«Ξενιτιά, φαρμακωμένη, στο σπίτι μου θα πάω, και ξερό, ξερό ψωμί ας φάω.»
Herein contained is the contention that our fellow sucklers of the same racial teat (ομογάλακτοι as opposed to ωμογάλακτοι with all the negative connotations that a lack of pasteurization and ethnic homogenization entails) are obsessed with strangers, occupying positions upon the linear plane between the extremes of philoxenia – a love of strangers (as long as they play the role of strangers and don’t try to become too familiar with our cultural foibles) and xenophobia.
Such an obsession is deeply and historically entrenched within our psyche. The term xenos can be translated to both foreigner (in the sense of a person from another Greek state) as well as a foreigner or traveler brought into a relationship of long distance friendship. Xenos can also be used simply to assert that someone is not a member of your community, that is simply foreigner and with no implication of reciprocity or relationship.
In times ancient, the concept of Xenia or guest friendship became a social and religious institution, most probably because in a world of insular city states, the bi-polar Hellenic view of “us against them” or “Hellenes versus Barbarians” (ie. everyone else in the world) was the defining element that provided Greeks with their sense of self, to the extent where they variously attempted to either narrow the definition of “xenos” where this suited them (notably Thucydides’ and Demosthenes’ unwillingness to term the Macedonians, Greek, which was more politically motivated than anything else) or broaden it when they saw fit. This broader concept, which arose, ironically enough as a result of the Macedonian conquests and the spread of Greek culture throughout the Middle East, where a Hellene was said to be anyone who partook of Hellenic paideia, still did preserve the concept of a xenos within it. Thus, it is termed the Hellenistic period – Greekish enough for the uninitiated, who as much as they may try, can never as xenoi, aspire to the attainment of true Hellenism.
Xenia, as an ancient Greek concept of hospitality, probably thus arose because there would have been no other way for insular, suspicious people proud of their own small little world to move about freely abut Hellas without being transfixed upon the unphiloxenic point of the spear of a paranoid peltast. The Grand Olympian Zeus himself was sometimes referred to as Zeus Xenios, meaning he was god of, among other things, travelers. This created a particular religious obligation to be hospitable to travelers, but guests also had responsibilities, beyond reciprocating hospitality, the violation of which could have dire consequences.
The Trojan war described in the Iliad of Homer actually resulted from a violation of xenia. Paris was a guest of the Spartan king Menelaus but seriously transgressed the bounds of xenia by abducting his host's wife, Helen. Therefore the Achaeans were required by duty to Zeus to avenge this transgression, which as a violation of xenia was an insult to Zeus's authority, resulting in the war. Of course, underlying the whole story is an undercurrent of hysterical fear of xenoi. Despite the tenents of xenia, xenoi are a threat who can and will at any stage, abuse their host’s hospitality and make free with their women.
Ancient Xenia consisted of three basic rules. The respect from host to guest, the respect from guest to host, and the parting gift from host to guest, elements of which exist in the Greek concept of philoxenia even to this day. The host must be hospitable to the guest and provide him with food and drink and a bath, if required. It was not polite to ask questions until the guest had sated his desire. The guest must be courteous to his host and not be a burden. The parting gift is to show the host's honor at receiving the guest. This was especially important in the ancient times when men thought gods mingled amongst them. If you had played host to a deity (a concept known as theoxenia), and performed poorly, you would incur the wrath of a god. Again, the undercurrent of hysteria is palpable. If you do not look after a xenos who is more powerful than you and who has the potentiality to do you harm, chances are that he will. Therefore, we are philoxenoi not because we love xenoi but because we must be so.
It is one of the more biting ironies of our existence that the xenos-fearing Greek ended up having to be a xenos in other foreign lands, because for various reasons, his own beloved country could not support him. This experience, known as xenitia, is one of the most bitter, unpalatable and yet fascinatingly contradictory and schizophrenic experiences of the Greek people. A Greek may live in luxury, achieve wonders, notably in Ottoman Romania or to provide a modern day counterpart, in the United States but nonetheless, will consider that experience to be unpalatable and almost unbearable, not only because he is far removed from the hovel of his birthplace, which assumes the mythological status of an Arcadia, upon which bucolic elegies are spun, but because though in actual fact he is the ‘foreigner,’ and is seen as such by the natives of the land he has chosen to settle in, he seems himself as cursed to live among xenoi, an unnatural experience for a Greek, who can tolerate no rivals to his sense of cultural and racial superiority.
Xenitia is thus a raw material to be pillaged, expoited and twisted to the benefit of Hellenism, whether that takes the form of conferring a material benefit upon the Greek homeland, by way of sending back subsidies, the securing of favourable treatment of Greece or Greeks by the xenic-host country or the extraction of privileges from such host-countries (invariably seen as tribute towards a superior and vital culture) that will ensure the Hellenes’ survival in the abnormality of xenitia, in order to better proclaim the glory of Greece from such harsh, distant shores. Physical survival and material well-being in the popular consciousness, become subordinated to or at least subsumed within a need for the survival of Hellenism as a whole so that any individual attainment by a single Hellene rebounds upon the whole race even if it objectively has no racial basis or origin at all, in juxtaposition to the works and deeds of the xenoi.
