In ancient Greece, respecting the rules of xenia was crucial. Xenia referred to both a good guest-friend relationship and the act of being generous and courteous to strangers.

Zeus, the patron god of hospitality

Why was xenia important?

Xenia was important for many reasons. Zeus, in addition to being the king of the gods, was also the god of hospitality and demanded for strangers to be treated graciously. One of the main ways Greeks worshiped this aspect of Zeus's godliness was to exhibit hospitality.

Additionally, the Greeks believed that gods often took mortal form to test humans. A stranger knocking at the door could be a disguised god, and, as such, refusing the stranger would invoke the god's wrath.

Zeus and Hermes testing two villagers' hospitality

What were the rules of xenia?

Different sets of rules applied for both hosts and guests.

Hosts were:

  • forbidden to ask any initial questions of their guest, even if that person was a complete stranger
  • expected to offer their guest a bath, clean clothing, and refreshments
  • expected to present their guest with a gift so as to acknowledge the honor of the hosting duties

Guests were:

  • expected to be polite
  • expected to refrain from making any requests that would be inconvenient to the host
Calypso and Odysseus. Both characters displayed a good understanding and respect for xenia.

Xenia and The Odyssey (What happened to people who didn't follow the rules?)

Throughout The Odyssey, many examples of xenia--both good and bad--are present. Good displays of xenia are generally rewarded, while those who violate the laws of xenia are punished. For example:

Bad xenia:

  • Suitors to Penelope, who are guests of Odysseus, disrespect Odysseus's property and behave rudely. As a result, they are killed upon Odysseus's return.
  • Polyphemus, a cyclops, tries to eat Odysseus and his crew when they arrive on his island. Eventually, his eye is poked out.
  • Kirke, a sorceress, turns visitors to her island into pigs. She is later threatened for doing this.

Good xenia:

  • Odysseus arrives on an island belonging to a woman named Calypso. She is hospitable, and Odysseus is a good guest. In the end, Odysseus must refuse her hospitality and leave, BUT there are no serious consequences for either person.

Presentation by Ella Fischer and Lizbeth Lopez, 1st period

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