Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.
On the washing of feet
Today we will look into the little talked about practice of the washing of feet within the context of xenia. It's something I have been curious about ever since I first read the Odysseia. I had completely forgotten I wanted to post about it, however, until I discovered a post by Robert of Doing Magick, who wrote about his recent experience with the practice--though for different reasons.
When I first read the Odysseia, I was struck by a two of the later passages, where Odysseus is home, but in disguise, waiting to take his revenge on the suiters of his wife Penelope. During these passages, Penelope offers xenia to Odysseus, disguised as beggar.
A little later on, Odysseus has refused the washing of his feet by anyone but Eurykleia, his nursemaid whom is still alive, and living at the house. Penelope agrees to have the old woman wash Odysseus' feet, which she does while she laments the fate of Odysseus:
Acient evidence suggests there were three major contexts in which foot-washing was important: body hygiene, xenia, and religion. The first is easy to grasp: the ancient Hellenes rarely wore shoes. They tended to travel barefoot, or with light, open sandals. Boots were only for the rich. As roads were unpaved, and often dusty in the dry and hot climate, a traveler's feet tended to get dusty and dirty. Upon arrival at their destination, it was customary--and part of xenia--to offer the traveler a chance to wash their feet. Those with female serfs could offer the service of one of them to have their guest wash the guest's feet for them. In cases where no serfs were precent, in case of very special guests--especially those above the host in standing--or between great friends, the host could offer to wash the feet of his guest for them.
At home, washing the feet of elderly family members was considered a form of respect. Aristophanes, in The Wasps (Sphēkes/Σφῆκες ), mentions the pride and joy felt by a rich man when his daughter washes and anoints his feet upon his return from a day of hard work:
Women rarely traveled--if at all--so as far as I can tell, no record of the washing of feet of women, or between women, has survived. I also suspect that this has to do with modesty: in an age where women often went around baring one or two breasts, the ankles and feet were almost always covered up. To bare one's feet--to a man--might have been a sign of seduction. In the rare event of a woman traveling, she would travel with her husband, father, brothers, and/or female serfs. Once arriving at her destination, she would undoubtedly have been allowed and encouraged to wash up and change her clothing. If she had serfs, she would be assisted by them. Else, serfs of the hosting household might have lend a hand, or even the wife of the host. I do wonder if they would ever was the feet of one another.
It seems it was also considered unclean and disrespectful to the Theoi to enter a temple with unwashed feet. Some temples, therefor, offered special basins which a traveler could make use of. It's difficult to find proper information about this, however, because the washing of feet in a religious context is now considered a near-solely Abrahamic thing, and bible quotes are far easier to find than ancient Hellenic texts on the subject. I'm still picking apart Christian and Jewish writings for clues about the Hellenic practice.
I am not sure why this subject interests me so. There is something so very intimate and humbling in the practice; it speaks to me in a way that goes beyond the intellectual. I imagine that having your feet washed upon arrival would make you feel both welcome and respected--as that was what it was, a sign of respect. I would also imagine it would be wonderful to bestow a honor like this to a valued guest. If shared between host and guest--or simply very good friends, or even lovers--it would strengthen the bond between them, and be a wonderful way to practice strong xenia. I think it's a beautiful practice, although not very applicable in modern Hellenismos. Agreements could be made about this, though, like the giving of gifts--another vital part of xenia.
I would love to implement a practice like this some day, or experiment with it. I will return to this topic some day, as I can not wrap my mind around the how and why right now. So this is mostly a post to see if any of you have an opinion on--or experience with--this practice. If so, I would love to hear it. Perhaps then, I will be able to put into words why this idea is nestled in my head as it is.
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