Hospitality: a Pagan value?

Terence P Ward —  March 24, 2015 — 9 Comments

The journey to report on the Sacred Space/Between the Worlds conference was difficult. What would have taken four hours on the road on a clear day was seven through a late-winter snowstorm on the Eastern seaboard, driving forty miles an hour past at least a dozen vehicles which hadn’t fared very well in those conditions. Journey’s end, however, included welcomes from familiar faces, introductions to local luminaries, and an invitation to lunch with a group of Southern witches who simply wanted to show some hospitality. Those warm gestures led to this question: what role does hospitality play in your tradition? Those who were able to respond created a rich tapestry of perspectives.

[Photo Credit: Fernando Gonzaga, Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Fernando Gonzaga, Flickr]

Byron Ballard, Mother Grove Goddess Temple:

I always cringe in interfaith circles when we try so hard to find That One Thing that we all do. There’s a poster that made the rounds a few years ago that had variations on the Golden Rule. I don’t hold with the “Law of Return” but that fits for rather a lot of Pagan folk. Yeah, I had nothing.

In the wild world of interfaith, I actually think it’s more helpful to dive fully into all the stuff we don’t have in common because it affords us an opportunity on one hand to explain our position and on the other to work at understanding someone else’s. But I have given it a lot of thought and I’ve come up with what I think is the most ancient and sacred act that we do have in common — hospitality. The offering of bread or water, or even clean feet, to someone who is not like us. It shows a largeness of spirit as well as a generous nature. It is an act of courage. It should be offered without grudging, as a duty and obligation that we owe the Earth, our Divines and our ancestors. To accept hospitality is also an act of courage — are you then indebted to the host in some meaningful way? Will your return of hospitality when it’s your turn compromise you in some way?

And there is obviously something biologically driven in the act of hospitality. By welcoming the “stranger” or the “enemy” into your camp, your village, your home, you are potentially improving the gene pool for your family and tribe, resulting in some hybrid vigor (if we’re lucky) and a political alliance, too.

So, yes, I practice it as both a Pagan and a Southerner. And there have been times when I’ve not broken bread with those who wish me ill because I believe the duty of hospitality — the giving and the receiving — is holy.

Lilith Dorsey, Voodoo Universe blogger:

All the African traditional religions (Haitian Vodou, New Orleans Voodoo, Lucumi/Santeria, and others) place hospitality at the top of the list of necessary ways of conduct for devotees. This is an outcropping of respect… respect for all living beings, the ancestors, and the Lwa or Orisha (thought of as divinities by some). Everyone and everything contains a divine repository of Ashe, the sacred energy forces of the universe. When individuals honor this energy by offering food, drink, prayers or kindness to those on this plane and the next they serve both themselves and the religion.

Rev. Edward Livingston, Fire Dance Church:

As we are a legal 501(c)3 church and a not-for-profit in the state of Florida, our rituals are open to the general public, so we are always have hospitality for those who come and attend our services. Outside of that we owe nothing more. I do hear people out about their personal ideas, but hospitality ends when you harm my space, or are rude, or don’t follow directions.

Archdruid Kirk Thomas of Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF):

Hospitality is key in ADF Druidry. It is one of our Nine Virtues (the others being Wisdom, Piety, Vision, Courage, Integrity, Perseverance, Moderation, and Fertility). And it embodies one of the basic traits of our religion, reciprocity.

Hospitality is governed by the obligations of the guest-host relationship.These obligations are a two-way street, where each party owes something to the other. In its simplest form, the host offers a place to stay for a certain amount of time, perhaps food and drink, and entertainment of some kind, even if only good conversation. In return, the guest agrees not to overstay his or her welcome, to respect the inhabitants of the house or office, and to be congenial.

In the ancient world, the giving of hospitality was required by the Gods. In the literature of many ancient cultures there are tales of what might happen if hospitality were to be refused — examples include Odysseus and the Cyclops in the Odyssey, the Roman tale of Baucis and Philemon in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and even the Irish tale of Bres and the Tuatha Dé in the Cath Maige Tuired. In all cases those folks who refused to give good hospitality came to a sticky end.

Hospitality is a form of reciprocity, which underlies most human interactions. The Roman ritual phrase, do ut des (I give so that you may give) sums it up nicely. It’s all about give and take, which is also part of what hospitality is all about. In ritual, we are, in essence, hosting the Gods and Spirits at our rites, giving offerings to them that they might give us blessings in return, just as the ancients did. Reciprocity through hospitality — a great way to commune with the Gods.

