Honor the unknown

Ulysses was pleased at being made thus welcome, and said “May Jove, sir, and the rest of the gods grant you your heart’s desire in return for the kind way in which you have received me.”

To this you answered, O swineherd Eumaeus, “Stranger, though a still poorer man should come here, it would not be right for me to insult him, for all strangers and beggars are from Jove.”
-The Odyssey, Book XIV

Imagine being stranded in any modern city. There is a chill in the air and nightfall is approaching fast. It is a city foreign to you. You have no acquaintances to call upon and no money to rent a room with. People are quickly emptying the streets and heading homewards. You can try to stop people to ask for their help or advice but most will simply move on and ignore you. What other option is there available to you but to find a sturdy park bench and hope you do not freeze to death in your sleep?

Every city is filled with thousands upon thousands of well heated rooms. Many of those are unoccupied, yet they are closed to you. You might as well be asking them to jump off a bridge with you. Most denizens of the modern city know what kind of person is not able to get shelter for himself. He is sure to be dangerous and insane if no one else will put up with him. The gated communities, doormen, and complex electronic security systems can be found at almost every well-to-do residence in the city; they exist simply to keep you, and others like you, out.

Hospitality seems to be a foreign concept in modernity. It was once one of the highest virtues. It stood side by side in the minds of the ancients with high morals such as truth, justice, and courage. Paganism in every corner of the world valued hospitality as a cardinal virtue. They are central themes in they’re most important and enduring art. Many parts of Homer’s epics, the sagas of the Norse, and the song of the Bhagavan make little sense without first understanding how they viewed the importance of hospitality.

At the core of the virtue is respect. It is readily apparent that the guest should be thankful and respect the host. He is providing the guest with shelter and warmth. Without his kindness, the guest would be deprived of basic comforts. He is imposing on another for the sake of himself.

Hospitality has another side to it. It also includes the respect the host shows the guest. The ancients knew this and saw it as equally as important. They often thought of this concept through the lense of paganism. In the terms of the gods, the hospitality of mortals often played a central part in myth. Odin and Zeus are the perpetual wanderers and traveled in disguise in many myths. The ancient perspective saw travelers as a possible an incarnation of one of their deities. If they turned them away, they could be risking the wrath of the gods. A wanderer could still be a dangerous mortal. He could still be maniac that could harm you, but the ancients understood that he could bring great fortune.

Modernity has no such respect for guests. It sees no use for anything out of the ordinary. No one, modern or ancient, can truly tell the character of a guest. The stranger always brings with him the unknown. A guest, especially the foreign, is often an inconvenience and unwanted. It is not easy to provide for another, even for a short while.

The difference between modern and ancient society lies in how they each address the unknown. Ancient societies rose to the occasion. They met the inconvenience with good nature and optimism. Most of modern society simply lacks the courage and endurance to deal with hospitality properly. Any time modernity is confronted with responsibility of any kind, it deals with it in the same way- an annoyed sigh and a vacant shrug.

People often bemoan modern society as being too distant and impersonal. Modernity increasingly deals with people from behind a computer screen or speaker phone. Barriers against the outside world are put up in the form locked doors and gated communities. Real connections between people are few and far between. Perhaps the first step to making the modern world a more livable place is to relearn the ancient value of hospitality.

The tragic pagan

To learn the essence of something, it is a useful exercise to seek out its origins. Without knowing where something came from, it is impossible to truly understand the meaning of it.  By studying the conditions that caused it to come into being, you can see it in its purest form.

To see the true beginnings of Europe art and paganism, you must travel back to an ancient time before written records.  While much can be learned by this, it is much harder to draw concrete conclusions without any easily accessible first hand evidence.

Drama is modern by these standards. Its oldest form is tragedy. It was developed by the Ancient Greeks, just under 2500 years ago.  While the majority of the plays the Greeks wrote have been lost to the ravages of time, a few key masterpieces have been saved.  They are still reproducible in their original form, with the same words and meaning.  To have the unaltered expression of the ancients is a priceless gift for modern people interested in such things.

While its importance to history and art is obvious, it is has a much less well known side.  Tragedy was just as important to religion in the ancient world.  By immersing yourself in these works, you instantly get a feeling of their pagan nature.  The word itself has connotations of ritual. Tragedy is derived from the Ancient Greek word tragoidia, meaning he-goat-song. 

Tragedy was derived from an ancient pagan ritual to Dionysus called dithyramb. At the center of this ritual was a hymn sung about the life of Dionysus.  Upwards of fifty men were said to have taken part in these rituals. It started to take on a new form when spoken word was intermingled with this singing.  As the worship of the gods evolved, these rituals started to focus more on these spoken roles.  It created something very similar to the drama we are familiar with today.

While the chorus might have lost its central role, the subject matter of these plays were ever focused on the gods.  The main characters of this new form of ritual were mostly human, but their fates were inevitably decided by the gods.  The tragic hero was smart, capable, and extraordinarily gifted and his fate was unusually cruel.

This characteristic, unfortunate turn is what gives tragedy its power.  The downfall of the main character is most often brought on by his own hubris and arrogance to the gods. Through this, tragedy becomes an inherently moralistic art form.  It strives to teach the audience member reverence for the gods through these tales of great misfortune.

In contrast, Christianity and similar Asiatic religions tell fables that promote hope through resurrection and redemption to the lowliest of men. A pagan playwright has no use for such endings. Its values are inherently European. Tragedy demonstrates how no one can escape consequences.  The gods will always have the final say, despite the greatest efforts of man.

Strong and healthy European societies have always embraced this tragic outlook in their mythology and art.  Later European paganism tragic tales such as The Death of Baldr and The Fall of Sigurd. We see similar themes appear in the plays of the Renaissance with writers such as the great Shakespeare and in Romantic Europe through operatic composers such as Wagner.

When tragedy is viewed this way, you can start to see modern drama, in cinema and at the theater, through the eyes of the ancient.  Those who understand the power of the tragic hero share much in common with the pagan authors who first forged the genre.  Tragedy is an affirmation of the pagan warrior spirit; the world can be cruel and unforgiving but ultimately it is the way you fight that gives life its true meaning.