Hospitality has a great significance in human history. While present-day people usually treat it as a mere act of kindness towards guests, it was an unwritten law in the ancient times. For example, the grave importance of hospitality was a subject of a series of Greek myths and legends, and in their most famous Homeric epos, Iliad and Odyssey.
The key feature of hospitality is its reciprocity. On the one hand, it served people who traveled, as they were guaranteed a place to sleep and something to eat wherever they went. On the other hand, hospitality ensured safety to those who welcomed strangers. Its violation was a serious offense: it meant that no one could feel safe, neither a host nor a guest.
The hospitality tradition in ancient Greece was marked with the word “xenia”. It stands for hosts’ generosity and good intentions towards strangers. No matter where the stranger came from, he could expect friendly attitude from anyone whose home he would visit. As a result of such tradition, the relationship between the host and his/her guest was regarded as a special one. There was a religious explanation of such a custom. The fact is that ancient Greeks believed that anyone could be in the role of a stranger, even one of the gods. In the Greek myths, one can often find Zeus taking different forms and traveling among people. It was believed that the ruler of gods himself requested to observe the law of xenia.
The extent to which a host was required to be generous will seem extreme to a present-day observer. Not only did the host have to provide their guest a place to sleep and food, but the host also had to give the guest a present, in order to demonstrate their best intentions and generosity. Moreover, the host could not ask strangers questions about their origin or destination before offering them the comfort of their home. That could have been considered as questioning the guest and their moral qualities, as well as showing mistrust.
Examples in Homer’s Iliad demonstrate the seriousness with which hospitality was viewed. While most know that Elena was the cause of the Trojan War, it was, in fact, violation of hospitality that started the conflict. A Trojan prince Paris abducted Elena, the wife of King Menelaus, while being a guest of the king. It was not only a personal offense to Menelaus, but also a harsh violation of xenia. Menelaus himself commented on this when he killed a soldier on the battlefield. He also prophesized the quick end of the Trojans because they invoked wrath of gods by their behavior towards the Greeks.
For ancient Greeks, hospitality was the law established by gods and unbreakable by people. Violation of this law invoked the gods’ fury and had gruesome consequences for the violator, whether it was a host or a guest. While the phenomenon of xenia had religious features and explanation, it was a rule that guaranteed safety to both parties at times when physical aggression between people was an everyday norm.
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