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Hospitality scene, from the Collection of Greek Vases by Mr. Le Comte de Lamburg (Paris, 1813-1824).
© DE AGOSTINI, HULTON ARCHIVE / GETTY IMAGES / IDEAL IMAGE
The Culture of Hospitality: “Hospitem” and “Xenia”
Travel is a vital necessity for mankind, and the duty to welcome a traveller is at the foundation of western cultures. In Italian, the word that defines the participants of this reciprocal relationship is “ospite”, a word used to indicate both the host and the guest. “Ospite” derives from the Latin hòstis, which means stranger, foreigner and appears in the Law of the XII Tables (V century BCE) up until Plautus (IIIrd century BCE) and Cicero (Ist cent. BCE). The guest was guaranteed both equality with his host and the rights of the Roman citizens (quod erant pari iure cum populo Romano), starting with the adoption of the tesserae hospitales - hospitality plaques of bronze or other materials, on which the names of the host and the guest were engraved.
The Latin etymology shouldn’t make us forget the Greek roots of the concept of hospitality. In the culture of Ancient Greece, any stranger or passing traveller could conceal a divinity or a messenger of the gods to whom an offering of food and lodging was due. The Bible - written in Hebrew but permeated with Greek culture - is a constant hymn to the absolute value of the welcoming of strangers, often defined as “angels”. The Homeric world is the same, full of episodes which helped to understand the value of being hospitable. In its most simple and spontaneous form it meant a primary duty to offer food and drink (xènia) to a traveller or stranger who knocked on the door, before even asking for a name or place of origin. From this right-duty of hospitality sprang a bond that was rendered visible by the exchange of small objects, a symbolic and ‘hereditary’ xènia for future generations. This was the case of Glaucus and Diomedes who, ready to fight below the walls of Troy, put down their arms when they recognised each other's xènia that their forefathers had exchanged.
Greek hospitality has left traces not only in history books and manuals of archaeology but also in the art and architecture found wherever the Greeks went, from the Aegean to North Africa, from Persia across the entire Mediterranean basin. This was true at Siracusa - the first independent Greek community of the West - and it is still the case today, twenty-seven centuries later. The guest is sacred, concern for the traveller and empathy for foreigners is an essential part of a city in which history shadows you, benevolent and patient, at every step you take. This hospitality is found not only in those history books and manuals of archaeology, but also in the city plans, the farmlands, the art, language and customs, and in the food of everyday life.
Hospitality in the Bible - Abraham and the angels
SERGIO G. GRASSO
Da giovane, doppiava per il cinema attori del calibro di Orson Welles e Jeff Goldblum. Autore e conduttore televisivo, ha lavorato a programmi Rai come Unomattina, Lineaverde e La prova del cuoco. È docente di Antropologia dell’alimentazione, food-writer, cultore e divulgatore di storia sociale del cibo, curatore di eventi gastronomici legati alle rappresentazioni del cibo nell’arte. Scrive e fa parte della direzione editoriale di SiracusaCulture.