Odysseus and his men cowering beneath the mighty Cyclops

An important measure of a culture is how it treats its strangers. Warmth toward outsiders reflects cooperation, a receptiveness to the outside world. Although they may seem insincere, guest rites like a Japanese chef shouting, “Irasshaimase!” (“Welcome in!”) speak to deeper qualities than manners.

For America, remembering our own guest rites and stranger-friendship rules has become difficult. Numerous factors contribute to this, some of which I’ll mention here and others I’ll explore in a second part. Among them are the familiar culprits of the Internet and globalism, but others are harder to articulate. They are forces as subtle as tectonic plates or gravity.

Unlikely as it may seem, the hints of an answer can be found in a Bronze Age text. The story of the Greek hero Odysseus and the Cyclops has a moment which defines the Greeks’ and, by contrast, our own behavior toward strangers.

The Odyssey

A female representation of Homer’s poem. L’Odyssée – Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) – Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon

A female representation of Homer’s poem. L’Odyssée – Painter: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)

Superficially, Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey details a lost soldier’s struggle to reach home. Odysseus endures sorcerers, vengeful gods, storms, and beasts and reunites with his wife, Penelope. Fundamentally, however, Homer’s work is about what it means to be Greek. Each encounter features logic, self-restraint, and heroism filtered through the Greek worldview.

Greeks didn’t read Homer for entertainment or write. Indeed, they were often content to let oral stories or plays live and die on the stage. They copied and taught Homer to their youth in order to instill moral fiber.

Structurally, the lost-at-sea narrative allows Homer to thread together otherwise disconnected morals. Each island that Odysseus visits lays down a self-contained episode, but the voyage home is always there to pick it up.

The Cyclops

Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus – Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678) – Pushkin Museum

Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus – Painter: Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678)

As he is about to cast off from one such island, Odysseus espies livestock milling about a cavern entrance. Eager for any chance at better provisions, he takes twelve men and makes his way to the cave. Inside, they discover a home brimming with livestock and dairy, but not their owner.

[We] explored his den, gazing wide eyed at it all,
the large flat racks loaded with drying cheeses,
the folds crowded with young lambs and kids,
split into three groups—here the spring-born,
here mid-yearlings, here the fresh sucklings
off to the side—each sort was penned apart.
And all his vessels, pails and hammered buckets
he used for milking, were brimming full with whey.

Homer, Odyssey, v. 244-251

Like spooked horses, his men exhibit a preternatural sense of danger. They urge Odysseus to steal and run. Odysseus refuses. His actual course of action, however, baffles any modern-day reader.

But I would not give way—
and how much better it would have [turned out for us]—
not till I saw him, saw what gifts he’d give.
But he proved no lovely sight to my companions.
There we built a fire, set our hands on the cheeses,
offered some to the gods and ate the bulk ourselves
and settled down inside, awaiting his return.

Homer, Odyssey, v. 256-262

Yes, he chooses to rob the pantry and wait for the homeowner. Moreover, he expects gifts. What cheek!
When their one-eyed host returns, his reaction seems perfectly normal.

He lit his fire and spied us in the blaze and
‘Strangers!’ he thundered out, ‘now who are you?
Where did you sail from, over the running sea-lanes?
Out on a trading spree or roving the waves like pirates,
sea-wolves raiding at will, who risk their lives
to plunder other men?’

Homer, Odyssey, v. 284-288

A reasonable response. Unfortunately, it is unreasonably followed by murder, captivity, and the grisly consumption of human flesh. Polyphemus bashes the brains out of two of Odysseus’ men and eats them. He then rolls a boulder in front of the cave, saving the rest of the men as tasty morsels for later.

An American Southerner or a believer in castle doctrine expected just murder. An ancient Greek listener (Homer’s tales began in the oral tradition) expected presents.

In that difference of expectations lies the fragments of a cultural puzzle. At the center of that puzzle lies the concept of what we call a “stranger,” how we treat them, and why.

