Here she follows their laws only grudgingly.  And both the human Polyphemus and the goddess Kalypso display their lack of civilized behavior by flagrantly violating ξενια (guest-stranger) codes, one by eating his guests and the other by keeping him as a prisoner.

The μέγαρον as imagined by George Autenreith.

Homer uses this duality to characterize the suitors as animalistic.  The suitors eating up Odysseus’ home are presumably civilized men.  They come from established families of Ithaca.  Yet after they die, when Hermes leads them to the underworld, Homer makes an interesting comparison:

[Hermes] waved them on, all squeaking
as bats will in a cavern’s underworld [μυχῷ ἄντρου],
all flitting, flitting criss-cross in the dark
if one falls and the rock-hung chain is broken.

The suitors are compared to beasts living in caves.  The suitors are as unlawful as animals.  They fail to respect their host Odysseus/Telemachos by eating his home to the bone and conniving to take his wife.  Although they seem civilized because they come from civilized families, their actions are not.  Odysseus’ task in cleansing his hall of the suitors is not merely gaining back his own house, but symbolically cleansing Ithaca of uncivilized forces that threaten its stability.

In the first line of the entire epic, we hear that Odysseus is πολυτροπος.  He is a man of many twists and turns, able to function and succeed in many different circumstances.  In the first half of the Odyssey, Odysseus’ most well-known struggles take place in caverns, such as those of Kalypso and Polyphemus.  But later in the epic, his challenges take place in dining-halls, especially Alkinoous’ and Odysseus’ own hall.  In both situations, Odysseus succeeds.  He is crafty, independent, and resourceful enough to beat opponents who have no care for laws and social mores.  Yet he is also tactful, using “winning words” in social situations where verbal persuasion is called for rather than brute force or trickery.  The use of the interrelated terms for cave and dining-hall help flesh out this distinction between civilized and uncivilized peoples.

2 thoughts on “Caves, Dining Halls, and Civilization in Homer’s Odyssey.

  1. Pingback: Review: “When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin.” | Linguae Antiquitatum

  2. Pingback: State of the Projects, April 2015. | Linguae Antiquitatum

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *