Sannion wrote, following some discussions we had over whiskeys and cigars here at my new place in the Empire State, about the importance of understanding our roles as guests, and hosts, when we are interacting with the deities and spirits of our traditions. He brings up important pieces often overlooked in our work and discussions, such as the vital significance of the divinities who are not gods or goddesses, such as land-spirits, nymphs, and others.
When we bring [Dionysos] into ritual with us he is essentially our guest. After all, his homes are on Mount Parnassos, Mount Olympos, Mount Nysa and in the underworld as well as all of the temples that have been consecrated to him over the centuries. Even when we give over space in our homes to him by setting up shrines we are still, by default, the owners and maintainers of that property. Setting up a fully functioning temple is an entirely different matter as I’m sure my Thracian Adversary can attest…Therefore as host it is proper that we should demonstrate generosity and devotion as we feast and celebrate him.
This is an important thing that I think a lot of people fail to understand and navigate, primarily because it doesn’t seem to get taught anywhere at all anymore, in either a religious or a mundane context. To name it, we’re discussing hospitality… which is supposedly one of the “big ticket items” in our ancient Polytheisms and Paganisms, and is claimed to be held to in our modern revivals and reconstructions today. And yet, many people struggle with understanding the importance of the foundational concepts such as place, and space, and the importance of non-relative role assignment, which in the case of hospitality is assigned not by interpersonal (or even transpersonal) associations, but literally our relationships (or lack thereof!) to the place, space and circumstance in question. I first wrote about this topic in the early winter while reflecting on hospitality of a more human variety, and began to discuss my Polytheism as a relationship with the gods based upon the language and roles of “guestship” and “hostship”. Because a lot of people have their own ideas of what some of these words mean, I want to pause and just reboot the conversation a bit to the basics:
From Old Frenchhospitalite (Frenchhospitalité), from Latinhospitalitas (“hospitality”), from hospitalis (“hospitable”), from hospes (“guest”, “host”). Displaced native Old Englishgiest-líðnys (“guestliness”), from giest (“guest”).
From Middle Englishgest, from Old Norsegestr, replacing Old English ġiest, both from Proto-Germanic*gastiz, from Proto-Indo-European*gʰóstis (“stranger, guest, host, someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality”).
From Old Frenchoste (French: hôte), from Middle Latinhospitem, accusative of hospes (“a host, also a sourjourner, visitor, guest; hence, a foreigner, a stranger”), from Proto-Indo-European*gʰóspot- (“master of guests”), from *gʰóstis (“stranger, guest, host, someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality”) and*pótis (“owner, master, host, husband”).
Important to note in the above is the essential interrelatedness of “host” and “guest”. A guest is one who “receives hospitality” whereas a host is one who “receives guests, provides hospitality”, and that these roles are assigned not by the being’s relationship to one another but by their assigned relations to the place or circumstance in question.
If I meet you on the street and we are strangers in “neutral territory”, hospitality does not apply, although other customs of normative behavior and cultured regard for another being certainly will. If, however, you are a stranger to my native city and I, a local who happens upon you with knowledge of your “guestship” in that place, hospitality in a general sense should apply. Certainly if you come to my home, I am your host, and you my guest, not because you are a stranger — for it would be the same if you were a sibling, cousin, elder or deity much beloved! — but because it is my home, and not your home. Indeed, a violation of the reciprocal bonds of hospitality would be if you as guest acted as if the home were your own.
The common expression, “Make yourself at home!” is a misleading and non-literal idiom, in that it can only be uttered from a host to a guest without losing all sense, since if taken literally the guest would then assume hosting responsibilities rather than receiving guesting treatment. It literally means “make yourself comfortable and feel free to forego formal guesting regards”, making it the hospitality equivalent of the military expression “at ease!”, which relates to a position of relaxed stance assumed by a soldier (without moving from place or being given leave to speak). These ideas of formality versus informality are largely lost on our lay culture of couch potatoes and slouchers — the Thracian says while typing from a slouched position reclined into a sea of sheepskins on a hardwood floor, beside an uncorked bottle of whiskey and an emberlit cigar — and yet are essential for understanding the classically intended (and contemporarily essential) concepts of hospitality.
