It is one of the world’s classics, Homer’s Odyssey. The story of Odysseus’ adventures on his 10-years-long homeward journey after the 10-years-long Trojan war is a legendary one. It is also an old one – first written down roughly some 2,700 years ago and probably existed in the oral tradition before that. If you have not read this epic poem, I recommend it. Besides the obvious adventures it is full of cultural peculiarities – things that were no doubt the norm in their time and place but seem curious now. One such specialty that still exists in many cultures nowadays, although in most cases to a lesser extent, is the importance of guests and hospitality.
The Odyssey is filled with a number of occasions where great attention is paid to describing generous guest rites in every detail. Strangers arriving at one’s house – even if uninvited – were guests. These travellers were to be treated properly. The main ancient Greek god Zeus himself was the protector of the sacred obligation to be hospitable to guests (the word for it was ‘xenos’ or ‘guest-friendship’). Even to the most humble stranger who arrived at one’s door the guest rites had to be paid. In this culture, it was believed that a deity could disguise itself as a poor traveler, a stranger, a vagabond. To mistreat a guest was to offend the gods.
Why was this so important? One way of interpreting it is to look at association between hospitality and Zeus. This was the main god of the Greek tradition and he was the one who reigned in the forces of chaos and brought order, civilisation, harmony. Perhaps hospitality was seen as a tribute and one’s own contribution to maintaining that order and civilisation, as opposed to falling back into chaos. Human effort to keep civilised in the midst of uncertainty and danger. A virtue.
“Hospitality, the Greek xenos, is the key Homeric virtue in the Odyssey… As Bernard Kox says, the theme fundamental to Homer’s poem is ‘the moral obligation to welcome and protect the stranger, an obligation imposed on civilised mankind by Zeus, one of whose many titles is xenios, “protector of strangers”… [it is] the only code of moral conduct that obtains in the insecure world of Odyssey‘.”adam roberts, introduction to Homer’s Odyssey, 2002
1By David Ryckaert III, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15885549