At our most base and primitive, all we care about is ourselves—survival. We protect ourselves and our families, so the line will survive. We hoard. We fight. We resist others and fear them because they may take what we need to survive.
But the history of world civilization—and of mythology, literature, and religion—is the history of refuting those impulses, of raising us up to higher selves, of forming communities and cultures that enhance the lives of all. These help us to thrive, not just survive.
This is why so many cultures have a myth or parable about gods visiting humans in disguise: why The Odyssey is essentially a long disquisition on hospitality; why Odin and Thor visit Midgard and Jesus appears to poor people to test their generosity. Because even though the strong, animal instinct in us compels us to protect what we have and exclude others, the higher path, the path toward community and humanity, is helping others.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses¸ Zeus visits Lycaon and, disgusted by his behavior (Lycaon does not believe Zeus is a god and tries to feed him human flesh and plots his murder). Zeus’s reaction is to flood the world and kill off this undeserving race. The lesson here is multiple, including an admonition to have faith in the gods, but how one demonstrates that faith is in being a good host. Lycaon should have fed his guest, offered him shelter, protected him—not tried to kill him.
Lycaon should have read The Odyssey.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus the Greek hero and king of Ithaka is trying to get home from the Trojan War. His journey is a return trip. The main action of the war has passed (see The Iliad), and all he’s trying to do is get back. Why? That’s not really as exciting a premise for a book as chronicling the cause and scope of a war. It’s not a meteoric rise to fame for a hero who fights a monster or saves a maiden. It’s a voyage. It’s full of scenes where Odysseus is welcomed or attacked, of examples of good hospitality and, for lack of a better phrase, bad hospitality. The Odyssey is about how to treat people, and ultimately about how to be human.
Odysseus fails with some regularity.
He starts out with a host of men. Some are eaten by Laestrygonians. Some are eaten by a cyclops. Some are eaten by Scylla, the flying monster with six heads who fills each of her six gullets with one of his men. You’re seeing a trend here, yeah? It’s not about the guys; they’re essentially pawns (“red shirts,” in Star Trek parlance). It’s about Odysseus learning to be a person who is worthy to rule when he gets back to Ithaka. Odysseus learns how to deal with all different kinds of humans and monsters. He stops all over the Aegean on his way back, and when he stops in lands governed by good kings, he is welcomed and feasted and encouraged to speak. When he stops at a monster’s house, his guys get eaten. Lesson? Anyone? Humans, at least good ones, welcome guests. They care for their fellow human beings. They give of their resources, knowing that if they are washed adrift, they’ll be able to count on being welcomed and sheltered and protected.
The Christian tradition (and others) shares these stories. In the Old Testament, God floods the world when people forget how to be good people. In the New Testament, we are reminded to show hospitality because some have “entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13.2). And then there is the story of Jesus visiting the shopkeeper in the guise of three poor people (Johnny Cash’s “The Christmas Guest,” which derives from Helen Steiner Rice’s version of a French folktale, probably).
It’s a common enough trope, though. The same scene begins Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, really. A powerful enchantress tests the young French lord, and when he fails to be gracious and generous to another human being, she punishes him by turning him in to a beast. He acted no better than an animal; his appearance should reflect his monstrosity.
Why do we have to keep telling this tale? Does each generation need to learn it for themselves? Are we still so ruled by fear of scarcity that we require acculturating over and over again?
Fortunately there is no shortage of material, ancient to contemporary, that we can read or watch or listen to in order to find this lesson. To quote a friend who has learned it very well, “We belong to each other.”