Hospitality. The word evokes folded towels, mini-bottles of shampoo, or the legendary pineapple presented to Southern guests who have overstayed their welcome. It’s a virtue we have commercialized at best and at worst exile based on fear, greed, isolationism.
Hospitality and its derivatives, including “hospital,” come from the word for guest. The latter has impeccable Indo-European roots: “ghosti” means stranger, guest, a relationship requiring reciprocity. The same root gives rise to “host,” which comes from the Latin “hostis” — enemy, ultimately deriving from the concept of stranger.
It seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? As a host, you’re showing generosity — from a Latin root meaning “of noble birth” — to a person who may be a stranger at best, an enemy at worst. The point is: guests aren’t kinsfolk. They aren’t bound by ties of blood or fosterage, the rules and obligations that bind families together in a cohesive unit.
In Celtic Flame, Aedh Rua has two virtues that come into play. The first — flaithiulacht, or lordliness — speaks of sharing the wealth, generosity. Those “of noble birth” (to borrow the Latin term) don’t show their value by the number of gold bars in their vault but by how they share that wealth with others. Traditionally, that would entail feasts, lavish gifts or help to the needy. The second virtue, aiocht (there’s an accent over the i; forgive my unwillingness to open an extra program to type it), is a subset of the first: generosity toward strangers, the poor, the unfortunate.
A lack of generosity or hospitality is a critical failing in a Celtic noble, or indeed in people in any ancient society. To turn away a request for a place to stay overnight or a bite to eat was callousness indeed. Life was hard and settlements few; a twist of fate could beggar even a wealthy household.
The value of a society is reflected in how it treats its most vulnerable. As a reflection of that, the Gods sometimes appeared as beggars, trying the hospitality of those who claim to worship them. An especially beautiful tale comes from Ovid, in which an impoverished elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, shared what little they had with two wandering peasants who asked for a place to stay. It turns out they were Zeus and Hermes.
Mary Oliver retells this story in her poem, “Mockingbirds”:
and the old couple,
shaken with understanding,
but still they asked for nothing
but the difficult life
which they had already.
Why should we treat strangers or the needy with kindness? It is humane — what humans do. It is civil, the roots of civilization itself. We are a fragile species; despite our delusions of complete independence and individuality, we depend on our fellows for survival, contact, comfort. We are not tigers who can make our way through the wilderness with ferocious solitude.
The Gods are manifest in the stranger, the poor, the sick — just as they are in us and everything. If we disrespect those in need, we disrespect that stream of divinity that runs through all and ultimately ourselves.
Of course, this relationship must be honored at both ends. A good host isn’t niggardly and a good guest doesn’t always come with empty, asking hands. Reciprocity — “a gift for a gift,” as it’s usually stated — is a necessary part of the equation. This holds not only in our relationships with each other, but with the Kindreds (Gods, nature spirits, ancestors) as well. Doing rituals or praying only to ask the Gods for a boon isn’t hospitable; it’s mooching. Establish a genuine, loving relationship and the gifts will naturally flow — from both sides.
So, where did we go wrong?
For one, we demonize the stranger — which was common enough even in ancient times. The fact is, most crimes aren’t committed by the stranger but by the far more dangerous creatures who reside in one’s own household, neighborhood or circle, whether you’re talking theft, rape, molestation or murder. We tend to project this onto the Other because we feel, at the core, there’s little we can do about our kin unless we decide to live in a perpetual haze of fear and mistrust. It’s a projection that’s encouraged by rulers — whether the old-fashioned tribal chieftain or the modern-day political party — because it can be channeled into unquestioning group action for the ultimate goal of territory/wealth acquisition.
The second is, of course, commercialization. When we travel, we rarely seek the help of strangers; instead, we turn to the professionals. Reciprocity is expressed in terms of credit cards, which is probably why some folks don’t feel odd about trashing rooms or engaging in other forms of misbehavior that would have been unthinkable to the true household guest.
In terms of the unfortunate, we do a type of mental warding by refusing to believe terrible things can happen to use. The Other must have deserved it and to show her mercy is to endorse her assumed failings. At the core, however, we know that our lives are fragile and there is little we can do about that. Just as with the kinship problem, this anxiety only intensifies the projection.
Certain quarters have called for bringing back civility to an increasingly paranoid, angry and hostile society. Hospitality, the welcoming of the stranger into the sacredness of the household, may be just the virtue that’s needed to accomplish these ends.