Anonymous engraving after Peter Paul Rubens, Jupiter and Mercury with Philemon and Baucis (ca. 1627–70). Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951

The Violation of Ancient Greek Hospitality

Greek epic and tragedy abound in cautionary tales about people who violated the basic rules of hospitality to guests and strangers and then paid the price, even when the visitors were not gods but merely human strangers. Xenia, “guest-friendship” or “hospitality,” derived from the noun xenos, “stranger” (as in our “xenophobia,” fear of strangers), represents one aspect of a larger cultural requirement for generosity and reciprocity, especially toward Greeks from other cities. Xenia encouraged hosts to grant shelter, courtesy, and protection from harm to strangers who are far from home.

Zeus Xenios and Athene Xenia were patrons of foreigners. Theoxenia, “gods as foreigners,” is the Greek version of the pattern that we have noted in the Hebrew Bible, in which an apparent stranger, usually someone of low status, turns out to be a god in disguise, who richly rewards the generous, unknowing host. But the prevalence of variants of this tale in which either the stranger or the host, or both, suffers hideous tortures may be taken as negative evidence that most people in ancient Greece did not rejoice when a stranger came to their door to ask for food and shelter.

It was the violation of xenia, rather than the reward for its fulfilment, that primarily captured the Greek imagination. Perhaps the most notorious of these negative episodes was the one in which Paris, a Trojan prince, became the guest of Menelaus, a Spartan king, and, after receiving Menelaus’s hospitality, ran off with Menelaus’s wife, Helen. The primary offense was not, as one might think, that Paris had committed adultery, polluted the marriage bed, humiliated Menelaus, and so forth, but that he had seriously transgressed the laws of xenia. Therefore Zeus, who was not particularly bothered by episodes of the violation of married women (a practice in which he himself often indulged), was deeply insulted by this violation of his law of xenia, and the Trojan war had to be fought to avenge Zeus—and, only as an afterthought, Menelaus.

The Romans told a variant of the myth that involved disguised divine guests, perhaps best known from Ovid’s telling of the tale of Philemon and Baucis:

Zeus and Hermes came to earth disguised as mortals. They came to a thousand homes seeking rest, but all homes were barred against the two visitors. Only one couple, pious old Baucis and his wife Philemon, received them, in a poor hut thatched with straw, with no servants. They gave them what poor food they had, and they noticed that the wine bowl kept refilling itself. Then they decided to kill their only goose, and started chasing him about, but could not catch him, as he took refuge with the gods. The gods told them not to kill the goose, and confessed that they were gods. Then the gods flooded the countryside, and only Philemon and Baucis survived. They grew older and eventually died and turned into two trees.

(Graves 1955, 25, citing: Hyginus, Fabula 82–83; Pindar, Olympian Odes 1.38 and 60; Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.406 and 4.456; etc.)

Though this couple has no child, that role is filled by their only goose, a guardian of their house, whom Philemon intends to kill, to make into the essential meal. But when he tries to kill the goose, the gods shelter the bird, just as the old couple sheltered them.

This same combination of the violation of the laws of hospitality, the presence of gods at a feast involving a human sacrifice, and the fantasy of eating one’s own children (often with a particular body part set aside) also occurs in Indian mythology.

The Feeding of Divine Indian Guests and the Eating of Children

In the earliest documents of Indian religion, the Sanskrit Vedas, from as early as 1500 BCE, words for foreigners are already pejorative. The most basic term is dasa and its variant dasyu, meaning “barbarian,” the opposite of arya, “noble,” designating ourselves. A later term, in texts from the time of the Shatapatha Brahmana, c. 900 BCE, was mleccha, designating a foreigner, a non-Arya, a man of an outcast and unclean race, one who does not conform to the usual Hindu institutions.

Lexically, however, the word simply refers to any person who does not speak Sanskrit, for mlecch is a meaningless, non-occurring, and almost unpronounceable syllable in Sanskrit. In this, mleccha resembles the Greek word barbaros, the antonym of polites (citizen of a city), mocking someone who does not know Greek and therefore just babbles barbarbarbarbar.

In an attempt to counteract this deeply ingrained Indian xenophobia, the great lawmaker Manu, probably writing in the early centuries of the Common Era, leans over backwards to insist that Indians must treat strangers and guests well. He elaborates the rules for the proper reception of guests:

The householder who is a sacrificer should not turn away a guest who comes with the setting sun in the evening when he arrives at a house without having eaten. The householder should not himself eat anything that he does not feed to his guest. The revering of guests wins wealth, a good reputation, long life, and heaven. He should present the best seat and room, the best bed, and the best service to guests of the highest status, inferior ones to those of inferior status, and middling ones to those whose status is the same as his. And if another guest should come after the meal is finished, he should give him, too, whatever food he can.

(Manu 3.105–108)

No guest should reside in his house without being honored, to the best of his ability, with a seat, food, a bed, water, and roots and fruits.

