Like any dispossessed youth, I have plans for getting out of this place Sue; Ima gonna make a name for myself, I am. Only “here” is my seemingly eternal obsession with “A Song of Ice and Fire” and my plans basically consist of temporarily satiating myself with other epic literature.
So right now I am reading through the Ramayana. I am really loving the ride. As sort of a Classics guy, the Ramayana fires off all of those lovely Indo-European neurons that I have carefully developed to the detriment of more practical affairs. To those of you that know classicists, you know *exactly* what I am talking about. To those of you that don’t, it is kind of like being the biggest D&D nerd in the world EXCEPT that the only people you can play with are either dead or in your imagination.
More on all of the awesome little titbits later; suffice to say it is exhilarating in that way that when you first read the Odyssey, or the Arthurian legends, or Beowulf, etc. But there is one topic which has so much cross over that it deserves its own post. And I have been thinking about it lately, as well: Guest Right.
Guest Right was a legal, moral, ethical tradition that was held throughout vast portions of the ancient world but which is now all but forgotten. It more or less says that guests hold a sacred position in their hosts abode. Guest right was triggered in different ways, but breaking it was almost always considered sacrilegious. Here are a couple of examples.
1) To the Greeks (and others) it was not permissible to ask your guest’s name or business unless they offered it. A great example of this is when Odysseus washes up on an island and is hosted by the Phaeacians.
2) A more extreme Greek example occurs in Book 6 of the Iliad. Diomedes and Glaucus, mortal enemies on opposing sides realized that Diomedes’ grandfather once hosted Glaucus’ grandfather. They therefore just *have* to be friends and run off and happily kill other people. These seems strange to the modern ear, but sets the stage for when…
3) In the Ramayana, the sage Vishwaamitra is given guest right by King Dasaratha (Rama’s father). Now the king had to perform an amazing and expensive ritual just to have children. This ritual amounted to having a horse roam free for a year (while an army followed it, maintaining it’s “freedom”) before sacrificing it. But Vishwaamitra walks in when Rama is 15 and is granted a guest right boon. He demands Rama to help him kill some Raksasas. The King is reticent but, ultimately guest right wins out and Rama leaves with the sage. Puts the Abraham-Issac story in perspective…
4) Of course, it is possible for a guest to break guest right. For instance, being a suitor to another man’s wife and living off the fat of his land for 20 years, like in the Odyssey.
Well, those are all nice stories, but I swear I am going somewhere with this.
I have often been discontented with modern interpretation of the Story of Lot. Modernity has forgotten about guest right. But Judaism (as an ancient religion) has a strong tradition of Guest Right, and generally not forsaking strangers and sojourners for we were once strangers and sojourners. This is certainly lost in today’s world. There are so many strangers, we hardly care. We can’t even open half-way houses anymore…
But Lot kinda gets the shaft in recent interpretations. In fact, he is often cited as why the Torah represents an outdated, outmoded codex. The bleeding edge example of this is Bill Maher in Religulous. However, if we throw guest right back in with all of its intensity, Lot gets a different take.
When the mob descends on Lot’s family, the angels (though their divinity was unknown to Lot, as per standard guest right) were under Lot’s protection. Though the mob was doing a grave injustice to him, Lot was trying to maintain what he could of civility. Yes, offering up his daughters was is a shitty thing to do. But to the ancient moral compass it was the lesser of two evils.
Modern dialogue frames Lot as the real villain (or at least anti-hero) in this situation. They fail to account for the frame or reference in which the Torah was both written AND received. Moreover, these interpretations gloss over the fact that the mob are in fact the ones committing the crime.
Guests *were* people to be honoured and revered; not to be thrown out even before the garbage that is our modern capitalistic every-one-for-themselves way. If you wanna talk about the evils of patriarchy and homophobia, there are PLENTY of current examples without turning to a misinterpreted parable from ages-gone-by.
Totally my two cents, here.