Odysseus the foreigner

With headlines again filled with stories of immigrant abuse and immigration in the United States, it is worth taking a look back at one of the most famous “foreigners” from the ancient world: Odysseus.

Joshua R. Hall

Many “heroes” were thrust haphazard across the Mediterranean world in the wake of the Greek destruction of Troy. Of course, the stories surrounding them are fictional, but are generally considered to be reflections of Hellenic mores at some early point in their history. (Here at Ancient World Magazine, we have addressed the “Homeric world” quite often, though it must be repeated here that whatever it was is not entirely clear. As we know it, there is no reason to think of Bronze Age Greeks of the thirteenth century BC, or closely ancient. Rather, the assemblage of stories and parables are an amalgam of tellings and retellings from, at the earliest, the ninth century BC onward.)

Quite a few of these heroes found themselves on foreign soil once they made landfall; some stayed for a long time, others were brief visitors. Both can serve to enlighten our knowledge of how foreigners-cum-immigrants were seen in the “early” Greek world.

In this article, I want to look specifically at Odysseus as a foreigner in two episodes. The first is his encounter with the great cyclops, Polyphemus. The second is his time amongst the Phaeacians of Scheria. Both incidents shed light on what historian Moses Finley saw as the bi-polar perception of others in the “world of Odysseus.”

Odysseus and Polyphemus

Odysseus and his men left the land of the Lotus Eaters and then landed in the nation of the Cyclops, a race that is spoken of rather disparagingly by the Greek hero. The two most grievous of their sins seem to be that they do not farm grains and fruit – they grow for them by the will of the deathless gods – and they do not sail the wine-dark sea, as “proper” people should. They are arrogant and lawless (Hom. Od. 9.105-115).

Despite the former judgment, Odysseus and his men presumed that they would be protected under the aegis of Zeus, saying that he was “god of guests” and that “We are your suppliants, and Zeus is on our side, since he takes care of visitors, guest-friends, and those in need” (Od. 9.269-271; transl. Emily Wilson).

There was some reason to think this, as Polyphemus did ask them the standard question posited to strangers upon arrival (Hom. Od. 9.252-256):

Strangers! Who are you? Where did you come from across the watery depths? Are you on business, or roaming round without a goal, like pirates, who risk their lives at sea to bring disaster to other people?

They were to be sorely disappointed, however, when the one-eyed giant replied that his people do not care about Zeus and his protections, for they are more powerful than the Olympian gods.

Odysseus in Polyphemus’ cave, as painted by Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678). On the ground, we can see some of Odysseus’ men try to sneak out of the cave while Odysseus appears to distract the giant. This scene doesn’t entirely correspond with what we read in the Odyssey.

When Polyphemus found out, through the false words of Odysseus, that the Greek ship had been destroyed, and they were stranded in his land, he quickly stood, grabbed two of the new arrivals, and easily bashed their bodies against the ground. He did this so fiercely that their brains rushed out upon the floor of his cave in a sanguine torrent. After they were dead and could put up little resistance, the cyclops began to dismember his victims, eating them limb by limb, bones and entrails alike.

This is, of course, not what a host was meant to do with their guests. Odysseus tried to make him feel some sort of guilt, by positing the question of who amongst men would come to visit him now, he having devoured the entire company? This does little, and after getting the Hellenic traveler to reveal his name – though through a false response – Polyphemus does offer him a host’s favour: eating him last.

The Greeks had clearly not expected the treatment which they received at the hands of Polyphemus. This was what Finley identified as a way of treating foreigners which was a holdover from more “primitive times” (M.I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (revised edition, 1979), p. 101).

Amongst the Phaeacians

Odysseus found much better treatment amongst the Phaeacians, an idealized civilization living on equally fictional Scheria. (Scheria, though, was identified as early as Thucydides with Corfu (ancient Corcyra), cf. Thuc. 1.25.4. However, it is made somewhat clear that this was not a universally held belief in the fifth century.) He washed up upon their land, naked and brined from the hostile sea. Despite his ragged appearance, Nausicaa, the Phaeacian princess, welcomed him to her country.

After lengthy praise from Odysseus, she said to him that “since you have arrived here in our land, you will not lack for clothes or anything a person needs in times of desperation” (Od. 6.191-193).

A painting from 1654 by Michele Desubleo shows Odysseus reaching out to Nausicaa while at the same time covering his nudity. When the hero from Ithaca had been shipwrecked, he had lost everything: his fleet, his men, his clothes. After having been humbled by the gods, he had to rely on the kindness of strangers to get home.

Although she had been divinely inspired to offer this man help by Athena, this is the treatment of a foreigner which one would expect. Unlike Polyphemus, the Phaeacians believed wholeheartedly that “All foreigners and beggars come from Zeus, and any act of kindness is a blessing” (Od. 6.207-208).

