Throughout “The Odyssey” by the Greek poet Homer, images of food feature prominently in a range of scenes and serve as a more general statement about temptation in The Odyssey by Homer. While feasting with guests and at celebrations was a part of ancient culture, there are more sinister implications to food in this text. Aside from serving its cultural function through banquets, food represents temptation as well. The very first scenes of the text reveal the importance of food when it is remembered that many of Odysseus’ men did not return from battle after succumbing to the temptation of a sensuous meal. The narrator describes an event revolving around food in one of the important quotes from “The Odyssey” by Homer, saying “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). This image of killing and feasting is primal but rich and it is important to remember that these are men who are returning from bloody war and have a number of unsatisfied appetites.
In many ways, this opening section that presents food as a luxury in “The Odyssey” but also, the above passage from “The Odyssey” also represents the first of many instances in which feasting, gluttony in food consumption, and base disregard for anything beyond human appetite will appear. For many characters such as these, the ultimate temptation comes in the form of meat, wine, and bread and is enough to lure them away from their intended course. It should also be noted that in many instances, this submission to the temptations offered by the sight or promise of rich food is punished in one form or another. While the exception to this rule might be Odysseus, especially since he succumbs to the temptation of food accompanied by a seductress, his punishment is still present, only negligible. While some of his men and other food gluttons may suffer death, Odysseus is punished with a hindered journey back to his wife and overrun palace.
Food imagery as it relates to temptation is best exemplified by the Lotus Eaters, whom Odysseus and his crew encounter for a brief period. These are people who do nothing all day but sit and indulge their appetites on this strange plant. They have given themselves over entirely to consumption and temptation and they bring out these tendencies in Odysseus’ shipmates. He physically has to haul them away in order to leave the island. They are on a quest, a journey and in one of the important quotes from The Odyssey on this theme, “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 reader, the narrow and mysterious description of this plant is enticing in itself. The image of the lotus blossom immediately comes to mind and is associated with pungent and sweet fragrances, thus making the idea itself appealing. What is more important about this image is not necessarily the food item itself, but the dreamy intoxicating effect it has on those who consume it. For the men journeying across the seas with Odysseus, this would have been a great temptation, partly because of its exotic nature and its promise of escape. Due to the fact that some of his men fall prey to this food, it is clear, as it is in several other scenes, that Odysseus’ men lack self-restraint. Although Odysseus himself does not fall victim to the temptation of the Lotus Eaters and is successfully able to haul them off and lock them away, it is significant that that food itself is not enough to lure him from his intended course. For Odysseus, exotic foods alone cannot have the same effect unless accompanied by a female “presenter” of these consumables.
It is interesting to note that while Odysseus’ men are constantly tempted by food, when they give into such temptation, it is always punished. While the Lotus Eaters may be able to harmless indulge their appetites, these men, perhaps because they are under the watch of the gods, never get away with their attempts to secure food. Aside from the brief instance mentioned above in which they slaughter the cattle (and die as a result) another noteworthy instance occurs in the cave of the Cyclops. Unlike the hearty and richly described feasts of beef roasts described in other scenes, these men usually lust after common food such as the cheese and goat meat of the Cyclops. Unfortunately, the moment they snatch the food, which is described in the plainest of terms as “milk and whey” the Cyclops dashes out their brains and “went on filling his belly / with manflesh and great gulps of whey” (IX.321-322). In this case, the punishment for gluttony comes from the ultimate glutton, a giant with an enormous appetite. This cycle of punishment for the “sin” of gluttony is furthered when Odysseus makes the giant’s appetite for wine his downfall. As the Cyclops gives into his lust for wine and food, this allows Odysseus to play his clever trick in bringing him down. Thus it seems that while gluttony is punished, resisting the images and temptation of food is rewarded since this lack of substance allows one to stay keen, clever, and alert.
