Jupiter and Mercurius in the House of Philemon and Baucis (1630–33) by the workshop of Rubens: Zeus and Hermes, testing a village's practice of hospitality, were received only by Baucis and Philemon, who were rewarded while their neighbors were punished.

Xenia (Greek: ξενία) is an ancient Greek concept of hospitality. It is almost always translated as 'guest-friendship' or 'ritualized friendship'. It is an institutionalized relationship rooted in generosity, gift exchange, and reciprocity.[1] Historically, hospitality towards foreigners and guests (Hellenes not of your polis) was understood as a moral obligation. Hospitality towards foreign Hellenes honored Zeus Xenios (and Athene Xenia), patrons of foreigners.[2]

The rituals of hospitality created and expressed a reciprocal relationship between guest and host expressed in both material benefits (e.g. gifts, protection, shelter) as well as non-material ones (e.g. favors, certain normative rights). The word is derived from xenos 'stranger'.

The Greek god Zeus is sometimes called Zeus Xenios in his role as a protector of strangers. He thus embodied the moral obligation to be hospitable to foreigners and guests. Theoxeny or theoxenia is a theme in Greek mythology in which human beings demonstrate their virtue or piety by extending hospitality to a humble stranger (xenos), who turns out to be a disguised deity (theos) with the capacity to bestow rewards. These stories caution mortals that any guest should be treated as if potentially a disguised divinity and help establish the idea of xenia as a fundamental Greek custom.[3][4] The term theoxenia also covered entertaining among the gods themselves, a popular subject in classical art, which was revived at the Renaissance in works depicting a Feast of the Gods.

Legally, xenia was a charge of bastardy. Attic lawsuits apply it to accuse someone of committing citizenship fraud perpetrated through marriage fraud. The Periclean citizenship law of 451/450 BC expanded the definition of bastardy to include the children of unions between Athenians and non-Athenians.[5]


Xenia consists of two basic rules:

  1. The respect from hosts to guests. Hosts must be hospitable to guests and provide them with a bath, food, drink, gifts, and safe escort to their next destination. It is considered rude to ask guests questions, or even to ask who they are, before they have finished the meal provided to them.
  2. The respect from guests to hosts. Guests must be courteous to their hosts and not be a threat or burden. Guests are expected to provide stories and news from the outside world. Most importantly, guests are expected to reciprocate if their hosts ever call upon them in their homes.[6]

Xenia was considered to be particularly important in ancient times when people thought that gods mingled among them. If one had poorly played host to a stranger, there was the risk of incurring the wrath of a god disguised as the stranger. It is thought that the Greek practice of theoxenia may have been the antecedent of the Roman rite of Lectisternium, or the draping of couches.

While these practices of guest-friendship are centered on the gods, they would become common among the Greeks in incorporating xenia into their customs and manners. Indeed, while originating from mythical traditions, xenia would become a standard practice throughout all of Greece as a historical custom in the affairs of humans interacting with humans as well as humans interacting with the gods.

In the Iliad

In the Odyssey

Xenia is an important theme in Homer's Odyssey.

In the Argonautica

The Argonautica, written by Apollonius of Rhodes, takes place before the Iliad and the Odyssey. Since the story takes place during Greek times, the theme of xenia is shown throughout the story.

Political alliances

Historian Gabriel Herman lays out the use of xenia in political alliances in the Near East.

Solemn pronouncements were often used to establish a ritualised personal relationship, such as when "Xerxes, having been offered lavish hospitality and most valuable gifts by Pythios the Lydian, declared "...in return for this I give you these privileges (gera): I make you my Xenos." The same set of words could be applied in non-face-to-face situations, when a ruler wished to contract an alliance through the intermediary of messengers.[13] Herman points out that this is correspondent to pacts made by African tribal societies studied by Harry Tegnaeus (in his 1952 ethno-sociological book Blood Brothers) where "the partners proclaim themselves in the course of the blood ceremony each other's 'brothers', 'foster-brothers', 'cousins'. The surviving treaties of 'fraternity' 'paternity' and 'love and friendship' between the petty rulers of the ancient Near East in the second half of the second millennium B.C. incorporate what are probably written versions of such declarations."[13] (Herman also sees an echo of this in the medieval ceremony of homage, in the exchange between a would-be-vassal and the lord.)[13]

