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Culture Clash

Generalizations and associations seem to permeate the culture of every human society. If this were not the case, there would be no need for the sociological study of ethnocentricity. The Odyssey of Homer strongly exhibits this quality of judging cultures and other peoples based on criteria defined by its own ancient Greek civilization. In this way, one can draw a parallel between Ancient China and Ancient Greece. The Chinese once viewed their country as the center of the universe; their values, beliefs, and customs were the standards against which they measured everything and everyone else. From The Odyssey, one can detect a similar methodology in the way in which the Greeks assessed the level of sophistication of other cultures by using their own familiar conventions as universal standards for defining humanity. Through The Odyssey, one can isolate three main methods the Greeks used in their cultural classifications: hospitality, story-telling, and diet. However, in order to appreciate fully the importance of such standards of comparison, one should examine the context in which each criterion was used. Since Homer does not directly list each criterion one by one, one might have to give a cursory examination of the attributes of each civilization that Odysseus encounters, as well as the different impressions the Greeks had when encountering each one, so as to formulate a basic understanding of how hospitality, story-telling, and diet relate to one another and to the general concept of humanity.

Hospitality is one of the largest recurring themes in The Odyssey. By examining how Nestor greets Telemachos to his household, one can see a good model of how a host should treat his guests. Before Nestor even identifies Telemachos as Odysseus?s son, he and his family kindly escort Telemachos and his companions into their house, inviting them to dine with the rest (The Odyssey, Book III, 34-44). Nestor actually asks the strangers to identify themselves only after Telemachos and his companions have finished their meals (III, 69-74). Though we in our modern day might find this custom of “eat first, ask later” to be quite odd, the ancient Greeks commonly used this concept of hospitality as a method of assessing the level of grace and refinement of a particular people. Story-telling is also another integral part of ancient Greek culture to which the characters in The Odyssey attached high value and excellence. For instance, because of Odysseus?s amazing tales of his travels, the Phaiakian listeners were all “stricken in silence, held in thrall by the story all through the shadowy chambers” (XI, 333-334). Consequently, the Phaiakians proceeded to inundate Odysseus with more gifts, so as to compensate him for his sufferings as well as show their appreciation for his well-told stories (XI, 336-341).

Overall I felt that the ancient Greek concept of hospitality and the high value attached to story-telling were quite interesting, though a bit foreign to my own understanding of culture. However, I was able to relate to most of their values concerning diet and culinary refinement, including the assumptions on the nature and quality of a culture associated with those ethics. For instance, one can refer to how Odysseus described the Cyclops, Polyphemos: “his mind was lawless, / and in truth he was a monstrous wonder made to behold, not / like a man, an eater of bread, but more like a wooded / peak of a the high mountains seen standing away from the others” (IX, 189-192). Despite the fact that the Cyclops was described as monstrous, lawless, and primitive, one should note the direct comparison to humans Odysseus made in order to help his listeners better understand the morally depraved nature of Polyphemos. In short, the Cyclops did not eat bread, like normal humans. First, the phrase “eater of bread” acts as a metaphor for non-anthropophagia. Since both the Cyclops and Odysseus spoke the same language and could communicate on a coherent level, the thought of one sentient being knowingly devouring another sentient being seemed barbaric and repulsive, almost cannibalistic. Hence, I cringed as I read how Polyphemos killed two companions of Odysseus by smashing them into the ground, “like puppies”, and then ate them raw (IX, 287-295).

I suppose that since I share this same aversion toward cannibalism as the Ancient Greeks, I have bridged a section of this cultural gap that prevents me from fully understanding their concept of humanity and refined civilization. If one tries to adopt this same degree of fervor with respect to Greek hospitality and story-telling, as one might in one?s rejection of cannibalism, we might better relate to the way the Greeks in The Odyssey evaluated different cultures, classifying some as barbaric and others as more superior. For example, the first concepts that come to my mind when I think of the word ‘cannibal’ are primitive, cruel, uncivilized, violent, and uncultured. Hence, by associating the word ‘cannibal’ with the Cyclops, the vices of such adjectives carry over in my mind, and a negative impression of the individual surfaces. One can then hypothesize that this formulation of an image of a particularly barbaric race was exactly the effect that Odysseus wanted to convey to his listeners at the time.

