BUI ORIGINS: Application of Greek Values in the Deep South

September 1, 2016

While Odysseus’ homeward voyage is set just after the Trojan War, elements of Greek culture revealed in Homer’s The Odyssey continue to exist in relatively modern social structures. Though the Greek Revivalist period boasted fine architecture, dotting the slavery-ridden American South with plantations supported by Greek columns and adorned with gaudy molding and trim – reflecting wealth and god-like status in their owners – Greek influence stretches beyond this façade; hospitality and cordiality, reinforced by the stronghold of the nuclear family, are themes woven within the epic written nearly 30 centuries prior.

 

Both Telemakhos’ and Odysseus’ journeys are chronicled by the homes they feast at and the families and clans they become acquainted with. Thus, much of the epic serves as a commentary on human interaction. Greetings, for one, illustrate the Greeks’ tendency to attribute one’s identity to that of their family: Athena is often referred to as “Zeus’ daughter” while Diokles is referred to as “son of Ortilokhos whom Alpheios fathered” (III, 532) – and as the story unfolds, this trend remains applicable to nearly every character. However foreign this practice may seem, though, this is not an oddity among socialites of the South. The interwoven social structure prevalent in The Odyssey is the driving force behind upward mobility within tight-knit communities in the Deep South, where thriving households are typically ones that have a longer lineage of wealth, usually sprouting from the Antebellum period. From there, connections are made, and those recognizable by the names of their fathers enjoy a smoother path to success. Similarly, in The Odyssey, those with reputable names were legitimized and often deemed heroes, their prophecies laid out before them in the fashion of their forefathers.

           

Prevalent in both societies, these idiosyncrasies highlight the pervasiveness of propriety in daily life. This is made more evident in the elaborate feasts set before Telemakhos and his men as well as in the events following Odysseus’ interaction with the princess at the river, as maids “hastened” to “give refreshment” (VI, 261-262) to their guest, treating him to a lavish bed and warm bath shortly thereafter. Whether this stems from philanthropic roots or an urge to be impressionable, to maintain an image of status and wealth in the faces of strangers, the American South has full-heartedly adopted and integrated the Greeks’ undying hospitality into their culture, winning the hearts of strangers through the art of hosting.

 

And in the nature of history - of common societal themes persisting and existing throughout the course of time - these values claimed by Ancient Greece and borrowed by Antebellum America have not withered in the tracks of progress. The Greek System, omnipresent in college life, reinforces this aforementioned desire for connection and provides it through an exclusive community and a distinct culture. Holed up in houses built in the same fashion as the plantations that stood before them, members abide by rules that resemble social codes of centuries past: those who pledge in the footsteps of their relatives are deemed Legacies, more privileged than the rest; women are expected to and often find male counterparts through forced socialization; and elaborate parties take place at venues equivalent to Menelaos’ mansion and with accommodations that resemble the feast and the services that followed his double wedding (IV).

 

Masked by outward extravagance, it is this lifestyle, common among the wealthy, that continues to influence society by attracting outsiders – be it Telemakhos or a Southern Gent – and taking them in in exchange for a good word.

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