“There is no boon in life more sweet, I say,
than when a summer joy holds all the realm,
and banqueters sit listening to a harper
in a great hall, by rows of tables heaped
with bread and roast meat, while a steward goes
to dip up wine and brim your cups again.”1
At a first glance, these six lines from Homer’s Odyssey lack apparent drama. They do not possess the epic tension that characterizes so many of the Ancient Greek poem’s more famous passages – the scene of Odysseus bound to the mast and listening to the sirens’ song, for instance, or the description of Odysseus blinding the Cyclops and fleeing his cave together with his surviving men. Yet they are as fundamental to The Odyssey’s moral vision as any of Homer’s more famous scenes. For The Odyssey is not just about adventuring. It is not just about homecoming. It is, in a profound way, about eating. More than this: it is about a journey from inappropriate to appropriate eating.
Head of Odysseus from a sculptural group representing Odysseus blinding Polyphemus. Marble, Greek, probably 1st century AD. From the villa of Tiberius at Sperlonga. Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Sperlonga, Italy.
The above-quoted lines are addressed by Odysseus, King of Ithaka, to King Alkínoös of Phaiákia, during the course of a banquet at the hall of Alkínoös. The Phaiákian king has given Odysseus temporary refuge as the Greek warrior makes his tortuous way home from the Trojan War, persecuted at every turn by Poseidon, god of the sea. Odysseus’s words are spoken just before he is about to recount the tale of his wanderings so far: they represent a brief moment of respite, as Odysseus reflects on the dangers of a journey that is far from finished. And they are spoken, crucially, within the context of organized eating and drinking. In this sense at least, they are spoken within the context of what has come to be called the “Mediterranean Diet.”
“All deaths are hateful to us, mortal wretches,
but famine is the most pitiful, the worst
end that a man can come to”2
The sociology of the Mediterranean Diet
Much has been written about the Mediterranean Diet since the term was first coined by the American physiologist Ancel Keys in the 1950s.4 Today it is generally recognized as a diet “characterized by high consumption of olive oil – its hallmark – and vegetables, fruits and nuts, legumes, and unprocessed cereals; low consumption of meat and meat products; and low consumption of dairy products (with the exception of types of cheese that keep for long periods).”5
Occurring traditionally in parts of the world that enjoy a Mediterranean climate, and not just in the geographical region of the Mediterranean itself, the Mediterranean Diet offers widely attested health benefits, especially for cardiovascular health.6 It also has an important social component: UNESCO’s 2010 Candidature Dossier proposing the recognition of the Mediterranean Diet as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity expressly describes it as a “social practice” (pratique sociale).7 The Dossier even goes so far as to underline this point by quoting the Ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch: “We do not sit down at table to eat, but to eat together” (“Nous ne nous asseyons pas à table pour manger, mais pour manger ensemble”).8
Thus Homer from the perspective of the 8th century BC and UNESCO from today’s perspective agree that the Mediterranean Diet is not just about what we eat but also about how we eat.
This view is supported by the fact that the Ancient Greek word diaita (δίαιτα), from which the English words ‘diet’ and ‘dietetics’ are derived, was taken in ancient times to refer not just to alimentary intake but also to exercise. The food-drink-exercise triad was indeed also sometimes expanded to include bathing and even sexual practices, giving the word δίαιτα a much broader meaning than ‘diet’ in the modern sense, and closer perhaps to the concept of ‘regimen of life,’ or ‘way of living.’9
The ritual cooking of meat depicted on an Ancient Greek vase. “Cooking in the analyses of social anthropologists such as Claude Levi-Strauss and Mary Douglas resembles language. It is a form of narrative that marks out our ‘culture’ and our separation from ‘nature.’ It allows us to weave elaborate culinary stories with which to shape and consolidate our social worlds.”10
The hall and the suitors
“I don’t know about you,” writes American author Michael Pollan in his 2013 book Cooked: A natural history of transformation, “but I always skipped over the big eating scenes in Homer, barely even stopping to wonder why there were so many of them, or why Homer took the trouble to spell out so many seemingly trivial details: the ins and outs of butchery (‘They flayed the carcass…and divided it into joints’), fire management (‘When the flame had died down, [Patroclus] spread the embers, laid the spits on top of them’), the parceling out of portions (‘Achilles served the meat’), table manners (‘Face-to-face with his noble guest Odysseus … he told his friends to sacrifice to the gods’), and so forth. But according to The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks, there was good reason for Homer to dwell on these ritual meals. The sharing of cooked meat constituted the communal act among the Ancient Greeks, as indeed it has done in a great many other cultures before or since. And doing it right takes some doing.”11
There is in fact an even more significant reason for Homer to dwell on these scenes.
