In Stranger in a Strange Land – Part One, I discussed the Greek concept of xenia. In short, xenia refers to a host’s obligation to a stranger, namely food, lodging, and gifts. A form of paranoia reinforced that practice — the fear that your guest is, in fact, a god in disguise. There’s even a scholarly name for it: theoxenia.
Much like how Greece was not (as explained in the aforementioned article) the only culture practicing xenia, other cultures carry their own stories of theoxenia. Often, those guests are judges, testing the virtue of people by their generosity and kindness toward strangers. The angels who visited Sodom and Gomorrah are examples. Sometimes, though, motives are more self-centered than that. Sometimes gods slip into human form for lust or as a prank.
Whatever the reason, it makes for some fascinating reading. This is a sampling of stories about theoxenia, or godly disguise, drawn from around the world, along with some observations about what they have in common.
Test of Virtue
The Last Supper – Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) – Santa Maria delle Grazie
In the years before institutional justice systems(any form of them we would recognize, anyway), people invoked the gods, and stories about them promoted desirable behavior within the community. Regardless of one’s personal belief in gods and their power, they were useful social tools.
Whereas the Christian God is an all-seeing enforcer of good manners, however, polytheistic religions had more human-sized figures. A Christian says, “God is watching and he is everywhere.” A Greek cannot say the same of Zeus, protector of strangers.
So, the idea that a god could be hiding anywhere, watching you without your knowledge, becomes a common means to the same end.
Greek Mythology: Baucis and Philemon
One such story belongs to the Roman poet Ovid. In his Metamorphoses, he writes of Baucis and Philemon.
Hermes and Zeus decide for reasons unknown to become itinerant wanderers in Phrygia, a region in modern-day Turkey. They travel from door to door for lodging without success. “All the doors [are] bolted/ and no word of kindness given.” Finally, they stumble upon Baucis and Philemon, an old, destitute couple.
No questions asked, they invite the gods in and spoil them. They pull out the table linens they reserve for holidays, cabbage, bacon, plums, and wine. Based on the humble thatch of the cottage and the linens’ ragged cloth, Baucis and Phileomon must be providing everything in their larders.
Due to one detail, they realize that their new friends are not mere travelers: no matter how much wine the four of them drink, it never runs out. Immediately, they fall over themselves to find a proper sacrifice, apologizing for the simpleness of their home and food. They chase their prize goose about the room, but the goose outlasts their aged legs and flees to Zeus and Hermes.
The gods command Baucis and Philemon to cease, and they, in fact, compliment the two for their generosity. They ask them to accompany them to a nearby mountain, where they will cast down retribution on their wicked neighbors.
From the summit, Zeus and Hermes flood the valley below. Big-hearted Baucis and Philemon weep for their friends, as wicked as they were. But when the water subsides, their sorrow turns to awe. Their house has been transformed. “Where first the frame was fashioned stakes/columns of marble glistened, and the thatch gleamed golden in the sun, and legends carved/ adorned the doors. And all the ground shone white with marble rich.” Their hovel is now a temple.
The gods turn to them and ask, “Now tell us, good old man and you his wife / worthy and faithful, what is your desire?” This is an extension of ancient Greek guest rites. At the end of a visit, host and stranger would exchange gifts.
Philemon gathers his wife’s counsel first, then asks that they be named caretakers of the new temple for the rest of their days. And, he adds, let the same hour take them both. Let them die without seeing the tomb of their beloved or heaping the earth above it.
And so it was.
Hinduism: Krisha, the Wealthy Family, and the Poor Widow
In Hinduism, Krishna is one of its most revered divinities. He is the eighth avatar of the god Vishnu, merely one face that the four-armed deity assumes. There’s an absurdity, then, to the idea of Krishna posing as someone else. It’s like wearing a mask on top of a mask.
The following is drawn from a passage by Swami Tyagananda in the book Hosting the Stranger: Between Religions (page 148-149).
Krishna and his friend Arjuna travel as wandering mendicants, healers who live on the road and survive on alms from patients. They encounter a wealthy family. The family gladly offers shelter and food that matches their standard of living. As a parting gift, Krishna blesses them with continued prosperity and material abundance
After traveling further, they encounter a poor widow. Her sole possession is a sickly cow. She displays similar warmth, but she is only able to offer the god a glass of milk. As a parting gift, Krishna tells her that her cow will die soon.
Once they are back on the road, Arjuna upbraids Krishna. He is aghast. Why did Krishna bestow plenty on an already well-to-do household, then curse an old woman with the loss of her livelihood?
