Baucis and Philemon

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Jupiter and Mercury in the house of Philemon and Baucis, Adam Elsheimer, c1608, Dresden.

In Ovid's moralizing fable (Metamorphoses VIII), which stands on the periphery of Greek mythology and Roman mythology, Baucis and Philemon were an old married couple in the region of Tyana, which Ovid places in Phrygia, and the only ones in their town to welcome disguised gods Zeus and Hermes (in Roman mythology, Jupiter and Mercury respectively), thus embodying the pious exercise of hospitality, the ritualized guest-friendship termed xenia, or theoxenia when a god was involved.

Story[edit]

Zeus and Hermes came disguised as ordinary peasants, and began asking the people of the town for a place to sleep that night. They were rejected by all before they came to Baucis and Philemon's simple rustic cottage. Though the couple were poor, their generosity far surpassed that of their rich neighbours, at whose homes the gods found "all the doors bolted and no word of kindness given, so wicked were the people of that land."

After serving the two guests food and wine (which Ovid depicts with pleasure in the details), Baucis noticed that, although she had refilled her guest's beechwood cups many times, the pitcher was still full. Realising that her guests were gods, she and her husband "raised their hands in supplication and implored indulgence for their simple home and fare." Philemon thought of catching and killing the goose that guarded their house and making it into a meal, but when he went to do so, it ran to safety in Zeus's lap. Zeus said they need not slay the goose and that they should leave the town. This was because he was going to destroy the town and all those who had turned them away and not provided due hospitality. He told Baucis and Philemon to climb the mountain with him and Hermes, not to turn back until they reached the top.

After climbing to the summit ("as far as an arrow could shoot in one pull"), Baucis and Philemon looked back on their town and saw that it had been destroyed by a flood and that Zeus had turned their cottage into an ornate temple. The couple's wish to be guardians of the temple was granted, as was their other request. They also asked that when time came for one of them to die, that the other would die as well. Upon their death, the couple were changed into an intertwining pair of trees, one oak and one linden, standing in the deserted boggy terrain.

Other versions[edit]

The story of Baucis and Philemon does not appear elsewhere in Greek mythology nor in any cult, but the notion of hospitality's sacred nature was widespread in the ancient world. After Lot and his wife had feasted them, two strangers were revealed as "two angels" (Genesis 19:1; the story is in the previous chapter). Like the story of Baucis and Philemon, Lot and his family were told to flee to the mountains and not look back, before God destroyed the city that he was living in. In addition, Hebrews 13:2 reads "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."

The possibility that unidentified strangers in need of hospitality were gods in disguise was ingrained in first century culture. Less than two generations after Ovid's publication, Acts 14:11-12 relates the ecstatic reception given to Paul of Tarsus and Barnabas as they ministered in the city of Lystra: "The crowds shouted 'The gods have come down to us in human form!' Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes."

In later texts[edit]

See also[edit]

References and sources[edit]

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