Hospitality for the Stranger

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Immigration and Refugees. Read other perspectives here.

What does your faith perspective teach you about refugees? How do your politics and your religious convictions come together to inform policy and shape your attitude?

Every ancient pagan culture had very strong traditions of hospitality. These were often reinforced by telling stories of gods, goddesses, and angels disguised as mortals visiting people.

The Greeks had a strong tradition of xenia care for the stranger. This carried its own obligations and traditions. When Nausica found Odysseus washed up on the shore, her care for him was very much in the tradition of xenia.

Jacob_van_Oost_(I)_-_Mercury_and_Jupiter_in_the_House_of_Philemon_and_Baucis

Mercury and Jupiter in the House of Philemon and Baucis, by Jacob van Oost (I)Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Public Domain.

The Hávamál, which means ‘the speech of the High One’ (Odinn) also contains stanzas about hospitality, and the duties of both host and guest.

Ultimately, the two words, host and guest, are derived from the same Indo-European root word, and so imply that they were viewed as inseparable parts of the same relationship. I like to think of them as the two halves of a hinge. The relationship of guest and host is reciprocal, with sacred obligations on both sides.

The concept and practice of hospitality are very important in India too, which suggests that the practice is very ancient indeed. Both Pakistan and Germany (and other places too) have the tradition of the guest-gift, where a guest will give you a gift the first time they visit your home. People from Latvia have a tradition of giving bead and salt as a gift when you have a new house. The sharing of bread and salt are considered sacred in many cultures. Once they have been shared, the relationship of guest and host is established and sacred.

If we think back to the times when small villages were scattered among great forests, the arrival of a stranger with news from other places, new stories, new songs, and new jokes, maybe even new farming or weaving or metalworking techniques, must have been very welcome.

There were also great movements of people in ancient times: Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and Alans; settlers from the rest of Europe and North Africa who came with the Romans; Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who fled the rising waters of the North Sea and settled in Britain. More recently, there were silver miners from Germany who settled in the Mendips; many African and Middle Eastern people; the Huguenots fleeing persecution in France; Sephardic Jews from Amsterdam, Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, who began to arrive after the interdict against Jews was lifted in 1654 (it was put in place by King John in 1290 because he didn’t want to repay loans from Jewish bankers – who were forced to enter banking as other professions were closed to them).

Everyone in Britain probably has a refugee or an economic migrant in their ancestry somewhere, if you go back far enough. Even Kate Middleton is related to a prominent Huguenot family. And both refugees and economic migrants have contributed hugely to the UK by creating jobs and boosting the economy with their spending power and tax contributions (and if they are not from the EU, they have “no recourse to public funds” stamped in their visa – so they receive no benefits and no free NHS).

And in the US and Canada of course, unless you are 100% Native, you are an immigrant or descended from immigrants.

I feel instinctively that openness to other cultures, and welcoming the stranger and the refugee, are good things. What kind of civilisation would we be if we were not open and hospitable? One that was both ethically and culturally impoverished, would be my answer.

But I think that the gods and goddesses of Paganism – who frequently come to Earth to test the hospitality of mortals, and reward those who are hospitable, and punish those who are not – would agree that hospitality is a sacred practice and should be held in high honour.

Of course, in the case of migration to other lands, there is the point of transition from guest to resident. Here again, we see the process of reciprocity at work. The migrant has paid their tax, contributed work and money to the system, and in many cases their food style and folk customs to the culture, and so after a time they become a member of the community. In societies that welcome immigrants, such as Canada, this is expected and encouraged; and education has been geared towards welcoming diversity for the last 25 years. More xenophobic countries (such as the UK) go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the transition from guest to resident.

Both hospitality and reciprocity are Pagan virtues and have been since ancient times. Honour is also important in many Pagan traditions, and I think the honourable thing to do is to welcome the stranger. Hoarding wealth was frowned upon in ancient societies; wealth was displayed by the generosity of the ‘ring-giving lord’ who gave gold arm rings to his thegns, and the loaf-giver (hlaf-diga, the origin of the word lady). The social fabric was woven through the sacred practices of hospitality, fosterage, gift exchange, and reciprocity. We would do well to cultivate these virtues instead of xenophobia and suspicion. So I would definitely say that Pagan religions encourage us to show hospitality towards migrants and compassion for refugees.