Though we are led to believe it was due mostly to Odysseus’ unnatural stature and character, Nausicaa reveals to her handmaidens that she would be happy for him, or a man like him, to come to their land and become her husband.

Thus, in stark contrast to Polyphemus, the wandering hero found in Phaeacia people friendly enough to strangers to offer them all the aid they needed, and happy enough to welcome a foreigner as husband of their princess.

Despite this reception, Nausicaa is forced to warn her guest about some of her countrymen. “The people in town are proud”, if not to say small-minded, and “someone rude” may question who he is and assume that the two are to be married. Out of jealousy those same men will ask why no one from amongst the Phaeacians was chosen to wed the most beautiful of mortal women, their princess (Od. 6.273-284)?

The bias against strangers of this element of Phaeacian society was so strong that Athena thought it best to shroud Odysseus in a magically cloaking mist on his way to the palace of Alcinous, their king. Taking the form of a young girl, she met him as he entered the town and led him towards the palace, advising him though that he (Od. 7.14-36):

must walk in silence. Do not look at people, and ask no questions. People here are not too keen on strangers coming from abroad, although they like to cross the sea themselves.

The difference in treatment between what Nausicaa, and later her father, offer to Odysseus, and the presumed reception by the wider Phaeacian community, is telling of a difference between elite and commoner perceptions of foreigners. The former, in Homer, is based in generosity and the usual practice of guest-friendship, while the latter seems to be based in jealousy.


In these two episodes from the Odyssey, the eponymous hero encounters two very different perceptions of foreigners. One saw them as resources to be consumed and abused, based in the assumed superiority of the cyclopean race as well as its disregard for the gods. A similar perception seems to have been held by the masses of Phaeacia, who were jealous of foreigners, perhaps of their success and standing, such as that of Odysseus.

The other perception, however, was that foreigners were to be protected and treated as friends. This was suggested to Polyphemus by Odysseus, though the giant’s impiety led him to disregard the supposed divine protection granted to them. Nausicaa, however, understood, and seemingly the king and the nobles, that foreigners were to be treated well and given aid to sooth their sufferings.

These are the two “poles” of Finley’s assessment of how foreigners were treated in the world represented, factually or not, by the Odyssey. As the mistreatment of foreigners is especially highlighted in the story of Polyphemus, he sees that “in primitive times, the poet seems to be suggesting, man lived in a state of permanent struggle and war to the death against the outsider.” But, over time, “the gods intervened, and through their precepts, their themis, a new ideal was set before man, and especially before a king, an obligation of hospitality” (Finley op. cit., p. 101).

There are, of course, more complex issues at the core of this discussion, especially the difficult to understand term xenos, used by the Greeks to describe things we today may see as very different concepts: foreigners, strangers, or hosts, for example.

In the so-called Homeric world, as well as in the archaic Mediterranean of more historical times, there was good reason to fear certain foreigners. Raiding and piracy were rampant, and the question asked to new arrivals of “are you a trader or a pirate” reflects this. Allowing people to come ashore in spite of having to ask this question, however, reveals that the “newer” treatment of foreigners became more normal in the historical world of the ancient Greeks.

Hesiod, a poet of the eighth century BC (more or less contemporary with Homer), clearly knew of the benefits of the “new” way of treating those who come to your country as strangers (Hes. Op. 225-229). As translated by the late, great Martin West, Hesiod writes:

As for those who give straight judgments to visitors and to their own people and do not deviate from what is just, their community flourishes, and the people blooms in it. Peace is about the land, fostering the young, and wide-seeing Zeus never marks out grievous war as their portion.

A clear lesson can be found in these brief stories, and Hesiod’s advice. Treat those who come unto your land as strangers in such a way which preserves their dignity. Readers of the epic are meant to identify with Nausicaa and her reception of Odysseus, and to feel alienated from those of the Phaeacians who would shun him. Likewise, Polyphemus’ treatment of his guests is to be disdained, nefarious and sacrilegious as it was.

It is important to remember that foreigners should be treated kindly and that this is an ideal which dates back to the foundational documents of “Western” culture. Anyone who proclaims the superiority of this cultural tradition to others cannot ignore this precept while maintaining their position. If someone wishes to truly follow in the wisdom of the ancient world, they must strive to act less like Polyphemus, tear not apart the foreigners on their shores, and to feel inside themselves the inspiration of Athena.

As instructed by the anonymous author of a poem dedicated to hosts, one of the so-called Epigrams of Homer, we should “respect the man in need of hospitable gifts and a home,” as we are abundant in fortune and wealth (Epigram 1.1; transl. Michael Crudden).