The Woman of the Snow: Alexandra David-Néel
April 4, 2019
Fleeting Genius: Rory McEwen
April 18, 2019

Photo by Ivan Obolensky

I am writing the sequel to Eye of the Moon and am a tenth of the way through, or maybe not. That milestone is subject to change. Writing a novel is different from any other piece of writing because a book is finished only when the tale is completed and not before. The length is determined by the story, not the other way around.

My fiction tends to have themes that are classical in nature. Many are no longer used in modern literature, but that doesn’t mean they died off, or are irrelevant.

In the sequel, which has no title other than Unnamed as Yet, one of the key themes is xenia.

Xenia is the Greek word for the Guest-Host Relationship. It is probably one of the oldest traditions that exist, and is in many ways the foundation for what is broadly termed ‘manners and hospitality’.

Xenia was not friendship but obligation.

In ancient Greece, the host accepted the traveler and asked no questions until after the guest was fed, and their immediate needs fulfilled. These included lodging, a bath, and suitable clothes. Gifts were often exchanged.

The host had the obligation not to harm the guest.

In many of the Greek mythologies, such as those of Theseus, hosts do bad things to guests and are avenged. For example, Procrustes offered travelers a bed, but stretched their bodies to fit its size if they were too short, or chopped off the lower parts, if they proved too tall. Theseus did the same to him for his violations of xenia.

The Guest-Host relationship was so important that overseeing it was the sole province of Zeus, the father of the gods, who was often referred to as Zeus Xenios.

Many are the stories that exist today of princes and paupers opening their doors to find a poor person on their doorstep, who turned out to be a god, or something similar. The host was rewarded or punished based upon the reception the guest received.

In the ancient Hellenic world, the rules of xenia were sacred. Guests were often sons or relatives of the powerful. They traveled to distant lands to cement alliances, sometimes commercial, diplomatic, or matrimonial. Parties in such distant relationships had to rely on the host to do all in their power to keep them safe. Once established, such reciprocating associations carried on for centuries and did much to strengthen ties between peoples and cultures before there were such well-defined entities as nation states.

The Odyssey by Homer is, at its heart, a story about xenia. The suitors of Penelope are put to death by Odysseus with the help of the gods because they were guests who violated the rules of good behavior.

Guests, too, had obligations, although the hosts had the larger burden. A guest had to be courteous always, give gifts when possible, not overstay their welcome, and not take undue advantage of the host’s hospitality. In other words, guests weren’t supposed to harm the host, damage his property, or distress his people.

When xenia was violated, bad things happened. In the Iliad, a guest falls in love with the wife of a host and kidnaps her. The launching of a thousand ships, the war, and the grim deaths of heroes on both sides come about from this violation. The Greeks ultimately win over Troy, because it was the Trojans who violated xenia. It was no light matter.

Next time you open your door to someone, or the next time you visit, notice the presence of this oldest of traditions.

 

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