Xenia: the ancient Greek norm of guest-friendship

19.20, Monday 2 Nov 2020 Link to this post

I’m slowly working my way through Emily Wilson’s wonderfully accessible translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. Here’s a review by poet Tate Standage: I feel any review of Emily Wilson’s Odyssey that didn’t mention the introduction would be as incomplete as the translation itself would be without it.

The introduction takes a dive into the culture and norms of ancient Greece. It’s excellent.

In particular, xenia stuck in my head. From Wilson’s intro (p23 of my edition):

Hospitality is important in all human cultures, ancient and modern; in this respect, there is nothing special about archaic Greece. What is distinctive about the customs surrounding hospitality in this culture is that elite men who have entered one another’s homes and have been entertained appropriately are understood to have create a bond of “guest-friendship” (xenia) between their households that will continue into future generations. Guest-friendship is different from philia, the friendship, affection, love, and loyalty that connects a person to his or her family members and neighborhood friends. It is created not by proximity and friendship, but by a set of behaviors that create bonds between people who are geographically distance from each other.

Wilson refers to the norms and expectations of xenia. One of the ways I think of a “norm,” to try to get inside the head of one of these ancient Greeks, is to remember that norms are social reals that are mostly never questioned, it never even occurs to people to question them, they’re taken as given, as actual as gravity and rocks.

(But norms can be violated, and then the retaliatory norm is to punish… Wilson sees The Odyssey through this lens: The poem’s episodes can be seen as a sequence of case studies in the concept of xenia.)

And:

Xenia acquired an extra importance in the era when Greek men were expanding their world. Travelers, in an era before money, hotels, or public transportation, had to rely on the munificence of strangers to find food and lodging and aid with their onward journey.

Before money!

Money feels very real today, as real as gravity. It’s provocative to think of money itself as a replacement technology, the codified version of the ancient “remote friendship” norm, thousands of years on, xenia 2.0.