Owl Grove performing Lughnasadh Ritual [Photo Still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

Druids of Owl Grove performing Lughnasadh Ritual [Photo Still: Sacred Sites Ireland]

Solitary practitioner Star Bustamonte:

I’m not really a part of any Pagan or other religious tradition, at least not formally. I do, however, believe that being hospitable is behavior that is important both inside and outside of spiritual practices. While personally I tend to lean heavily towards sarcasm and humour in my interactions with the many people I encounter daily, I also would not hesitate to offer whatever comforts I have available.

I have 3 different types of magical work I engage in:

1) The Mother Grove Goddess Temple: I serve the Temple as Head of The Green Circle (fundraising) and as member of The Circle of Council (administrative). Part of my duties involve greeting participants who arrive and making them feel welcome and at ease. While this is mostly a mundane activity, it sets the stage for how freely and easily participants respond once in ritual space.

2) I do a lot of personal work with the Fae, and working with the Fae requires a great deal of hospitality. I have always offered to them a comfortable space to operate as they see fit in general harmony with my own efforts. Negotiation plays a big role and hospitality is very important to that aspect.

3) Much of the magical work I do is more of a thaumaturgical variety. In this regard, I would say hospitality is more akin to respect for the energies you are working with, but isn’t that the very root of hospitality, anyway? Respect?

In short, any energy I work with is treated with respect. In all magical work, be it working with deity or the pure mechanics of thaumaturgy, I try to be conscious of what I am asking of the energies I am working with and providing whatever might be helpful and or kind in furthering the work.

Josh Heath, co-founder of the Open Halls Project:

Hospitality is grossly misunderstood in heathenry, I think. Hospitality is the expected behavior we show those who have explicitly been invited and it also includes the behavior of those who have themselves accepted an invitation. Hospitality requires a level of respect and service to the people you are opening your home or space to. That respect, like all gifts, must be reciprocated. As it stands, hospitality is often seen in heathen circles as an onus only on the individuals hosting, those who are guests are not always held to a standard of behavior. If we view hospitality as the basic structure of gift giving it is, then it makes the process a bit more stable. I open my home to others, they respect my home and family, perhaps they bring gifts which then create deeper bonds with other gifts returned. It’s one of the core aspects of the reciprocal agreement culture that is central to the heathen worldview.

Yeshe Rabbit, presiding high priestess of Come As You Are Coven:

For a dharma pagan, hospitality is a dearly-held and widely-practiced virtue. It is considered one of the key perfections of wisdom, or paramitas, and is known as “dana-paramita.” When we practice dana, especially toward those who have given their lives to the dharma, we give of ourselves in a special, spiritual way, not simply because it’s polite, or expected as part of our social code. Rather, it is an enlightened generosity that comes from the purest part of ourselves. When we do this, whatever we provide for a guest is not merely food, shelter, or another resource; it is a sacred offering to the divine nature of the other being with whom we share it. Interestingly, dana cuts through a lot of our own preferential ego trips because we learn to give in a holy manner, regardless of what we might receive in return or what’s expected of us or how we feel about the person to whom we are giving. It doesn’t mean we have to like the person, but we still honor that some part of them is divine and deserving of our hospitality (unless that person is seeking to harm us in some way, in which case it’s appropriate to move away from that person and decline to offer hospitality.)

The best way for me to explain the everyday concept of generosity according to the dharma view is to describe something I saw in Tibet when I was there: the thermos of tea. Everywhere we went, Tibetan people were carrying a big thermos of tea with them. In their pockets or bags, they might also carry a cup or two, so that they are always ready to sit down with someone and share a cup of butter tea. It did not matter if they knew you or not, it did not matter if you gave them anything in return (we always did), there was always tea anyway. That generosity, particularly expressed toward pilgrims they did not know, was really so much more than just a hot beverage when we were road-weary.

By Alpha [CC lic.  via Wikimedia]

“Butter Tea” By Alpha [CC lic. via Wikimedia]

Author T Thorn Coyle submitted this portion of her previous blog post on the subject:

The Goddess Athena came to the door in disguise.
Telemachus welcomed her in.

Who is a stranger? What is the unknown? Whom do we choose to welcome? Whom do we choose to spurn?

The Goddess Athena came to the door in disguise.
Telemachus welcomed her in.

