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Xenia, Greece

While xenia may be a concept that has deep roots in ancient Greece, even travellers today note the warmth and generosity felt by those who welcome them with open arms when they holiday in Greece.

This quote by Nikos Kazantzakis sums it up:

“I knew that no matter what door you knock on in a Cretan village, it will be opened for you. A meal will be served in your honor, and you will sleep between the best sheets in the house. In Crete, the stranger is still the unknown god. Before him, all doors and all hearts are opened” 

What Is Xenia

As well as referring to his Cretan experience in Greece, Kazantzakis also nods to the ancient concept of xenia. If you don’t know, xenia in Greece is the ancient concept of hospitality. It is also known as philoxenia, meaning a love of strangers or foreigners and a desire to show them hospitality. In antiquity, it was expected that one would always be hospitable to travellers. While this wasn’t regulated by law, it was considered a moral obligation to be upheld by Greek civilisation.

How It Works

In ancient Greece, in order to be a gracious host and comply to the concept of xenia there were some rules that needed to be followed. The host must not only offer the stranger food and drink but also a bath and fresh clothes. They were also obliged to entertain them and ask no questions until the guest was settled. They were also expected to help the guest with directions to their next destination. In this way, they were likely to be rewarded for their kindness or punished for their lack of. Because remember Zeus has eyes everywhere …

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© Canva Library

Zeus Xenios

You have probably heard of the Greek god Zeus, but what you might not know is that he was also known as Zeus Xenios. As well as being the god of lightning and thunder he was also the god of foreigners and hospitality. He ensured that they were looked after. There are stories of Zeus dressing up disguised as a poor traveller and arriving at people’s homes asking for shelter.

A popular story that is often used as an example of Zeus’s tests is that of Baucis and Philemon. Baucis and Philemon were an elderly couple from the ancient region of Tyana. Being peasants, they had little money and a very modest home, yet when Zeus came to their door disguised along with his son Hermes they generously offered the ‘strangers’ both shelter, food and wine.

Eventually, Baucis noticed that despite refilling the god’s cups all night the pitcher of wine was still full. Realising who they were, she told her husband who even considered slaughtering their goose! Zeus rewarded the pair for their wonderful hospitality by turning their home into a temple.

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© Creative Commons

Was A Failure Of Xenia The Cause Of The Trojan War?

The Trojan War is no doubt one of the most well known stories in Greek mythology. It was a battle that waged for 10 whole years. It involved the Greek gods, the Greek heroes and everyday people. But if you trace back the origins of its beginnings you will find that this war started over a violation of xenia.

Paris was the son of the king of Troy, Priam, and he seriously violated the hospitality of Menelaus. Menelaus was the king of Sparta and Paris ran off with his wife Helen! Because this act of betrayal was a failure to uphold the morals of Zeus, retribution had to be sort and so ensued the long and violent savagery of the Trojan war.  

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© Creative Commons

Xenia And The Odyssey

While xenia in Greece was a theme in the Iliad and the Trojan war this was continued by Homer in The Odyssey. The story follows the Greek hero Odysseus on his journey home to the Greek island of Ithaka after the war. He has a number of encounters on his journey home, some show him hospitality, but others do not and it deals with the resulting consequences.

“It’s wrong, my friend, to send any stranger packing – even one who arrives in worse shape than you. Every stranger and beggar comes from Zeus…”

Xenia In Greece Today

When travelling you often find yourself wondering what stories lie behind an unfamiliar face. The staunch faces, friendly faces, weathered faces, and bright young faces. These stories lie behind a mysterious veil. When you’re travelling you’re separated from these strangers by a language and a culture that you don’t fully understand.

But in Greece, all it takes is a smile to allude to the stories and wisdom that these people hold. A smile that embodies a special kind of hospitality, a universal kindness, a kindness that transcends all words and any culture. And it’s enough to make you feel at home. In this way, the ancient roots of xenia in Greece are still felt today, even after thousands of years.

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