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Philoxenia: The Ancient Roots of Greek Hospitality

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

The Greek word Philoxenia, literally translated as a “friend to a stranger,” is widely perceived to be synonymous to hospitality.

For Greeks, however, it is much deeper than that. It is an unspoken cultural law that expresses generosity and courtesy to strangers.

Greeks are enormously generous when inviting others to their home or being invited themselves. In villages, it is not uncommon for villagers to show up at the door of a resident foreigner (or even a temporary visitor renting a room) with a sack full of fresh tomatoes, or even a bottle of local olive oil.

Philoxenia today can be as simple 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 called 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 8 A.D of Zeus and Hermes disguised as poor travelers, narrates the sacred relation between host and guest, embodying the ancient Greek tradition.

The two ancient Greek Gods, the story goes, visited many villages in search of refuge for the night. A poor elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, welcomed them as guests in their home and generously served them food and wine.

After refilling her guests’ cups many times over, Baucis noticed that the wine jug was still full. Philemon then realized the visitors were actually 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 beautiful stone temple.

Zeus also granted the couple their ultimate wish, namely to be the guardians of the temple, to die at the same time, and stay together for eternity, as they were turned into trees guarding each side of the temple’s door.

Trojan War

According to legend, even an event as momentous as the Trojan War began because of a guest’s violation of xenia. The Trojan prince Paris was a guest of King Menelaus of Sparta when he abducted Menelaus’ wife, Helen.

Both the Odyssey and the Iliad are filled with episodes in which xenia is either honored or ignored and the subsequent consequences are notable. For instance, when Odysseus sails 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. Odysseus blinds his “host” and escapes. The cyclops episode depicts an abuse of xenia.

Odysseus in Polyphemus Cave, The Odyssey.
Odysseus in Polyphemus Cave, The Odyssey. Credit: Wikipedia/Public domain.

In another story, Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, is forced by custom to entertain an entire household of suitors. The guests not only make unreasonable, burdensome requests that were impolite for guests but they do so with the assumption the host himself is no longer alive. The conclusion of the poem involves Odysseus’s slaughter of the suitors. This violent ending can be seen as retribution for an egregious abuse of xenia, or conversely, a violation of its very precepts.

Reasons for philoxenia

There are many possible reasons why hospitality (philoxenia) was more prevalent in those times. Traveling in Homer’s time was much more extensive and lengthier than in modern times. Because of this, many more nights were spent away from home in many different locations. Also, there were no hotels or inns where travelers could pay and stay the night.

Because of this, travelers had to rely on the hospitality of others for shelter, food, and protection. There was, however, some payment for this hospitality in the form of a gift exchange.

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, strangers could be captured or even killed for entering a foreign land.

Furthermore, Greek hospitality may have been vital because Greeks believed the gods wanted them to show hospitality to anyone who showed up at their homes. It was believed that turning away someone and not providing them this hospitality would result in some form of punishment from the gods.

Finally, Greek hospitality could have been key in spreading one’s name and bringing fame if a high standard of hospitality was provided to strangers. It might have even been a portrayal of wealth.

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