Krishna answers, “My wealthy host is insanely attached to his wealth and reputation; he has a long way to go before he becomes spiritually awakened. On the other hand, this poor devotee is already far advanced on the spiritual path. The only thing that is separating her from the highest freedom is her attachment to her cow. I removed the hurdle from her path.”
For the Sake of Lust
Ares and Aphrodite Caught by Hephaestus – Painter: Luca Giordano (1634-1705)
A recurring theme of godly disguise is romance. From time to time, the gods eye a mortal that they want and use a humbler persona to attain them.
Greek Mythology: Zeus and His Many Paramours
The king of the Greek gods is infamous for his trysts with mortals.The jealousy of his wife, Hera, pushes him to be . . . resourceful. Sometimes he becomes a man. Sometimes he transforms into animals: he seduces Leda as a swan and Europa as a white bull.
Zeus’ high libido isn’t just a joke among classicists. Zeus himself is characterized as being keenly aware, and it was probably a common source of comedy among Greeks. For instance, in the Homeric Hymns, Zeus forces Aphrodite to fall in love with the mortal Anchises. Aphrodite has struck Zeus with desire so many times that Zeus wants revenge. Of course, the pairing ends badly, but that’s a tragedy for a different article.
A good example of Zeus’ shenanigans is his tryst with Alcmene, a princess of Mycenae, a kingdom in the south of modern-day Greece. This particular version of that affair comes from The Library, a collection of Greek myths from the second-century A.D.
Alcmene is a princess in exile. Her father, Electryon, planned to make war on the Teleboans to avenge his brother’s death. For safekeeping, he entrusted his kingdom and his daughter to the warrior Amphitryon. While Amphitryon and Electryon were shepherding cattle into Amphitryon’s care, they riled a bull. The bull charged. Amphitryon threw his club. The club rebounded and struck Electryon, killing him. Amphitryon fled the country with Alcmene in tow. It’s one of those moments in myth which verges on parody.
So, Amphitryon takes refuge in the nearby city of Thebes, but he doesn’t stay there long. As a matter of honor to his dead father-in-law, he decides to make war on the Teleboans, the people Electryon had intended to fight. He leaves Alcmene in Thebes.
Zeus assumes the form of the absent Amphitryon. For three nights, he beds Alcmene. He’s not able to keep it a secret for long. Amphitryon discovers the ruse when he returns and Aclmene isn’t overjoyed to see her long-gone husband. From her perspective, he never left.
Alcmene’s affair becomes something of a blessing in the long-run. Zeus gave her a special child by the name of Heracles.
Hinduism: Agni and the Mahabharata
The Hindu god of fire does not, to my knowledge, have the same struggle with his passions. Nevertheless, he has a similar episode in the Mahabharata (page 711).
To make sense of this story, it’s important to note the role of fire in Hinduism. In short, lighting a ritual fire was a way to commune with Agni, the Vedic fire god.
In the kingdom of Mahishmati and under the rule of King Nila, one such fire develops a strangely sensuous relationship with a princess. King Nila’s daughter, whose name is never mentioned, is the only one who can tend it. “Even when fanned, it would not blaze up till agitated by the gentle breath of that girl’s fair lips.” She may be under the impression that it’s just a fire, but the god Agni is actually stealing kisses.
Madly in love, Agni decides to court her. He takes on the form of a Brahmana, a priest, to woo her. Unfortunately, the king discovers them while they’re out and about. He calls for the guards and intends to punish Agni. Furious, Agni unveils his true, fiery form. The king is humbled by the god’s magnificence and begs forgiveness.
The Death of Baldur – Painter: Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853)
The last type of theoxenia story involves trickster gods, who throw on facades due to their nature.
Norse Mythology: Loki
Marvel’s interpretation of Norse folklore leaves much to be desired sometimes. Its ideas about Thor, Odin, Loki, and the various denizens of Nordic cosmology are high on science fiction and short on the original’s wonder and magic. Nevertheless, its portrayal of the trickster god Loki is accurate. Like his comic book counterpart, Loki is an ambivalent force, neither good nor evil, and can change his shape at will.
That gift resulted in the death of Baldur, the god of light.
Baldur’s mother Frigg, queen of the gods and wife of Odin, loves her son dearly. So much so, in fact, that she travels to every corner of the nine realm to exact one promise from everything, living and unliving. The promise: you will not hurt my son. This proves to be no challenge. Baldur is affable and well-loved.
