Xenia – What is it?

Xenia – What is it?

“I invite you who are sceptered princes to my palace to entertain our visitor indoors. Let no one refuse.”

–  Alcinous, Book VIII, Odyssey

To kick off our themed weeks, we thought we’d delve a bit deeper into one of the most interesting concepts in the Ancient World, and one that’s a bit of a cast favourite (if you don’t have a personal favourite ancient concept, then really you’re too far gone, sorry).

Xenia (pronounced zen-i-a)

No, it’s not a TV series from the 90s; it’s the Ancient Greek concept of hospitality. The basis is simple: there were no hotels in the ancient world, and little in the way of inns or taverns. If you were a traveller, your primary respite was to call on the hospitality of locals – predominantly the local bigwig – whether that be a king, a local lord or just the landowner. The host would receive the guest and from then on a reciprocal relationship existed between them where each could count on shelter and even the receipt of gifts from the other. This bound much of Ancient Greece together in peaceful relationships and was integral to a burgeoning merchant class.

Classics…sort of.

There were a number of steps to receiving a guest and the process was highly ritualised. First, the host had to be courteous to the guest, immediately inviting them into their home. The guest was then to be provided with food and drink, offered a bath, and entertained. It was only after several days of this, as well as the promise of gifts, that the host was allowed to ask the guest’s name; this was ultimately to ensure that hospitality was not based on self-interest.

Xenia Quotes

The guest had certain obligations too – they were not allowed to abuse their host’s generosity, nor harm them, their family, or their property in any way; they were to be honest about their identity; if they had one, they were to give a gift; and finally of course, they were to show the same hospitality if called upon in the future.

These guest-host friendships were familial and could pass from parent to child, binding whole dynasties together. There’s a perfect example in the Iliad where the Greek hero Diomedes (famously the best of the Achaeans – sit down, Achilles) stumbles upon a Lycian (an ally of the Trojans) by the name of Glaucus in the melee. Looking for a quick reprieve from all the slicing and dicing, the two strike up a conversation and realise their grandfathers were guest-friends. It would thus be to break the laws of Xenia for them to fight. To mark the friendship, they even trade armour on the battlefield (though through some divine trickery, Glaucus gets fleeced and trades solid gold armour worth a whopping 100 oxen for Diomedes’ frankly much less garish bronze armour, worth a paltry 9 oxen – yes that’s a legitimate currency).

Glaucus speaks out at the Trojan war council.

Apart from messing with people, the gods do actually have an incredibly important role within Xenia. The reason you had to be courteous to all guests, even the lowliest, was that you could never guarantee they weren’t a god in disguise. This was called Theoxenia, and was a regular theme in mythological stories. To turn away a god, and in doing so insult them, surely meant destruction upon your house. On the other hand, to open your home to them often proved very beneficial, as in the story of Baucis and Philemon, two paupers who were the only ones to invite a disguised Zeus and Hermes into their home. Their reward? They were the only people to not die in a flood sent to punish everyone who did not show Xenia – such generosity. Zeus himself is considered the patron of Xenia, often known as Zeus Xenios.


Seems like toplessness might be a warning sign of Theoxenia

But transgressing Xenia isn’t just about hosts turning away guests or guests killing hosts in the Ancient World; you really can have too much of a good thing! The Odyssey – a poem obsessed with the uses and misuses of Xenia – features the interesting example of a host overindulging her guest. Calpyso’s hosting (*cough* imprisonment) of Odysseus for seven years on her island breaches Xenia because she refuses to stop entertaining him and does not let him return to his own home, even after he had indicated he wanted to leave. In a lovely bit of irony, Odysseus returns to Ithaca to find that his own home is beset by guests who in turn refuse to leave.

While the concept of Xenia might seem a tad alien today, there are definitely little customs that have filtered through to the modern world. The offering of a cup of tea to any visitors is a perfect example of modern Xenia; it’s a welcoming gesture that is viewed as less an obligation than simply a tradition – the sort of thing you wouldn’t even think twice about.

That about rounds up this whistle-stop explanation of Xenia. As we said, the Odyssey is the perfect introduction to the concept, portraying and perverting it in fascinating ways – you’d be hard-pressed to find a story in there that isn’t really about Xenia. As ever, keep an eye on the blog for more cool Classics facts and memes (that’s right, we know what you really want). We’ll leave you with this quote – pretty much sums the whole thing up!

“For who would fight his host? Only a fool or a nobody would challenge the friend who is entertaining him in a strange country. That would be to spite himself.”

– Odysseus, Book VIII, Odyssey