The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – Painter: John Martin (1789-1854)
Xenia is Greek, but it’s present in many other cultures in the region. Romans had the familiar-sounding word hospitium. The Hindu scripture Taittiriya Upanishads, teaches “atithi deva bhava,” which means “the guest is God.” Those are only a few examples, not a complete list. A possible explanation for this could be a common Indo-European mother culture, but that’s difficult to gauge.
For the sake of our discussion, two names from that list stand out: Judaism and Christianity.
Once upon a time, the United States likewise believed, in the words of Blanche DuBois, “in the kindness of strangers.” Judeo-Christian values provided a religious obligation similar to xenia, and a strain of what anthropologists call “honor culture” reinforced that obligation. For a host of reasons, the United States migrated away from honor culture and religion, but they held sway until the middle of the 20th century.
When Europeans adopted Christianity, they absorbed an ideology informed by the Mediterranean and the concept of xenia. Christianity agrees with the sacred compact between host and stranger, right down to the fear of retribution from a god in disguise.
The Bible has many passages and proverbs dealing with these themes, but the most memorable is Sodom and Gomorrah. Much like Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops, the catastrophe (fire and brimstone, in this case) tends to overshadow the cause. Sodom and Gomorrah actually burn for breaching the holy bond between host and guest, stranger and native.
In the story, God sends two messengers (called angels, a word derived from the Greek ἄγγελος for “messenger”) to call upon Sodom and Gomorrah. They’re his purity test: if ten righteous men can be found, then the two cities will be spared. One man named Lot takes the messengers in. He breaks bread with them, washes their feet, and houses them. Once they learn of the strangers, locals accost Lot.