However, although someone could argue that nothing prevents Odysseus from manipulating the concepts of hospitality, story-telling, and diet so as to invoke an extreme negative impression of a particular foreign culture, one might suggest that the ancient Greeks merely had concrete examples to describe barbaric cultures, where inhospitableness and cannibalism were simply associations given to such unrefined civilizations. For instance, one could compare Polyphemos with the Laistrygonians. Like the Cyclops, the Laistrygonians were much larger and stronger than humans (X, 112-113). This race of giants likewise demonstrated murderous cruelty when they threw giant boulders at the ships of Odysseus, so that all but his own were destroyed (X, 121-132). However, the greatest similarity between the Cyclopes and the Laistrygonians is the fact that they both eat human flesh. Two of Odysseus?s men were immediately captured and prepared for dinner in the house of one of these giants (X, 116), while others were being speared like fish and taken away to be eaten (X, 124-125). Hence, an ancient Greek could then create assumptions about different cultures by generalizing on the concepts of diet, hospitality, etc. and associating them with the seemingly barbaric nature of those civilizations described. For instance the fact that both the Cyclopes and the Laistrygonians are eaters of flesh can imply that they are also cruel, inhospitable, and dangerous. Likewise, if Odysseus encounters a third race that seems pitiless, inhospitable, and primitively aggressive, it would not be unreasonable for one to surmise that such a race might also be devourers of human flesh, not eaters of bread like man.

As a final point, one can also draw a correlation between the values of ancient Greek culture and their theological beliefs. For instance, when Odysseus first spoke to the Polyphemos the Cyclops, he requested a “guest present” or “some gift of grace, for such is the right of strangers” (IX, 267-268). When I initially read those lines, I felt that Odysseus?s words were a bit forward and daring, almost rude. However, by reading further, I attained a possible reason for why Odysseus reasoned the way he did, for he said: Therefore respect the gods [.] We are your suppliants, and Zeus the guest god [?] avenges any wrong toward strangers and suppliants” (IX, 268-271). Therefore, one might argue that it is this fear of incurring a god?s wrath that causes these Greeks to follow customs they have gradually believed to be godlike or god-defined. But note how Polyphenos responds to Odysseus?s comment on the gods when he said: “The Cyclopes do not concern themselves over Zeus of the aegis, nor any of the rest of the blessed gods, since we are far better than they” (IX, 275-277). It then follows that since the Cyclopes do not fear the gods, they act impulsively and are motivated only by their selfish desires. The epitome of the Cyclops?s haughty fearlessness is demonstrated by the way he continually slaughters Odysseus?s companions for food. Polyphemos completely ignores this code of hospitality that is such an integral part of Greek culture and their theology and totally ignores any consequences of his actions. Hence, one could add that the Cyclopes are not only an inhospitable, uncultured, man-eating barbaric race, but they also are sacrilegious, haughty, and short-sighted. Indeed, one likely could not draw all of these conclusions solely by observing the diet of the Cyclopes. Rather, by appraising the behavior and customs of another civilization against ethics and values that are so seemingly universal in their eyes, the ancient Greeks were able to draw generalizations on the sophistication of another race?s culture. As we could see with the both the Cyclopes and the Laistrygonians, such generalizations were upheld and proven to be accurate.

Overall, by carefully noting all incidences in The Odyssey where a convention, custom, or moral is being challenged or applied, one could get a glimpse of what sort of ethics and values the ancient Greeks in epic poetry held. Furthermore, one would then have the basis of arguing for what the values and customs of the actual ancient Greek civilization at that time might have been. Objectively, though, one might argue against the absurdity of judging an entire culture or race of people based on their diet. However, even in our world today, we see people passing judgement and generalizations left and right, especially through the media. Perhaps, if the Cyclopes or the Laistrygonians had their own Homeric poet, we would then see a different side of the story than the one related to us through the winged words of Odysseus.

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