Onstage at the Theatre Lyrique in Paris, the Roman God Jupiter and his companion descend in disguise to the humble home of an elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon. The old man and his wife welcome the strangers warmly and entreat them to dine with them despite the meagerness of what poverty affords. And during this shared meal an amazing thing happens. Baucis begins to notice that, despite how many times she refills her guests’ wine cups, her pitcher remains full. She and her husband have been visited by Gods.
Charles Gounod premiered this French comic opera, Philemon et Baucis, in Paris in 1860. The audience at the time would have recognized it as a pastoral piece in the new style of mythological comedy. However, the audience and perhaps even the composer himself might not have realized that they were observing the reenactment of a great ancient rite. They were viewing a primeval ritual of near global distribution.
The Greco-Roman fable of Baucis and Philemon that Gounod drew inspiration from appears in book eight of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The fable is related by Lelax, a friend of the Greek hero Theseus, while the heroes are being hosted by the river god Achelous after their departure from the Calydonian boar hunt. North of the Hellespont, the straits that join the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean, and opposite Troy, stood a Thracian city doomed to sink into a swamp. Or so Lelax tells us. In this Thracian city lived Baucis and Philemon, a pious elderly couple who, one evening, are visited by Jove and Mercury disguised as strangers. Baucis and Philemon give good conversation and cheer as they prepare a meal for their guests. They offer seats, fix their broken table, wipe it down with mint, and treat their guests to every act of hospitality. After Philemon discovers the Gods’ identities, Jove and Mercury lead the couple out of the doomed city, at which point he offers them a boon. The two ask to be priests at the Gods’ temple. And this they become until the day of their passing, at which time they are transformed into an oak and a lime tree, which is now a shrine at which Lelax himself confesses to have made an offering.
Ovid places the fable of Baucis and Philemon within a conversation about the truthfulness of Divinity being experienced in the world. The fable exemplifies ritualized hospitality (xenia); for the Ancient Greeks had guest rituals called theoxenia, wherein the implicit understanding of playing host is that you are hosting a Deity. Ovid’s suggestion is that Divinity is directly experienced in the rites of xenia.
Xenia was, after all, a primary value for the Greeks. And one name for their chief God is Zeus Xenios. The Greek’s describe the cause of Trojan War as being Paris’s abduction of Helen—a gross violation of xenia and therefore violence against Zeus, who upholds xenia. Furthermore, the proper adherence to the rites of xenia is one of the primary themes of Homer’s Odyssey. The houses of Menelaus, Nestor, Circe, Calypso, and most especially King Alcinous and his daughter Nausicaa display a proper adherence to xenia. By contrast, the suitors ravaging Odysseus’ home and Polyphemus eating his men demonstrate an abuse of xenia.
Now, traditional stories from around the world tell us that the center of the world is within your heart. In polytheistic culture, sympathetic knowledge or an empathic projection of experience is universally recognized as the primary mode of awareness. (My forthcoming book The Heart of Myth explores the global prevalence of this most basic mytheme on six continents.) If we take this premise to be correct, we recognize that, not “a search for meaning”, but rather “a state of awareness” underlies the drive for myth making. Myths, therefore, are navigational tools for psychic orientation within a world where the Great Encompassing Sphere is recognized directly as an inner recognition or identification experienced directly within ones heart. To state the argument bluntly, the mystical experience of Self-recognition with the Divine as described in every spiritual or religious tradition was and still is the core-underlying principal of polytheistic myth.
Myth, from this perspective, is the compass that redirects orientation, again and again, toward this recognition. Hence, the nature of myth in polytheistic culture is culturally conservative.
And so, from this understanding of myth, which I see as meeting world myth on its own terms, we might again turn our heads toward the guest ritual as exemplified by the Greek myth of Baucis and Philemon. And seeing the guest ritual from this light, we are greeted with something that is, from an aesthetic perspective, quite extraordinary. With an aesthetic flourish that matches its simplicity with an almost inexpressible grandeur, the most basic and most prevalent ritual structure of polytheistic people projects this Self-recognition with the Divine, with the heart as center, into one’s direct experience with an “other”. Therefore, at the core of one of the most basic and most widespread human rituals on planet Earth, is not only the sentiment of, “I recognize my very self as divine.” But rather, is forward moving toward the obvious conclusion of this spiritual Self-recognition. It states emphatically with the most cogent ritual elegance, “I recognize you as the center of the Sphere and the Great Sphere itself—the Totality, the Cosmos, the Great Body and Consciousness—that underlies and interpenetrates the very fabric of the Universe and the myriad forms within it.”
