In “The Odyssey” Homer stretches the imagery of food beyond the traditional and into the symbolic representation of temptation. Traditionally, food is used for the entertainment of guests during a celebration; banquets and feasts occur during festive times, such as in conjunction with important arrivals or departures. The wealthy members of society often use these opportunities to host elaborate banquettes, exhibiting their social status and hospitality. Many of these scenes are described in such intricate detail that the tales of a feast, such as the feast of Helen and Menelaus, are shared down to the specific foods and silver utensils. The second meaning of food is less overt yet more prevalent in “The Odyssey,” symbolically embodying temptation. Food becomes a test-a test for the hungry, weary, and homesick men accompanying Odysseus. In the description of even the most basic meal, food becomes a strong temptress.
The importance of good is revealed in the opening scenes of “The Odyssey” as the narrator recalls the actions of Helios: “Children and fools, they killed and feasted on / the cattle of Lord Helios, the Sun, / and he who moves all day through heaven / took from their eyes the dawn of their return” (I.13-15). While this tale of pillaging and feasting seems hedonistic, it is crucial to be aware that these are the actions of men who have been off to war for many years. These cattle marked the end of depravity. In many ways, this opening section presents food as a luxury; however themes of feasting and gluttony are prevalent in “The Odyssey”. For many character in the poem, such as Odysseus’ men, temptation preeminently comes in the shape of bread, meat, and wine, which are tantalizing enough to distract them from their intended destination.
The use of food imagery as a means of temptation is best personified by the Lotus Eaters whom Odysseus and his men encounter momentarily. The Lotus Eaters do nothing but sit and indulge their appetites on Lotus throughout the day. These people have yielded entirely to temptation and consumption, which in turn brings out these quality traits in Odysseus’ shipmates. These men are so overcome with desire for these flowers that Odysseus has to physically drag his men onto the ship in order to leave the island and continue on their quest. In describing the temptation of the Lotus, Homer states “but those who ate this honeyed plant, the Lotus/ never cared to report or return: / they longed to stay on forever, browsing on/ that native bloom, forgetful of their homeland” (IX.100-104). For the audience, the vague and mystical description of this powerful plant seems enticing; they are left wishing to experience the delicacy for themselves. The vision of the lotus blossom immediately places the idea of sweet fragrances into the reader’s consciousness, making the idea more appealing. However, the importance of this passage is not the food itself, but rather the euphoric state that entraps those who consume it. For the men sailing with Odysseus, this would have been a major temptation due to the exotic nature of the island and the promise of escape that it brings, despite their evident lack of self-restraint.
While Odysseus’ men continuously succumb to the temptations of food, their actions are always met with punishment. Though the Lotus Eaters may be able to harmlessly partake in the delicacy, Odysseus’s shipmates are never successful with their attempts to secure food, possibly because they are being watched by the gods. Unlike the extravagant feasts described in other scenes, the men with Odysseus usually covet “common food.” Such common food includes the cheese and goat meat in Polyphemus’ cave and the aforementioned feast on Helios’s cattle, which resulted in the death of a few men. Unfortunately, the moment they obtain the food in the cave, which is described as simply “milk and whey,” the Cyclops destroys some of the men and “[goes] on filling his belly / with manflesh and great gulps of whey” (IX.321-322). In this instance, the punishment for gluttony is exacted by the quintessential glutton-a giant with an unquenchable appetite. This cycle of punishment for acts of gluttony is propagated when Odysseus uses Polyphemus’ appetite for wine to cause his downfall. The Cyclops succumbs to his lust for wine and food, allowing Odysseus to trick and defeat the gluttonous giant. Thus with gluttony comes punishment, and with the resistance of temptation comes the reward of being quick, skilled, and alert.
