August 25, 2008


Rubens' painting of "Jupiter and Mercurius in the house of Philemon and Baucis," by way of wikipedia.

Welcome to Goat Rope's ongoing series on the Odyssey of Homer. Each weekday post contains a nugget from that great epic that has delighted people of all ages from ancient times. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

A central theme of both the Iliad and the Odyssey is the that of xenia or hospitality, a sacred obligation in parts of the ancient Mediterranean world. In those days, travel was dangerous and there was an acute shortage of Holiday Inns. It was a custom that a traveler could approach a house--generally but not always one of similar social status to the traveler--and ask for a meal and a place to sleep.

The host had a sacred obligation to wash, feed and shelter the guest and to take care of basic needs before asking any questions. The guest was to respect the host, take what was given and not abuse the privilege or outstay one's welcome. Often, hosts and guests exchanged gifts and retained a special bond.

It was a little risky and scary to take a complete stranger in, just as it was weird to put yourself at the mercy of a stranger if you were the traveler. For this reason, the custom acquired a divine sanction. One of Zeus' main titles was Zeus Xenios, or god of travelers and he was said to punish those who abused hosts or guests.

The ambiguity of the situation can be seen in the differing meanings of the word xenos: host, guest, stranger, alien, friend. You can see a little of this in English with the similarity between the words "host" and "hostility."

Abuse of xenia was the cause of the whole Trojan war. The Trojan prince Paris abducted Menelaus' wife Helen when he was a guest in the latter's home. Since all Greek leaders had sworn to uphold the marriage, the stage was set for war when King Priam of Troy allowed the couple to enter the city.

The obligations of xenia could also prevent people from fighting. At one point in the Iliad, the Greek Diomedes and the Trojan Glaucus decide not to fight when they realized that their fathers had been xenoi or guest-friends. They exchange armor instead (with Diomedes getting the better deal).

The Odyssey is all xenia all the time as Telemachus travels in search of his father and Odysseus bounces from island to island. There are very good examples of xenia in the story, such as the hospitality shown by Nestor and Menelaus to Telemachus and that of the Phaeacians to Odysseus. There are also examples of very bad xenia--like the cyclops who liked to eat his "guests" or the suitors of Penelope who abused their status as guests and devoured the wealth that belonged to the family of Odysseus. At one point, Odysseus, disguised as a beggar is abused by the suitors in his own home.

As in the Bible, sometimes divine beings would come disguised as guests--and woe to those who mistreated them. (For that matter, the story of Lot and Sodom in Genesis is really about the abuse of hospitality, not homosexuality.) The importance of hospitality is echoed in the New Testament epistle Hebrews (13:2), where it is said that

Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

So just remember, if you want to stay on Zeus's good side, don't devour your guests or run away with the significant others of your host.

Is this a useful blog or what?

MY BAD. Those Gentle Readers who subscribe to Goat Rope via email may have gotten a mistaken post Sunday night. El Cabrero hit the wrong button and published an unfinished draft intended for later this week by mistake.

TOWARDS A GREEN ECONOMY. Here's something about what it may look like.

SOCIAL SECURITY may or may not be wearing a bull's eye again soon, but this memo from the Economic Policy Institute counters fear mongering about it.

POVERTY DAY. On Tuesday, the government will release the latest numbers on poverty, incomes and health insurance coverage. Here's a brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities on what to look for.

MALE ANIMALS TEND TO BE SHOWOFFS to a far greater extent than females, with various kinds of wild displays. My guess is that you have already noticed this. Recent research in biology may have found a genetic mechanism that opened the way for all that strutting around.


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