We gather with our families. We hold each other close. We sit out in the cold, feeling desperate and alone. We feel sorrow in the midst of others. We are the gay kid who fears to come out. We are the chronic user afraid of judgement. We are the Pagan in the midst of Christians. We are mobility impaired and looking up a flight of stairs. We’ve just lost our job. We’re secret dancers. We are ashamed to tell our friends we can’t go out because we need all our money to pay rent. We have dark skin in a culture that privileges the pale. We go without food so our kid can have shoes. We are in love. Our father just died. Our child was killed. Our partner left us. We have big dreams.

The Goddess Athena came to the door in disguise.
Telemachus welcomed her in.

While scrubbing pots at the soup kitchen, I realized this truth: we are all strangers to one another. Then I realized: we can all welcome one another home.

I welcome you, stranger, Athena, Goddess in disguise. May you find warmth and light, good food, a place to sleep, and someone who will listen. What is the tale you have to share?

Ritual facilitator and author, Shauna Aura Knight:

I can’t really speak to any one tradition, but I can speak to the work I do facilitating workshops and rituals for the broader Pagan community. Hospitality is one of my core values as a facilitator. Sometimes it’s just in the form of what you might call “customer service.” This is often an element that is lacking in public rituals and events. Have you ever arrived to a public ritual and found that there’s no one around to greet you or let you know what’s going on, the ritual leaders are bustling around getting ready, snapping at people, and then the ritual starts and you’re not sure what to do? After, people break out into cliques to socialize and you’re left out. Or worse, have you ever tried to attend a ritual but the directions provided were so poor that they had you spiraling around a forest preserve trying to find the right park shelter? When you finally arrive, people say, “Oh, we do ritual here all the time, everyone knows where it was.”

For me, hospitality is clear communication as an organizer about what’s going to happen at the event and ensuring there are good directions if that’s needed. It’s greeting people when they arrive. It’s working to ensure that everyone has enough information to proceed in the ritual. It’s also ensuring that new folks aren’t shut out of cliques of friends after a ritual. When I’m facilitating a workshop, I work hard to make everyone feel welcome and respected. Hospitality for me is also reflected in how I work to make my workshops and rituals participatory and inclusive. I work hard to make my rituals and workshops accessible, open to all genders, and welcoming. Hospitality isn’t always easy; I’ve made mistakes and I’ll make more in the future, but it’s work that I feel is important.

Terence P Ward


Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • It is interesting to me how much of any tradition, any religion, comes down to a dance between the twin poles of purity and hospitality. Certainly, religions in the ancient world gave a good deal of consideration to both–there are so many ancient formulas for ritual purification, both before approaching the gods and before taking on important rites of passage within the life cycle. And most ancient religions have hospitality tales, with gods assigned to hold us humans to basic standards of welcome (often by visiting us in disguise).

    These values often seem to be in tension with one another. I see how this plays out in my Quaker spiritual community in the the tension between our desire to be welcoming to Friends from all over the world–and, in Europe and North America, our intense discomfort with those Friends elsewhere in the world who still reject the full equality of gays, lesbians, and the transgendered. (Should we sever ties with parts of our Quaker family that do not support same sex marriage or legal protections for gays and lesbians? Should we do this even when those same parts of the Quaker world are suffering the after-effects of colonialism on the part of the developed world, and show greater commitment to feeding the hungry and caring for the sick than, perhaps, we in the developed world have done?)

    Where do we draw boundaries, for the sake of ideological or spiritual purity… and where do we remain in community with those with whom we may have profound disagreements?

    I’ve seen this in the Pagan community recently with a desire to “other” those individuals and organizations who have been publicly tainted with the label of racism–as if that would purify those of us who remain from any possible racism within ourselves. I see it in the desire to reject the very name, “Pagan” as a description for ourselves, if it applies to those unlike ourselves in their theologies. We will splinter ourselves, realign, renegotiate our boundaries until we are left with only the purest expression of our own specific theological position…

    If we can just redraw our boundaries until we have shut all the “bad/other” Pagans out, the thinking seems to run, our communities will run smoothly at last.

    I suppose it’s obvious that I’m not inclined to that view, that I think we can even reach better (purer?) understandings and practices through engaging with one another than through rejecting one another. I see hospitality as one of the deepest of spiritual disciplines… and while it is reflected in how we treat one another as strangers, it is perhaps expressed even more powerfully in how we receive and engage with one another when we disagree, when we find ourselves in the midst of conflict.

    I speak only for myself. Others’ mileage may vary.

  • Elizabeth Creely

    I was just thinking about how, as a solitary, this is a major part of my practice. I absolutely practice hospitality and could probably write my own rede of welcome at this point.