And so, when a Yoruba dancer, glistening with sweat and wide-eyed in trance, places a bottle of whiskey before a statue of Shango, we are in broad, deep, and very high spiritual territory. And if we pay attention to this gross anthropological observation, it may just affect how we make the casserole that we bring over to our neighbors on the night we play cards. Or what we say when we greet mother at the retirement home. And the simple little details of these moments, which may seem trifling at the time, may mean a great deal to us from a wider sphere of aesthetic orientation.
And with this thought in mind, let us explore the cultural origins of this myth; examine its ritual specifics; briefly trace its continuity; and recognize, not only its survival, but also its vigorous aesthetic expression in living cultural traditions.
So, here we go.
Where do these ritual forms come from? What is the historical origin of this myth whose basis serves the basic ritual foundation of six continents?
In fairly concrete terms, the origin of this mythic ritual is not “historic”, per se, but rather “prehistoric.” And something about the question might make us a little uneasy. It is as if we hear the disembodied voice of the long dead Zen master Zhaozhou saying, “Wrong question.” Or perhaps wrong hermeneutic. Because the question itself throws us into the “mythic time” of our earliest human experiences. Or perhaps (and here is the source of the uneasiness) this mythic time is a wider sphere than the worldview that tries to explain it.
Let me try to explain.
Perhaps the mystic experience of stasis in an Ultimate Value underlying all apparent phenomena is ultimately a wider psychic sphere than the windy trajectory of the continually moving mind. From this position in aesthetic philosophy, analysis dissolves into the wider sphere of synthesis. And synthesis ultimately finds home within the non-dual sphere of rapt and boundless appreciation.
A “philosophical” position that subsumes analysis within a sphere of rapt presence may seem an unlikely philosophical position for a reader of modern philosophy. And yet, it is not a new philosophical position at all, but rather the basis of Medieval Indian philosophy, Chinese aesthetics, and Japan’s tradition of Tea. In Medieval India’s philosophy of aesthetics, Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra and Abhinava Gupta’s final word on aesthetics in the Abhinavabharati are concise statements of this philosophical position. Furthermore, they express the position in very practical terms. Therefore, this philosophical position is also a praxis—a practice of spiritual and aesthetic refinement. It is a method of self-improvement and Self-recognition. In China, an aesthetic philosophy of cultivating rapt presence was expressed in the many Tea Classics that begin with Lu Yu’s eighth century The Classic of Tea. This philosophy inspired many artistic traditions, particularly the works of Southern Song artist scholars. In Japan, Tea culture thrived from the ninth century onward. Especially in the sixteenth century teachings of Sen no Rikyu who revitalized Japanese Tea culture and arts.
These philosophies of presence make a striking contrast to the chaos of hysterical subjective meaning-making in a gallery of modern art. For example, Matthew Barney’s filling of an SF MOMA gallery with decomposing foam. By contrast, a contemporary Chinese landscape painting, Japanese ceramic tea set, or Indian raga really does not need to be “explained.”
And so, it is my desire to suggest that the ambiguities of prehistoric vagaries in searching for the cultural origins of this ritual form may throw us, not simply into an interior subjective experience of mythic time, but rather, in meeting this ambiguity like the strange guest that it is, we can meet it properly at that point in the pulsation of awareness, where the slippery inner and outer meet.
Returning to our question about the cultural origins of the guest ritual, it goes back with some certainty to the cultural world of Upper Paleolithic hunters. Imagine, if you will, a fairly consistent monoculture of small tribes of migratory hunters that stretches from Spain to Siberia. This is Eurasia of roughly 40,000 to 11,000 bce. The small, often isolated, cultures of this time may not have left us much in physical remains, but nevertheless represent one of the longest lived cultural traditions in human history, enjoying a relative stability before the vast ice sheets moved northward after the last glacial period, prompting the reindeer northeast into Siberia, where for their human hunters Mount Baikal became a sacred mountain and central axis of the world. About 23,000 bce northern hunters crossed the Bering Straight into America.
