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Philoxenia: The Art of Expressing Love and Friendship to Strangers

Disguised as poor travellers, Zeus and Hermes visited many villages in search of refuge for the night. Residents repeatedly turned the gods away. Everyone regarded them as uninvited guests except a poor elderly couple—Baucis and Philemon. The couple welcomed them as guests in their home and generously served them food and wine. After refilling her guests’ cups many times over, Baucis noticed that the wine jug was still full. Philemon then realized the visitors were actually gods and offered to kill their only goose to feed them. Touched by this gesture, Zeus rewarded their generosity by transforming the humble cottage into a beautiful stone temple. Zeus also granted the couple their ultimate wish: to be the guardians of the temple, die at the same time, and stay together for eternity as they were turned into trees, guarding each side of the temple’s door.

Baucis and Philemon appear in the book Metamorphoses, a collection of myths written by the Roman poet Ovid in 8 A.D. Their beautiful story narrates the sacred relation between host and guest, embodying the ancient Greek tradition known as philoxenia. Although philoxenia is commonly translated into English as hospitality, this translation doesn’t reflect the deep meaning of the word. The etymology of the word reveals that philoxenia is an expression of love and friendship towards strangers.

In our times, refugees are the collective personification of Zeus and Hermes’ quest to find refuge. Relegated to the status of unwelcomed and uninvited guests, refugees are subjected to political and legal restrictions. Governments increasingly deprive refugees of basic human rights unless they hold valid documents. These restrictions often prevent those who are fleeing war and violence from obtaining safe passage and securing freedom of movement.

Earlier this year, European governments closed borders and migration routes, deploying police force and military power to stop mass movement of people. Such measures trapped millions of refugees in squalid camps, detention centres, and urban slums, where suffering and hopelessness corrode the human spirit. While it is true that the majority of countries and societies have indeed turned refugees away, networks of solidarity and acceptance have given life to the ancient spirit of philoxenia.

In a recent travel to Lesbos, Greece, I met the modern incarnation of Baucis and Philemon. Consistent influxes of refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece turned the Aegean islands into the main gateway for those dreaming of security and human rights on European soil. As a bridging passage, Lesbos received hundreds of thousands of frightened children, women, and men. On the Aegean island, remnants of life jackets, boat parts, and razor-wired detention centres silently echo the notion that certain populations and racial groups have less intrinsic values than others do. Such notions have enabled authorities to abandon refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean, letting them drown without taking any lasting measures to mitigate the situation.

In the face of rising human suffering and unsustainable solutions, volunteers from around the globe and local residents responded accordingly with the principle of love and friendship towards strangers.

I stayed in a family-run guesthouse, and the Greek owners were also hosting a Syrian-Palestinian family of seven. As Baucis and Philemon, the modern Greek couple also demonstrated generosity and care to their guests. They cared for the refugee children as if the youngsters were part of their own family.

Because the couple descends from a family of refugees, they too understand the feeling of being systematically dispossessed and unwanted. For them, welcoming those in search of refuge is the most natural response. The wife told me that because of the refugee crisis, tourism was weak this year and the islanders were facing an economic crisis. Yet, in spite of going through difficulty themselves, the couple opened their home to the strangers who were knocking at their door.

In a transitional world, where refugees are stigmatized as threats to social order and national security, Greeks have shown to us that it’s possible to sustain an open heart to newcomers under challenging circumstances. Many islanders keep alive the spirit of philoxenia. They taught me an insightful lesson: when we see ourselves in ‘the other,’ like many of the islanders who are themselves descendants of refugees do, we can sustain an open heart and attitude, expressing love and friendship to strangers. By feeling related to refugees, islanders recognize our shared humanity.

In societies built upon individualism, self-interest, and competition, fear tends to block actions of solidarity and care towards ‘the other.’ By letting fear dictate our responses, we close ourselves, not allowing our wine jugs and our hearts to be fully sustained by the unseen. In the myth, the gods sustain the wine jug full and reward the couple with a beautiful temple when they witness the couple’s generosity and selfless kindness.

Hospitality is the most harmonious form of receiving fellow human beings.