Greece is composed of numerous regions and outlying islands. In ancient times its scattered city-states each had their own dialects and customs. As seafaring peoples constantly engaged in trade among themselves and with outsiders, Greeks were inevitably in regular contact with strangers, and were themselves in situations where they were strangers. To maintain order and civility between Greeks from various regions, Greek hospitality was not just a kindness. It was an unspoken cultural law that preserved order for a people who were simultaneously countrymen and strangers.
Deep Roots in Ancient Greece
The concept of Greek hospitality was so deeply embedded in ancient culture that it took the form of a code of conduct. “Xenia" is used to describe the virtue of showing generosity or courtesy to strangers of any condition and creating a genial relationship between host and guest. Scholars also detect a religious underpinning to this code of social conduct. In ancient Greece, it was believed that any stranger might be a god in disguise checking up on mortals. But xenia also required guests to observe certain precepts. 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.
Defining The Principles of Xenia
In Greece, there were specific principles of xenia that applied to both guest and host. For example, the host was forbidden to ask any initial questions of a guest even if they were complete strangers. Moreover, the host was expected to offer his guest refreshments, a bath and clean clothes. The guest was expected to be polite and to abstain from making inconvenient requests. The host particularly was expected to give a gift to the guest in order to acknowledge the honor of hosting duties.
Xenia and the Cyclops
The most important sources for xenia are preserved in literature and particularly in Homeric epics. 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. Though the cyclops episode depicts an abuse of xenia, the absence of host-guest laws also indicates just how savage the island of Greece was.
Finding the Perfect Host in the Odyssey
Hospitality in the Odyssey complicated the codes of xenia by exploring situations where the laws of hospitality might be tested. For instance, Odysseus’ wife Penelope is forced by custom to entertain an entire household of suitors. From the start of the story, these men slowly drain the household of resources all because they assume their host Odysseus is dead. In short, 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 an be seen as retribution for an egregious abuse of xenia or conversely, a violation of its very precepts.
Alana Shilling is a contributor to several publications including "The Brooklyn Rail," "Art in America" and the "Fortnightly Review." She writes on subjects ranging from archaeology and history to contemporary art. Shilling received a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton University and has been writing for audiences both general and academic since 2005.