15. Xenia and the Meaning of Myths

Over the course of the ages, myths have been decomposed, assigned historical and cultural values, even rejected as mere fable. Although work on this matter was conducted in classical times by Plato and Aristophanes, an important contribution was that of Branislaw Malinowski (1884-1942).

Pertaining to the Functionalist school of thought, Malinowski, a prominent anthropologist, suggests that myths exist in order to legitimise certain social and cultural norms that people have grown attached to. Thus, he asserts that myths exist for the sole purpose of reassuring us that our cultural norms and values are the ‘right’ ones. From the Functionalist perspective, myths act as windows into the societal structure and social behaviour of different cultures, a view that has become quite pervasive in modern analysis of literature. Here is where Xenia comes in.

In the Hellenistic — or Ancient Greek — culture, hosts had boundless obligations towards their guests. This notion of overwhelming hospitality, Xenia, was especially predominant amongst members of higher socioeconomic standing, but could also be readily seen amidst less affluent families. Merely by grabbing a person’s knees, one immediately became their ‘guest-friend’ and was entitled to favours of a near-unlimited nature.

Much of the narrative of Homer’s Odyssey is in fact reliant on Xenia as a widespread cultural norm. One of the primary instances of conflict in the epic is the refusal of Penelope’s — Odysseus’ wife — courtiers to leave their hostess’ palace. To a Westerner reading the work it seems ludicrous that such a large group of young men would indulge in food and drink not for days, but for months, years on end, with no sense of obligation whatsoever to their host. The retribution for this abuse is, however, terrible.

Thus, to Malinowski, The Odyssey serves to legitimise, amongst countless others, the notion of Greek Xenia as a cultural norm and the consequences of its perversion. In this vein of thought, all stories, fables and myths are perhaps the only true way of assimilating long-lost cultural knowledge.

Image: The Slaughter of the Suitors by Odysseus and Telemachus (1812) by Louis Vincent Palliere.

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