The Code of Hospitality
The code of hospitality is an ancient code common to just about every ancient culture and moral code.
What it states basically is that anyone who comes to your home, invited or uninvited, should be treated with the utmost respect, provided food, comfort and basically be treated like family and once the guests immediate needs are met, the guest then had the right to ask for a favor to help him on his journey. Turning away someone’s request for shelter or mistreating a guest was a terrible, shameful act, worthy of severe punishment by the Gods.
The flip side of that is that anyone who visits another’s home must treat their hosts with similar respect. Stealing from your hosts, damaging their home, causing injury to them or other guests are all severe violations of the code of hospitality, equally deserving of divine justice. Guests were expected to treat their hosts’ homes like their own and to be helpful when they could and to move on as soon as it was convenient for them to do so.
In the ancient world, there weren’t a lot of hotels around. Travelers were literally dependent on the kindness of strangers if they wanted a hot meal and a comfortable place to sleep. They needed to know that their hosts weren’t going to rob them and their hosts needed to know that they weren’t going to rape their daughters. Or sons. People didn’t travel lightly in those days. Travelers were presumed to be on a mission of some importance and indeed, in some parts of the world these travelers were often on important pilgrimages. In the Middle East, these were often religious pilgrimages and in the Hellenic world travelers might be on their way to an oracle in search of answers to important problems.
This law was enforced through social means including the use of folklore. Many stories have come to us from this time, including the story of Beauty and the Beast, that demonstrate the necessity of following this law and the terrible consequences of ignoring it. At any moment a God or Goddess could come to your house in disguise and if you turn Him or Her away, woe be to you. On the other hand, if that God or Goddess receives the best hospitality regardless of the appearance He or She presents, you might get a pretty amazing reward.
The Odyssey is full of examples of the code of hospitality (philoxenia) and its violations, from the many individuals who played host to Odysseus through his journeys to the final challenge of the suitors after Odysseus’s final return home.
Homer’s Hymn to Demeter tells how Demeter appeared in the guise of an old beggar woman and rewarded those who offered her hospitality.
The Iliad demonstrates the worst case scenario for what can happen when the code of hospitality is violated. Paris visited Menelaus and then ran off with his wife and a bunch of his treasures. War, and the ultimate destruction of Paris’s own home, plus the loss of everything he knew and loved, was the result of this breech of the code of hospitality.
The Greek God of hospitality is Zeus Xenia.
Some scholars believe that the cautionary tale behind the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was more about the code of hospitality than anything else. The Bible is full of examples of the code of hospitality. In the Middle East, guests’ feet were washed to symbolize their acceptance into the household. Genesis 18:1-8 illustrates this hospitality ritual through Abraham’s actions. John 13:5- 20 tells the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet to symbolize his acceptance of them into his House, the Kingdom of Heaven. Another story from Luke 7:36-47 demonstrates the seriousness of violating the code of hospitality when Jesus tells Simon the Pharisee that the sinful woman who washed his feet was better in his view than Simon who didn’t bother offering him the traditional services guests could expect. Hebrews 13:2 comes right out and says it. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
In India, the code of hospitality is summed up in the maxim Atithi Devo Bhava, meaning “the guest is God”.
Following the code of hospitality honors the Gods and creates an environment that welcomes blessings into your home. Like attracts like and kindness to strangers and guests engenders reciprocal kindness.