The epic poem the Iliad by Homer tells of the weeks during the Trojan War when Agamemnon and Achilles had their quarrel. The Trojan War can be considered a result of a violation of xenia by Paris, who was a guest in Menelaus’ house, but ends up abducting Helen, Menelaus’ wife, demonstrating how xenia even has the power to send cities to war with one another. The Histories of Herodotus records the origins and battles between the Greeks and the Persians, while also including digressive narratives and myths dealing with the society and culture of ancient times, such as the practice of xenia. Xenia is further depicted as transcending guest and host relationships within a home, making appearances such as on the battlefield. Homer and Herodotus present the concept of xenia as greatly influential on the behavior of individuals and the relations between allies and enemies to comment on how highly valued such sacred social bonds are to convey the prevalence of fear of divine punishment.
One of the most prominent portrayals of the concept of xenia in the Iliad is when Diomedes and Glaucus meet in battle. Diomedes inquires about Glaucus’ lineage and discovers that they “have old ties of hospitality,” hence are bound together by their ancestors (Iliad 6.221). Both men further choose not to fight each other and trade “[g]ifts of friendship” (Iliad 6.225), their armor, to continue the practice of xenia as their ancestors had also done. This is a peculiar moment as both men are enemies in the middle of an intense battle, yet they still stop to have a conversation about ancestry and make such a discovery. Homer’s placement of this interaction between Diomedes and Glaucus in the midst of battle emphasizes the cultural and religious importance of xenia, allowing Homer to highlight how maintaining and reaffirming the sacred guest-host relations, even ones of the past, are more important than killing an enemy on the battlefield. However, Diomedes’ desire to maintain such friendship is suggested to have been motivated by fear of the gods’ wrath in relation to if one were to violate the practices of xenia: “Far be it from me to fight an immortal god./ Not even mighty Lycurgus lived long/ After he tangled with the immortals” (Iliad 6.130-133). Asking about Glaucus’ lineage allows Diomedes the opportunity to verify the identity of the soldier he was about to fight to avoid killing someone born of divine blood or someone who has once been a guest in his home to avoid upsetting the gods. It has been seen many times in the Iliad how the decisions of mortal individuals are almost always connected back to the desire to please the gods, who tend to intervene in mortal affairs, especially if someone with favorable relations to the gods is involved.
Glaucus shares the story of his lineage involving his grandfather, Bellerophon, which further demonstrates the significance of xenia, as the practice of xenia prevented Bellerophon’s death twice. Bellerophon had been falsely accused by Proteus’ wife of wanting to sleep with her, but Proteus had “scruples” about killing Bellerophon (Iliad 6.172), so he sent Bellerophon to Proteus’ father-in-law, the king of Lycia, to be killed. As suggested by Homer’s use of the word “srupples,” Proteus was unwilling to personally kill Bellerophon, since Bellerophon was a guest in his house, reinforcing the value of xenia and how it is believed that the repercussions of being a bad host by not acting hospitable towards one’s guest are much worse than the need to seek retribution for a crime. However, the king of Lycia also followed the customs of xenia: “[...] the king welcomed him/ And honored him with entertainment/ For nine solid days [...]” before questioning Bellerophon of his supposed wrongdoing (Iliad 6.178-180). Similarly to Proteus, the Lycian king hesitates to kill Bellerophon because he does not want to infringe on the practices of xenia by being indecent towards his guest, which could potentially upset the gods, who enforce the practice of xenia. In the case of Bellerophon, xenia prevented a wrongful death for him, as if there were no beliefs in xenia, he would have been dead from the instant he was accused. So, the strong belief in xenia saved Bellerophon’s life twice, or rather the fear of breaking such sacred bonds between guest and host, even if the guest were an enemy or criminal, and having to face divine retribution is a stronger, underlying influential factor for the actions of individuals; it was not just that the people were always genuinely hospitable and polite to every person who enters their house.
