Xenos – Friend or Foe?

Greeks are well-known for their hospitality and their word for it is filoxenia. The word literally means “friend of strangers” but can also be translated “guest-friend” because of the double meaning of the word xenos.

In Greek, xenos is pronounced ksenos, with emphasis on the “e”, which is pronounced as the “e” in end, or error. The word means stranger or, more generally, anyone who is not from one’s community. An Athenian, in other words, is just as much of a xenos as a foreigner from Britain, Sweden, Germany etc. when he or she comes to Skiathos.

Xenos, however, also means guest! This is a very good reflection on how Greeks view anyone coming from elsewhere as filoxenia, hospitality, has been considered something sacred since antiquity. Mistreating your guests, even of they were your worst enemies, was regarded as sacrilege during antiquity and to this day Greeks, especially the older generations, always make sure to be the best hosts they can be. It is unheard of, for example, to not offer something when a person visits their home, even if you are the gas man coming to read the meter!

In English we encounter the word in xenophobia, the fear of strangers. Here, the word has no reference to the guest-aspect; instead, it plays purely on people’s fear of the unknown. It should be noted that this word is used by Greeks as well to characterize someone who is racist or just generally suspicious of people coming from elsewhere.

The Greek word for hotel is xenodochio and literally means “guest container” and someone who is paraxenos is really strange. What everyone wants to be, though, is filoxenos (masc) or filoxeni (fem) as this is the person who is very hospitable. With filoxenia comes some unwritten rules for the guest as well: never come empty handed when you first visit a Greek’s home and always accept what is offered to you when you visit – you are not expected to finish it, just to acknowledge the offer – not doing so is an insult!  If you are given a plate of food to take home, never return it empty; put some sweets or cakes on it, for example.

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One Response to “Xenos – Friend or Foe?”

  1. mj yap Says:

    thank you for this wonderful information.. it helps alot, to understand the Greeks culture, i really love learning other countries cultures btw, so thank you for this 🙂

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