Next time you get a bad Airbnb review spare a thought for poor Tantalus. Punished for all eternity in Hades, he was made to stand in a pool of water never quite able to reach the water to drink, or the fruit above him to eat. It’s the origin of the word ‘tantalising’.
His crime? Shoddy hospitality.
The wrath of Zeus
In Greek mythology, hospitality was a divine right of guests and a divine duty of hosts. All strangers, without exception, were under the protection of Zeus Xenios – the god of strangers and suppliants. A violation of hospitality was likely to provoke the wrath of the gods.
Well, there were no inns or hotels in the ancient world – in fact, this was an age before even Booking.com. Travellers on the wild roads were few and far between, and they were entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers along the way for shelter and food. Divine protection was a necessary insurance policy for guests.
It was a pretty good policy for hosts, too. Gods disguised themselves as mortals on a seemingly weekly basis. It was impossible to know whether the sudden appearance of a dishevelled and weary traveller was not in fact an all-powerful, all-knowing, vindictive god coming to stay. Best to treat all guests as gods. You know, just in case.
Take Homer’s Odyssey for example. During Odysseus’s lost wanderings at sea he is hosted unfailingly by all he encounters: feasts, wine and gifts abound. Except, that is, by the most enduring of ‘bad guys’ – the cyclops. The cyclops turned expectations on their head, attacking his guests as they slept. Odysseus’ men were only able to escape by clinging to the bellies of sheep. This violation of trust made the cyclops the ultimate monster in the minds of the ancient Greeks.
Fast-forward to a mere 2500 years ago and the Greeks were making good use of their hosting skills at symposia: ‘drinking parties with convivial discussion’.
A symposium could be a platform for great philosophers of the day – Socrates, Plato or Aristotle might discuss everything from love to society and democracy. Mainly though, they were a vehicle for ancient Greek blokes to get wine drunk, belt out some tunes, and look at women.
Guests would recline in a circle, and evenings would generally begin with a feast of cheese, olives and meats. Then the drinking would begin, and a ‘master of the symposium’ was selected at random from among the guests.
Much like a university rugby captain, this man’s responsibility was to impose drinking on everyone – and impose forfeits on those who disobeyed his instructions. Forfeits ranged from dancing naked to giving piggybacks – these Greeks were an absolute riot.
So what can ancient Greek hospitality teach us about hosting in the modern world? Well, for starters, it’s clear Greek philosophers would almost certainly fail our guest vetting process. But surely we can all learn a little by treating hospitality as a divine responsibility – even if the threat of eternal punishment in Hades has diminished in recent years.
Happy World Philosophy Day!
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