New Worlds: Hospitality

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

After that tour through the unpleasant things humans do to each other, let’s turn our thoughts to something nicer.

You may think it odd that I’m discussing hospitality, given that my patrons voted for a set of economic topics this month. But we’re going to be looking at concepts of generosity and charity, and from that perspective, it seems only natural to begin with hospitality: the welcoming of a guest into your home.

Specifically, welcoming a traveler. We also take in guests on a more casual, short-term basis, when somebody comes by for dinner or to have a conversation, but for our purposes here I’m focusing on travelers. These days we talk about the “hospitality industry,” as if there are factories somewhere churning out a product for customers to buy — and in a sense, that’s true. Hotel chains operate on the promise of mass-produced accommodations, rentable for a set time in exchange for money.

But hospitality used to mean a good deal more. It wasn’t financial; it was sacred.

I’m not exaggerating when I use that word. I can’t swear this was true all over the world (this is a topic where I mostly know European and Near Eastern traditions), but hospitality used to be seen as a set of moral obligations, whose violation could be met with divine retribution. Think about it: go back centuries, to a time and a place where travelers are rare enough that nobody’s running a hotel. Where does a traveler stay? “Under a bush” is an uncomfortable and dangerous answer. If possible, they seek out someone’s house — a house which is more than just a piece of real estate. It’s safety. It’s survival.

And it often isn’t bought with coin, because in the kinds of situations where hospitality is sacred, there usually isn’t much in the way of a monetary economy. A traveler carrying lots of cash is at risk from bandits anyway. Sometimes they’ll repay their host with a gift of some kind . . . but on a long journey, there’s only so much extra baggage one can carry, and if they’ve met with misfortune along the way, they may have lost what they had to spare. Maybe they do a service instead, like helping to chop wood.

But maybe there’s no real repayment. Maybe the host welcomes the guest, not in expectation of compensation, but because the alternative is to leave them outside to possibly die. Hospitality seems to be the most sacred in environments where that’s a genuine risk: you take someone in so that if you are ever out there in need of shelter, someone will take you in.

This brings with it certain obligations, in both directions. A lavish host will try to supply everything their guest might want, up to and including a sexual partner for their bed. Most don’t go that far, though. At a minimum, the host should provide food and drink and a place to sleep; if the guest is important or the host truly dedicated to hospitality, that food and that place to sleep might be the host’s own, even if it means they go without. (Whether it’s a good idea to offer human flesh to your guests might depend on what story you’re in. Tantalus was condemned to eternal punishment for butchering his son Pelops to feed the gods — Demeter accidentally ate the boy’s shoulder; whoops — but there are Chinese stories where someone shows great filial piety by cutting off their own flesh to feed a parent. One could imagine stories of a host doing the same when there’s nothing else to give their guest.)

The obligations of a guest can mostly be summarized as “don’t be an asshole.” Just because your host is obligated to provide you with food and drink doesn’t mean you should immediately chug their best alcohol; if the bed is lumpy, you should smile and thank them anyway, instead of complaining. Many of us were raised to understand that if we’re having a meal at someone’s house, then (short of a straight-up allergy) we should eat what we are given, whether we like it or not. We should be glad we aren’t the warrior Cú Chulainn, from Irish mythology: he bears a geas, a personal taboo, against eating dog meat, but also one against refusing hospitality. His death comes about after an old woman offers him dog meat, such that he has no choice but to eat it, which weakens him so that his enemy can kill him.

But hospitality goes beyond the bed and sustenance that one might expect from a modern hotel. If a man’s home is his castle, then he’s expected to defend those within it from threats. This means that if your guest is on the run from some enemy, you’re not allowed to hand him over. Nor can you hurt your guest yourself; Saladin, when fighting against the Crusades, famously rules-lawyered his way around this to kill the (richly deserving) Raynald of Châtillon, by giving water to his other prisoner, who then gave it to Raynald. Since Saladin had not given Raynald hospitality from his own hand, it didn’t count. Events like the Red Wedding of George R.R. Martin’s books, inspired by the Black Dinner of Scottish history, are shocking betrayals of hospitality — the kind of thing that’s expected to carry not just social but metaphysical repercussions.