While the temptation of food is the constant downfall for the sailors, lavish foods must be accompanied by a female “presenter” in order to tempt the heroic Odysseus. For instance, Odysseus covets Circe, the witch-like character who at first tricks the other sailors before enticing Odysseus: “On thrones she seated them, and lounging chairs, / while she prepared a meal of cheese and barley / and amber honey mixed with Pramnian wine, / adding her own vile pinch, to make them lose/ desire or thought of out dear fatherland” (X.257-261). These extraordinary spices are described in sharp detail and although the contemporary reader probably has not tasted Pramnian wine, the illustration of it combined with “amber honey” gives it the appearance of a tempting aphrodisiac. This imagery of the wine is important because it shows that Odysseus’ expanded stay, despite the protests of his crew, is not due to the woman or her “vile ingredient” alone, but comes from the savory temptation of her magnificent food. There is the sense that succulent food inebriates the senses and robs an individual of being clever and quick-two traits Odysseus embodies throughout “The Odyssey.” However, the temptation to continue to consume the food in the company of Circe makes him stay. It is important to state that even after Circe frees Odysseus, the witch urges him to “remain with me and share my food and wine” (X.509) as opposed to simply seducing him into staying. He is not staying only for the sex.
Women and food are also critical as Penelope longs for Odysseus. However, it appears as though Penelope is just a peripheral object to the suitors, more of a diversion from the abundance of food they can freely consume at her husband’s estate. Here, the reader finds some of the most insatiable characters found in the “The Odyssey”, aside from the Lotus Eaters. These men have given-in entirely to temptation and consequently they are completely idle. In proportion, the food imagery linked with the suitors is absurd as the men gave into “butchering whole carcasses for roasting” (I.141) during daily feasts. The quantity of food they consume is directly correlated and proportionate to their submission to temptation, gluttony, and sloth. When Athena comes to the suitors in disguise, she (he) is presented with this overindulgence. The narrator describes, “A carver lifted cuts of each roast meat to put on trenchers / before the two. He gave them cups of gold, / and these, the steward as he went his rounds / filled and filled again” (175-178). The idea that is implied here is that there are multiple roasts and the cups are exorbitant and bottomless. In some ways, this imagery is indicative of a utopian paradise, a place of utter hedonism. Being a goddess, Athena is not tempted by the lavish offers of the suitors and is able to move on. The cycle of gluttony begetting punishment that is prevalent throughout the text is continued here. Upon his return, Odysseus slaughters the gluttons as they did his livestock.
Throughout “The Odyssey”, food plays a prominent role in a variety of scenes and situations, being used by Homer as a means to display the struggle with temptation that faces Odysseus and his men in this epic poem. While hosting large celebrations with many quests was an intricate part of ancient Greek culture, this text applies more threatening implications to food as, aside from serving a cultural function through feasts, food is a representation of temptation. When this occurs at the cave of Polyphemus the punishment is instantaneous. For Odysseus himself, however, his strength and demi-god nature transcend such basic temptations. Yet he is susceptible to exotic foods when combined with a woman. While having a long journey back to his family and home is a punishment for Odysseus, this seems to be relatively minor compared to the doom of those whose punishment for their submission to temptation was death. Whenever Telemachus and Penelope complain about their uninvited guests, they mention how the suitors slaughter the palace’s livestock. Odysseus kills the suitors just as they are starting their dinner, and Homer graphically describes them falling over tables and spilling their food. Thus the theme of food as temptation which leads to punishment is carried out to the end of the text with Odysseus’ epic return. In almost all cases, the monsters of “The Odyssey” owe their monstrosity, at least in part, to their diets. Scylla swallows six of Odysseus’s men, one for each head. The Cyclops eats humans, but apparently not sheep, and is gluttonous nonetheless; when he gets drunk, he vomits up wine mixed with pieces of human flesh. The Laestrygonians seem like nice people, until their queen, who is described as “huge as a mountain crag,” tries to eat Odysseus and his men (10.124). In these cases, excessive eating represents not just lack of self-control, but also the total absence of humanity and civility. Food is the symbolic embodiment of the true foe of Odysseus’ epic journey-temptation.
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