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How humans came to rely on the kindness of strangers

For the ancients, hospitality was an inviolable law enforced by gods and priests and anyone else with the power to make you pay dearly for mistreating a stranger.

Credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Key Takeaways
  • Ancient literature is replete with stories about gods or people with magical powers taking the form of impoverished strangers who are begging for help.
  • Those who reject the strangers are punished — often being turned into birds.
  • Hospitality toward strangers is a foundation of society and religion.

The following is an excerpt from the book The Power of Strangers. It is reprinted with kind permission of the author and publisher.

Two guys walk into a village. They’re dressed like beggars, and they’re going door-to-door to make sure people are being nice to strangers. One is Jesus Christ, Son of God, in the Christian tradition. The other is Saint Peter, his right-hand man and the rock upon which his church is built.

Jesus and Peter arrive at the house of an old peasant woman and beg for some bread. She gives them some crumbs. Jesus gives her another chance. He miraculously causes the cake in her oven to grow larger, giving her more food to share. She stiffs them again. At this point, Jesus and Peter decide they have seen enough, and they turn her into an owl.

This is a European folktale from the Middle Ages, but other versions exist. In a variation that appeared in Baltic countries, Jesus and Peter punish the miser by forcing her to raise two snakes as foster children. In another version, this one Scandinavian, she is turned into a woodpecker. In Germany, they turn her into a cuckoo.

These stories aren’t just Christian, nor are they limited to Europe or the Middle Ages. A Moroccan version, which also turned up in Spain, Russia, and Turkey, features the Prophet Muhammad in the beggar role. His rich host refuses to kill a sheep for him, and instead boils a cat. Muhammad responds by reviving the cat and turning the man into an owl. In a Native American folktale, it’s an old woman and her grandson who are turned away by stingy townspeople. They punish the misers by turning them and all of their children into, you guessed it, birds.

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In the Japanese folk tradition, the stranger — ijin, or “different person” — often appears as a tinker, a foreigner, a beggar, or some other kind of vulnerable outsider, but in reality is a god, a priest, a prince, or someone else endowed with magical powers. In one such story, a Buddhist priest named Kōbō Daishi arrives in a village where water is scarce. He’s dressed like a beggar, and he begs for a cup. A woman travels a great distance to a well and brings water back for him. To thank her, Kōbō Daishi strikes his staff against the ground, and a spring of water bubbles forth. In the next village, where water is plentiful, Kōbō Daishi is rejected. This time he strikes the ground in anger. The wells dry up and the settlement fails.

In the West, the ancient Greeks are perhaps most famous for promoting the idea that gods reside in strangers. Strangers were said to be protected by Zeus, who was both the father of the gods and the god of strangers. He frequently took up the wandering beggar guise to make sure people weren’t mistreating strangers. In The Odyssey, the epic Greek poem written in the eighth century BC, a former charge of the hero Odysseus encounters his former master after a long separation. The man doesn’t recognize Odysseus, but still he extends hospitality. “All wanderers and beggars come from Zeus,” he says.

But why did he send them?

Like other social innovations, like greeting rituals and honorary kinship in hunter-gatherer societies — hospitality started out as a practical solution to a novel problem. There was a lack of strong central institutions and there were strangers around. Hosts had to reconcile the threat strangers posed with the opportunities they may present. In time, though, it proved so integral to the success of humans that it eventually became simply part of our morality, something we did without thinking, something encoded in our genes. “It’s something that evolved with us, as us,” says Andrew Shryock, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan who specializes in hospitality.

The tradition of hospitality toward strangers is, in other words, more than just folk stories by and for people who seem to really hate birds. It has lived in practice for thousands of years. In 1906, Edward Westermarck, a well-traveled Finnish philosopher who is considered one of the founders of sociology, published a book called The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, in which he examined dozens of traditional societies that extended generous hospitality to strangers. “The stranger is often welcomed with special marks of honor,” Westermarck observed. “The best seat is assigned to him; the best food at the host’s disposal is set before him; he takes precedence over all the members of the household; he enjoys extraordinary privileges.” There was such prestige attached to hosting the stranger that people would compete for his favor. Among the Arabs of Sinai, Westermarck wrote, “If a stranger be seen from afar coming towards the camp, he is the guest for that night of the first person who describes him, and who, whether a grown man or a child, exclaims, ‘There comes my guest!'”

Shryock has spent years studying Arab hospitality — karam — research that led him to the Balga tribes of Jordan. To the Balga, Shryock wrote in 2012, “a house without guests, without the spaces necessary to take them in, and without the materials needed to prepare food and drink, is not only weak, it is shameful.” Hospitality is a kind of deep faith there, he writes, “‘a burning in the skin’ inherited ‘from the father and the grandfathers.'” One Balgawi man told Shryock, “Karam is not just a matter of food and drink. Hospitality is from the soul; it’s from the blood.”

The depth of the obligation was such that the Bedouins there were said to occasionally host the stranger with a zeal that could tip into a kind of madness, specifically, hiblat al-‘arab — “the Arab madness” — in which a person overcome by the spirit gives everything away to guests. Shryock spent years searching for one particular Jordan Valley folk story in which a man gave away his children to a stranger because he had nothing more valuable to offer. There were more such tales bearing the same message. In the way a zealot could lose everything in his quest for the face of God, so, too, can the karim — the hospitable man — draw too close to the ruinous ideal of total hospitality when met with the face of a wayfaring stranger.

Indeed, for many of these cultures, Shryock tells me, hospitality and religion were not just connected, they were inextricable. “Hospitality developed into and alongside religion,” he says. “It’s hard to say if hospitality derives its power from its sacredness, or if it lends its power to the sacred.” In other words, are we religious because of hospitality? Or are we hospitable because of religion? It’s impossible to say. But the practice of hospitality is foundational to human civilization. “My own hunch,” says Shryock, “is that human sociability is impossible without hospitality.”

Today when we think of hospitality, we usually think of the private hospitality industry, which hosts weary travelers for a fee, replacing conversation with Wi-Fi, and the lavish spreads of old with rust-colored coffee and those clammy, shrink-wrapped muffins served in the lobby between seven and nine a.m. But for our distant ancestors, hospitality to strangers was something else entirely, a daily practice elevated to a supernatural plane, fashioned into an inviolable law enforced by gods and priests and anyone else with the power to make you pay dearly for mistreating a stranger.

Which leads to our next question: Why?

From the book THE POWER OF STRANGERS by Joe Keohane. Copyright © 2021 by Joe Keohane. Published by Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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