The Greek Perspective: Xenia

Heracles enjoys the guest-friendship of King Eurytion. Krater of Eurytion – Unknown, 600 CE

Heracles enjoys the guest-friendship of King Eurytion. Krater of Eurytion, 600 CE – Artist: Unknown

For Greeks, a sacred law called xenia (from the Greek word ξένος/xenos) determined how they were to treat strangers. According to xenia, a host provides food, drink, a bed, a bath (if available), and protection. Until they do so, they cannot ask a stranger’s identity or business. In return, a guest does not overstay their welcome and returns the favor when the host visits their city. At the visit’s conclusion, both parties exchange gifts.  This transaction passes under the gaze of none other than Zeus. The king of the gods and bringer of thunder was also the protector of strangers. Zeus would often test this by posing as a stranger. Hypothetically, that ensured good behavior from a host, as any stranger could be Zeus in disguise.

Also, xenia bore a level of significance on par with law. As I mentioned in Key Concepts, politics and religion were one and the same. Xenia was not a parable, but a legal obligation.

The seeds of that truth are within the story of the Cyclops. Homer describes a people who are deeply irreligious and, by extension, without politics or xenia. That lawlessness manifests in self-reliance and isolation.

[We] reached the land of the high and mighty Cyclops,
lawless brutes who trust so to the everlasting gods
they never plant with their own hands or plow the soil.
Unsown, unplowed, the earth teems with all they need.
. . .
They have no meeting place for council, no laws either,
no, up on the mountain peaks they live in arching caverns–
each a law to himself, ruling his wives and children,
not a care in the world for any neighbor.

Homer, Odyssey, v. 119-128

When confronting Polyphemus, Odysseus invokes the wrath of Zeus. He cries, “‘Respect the gods, my friend. We’re suppliants — at your mercy! / Zeus of Strangers guards all guests and suppliants: / strangers are sacred — Zeus will avenge their rights!'” But Polyphemus answers, “‘We Cyclops never blink at Zeus and Zeus’ shield / of storm and thunder, or any other blessed god.”

Later, the selfish nature of Cyclopes dooms Polyphemus. Odysseus blinds him with a sharpened stick. Polyphemus shouts to his neighbors for aid. They laugh at him. The solitary nature of the Cyclops betrays him.

All in all, this episode is a folkloric defense of Greek character and Grecian custom. Its target is the combined sin of impiety and isolationism. Furthermore, Homer argues that the foundation of states and laws starts with the generous treatment of strangers. After all, even our neighbors were once strangers. With care, they can become allies

Xenia’s Journey from the Mediterranean to the United States

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah - John Martin (1789-1854) - Laing Art Gallery

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.

Sodom and Gomorrah: A Brief Recap

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.

They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we might have sex with them”

Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

“Get out of our way,” they replied. “This fellow came here as a foreigner and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.

Bible, Genesis 19: 5-9

Lot’s own virtues save him, but they’re not enough to spare the rest. The messengers reveal their divine nature to Lot, strike the crowd blind, and order Lot’s family to evacuate. For leaving a stranger out in the cold, the Lord purges Sodom and Gomorrah with napalm.

Early America

Like Odysseus and the Cyclops, the death of Sodom and Gomorrah is an object lesson in hospitality. It is a lesson, however, that stretched beyond the Mediterranean and into Europe. When it held greater sway, Christianity served as a channel for the essence of xenia. That channel ran to ancient Rome, Britain, Germany and beyond — to the multi-ethnic corpus which would eventually be called “Christendom.” To America.

Honor Culture: An Enforcer for Xenia

And for Greece and America, honor culture gave power to this embrace of strangers. It was the institution which rewarded proper behavior and doled out punishment.

In an honor culture, power flows from achievement and blood. It typically arises in circumstances without government, such as prison yards, the Mafia, and wartorn countries. Members of such structures carve out niches through shows of strength, then safeguard against even the smallest insults or affronts in case they snowball into greater threats. It is a system which demands violence and paranoia.

