Written by Eleni Theodoropoulos.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
The worst person at a party is the one who never asks any questions. I don’t mean the quiet person—their inner voice is sometimes too loud and distracting to allow for it. I mean the person so content with their own story that they do not ask to hear a stranger’s. People are made up of stories as they are made up of water though.
The fabric of stories is comprised of disparate memories woven together to form personal narratives. Stories are the glue adhering our past selves to our current self and our stories are stored in patches throughout the body, in neural pockets of the mind.
So when poked or prodded, or touched a certain way, maybe on the arm, or the hips, or the hair, our bodies, like memory foam, react and sink into the story held there. Storytelling is not only a human impulse, it is a human custom; we were built to tell as much as we were built to listen.
I could say that in Greece, where I grew up, children read Homer’s Odyssey in seventh grade but I would be lying, because I barely remember studying it. Who’s to say it wasn’t sixth or eighth? To the amazement of my American friends, I don’t recall any of the one-eyed giants, lustful, monstrous women, or oversexed sailors. The only thing I recall, plot-wise, was that Odysseus longed to return home, this was his nostos, a word we recognize in English from its evolved form, nostalgia.
The only detail I retain from the epic (perhaps because it was marked “SOS” for exams) was the pervasive custom of xenia, or filoxenia as is the modern Greek word for hospitality.
Etymologically, “filos” in Greek is friend, and “xenos” means stranger, so filoxenia is the practice of turning a stranger into a friend. It was Greek custom that one received a guest as if they might be a god in disguise, withholding suspicion and extending only kindness. The practice of hospitality was reciprocal: the host offered a warm meal, bath, and rest, and if possible, the traveler offered a small gift in return. Only afterwards, tactfully, could the host inquire about the obvious: where had they come from and where were they headed and what had they been through to arrive at their door?
So the exchange of gifts was succeeded by the exchange of stories. To this day, when Greeks invite people for dinner, before eating they raise their glasses and say, “It’s good that you’ve found us.” And the response goes, “It’s good that we made it to you.”
Beyond The Odyssey there is no better example of the universal custom of exchanging stories than the proliferation of (similar) fairy tales. The Grimms, for example, invited women, young and old, into their household to transcribe the tales they’d overheard in the town and in the wealthy homes where they worked. Funnily enough, the Grimms originally intended their tales to be a scholarly work, but soon realized that such stories were vibrant, live things, not to be read in solitary silence in a Gothic library, but to be released into the community. Now, take the fact that Italian fairy tales, French, German, Russian, and even Japanese and Chinese overlap—what simpler an explanation is there than that people talked? Travelers carried stories abroad and like souvenirs brought new ones home. Their eventual homecoming, their nostos, like Odysseus’s, was completed once they could relate tales of their journeys at home.
Realistically, The Odyssey should not have survived. Homer was likely not a real person, but a pseudonym for an entire tradition of ghostwriters or ghost-orators who in retelling the tales not only kept them alive but embellished them. Unlike the bored people at parties, these people yearned for stories: moved to tell and moved to listen.
The partnership between teller and listener is the only reason any story survives.
If anything, an epic is not a single journey, it is a universe of converging stories. An epic is as much about the hero as the peripheral heroes and heroines, whose stories, unfortunately, often are dismissed as derivative, functioning merely to reinforce the main narrative. As the voices of literature diversify, however, it is thrilling to see those voices once considered derivative amplifying to demand our attention: “Shh,” they’re saying, “we’re telling the story now.”