X is for Xenia

xeniaXenia in ancient Greece, was a code of conduct that was to be strictly observed between a host and someone who had landed up at his door invited or uninvited. The rules applied to all, the Gods, kings and even the common man. Someone in need who turned up at your door, was to be treated with respect, honour and compassion. He or she was to be fed, provided with a bath and a bed and allowed to rest. Later when it was time to leave, it was customary to give presents to the guest. The guests in turn, were to honour and be respectable of the host and his belongings. They were to stay as a guest only as long as it was necessary and not become an undue nuisance to the host. Zeus did not take kindly to those who neglected the practice Xenia, for he was in charge of seeing that the code of conduct was strictly observed.

Here are some of the examples from my recent blogs, where Xenia had been observed and some where it had been not.

Odysseus, on his journey back home, finds himself in a storm sent by Poisedon that wrecks his ship, kills his people and washes him up bruised and naked on the island of Phaeacia. Here no one recognizes him, and he is not even asked for his identity. He should not be, till he has been provided with his necessities and pleasures that the host can supply. He is given food and clothing by princess Aleinous and later the king of Phaeacia, gives him a ship and men to sail home. It is interesting to note, that all this hospitality was extended without knowing the strangers identity. Xenia in this case had been amply observed.

Again back in Ithaca, Odysseus the king now dressed as a beggar comes to the house of a faithful servant. The servant does not recognize Odysseus, but the poor man treats the beggar to food, shelter and company. He later takes him to the palace, on request from the beggar. Another example of the graceful observance of Xenia.

The hundred princes on the other hand, who had settled down for long in Odysseus’s palace, in his absence, eating, drinking and making merry at his expense and refusing to leave till queen Penelope married one of them, were clearly violating Xenia.

Ixion molesting a woman, he thought was his host Zeus’ wife was a clear violation of Xenia. Tantalos, while an honoured guest of Zeus, happily pilfered the hosts food and taking it back to his kingdom, was yet another example of the guest not honouring the code of conduct. Equally, when he slyly tried to feed the Gods, meat made from his slaughtered son’s body, he fails in honouring the concept as a host.

The concept of Greek Xenia is very near to the अतिथिदेवो भव (pronounced Athithhi Devo Bhavo) sentiment dear to the ancient Indians, where a guest at your door was equivalent to, and to be treated as a God. Today in this day of terrorists and refugees, we have moved far from the idea of Xenia.

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