He is no friend who does not give to a friend,
to a comrade who comes imploring for food;
let him leave such a man–his is not a home–
and rather seek a stranger who brings him comfort.
Rig Veda 10.117.4
Hospitality, the act receiving and treating guests and strangers with with geniality and generosity…or according to an unknown author, the ability of “making your guests feel at home, even if you wish they were. ” Hospitality has historically played an important role in many traditions and cultures, pagan and non-pagan–the Greeks and the Norse both considered hospitality a divinely ordered virtue and all three Abrahamic faiths include teachings on the subject. While the expectations of hospitality vary, the virtue of hospitality itself is fairly universal…and like all values isn’t exclusive to any particular Paganism, though we consider it (in our family) an extension of our religious and spiritual views.
With such thoughts, sitting amongst the suitors, he saw Athene
and went straight to the forecourt, the heart within him scandalized
that a guest should still be standing at the doors. He stood beside her
and took her by the right hand, and relieved her of the bronze spear,
and spoke to her and addressed her in winged words: ‘Welcome, stranger.
You shall be entertained as a guest among us. Afterward,
when you have tasted diner, you shall tell us what your need is.
(Odyssey, p.30, ll. 118-124)
While I am no reconstructionist in general, much less a Hellenist specifically, I do have an avid interest in both ancient Greece and Rome. In Greece, hospitality was known as xenia, which formalized the relationship between guest and host as one of mutual responsibility. Not only did the host have a responsibility to be courteous and responsive to the needs of their guest, but the guest had a responsibility (to paraphrase Ben Franklin) not stink like three day old fish. In fact, Xenios was an epithet of Zeus and Xenia an epithet of Athena. In a land where the gods in mortal form walked with men, treating guests with honor wasn’t merely a cultural ideal, it was also a way to ensure divine favor and stave off divine wrath. In Homer’s Odyssey, hospitality is a common theme and Athena visits the son of Odysseus, Telemachus, in the form of of a mortal to offer him advice after being well received.
Fire is needed by the newcomer
Whose knees are frozen numb;
Meat and clean linen a man needs
Who has fared across the fells,
Water, too, that he may wash before eating,
Handcloth’s and a hearty welcome,
Courteous words, then courteous silence
That he may tell his tale,
Other cultures have also their own customs and teachings about hospitality. The Havamal also offers words on hospitality, laying out expectations of the host and more specifically, a good guest. One of my favorite parts lays out more of the host’s role (and seems to describe the actions of Telemachus quite well) , but other sections advise such wisdom as guests being responsible to not overstay their welcome and that they make sure they have eaten before going to a friend’s so that they do not uncouthly stuff themselves. In several indigenous cultures across the globe, water or other drink is the first offering to a guest, and is often tasted by the host first to show that it is untainted. In other cultures it is rude–even to the point of reportedly earning life-long enmity among Bedouin tribes–to decline a host’s offer of food or drink.
In our family, hospitality is practiced as a way of showing respect to the sacredness inherent in all people. (And we like to party.) We generallyopen our home as needed to family and friends and family of family and family of friends and friends of family and friends of friends and dogs and cats, etc–at one time, I joking referred to our apartment as the “Halfway Home for Single Sailors”, because there was always *someone* that I was cooking for. As with the notion of xenia, hospitality in our home is a reciprocal relationship. Guests are expected to bring their own drinks and seating to group gatherings (and are told this in advance) and expected to put the seat down after using the bathroom. In return, children are confined to their own running amok space, food is plentiful and tasty, and the company is entertaining.
But hospitality, at least by our reckoning (in this family), goes beyond baking a tasty pie for company, or bringing a dish to a potluck. We are all guests in this dance of life, amongst our friends and families, in our wider communities and on our planet. It is our responsibility to do so in a way that honors ourselves (via integrity*), our fellow guests (via service*) and our earthly host (via conservation*)…and that honors the Divine in us all.
*future topics for the 3rd Pagan Values Blogject