Odysseus’ disastrous encounter with the Laistrygones is a useful reference point for analyzing the nature of guest-host relationships in The Odyssey. When it is compared with his arrivals at the lands of the Phaiakians and the hands of the Cyclopes, a fuller picture of Odysseus and the customs of his time emerges; in addition, this reveals some of Homer’s more adroit storytelling techniques. To regard The Odyssey as the tale of one man’s wanderings, as many do, is to ignore half its importance; it is also the story of his stops between wanderings.
Initially, all proceeds well when Odysseus sends three men to learn the nature of the Laistrygones: the land, with its smooth roads, seems orderly – this, coupled with the placid harbor that greeted their arrival at Lamos, leads the reader to believe that this is a peaceful place – and the first person the posse meets is receptive and informative. This information, relayed mutedly by Homer, is reassuring: after their troubles with the Cyclopes and six days of sailing, it seems the voyagers will finally find rest. The positive (by now, more perceptive readers might call it ominous) signs continue – a glorious king’s home awaits the sailors – until the shocking moment when a giantess fills them with horror. The peaceful mood is destroyed by Antiphates’ wrath, and Death, having stalked the men from the dock, finds a victim. Flight and slaughter ensues, and resourceful Odysseus barely escapes with the remainder of his men.
This is more than storytelling – Homer has a message hidden beneath the thrill of the narrow getaway. The peaceful setup accomplishes two things: one is obviously in the way of entertainment (the sudden attack on the Ithakans becomes all the more surprising and exciting for his listeners); the other tells the reader about the nature of host-guest relationships.
Odysseus has a relentless optimism about his hosts – he always approaches them, even in the land of the Cyclopes, which he knows to be lawless. After exploring the cave of Polyphemos, Odysseus’ men plead with him to steal his goods and set sail; the logician, though, will have none of it: “I would not listen to them… / not until I could see him, see if he would give me presents.” This seems a trifle mad. Here, unlike in Lamos, Odysseus expects to find “a man who was endowed with great strength, / and wild, with no true knowledge of laws or any good customs” but yet is not the least afraid – he is confident that no matter how savage this creature is, he will surely be won over by gifts of food and wine. Decency is assumed. The simplest explanation is that Odysseus wholly believes that Zeus, god of guests, will not fail him. Quixotic Odysseus entreaties Polyphemos blithely, fully expecting cooperation: …now in turn we come to you and are suppliants at your knees, if you might give us a guest present or otherwise some gift of grace, for such is the right of strangers. Therefore respect the gods, O best of men. We are your suppliants, and Zeus the guest god, who stands behind all strangers with honors due them, avenges any wrong toward strangers and suppliants.
The underlying message is clear: being a good host is so expected, by so far the default expectation, that despite unmistakable signs that the “host” is hostile, normally clearheaded Odysseus still expects grace and hospitality.
Odysseus’ arrival at the land of the Phaiakians is similar to the exploration of Lamos – both scenes are cautious; the men are diplomatic. Odysseus’s plea to Nausikaa is crafty. Although Odysseus employs a different supplication technique here than at Polyphemos’ cave, it hardly seems necessary; here, in a civilized land, the response feels guaranteed. A supplication to the bloodthirsty Laistrygones would have been useless. Alkinoos responds to Odysseus admirably, and the weary traveler is without want for the duration of his stay. The drastic difference in outcome is attributable solely to the character of those that are supplicated.
By the end of the encounter with the Laistrygones, lamentations should well up in emotionally invested readers – but not only for the murders of Odysseus’ men. Something besides life has been destroyed: a basic fabric of generosity, hospitality and good will that the voyagers deserve has been betrayed. If Odysseus and his men found welcoming hosts at every turn, the latter would lose their significance – they would be taken for granted. By building the travelers’ hopes at each new location and sometimes dashing them savagely, Homer elevates the status of the good folk who do receive them in peace and give food and shelter. The relations between guest and host form the core of The Odyssey; their range – from eight years of divine food and loving to cruel death – reveals that no matter what horrors a man encounters at war and on the open sea, a crueler fate could await in another man’s home.