In the Odyssey, Penelope is courted by 108 suitors, who camp out in her house/royal court indefinitely, behaving badly, while she delays them. I'm having trouble understanding the historical and cultural context here. Is enough known about the culture of Homeric Greece to definitively explain what's going on, or is it subject to interpretation? It seems clear that the suitors have an understandable motive (to take over the kingdom of Ithaca). It's less clear to me whether their behavior is meant to be seen as a total violation of cultural norms, or what norms might be violated. Features of the story such as the great length of time and the large number of suitors seem like exaggerations for effect, but are the aberrations meant to excite horror in the listener, or are they just exaggerated versions of plausible events when a queen was widowed?

The suitors end up getting killed, which is seen as just. In this culture, do they deserve death simply because they persistently courted Penelope, or because they abused her hospitality, or because of their separate misdeeds, such as the plot led by Antinous to murder Telemachus?

Does Penelope fail to eject them because she lacks the physical power, because she lacks the legal and political authority, or because she's behaving as an exaggerated model of hospitality?

Hospitality is a virtue that was much admired in the ancient world and is modeled by Telemachus in his interaction with Athena. If great hospitality is seen as an obligation of a rich noblewoman, then is she enhancing her legitimacy by showing such extreme hospitality?

If her problem is lack of physical power, does this imply that the entire kingdom of Ithaca is completely undefended simply because one man, the king, is dead or absent? Wouldn't Odysseus have made provisions for the security of his kingdom, court, and family before leaving for Troy? If Penelope wanted to kick the suitors out, could she appeal to her slaves to help her with physical force, or would that be out of the question culturally (cf. Confederate horror at freedmen fighting for the Union)? Would the suitors have weapons, armor, and training that would make it difficult for non-nobles to eject them by force?

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    It isn't possible to make historical judgements about mythological characters, who may not have ever existed. For a mythological explanation please refer to my answer on Mythology SE. If you think you can modify your question here to be about history as defined in the help center, please do that. – Spencer Nov 12 at 15:46
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    @Spencer I think you need to read the title and the question again. The question is clearly about what Homeric Greek culture was like, not about any mythological character. – axsvl77 Nov 12 at 16:12
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    axsvl77 Unfortunately, the body of the question wanders into the specifics of the myth as well as counterfactuals. However, if rephrased, it could be a good question. – Spencer Nov 12 at 16:23
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    @Spencer Not when I read it. The whole thing seems to be in perfect aligment with the idea that that question is about "Cultural Understanding". For example, "In this culture, do they deserve...". However, maybe it could use a few more qualifiers like this in the last paragraph. Nonetheless, it seems to be on-topic as is. – axsvl77 Nov 12 at 16:50
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    Did all the Ithacan men leave with Odysseus? If they did the rest of the population should have starved to death without them. And not even all the men of the warrior class could have left, because the slaves would then have run away or revolted. And even if all the warriors left with Odysseus, their young sons should have grown up and become warriors in the 20 years that Odysseus was gone. So even a tiny kingdom like Ithaca should have been able to gather enough warriors to greatly outnumber the 108 suitors. – MAGolding Nov 12 at 20:15
up vote 74 down vote accepted

Xenia is a concept that represented the relationship between guests and hosts in Ancient Greece, and is a recurring theme in the Odyssey, Iliad, and other Greek works. Essentially, Penelope was fulfilling the expected cultural role of a generous host, whereas the suitors were breaking their role as courteous guests. For adhering to that culture's expectation of hospitality, Penelope and her family were rewarded, and for breaking the customs the suitors were justly punished.


Owners/caretakers of a home were expected to be hospitable to any guests or travelers that might show up at their door, offering them food and drink, a bath, and even gifts when they finally leave. It was the duty of a host to take care of guests, because the guest could be a god in disguise who would reward or punish the host's behavior. In the Odyssey, Penelope/Telemachus were fulfilling this custom as expected, such as offering the suitors endless food and drink and Telemachus being courteous to the disguised Athena.

As guests of a house, travelers were expected to be courteous to the hosts, offer a gift if possible, and not be a burden. The suitors clearly broke every part of this custom, and as punishment they were killed by Odysseus upon his return.

