Banquet scenes abound in Homer’s Odyssey and they contribute significantly to a sense of human community by engendering bonds of guest and host (xenia) and the virtues of sharing, equality, and moderation; in the encounters between Odysseus and alien peoples, the type of food and the means of taking it serve as a touchstone for civilized life. Another theme is the conflict of humans with the barbarism of nature, as in the central encounter between Odysseus’ men and the Cyclops Polyphemus, which presents a conflict between civilized humanity and a subhuman culture trapped in a primitive pastoral stage, narrated through the medium of a perverted banquet ritual. The conflict is expressed through a set of dichotomies: wine, the beverage of settled life vs. milk, the drink of nomadic barbarism; community vs. antisocial isolation; self-control vs. drunkenness and gluttony; wits vs. brute strength; xenia vs. cannibalism. The last theme merits special attention as the cannibalism taboo is strong in Greek culture, as mythology attests, and wherever cannibalism emerges it represents a blasphemous inversion of xenia and/or a regression to primal chaos. The Cyclops, a shepherd subsisting on milk and cheese, enacts a parody of the feasting rites in which he dines alone rather than sharing with his visitors, he literally dines on his visitors rather than feeding them, and then makes a mockery of the guest’s and host’s exchange of gifts. But the Cyclops lacks one crucial quality which distinguishes men from children or savages: self-control, sophrosyne. His heedless swillage of the choice wine which Odysseus has given him effectively emasculates him and allows Odysseus and his crew to defeat him by planning and teamwork. In this exemplary clash of mankind with its barbaric negative image, the former has won through community, intelligence, and self-control, all virtues fostered and strengthened by the shared meal, one of the most exemplary scenes in Homer’s Odyssey.

Date of creation, presentation, or exhibit



A version of this article originally appeared in Inter-Disciplinary Conference: Food 2, Athens, Greece, October 2014, first published by the Inter-Disciplinary Press.

Document Type

Conference Paper

Department, Program, or Center

Department of English (CLA)


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