Homer and Harry Potter: Hospitality and Suppliants

Following last week's introduction to similarities in Harry Potter and Homer's The Odyssey, this week, I want to delve more deeply into two concepts that figure significantly in both: hospitality (what the ancient Greeks called "xenia") and suppliants.

Fair warning: this will mean spoilers for both the Harry Potter series and The Odyssey.

Xenia refers to caring for travelers who are far from home. Suppliants might be travelers. More broadly, though, they can be anyone in need who begs for help. Typically, suppliants do this in one of two ways. One is by kneeling in front of the person from whom they seek help and grasping his or her knees. Another is by attaching themselves to a religious altar or object.

In ancient Greece, Zeus was the god of both travelers and suppliants. Since this put them under his protection, welcoming travelers warmly and aiding suppliants were considered acts of piety. They were ways to demonstrate one’s virtue. Gods might also test one’s piety by disguising themselves as travelers or suppliants. This happens in The Odyssey, for example, when Athena visits Telemachus disguised as Odysseus’ friend Mentes.

The guest-host relationship was sacred and made demands of both parties. Before asking questions, hosts should address guests’ immediate needs—typically for food, drink, and a bath. They should also provide gifts upon the guest’s departure. Guests, in turn, must show respect for and not burden their hosts.

Odysseus’ travels provide ample opportunities to explore both concepts. I’’ll limit this to three in which he presents himself as a suppliant: to the cyclops Polyphemus, the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa, and her mother Queen Arete. Polyphemus expresses his disdain for Zeus’ laws and proceeds to eat his guests. The Phaeacians, however, welcome Odyssey, load him with treasure, and deliver him safely to Ithaca’s shores.

When Telemachus travels to Pylos and Sparta, their kings, Nestor and Menelaus respectively, follow procedure with feasts and treasure. In Ithaca, Telemachus welcomes travelers with food and clothes, including his father (who is disguised as a beggar). Penelope’s suitors gorge themselves on their hosts’ supplies and abuse Telemachus’ guest (the aforementioned disguised Odysseus).

If these brief examples make it seem easy to distinguish the pious from the impious, consider: Polyphemus flouts Zeus’ law by scoffing at Odysseus and consuming his crewmen. Yet after Odysseus blinds him, Polyphemus asks his father, the god Poseidon, to punish Odysseus. And Poseidon promptly complies. With no objection from Zeus. Meanwhile the Phaeacians display textbook xenia to Odysseus … and Poseidon punishes them for spiriting Odysseus home. The suitors suffer for their impiety: Odysseus massacres them (with a little help from his mortal and immortal friends). But Odysseus then needs to purify his palace, suggesting he too has committed an offense against the gods. Even though one of them (Athena) aided him. In committing mass murder.

All this is to say, the poem subverts easy categorizing. This is often the case in the Harry Potter series as well, in any number of ways. For now, I’m going to focus on book one and the Dursleys.

In the first chapter, Dumbledore deposits orphaned baby Harry on the Dursleys’ doorstep. He includes a letter explaining that Harry’s parents have been killed. In later books, we will learn that Dumbledore’s letter includes information about a protective charm he cast: As long as Harry is a minor and resides in his aunt’s house, Voldemort cannot get to him. This makes it essential that Harry remain with the Dursleys. Turning him out would be tantamount to murdering him.

Though no one clasps anyone’s knees or overtly begs, Harry essentially presents as a suppliant. He needs the Dursleys’ help. They provide the bare minimum: a residence that he can call home. The bare minimum is also what they provide with food, clothes, and affection. Before rejoining the magical world following his 11th birthday, Harry is maltreated, malnourished, and clothed in his cousin’s over-sized cast-offs. But horrible as the Dursleys are to Harry, their contribution enables his survival.

Their motivations are never explicitly revealed. Perhaps they fear Dumbledore. Perhaps they hope to “save” Harry from his magical self. Perhaps Petunia harbors feelings of regret about her relationship with her sister.  Perhaps any number and combination of motivations. Whatever the reason(s), awful as they are, the Dursleys can’t be entirely dismissed.

As with The Odyssey, the ambiguity opens space for readers to debate and identify (or not) with characters’ choices and actions. We can also vicariously experience how human fears and flaws complicate achieving ideals. Whether it’s traveling safely across the sea after you’ve pissed off the sea god, or properly caring for a stranger in need, or, you know, being a good person.

An interesting related note: Abandoned babies are a thing in ancient literature. Especially abandoned babies of noble birth. They usually have some sort of token that enables their origins to be revealed. This might be a physical characteristic or an artifact parents left with their child. The most famous Odyssey-related example would be Paris. His parents, the king and queen of Troy, abandon him after hearing a prophecy that he will bring about the fall of their city. Eventually, parents and son are reunited. Harry is orphaned rather than abandoned. But he does have a token: his scar. It enables magical people to recognize him even before he himself knows his true identity.

Next week: more on scars as well as wandering and homecoming.


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