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Heroes at Dinner

Ben Walter
 
I enjoy helping monitor lunch at JH Classical Academy. Rather than grabbing a working lunch, I’m forced to sit down, pause my work, and catch up with a student or colleague over food. This might just be “classical.”
 
The 10-12th grade Humane Letters class just finished reading Homer’s Iliad with Dr. Rudolph. The Iliad is the 7th century B.C. epic poem of the Trojan War and is about heroes and heroic behavior. In her essay The Necessity of the Classics, Louise Cowan argues that each generation must read about heroes in the ancient and modern classics. She writes,
 
 
A godlike aspiration, a selfless desire for a commitment to a calling, a sense that honor is far more valuable than life—these are aspects of the soul that must be awakened by a vision of the high and the noble. And herein lies one of the great values of studying the classics: our poetic heritage gives imperishable form to the heroic aspiration. Shakespeare’s Henry V, Melville’s Moby Dick, Conrad’s Lord Jim, Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises—these and other works enter into a dialogue with the Greek and Roman classics to kindle the image of the hero within the individual soul. The heroic thus becomes not a set of rules but a living ideal, incarnated in the lives of us all.



While warfare consumes most of the Iliad’s lines, my favorite heroic actions of the epic are the feasts. Feasts happen in the Iliad (as, according to my experience, they still do in Greece) for the slightest excuse. You need to ask the gods for help? Time for a feast. A friend comes into town looking for a place to stay? Time for a feast. Your enemy shows up at your door asking for a favor? Time for a feast!
 
These meals of skewered steak, bread, and wine are the opposite of the “Mediterranean diet.” They are what the Bronze Age person wished he could eat every day. Moreover, the feasts of the Iliad reveal not only what ancient Greeks wished they could eat every day, but also how they could eat every day. The frequent recurrence of extended descriptions of food preparation and consumption belie the desire that all day could be like heaven, a peaceful, continual celebration.
 
Feasts in the Iliad serve many positive functions, including: 1) a respite from fighting; 2) a re-establishment of social order; 3) a space for calm deliberation; 4) a chance to petition or give thanks to the gods; 5) an opportunity for reconciliation; and 6) a time for nourishment.
 
Opposite and negative examples of feasting turn up in Homer’s Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Odysseus has been gone for twenty years. During his absence, ninety suitors have begun to spend all day, every day feasting at his house and trying to woo his wife. They grill beef steaks and sausages in a chaotic, dis-ordered fashion. Not only do these swains stuff themselves sick and make a mess of the place, but they don’t take the time to thank their unwilling host (Odysseus’ young son Telemachus) or to sacrifice to the gods in the fashion of pious pagans. Their perpetual party angers the gods and, naturally, Odysseus. He returns suddenly and cleans the house of riotous young men by shooting them full of arrows. Such are the consequences for bad table-manners!
 
King Solomon (writing in a similar time period to Homer) encapsulates the societal implications of chaotic feasting in an apostrophe:
 
Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes eat in the morning! Blessed art thou, O land, when thy king is the son of nobles, and thy princes eat in due season, for strength, and not for drunkenness! (Ecclesiastes 10:16)
 
I think there’s a lot of wisdom to glean from this. While life is chaotic (the work of war in the Iliad is unavoidably dangerous and unpredictable), mealtimes can be ritualized and restorative spaces—spaces to enjoy food we like, say a prayer of thanks, make a plan for the next day, and strengthen bonds between friends and family. Intentionality and orderliness are what make meals, including lunchtime at JHCA, "classical." Heroes dine well.
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