Why You Should Be Nice to Beggars and Bastards
The Greek myths were not just archaic explanations of natural events (e.g., Zeus’ wrath explaining thunder, the Persephone myth explaining the seasons). They were also used as parables to encourage certain actions in everyday life.
A good example of this is the concept of xenia (which translates to ‘guest-friendship’ or hospitality). Xenia is encouraged in many myths, but none more so than the myth of Philemon and Baucis.
In this story, an old couple named Philemon and Baucis hear a knock on the door. Two strangers — an older man named Astrapos, and his son Arguros — stand at the doorway, requesting shelter and, if possible, something to eat. The couple oblige and, despite their scarce stores of food, spare no expense. Wine was poured, meat was eaten. After the meal, Astrapos and Arguros thanked the old couple who humbly deflected their praise. The strangers then explained that they had knocked on every other door in the town only to be turned away:
“Some of the townspeople swore at us. Some spat at us. Some threw stones at us. Some set dogs on us. Yours was the last house we tried and you have shown us nothing but kindness and a spirit of xenia that I was beginning to fear was vanished from the world” (from Stephen Fry’s modern retelling)
The strangers, as you might’ve guessed, were no ordinary strangers. They were none other than Zeus, King of Olympus, and his son Hermes, the winged herald of the gods. Zeus — whose epithet is Zeus Xenios, designating him as patron of hospitality and the avengers of wrongs done to strangers — rewarded the hospitality of Philemon and Baucis by sparing them from the punitive flood that he later sent through the town. In some versions of the myth, the pair are immortalized as the sacred oak and linden trees.
The moral: be nice to strangers — especially those hard up. It could always be a case of theoxeny: the mythical trope of a god disguised as a beggar.
As well as “be nice to strangers”, another recurring moral lesson in Greek mythology is, “be nice to bastards”. The principles of theoxeny apply here too — only it is applied to the absent parent, who might or might not be a god.
The Olympians of Greek mythology were known to mate with humans, the offspring of which were semi-divine demi-gods like Perseus, Hercules and Theseus. Although they were mortal, they were almost always exceptional individuals who go on to accomplish heroic feats. Usually, in their childhood, they suffer as a result of their uncertain paternity (e.g. Phaeton and Apollo). The community shun them and their single mother, deny their divine parentage, and reprimand them for their differences. (We see a similar thing happening today with the media demonizing single mothers).
I believe that this concept of divine parentage has its roots in reality. When a god came down to mate with a human, they would usually do so in the form of an animal or a man (to see a god in their true form was impossible for a mortal — as the myth of Semele demonstrates). In the case of Zeus, for instance, ‘[during] his long, amorous career, the King of the Gods had transformed himself into all kinds of exotic entities in his pursuit of desirable females and, from time to time, males’ (Fry). Even though he concealed his true form, the form in which he took was no less impressive. If he appeared as a man, or took possession of a man’s body, he was still an irresistible and glorious specimen. The women he pursued gave in to him through a mixture of terror and admiration. In evolutionary terms, he was a ‘dominant male’ — perhaps the most dominant male; and as Ogi Ogas writes in A Billion Wicked Thoughts:
Study after study has demonstrated the erotic appeal of male dominance. Women prefer the voices of dominant men, the scent of dominant men, the movement and gait of dominant men, and the facial features of dominant men. The social organization of most primates features a very clear dominance hierarchy. Chimpanzees and baboons boast alpha males, who obtain that position through a combination of physical strength and political savvy, while alpha gorillas attain their status through brute size and strength. Scientists believe that the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex may be responsible for processing cues indicating social status or dominance, and it appears that almost all female brains are susceptible to dominance cues. “I met [Bill Clinton] as part of a governmental panel while he was president. I’m a lesbian, but the powerful attraction I felt toward him for an instant made me question whether I really was!”
It is no wonder then that women would succumb to socially disadvantageous love affairs with Olympians/ dominant men. But in mythology, as in reality, these men do not usually stick around. Thus, the woman is left to raise their — usually unruly — child alone. Although they are blessed with superior genetics (as a result of their divine paternity), they may also suffer from low self-worth due to their abandonment issues and social ostracization. I believe that the concept of divine paternity arose to mitigate these esteem issues. The child of an absent father could find solace in the belief that their ‘Olympian father’ was watching from above, or even caretaking in the guise of an old man or stepfather figure (as in the two examples below).
The concept of divine paternity is so strong, it persisted through the monotheistic tradition in, not only the virgin birth, but also the mysterious Nephilim of the Old Testament; which were the ‘large and strong’ offspring of mortal women and fallen angels:
The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown (Genesis 6:4)
Divine paternity and theoxeny would discourage the mistreatment of orphans, bastards, or any single-parent infant. But perhaps more importantly, it would help these children overcome the internal and external obstacles that come from belonging to a ‘broken home’.
They may be disadvantaged in many ways, but Zeus — ‘the King of the Gods, Ruler of Olympus, Lord of Thunder, Cloud-Gatherer and Bringer of Storms’ — Zeus is their father. Offend him at your own risk.