For Odysseus is not just any man, or any soldier or mariner. He is the King of Ithaka, the lord of his own hall and his own land.
Had he not participated in the Trojan War, the “master mariner and soldier”12 would never have left that home, and could have spent his life feasting in peace and dignity with family, friends, and guests in the manner evoked by his words to King Alkínoös, “listening to a harper / in a great hall, by rows of tables heaped / with bread and roast meat.”
Odysseus is far from home, however. Surprisingly, the narrative of The Odyssey commences with an account not of the eponymous hero’s trials and tribulations in strange lands but of the devastation being wrought on his house and home by the suitors – men who did not go to the Trojan War. These opportunists have camped in his hall and are vying with one another for the hand of Odysseus’s wife Penelope, in the belief that Odysseus will never return to Ithaka.
When reading classic literature, it is always worth remembering that scenes that have long been familiar to us are the result of the author’s choices, and have only acquired their sense of immutability with the passing of the years.
Odysseus in bed with the nymph Kalypso might be a very good starting point for a modern telling of the tale. Odysseus being washed up on the shores of Phaiákia, naked and half drowned, might be an equally good one, and just as much in keeping with modern tastes. But Homer commences his story in Ithaka, and within a few lines, we have a description of the suitors feasting in Odysseus’s hall:
Now came the suitors,
young bloods trooping in to their own seats
on thrones or easy chairs. Attendants poured
water over their fingers, while the maids
piled baskets full of brown loaves near at hand,
and houseboys brimmed the bowls with wine.
Now they laid hands upon the ready feast
and thought of nothing more.13
Abuse of “guest-friendship”
This is the situation that Odysseus must reverse, with the help of his son Telémakhos and the goddess Athena. It is the precise inverse of the Ancient Greek notion of xenia (ξενία), ‘guest-friendship”:14 the suitors have turned up uninvited, and are eating the absent Odysseus out of house and home as they vie with one another for Penelope’s hand. It is an abuse of everything civilized: the sanctity of the body, the bonds of matrimony, the integrity of the family, and the privacy of the home. From the other side of the world, Odysseus awakens out of his infatuation with Kalypso to return home, confront the suitors and restore the correct order of things.
Given the centrality of correct and incorrect feasting to the moral architecture of the narrative, it is therefore no surprise that food plays such a significant part in the story of Odysseus’s return home. We encounter for example, the effects of narcotic foods on the lotus-eaters (Book IX), the poisoning of food by the witch Kirkê (Book X), and the actual eating of guests by the Cyclops Polyphêmos:
“O Kyklops! Would you feast on my companions? [cries Odysseus]
Puny, am I, in a Caveman’s hands?
How do you like the beating we gave you,
you damned cannibal! Eater of guests
under your roof! Zeus and the gods have paid you!”15
“The pork of slaves”
There are, as observed by Michael Pollan, many descriptions of feasts in The Odyssey, and of the ritual slaughter that precedes them. The details are always significant. As Martin Jones observed in his 2007 consideration of the phenomenon of feasting, “There are many ways of taking an animal apart. It can be fairly randomly hacked into meal-sized chunks, or systematically, into component meats. The vertebral elements may all be sliced in two, an indication of the division of ‘sides’ of meat for transport and storage, or cut laterally to prepare rib steaks. In recent centuries, when butchery practices have actually been written about, it is clear that they reflect not just preferences for particular cuts and joints of meat on the table, but the actual context of those preferences in narratives of social hierarchy and religious belief. Certain cuts may be considered impure, and forbidden; other cuts may be reserved for sacrifice to the gods.”16
One of the most subtly moving passages in The Odyssey describes a meal prepared for Odysseus by the swineherd Eumaios. Odysseus has returned incognito to Ithaka and needs to find a way to get into his hall and take the suitors by surprise: he knows that if he encounters them in the open, he will be no match for their numbers. Eumaios has been looking after Odysseus’s swine in the king’s absence and himself suffering the abuse of the suitors. The swineherd has not yet recognized his master. He speaks movingly of his absent king, then offers the unknown guest what hospitality he can:
This being told,
he tucked his long shirt up inside the belt
and strode into the pens for two young porkers.
