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A Gift for a Gift: a Pagan Ethic of Reciprocity

By Yvonne

In ancient times, hospitality was regarded as sacred. In English, the words ‘guest’ and ‘host’ are very closely related. In German, the words are ‘Gast’ (guest) and ‘Gastgeber’ (host, or literally, guest-giver). There were rituals of giving and accepting hospitality, and it was regarded as a sacred exchange. A guest under your roof was to be protected. That is why stories where the relationship of hospitality is betrayed are so powerful and shocking. In Germany and in Pakistan, it is still the custom for a guest to bring a gift for the host on their first visit to a house (even if they are not staying the night). This is the custom in other countries too. Hospitality was regarded as a sacred obligation in ancient Greece; it is mentioned several times in Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus is shipwrecked, it is because of the obligations of the host towards the stranger that Nausica comes to his aid; and when he returns home to Ithaca disguised as a beggar, the shepherd Eumaios welcomes him as a guest. In India, the guest is regarded as a manifestation of the Divine, and hospitality is based on the principle Atithi Devo Bhava, meaning “the guest is God.”

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