One could be forgiven for thinking the Ancient Greeks were only concerned with fickle gods, many-headed monsters, and collecting women like tripods. Well, I hope I can be forgiven. Until recently, the only interactions I’d had with the Ol’ Greeks was an abridged reading of The Odyssey in the tenth grade, allusions to Greek mythology in Shakespeare and a few hundred viewings of Disney’s Hercules. (Meg and Herc! The end of that movie hits differently when you read what canon says happened to their kids.)
The Greeks were pretty preoccupied with gods, monsters and women as signifiers of everything but their own personhood. But they were also super, duper into hospitality. This was not the aspirational content hospitality we scroll through every day. You know, the kind portrayed on Martha’s Instagram. (Although, the Ancient Greeks were a pretty material people and they would have properly fangirled over Martha’s well-stocked kitchen shelves.) Hellenic hospitality wasn’t concerned with creating a tablescape once a year for invited Thanksgiving guests. It was concerned with creating a culture where every home functioned as a respite for the uninvited and unknown.
The Greeks had a formula for hospitality. The formula was the same whether a stranger walked into a king’s house or a swineherd’s hut. It went something like this:
- The stranger arrived and was not kept waiting. If a stranger-guest had time to lean against the doorframe while they waited to be greeted, they’d been waiting too long.
- The guest was washed from the dirt of their travels and then they were anointed with oil. There’s so much bodily anointing going on with the Greeks, I think they must have been a fairly shining people.
- The newly-washed guest was then fed a fair portion of meat and bread. The meat was well-roasted and the bread was accompanied with provisions like honey, cheese and sesame. It was a poor housekeeper who bore bare bread to the table.
- This was all washed-down with the best wine in the house, often well-aged and freshly unsealed.
- Only after a stranger-guest had eaten, drunk and, when available, been entertained were they asked who they were and what they needed.
One of my favorite parts of The Odyssey is a hospitality scene where a nobleman prays with and then feeds two guests before finally asking, “So, are you good men or pirates?” He had a social obligation to fill their stomachs before asking if they were there to empty his hollow ship. And they had a social obligation to, you know, not empty his hollow ship once he’d filled their stomachs.
There was a spiritual motivation here. The Greeks believed that any stranger in need might really be a god in disguise. And while few people have ever been keen to make their god(s) angry, the Greek gods could be particularly petty. If I thought Athena could secretly be every beggar or wandering nobleman at my door, I’d serve up my best spitted-meat and cheese-topped bread too. Girlfriend did not mess around.
Of course, the Greeks had a good reason for embracing hospitality culture apart from cosplaying immortals. It’s very possible their otherworldly reasoning existed to reinforce the needs of their lived-world. In an ancient landscape where overland travel was grinding, precarious and overlong, homes functioned as waystations. A hospitable home upheld it’s end of a culture-wide social contract - I will care for you because someday I will need someone to care for me.
There are a couple things required for universal hospitality to work. You need social trust; guests and hosts need to know they are safe with one another. Everyone needs to participate; true hospitality is a shared burden. One man single-handedly meeting the needs of every wandering person will become impoverished. Similarly, a society of hosts who hoard will become impoverished itself. One cannot sustain many, but many can, and must, always work to sustain the one. The Greeks were serious about this. A shocking number of their epics and tragedies are set in motion because someone was not hospitable or open-handed hospitality was abused. The details vary from one story to the next, but lots of people always die as a result of a betrayal of the hospitality cultural code.
Listen, there is a lot the Ancient Greeks got wrong. I’m not sure that one bad host experience should lead to the death of legions. Certainly their treatment of their enemies, their attitudes towards women and children, and their widespread enslavement of people were ummm not hospitable. Still, even while grappling with the brutish aspects of Ancient Greek culture, it’s impossible to lay your hands upon their general concept of hospitality and not think, “Well, here is a thing worth holding in our homes once more.”
Even without gods in disguise, we have good reason to work to embed a code of hospitality into American culture. In a modern landscape where community connection is waning, need is growing and racism is ever-rising, our homes must begin to function as way stations. I know, I know. Hospitality is good in theory but hard in practice, especially in the middle of a pandemic. What would it mean to be truly hospitable in a Covid-carrying America?
A suggested formula for hospitality in a contagious America.
- We can’t invite people into our homes to fill their stomachs with the contents of our pantries. We must bring the contents of our pantries to our stomachs. There are many ways to safely engage in community action while social distancing. in addition to a little free library in your front yard, put out a little free food pantry. Donate money to local food banks. Call women’s shelters to see what they need - many are full of women and children but emptied of supplies. The pandemic has caused a spike in domestic abuse and evictions - sometimes both are being inflicted on the same people.
- Invite new words and perspectives into your homes. My favorite way to do this is through books. A few new perspectives I’ve invited into my home: Brandon Taylor’s Real Life , Mehrsa Baradaran’s The Color of Money, and Eric R Dursteler’s Renegade Women: Gender, Identity, and Boundaries in the Early Modern Mediterranean
- Participate in democracy from your domicile! Use your mail-in ballots and vote for policies that spread the burden of hospitality across all of us. Accessible healthcare is hospitable. Economically valuing and compensating the unpaid labor of caretakers is hospitable. Protecting vulnerable children from systemic racism is hospitable.
- We must examine the storehouses of our homes and hearts. What can be unsealed and shared? I often feel like I have little of value. But my writing can be volunteered to mutual aid orgs or used to help tell the stories of other women. What good have you been maturing? How can you pour it out into the extended cups of a thirsty people?
- Get to know the people in need who are beyond the boundaries of our homes. Who are they? What do they need? I am not asking us to tell them who they are or to tell them what they need. I am insisting that we ask them who they are and what they need. As they answer, we must listen. I am asking us to ask each other, Who are you? What do you need? While you answer, I will listen.
We’re not so different from the Ancient Greeks. We’ve got our own monsters, our own petty idols, our own prejudices. There’s a fair share of brutishness mixed into our culture. It’s well beyond time to add the leavening of hospitality before the whole thing falls flat.
What if the hospitable work we do during this time of isolation helps make our country a place where we can approach each other’s home? And what if in the approach, we see each other coming? Because we are always looking for one another? And once we see, we meet them with a “hello” and “come in” and a tableful of bread? And once we are seen, we take our fill so we can fill another?
At the beginning of the pandemic we made so much bread. There’ve been lots of articles speculating about why the disintegration of societal norms led to so much sourdough. I think maybe we were reaching back towards an imagined more hospitable time, or maybe it was our way of reaching forward to a more concrete hospitable future. We’ll all need more breadmaking this winter. I recommend this recipe from Bonnie O’Hara + Alchemy Bread. It’s lovely drizzled with honey. If you want to do more bread baking I recommend O’Hara’s book, Bread Baking for Beginners. Her No-Knead Simple Focaccia is delightful topped with parmesan. It also keeps nicely for people stopping by and can be carried to hungry people currently without homes, accompanied by many other provisions.
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