The host-guest relationship, and why you shouldn't abuse it, is demonstrated several times in the Odyssey: the cyclops Polyphemus was far from hospitable to Odysseus and his men, so none of the gods (except Polyphemus' father, Poseidon) cared when Odysseus broke his role as a courteous guest by blinding Polyphemus. Circe was turning guests into animals, so Hermes helped Odysseus confront her, showing that not even gods were above being hospitable to guests.

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    Excellent answer. As there is nothing that you can't find an academic paper on, you want to check out The Stranger’s Friendship on the Battlefield: The Performance of Xenia in the Iliad, by Tsai, Hsiu-chih, 2008 – Marakai Nov 13 at 1:55
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    Telemachus' journeys provide another important example of the importance of the host-guest relationship: T doesn't become a fully-fledged adult, with the power to help overthrow the suitors, until after he goes travelling and establishes himself through (good) guesting. – 1006a Nov 13 at 16:12
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    Incidentally, a very similar culture of hospitality was (is?) present in Indian culture too (including many examples of this "theoxenia" in the epics/puranas, and elaborate rules of hospitality in the dharmashastras); probably yet another example of the broader Indo-European culture. – ShreevatsaR Nov 13 at 18:56
  • @ShreevatsaR it may be inspired by Greek culture. After Alexander the Great kingdom has fallen Greco-Bactrian Kingdom en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Bactrian_Kingdom was established next to territory of modern India. – talex Nov 15 at 7:28

I ran this by my friend Matt Colvin, whose degree is in, and who teaches, classics. Here are his insights into the cultural context:

Mickey,

Missing from this discussion is the simultaneous second prong of the suitors’ strategy: namely, if they cannot make Penelope marry one of them, they can at least devour and waste so much of Odysseus’ household’s wealth as to diminish or cripple his family’s ability to contract and reinforce ties of xenia with other noble families in the Mycenaean world.

Also missing from that Stackexchange discussion is the function of Agamemnon as a mirror-story that contrasts with the central plot of the Odyssey. Agamemnon’s story comes up many times: Zeus’s first speech in Odyssey book 1 is a complaint about how Aegisthus, the successful seducer of Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra, has disobeyed the gods. Aegisthus is described with many of the same epithets and formulas as the suitors: both are “reckless” and disobey divine warnings against their attempted usurpation. Clytemnestra is herself the cousin of Penelope and both sister and sister-in-law of Helen of Troy, wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus. Agamemnon is of course murdered by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra (Odysseus dialogues with his shade in Hades), and the suitors threaten to kill both Telemachus and Odysseus himself should he show up. Finally, Agamemnon’s son Orestes is held up many times as a model for Telemachus to emulate.

The fragility of noble power in Homeric society is also evidenced by the words that King Priam speaks to Achilles when he comes to his tent to ransom the body of Hector:

"Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles-
as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age!
No doubt the countrymen round about him plague him now, 
with no one there to defend him, beat away disaster.
No one — but at least he hears you're still alive
and his old heart rejoices, hopes rising, day by day,
to see his beloved son come sailing home from Troy.” (Iliad 24.483-489)

Telemachus’ inability to use force to evict the suitors from his house makes clear that their continued feasting is not merely bad etiquette, but a political power play in a society where wealth and hospitality were the means by which the noble families maintained their power — and where insufficient wealth or strength could spell overthrow by rival families. That Agamemnon was murdered and that Achilles’ father was presumed to face “disaster” without his strong son there to “beat away disaster” suggests that this sort of fragility was not unusual in the society that produced the Homeric epics.

Actually, it is quite easy to understand even from today's perspective :

  • Penelope still has presumably living husband. There is no definite proof that Odysseus perished, and Penelope refuses to declare him dead. It is entirely in her right to do so, even in modern times.

  • Odysseus has a son and heir. Telemachus would legally be new king of Ithaca if his father is dead. Even if inhabitants didn't want him as a ruler, they didn't have right to rob him of his father property. Instead, as you mentioned, some of them even plan to kill him.

  • Abusing hospitality. Suitors were living in Odysseus's home for a long time, essentially uninvited and unwelcome. This would be considered unappropriated and even illegal both then and now.

