The ancient bond of guest-host-enemy

Contemporary research into human origins is achieving astonishing results through genetics. But research into the mind of early human species is currently limited to the interpretation of artifacts like stone tools and beads and, beginning something like 50,000 years ago, of carvings, flutes and then, somewhat later, cave paintings.

Mythology in written texts, like the Egyptian battle between Horus and Seth, is first available from between 5000 and 6000 years ago. Historical linguistics can also reach back to this same time-frame with its investigations of the proto-Indo-Europeans. Calvin Watkins has this interesting note in the third edition (2011) of his Dictionary of Indo-European Roots:

The basic meaning of the Indo-European word ghos-ti was “someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality”. In practical terms it referred to strangers in general [Greek xenos, ‘stranger’, descends from ghos-ti] as well as to both guests and hosts (both of which [English words] are [etymologically] descended from [ghos-ti]). The word ghos-ti was thus the central expression of the guest-host relationship, a mutual exchange relationship highly important to ancient Indo-European society. A guest-friendship was a bond of trust between two people that was accompanied by ritualized gift-giving and created an obligation of mutual hospitality and friendship that, once established, could continue in perpetuity and be renewed years later by the same parties or their descendants. The bond created by guest-friendship resembled kinship. A famous example is the story of the Trojan warrior Glaucus and the Greek warrior Diomedes in the Iliad who agree not to fight one another when they discover that Glaucus’s grandfather Bellerophon had been a guest of Diomedes’s grandfather Oeneus many years before. (…) Strangers are potential guest-friends, but also potential enemies; note that the Latin cognate [= likewise descended from ghos-ti] of English guest, namely hostis, means ‘enemy’ [which we have in the other meaning of host in English as ‘army’ (eg, ‘the attacking host’)]. (32)

The ambiguity of I-E ghos-ti recalls the ambiguity of the non-IE relationship of Horus and Seth conceived as both mortal enemies and as friends, indeed as close relations (sometimes brothers, sometimes nephew-uncle). Similarly, in the gigantomachia, the battle between the gods and the giants is waged between relatives (all are descended from Gaia, the Earth) and is subject to various kinds of resolution (in Plato, unsurprisingly, to philosophical resolution).

The same questions of time are implied again and again. When is the institution of the guest-host rule of friendship even to strangers and potential enemies? Is this a rule that is defined in and by linear history or a rule that defines history from a time prior to it? When is the battle between divine generations and when is its resolution? Are all these one-at-a-time or are they somehow simultaneous? And if simultaneous, how is this to be understood?

A reflex of these questions may be seen in the arguments in the early Church concerning the relationship of the Father and the Son. Doctrines which defined their relationship in linear fashion — first the Father and then the Son in some way — were declared heretical. Instead, the Church in council decreed that the Father and the Son are different as only original difference can be different; but at the same time they are also one.

The great question was, and is, when the Persons of the Trinity are in dynamic community. And if the time of that dynamic community is esentially different from our time, though in community with it, what sort of transparency is there between the two?

As reflected in McLuhan’s Catholicism, his peculiar claim is that new developments in contemporary history, like electronic media and their effects, can be understood only against this deep background, only as “An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America”.  His 1946 article of this title begins “The battle of the books has broken out again” and it concludes:

Between the speculative dialectician and scientist who says that “the glory of man is to know the [synchronic] truth by my methods,” and the eloquent moralist [and rhetorician] who says that “the bliss of man is good government carried on [diachronically] by copiously eloquent and wise citizens,” there need be no conflict. Conflict, however, will inevitably arise between these parties when either attempts to capture the entire education of an age or a country. It would seem to be a matter of distributing time for these studies.1

In 1969, following the publication earlier in the decade of McLuhan’s most influential books, Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, and more than 20 years after its initial publication, this essay was not only included in The Interior Landscape (223-234), but chosen to conclude it.

  1. ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, The Classical Journal, 41:4, January 1946, 156-162, emphasis added.

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