Hospitality and Ritual Slaughter
"The swineherd, standing up to share the meat -- this sense of fairness perfect -- carved it out into seven equal portions." -- The Odyssey, Book XIV, ll. 480-500
The Latin word "hospes" gives us the words "hospitality", "hospital", "host", and, maybe most telling, "hospice" -- which once referred to a guest house for travelers and now refers to a loving place to die with dignity.
Interestingly, the word originally referred to both the "host" and the "guest", so it implies a relationship between two things that are usually separate -- two strangers becoming one in the host's home.
The Greek root of this word seems to be "philoxenos" or "stranger love": treating complete strangers with the same moral code that binds one to one’s own people.
Both the ancient Hebrews and Greeks are utterly obsessed with hospitality. We can safely say that it's ok to own slaves, have sex with your slave women or concubines, and invade any country you want to, but breaking taboo with hospitality ranks right up with murder in terms of moral transgression. Both believe that gods visit people in the form of strangers (Genesis 19, Athena's visits throughout the Iliad and Odyssey), and thus there's a moral imperative to treat strangers as gods. But why?
Well, simply put, what is more dangerous, especially in a time of war, then bringing complete strangers into your home? You simply cannot bring a stranger into your house, ever, unless that stranger agrees to treat your home as a sanctified space. And, of course, the inverse is true: the guest is literally at the host’s mercy; what’s to keep a host from killing you and your men and taking all your treasure and then saying “Telemachus? No, he never visited us. Why do you ask?”
and The Whole Damn Trojan War
Paris violates the code by stealing his host, Menelaus', wife, Helen, and this sparks the Trojan war. Similarly, Odysseus and his men cause havoc wherever they break the taboo -- eating the Cattle of the Sun, invading the Cyclops' home -- and suffer wherever they are treated inhospitably. Aside from his perseverance, it is the kindness of strangers that gets Odysseus home. There he finds that the rudeness of the suitors has nearly destroyed that home.
Ithaca: Hospitality Gone Bad
The story opens with the suitors violation of the codes of hospitality. From there Telemachus goes to Pylos, where Nestor shows him proper hospitality, then to Sparta, where Menelaus also shows it. The we see Calypso violating hospitality by keeping Odysseus against his will. Circe will also take this path toward her guests. Only in Phaeacia does Odysseus show himself capable of hospitality, and there it is returned.
At each new meeting Homer carefully describes the ritual slaughter of an animal, its preparation and a feast. Why is so much attention given to ritual slaughter of livestock: offerings to gods? Recall that the epic opens with suitors eating Telemachus out of house and home. Odysseus men repeatedly get into trouble when they are hungry, the suitors will die for their breaking of social taboos concerning meat, and Eumaeus role as a swineherd or “forester” is clearly more important than most modern pig farmers. Note that Odysseus' entire exile begins as punishment for eating the cattle of the sun (Helios). In short, the protagonists and antagonists are generally separated along the lines of hospitality -- how their food and drink are shared.
It’s hard to remember that the normal state of all animals – and most humans for most of our history – is that of perpetual hunger. As an emerging civilization, the Mycanaean Greeks have one foot squarely in starvation and the other in plenty. Odysseus twice states that hunger is what drives men off to war (Book VII ll. 370 & 621).
Some ways to think about why so much attention is given to food and drink:
a) Organized religion is believed to have formed as a means of distributing wealth (in the form of grain) equitably, as a means of maintaining order: food becomes spiritualized and moralized as a pragmatic means of storing it thru the lean times and ensuring the survival of the community. What is “morality” in practical terms but rules for ensuring social order, and what is more essential to social order (what staves off jealousy, crime, murder, revolution…) than ensuring no one goes hungry? Note how Leviticus tells us not to “cut corners” because a certain portion of the fields (the corners) must go to the poor. Odysseus himself notes that men’s troubles are caused by hunger, and that “the belly” is what leads men to leave home – to raid other cities. In short, hungry people are dangerous people, and the equitable distribution of wealth ensures social stability.
Another analogous situation comes from the Hebrew scriptures when Jacob meets Rachel at the well (Genesis 29). The well is protected by a great stone that no man can move alone, ensuring that no shepherd can water his flock until the other shepherds arrive and together, as a community, move the stone. The ritual treatment of meat is identical; by making “feast” a religious ritual, people only slaughter livestock communally, ensuring equal distribution of the most valuable commodity. In our culture we call this “taxes”.
b) There’s also obviously a need to keep meat “kosher”: clean and free of harmful bacteria and parasites etc. When you slaughter an animal it must be dealt with and, usually, cooked and eaten immediately. Watch Into The Wild for an example what happens when you break this taboo.
c) Like the Food Network, the lengthy descriptions of sumptuous dining are also simply a form of foodie pornography, a logical bookend to the other fantasy in these stories, where the hungry, poor, ugly and old listeners live vicariously thru Odysseus. In other words, these stories are chock full of good food not only to instruct the hungry in the proper care of food (and each other), but to satiate that hunger vicariously. Like looking at Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the food in these stories are simply there as vicarious pleasure. Tassssty!
Just as storing and distributing food may be the source of organized religion -- and thus of culture itself -- the psychological effects of alcohol (and other drugs) is believed to be the root of religious "spiritual" experience: consider how the Latin term "spirit" refers to breath, alcohol, and the soul. For ancient people, the effects of alcohol are religious and spiritual -- to imbibe is to literally be possessed by a "spirit" or God (Dionysus). In fact, the Hebrew religion is considered one of the first to break free from the ancient tradition of using either drugs or alcohol to achieve spiritual reverie, while the Greeks and Romans continued in this vein through Dionysian/Bachanalian reveries.
And of course all cultures have moral customs controlling the distribution of alcohol, and these are nearly delineated along religious lines -- we can trace these lines from the beer used to civilize Enkidu, to the wine offered to the gods by the Greeks, to the wine shared by Christ at the Last Supper (a Passover meal, where Jews used ritualized wine), to the sacred beerhalls in Beowulf, to the sacramental wine still used by Catholics, Anglicans and Jews. To performing keg stands and sucking on a beer bong in our own culture. Or, in a more civilized fashion, toasting – especially weddings and the new year – with champagne.
Note: this emphasis on hospitality still rules much of the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and Muslim Asia. Check out Rory Stewart's amazing book The Places In Between, for example.