Minimalism A to Z: X Is for Xenia (aka Hospitality)

Ermitaj_Müzesi'ndeki_Zeus_Heykeli xenia

Ermitaj Müzesi’nde sergilenen Zeus Heykeli, by Cobija, via Creative Commons

“Textual evidence from Homer’s Odyssey to Ovid’s Metamorphoses suggests an old belief that the gods sometimes roamed the world among humans, which meant that a stranger at one’s door could be a god in disguise – a god who might punish a host who didn’t live up to the expectations of xenia.”

– Eric L. Ball

Yes, X was a challenge. I was afraid I’d have to do something cutesy, like leaving off the first E of a word. Luckily, a quick review of an online Scrabble dictionary turned up xenia, which is the ancient Greek concept of hospitality, especially to strangers from other regions.

Ancient Greeks believed that any stranger might be a god in disguise. You wouldn’t want to be punished, or at the very least, miss out on a reward, by failing to treat the god with hospitality. Back then, this meant following a code of conduct that required you to, among other things, welcome strangers into your home and offer them food, drink and a bath.

While xenia is an ancient Greek concept, modern religions have similar traditions and similar reasoning for those traditions. For instance, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share the story found in Genesis 18 of Abraham’s unknowing hosting of angels. The New Testament of the Christian Bible explicitly says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2).

Buddha taught that sakkàra (hospitality) should be shown to all, whatever their caste, religious affiliation or status, and Hindus have a phrase, Atithi Devo Bhava, which means “the guest is equivalent to God.”

“If today you can’t be anything else to anybody, you can be the passing stranger who nodded hello.”

– Robert Brault

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting that minimalism requires you to invite strangers into your home. I’m using xenia loosely, in a modern sense, to mean being kind to strangers, whether they live down the street or are visiting from another state or country.

In fact, Sandi Mann, the author of Paying it Forward: How One Cup of Coffee Could Change the World, says that when she conducted her “paying it forward” project, simply complimenting people she met was one of the most warmly received acts of kindness.

Want to try something more? Marc Chernoff lists 88 Ways To Make A Stranger Smile.


I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.