Hospitality, Gifts and Pagan Literature
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angles unawares. – Hebrews 13:2 (ESV)
I'm currently reading through The Odyssey with a friend. The story really is a great one! Most of you should know that the story is about a Greek warrior named Odysseus who is trying to return home to Ithaca from the Trojan war. Both The Odyssey and its prequel The Illiad were written by the Greek poet Homer. The difference between the two stories is also the difference between two cultures.
In The Illiad the highest honor and glory for the Greek heroes is that of conquest and battle. The story's greatest warrior, Achilles, dies in the battle. But his death is not (necessarily) seen as tragic because he died in war, thus receiving honor and glory. In The Odyssey a much different perspective toward honor and glory is taken. Odysseus's days of conquest (and the honor thereby) are over. The honor Odysseus now seeks is the honor of culture building/home building. Odysseus wants to return home to his kingdom, Ithaca, where he can be at peace with his family.
A large portion of Odysseus's story is actually told by Odysseus himself as he nears the end of his journey home. For ten years he's been held captive by the god/nymph Calypso on her Island. Calypso loves Odysseus and desires to make him immortal, like herself, so they can share in love forever. Amazingly, Odysseus desires to return home to his mortal life in Ithaca rather than share in the immortality of the god's. The cultural implications of such a desire cannot be overstated. With the urging of Athena, Calypso allows Odysseus to leave and return home. On his way home Odysseus meets trouble in the high seas and is (again) marooned on a strange land. Yet this time he is marooned among an honorable people, the Phaeacians. It is while Odysseus is held as the Phaeacians' guest of honor that he recounts his tale to the Phaeacians of the ten years he journeyed from Troy until he reached Calypso's island.
It is while Odysseus recounts his journey with the Phaeacians that the themes of hospitality and gift giving are highlighted. Throughout the Odysseus's journey he and his crew encounter inhospitable "hosts" over and over. Whether it be the cyclops, Circe or the Sirens, almost everyone Odysseus and his men come across has bad intentions in mind.
Odysseus and his men often bring these poor situations on themselves because they are in the middle of a cultural transition. Their encounters with inhospitable guests often follows their own conquest of the guest's land. The Odyssey tells the story of the cultural transition from conquest to hospitality. During the journey home, Odysseus's crew plunders several islands only to be met by inhospitable hosts who do them wrong. There is a lesson here for Odysseus (and thereby the Greeks) that he learns in full while he stays with the Phaeacians.
After being released from Calypso's island Odysseus comes to the Phaeacians and, for one of the first times, does not make conquest of the island's livestock before meeting his hosts. The result of Odysseus' lack of conquest (at last) is to be received hospitably as the guest of honor by the Phaeacians.
Christians should read works like The Odyssey because it has much to teach us in regards to hospitality and the giving of gifts. In reading through the book of Genesis the theme of hospitality and gift giving are hard to miss. Abraham is hosted by Melchizedek which typologically points to Christ hosting his bride, the church, at the communion table. Abraham then hosts God by the oaks of Mamre which typologically points to the return of God to a restored garden and world. Further, we have examples of bad hospitality in characters like Laban and Potiphar's wife.
The fact is hospitality is a central theme to the scriptures, particularly in the ways that it points to the incarnation and God's desire to once again dwell with man as he did with Adam in the garden. In The Odyssey modern Christians are shamed by the fact that even pagan cultures understood this important facet of culture that most of us are so slow to apprehend.
Food for thought.