Her task completed, the gods celebrate with drinking and feasting. Then, deep in a drink-induced stupor, they decide to have some fun. They hurl random objects at Baldur to test Frigg’s oath. Sure enough, everything from arrow to axe refuses to harm Baldur.
A god prone to petty jealousy, Loki meddles. He turns into an old crone and questions Frigg, asking if she’d left anyone off her solicitor’s list. Indeed, she had. She deems the herb mistletoe too harmless to be worth the trouble.
Loki then approaches Hod, the god of darkness. Hod stews in a corner while the other gods are having fun. He’s blind, so he can’t throw anything. Loki tells Hod that he’ll help and act as his sight. He steers Hod into position, lines up the shot . . . and puts mistletoe in the blind god’s hand. Hod lets fly. Baldur collapses, struck dead by the one thing in the universe which Frigg deemed too small to ask.
The gods wail. Frigg despairs. But there’s a glimmer of hope. Hel, the goddess of the underworld, cuts Frigg a deal: if every living creature sheds tears for Baldur, Hel will release him.
And tears flow from every creature, save one: the giantess Thok, which is actually Loki in disguise.
That was the end of the god of light.
Myths from Asia: Kitsune
Multiple cultures in Asia do not have a Loki of their own per se, but rather an entire species of Lokis. That’s the cause of many headaches in myth, as you can imagine. Kitsune — the Japanese word for these shapeshifting fox spirits — are morally grey in character. Sometimes they hoodwink others, but they can also give wisdom or even tenderness. In the story of Old Man Wu-cheng, for example, a kitsune advises and guards a bureaucrat throughout his career.
Hypocrisy of the Gods
The Thinker at the Gates of Hell – Artist: Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)
Two of the above categories, lust and virtue, present a paradox. Gods inhabit the role of unscrupulous figures and moral guides. To Baucis and Philemon, Zeus is a protector of the stranger and rewards righteousness. To Alcmene’s husband, he is a moral degenerate (adultery was just as scandalous then as it is now). This prompts us to ask what Zeus’ followers truly thought of their gods.
For these religions, the best approximation of the relationship between followers and their gods is that of a serf and a liege lord. Like a baron or a king, such gods possess greater power than the mortal men beneath them, but they possess the mental frailties and impulsiveness of a mortal. The troublesome “problem of evil” isn’t a problem because, well, the gods are human-sized figures. Like a baron or king, they are also the law of the land and someone with whom a serf wants a good relationship.
Stories about them are like speculation on the royal class, similar to Don Giovanni or King Lear or even The Crown. Sometimes they were accurate and needed to be taken seriously, and sometimes they were merely gossip told for entertainment.
A Mother Culture
The similarities between many of those stories and their broader categories might be due to a shared origin.
Similar to amoebae, language mutates. For instance, French and Spanish are called “romance” languages because they spring from Latin, from Rome. Latin itself has its own ancestry, which can be traced to a language group called Proto-Indo-European. Among the other descendants of Proto-Indo-European are Sanskrit (the language of Hindu texts), the West-Germanic language of the Norse, Greek, and English.
Following this, it is assumed that cultures derived from this mother tongue shared more than language. Based on that assumption, experts try to reconstruct not only the mother tongue itself, but also the original culture’s religion and myths. For example, Zeus and Agni could be copies derived from an older Proto-Indo-European god.
There’s a significant nit to pick, though. Humans (and nature) are good at coming up with the same idea independently. This is a common issue that goes by many names. In science, it’s called “multiple discovery.” In biology, it’s called “convergent evolution.” It is, therefore, difficult to determine if myths stemmed from a common spring or developed on their own.
The lack of older written texts complicates matters further. The proof I provided for Stranger in a Strange Land is complete because of clear historical documentation. A hypothetical Mother Culture, on the other hand, would be decidedly pre-literate. Worse yet, that culture would have risen, fallen, and been forgotten long before it came into contact with a literate society. The Norse (e.g. early Swedes, Finnish, etc.) had no written chronicles of their own, but Christians recorded their myths as a matter of curiosity. In the case of Proto-Indo-Europeans, neither they nor their neighbors were literate.
Ultimately, it’s a knot for archeologists to unravel. Without documentation, we look to evidence.
Putting aside the thornier aspects of historical interpretation, I hope you’ve enjoyed this jaunt into myth. Although they no longer represent the holy, myths are a way for wonder to enter our own lives. Although they lack the sophistication of novels, TV shows, and movies, they have a sincerity and innocence which can’t be replicated. They turn water into wine, straw into gold, and travelers into gods.
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