He slaughtered them and singed them at the fire,
flayed and quartered them, and skewered the meat
to broil it all; then gave it to Odysseus
hot on the spits. He shook out barley meal,
took a winebowl of ivy wood and filled it,
and sat down with him, a gesture, saying:
“There is your dinner, friend, the pork of slaves.
Our fat shoats are all eaten by the suitors,
cold-hearted men, who never spare a thought
for how they stand in the sight of Zeus.”17
The fat shoats (young pigs) are eaten by the suitors; Odysseus’s dinner is “the pork of slaves” because the two young porkers are by implication not fat, and may make tough eating. Eventually “the great tactician”18 Odysseus will, together with his son Telémakhos, kill the suitors, remove their corpses from his hall, cleanse it, and feast there again in peace with his wife, family, friends, and guests.
“Bless you, stranger, fall to and enjoy it
for what it is. Zeus grants us this or that,
or else refrains from granting, as he wills;
all things are in his power.”19
Modern-day depiction of the blind poet Homer outside the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg, Germany. Many scholars nowadays believe that The Odyssey and The Iliad are the product not of a single poet, but of an entire culture.20
And the vegetables…?
It will be noted that none of the passages quoted make any mention of fruit or vegetables – an omission that would appear to make a mockery of any comparison between the diet consumed by Ancient Greeks as described by Homer and the Mediterranean Diet as originally identified by Ancel Keys. The matter may be more multifaceted than it seems, however. It is known that the Ancient Greek diet made extensive use of olive oil and wine, and that it consisted primarily of cereals, grains, and legumes, with red meat a luxury (usually limited to feasts), pork and poultry a staple for the wealthier classes, and a range of vegetables commonly consumed by the common people (onions, garlic, turnips, radishes, lettuce, artichoke, cabbages, leeks, celery, and cucumber).21
The absence of fruit and vegetables in most of The Odyssey might be partly because discussion of food often takes place in contexts of dire need while traveling far from home, when game (hunted food) might be the only readily available source of sustenance.
It might also be because, in the context of the many well-organized feasts, fruit and vegetables are too basic a component to merit special description. They do not possess the ritual significance of meat.
Certainly the description of the advanced horticultural arrangements in the well-ordered kingdom of Alkínoös would suggest that the Mediterranean world of ancient times was a sophisticated agrarian economy:
To left and right, outside, he saw an orchard
closed by a pale – four spacious acres planted
with trees in bloom or weighted down for picking:
pear trees, pomegranates, brilliant apples,
luscious figs, and olives ripe and dark.
Fruit never failed upon these trees: winter
and summer time they bore, for through the year
the breathing Westwind ripened all in turn −
so one pear came to prime, and then another,
and so with apples, figs, and the vine’s fruit
empurpled in the royal vineyard there.
Currants were dried at one end, on a platform
bare to the sun, beyond the vintage arbors
and vats the vintners trod; while near at hand
were new barely formed as the green bloom fell,
or half-ripe clusters, faintly coloring.
After the vines came rows of vegetables
of all the kinds that flourish in every season,
and through the garden plots and orchard ran
channels from one clear fountain, while another
gushed through a pipe under the courtyard entrance
to serve the house and all those who came for water.
