Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.
Heroxenia and theoxenia
Hospitality in ancient Hellenic was a complicated ritual within both the host and the guest has certain roles to fill and tasks to perform. Especially when someone unknown to the host came to the door, the ritual held great value. The host had and has many tasks in his process, but the guest had/has an important part to play as well: the guest is expected to be courteous and not be a burden to the host. The house was a sanctuary in ancient Hellas with a lot of social rules attached to it. Guests could not enter certain parts of the house, and male guests were kept away from women at all times. Long term guests had a slightly different status, as they became part of the oikos, but they were still subject to restrictions when it came to social an religious behaviour. This practice was known as 'xenia' (ξενία), and we'll be talking about a very special version of it today: xenia related to Gods and heroes.
Xenia is described a lot in mythology. Especially the more general form of it where Theoi disguising themselves as beggars or undesirables and come to the door of an unsuspecting mortal features in many myths. The host is judged on the hospitality offered; good things befall those who treat guests with respect, very bad things befall those who do not. One of my favorite Hellenic myths shows this in great detail; it's the story of how Baucis and Philemon received some unexpected visitors. You can read the myth here.
Theoxenia is a little different, it's a specific ritual meant to bring the Gods closer to us and invite Them into our home. Heroxenia is the same practice, but for the heroes of Hellenic mythology. In short, theoxenia and heroxenia were a kind of Hellenic sacrifice in which worshippers presented foodstuffs to Gods or heroes (not usually at the same time, or at least not at the same table), who then attended the meal as guests, or xenoi.
The practice started with the laying out of a beautifully done up table--it was made up to absolute perfection and then a bench was placed at it, sometimes with icons of the Gods set on it to make absolutely clear this was where the Gods (or heroes) were invited to eat from. We label the meal a sacrifice, but very little meat was served, and none of it was burned. It was simply a meal, shared with the Gods; the other guests would eat at other table(s) and all would theoretically share their meal with the Gods and heroes they worshipped and revered.
Important to note is that the participants did not try to locate which God or hero sat where, nor were They addressed after being invited; They were left alone to enjoy a good meal and hopefully They came away thinking higher of the hosts and guests. As such, the theo- and heroxenia were considered to establish kharis with the Gods and heroes they invited into the home.
There is one other form of the practice, meant not to establish kharis as such, but to appease polluting spirits, ghosts chief amongst them. Ghosts were the people who could not find the entrance to the Underworld or who didn't have the money to pay Kharon for their passage. Those who were not properly buried were also doomed to wander the Earth for a hundred years. Interestingly enough, Hellenic heroes were also considered ghosts and were honored in the same type of rites as other types of ghosts.
The ancient Hellens held festivals in honor of ghosts, and the Theoi that presided over them, so they would be sated and appeased and would not haunt them. Most of these festivals included a holókaustos--a sacrificial offering given in its entirety to the Gods--and were solemn affairs, conducted at night and without an offering of wine. It was, however, also possible to invite them to dine with the living so they would feel included and then end the proceedings by asking them to leave; something the ghosts would do as it's not polite by the rules of xenia to be a burden on your host.
This fear of spirits and other supernatural entities was named 'deisidaimonia' (δεισιδαιμονία). The ceremonies of riddance were known to the Hellenes as apopompai (ἀποποπμαί), 'sendings away'. There isn't a single word in the English language that conveys the practice. Closest would be 'exorcism'. It is important to note here that these 'exorcisms' weren't performed on people, but on the ghosts themselves and in short, they consisted of rites to ask the Gods (especially Hekate) to keep these unfortunate souls away from their homes and families, because the ghosts could bring misery down upon them. Possession was not part of the fear. Many rites in the ancient Hellenic religion--including monthly ones like the Deipnon--were apotropaic. Many of these rites were also linked to miasma.
Heroxenia and theoxenia are beautiful examples of how the Gods were included in everyday life, and how much the ancient Hellenes personified their deities. This practice is still alive and well in many other religions, and it's a wonderful one to bring back in Hellenismos as well. The next time you meet with a group of Hellenes for dinner, set aside a table and some food to the Gods or heroes and invite Them to join you; undoubtedly, it will add a lot to your meal.
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