(Manu 4.29)

Elsewhere, Manu couches his discussion of the treatment of guests in terms of the food that the householder, whom Manu always regards as a sacrificer, offers as a kind of sacrifice to various beings—the ancestors, the gods, the ghosts, and, finally, guests:

The refreshing libation is the sacrifice to the ancestors; the offering into the fire is for the gods, the propitiatory offering of portions of food (scattered on the ground) is for the disembodied spirits [bhutas], and the revering of guests is the sacrifice to men.

(Manu 3.70)

The sages, ancestors, gods, disembodied spirits, and guests expect things from householders, which the understanding man should do for them.

(Manu 3.80)

When he has performed the ritual of the propitiatory offering, he should first feed a guest and, in accordance with the rules, give alms to a beggar and to a chaste student of the Veda

(Manu 3.94)

He should offer a guest, as soon as he arrives, a seat, some water, and food that has first been ritually prepared and perfectly cooked, to the best of his ability.

(Manu 3.99)

And yet Manu also defines the word for “guest,” atithi, in a most peculiar (and linguistically unjustified) way:

A Brahmin who stays even one night is traditionally regarded as a guest, for he stays (sthita) not all the time (anitya); thus he is called “a guest” (a-tithi, “not staying”).

(Manu 3.102)

How very optimistic to define a guest as someone who does not stay all the time. It calls to mind the old Jewish saying that a guest is like a fish: after three days, he begins to stink. But Manu also introduces another concept of hospitality that is deeply embedded in Indian ideas about human interactions:

If a Brahmin stays (as a guest) and is not honored, (when he departs) he takes away all the good karma even of someone who lives by gleaning (corn) and gathering (single grains),even of someone who makes regular offerings in five fires.

(Manu 3.100)

The man who makes regular offerings is the paradigmatic religious man, the generous householder, the sacrificer. The paradigmatic poor, starving religious man in Sanskrit literature is the gleaner, the man who gathers up the scraps that are left over in the fields after the crop has been harvested. Here Manu presents them as two paradigms of good citizens who will be penalized if they do not honor guests. Gleaners play an important part in the mythology of guests that we will soon consider.

But the important point this verse makes is that the mistreated guest takes away the bad host’s good karma (a word that literally means “act” or “deed”), his credit for good past actions, and, as is often stated in other texts, he transfers to that host his own bad karma. In the closed Hindu universe, often described as an egg, nothing is ever lost, but things are merely transferred, reborn, or transmuted. The law of karma is based on this worldview: one’s personal merit and demerit, the sum of past actions, are embodied in the form of karma, which is considered a discrete, transferable quality. One Upanishad describes a mystic view of the sexual act and then concludes: “The man who practices intercourse while knowing this formula takes to himself the good karma of the woman; he who does it without knowing the formula loses his good karma to him.”

But it is in the realm of food that the transfer of karma is particularly important. Manu mentions another karmic retribution involving food: “Stupid householders who live off other peoples’ cooked food because of that become, after death, the livestock of those who have given them food” (Manu 3.104). That is, after death—in other words, in the underworld or in their next birth—ungrateful guests are reborn as animals who will be thus eaten by their former hosts.

The related and more basic idea that people who eat animals will be, after death, eaten not by those that feed them but by the animals themselves is also expressed by Manu, who argues that flesh is called mamsa because “he (sa) eats me (mam) in the underworld if I eat him now.” This idea can be traced back to a text from 900 BCE that tells the story of a boy sent down into the underworld:

Bhrigu thought he was better than his father, better than the gods, better than the other Brahmins. His father thought to himself, “My son does not know anything at all. Come, let us teach him something.” He took away Bhrigu’s life’s breaths, and Bhrigu fainted and went beyond this world.

He arrived in the world beyond. There he saw a man cut another man to pieces and eat him. Then he saw a man eating another man, who was screaming. Finally, he saw a man eating another man, who was soundlessly screaming. He saw other sights, too, and returned from that world and told his father what he had seen. His father explained to him that the man who was being cut to pieces and eaten was someone who had cut down trees without offering an oblation; those trees take the form of men in the underworld and eat them in return. So, too, the man who was screaming as he was being eaten had, without offering an oblation, cooked for himself animals that cry out; those animals took the form of men in the underworld and eat them in return. And the man who was soundlessly screaming as he was being eaten had, without offering an oblation, cooked rice and barley, which scream soundlessly.

(Jaiminiya Brahmana 1.42–44, trans. Doniger O’Flaherty 1985, 32–35)

One might think that the solution to these terrifying scenarios would be not to cut down trees and not to cook and eat animals or rice and barley. But this is not what this ritual text argues. No, the solution is simply to offer the oblation and then to cut down the trees and eat the animals and the rice and barley. It took several more centuries for some Indian lawmakers to decide that the only way to escape retribution was not to eat animals at all—though it was now safe to eat rice and barley and to cut down trees. And so, this text very positively enforces the theme of generosity to guests, without the threats and horrible negative examples of the earlier texts.

This is an excerpt from an essay that first appeared in Social Research: An International Quarterly. It is part of the journal’s issue Hospitality.

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, Emerita.