Herman goes on to point out that "no less important an element in forging the alliance was the exchange of highly specialized category of gifts, designated in our sources as xénia (as distinct from xenía, the term of the relationship itself) or dora. It was as important to give such gifts as to receive, and refusal to reciprocate as tantamount to a declaration of hostility. Mutual acceptance of the gifts, on the other hand, was a clear mark of the beginning of friendship."[13] Herman points to the account of Odysseus giving Iphitos a sword and spear after having been given a formidable bow while saying they were "the first token of loving guest-friendship".[13] Herman also shows that Herodotus holds "the conclusion of an alliance and the exchange of gifts appeared as two inseparable acts: Polykrates, having seized the government in Samos, "concluded a pact of xenia with Amasis king of Egypt, sending and receiving from him gifts (dora)".[13] Within the ritual it was important that the return gift be offered immediately after receiving a gift with each commensurate rather than attempting to surpass each other in value. The initial gifts in such an exchange would fall somewhere between being symbolic but useless, and of high use-value but without any special symbolic significance.[13] The initial gifts would serve as both object and symbol. Herman points out that these goods were not viewed as trade or barter, "for the exchange was not an end in itself, but a means to another end." While trade ends with the exchange, the ritual exchange "was meant to symbolize the establishment of obligations which, ideally, would last for ever."[13]

Plato makes mention of Zeus Xenios while discussing his journey to meet Dion of Syracuse in The Seventh Letter.[14]

In architecture

Vitruvius uses the word "xenia" once, near the end of Book 6 of De Architectura, in a note about the decorative paintings, typically of food, located in guest apartments:

"when the Greeks became more luxurious, and their circumstances more opulent, they began to provide dining rooms, chambers, and storerooms of provisions for their guests from abroad, and on the first day they would invite them to dinner, sending them on the next chickens, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and other country produce. This is why artists called pictures representing the things which were sent to guests ‘xenia.’"[15]

Architectural theorist Simon Weir explained how Vitruvius refers to xenia at the beginning of Book 6 of De Architectura, in the anecdote of Aristippus shipwrecked and receiving hospitality from the Rhodians.[16] Also how xenia was pervasive in the work of the earliest ancient Greek architects, whose work was always concerned with public buildings and the hosting of guests rather than the design of private residences.[17] Architectural Historian, Lisa Landrum has also revealed the presence of Xenia in Greek theatre onstage and offstage.[18][19]

In the Hebrew Bible

Abraham and the Three Angels (Byzantine mosaic, Monreale)

Several incidents recorded in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) are considered parallels to the Greek concept of theoxenia, whereby hospitality is shown to a stranger before they reveal their divine nature.[20][21]

Writers distinguish between "positive theoxenies," in which the community treats the guest appropriately, and a "negative theoxeny," where the host receives the blessing of life rather than the death the unwelcoming public is cursed with.[26][27][28] Some authors have deemed these an example of the influence of Hellenic culture on the ancient Israelites.[29][30][31]

