Xenia: Ancient Greece

sduncan post on January 29th, 2015
Posted in Europe Tags: ,

By Michalia Catsiliras

Philanthropy, a Greek word demonstrating the love for humanity, has become an important part of today’s society as many people and organizations demonstrate that love through charitable means and support. However, the idea of philanthropy varies from time and place; it is not a universal idea. Tracing down its different forms will help understand other societies and how philanthropy developed to what we know today. A great example would be the area where the word itself was born; in ancient Greece philanthropy occupied a special role in the form of “Xenia”. Xenia was considered an institutionalized guest-friendship that if violated it would be punished by the father of all gods and humans, Zeus. To understand Xenia, one must understand the terminology. Xenos is defined as “a friend in a foreign country who would be your “guest” in your country and your “host” in his country”, that being said, “Xenia is the relationship between these two individuals” (Mikalson, 2010, p. 229). The very fact that Zeus’ epithet was Xenios, indicated his role in this type of philanthropy, showcasing it’s importance in society and how people valued this tradition and feared punishment from the Gods if they dared to show inhospitality towards their guests (Fuchs, 2008). Moreover, this paper will examine the philanthropic tradition of Xenia in Ancient Greece; its origins while at the same time explore the importance of giving in this Ancient Greek tradition.

​It was often believed by the ancients that the Gods would descend from Mount Olympus and mingle with their human creations. As a result, it was this line of thinking which the tradition of Xenia gained its roots. In essence, it was the fear of offending a guest, who may have been one of these mingling Gods, which sparked this tradition (Fuchs, 2008). Xenia can be broken down into three aspects, the way in which the guest respects the host, the hospitality shown to the guest by the host, and the traditional gift given to the guest by the host when they part (Fuchs, 2008). It is through this tradition of gift giving that a bond is created between the host and his guest, which solidifies their relationship, which could transcend generations and may play a significant role in future political and tribal alliances (Robb, 1994).

This act of giving, in relation to Xenia, can be seen throughout many of the more recognizable works of mythological Greek literature. The most famous of the works, Homer’s “Iliad” and “The Odyssey”, both are laden with many examples of Xenia and more specifically the aspect of gift giving. In “The Odyssey” it is discussed in great detail how Odysseus is gifted a swift ship for his return home to Ithaca from the Phaeacian king, Alcinous (Robb, 1994). Diomedes and Glaucus, at opposing sides during the Trojan War, met in battle but recognized tokens and by reciting their lineage they realized they were bound by Xenia amongst their family line. Hence, they had to stop and exchanged their armour, which indicates the importance that Xenia played in Ancient Greek society; even battles had to seize. In the same fashion, wars can also start at the violation of Xenia, as it was the case with the Trojan War and Paris breaking the Xenia Menelaeus offered by eloping with his wife Helen (Homer, 1990).

From antiquity, the primary form of charity is represented in the institution of Xenia. As a result, both political and economic alliances were formed as well as animosities when the rules of Xenia were not respected and followed. To this day, Greek culture follows a strict code of conduct where the guest and host relationship is concerned. Guests are welcomed with open arms and are offered abundance as one would offer to a deity.

Works cited

Fuchs, P. (2008). Xenia-The Act of Gifting. Periferic 8Biennial for Contemporary Art as Gift. Retrieved February 3, 2014, from http://perifericbiennial.wordpress.com/2008/09/18/xenia-the-act-of-gifting/
Homer. (1990). The Iliad. (B. Knox, Ed. R. Fagles, Trans.) New York, NY: Penguin Classics.
Mikalson, J. (2010). Ancient Greek Religion. United Kingdom : Wiley-Blackwell; 2 Edition .
Robb, K. (1994). Literacy and paideia in ancient Greece. New York: Oxford University Press.

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