Theoxenia as Politics for Shared Futures

The term ‘hospitality’ has many distinctive definitions and origins. 

In Ancient Greece one of the most important protocols of diplomacy was called xenia. Xenos (ξένος, “alien”, “foreign”, “strange”, “unusual”, “guest”) is an ambiguous term that had been used in Greek poetry from at least Homer onwards. The interpretation of it fluctuates from ‘stranger’ to ‘guest friend’ all the way to ‘enemy’.

Xenia as a protocol of relating to the Other played incremental role in the narratives that came down to us from Ancient Greek poets. In the last book of Homer’s The Iliad the king of Troy Priam comes to the camp of Achaeans to claim the body of his fallen son Hector and the Greek hero Achilles, abiding by the rules of xenia, allows him to stay and provides food, warm bed and entertainment despite the hostilities on the battlefield and his own personal rage over the death of Patroclus, his closest confidant and lover. 

The respect towards unknown Other was a subject of special importance since (s)he/them could have been a disguised god. The protocol of ancient hospitality could be more accurately defined as theoxenia (θεός “god”), a hospitality towards a possible god who can appear in a disguise of a humble stranger. In the first book of The Odyssey, Telemachus welcomes masked as a maiden Athena in his home and protects her from the rude suitors of his mother. He exercises the ritual of xenia and earns her favour and this act led to change of the heart of the goddess towards his father Odysseus, cursed by her for stealing a sacred statue of Athena from Troy’s temple in order to bring the victory to Achaeans in the 10 years war. Athena’s aid to Odysseus further was earned by his son’s act of hospitality. 

There are several key differences between hospitality in contemporaneity and the ancient Greek protocol of theoxenia. 

First of all, theoxenia is unconditional. Mourning Achilles neither welcoming Priam in his camp in hope for a reciprocity or while plotting a stratagem to use the king of Troy for the sake of some future act of revenge, nor he shows in this way his moral and ethical superiority by being so generous towards the enemy. He simply obeys the sacred rule of hospitality as if it would be an answer to the equation of two plus two. In order words, his approach to hospitality there is beyond selfish: it is ritualistic and cultural rather than opportunistic, pitiful or predatory.  

Secondly, theoxenia protects the perpetual peace and excludes psychological or any other form of violence. Allow me to elaborate here. The contemporary political interpretation of the term hospitality is closely tied with terms like integration, assimilation and tolerance. All three of them are presuming, although not admitting, an act of violence on the subjectivity of a guest/stranger. The agencies of integration and assimilation demand from the Other to assume traditions and norms of the society, in which her/him/them are integrating, as new fundamentals. Ultimately, they violently break the subjectivity that the Other had before the integration or assimilation process had begun. Tolerance of a host to a guest, on the other hand, is a mind construct of the borders of acceptable freedom within the cage of subjective reality defined as principal within the society that is tolerating the guest. Telemachus protects disguised in a clothes of shallow woman Athena from the drunk suitors of his mother Penelope, risking his life, in order to prevent the act of rape that is considered not far beyond ordinary towards the woman of unknown provenance in Ithaca. He places the respect the protocol of theoxenia over the normality of the socio-political order, preventing the violence even as it is justified by local norms, therefore he stands against the local tradition and identity. 

Thirdly, theoxenia is transnational, transcultural and universal. While contemporary hospitality is distinctly different among the people belonging to the same tribes - racially, socially, politically, ethnically, linguistically, etc - theoxenia is equal in the face of any otherness. Trojans are foreigners to Greeks, and all foreigners are considered Barbarians by the Achaeans, having different norms and understanding of justice. Achilles however treats Priam as a relative of his own. Disguised Athena is a traveller of unknown origin, an ultimate foreigner, but she receives protection of the prince of Ithaca. 

Contemporary hospitality is cruel, selfish, hostile and reciprocally economical. We talk about migrants and refugees, nomads and travellers (relating to them as ‘tourists’) as a livestock on the meat farm, economic items, the biomass that is meant to be violently integrated, assimilated, serviced and entertainment if they have money; and at the best tolerated by our ‘normalised’ orders of the societies. The condition of perpetual peace is simply impossible as the inflicted on the Other violence internalises in the form of deep sleeping trauma, which will eventually reemerge. It is not surprising to me, for example, that sociologists from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development report “that foreigners who come to live in Germany tend to remain strangers, even after 50 years and three generations in some cases”. It is not the failure of integration, as it is wrongly portrayed by the analysts - but the failure of hospitality. 

There is a better way to understand, teach about and explain hospitality than elaborating inevitability of cultural, social and political violence, that is meant to be inflicted on the Other who found themselves in the geopolitical space of your norms. In the face of Pangaeac challenges such as climate change, resurgence of narrow mindedness, nationalism and imperialism - it is the time to rid off tribal understanding of the world and explore the universal protocol of humanity within all of us.