Xenia

Xenia [zee-nee-uh] (Greek: ‘guest-friendship’) is the ancient Greek concept of hospitality, the generosity and courtesy shown to those who are far from home and/or associates of the person bestowing guest-friendship. The rituals of hospitality created and expressed a reciprocal relationship between guest and host expressed in both material benefits (such as the giving of gifts to each party) as well as non-material ones (such as protection, shelter, favors, or certain normative rights).

The Greek god Zeus is sometimes called Zeus Xenios in his role as a protector of travelers. He thus embodied the religious obligation to be hospitable to travelers. Theoxeny or theoxenia is a theme in Greek mythology in which humans demonstrate their virtue or piety by extending hospitality to a humble stranger (xenos), who turns out to be a disguised deity (theos) with the capacity to bestow rewards. These stories caution mortals that any guest should be treated as if potentially a disguised divinity and help establish the idea of xenia as a fundamental Greek custom.

Xenia consists of two basic rules: 1) The host must be hospitable to the guest and provide him/her with food and drink and a bath, if required (it is not polite to ask questions until the guest has stated his/her needs); and 2) The guest must be courteous to the host and not be a burden. Xenia was considered to be particularly important in ancient times when people thought gods mingled among them. If one had poorly played host to a stranger, there was the risk of incurring the wrath of a god disguised as the stranger. It is thought that the Greek practice of theoxenia may have been the antecedent of the Roman rite of Lectisternium (a meal offered to gods).

While this particular origin of the practices of guest-friendship are centralized around the divine, it would become common practice among the Greeks to incorporate xenia into their customs and manners for very much all of ancient Greek history. Indeed, while originating from mythical traditions, xenia would very much become a standard practice throughout much (if not, all) of Greece as customarily proper in the affair of men interacting with men as well as men interacting with the Gods.

The Trojan war described in ‘The Iliad’ of Homer actually resulted from a violation of xenia. Paris, from the house of Priam of Troy, was a guest of Menelaus, king of Mycenaean Sparta, but seriously transgressed the bounds of xenia by abducting his host’s wife, Helen. Therefore the Achaeans were required by duty to Zeus to avenge this transgression, which, as a violation of xenia, was an insult to Zeus’s authority.

Xenia is also an important theme in Homer’s ‘The Odyssey.’ Every household in the epic is seen alongside xenia. Odysseus’ house is inhabited by suitors with demands beyond the bounds of xenia. Menelaus and Nestor’s houses are seen when Telemachus visits. There are many other households observed in the epic, including those of Circe, Calypso, and the Phaeacians. The Phaeacians, and in particular Nausicaa, were famed for their immaculate application of xenia, as the princess and her maids offered to bathe Odysseus and then led him to the palace to be fed and entertained. It should be noted, however, that because Odysseus was indirectly responsible for Poseidon’s sinking one of their ships, the Phaeacians resolved to be less trusting of subsequent travelers.

Other examples include, the cyclops Polyphemus who showed lack of xenia, despite Odysseus reminding him of it, and refused to honor the travelers’ requests, instead eating some of Odysseus’ men. Eumaeus the Swineherd shows xenia to the disguised Odysseus, claiming guests come under the protection of Zeus. When the leading suitor Antinous throws a stool at the disguised Odysseus and strikes his right shoulder as he asks for food, even the other suitors are worried, saying Antinous is ‘doomed’ if the stranger is a disguised god.

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