My home is not your home, unless you live here, too. This, then, means that the ancient laws of hospitality are in assumed effect any time that you are present here, without residing here. If you are visiting for a lengthier stay, rather than just a brief visit, it would be reasonable to assume you are to be given your own quarters or space — a guest room, or an office converted to such — in which you can relax from the stresses of hospitality reception and even informal demand. If you are staying in my home, and I cordon off a space for your exclusive use, as such, that space becomes your dedicated space for the agreed upon term of visitation. It would be a violation of my responsibilities of hospitality to enter that space without permission (unless agreements allow for it, such as allowing me access to something stored within that space), and so forth. And, if I enter that space while you are there, I am in a way “your guest”, though you are still my guest in the greater household. It gets complicated.
It is similar with gods and spirits. Sannion continues, from above (emphasis mine):
[W]ith ancestors and land-spirits the situation is reversed – we are coming into their territory as suppliants. In the case of the ancestors we have our whole existence through them – we owe them for the flesh that adorns our bones, the blood that flows through our veins, the traits and culture, the fortune and luck that has been handed down through their line. In the case of the land-spirits they are the place where we build our homes, the soil that produces the food we eat, the water that nourishes and cleanses us and when we go out to the woods or down by the shore of the river or deep beneath the earth in a cave – in these particular places that are unlike any other place on earth – it is them that we are visiting, and we should ever remain mindful of that. As suppliants we should treat our hosts properly and request of them what we desire instead of just greedily taking it. And I think it is proper for a guest to ask a favor of their host for that enhances their stature and gives them an opportunity to demonstrate their power. And when applied to spirits, approaching them in such a fashion keeps us mindful of the pervasiveness of their dominion.
We are not John Wayne Cowboys, no matter what our pop-culture Western ideologies might suggest to us as we gaze longingly into our own eyes reflected in the many metaphorical mirrors we raise as edifices to our own grand masturbatory majesty. We are not gunslingers, most of us, and even if we were, the supposed “fierce independence” that is discussed often in literature addressing the modern “cult of the individual” phenomenon, there would still be sanctions and responsibilities levied against (and from) us, and it is the cooperation or rejection of those considerations that would define the expression of individuality. (In other words, to rebel against societal norms, one must first acknowledge that they exist in the first place!)
I have heard urban gardeners supposedly involved in “nature worship religions” ostensibly called Paganism declare that they hold no debt or obligations to the land that they work. They express that their act of tilling soil and planting seeds and harvesting yields from little plotted sections of earth somehow creates an egalitarian relationship of reciprocity and balance and… blah blah blah. Fuck that. If you come into my home and think that marinating a steak you found in my fridge — using marinade you found in my cupboard — somehow entitles you to a sense of independent ownership of said steak, you will quickly find yourself corrected of these assumptions. That the steak is mine to offer or withhold in my home is what makes me a host, and you a guest. If you are a good guest, you might get a good steak; if you are a shitty guest, I’ll fry you some damn eggs and smile just as much while serving it. You’ll still be hosted, but I am under no obligations to pull out the red-carpets for muddy-footed peasants, too ignorant to take off their shoes when they enter my domain. Why should it be any different in the wilds, in the gardens, in the yards, in the forests and in the street where we so ignorantly stomp our feet as we traipse blindly through this world?
We are guests here. That places lawful sanctions and demands against us, things which the spirits of a given place may choose to hold us to strictly — in which case most of us are fucking screwed — or more loosely, as those spirits are our hosts, and they are as possessed of free agency as any other damn or blessed being. At least, it should be assumed, they are as free-willed and autonomous as you.
But often we do not do these things, think these things, acknowledge or move with an awareness of these things. This is shameful, and yet we the shameless masses proceed forward anyway, gayly ignoring the fact that we offend with every footstep through the pristinely imperfected red-carpeted mud of the Earth.