See also:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/2015/09/welcoming-the-stranger-and-the-refugee/
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/2012/12/pagan-ethic-of-reciprocity/

Embodied Spirituality: Food

The sharing of food and drink is one of the most ancient and basic rituals of hospitality and reciprocity. It is surrounded by symbolism and ceremony.

A nice cup of tea and a sit down

The Japanese tea ceremony is the ultimate form of this spiritual practice; in it each movement is choreographed, and the tea is prepared and served mindfully and gracefully. The ritual has deep meaning and resonance for the participants.However, the preparation and drinking of tea has a restorative effect on many people. The fragrance of the tea, the effect of drinking it, and the relaxation of sitting and being focused on the pleasure of tea, is all good for you. It’s even better if it is accompanied by conversation with a friend.The title of this section is taken from the excellent website entitled “A nice cup of tea and a sit down” which extols the pleasures of this activity, or should I say inactivity?

"Bain-marie" by grongar - originally posted to Flickr as Bain-marie - full. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bain-marie.jpg#/media/File:Bain-marie.jpg

Bain-marie” by grongar – originally posted to Flickr as Bain-marie – full. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Shared meals

Many religious traditions have shared meals as part of their practice. Jewish tradition has the Seder or Passover meal, in which specific symbolic foods are eaten, representing different aspects of the Passover story. The youngest person present must ask, “Why is this night more special than all other nights?” and various other symbolic actions are performed, such as leaving the door open for Elijah, and raising a toast to the idea that one’s next Seder will take place in Jerusalem.Christianity has the Eucharist, which commemorates both the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples, and also the meal he is said to have shared with them at Emmaus after his Resurrection. The meal consists of bread and wine consumed in a sacred manner. There has been much conflict throughout Christian history about what the Eucharist means, who is allowed to partake of it, and what its effects are. Nevertheless it is a powerful ritual. Stephen Lingwood, a Unitarian minister, suggests that communion represents Jesus’ radical hospitality – his willingness to eat with people marginalised by society, such as prostitutes, tax collectors and publicans.

In Wicca, the shared meal is known as cakes and wine, and is usually consecrated by a woman and a man (but it can be a same-sex couple), and then shared among the participants in the ritual. A portion is kept for offering to the deities as a libation.

In some Hindu traditions, a portion of the food is offered to the deities while it is being cooked, and blessed food is known as prasadam.

The ancient Greeks had a ritual of sharing bread, which is where we get our word symposium, which literally means ‘together bread’. In ancient Rome, there were dining clubs devoted to the god Bacchus (god of wine), which presumably had a ritual or spiritual aspect.

Many religious traditions (including Buddhism, Christianity and Paganism) give thanks for their food before eating. Typically, the meal blessing might include thanks to all the beings and processes that went into creating the food, and a wish that everyone in the world might have enough to eat.

Cooking can also be a spiritual practice. It is in many ways akin to alchemy (the transformation of one thing into another); indeed, a cooking vessel invented by a medieval female alchemist – the bain-marie – founds its way from the laboratory to the kitchen. In Jewish tradition, the preparation of food has special rituals associated with it. The magic of a lovingly prepared meal is powerful stuff, restoring both body and mind.


This blogpost was originally published at UK Spirituality.

Welcoming the stranger and the refugee

Homer’s Odyssey recounts the correct way to welcome a stranger who has been washed ashore: with food and drink, fresh clothing, and fragrant oil to clean the salt from the skin.

"Jean Veber - Ulysses and Nausicaa, 1888" by Jean Veber - Unkonw. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jean_Veber_-_Ulysses_and_Nausicaa,_1888.jpg#/media/File:Jean_Veber_-_Ulysses_and_Nausicaa,_1888.jpg

Jean Veber – Ulysses and Nausicaa, 1888” by Jean Veber – Unkonw. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“[Odysseus said] ‘Yesterday, the twentieth day, I escaped the wine-dark sea: and all that time the turbulent wind and waves carried me here from Ogygia’s isle. Now fate drives me on shore, so that I may suffer harm here too, no doubt. I don’t expect my sufferings to end yet: the gods will inflict many more before that moment comes. But, Princess, pity me: since I come to you first of all, after my heavy labours, and I know none of the people of this land or its city. Show me the way to town, and give me some rags to throw over me, perhaps whatever wrapped the clothes you brought.”

