The Role of Theoxenies in Ancient Literature

Theoxenies are fundamental in the myth of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca and in the tales of Abraham and Lot in explaining the relationship between characters’ morality, their relation to a supreme being, and the culture’s sense of divine justice. Though it pre-dates Genesis, The Odyssey’s stance on justice is more aligned with modern notions on the concept that immoral characters are presented with opportunities to reform. Also, the penalty of a negative theoxeny in The Odyssey is limited only to the guilty, rather than collective punishment as in Genesis. The monotheistic view point of the Old Testament in comparison to the polytheistic religion of the Ancient Greeks can account for these differences of the distinct versions of divine justice with rational in the benefits of plurality in power.

The positive theoxeny is important in the Old Testament and The Odyssey for setting up how the host and surrounding community should react to the presence of a stranger and establishes that there will be some outcome only feasible by the gods. The outline for a positive theoxeny is the arrival of the divine visitor(s) in disguise, followed by the moral host welcoming the “stranger” and engaging in proper hospitality, and the godly guest(s) then blesses the host. The reward received is something that is only possible because the divine being wills it to be so. As such, the person receiving the blessing is in disbelief upon hearing what is to come to them (Genesis 18:12, Od. 3.226-8). The positive theoxeny hinges on the surrounding community not treating the guest inappropriately. In the case of a negative theoxeny, the gracious host receives the blessing of life rather than death as the unwelcoming public will be cursed with.

Following the positive theoxeny of Genesis 18, Abraham and Yahweh have a modified divine council which is particularly surprising in that Abraham acts more rational and Yahweh behaves like the wrathful, lesser god. Abraham questions Yahweh about whether the righteousness of a few is enough to save an entire town from destruction and implies that those few are enough and Yahweh would be making a mistake to destroy everyone (Gen 18:25). Yahweh agrees that it would be wrong and that he would spare the city for the sake of those righteous few, like the majority of the Western world would agree today. The fact that Yahweh must be convinced by a mortal into the rational course of action here and that Yahweh’s wrath overpowers himself in the next chapter (Gen 19:24) is significant because it shows a pronounced character flaw, making Yahweh much more anthropomorphic than typically depicted. Having previously agreed that it would be wrong to destroy the entire town, it is clear that when blinded by rage, Yahweh is willing to directly commit an act of evil against the innocent merely for the sake of revenge.

With Yahweh not held accountable to other gods, or even the existence of other deities to intervene in the apocalypse, this event is something that would not happen in polytheism. Polytheism allows for a plurality of voices in a discussion; generally such a plurality allows for the refinement of ideas. There is a sense of this in the modified divine council, but there is nothing to keep Yahweh, an autocratic ruler, in check, thus making the plurality useless. The best example of this in The Odyssey is Odysseus’ destruction of the suitors of Penelope and what follows; Odysseus has the potential for a midscale apocalypse (Od. 24.528) by slaying the parents of the suitors. The relatives, however, are not guilty of inhospitality and thus it would be wrong to slay them. Odysseus, acting as a wrathful god, is stopped by Athena after her divine council with Zeus (Od. 24.472-87).

>Directed by Athena, thus prompting a virtual theoxeny, Odysseus seeks whether there are any hospitable suitors (Od. 17.360-3), though Athena’s speech act has already condemned them all to death (Od. 1.46-7). Despite the fact that it is already decided that all the suitors will die, it is significant when the suitors are presented not only with this opportunity to act morally and/or leave during Odysseus’ testing, but also at the assembly in Book 2, because it reinforces the reasoning behind their demolition in addition to it simply being a matter of divine justice. In Genesis 19 the citizens have no chance to repent or flee, with the small exception of Lot’s sons-in-law who laugh at his warning (Gen 19:14). The swift “justice” on the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah lacks a sense of fairness in that it is the one instance that decides the fate of the town, rather than there being repeated opportunities for the citizens to damn or redeem themselves. Modern notions of justice are more in line with that of Athena in offering several chances to make improvements and that repeating the same negative behavior is deserving of harsher punishments. Though the suitors are essentially dead from Athena’s first line, it is because of their own selfish actions; Athena does not prevent them from changing their behavior throughout the epic.

plurality of polytheism encourages diversity and tolerance of others as it is a blend of gods working together. Part of being a team is giving people second chances after they’ve made a mistake. In monotheism the all-powerful deity does not have to “play well with others” and the instant damnation of the town shows this lack of tolerance and the pitfall of unchecked wrath.

Modern monotheistic religions with basis in the Old Testament, particularly Christianity, try to depict God as a merciful, loving, and all powerful deity. Closer inspection of Genesis 19 shows this not to be true. Yahweh is much more anthropomorphic than monotheism would have us think; he is prone to mistakes, outburst of rage, and intolerance. Though depicted as more hedonistic, polytheism supports our current perception of justice more-so than monotheism. The plurality of the former allows for the exchange of ideas, accountability, and teamwork; these notions lead to what is considered a more logical and sophisticated approach to justice rather than rash actions that lack coherent purpose. Also, in the monotheistic traditions, in which God is omnipresent and always good, mortals must take the blame for whatever goes wrong, even though God permits evil to exist in the world he created; which many would argue is immoral. In polytheism this is not an issue because the gods are limited in their power, as it is dispersed among them. Plus, the existence of chaos and evil makes more sense in a polytheistic world as it is easy to understand how one can be in the favor of one god yet incur the enmity of another who could attack when the patron god was away.

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