Why Are Greeks So Hospitable

Greece is known as a welcoming destination, where visitors are treated as honored guests. From where does this open-armed approach stem? Myth and history hold the clues.

 

Philoxenia Concept: The essence of Greek Hospitality

The gods visit us
disguised as strangers

Homiros (Homer) - The Odyssey

 

 

 

Hospitality scene, from the Collection of Greek Vases by Mr. Le Comte de Lamburg (Paris, 1813-1824).
Hospitality scene, from the Collection of Greek Vases by Mr. Le Comte de Lamburg (Paris, 1813-1824).

 

Ancient hospitality was a sacred duty almost akin to a religious sacrifice. Any stranger that “rang the bell” could be a god in disguise, there to test the mortal homeowner’s hospitality. Among the most popular monikers attributed to Zeus, the leader of Greek gods in antiquity, is Xenios, “the stranger’s god”, as he was the proclaimed protector of all visitors in need, indicating that they had to be protected. The spirit of Greek hospitality can be found across the country, in every person who is or feels Greek. Philoxenia (hospitality) –literally translated as “friend to the stranger” - is the ancient Greek concept of welcoming and caring for all visitors coming to your doorstep.

 

Why Are Greeks So Hospitable

 

Regardless of a guest’s identity – king, general, other dignitary, friend, or simple messenger – one had to welcome him with food, drink and shelter before asking any questions. A guest was equally respectful, listening attentively to his host and returning his favor by entertaining the assembled banqueters with his own story.

In Ancient Greece, hospitality was something people had to do, or face the wrath of Zeus. Zeus’s law of hospitality is that any stranger that comes to your home, the host must be willing to feed, entertain, and maybe offer them a bath and anything else they might be in need of without question until those things had been given, and also give them a parting gift. The guest, in turn, would not be a burden in any way. All-powerful Zeus, was hospitality’s divine embodiment, although Hestia, goddess of the hearth and household order, was also linked to the custom. In addition, Hermes, the gods’ herald and Zeus’ personal messenger, assisted the king of the gods in overseeing hospitality and protecting travelers.

 

Birth of Diplomacy

From at least the Late Bronze Age and early centuries of the Iron Age, long before any hotels and star-ratings, hospitality thrived in the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East as a vital, ubiquitous practice, a religious duty, a facilitator of commerce and, for elites, of state diplomacy.

The Classical Greek institution of “proxeny, ” wherein city-states selected certain well-to-do citizens to serve as local hosts for foreign ambassadors, also relied on hospitality. A proxenos, like all good hosts, had to have diplomatic skills. Respect was demonstrated by both parties and an exchange of gifts indicated the acceptance or continuance of friendship.

To ensure the longevity of that relationship, hospitality could even be hereditary. Euripides’ fifth-century BC play “Medea”, for instance, reveals that sometimes a host and his guest would exchange a distinctive token that could be redeemed whenever hospitality might again be desired or that could be passed on to the next generation.

 

 

The hidden layers of philoxenia meaning in Greek

 

The hidden layers of philoxenia meaning in Greek hospitality, Modern Greek identity and tourism

Whenever you visited someone’s home in Kefalonia, in the past decades, you were consistently treated with kindness and generosity; almost without fail, there was a glass of cool water and some homemade spoon sweets. This was often followed by coffee and amygdalopita (almond cake), and often cooked food followed as well. Whenever you declined to be fed on the spot, you were regularly sent away with parcels of meat pie or other delicacies for later.

This largesse was a delight and if you were a foreigner, you began to appreciate how significant hospitality was in Greece – caring for the stranger resembled a Christian virtue but was clearly a tradition from Homeric times, when an individual’s worth and honor was measured according to how he treated a guest. Kefalonians, as the rest of the Greeks, were proud of being philoxenoi, of literally “loving” the xenos – the stranger or foreigner.

 

Homer’s Hospitality: The Ancient Roots of Greek Philoxenia

“Ulysses [Odysseus] Following the Car of Nausicaa,” engraving, after John Flaxman (1805), Tate Britain Museum.
“Ulysses [Odysseus] Following the Car of Nausicaa,” engraving, after John Flaxman (1805), Tate Britain Museum.

 

In the Odyssey, a broad spectrum of hospitality is presented, from the generosity of the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa towards Odysseus, or of the swineherd Eumaeus with his near-perfect hosting of his master, to the amoral suitors’ final scene in which all the conventions of hospitality are shockingly inverted.

At least eighteen scenes of hospitality are found in Homer’s works, philologist Steve Reese reports, including four in the Iliad, twelve in the Odyssey and two in the Homeric Hymns.

These unique scenes, although distinctly Homeric, together reflect a traditional formula for the giving and receiving of hospitality: arrival; the wait at the threshold; the supplication; the reception; the seating; the feast; the after-dinner drink; the identification of the visitor; an exchange of information; entertainment; the visitor’s blessing on the host, the shared libation or sacrifice, the request for sleep; the bed; the bath; the host’s attempts to detain the visitor; the guest-gifts; the departure meal and libation; the farewell blessing; the departure omen and interpretation; and the escort to the visitor’s next destination.

Appropriate hospitality gifts also included finely crafted banquet equipment, such as the drinking cup and krater (mixing jar) presented to Telemachus by King Menelaus in Sparta. Careful planning often went into the act of being hospitable in order to show respect and gain favor – with the best meat, wine and seats selectively offered to acknowledge a guest’s high social status.

 

[Eurycleia washes Odysseus’ feet offering hospitality to him, who was disguised as a beggar.]
[Eurycleia washes Odysseus’ feet offering hospitality to him, who was disguised as a beggar.]