We know of the guest ritual’s importance to these Upper Paleolithic hunters through its cultural survival in the traditions of Arctic peoples such as the of Buriyat of Siberia. And in the ritual’s traceable cultural dissemination southward into the shamanism (and Bon religion) of Tibet and Nepal; its appearance in Chinese Shenism (and later in the tales of the Taoist Immortals); its early presence in India in the tradition of Shaktism; it’s appearance in Ancient and Medieval Europe (particularly in the Norse stories of Wotan and in folklore, such as the Grimm Brothers tale The Elves and the Shoemaker); its presence in the Ancient Mediterranean (in ritual washing of the guest’s feet and related rituals); its persistence in the traditions of the Vedic Aryans (as expressed by the relationship to the deities in Greece’s Homeric Hymns and India’s Vedas); and among the Hawaiians, Samoa, and Maori of the Oceanic islands where the guest ritual is still a regular expression of daily life.
More specifically, it is well documented that, in Paleolithic hunting societies of the Arctic and North America, the hunted animal is recognized as the visitation of a divine power. The hunted animal is a symbol, understood in its proper sense. It is, like an arrow from the eye let fly toward the Eternal Power underlying manifest reality; an exemplary expression of that Power that greets human culture in good cheer as guest—and sacrificial victim—honored in meals of respect and gratitude. The ritualized meals give thanks to the subjective soul encountered and killed; the archetypal power represented as the visiting power; and the transcendent yet imminent Power within all things as recognized by all Animistic peoples. (Animism really is a fluid term whose understanding of Ultimate Reality blends in and out with Monism and Non-Dualism.) Although many scholars trace the guest ritual primarily to the sacrifice of food animals, I contend (at risk of entering a “chicken or egg” argument) that it should be recognized that the primary expression of the ritual is of hospitality, i.e., the proper hosting of a guest. And why not? Among Arctic communities, despite the wide geographic range, cultural continuity is maintained and monotony dispelled through the joy of hosting and being hosted. To offer a risqué example, for some of the most isolated of Inuit seal hunters, the guest ritual expresses in the novelty of wife swapping.
To pick from one culture of many in North America, the myths of the subarctic Cree are characterized by guest/host relationships. One myth, Mudjikiwis, relates a series of ritualized guest/host rituals of a hero’s journey on the way to the house of the Thunderers. In North America, the guest ritual is the foundation of Sioux prayers to the directions and of Pacific Northwest potlatch festivals.
So, long-story-short, because of the geographic specificity of the ritual’s broad cultural dissemination, as well as it’s raw expression in the Arctic, North America, and Oceana and more developed expressions elsewhere, the ritualized recognition of the guest as a Divine presence can be traced back with some certainty to the great crucible of Eurasian Animism of the Upper Paleolithic.
And might I mention Africa before this? Quite possibly. However, the dating of ritual forms is tricky business. The further down the well of cultural strata that we descend, the more difficult it is to find tangible physical remnants of ritual artifacts, especially in tropical climates. I am not aware of the ritual of the guest as God among Africa’s earliest people, the San. It does make its appearance in West African traditions such as the Yoruba. However it must be noted that these are relatively late traditions. (The Yoruba golden age, for example, being 1,100 to 1,700 ad.) Nor am I aware of the ritual as described being indigenous to Australia, which further suggests its Upper Paleolithic Eurasian origin.
And what is the guest ritual’s inner expression in world culture?
Like Zeus (dios pitar), Wotan, the Norse “sky father”, is a God of the outsider. In ancient Europe, for example, we see the guest ritual myth expressed in stories of Wotan as the stranger, for every stranger is a visitation of Wotan. The practice of treating a stranger as Wotan is a practice of holding an experience open in sympathetic awareness. It is a practice, at the very least, of maintaining two states of awareness open simultaneously. “Here is a man sitting before me.” and “This, before me is Wotan.” And the expanded state of holding these two states open is a third state.
At one level, the stranger understood as a Divine power has a practical commercial value in that it made travel and trade easier. At a deeper level, the stranger is experienced as Divine because the stranger represents the unknown. And so, the unknown points the way to the Divine power. It awakens us to be present—to be sensually alert. The myths of the stranger entrain us to be aware of our moment-to-moment experience. For the stranger asks questions that may seem to us to be very unusual. Therefore, from the stranger, we are able to learn spontaneity, to behave in an uncontrived manner. And Eastward in Japan, this is the point to a Zen master’s interactions with his students. Act naturally—but not from a state of animal dullness. Realize your most dynamic spontaneity. This meeting of the stranger is the nature of Asian Tea culture. And in Tea culture, you live with the continuous recognition—a continuous awareness practice, again—that every moment in life you are both host and guest. So, every moment BE a good host. And every moment BE a good guest. Live life with such elegant gracefulness. This is a solid spiritual practice.