  • Penelope was not attracted to anyone of them, and they were not worthy of her hand. It is given that suitors were nowhere near manly as Odysseus. Indeed, at the end of Odyssey, they were tested with Odysseus's bow, and none of them could draw it. Yet, they are forcing themselves to Penelope. Although the marriages were arranged at those times, woman of her social status could choose someone who would be a worthy husband, and none of them deserved her.

To sum it up, suitors acted dishonorable in many different ways, abusing customs and laws of their (and our) times because they had physical and political power to back them up. Purpose of whole epos was to show what is proper behavior, and what is abominable to gods and punishable by death.

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    Thanks, this is a helpful perspective. You don't seem to address what is to me the central issue, which is why Penelope doesn't kick them out. Is it about a cultural tradition of hospitality, or her lack of power, or some other factor? – Ben Crowell Nov 12 at 18:55
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    Obviously, she could not eject forcefully host of armed men. Hm...this seems problematic to me as an interpretation, because she doesn't act like a captive, and she does seem to show the men hospitality. If you insist that the culture is equivalent to ours and that everyone's actions are understandable within our culture, then this is like a motorcycle gang invading a rich widow's house. In that situation, she is powerless, she doesn't show them hospitality, and she has no choice as to who will use her sexually. It seems more likely to me that Greece in 1200 BC is culturally alien to us. – Ben Crowell Nov 12 at 20:00
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    It seems highly unlikely that all of the men in Ithaca left with Odysseus. If they had the rest of the population should have starved to death without them. And not even all the men of the warrior class could have left, because the slaves would then have run away or revolted. And even if all the Warriors left with Odysseus, their young sons should have grown up and become warriors in the 20 years that Odysseus was gone. So even a tiny kingdom like Ithaca should have been able to gather enough warriors to greatly outnumber the 108 suitors. – MAGolding Nov 12 at 20:13
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    @BenCrowell I think a slight mismatch with your "motorcyclce gang/rich widow" example is that, in Penelope's case, no one suitor has the ability to simply demand her hand; they have to coerce her into choosing them. They've banded together as a collective to give themselves the capacity to make her choose, but as individuals, they're still competing amongst themselves for her hand. That forces them to act with some degree of civility, else she'd choose another suitor. – Lord Farquaad Nov 12 at 20:27
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    @BenCrowell Think of motorcycle gang with political connections, or let's say "migrants" in Germany or France. Local population largely doesn't want them, but political elites keep them for their own ends. To eject them forcefully would mean civil war ( Odysseus barely escaped one when he killed them ). I'm not sure Penelope would want to start one, even if she had enough power to do it. Instead, she accepted insults and humiliation in order to keep some semblance of peace. – rs.29 Nov 12 at 22:43

Is enough known about the culture Homeric Greece to definitively explain what's going on, or is it subject to interpretation?

No. Enough is not known. All history is subject to interpretation. Here however the interpretation being requested is improper. The bow of conjecture is too great for History to be able to string it. Particularly in relation to a multiply redacted document making a claim about a purported single exceptional instance.

The interpretation of mythic cultural texts in the way you’re proposing is impossible to do historically. Other humanities may be able to assist you, classics and literary criticism off the top of my head.

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    I didn't downvote, but it would be nice to see this developed a little more. Possibly it's true that the evidence is too scanty to allow us to be able to connect Homer to an actual historical culture in 1200 BC Greece, but this isn't obvious to me without a more detailed discussion of what historical evidence we do have. There is for instance a WP article, "Historicity of the Homeric epics." Are you arguing that the kind of evidence it catalogs is too little to provide a real historical background for the period? – Ben Crowell Nov 14 at 1:57
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    Particularly in relation to a multiply redacted document making a claim about a purported single exceptional instance. This is a good point, but I would think that the exceptional instance would have been constructed in such as way as to be compelling and comprehensible to people who had grown up in that culture. The fact that modern readers like me find it less immediately comprehensible suggests a cultural difference. – Ben Crowell Nov 14 at 1:59
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    @BenCrowell thanks for your suggestions. I will work to roll them in. One issue is that cultural comprehensibility from literary texts is an area staked out by the more literary section of the classicists: it isn’t an unanswerable problem, but it is unanswerable by history as a humanity or social science. Will tag you when done. – Samuel Russell Nov 14 at 2:48

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