“Then Nausicaa of the white arms answered: ‘Stranger, you seem neither unknowing nor ill intentioned: it is Olympian Zeus himself who brings men good fortune, to the virtuous or not as he wills, and since he has brought you this, whatever it may be you must endure it. But, now you are come to our land and city, you shall not go short of clothes or anything else a hard-pressed suppliant deserves from those he meets. I will show you the way to town, and tell you whom we are. This is the Phaeacians’ country and city, and I am the daughter of valiant Alcinous, in whom the Phaeacians vest their majesty and power.’

With this she called to her lovely maids: ‘Stop, girls, why do you shun the sight of a man? Surely you don’t imagine he’s unfriendly? There will never be mortal man so contrary as to set hostile feet on Phaeacian land, for we are dear to the gods. We live far-off, over the turbulent sea, the remotest of races, and deal with no other peoples. This man must instead be some luckless wanderer, landed here. We must care for him, since all strangers and beggars come from Zeus, and even a little gift is welcome. So bring him food and drink, girls, and bathe him in the river wherever there’s shelter from the wind.’”

Similarly, the story of Baucis and Philemon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (VIII:621-96) recounts how the old couple were the only ones to welcome Jupiter and Mercury when they visited in disguise.

And in northern Europe, the Hávamál and the Sagas recount instances of hospitality and praise the generosity of the host:

“Fire he needs   who with frozen knees
Has come from the cold without;
Food and clothes   must the farer have,
The man from the mountains come.
Water and towels   and welcoming speech
Should he find who comes to the feast…”

Many ordinary people have not forgotten the virtue of hospitality, and do not sit counting the cost of welcoming and helping refugees from Syria and other war-torn parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Look at the Germans and Austrians welcoming the refugees who came through Hungary; look at the French people welcoming refugees into their homes; look at the British and Icelanders who have volunteered to host a refugee in their homes. Look at the Greeks helping the refugees out of the crashing waves of the Mediterranean.

The virtue of hospitality is one of the most ancient and sacred of Pagan virtues, and is also praised in the Abrahamic religions, of course.

At the same time, the miser, who accumulates wealth and then refuses to share it, was regarded as repugnant in every ancient culture.

The people of Northern Europe became wealthy by exploiting other parts of the world. We didn’t get all this wealth by our own merit; we inherited it from people who plundered it by conquering other parts of the world.

The instability in the Middle East and North Africa has been caused by the wars fomented there by the United States and Britain (among others).

So now that the rest of the world is knocking at our door and asking for our help, why are our governments turning them away? Because they believe that the public have swallowed the myth that the refugees are “scroungers” who are only coming here to claim benefits. Because we have been told the bare-faced lie that they are quite wealthy and are only economic migrants. But no immigrant who is not from the European Union can claim any public funds whatsoever; and most asylum seekers are locked up in immigration detention centres.

And the reason the people of Syria are paying people-smugglers to bring them across the Mediterranean in leaky boats? Because they can’t get a visa to fly here on a plane – because you don’t get given asylum seeker status until you have arrived, been locked up in an immigration detention centre (if you arrive in the UK), and assessed in one of the most bureaucratic and unfair processes in existence.

So what can we do to help?

 

A gift for a gift: a Pagan ethic of reciprocity

“A gift in return for a gift” – The Hávamál

In ancient times, hospitality was regarded as sacred. In English, the words ‘guest’ and ‘host’ are very closely related. In German, the words are ‘Gast’ (guest) and ‘Gastgeber’ (host, or literally, guest-giver). There were rituals of giving and accepting hospitality, and it was regarded as a sacred exchange. A guest under your roof was to be protected. That is why stories where the relationship of hospitality is betrayed are so powerful and shocking. In Germany and in Pakistan, it is still the custom for a guest to bring a gift for the host on their first visit to a house (even if they are not staying the night). This is the custom in other countries too. Hospitality was regarded as a sacred obligation in ancient Greece; it is mentioned several times in Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus is shipwrecked, it is because of the obligations of the host towards the stranger that Nausica comes to his aid; and when he returns home to Ithaca disguised as a beggar, the shepherd Eumaios welcomes him as a guest. In India, the guest is regarded as a manifestation of the Divine, and hospitality is based on the principle Atithi Devo Bhava, meaning “the guest is God.”