Because of this, people in such cultures were often careful about offering hospitality. It doesn’t happen by accident; there’s usually some small ritual that creates the bond. (You can’t just sneak into somebody’s house, eat their food, and declare you’re their guest now.) The offering of food or drink by the host is a common way of signaling formal hospitality, and/or there may be particular phrases which signal the official forging of this short-term relationship. When you might have to defend your guest’s life, it’s important to know who’s under that aegis and who isn’t.

Which means you get all kinds of tasty politics around the question of whether someone gets offered hospitality or not, and whether they accept or not. A host might turn away a traveler they know to be in danger, either out of cowardice, or because they want the fugitive to be caught. An honorable individual might decline hospitality from their enemy, not because they think it’s offered in bad faith, but because they don’t want even the temporary truce forged by spending a night under that person’s roof. Conversely, offer and acceptance can give you a fascinating way to shove together two characters who hate one another, in a situation where neither of them is allowed to kill the other. (Including if they’re both guests of the same host.)

This generosity toward a stranger or an enemy is just one facet of the larger concept — but we’ll turn to that next week.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Hospitality — 7 Comments

  1. Ah, hospitality. A core tenet of Judaism (and really, all Abrahmic religions) going back to Abraham himself welcoming the angels and doing everything for them. Jewish commentaries greatly expand on this, claiming Abraham stopped talking to God in order to welcome his guests, and was hurting from his circumcision, yet still insisted on doing everything himself. I’ll mention just 2 more instances of how important this is in the Bible:
    There are two Biblical stories where the host is willing to do a lot to protect their guests. In both the story of the angels saving Lot from Sodom and the story of the Levite’s concubine, the wicked people of the city demand the guest so they can sexually assault them (hence the term ‘sodomy’), and in both stories the hosts offer up their own daughters instead to calm the mob.
    There’s a Jewish ritual of ‘Eglah Arufah’, a response to an unsolved murder – the elders of the nearest city to the body need to confess that ‘our hands did not spill this blood’. The commentaries on this point out that nobody suspects the elders of having murdered the man – this is rather the elders saying that they took proper care of the deceased when he passed through their city, and supplied him with food, drink, rest and someone to accompany him.

    Also, I’m reminded of my grandmother’s saying regarding guests: ‘A good guest offers to help, eats three servings, and compliments the host’.

    • Yes, the three regions where I can say with confidence that hospitality was a Big Deal are the British Isles, Germanic Europe, and the Near East. Though I’ve always found it a little troubling that “here, rape my daughters instead” is considered a preferable alternative to letting one’s guests be raped — not that the latter is good, of course, but the former isn’t, either.

      • All the commentaries I’ve seen on that suggest that it’s a combination of sacred hospitality, the host being obligated to protect their guest, with a combination of sodomy and homosexual sex being very taboo, so much that raping ‘rape my daughters’ is better, because at least then they’d ‘just’ be raping women and not raping men, which is even more morally wrong (to be fair, in the ancient world in many cases raping women wasn’t as bad as we think of it today).

        Although some commentaries suggest that in regards to the Levite’s concubine, the story teller chose intentionally to parallel the story of Sodom to emphasize how morally corrupt the people of Israel became during the Era of the Judges, so much that they basically became Sodom all over again.

        • Oh, I recognize what the logic is — in particular the part where raping women wasn’t considered as bad. That doesn’t mean I’m not troubled by it.

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Hospitality - Swan Tower

  3. In Hawaii, Pele did the same thing that Zeus and Hermes did in Greece: show up as a poor traveler and wreak havoc when the people failed in hospitality.