Such xenoi as are encountered while in xenitia are useful, as their otherness confirms the Greek’s sense of identity. While our ancient pedigree of xenia and its modern Christian permutations ensure that we treat xenoi kindly, appreciate them for their intelligence and their provision of technological and other material benefits, they will never be able to aspire to assuming our identity. Being accepted among them is a joy, as by experiencing their foreigness, we become more secure in our own sense of self. Too often, that sense of self, a sterotyped gleaming marble wall of a high and noble history precedes our own personality in our own interpersonal relationships. Questions such as “Where are you from?” considered rude in some cultures until after at least some type of introduction and acquaintance are vital and necessary from the outset for a Greek, for upon the answer is dependant the method and mode of treatment of our counterparts.
A xenos who would purport to transcend his hypostasis is a threat and an anathema. For the potentiality that the Other from which we derive our understanding of our selves can dissolve, depriving us of a reference point poses the ultimate threat to our cultural existence. A xenos must remain a xenos, if we are to remain Hellenes. Since a xenos cannot become a Hellene without a Hellene losing his Hellenicity, a xenos within a Greek context, purporting to some sort of affinity or intimacy with Greeks that goes beyond lip service to a grand and superior culture and aspires to equality is more than just a danger. He is a contagion. A Greek that will become intimate with him in his quest to appropriate Greekness will lose their identity and invoke the wrath of the Gods, for no gentile may penetrate the Holy of Holies of our conceptual self. The fear and trepidation in the tremulous voices of those Greeks whose first inquiry as to the nature of the second generations’ choice of partners (as guardians and bastions of culture, they themselves are as infllalible as the Oracle at Delphi and a good deal more inscrutable) does not relate to their benigness but rather: «Είναι ξένος;» is telling. It is then that old traditions long forgotten are resurrected, languages long relegated to interspersion among the tongues of the xenoi are revived in full, modes of behaviour that are no longer followed are hypocritically re-imposed we and remember who we are and what we have been set upon the earth to do. Such xenoi will always be xenoi and will never be “dikoi mas.” We will tolerate them because we must, but we will watch them closely, as the untrustworthy Parises that they are, for their hubris condemns them and they have seen things in the inner sanctuary of the mythology of our ethnicity that we would rather not reveal.
When xenitemenoi return from xenitia, they return Home. Odysseus spent ten years fighting the xenoi who appropriated his peoples’ property and another ten in xenitia desperately trying to get home. In doing so, it was perfectly justifiable for him to abuse the xenia of others, notably foreign, semi-divine women who were in love with him and wanted to guarantee him joy for the rest of his days, because everything may be subordinated to Nostos and the re-affirmation of Hellenism. Indeed the only xenia he did not abuse was that of the Phaeacians, and only because they asked nothing of them, respecting the boundaries of his identity and sending them on his way.
Modern day xenitemenoi, just like their mythological archetype perennially return to their own Ithaca expecting a welcome home. They are soon disabused of their delusion, being recognised only by trivial mortally ill dogs and servants. It incenses them to learn that their home, the spouse of Hellenism for whom they have striven so hard to keep pure and unadulterated, is beset by corruption and iniquity. She is and always will be pure. She will pine and long for the return of all her children-lovers in order to enclose them in her matriarchal-passionate embrace. But her suitors, capitalism, greed, self-interest, modernization, globalism and finally, xenophobia, will not permit her to do so. Odysseus is gone, Odysseus is dead. Odysseus is a xenos and can no longer be admitted to the hearth. An incident at a Piraeus bus-stop I once witnessed is a case in point: A wizened grandmother holding a middle aged woman by the arm, turned to her friends and said: “Allow me to introduce my daughter to you. She is a xeni. She lives in Australia.”
Sophocles uses the vagueness of the word xenos in his tragedy Philoctetes, with Neoptolemus using the word exclusively for Philoctetes to indicate the uncertain relationship between the two characters. When and if Odysseus does manage to string his bow and cleanse the Augean stable that his home has been reduced to, he will still not find happiness. A xenos in xenitia, a xenos still in his former home, he will take off once more, in the pursuit of pure Hellenism, only to be assailed by Telegonus, a product of his blasphemous union with the xeni demi-goddess Circe. Telegonus, a xenos, has no bonds of kinship with this foreign man. He kills his progenitor with a stingray barb for it is xenitia that shall have the final revenge, since in a globalised world where all is familiar and nothing is foreign anymore, the time will come when we will look in the mirror of the xenoi’s eyes, desperately seeking our own reflection and nothing will be seen.
First published in NKEE on 15 October 2007