  • nicsnana

    I found this article very interesting, I have never thought about the Hospitality as a Pagan Virtue. I now see that it is, and am glad I read this article. I look forward to putting this into action.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Thank you, Terence, for such a wonderful post. Lots here to think about. We do pride ourselves, here in the South, on hospitality, although, obviously, we’ve often fallen far short. But welcoming the stranger or the visitor or the guest with what comforts we can provide seems to me to be one of the simplest and most profound ways to acknowledge that the divine in me reaches out to and acknowledges the divine in you. And, of course, we always say, “Ya’ll come back now, hear?”

  • I grew up in a home of hospitality: Arabic (and many Celtic) cultures work this way. One is offered refreshment, and only allowed to deny it twice before accepting. An Irish story has the host asking the visitor if a cup of tea is wanted. The visitor says no, the host asks, Are you sure you won’t have a cup, to which the visitor says no again. At this point, the host says, well, I’m wanting a cuppa, and am putting the kettle to boil, at which point the visitor says, well, if you’re making some for yourself, I wouldn’t mind a cup, too.

    The host in both cases wants to offer, but the guest doesn’t wish to be a bother. There’s a story in the M-E culture of a thief trying to rob a food storehouse in the dark. Something spilled from a sack, and he put his hand out to see what it was. Bringing it to his mouth, he tasted salt. He dropped what he’d taken, and left: the covenant of bread and salt meant that he’d accepted hospitality, and couldn’t then take what was not rightfully his. There are people with whom I will not eat, and I have been places where I brought my own food so that I did not enter into a covenant with people I didn’t trust.

    My mother always offered visitors, guests, and workers something to drink, at least. I do the same. I don’t treat other people, even homeless people begging, as less worthy than I am, unless trust has been broken–and then I just do my best to avoid them.

    Our household is welcoming, and the elders of us have the feed-them gene. Don’t know about the sprog yet.

  • Kirk Thomas says:
    Hospitality is governed by the obligations of the guest-host relationship.These obligations are a two-way street, where each party owes something to the other. In its simplest form, the host offers a place to stay for a certain amount of time, perhaps food and drink, and entertainment of some kind, even if only good conversation. In return, the guest agrees not to overstay his or her welcome, to respect the inhabitants of the house or office, and to be congenial.

    There are people who were never invited back to my home after poor behavior towards me or another guest.

    T. Thorn Coyle offered a (can’t find the word) where Athena is in disguise at the door, and Telemachus welcomed her in. I love the way you think!

    The use of the Disguised Deity happens in tales all over the world, and it can be a reminder that in serving the Gods in our spiritual life can include here-and-now service to strangers, who just might be…

    I used to have a place set for Elijah on feast days, until I learned more about him. If we had more room at our table, it would be for the wandering/unexpectedly present person sent to us.

  • Yeshe Rabbit talks of dana-paramita.
    Something very like it is offered, at least in the US by Sikhs, called langar. They offer it as a sacred practice. I’ve enjoyed it at a couple of local Interfaith conferences. It’s usually vegetarian, you may eat as much as you need, and there is no heirarchy among guests. You are asked to cover your hair with a smallish piece of cloth, but it can be refused.

  • Good article, and a great topic!

    I used to read a blog from a Heathen sometime ago, named Bernulf. He wrote about hospitality as a virtue and had an interesting take on it, one I haven’t seen repeated in too many places since: essentially (and I’m paraphrasing rather than quoting because it’s been a long time since I read anything from him, and I don’t think his blog is even online anymore), we usually understand hospitality to mean when someone comes into our home, or our hall, or whatnot. But Hospitality as a virtue isn’t confined by walls or other barriers (social, cultural, political, etc.) – it resides within us, follows us through our daily lives, and makes itself known to all those we encounter along the way. I liked this perspective then, and I like it now.

    So to answer the original question, “What role does hospitality play in your tradition”: I would have to say that it plays a much greater role in my sense of humanity and how I relate to all the other beings in our world. Included in my sense of humanity is, of course, my religious and spiritual perspective; but my sense of hospitality is by no means confined to, or by, religious tradition.

  • Julia Traver

    Hospitality is considered a virtue in Hellenismos. However, I would be uncomfortable participating — not attending — in a ritual that at its heart has no worship. It is like attending a Christian wedding or funeral. There are no quarters/whatever called, no energy raised, etc. in an Hellenic sacrificial rite. There is purification beforehand, the Gods are called on to witness, omens are taken, and prayers are given.