An increasingly prevalent experience in our age is that we are seeing the inner recognition of the guest myth degenerate, disappear from memory, or even become digested by later cultural forms.
And perhaps even that is an old story. For the tale in Genesis: 19, where Lot, the only good man of Sodom, is visited by angels, is an example of the mytheme being digested by a later culture. The story is a self-conscious retelling of the guest myth bent to a polarized political shape of an “us vs. them” narrative. The spiritual meaning of the myth is reframed where the primary focus of the story is self-righteousness toward those outside the in-group.
And this is not the only example of a guest myth being distorted within the cultural sphere of an inequitable political power that rejects the recognition of an innate spiritual presence within all beings. Throughout most of the world, in fact, Christian and Islamic conquest and colonialism has resulted in the destruction of, not only many of the temples and great physical works of polytheistic culture, but also has prompted confusion, forgetfulness, and sometimes even a complete obliteration of cultural traditions. But then, so too has time itself. And the rise of modern populations pushing into aggressive economically driven cities is perhaps the most dangerous force with which cultural traditions have to contend.
While living in Nepal in 2010, a confused hobby of mine was to pester people in my circle about what they knew of the inner traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. And though Nepal is still a beautiful devotional culture, I found that to many, the inner traditions are lost and forgotten: the worshipped deity is this thing “out there,” and the enlightenment of the Buddha is a feat inaccessible to the rest of us slogs. Yes, to some, the radiant fullness of Nepal’s spiritual heart is heard only as the tick tock of the work clock while the roar of Shakti is felt only as the annoyance of street peddlers.
And so, of no surprise to physicists, the entropic principle is still in effect.
What is the basic ritual form of the guest ritual?
Some scholars of myth say, “myth creates ritual,” others, “ritual creates myth,” others that “myth and ritual co-arise.” From my position that “Myths are navigational tools for psychic orientation within a world where the Great Encompassing Sphere is recognized directly as an inner recognition or identification experienced directly within one’s heart,” I would argue that a refined state of awareness and the desire to communicate, transmit, and allow people to stabilize in that refined state of awareness is the purposeful origin of both myth and ritual.
The meaning of this ritual participation in most of the world is quite simple. And it is this: in ritualized time and space you practice, with a playful attitude of joy and gratitude, that you are hosting the living presence of the Divine. You have been visited by a Divine power or recognition. And your proper role, therefore, is to play host. The host pays the utmost attention to the Divine, seeing to its every need, honoring it, and framing the entire experience with the recognition that, “This apparent object, person, or ‘other’ is, indeed, the highest power of which I am but a part.”
So again, the central axis of one’s core Self-recognition as the Divine is projected outward onto the “other”. And also, the other’s core subjectivity is recognized as innately Divine. So, the sphere of ritual play—this aesthetic crucible of mutual reflection/projection/identification—is one of meeting and mastering the refined state of heightened presence, sympathetic awareness, gratitude, and a pulsating interpenetration of guest/host relationship that ultimately folds back on itself. Who is the guest? Who the host? Subject and object dissolve in a larger, and truly Non-dual subjectivity. A dynamic stasis remains. And this dynamic stasis is a state of awareness.
The guest ritual in Hindu culture is puja (“reverence”.) In it’s outer expression, a murti (a symbolic image of the Divine) is arranged on an alter and received as a guest. The inner meaning is as described above. The external form of the Hindu puja, for the elephant-headed God Ganesha, for example, the ritual form is as follows: 1.) the Deity is formally invoked; 2.) a seat is offered by the devote whose chant, “Om Gang Ganapaye namaha, aasanam samarpayaami,” describes the offering; 3.) water is offered for washing the feet, and again and throughout, a chant describes the offering; 4.) water is offered for washing the hands; 5.) water is offered for sipping; 6.) water is offered for bathing; 7.) clothing is offered; 8.) a sacred thread is offered; 9.) ornaments are offered; 10.) sandal paste is offered; 11.) a garland is offered; 12.) then incense; 13.) then a lamp; 14.) victuals; 15.) betal; 16.) a camphor lamp and Gayatri mantra; 17.) the Pushpanjali chant and a symbolic offering of the Whole Universe.
