Kelly Taylor
CLS 214 --Nancy Evans
December 13, 1996

Hospitality in the Ancient Greek World

Every society has certain rules, expectations and customs that comprise what we call culture, and an effective way of reinforcing these cultural ideas is through the religion of that culture. A "law" has much more weight when there is the power and influence (or threat of punishment) of the gods behind it. In ancient Greece, one never knew when the beggar knocking at the door might be a god, disguised or else watching from above, passing judgment. Therefore, hospitality toward strangers and travelers was a popular element in many of the myths and stories which tell us 1) what was expected, 2) why those who answered their door did so, and 3) allows modern scholars to interpret what their actions revealed about the society as a whole. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter and The Odyssey best demonstrate what these three aspects of Greek culture consisted of.

The first of these questions can be addressed in the scene where Telemachos greets Athena, who is disguised as Mentes. Here we can learn some of what hospitality towards a stranger consisted of:

With such thoughts, sitting amongst the suitors, he saw Athene
and went straight to the forecourt, the heart within him scandalized
that a guest should still be standing at the doors. He stood beside her
and took her by the right hand, and relieved her of the bronze spear,
and spoke to her and addressed her in winged words: 'Welcome, stranger.
You shall be entertained as a guest among us. Afterward,
when you have tasted diner, you shall tell us what your need is.
(Odyssey, p.30, ll. 118-124)

We see here that those who were being entertained could have expected to be provided with food, a comfortable place to sit, charming company and acceptance into the day's activities. Since the traveler would not usually be wandering out of his home into the dangers of the world, it was assumed he was on some sort of mission. The host then is expected to be able to provide some sort of assistance, as seen by the line "you shall tell us what your need is." From the rest of the scene in the Odyssey, we know that there was celebration and revelry going on that the newcomer, Athena, would have been entreated to join. At the very least, the guest could expect food fire and friendly conversation. The hospitality shown towards the goddess, in this case, demonstrates the importance of the accommodation and well-treatment of guests.

The next question, then, is: Why did the Greeks think this hospitality was so important that perfect strangers be treated with such respect and attention? This seems firstly related to the fact that there always seems to be an element of disguise--the god or special guest is often disguised as a beggar or other undesirable, or is simply not recognized.

Another situation in which the deity is not recognized is in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter:

"They did not know who she was; it is hard for mortals to see divinity.
Standing near they addressed her with winged words." (Demeter, l. 111-112).
Such is Homer's assessment of Demeter's first meeting with the daughters of Keleos. It does not matter that she was not a goddess to the girls, and in fact looked to be an old homeless woman; she is still spoken to with "winged words." The idea here being that it does not matter who the person is, nor does their apparent status in life, because they could always be a god or goddess in disguise. This supports the notion that things are not always what they seem; gods take on human forms for the purpose of testing the humans. If the god is not treated with the respect due anyone, much less a divinity, there is the potential for punishment. The daughters of Keleos encounter this possibility, which is addressed when they assure her of their hospitality towards her: even though she looks to them like an ordinary old woman, they tell her: "No woman there, when she first looks upon you, will dishonor your appearance and remove you from the mansion, but each will receive you, for indeed you look like a goddess." (Demeter, p.4, l. 157-159). This pleases Demeter, and she accepts their invitation to return home with them. It is their kind words, and hospitality that draws her out of her rage and hatred towards mankind.

There are several possiblities that answer why the stories were told. A second option is addressed in this passage:

Alkinos, this is not the better way, nor is it fitting
that the stranger should sit on the ground beside the hearth, in the ashes.
These others are holding back because they await your order.
But come, raise the stranger up and seat him on a silver-studded chair,
and tell your heralds to mix in more wine for us,
so we can pour a libation to Zeus who delights in the thunder.
(Odyssey, p.115, ll. 159-164)

This is quite possibly a reference to the fact that they saw hospitality as a way to honor the gods; giving hospitality to a stranger was the same as offering it to a god. Zeus being the god of hospitality, one of the primary ways to worship this aspect of Zeus' godliness was to be hospitable to strangers and travelers.

A final reason for the importance of hospitality is that in many of the stories, as a result of their honorable behavior, the human hosts are rewarded either by preferential treatment by the gods, such as with Telemachos and Athena. She clearly approves of Telemachos, demonstrated by all she does to help him, but expresses her displeasure with the suitors by saying:

"I wish that such an odysseus would come now among the suitors.
They would all find death was quick, and marriage a painful matter"
(Odyssy, p. 34, ll. 265-266.)

And so her wish comes about. Telemachos is spared, and the suitors are all killed, which happens as a direct result of their rude inhospitability and taking for granted the hospitality extended to them. So when Odysseus returns to his house, and only those who offered him hospitality, namely his son and wife, are not killed in the end.

Finally, we can begin to see the rough outline of what all this meant for the people of ancient Greece, and what can be inferred about their society as a whole. What did this code of hospitality mean to the everyday Greek citizen or citizen-wife? And what does it tell us in the twentieth century about their culture? In these texts, the gods, as well as the legendary human characters like Telemachos and Odysseus, primarily served as role models for the ancient Greeks, who would have been expected to emulate the interactions between the gods and these legendary humans. It also seems likely that there was an attitude of "what goes around comes around:" that you should be kind to strangers because one day you too might be a stranger in need of a warm fire and food. If there were no hotels, this reliance on the kindness of strangers was the only way to survive when one had to travel.

Along the same lines, this pre-set code of honor would have neatly answered the question as to what to do when a stranger comes to the door? Refusing entrance, food and shelter could incur the wrath of the gods, especially if there was the possibility the person at the door was indeed a god in disguise. The gods could take on human forms for the purpose of testing the humans they encountered, and to fail the test could be death.

It is interesting to note the common folk-tale motifs of hospitality and trust, that can be seen across many cultures playing such an important part of the Greek mythological tradition. In every religion, in every culture there is the wandering god or goddess, or fairy queen or witch, who is dependent on the hospitality of the ordinary human mortal. The decision of the mortal often results in the difference between living happily ever after or dying a painful death.

Why do humans tell stories about their divinities?

How does the evidence of hospitality in myth reflect the expectations of hospitality in society?

These stories told with the intent of delivering a message that was important to their culture as an aspect of their religious experience, as well as to keep the society moving smothly. This can be illustrated with the specific example of hospitality, but there are other themes and motifs that flow through the same stories and myths, like war, love, and human relationships. By making these cultural constructs an important part of many of the aspects of the life of their culture, humans can learn better about themselves, their gods and the universe. But first they must put it on a scale and in terms that can be easily understood. So hospitality becomes a way to worship the gods, or is done out of fear of the gods, yet it maintains a socially important rule of the culture, a rule without which the culture would not only be very different, but suffer greatly as well.

  1. --->Demeter meeting the daughters of Keleos
  2. --->Athena entering house of Odysseus as Mentes
  3. --->Odysseus entering his own house (do I need to cite this?)
  4. --->Odyssey p. 115 l159-166 (sitting in ashes, Zeus)