These were the gifts of heaven to Alkínoös.22
Alkínoös is the just ruler of a peaceful land, and has thus received “the gifts of heaven” in the form of fruits, vegetables, and vines. Certainly this view of the ancient integrity of the Mediterranean Diet is borne out by the Greek poet Hesiod, considered by scholars to have been a near contemporary of Homer. In his Works and Days, Hesiod writes:
“When the Atlas-born Pleiades rise [i.e., in the first half of May], start the harvest – the plowing, when they set. They are concealed for fourteen nights and days, but when the year has revolved they appear once more, when the iron is being sharpened. This is the rule for the plains, and for those who dwell near the sea and those far from the swelling sea in the valleys and glens, fertile land: sow naked, and plow naked, and harvest naked if you want to bring in all Demeter’s works in due season.”23
“Belly must be filled”
Certainly food has a more obvious centrality to The Odyssey than to many other great works of literature. It has ritual and symbolic power, as well as being essential to all life and crucial to the good order of society. This quintessential quality is well evoked by Odysseus himself in an observation to his host Alkínoös before he starts his accounts of his journeyings:
“You will indulge me if I finish dinner −?
grieved though I am to say it. There’s no part
of man more like a dog than a brazen Belly,
crying to be remembered – and it must be −
when we are mortal weary and sick at heart;
and that is my condition. Yet my hunger
drives me to take this food, and think no more
of my afflictions. Belly must be filled.”24
The author would like to thank Harriet Burgham for her assistance in researching this essay.
Featured image caption: Mediterranean salad dishes. The PREDIMED trial showed that among persons at high cardiovascular risk, a Mediterranean Diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts reduced the incidence of major cardiovascular events.3
Background image caption: Modern-day Ithaca – an island in the Ionian Sea in Greece, and the longed-for home of the wandering King Odysseus.
01. Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. (New York, Everyman’s Library, 1992), Book 9, p. 145, lines 5–11.
02. Ibid, Book XII, p. 221, lines 439–441.
03. Martinez JA, Martinez-Gonzalez M, ‘The Mediterranean Diet’. In: Good Nutrition: Perspectives for the 21st century, ed. Eggersdorfer E, Kraemer K, Cordaro JB, Fanzo J, Gibney M, Kennedy E, et al. (Basel, Karger, 2016), p. 124.
04. Ibid, p. 121.
05. Ibid, p. 122.
06. Ibid, pp. 123–127.
07. UNESCO 2009. Diète mediterranéene. Candidature transnationale. Espagne Grèce Italie Maroc. Août 2009. Informations additionnelles janvier 2010, p. 8.
08. Ibid, p. 10.
09. Jouanna J, Allies N. ‘Dietetics in Hippocratic Medicine: Definition, Main Problems, Discussion’. In: Greek Medicine from Hippocrates to Galen: Selected Papers, edited by Philip Van der Eijk, Brill, Leiden; Boston, 2012, pp. 137–139. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctt1w76vxr.13.
10. Jones, M, Feasts: Why Humans Share Food, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 79.
11. Pollan, M. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (New York, The Penguin Press, 2013), p. 95.
12. Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. (New York, Everyman’s Library, 1992), Book X, p. 177, line 447.
13. Ibid, Book I, p. 6, lines 179–186.
14. Roisman, J. Ancient Greece from Homer to Alexander: The Evidence (Oxford, Blackwell Sourcebooks in Ancient History, 2010), p. 38.
15. Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. (New York, Everyman’s Library, 1992), Book IX, p. 159, lines 519–523.
16. Jones M. Feasts: Why Humans Share Food. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008) p.55.
17. Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. (New York, Everyman’s Library, 1992), Book XIV, pp. 249–50, lines 89–101
18. Ibid, Book XXIII, p. 433, line 148.
19. Ibid, Book XIV, p. 261, lines 522–525.
20. //news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/01/150104-homer-iliad-odyssey-greece-book-talk-travel-world/ (accessed May 30, 2018).
21. Eickhoff RL. Introduction in The Odyssey: A modern translation of Homer’s classic tale. (New York, Forge Books, 2005) pp. 29–30.
22. Ibid, Book VII, p. 114–115, lines 119–141.
23. Hesiod. Theogony, Works and Days, Testimonia (Cambridge, MA, Loeb Classical Library, 2006), p. 119.
24. Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. (New York, Everyman’s Library, 1992), Book VII, p.117, lines 230–241.
First published in Sight and Life magazine VOL 32(1) 2018 (www.sightandlife.org)
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