And who are we to offer the Whole Universe? Aha. Who indeed? The dynamic of recognizing the “other” as Divine is played out in the Hindu stories of Krishna. The eighth avatar of the God Vishnu, whose Dream is the Universe, the dark-skinned Krishna, as a child, was being scolded by his somewhat dim foster mother Yasoda. The peasant woman forces open her foster son’s mouth to see if he has been eating dirt, and inside his mouth she sees the universe and time in totality. She falls backward onto the ground, laughs, and promptly forgets the whole incident. (And isn’t that how it is for us most of the time.) And again, Krishna, much older now—the chariot driver of the hero Arjuna—reveals himself to his friend. Arjuna sees in his dear friend the surging pulse of men and wars; the rise and fall of cultures; the birth and death of planets; and the dissolving of time itself. At this vision, the great hero trembles.
And why tremble?
Leaving my landlord’s house in Kathmandu Nepal, I was ritually given a shawl and told, “The guest is God.” This ancient saying, “Atihi Devo Bhava,” expresses hospitality as a sacred act. Traveling in a taxi to the airport I had tears of gratitude in my eyes.
What are some living expressions of the guest ritual in the East?
In another bardo between two worlds, a young man of Brahman caste, Nachiketa, sits at the door of the house of death and waits for the master’s return. This story from the Katha Upanishad describes death as a ritual reenactment of the guest ritual in the most emphatic terms. Yama, the lord of death returns to his house and is informed by his servant of the young guest. Not wanting to offend against guest rituals, the somewhat flustered Yama offers several boons to Nachiketa, which the young man dictates. Impressed with the young man’s good sense, the lord of death offers a final boon. Nachiketa asks for the secret of transcending death. To which Yama famously replies, “That path is sharp as a razor’s edge.” (1) He then goes on to tell Nachiketa to identify with the Eternal Power that underlies all forms—that state of awareness of Self-recognition as Being the center of the Sphere and the Great Sphere itself—the Totality, the Cosmos, the Great Body and Consciousness—that underlies and interpenetrates the very fabric of the Universe and the myriad forms within it.
Further, we read in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, “Now if a man worships another deity, thinking that the deity is one and he is an other, he does not know. . . . Now truly, even the Self of an ignorant man is the world of all creatures.” (2) And this, emphatically, is the inner meaning of the guest ritual.
A specific practice of this realization is given in the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, wherein the individual at the moment of death is asked to open up completely and host the totality of Reality as it is expressed in its raw and undiluted fullness.
In Japan, like the meditation of the Tibetan book of the Dead, the practice of Tea may be experienced as a death practice. For the practice of “playing host” in the teahouse is to be taken from this ritual space into the day-to-day and moment-to-moment world of one’s life. The meditation is to be there as a sustaining meditation in all activities. One plays the host one moment and guest another. One is on this side of the table one moment. And now on that.
Now, it is the host’s job to be a good host. “Can I take your coat? Would you like a glass of water? Could I give you something to eat?” And it is the job of the guest to really pay attention and be appreciative; to be a sustained and appreciative presence. So, being a guest is really a process of training your awareness to appreciation. And being a host is a practice in offering gratitude. So, whether guest or host, it is something of a meditative exercise. It is an exercise of opening up to appreciation and gratitude.
And the inner meaning to all this—what the Japanese Tea masters teach—is that every moment we are simultaneously Guest and Host, in our highest understanding of those terms. Every moment. And so, here we are again in the mystical revelation of this whole system of practice.
And finally, as a life practice, the practice of Tea yields to its inevitable role as a death practice. For at that crucial moment—the time of death—what else is there to do, but to host the experience or to be a good guest?
Returning to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lelax finishes telling the tale of Baucis and Philemon to his comrades and their host, the river god Achelous. His concluding words, “Let those who love the gods become gods: let those who have honored them, be honored.” (3) For to Ovid, a mystical Pythagorean, the flavor of actions in hospitality informs all passing life and the underlying Awareness that sustains and is transcendent to it.
1. Katha Upanishad
: I:III:14 as rendered in W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge
2. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: I:IV:10, 16. Max Muller. Trans. Sacred Books of the East, Volume 15. The Upanishads. Part II. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1884. Text has been altered slightly, bringing the language up to date.
3. Ovid. Metamorphoses: VIII:727. A.S. Kline. Trans. Borders Classics, Ann Arbor, 2004.
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