While Odysseus’ men are constantly being punished for giving into the temptation the sight of food offers, Odysseus seems to be immune to the image of food itself. For him, the most potent combination is food coupled with a seductress. In many ways this seems rather unfair. While his men are punished for falling prey to the sight of some plain cheese and a fat goat, for their leader, pure temptation comes in the form of a woman bearing magnificent rich and exotic foods. These are always described more lavishly than those consumed (or desired) by his men. For instance, Odysseus lusts after the witch-like Circe, one of many seducing women in “The Odyssey” who at first tricks the common men before seducing 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 rare and exotic spices are described in rich detail and although the modern reader likely has never tasted Pramnian wine, the image of it mixed with “amber honey” makes it sound like some tempting aphrodisiac. One gets the sense that this is a thick, lazy, and mind-numbing wine, more like a potion than something for everyday consumption. This is a substance that even puts the reader into a sleepy state and this effect is what we might imagine was the same experienced by Odysseus. This imagery of the wine itself is important because it shows that Odysseus’ prolonged stay (against the grumbling of his men) is not just because of the woman nor her “vile ingredient” alone, but because of the richer temptation of this fine food. Again, there is the sense that giving into rich food slows the senses and makes one incapable of being clever and quick. These are two traits, which Odysseus has in abundance, but his temptation to ingest more and more lavish food in the company of a woman makes him stay for so long. It is significant that even after Odysseus is set free by Circe, she implores him to “remain with me and share my food and wine” (X.509) as opposed to simply her love or bed. She seems to realize the power that the tempting combination of a female and food or wine has on him and this statement can be read as her attempt to use “the big guns” to get him to stay.
Women and food are also a part of the scene at Odysseus’ palace where Penelope pines for her husband. The difference is, it seems as though Penelope herself is just a side sport to the suitors, a diversion from the massive amounts of food they can consume at her husband’s estate. Some of the most gluttonous characters in the text, aside from the Lotus Eaters, are those who inhabit Odysseus’ palace. These are men who have given in entirely to temptation and seem completely idle, no better than the lotus-eaters who simply lie about eating all day. The food imagery associated with the suitors is almost grotesque in proportion and the men are given to “butchering whole carcasses for roasting” (I.141) for their nightly feast. The amount of food they consume is just as large as their submission to temptation and laziness. When Athena comes to them in disguise, she (he) is treated with this overindulgence. As the disguised Athena sits as the narrator describes in one of the important quotations from “The Odyssey, “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 there are several roasts is implied here and the cups are golden and bottomless. In some ways, this imagery represents a blissful paradise, a place where there is no need to think about anything but one’s own continued indulgence. Being a goddess, Athena is immune to such temptations and although the food is grand, she is able to move on. This does not seem to be the case with the suitors and although the narrator does not state it directly, it seems there are dozens. As is the case with the rest of the text, this gluttony is eventually punished as Odysseus returns and slaughters them much as they did his livestock.
Throughout this text, food imagery serves two main functions. First, and perhaps most obvious, it is part of scenes that depict the welcoming of a guest. Banquets and feasts occur during weddings and arrivals or departures, and these offer hosts the opportunity to show off their hospitality and wealth. Many such scenes, such as the one at the banquet of Helen and Menelaus, are described in rich detail and describe the food eaten and the silver bowls. Although the meaning is more implicit, food’s second function in this text is as a symbol of temptation. For the hungry, tired, and homesick men accompanying Odysseus, the image of a plain plate of bread or cheese is temptation is plenty. When this occurs, for instance, at the cave of the Cyclops, the punishment is immediate. For Odysseus himself, however, his strength and god-like nature are beyond such base temptations and he is instead prone to the double-temptation of exotic and richly described foods coupled with a woman. While having a delayed journey back to his wife and estate punishes Odysseus, this is relatively minor compared to fates of others who were punished for their submission to food temptation by death. He enacts the final punishment for gluttony, temptation, and idleness on the men living off of his land and livestock and thus the theme of food images, temptation, and punishment is seen to the end of the text with Odysseus’ heroic return.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Hospitality in “The Odyssey”and ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight“ Father and Son Relationships in “The Odyssey” by Homer The Development of the Character Telemakhos in The Odyssey The Narrow Role of Women The Odyssey by Homer