The exchange of gifts is a way of establishing relationship. In gift economies, gifts are given without any formal agreement as to when the favour will be returned; however, the ethic of reciprocity is so strong that the gift creates an obligation to return the gift or favour, and in this way, an ongoing relationship is created. We can see this ethic at work in the giving of gifts for Yule and birthdays. If a friend gives me a gift, I feel an obligation to get them a gift in return. If someone looks after your cat while you are on holiday, you get them a gift while you are away.

Sadly, the giving of gifts has become bound up with monetary considerations, as we feel the need to buy something of equal value to the gift we were given. However, the point of a gift is the amount of effort that went into it. Perhaps your friend went to a lot of effort to find something that they knew you would like; perhaps they went to a lot of effort to make something beautiful. Either way, it is the effort that counts, not the money. It is the idea that the friend cares enough about you to spend time making something for you, or finding a gift that expresses something about who you are. The gift then becomes an outward and visible symbol of your relationship with the giver. This is why I disagree with the idea that we should give up on all material things and get rid of stuff; quite often the stuff that you have around your home represents friendships and relationships.

The giving of money in exchange for something does not create relationship, it ends it. If I pay in full for a service or a commodity, my obligation is discharged, and that ends the relationship. If I pay for a massage, a Tarot reading, or a workshop, that is because the masseur, Tarot reader, or workshop leader is not going to receive from me (at some unspecified future date) a massage, a Tarot reading, or a workshop. The relationship is ended by the payment. This is, I think, why Wiccans believe strongly that we should not charge trainees for training. Members of a coven are in a relationship, and payment for training would end that relationship. What you gain in return for teaching is an opportunity to formulate, clarify, and refine your own views in the process of transmitting them to others. You can also learn from your trainees. And in due course, you will have a coven to work with who can write rituals for you to take part in.  All members of a coven are expected to contribute food for the feast and candles and incense for rituals, and help with the washing-up, however.

A similar situation exists in the development of friendships. A friend is someone you can open up to, who will not judge you for your actions; they may offer constructive criticism, but they do not reject you for your oddities and quirks. However, the process of opening up to each other is gradual and reciprocal. One person will reveal something about themselves, and the other will reciprocate. Revealing your innermost thoughts and feelings is to make yourself vulnerable, to give the gift of yourself. If the other person does not reciprocate with a revelation of similar import, it feels as if there is a major imbalance in the relationship; you have made yourself vulnerable, giving the other person power over you; so you need them to reciprocate. The gradual peeling away of layers of the onion applies both to thoughts and feelings, and to social space. First you meet a new friend outside the home, in a pub or other neutral space; only later do you invite them to your house. At first you talk about current affairs and other relatively impersonal topics; only later do you reveal your more inward feelings and experiences.

This ethic of reciprocity appears in many cultures, but is grounded in the idea of creating relationships. We are social animals and like to form bonds and associations – friendship groups, clans, tribes, families. These groups gradually form their own traditions, rituals, and symbols, but they are grounded in the mutual relationships of the members, who help each other, forgive each other, and form bonds of obligation through the exchange of gifts and hospitality.

It can be a good thing that the money economy has developed; sometimes we do not want to enter into relationship with a person who has done something for us, because they are not part of our social group. But it is important not to confuse the practice of gift exchange with the money economy. The two “systems” work differently, and have different rules.

Traditional Pagan and other cultures had a strong ethic of reciprocity, hospitality  and gift exchange, and it is worth investigating these ideas. They can help us to understand the dynamics of gift-giving (always fraught with social minefields, especially at this time of year), and to learn to value what is of real worth (the emotional associations of a thing, rather than its monetary value), and not feel guilty about having stuff. They can also make us more aware of the underlying currents of social intercourse –  always a valuable insight for a magical practitioner who aims to be effective in all the realms (physical, spiritual, astral, social, and mental).

Reciprocity also exists in nature, in the form of balance. Birth is balanced by death; growth is balanced by decay; darkness is balanced by light. This natural reciprocity is found in ancient myths too. In order to gain wisdom from Mimir’s Well, Oðinn had to sacrifice an eye. He gave up part of his physical sight in order to gain inner sight or wisdom. In order to gain the knowledge of the runes, Oðinn hung nine days and nights on the World Tree. The gain of one thing entails the loss of another; that is how equilibrium is maintained.