Have you ever paid a visit to a friend, acquaintance or even a stranger and had your host offer you a cup of tea or a biscuit or a line of prescription medication? I recently have, which — naturally — got me thinking of the ancient Greek tradition of xenia. Xenia roughly translates to “guest-friendship” and is the ancient Greek concept of hospitality. It represents the generosity and courtesy shown to strangers far from home or to general friends and associates who are guests of the host.
Essentially, it consists of two basic rules. The first rule is that the host must respect the guest — they must offer the guest food, drink and a bath, this being back in the day when personal hygiene was a little harder to maintain. Indeed, by way of an example, one sweltering summer’s day I was driving up the country in my old car, a worthy vehicle but one sadly lacking anything resembling air-conditioning. I picked up a couple of hitchhikers who turned out to be Christian missionaries (I didn’t know we had those in New Zealand but apparently so). I drove them back to their missionary college and they, having sat through two hours of my delicate road-trip odour, kindly invited me in for a shower and a meal, thereby perfectly performing their duties under xenia.
I then churlishly proceeded to get into a theological argument with another missionary about whether a just God could exist given the evidence of the world around us. Anyway, in doing so, I violated the second basic rule of xenia, which is the guest must respect the host: it is incumbent upon the guest to be courteous to the host and not be a burden.
The concept of xenia was born out of Greek mythology. In Greek myths, gods and goddesses were always disguising themselves as mortals and roaming around the Mediterranean getting up to shenanigans. Consequently, you could never know for sure whether the shabby road-weary guest in your house was just some wandering vagrant or the mighty Zeus on his way to lecherously pursue some woodland nymph while dressed as a swan. It was wise, therefore, to treat every guest, however lowly, with respect and generosity; to be honest, it’s still a pretty good idea today.