Hospitality, of course, is by no means a word that no one has not heard, in whatever language it may be spoken. That being said, what did it mean to the Elder Heathens? Furthermore, as with pretty much any element of practice, how is the way in which hospitality was understood by the Elder Heathens relevant to those who wish to practice Fyrnsidu in today’s world? This humble article shall attempt to answer these two questions…
In the days before the many storied buildings with dozens of rooms, and perhaps a little chocolate by the pillow came into existence, (well, maybe a little less that that) the traveler would often depend upon the willingness of a local family to take them in for the duration of their stay in a given location. As to whom said host may be, would likely depend on their social class and reputation.
Let’s look at an Old English word for hospitality itself. As language is an indispensable way to learn the culture of its speakers. An Old English word for hospitality is “Giestlíðnes”. Or, the act of being gentle with guests. Thus giving us a peek at the Anglo-Saxon understanding of the concept.
To be gentle or kind to one’s guest(s). What could be considered such? A good start is offering the guest food and/or drink. Of course, polite conversation as well. This may vary depending on how well one knows their guest. In the past, this could have been a total stranger. In our time, this is less likely, as there are hotels and motels for folks to lodge.
However, even for those we do know, or in the odd chance it may be someone we do not, being a good host can strengthen bonds between families, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers, if one is open to receiving them, given the situation. Food and drink, polite conversation, both go a long way to making a guest feel welcome. Depending on the length of the stay, it may also mean providing access to a shower or bath, and in some cases, not as much these days, a clean change of clothes.
A general case was that a guest would not stay longer than two nights and three days. To quote Stephen Pollington in ‘The Meadhall: The Feasting Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England’, page 38, the following is stated:
“There was a limit to the hospitality provided by the householder. It seems to have been the tradition that the guest should spend no more than two nights and three days with the host. This was intended to keep the duty of welcoming travelers within reasonable bounds for the provider, and to avoid the guest overstaying his welcome.”.
This quote carries us to the other side of the host/guest dynamic: To be a good guest. So, a good host may provide food, drink, and possibly lodging, with reasonable accommodations. What, then, is to be expected of the guest? It would seem reasonable that the guest would first, respect the rules of the household. (Much to my chagrin, this often means I have to smoke outside!) It would also seem reasonable that a guest not eat or drink too much. Personally, I try to follow the rule of not going for seconds on a course unless it is offered.
As stated before, it is prudent to not overstay one’s welcome. In the past, that usually meant two to three days. Today, since we usually know our guests or hosts, the amount of time hospitality is granted is generally known beforehand. So, if you’ve said you’re going to stay over a couple of days, don’t linger for a week! If you are a host, try your best to accommodate your guest for the length of time in which you’ve offered.
The reciprocity of the host/guest dynamic falls squarely within the realm of the Gifting Cycle. (More on the Gifting Cycle here.) As with literal physical gifts, in the Heathen’s eyes, one is expected to reciprocate. If you are a guest, reciprocate the generosity of the host by being polite, engaging, and practicing moderation in accepting what is offered. If you are the host, be kind and reasonably generous to your guests. In both situations, this impacts your reputation with those around you.
There are few who would take in a guest that is known to be rude or disrespectful. There are few who would visit a host that is the same. For those who practice Fyrnsidu, it may do well to remember this. The Elder Heathen placed great importance on hospitality. Being a good host, or a good guest can bring people together and make communities stronger. It is that which runs straight through the heart of the Heathen mindset. Strong communities, are communities that last.