But it’s also a system which exacts largesse from its leaders. In the American Indian potlatch, members of a tribe establish their reputation by destroying valuables and giving away wealth. In a xenia situation, hosts prove their good fortune through gifts and provisions. Generosity is one of the few non-violent tools of an honor-based society.

That trait extended to the American South, where honor culture thrived. In a series of posts on American honor culture, bloggers Brett and Kate McKay explain:

[It] was the ancient ritual of hospitality that held the most central role in a Southern man’s sociability and acted as a test of his honor. . . . [When] it came to strangers and visitors, Southerners felt duty-bound to show hospitality to whomever showed up. An element of competition existed in Southern hospitality — households which pulled out more of the stops in entertaining won status in the eyes of the community.

The honor-bound obligation to show hospitality to everyone who appeared on your doorstep could lead to financial distress. When Jefferson returned to Monticello after serving in the White House, even folks who had simply voted for him felt entitled to swing by and say hello; having to entertain this constant stream of well-wishers contributed to the larger debt with which the president died.

Brett and Kate McKay, “Manly Honor Part V: Honor in the American South”

Should anyone be interested, the blog entry delves into the anthropological developments which molded honor culture in the U.S.A. That is just outside the scope of this article.

Essentially, Americans expressed their own form of potlatch, their own xenia.

The Decline of Religion, Honor Culture, and Xenia in the United States

Death of Colonel Ellsworth - Currier and Ives (1835-1907) - Library of Congress

Death of Colonel Ellsworth – Artist: Currier and Ives (1835-1907)

Time eroded these institutions. Indeed, it is actively in the process of eroding them. Whether or not that constitutes a good or an evil is beyond my ability (or good manners) to judge, but it is a fact. Functionally, religion created the obligation of (American) xenia and honor enforced it. With neither in play, the obligation of hospitality becomes politeness, a much harder concept to police.


Of course, religion as a whole will never leave us, but Christianity is no longer the nuclear social force that it used to be. According to Gallup, 47% of Americans belonged to a mosque, church, or synagogue.  That’s a steady rate of decay from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999. Biblical literacy is in tatters. Fifty years ago, Sodom and Gomorrah probably wouldn’t have required explanation. Today, that’s not a reasonable guarantee.

Honor Culture

As for honor culture, it’s a bit more complicated. Generally, modern laws and a more socially connected world exposed its fundamental flaw: its tendency to self-destruct. Honor pushes actors to answer threats regardless of safety or good sense. It breeds challengers, real or imagined. In the South’s case, it was a prime mover in triggering the Civil War. When the North insulted the South’s status and their perceived dignity, honor culture braced them for a fight.

The collapse of the Confederacy and slavery detonated the heart of the South. Its honor culture and rituals of hospitality followed. Reconstruction bolstered the role of central government and loosened the grip of honor-bound families. War claimed those families’ youth and their prospects. The collapse of slavery made Southern charm harder, less manageable. Economic hardship and shame wracked households. For all of this and more, the South had to abandon its xenia traditions.

Coincidentally, this fall from majesty became a prevailing theme of American literature. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury follows the Compsons, a family of former Southern nobles, and the demise of their wealth and religion. In Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Name Desire, Southern belle Blanche DuBois relies on the xenia she expects from a Southern gentleman, but is horribly abused.

The Necessity of Its Decline

The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets - Frederic Leighton - 1830-1896

The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets – Painter: Frederic Leighton(1830-1896)

Honor cultures are usually bound to sink due to pettiness. Slavery was the battlefield where Southern honor died, but some other cause would have sufficed. Ethical qualms aside, constructing a society around honor is simply not efficient. Short-term, the logic is sound enough: respond harshly to even small nuisances and they won’t turn into larger, deadlier ones. Long-term, this defensive stance can’t be maintained and it can multiply, not curb, conflicts (as was the real-life case for the Hatfield-McCoy feud).

In part, this process explains, in part, why American guest-friendship traditions aren’t taught commonly. The social bodies which promoted them have met ignominious ends.

At the same time, that doesn’t address the United States’ present attitudes or, indeed, what those are. You can find that in the follow-up article here.

Credit: Shutterstock