See also


  1. ^ The Greek world. Anton Powell. London: Routledge. 1995. ISBN 0-203-04216-6. OCLC 52295939.((cite book)): CS1 maint: others (link)
  2. ^ A companion to Greek religion. Daniel Ogden. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. 2007. ISBN 978-1-4051-8216-4. OCLC 173354759.((cite book)): CS1 maint: others (link)
  3. ^ Louden, Bruce. 2011. Homer's Odyssey and the Near East Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 31–2.
  4. ^ Weaver, John B. 2004. Plots of Epiphany: Prison-Escape in Acts of the Apostles. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. p. 34.
  5. ^ A companion to Hellenistic literature. James Joseph Clauss, Martine Cuypers. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell. 2010. ISBN 978-1-4051-3679-2. OCLC 417443926.((cite book)): CS1 maint: others (link)
  6. ^ Reece, Steve. 1993. The Stranger's Welcome: Oral Theory and the Aesthetics of the Homeric Hospitality Scene. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. [catalogues the various expectations of hosts and guests in early Greek society.]
  7. ^ Homer (1990). Iliad. Translated by Fagles, Robert. New York: Penguin.
  8. ^ a b c Lattimore, Richmond (2011). The Iliad of Homer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226470498.
  9. ^ Homer, Odyssey VIII: 204–211.
  10. ^ Homer, Odyssey I, Murray, A. T., trans. 1919. 20.287-319. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann. [two volumes].
  11. ^ Biggs, Cory; Joseph, Melissa; Bennet, Mollie; Manning, Dustin; Schrodt, Jonas (2002). "The Value of Hospitality". A Guide to Ancient Greek Culture (Student project). Schenectady, NY: Union College. Retrieved 12 July 2014.
  12. ^ a b c d e f Rhodes, Apollonius of (2007). Argonautica. University of California.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Herman, Gabriel (1987). Ritualised Friendship and the Greek City. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  14. ^ "The Internet Classics Archive | the Seventh Letter by Plato".
  15. ^ "Vitruvius Pollio, The Ten Books on Architecture, BOOK VI, CHAPTER VII: THE GREEK HOUSE, section 4". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2020-04-16.
  16. ^ Weir, Simon (2015). "Xenia in Vitruvius' Greek house: andron, ξείνία and xenia from Homer to Augustus". The Journal of Architecture. 20 (5): 868–83. doi:10.1080/13602365.2015.1098717. ISSN 1360-2365. S2CID 145783068.
  17. ^ Weir, Simon (2016). "On the origin of the architect: Architects and xenía in the ancient Greek theatre". Interstices: 9–15. doi:10.24135/ijara.v0i0.498. ISSN 2537-9194.
  18. ^ Weir, Simon (2016-12-25). "On the origin of the architect: Architects and xenía in the ancient Greek theatre". Interstices: Journal of Architecture and Related Arts: 9–15. doi:10.24135/ijara.v0i0.498. ISSN 2537-9194.
  19. ^ Landrum, Lisa (2013). "Ensemble performances: Architects and justice in Athenian drama". In Simon, Jonathan (ed.). Architecture and justice: Judicial meanings in the public realm. New York: Routledge. pp. 245–256. ISBN 978-1409431732.
  20. ^ Jipp, Joshua W. (September 12, 2013). Divine Visitations and Hospitality to Strangers in Luke-Acts: An Interpretation of the Malta Episode in Acts 28:1-10. BRILL. ISBN 9789004258006 – via Google Books.
  21. ^ Louden, Bruce (May 5, 2006). The Iliad: Structure, Myth, and Meaning. JHU Press. ISBN 9780801882807 – via Google Books.
  22. ^ Lee, John. "Entertaining More Than Angels". ChristianityToday.com.
  23. ^ "Genesis 18:1-2 - A Verse Used to Support the Trinity | BiblicalUnitarian.com".
  24. ^ "Genesis 18". biblehub.com.
  25. ^ "Genesis 19". biblehub.com.
  26. ^ "The Role of Theoxenies in Ancient Literature - Mibba". www.mibba.com.
  27. ^ Louden, Bruce (January 6, 2011). Homer's Odyssey and the Near East. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139494908 – via Google Books.
  28. ^ Louden, Bruce (November 6, 2018). Greek Myth and the Bible. Routledge. ISBN 9780429828041 – via Google Books.
  29. ^ Louden, Bruce (March 3, 1999). The Odyssey: Structure, Narration, and Meaning. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 9780801860584 – via Google Books.
  30. ^ Gnuse, Robert Karl (September 30, 2020). Hellenism and the Primary History: The Imprint of Greek Sources in Genesis - 2 Kings. Routledge. ISBN 9781000164923 – via Google Books.
  31. ^ Taylor, John (December 20, 2012). Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781849667890 – via Google Books.