xenia

ὤ μοι ἐγώ, τέων αὖτε βροτῶν ἐς γαῖαν ἱκάνω

ἦ ῥ᾽ οἵ γ᾽ ὑβρισταί τε καὶ ἄγριοι οὐδὲ δίκαιοι,

ἦε φιλόξεινοι καί σφιν νόος ἐστὶ θεουδής

A simple traveller in the ancient world trying to get from point A to point B on some errand, upon coming upon an unknown people, may well have exclaimed “Woe is me! To the land of what mortals am I now come?  Are they cruel, and wild, and unjust? Or are they hospitable to strangers and have god-fearing minds?”

So indeed asked Odysseus, twice, during his travels from Troy to Ithaca, and no wonder; back then there were no welcoming Comfort Inns along the way and no highway patrols or coast guard enforcing the local laws.  Bandits and pirates were a common threat on land and sea. Travellers had to rely on the benefaction of strangers, and so it is no wonder that a complex system of rituals and ethics sprang up to deal with interactions between guests and hosts.  Indeed, the concept was so important to the Hellenics that they attributed its oversight to Zeus himself.

This ethical and ritual system went far beyond our modern notions of hospitality, which is generally limited to gestures such as bringing a customary bottle of wine or flowers when invited to dinner.  As a result ADF, although it officially uses the word ‘hospitality’ as the name of this virtue, more often than not talks about *ghosti, a reconstructed proto-Indo-European word.  This is a good word since those literate in English will recognize the root of both host and guest in the word.  My preference is to use the ancient Greek xenia which also derives from *ghosti but which is well attested with numerous references in the classics and therefore more familiar to me.

In the classical sources the typical xenia rituals followed a pattern of i) the host welcoming the guest and seeing to their needs (bathing, food, drink) before even asking their name, ii) the guest being courteous and undemanding and if possible providing news, stories, or song, and iii) the host providing a parting gift to the guest.  Given this framework provided by the ancients, it is perhaps a bit of a curiosity as to what ADF suggests when they recommend hospitality as a virtue.  Most of the ADF literature related to the *ghosti relationship concerns ritual context, the idea being to be a good host to the Kindred.  I actually find this usage somewhat questionable on a number of grounds, but that is a topic for a different essay.

The real question that I am wrestling with here is; given that central to the notion of *ghosti / xenia was the ability to create a ritualized relationship between strangers for reasons that mostly no longer exist in the modern west, what does hospitality / *ghosti / xenia mean today as a virtue for day to day living?  Is it really just bringing that bottle of wine when invited to dinner and not flirting with your host’s wife?

I don’t have the answer to this question, but it feels like the type of question that is more valuable in the asking than in the answering.

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15 thoughts on “xenia

  1. I really enjoyed this essay. I like the connection to the ancient world, and the choice of using xenia to talk about it. It makes sense to me, and helped me to think about the virtue more than I had before.

    In one of my classes, we’ve been talking about monasticism a lot, and this reminded me of Benedictine hospitality. I wasn’t sure how to describe that, so I looked it up. In this essay, there’s a quote from a book called The Gift of St. Benedict by Verna Holyhead:

    “In each of us there is some inner homelessness, some alienation from ourselves and one another which longs for a welcome. Benedict asked his monks to become a shelter to one another, accepting each other with their differences of personality, gifts, and physical resources. Not to extend such a welcome is to remain ‘strangers.’”

    My interpretation of hospitality includes accepting people as they are and caring for other people, such as giving to the poor and being aware of how our lifestyle affects other people (and I suppose could be extended to the earth and other plants and animals that share it).

    • Thanks for the comment, Sanil. I quite like the idea of a monastic approach to hospitality, which is rather reminiscent of Francis of Assisi. On the other hand I think that much of your definition would fall into the idea of ‘compassion’ or even ‘charity’ for me and I prefer to keep my virtue definitions as succinct as possible.

      • That makes sense. I don’t remember those being a part of ADF’s virtue list. Did you add or redefine some to include those? I tend to include those as sub-virtues under hospitality, but I also like the idea of separating them out and giving them special importance, as they could easily be neglected otherwise.

  2. “the ability to create a ritualized relationship between strangers for reasons that mostly no longer exist in the modern west”

    My question is, is there a reason to create a ritualized relationship between strangers for reasons that make sense in modern times?

    Also, do I host the Kindred, or do They host me? I have a hard time parsing the relationship quite in those terms.

    • Hey Resa. I’m sure there must be some situations even today which call for ritualized relationships although I can’t think of many relevant examples. Hitchhiking perhaps? To be at all cognate, it would require a situation where strangers need to form a relationship that will last at least a few hours but no more than perhaps a day or two, for which there is no expectation of payment, no expectation of a lasting relationship, and isn’t born of a crises.

      As to your second question my belief is that if you are creating the sacred space and inviting the Kindred then you are the host and they are the guest.

      • I’ve decided that for me, I’m not creating the sacred space when I do ritual, I’m simply formally recognizing the sacredness around me. The natural world is sacred to me. Are the Gods as the forces and rulers of this space not then my hosts? Then again, I am the one throwing the party when I have ritual and I live here too in this sacred world. Or perhaps as a mortal being, I’m just visiting. Thus my ongoing dilemma with the ghosti relationship in relation to rituals.

    • It won’t let me reply to your message below this. I just wanted to say that I really like your explanation of ritual as recognizing rather than creating sacred space. I’ve always had difficulty connecting to ritual when I tried to create the cosmos, as ADF describes it. I think that your explanation might work better for me, and I plan to try it as soon as I can. Thank you for that insight!

      • ADF encourages a conceptualizing of deities and spirits as we believe the ancients had; that the Kindred are limited in time and space and are therefore not in all places at all times. Many of the IE cultures also believed that the dead and the gods had their own place which they called home which was apart of the world.

        So, whether or not you believe that you are creating a sacred space or simply acknowledging the sacredness inherent in the space in which you are working, you are (if you are following the CooR) creating gates through which you are inviting the Kindred to join your ritual.

        I can see that for the case of the spirits of the land you could certainly make a case that you are the guest and they the host, but for the ancestors and gods I personally think it is clear that you are playing the role of the host during ritual.

        • Yeah, that was something I took issue with and is part of why I’m leaving ADF. I know they allow some individual variation, but I don’t see the point in being part of a group when it gets to a point where I’m changing everything they do. The whole “gates” concept never really made any sense to me, and if I can pray while I walk down the street and expect Apollo to hear me, I’m not going to suddenly add an intermediary in ritual. Well, I guess technically I do, in that I light Hestia’s candle representing the hearth first, but to me the sacred space is already there because their shrine acts like the temples in the ancient Greco-Roman world – it’s their home within my home. The ritual steps help me get into a more meditative state, rather than making it possible for the gods to occupy a space that is already theirs.

          I see the other side of it, and it’s great if that works for you. It just never did for me.

            • General ritual format – come to the temple and circle the altar, wash hands, throw barley, say prayers, make (more, since the barley is one) sacrifices. I’m pretty sure I got that in the right order.

              I think the fact that temples were so common makes it a slightly different ritual atmosphere. Where there are no temples, there may be more of a need to take extra steps. The temples were places the gods already occupied. People are the visitors, not the other way around.

  3. Pingback: The Ancestors « Dragonfly House

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