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/

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?