Xenia is the Greek term for the concept of guest hospitality. It literally means “guest-friendship,” and is an important notion in The Odyssey. Guests and hosts alike expect mutual respect and an adherence to the rituals. This form of society is still prevalent in some nations and cultures; but it is a pity most of the trust and honor has been lost with time. The suitors are in obvious violation of this ritual as they gorge themselves on Odysseus’ food, drink, and home. There is an unspoken understanding between Nestor and Telemakhos in Book III, and Telemakhos and Menelaos in Book IV, as each shows reverence for the wealth and guest-status of the other. The guest-host interactions flow through the many stories of The Odyssey, and illustrate an indirect reverence for the gods and for fellow man. The Greeks worshiped Zeus and Hermes as the protectors of travelers, and believed the gods moved amongst the people in disguise. Should one disrespect a visitor, he risked offending a god. “The god of guests is Zeus; for he protects the suppliant – he watches over honored visitors” (IX lines 271-273)*. Greeks took special care to correctly honor a guest and keep the gods satisfied. Xenia depends upon a basic morality and a mutual deference for one another. Odysseus’ journey home is only possible because he encounters cultures such as King Aeolus and the Aeolians. The crew is taken in and provided food, drink, and shelter in exchange for news of Troy. “And when, in turn, [Odysseus] asked to leave and spoke of help [they] might need to see [them] home, he did not stint” (X line 21-23). The Phaiakians are also gracious and take Odysseus in without question. They bathe, clothe, feed, and entertain him before they even learn his name or tale.
The Odyssey also outlines inappropriate behavior which stands in stark contrast to “correct” conduct. Polyphemus’ behavior as a host is reprehensible. Odysseus explains how “that race is arrogant,” but he decides to “‘see who these may be – are they unfeeling people, wild, unjust, or do they welcome strangers, does their thought include fear of the gods?’” (IX line 111, IX lines 174-177). The men “hope to get some gift, as custom bids host give to guest” ; however, in an ultimate display of disrespect for his guests, Polyphemus eats them one by one (IX lines 269-270). Circe is the wily temptress who snares Odysseus’ crew and causes them to “[take] on the bodies – bristles, snouts – and grunts of hogs, yet kept the human minds they had before” (X lines 241-243). This is not proper hostess behavior, either.
In today’s society, I feel there is a prevalent feeling of distrust and skepticism. People are unwilling to open their hearts and homes without full knowledge of the person in advance, preferably in writing with a full background check. There are no generally accepted gods to fear and travelers are suspect to a range of suspicions. With the growing accessibility of hotels and travel, there is also little reason to be in desperate need of accommodations. The guest-host relationship as seen in ancient times has all but disappeared. If Odysseus washed up on a beach in Los Angeles, he would be surveyed from a distance until some brave soul would finally get out their cell to call 9-1-1 and let the authorities handle the situation. There is a chance someone might approach him, but the pervading fear of the unknown constricts most people, and they would rather be one in a few hundred who stand by than “that guy” who goes over and checks out the scene. Nausikaa would not be there to bathe him and lead him back to town. Arete and Alkinoos would not have opened their home to him without ascertaining at least his name, purpose, and place of origin.
Is this a step forward for society? What if the Ancients had it right? There was a uniform sense of security and sanctuary in the tradition of xenia. Have we regressed through a lack of trust? Quite simply, would Odysseus have made it back to Ithaca today (extenuating circumstances aside)?
* I have a different translation