The ancient roots of Greek hospitality

philoxenia The story of Baucis and Philemon - a pair of former Hospitallers who were saved by Zeus and Hermes
The Story of Baucis and Philemon – a pair of former Hospitallers who were saved by Zeus and Hermes. Credit: Wikipedia / Public domain.

The Greek word Philoxenia, literally translated as “the friend of a stranger”, is widely seen as synonymous with hospitality.

For the Greeks, it is much deeper than that. It is an unspoken cultural law which shows generosity and courtesy towards foreigners.

Grecian Delight supports Greece

Greeks are extremely generous when they invite other people to their home or when they are invited themselves. In villages, it is not uncommon for villagers to show up at the door of a foreign resident (or even a temporary visitor renting a room) with a bag full of fresh tomatoes, or even a bottle of olive oil. local olive.

Today, Philoxenia can be as easy as a smile, helping a stranded motorist, buying a meal for a homeless person, or opening your home to friends and family.

Zeus Xenios

This cultural law has its origins in ancient Greece. The ancient Greek god Zeus is sometimes referred to as Zeus Xenios, as he was also a protector of travelers. He thus embodied the religious obligation to be hospitable to travelers.

The beautiful story written by the Roman poet Ovid in AD 8 of Zeus and Hermes disguised as poor travelers, tells of the sacred relationship between host and guest, embodying the ancient Greek tradition.

The two ancient Greek gods, the story goes, visited many villages in search of overnight refuge. Poor elderly couple – Baucis and Philemon welcomed them as guests into their home and generously served them food and wine.

After filling his guests’ cups several times, Baucis noticed that the wine jug was still full. Philemon then realized that the visitors were in fact gods and she offered to kill their only goose to feed them. Touched by this gesture, Zeus rewarded their generosity by transforming the humble cottage into a magnificent stone temple.

Zeus also granted the couple their ultimate wish: to be the guardians of the temple, to die at the same time, and to stay together for eternity as they were transformed into trees, guarding either side of the temple gate.

Trojan War

According to legend, even such an important event as the Trojan War began because of the violation of xenia by a guest. The Trojan Prince Paris was the guest of King Menelaus of Sparta when he kidnapped Menelaus’ wife, Helena.

The two Odyssey and the Iliad are filled with episodes in which xenia is either honored or ignored and the subsequent consequences are notable. For example, when Odysseus is sailing to the Island of the Cyclops, the monster’s treatment of Odysseus and his sailors is a violation of the custom of xenia. The Cyclops is punished for the transgression. Ulysses blinds his “host” and escapes. The Cyclops episode depicts an abuse of xenia.

Ulysses in the cave of Polyphemus, The Odyssey.
Ulysses in the cave of Polyphemus, The Odyssey. Credit: Wikipedia / Public domain.

In another story, Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, is forced by custom to entertain an entire family of suitors. Guests not only make unreasonable and onerous requests that were rude to the guests, but they do so on the assumption that the host himself is no longer alive. The conclusion of the poem involves the slaughter of the suitors by Ulysses. This violent end can be seen as retribution for a blatant abuse of xenia, or on the contrary, a violation of its very precepts.

Reasons for philoxenia

There are many possible reasons why hospitality (philoxenia) was more prevalent at this time. Traveling in Homer’s time was much more extensive and longer than in modern times. Because of this, many more nights have been spent away from home in many different places. Also, there were no hotels or hostels where travelers could pay and stay overnight.

For this reason, travelers had to rely on the hospitality of others for accommodation, food and protection. There was, however, some payment for this hospitality in the form of an exchange of gifts.

Another possible reason for this hospitality was the fact that there were no nations that would allow travelers to enter their territory safely. Without such hospitality, foreigners could be captured or even killed if they entered a foreign country.

Another possible explanation for the amount of hospitality shown is that the Greeks believed that the gods wanted them to show hospitality to anyone who came to their home. It was also believed that refusing someone and not offering them this hospitality would result in some form of punishment from the gods.

Finally, Greek hospitality could have been used to spread its name and bring them a sense of fame if they offered a high level of hospitality to foreigners. It could also have been a way to show how rich we were.