In several of Herodotus’ accounts, he discusses the topic of xenia, in which he associates depictions of xenia with misfortune. Herodotus’ portrayal of xenia is not as explicit as Homer’s in the Iliad, regarding the lavish descriptions of a host’s generosity to their guest; Herodotus’ approach to the topic of xenia appears to be more oriented towards commenting on the type of people who violate xenia, rather than why people practice xenia. In Book 1, Herodotus tells of the story of Adrastus, who came to Croesus seeking “ritual purification” for killing his own brother, and Croesus did so, embracing him as his guest because Adrastus was “the offspring of men who were [Croesus’] guest-friends” (Herodotus 1.35). Ironically, Adrastus would be the one who kills Croesus’ son; Croesus “called upon Zeus the Purifier [...] Zeus, Protector of Hearth and Zeus Guardian of Friendship” for the stranger Croesus, as a proper host, had welcomed as a guest and fed in his house was the one who has caused him severe misfortune (Herodotus 1.44). In this scenario, despite Croesus’ practice of xenia, he could not avoid the tragic fate set by the gods for his son, nor could Adrastus avoid murdering Croesus’ son, for it was an accident destined to occur. Herodotus seems to suggest that xenia is potentially flawed and has negative consequences, despite the intent of such practice being virtuous, as xenia led to a personal disaster for Croesus, whereas Homer depicts situations that link xenia to positive outcomes where no one dies and relations are strengthened.
Herodotus further portrays violations of xenia by Paris and Menelaus in an alternate story of Helen, involving her stay at the palace of Proteus in Egypt. Proteus rebukes Paris for his “monstrous, ungodly deed” of kidnapping Menelaus’ wife in addition to “bringing plunder from [his] host’s house” (Herodotus 2.115). Yet still abiding by the customs of xenia, Proteus states he “place great store in not putting a stranger to death,” hence will not kill Paris for his crimes; instead, Proteus takes away Paris’ plunder and refuses to give back Helen to him. This interaction between Proteus and Paris reflects the exchanges seen in Homer between individuals who follow the rituals of xenia to avoid any possible offense towards a divine being otherwise, if there was be no underlying fear of divine punishment, there would not be a strong reason to prevent Proteus from executing Paris for his wrongdoings. Notably in this exchange is the practice of xenia by the Egyptians, demonstrating how xenia was not limited to the Greeks; it could be argued that since this is told by Herodotus, from a Greek perspective, xenia is still inherently a Greek concept. However, ironically, it would be Menelaus, a Greek, who would commit a violation of xenia, as when leaving Egypt, after Proteus “welcomed him in a grand style” and returned Helen and all of the goods Paris had stolen, Menelaus seized and sacrificed two Egyptian children to calm the contrary winds (Herodotus 2.119). Menelaus was still able to escape the wrath of the Egyptians, sailing away unharmed, and without any divine intervention to punish him for his actions. In contrast, Paris’ violation of his guest-host relationship with Menelaus and Proteus resulted in the catalysis of misfortune and ruin for Paris and the city of Troy. Herodotus does not discuss Menelaus’ faults as prominently or as critically as he does for Paris; this highlights Herodotus’ bias towards the Greeks, presenting them in a more fortunate and positive manner, as opposed to foreigners who were viewed to less in superiority and endured more criticism.
Homer and Herodotus both present scenarios in which the belief in xenia greatly altered how individuals perceived and reacted to various situations, ranging from preventing a wrongful death to enabling a tragic fate. Through this practice, the society of the time was able to establish a safe space within one’s house and maintain a level of humanity, such that everyone was granted the opportunity to be treated decently. Although each writer depicts xenia in a varying perspective, both writers highlight how underneath the need to be a generous host and a courteous guest, there exists a widespread fear of the potential punishments that the gods may allocate for violating the sacred bonds established by xenia, though such punishments are not seen to have been dealt to the Greeks. Ultimately, Homer and Herodotus comment on the frailty of mortal life which forces humans to rely of the principle of xenia to maintain favorable relations with the gods so as to not bring about misfortune or tragedy upon themselves; from this perspective xenia is not as honorable as it seems, as it is shown to be practiced for selfish reasons.
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