People had to be much more trusting in ancient times. Travellers were forced to rely on the kindness of strangers, including through the rituals of xenia, or host friendship. Protected by the highest of all the Greek Gods, Zeus, xenia was a custom of hospitality where hosts would offer food, shelter, and protection to guests, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or social status. In exchange, the stranger would treat your house and possessions with respect, and they, along with their family for generations to come, would return the favour if you were ever in their neighbourhood. This practice was deeply ingrained in Greek culture and played an essential role in building relationships between individuals and communities. Xenia features heavily in Greek mythology, most famously with Paris violating the xenia laws in Menelaus’s house by sleeping with his wife Helen, leading to the Trojan War, or more positively from the romantic tale of Baucis and Philemon.
In ancient Greece, the concept of xenia, also known as philoxenia, was a fundamental aspect of their social and cultural practices. However, when examining the ancient Greek concept of xenia, it is essential to consider its impact on gender. Women were typically excluded from the practice of xenia, as it was seen as the domain of men. Women were expected to remain at home and fulfil their domestic roles while men socialised and established connections with other men. There are some notable exceptions, for example in Homer’s Odyssey (and the much more enjoyable feature in Charlotte Higgins’s novel Greek Myths, A New Retelling), Penelope was a hostess who offered hospitality to travellers in her husband Odysseus’ absence. Even in this case, her role was limited to the domestic sphere, and she was not considered an equal participant in xenia. She was also forced to fulfil this role against her will. The longer the young men stayed, the more of her supplies they drained, and the less safe she felt. Indeed, they were there to try and convince her to marry them, and the laws of hospitality meant she felt unable to kick them out.
In today’s society, women involved in heterosexual relationships are often still seen as fulfilling a domestic role when it comes to hosting in the home, including preparing and serving food, tidying and cleaning, and making guests feel comfortable. This is being challenged as men take an increasingly active role in hosting and sharing the responsibilities and indeed the domestic sphere at large is changing. By sharing the responsibilities of hosting, families and households can create a more inclusive and equitable environment that values everyone’s contributions. However, we have a long way to go before women are freed from the stress of hosting.
Interestingly, xenial attraction is sometimes referred to as that unique love between a person in hospitality and their patient. Xenial love is the pragmatic affection experienced by a nurse, doctor, therapist, carer, social worker, etc. for their charge that helps them to do their job effectively. This can be seen as the opposite of xenophobia, the dislike or mistrust of strangers. In fact, philoxenia and xenophobia were often used in the same breath in Greek mythology, as the Greeks were more than willing to invite their fellow countrymen into their homes but were suspicious and hateful of ‘barbarian’ strangers.
Overall, the ancient Greek concept of xenia reflects the patriarchal society in which it was practised. Gender roles were rigidly defined, thereby excluding women from certain social practices, even ones that were considered essential to building relationships and establishing alliances. However, the practice of xenia also highlights the importance of hospitality and respect for others, regardless of their background, which is a lesson that remains relevant today.