X is for Xenos

Drake's Ship

Pretty much all the words we use in English that start with the letter x come from Greek. Xylophone, xylem, xenophobia, xeriscaping … even the names I could think of (Xenophon, Xanthippe) come from Greek. Xi is one of those useful two-letter Scrabble words that everyone learns as soon as possible.

Xenos is not a word we’ve taken directly into English. You might guess its meaning from xenophobia: the fear (phobia) of the outsider, the alien, the stranger. But xenos doesn’t just mean stranger in Greek. It also means ‘guest’ — which lets me riff on the theme of hospitality a little more.

Zeus Xenios was the god of hospitality in Ancient Greece. (The Greeks often gave attributes to the gods to distinguish their different functions; Zeus, as the chief of the Olympians, had quite a few, of which this was not least.) He was responsible for strangers and for guests. If you betrayed a guest or were not properly hospitable to a stranger, he was the one called upon for justice. In the stories the Greeks told of the unknown stranger who turned out to be a god in disguise, that god was Zeus. (These are separate stories from the ones where he impregnates women, by the way.)

While I was checking out the spelling of Zeus Xenios, I found this article from last year about Greek authorities detaining people on the basis of their ethnicity, which they called ‘Operation Xenios Zeus’ with staggering irony. Most of the modern world is far less dangerous than in the past … yet we are far less hospitable to strangers, often, than then. We are far richer than most ancient kings … and we do not give anywhere near so freely of our houses and our hearths. Are we more afraid? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just that our society does not expect it, values individuality more. It depends where you live, too; some places are more hospitable than others. And obviously some people, too.

But then again, when you look at the old stories, often the hospitality is only given to those of the right class … which is perhaps what we are still doing today. And the reason for guest laws, for the protection afforded by Zeus Xenios, for the retelling and emphasis of the stories of Abraham and his visitors, or in the Indian tales of the Buddha, or the Christian demands for charity, is that people aren’t naturally inclined to open their doors to strangers — but that it is still something worth doing. Being hospitable to a stranger is to deliberately make oneself vulnerable, to reach out to a higher order of affairs than pure self-interest. Hospitality is one of the things that we do because we are human, and can empathize, can formulate a rule such as the Golden Rule, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ One of the things we wish for strangers is that they trust us: but that does mean we must trust them.

I should note that Zeus Xenios defended the rights of both parties. The guest should no more abuse the hosts’ hospitality than the host refuse the stranger. The great story of this, of course, is The Odyssey, which is largely about the relationship of hosts to guests, from the suitors abusing Penelope’s hospitality to Polyphemus eating his guests to Odysseus throwing himself on the mercy of half the eastern Mediterranean, with varying results.

From book one:

Flashing down from Olympos’ height [Athena] went
to stand in Ithaka, before the Manor,
just at the doorsill of the court. She seemed
a family friend, the Taphian captain, Mentes,
waiting, with a light hand on her spear.
Before her eyes she found the lusty suitors
casting dice inside the gate, at ease
on hides of oxen – oxen they had killed.
Their own retainers made a busy sight
with houseboys mixing bowls of water and wine,
or sopping water up in sponges, wiping
tables to be placed about in hall,
or butchering whole carcasses for roasting.

Long before anyone else, the prince Telemakhos
now caught sight of Athena – for he, too,
was sitting there unhappy among the suitors,
a boy, daydreaming. What if his great father
came from the unknown world and drove these men
like dead leaves through the palace, recovering
honor and lordship in his own domains?
Then he who dreamed in the crowd gazed out at Athena.

Straight to the door he came, irked with himself
to think a visitor had been kept there waiting,
and took her right hand, grasping with his left
her tall bronze-bladed spear. Then he said warmly:

“Greetings, stranger! Welcome to our feast.
There will be time to tell your errand later.”

The suitors, sitting there eating all Telemachus’ inheritance, are bad guests. Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, knows the right forms — and note what he says. Come in and have food, and we’ll find out who you are later. The offering of hospitality comes before the identity is known.

I feel as if I could go through the whole poem and pick out passages about this topic, but I’m sure that’s been done by many generations of scholars (and probably students) and I’ve written enough this morning. Xenos for stranger and guest, and a bit of the Odyssey for your delectation. Happy Monday!



One thought on “X is for Xenos

  1. we were talking about it the other day, my mother and I and some other people and we were saying, people used to be willing to share with their guests whatever they had. In our case, we had less than we had now… yet, guests were given a warmer welcome. Now that we have plenty, we welcome guests less. It’s sad.


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