 

Homeric poetry, with its recurring theme of hospitality, was well-suited as dinner time entertainment: providing such amusement to guests was itself an essential element of hospitality. Moreover, the guests were in the midst of enjoying actual hospitality, whose practical code of do’s and don’ts would have been on everyone’s minds at that very moment.

The tale of the Iliad recalls the Trojan War, the Greeks’ reaction to a blatant violation of xenia, the proper conduct for hosts and guest, which occurred when Paris, leaving Sparta, “stole” his host’s wife. The Odyssey, which recounts its protagonist’s tireless search for hospitality on his homeward journey, serves as a vehicle for examining the nature of xenia as well.

Along the way, Homer juxtaposes good and bad hospitality, essentially parodying the tradition with colorful characters. The cruel giant Polyphemus, instead of feasting his guests, makes them the feast and offers Odysseus the “gift” of eating him last. The insolent suitor Ctesippus similarly mocks xenia by hurling the “gift” of a hoof at Odysseus.

The ill deeds of both the Cyclops and the suitors epitomize brazen inhospitality, condemned by all, and are later memorialized through Euripides’ artful terms “xenodaites” (he who devours guests) and “xenoktonos” (the slaying of guests and strangers). Nevertheless, the outrageous transgressions of sacred and social responsibility that are featured in Homer’s poems continue to make for humorous, mildly moralizing, ageless entertainment.

Hotel Odyssey - Why Are Greeks So Hospitable

 

Sooner or later, a foreigner begins to realize that there is an established etiquette not only for the host but also for the guest. Nobody should forget what Odysseus did to Penelope’s greedy, inappropriate suitors, who lost their dignity (and eventually their lives) for abusing the rules of hospitality. They abused their role as guests in Odysseus house and showed disrespect to their hostess Penelope – whose hand, ironically, they are trying to win.

Was it disrespectful, a foreigner wondered, if I rejected an offer of food? What should I do after the third or fourth home visit in a day, when faced with yet another slab of walnut cake or cut-glass saucer of bitter orange peel in syrup? Most Greeks would disapprove of someone who doesn’t even offer water to a visitor, but a guest who doesn’t respect his host’s munificence is a disrespectful, ungrateful wretch.

Hotel Odyssey - Why Are Greeks So Hospitable

Of course, hospitality didn’t only exist in the home; by extension, a café, taverna or bouzouki club worked just fine. It is frequently witnessed disputes and even anger flaring between diners in a restaurant when one person succeeded in paying the entire bill, and thus made himself the “host.” Foreigners may initially bemused by people paying for them wherever they go. If they protested, the response was often: “You can pay for me in England.” Possibly. but would they ever come? And in England, this wasn’t the way things were usually done; bills were regularly split between all the diners. However, even in England they say, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” And this saying points towards the hidden layers of meaning in Greek hospitality.

Anthropologists argue that there’s more to the phenomenon of hospitality than free-floating kindness – it’s part of a system. In many pre-industrial societies, you automatically give a stranger a meal or a bed for the night, knowing that someone else should do the same for you or your loved ones. These habits become deeply ingrained. Some degree of reciprocity is always implied, even if it is not implemented. Add to this equation the fact that historically, an unknown visitor always represents potential danger, and making them grateful and obliged becomes an even better idea.

 

Hotel Odyssey - Why Are Greeks So Hospitable

 

In Greece, aspects of traditional hospitality and generosity have survived, even if circumstances have changed. The reality of millions of tourists visiting each year makes it harder to find the random acts of kindness encountered by earlier travelers. Greeks have been inspiringly hospitable and openhearted towards refugees and migrants, whose mass arrivals coincided with the country’s own economic crisis.
It is believed that one reason why these old systems still flourish is the Greeks’ long history of doubting power and mistrusting the state. When you don’t believe the authorities will protect you or fulfill their duties, it is vital to create bonds with individuals who may help you at some point. At their best, however, these bonds are an informal association between people creating loose ties of obligation through gifts and hospitality. When you treat someone to a coffee or a meal or invite them into your home, you bind them to you in a fluid, open-ended debt that may never be repaid but that may help you in some way in the future.

Greece has changed dramatically in recent decades, but the self-worth and honor of an individual – their philotimo – is still reflected in how they treat a guest.

 

Hospitality is as basic to the Greek experience as the sea, sky and mountains

Hospitality is as basic to the Greek experience as the sea, sky and mountains

 

Τhe tradition of hospitality is a timeless characteristic of Greek culture. The proper provision of hospitality in ancient Greece was an important ritual that encouraged social, political or military “networking.” It was a sacred responsibility that came under the watchful eye of the Olympian gods. Zeus Xenios, “the strangers’ god,” ruled as hospitality’s chief protector. Even today, a visitor’s first contact with Greek lands and people is often memorably colored by the generous hospitality offered by their host. Inspired by the true Greek concept of Philoxenia, in Greece we greet our guests with the warmest smiles and make sure they have everything they could possibly need.

In Greece, we want you to feel at home, surrounded by good friends. We try to revive the past era aromas and atmosphere, the truly honest hospitality that asks for nothing in return. And Greeks are inherently generous; generous with things, generous with treats and most of all generous in feelings. If you just put aside the cold, impersonal style of modern society, in Kefalonia and all over Greece, you will discover the eternal, authentic spirit of Greek Philoxenia, that makes you feel right at home.

Hotel Odyssey - Why Are Greeks So Hospitable

 

 

 

 

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