July 8, 2015
Thousands of years ago in Ancient Greece, it was a commonly held belief that the gods walked the earth among us humans.
And that perhaps even Zeus himself might show up at your doorstep disguised as a vagabond.
From this sprang the legendary sense of Greek hospitality, known as ‘xenia’.
It meant that a complete stranger could walk into your home unannounced, and you had an obligation as the host to take care of him.
To feed him. To house him. To bathe him. To let him freeload for as long as he needed.
And since no Greek was willing to risk the wrath of the gods by being a bad host, xenia was one of their most important customs.
Homer tells us of one famous instance of xenia in his epic poem The Odyssey.
You’ll probably remember it from high school– the never-ending saga of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, as he makes his way home from the Trojan War.
The war lasted ten years. Then Odysseus’ journey home lasted another ten years.
And I think it’s the perfect analogy to the situation Greece finds itself in now.
After the war, Odysseus’ fleet is blown off course by a massive storm during the voyage home, resulting in one misadventure after another.
They’re captured by a savage Cyclops from whom they narrowly escape after blinding him with a wooden stake to the eye.
His men become enchanted by magic fruit, causing them to completely lose their senses.
Later they encounter cannibals who destroy nearly the entire fleet.
Then the witch-goddess Circe turns half of his men into swine, and reverses her spell only when Odysseus agrees to be her sex slave.
They pass by dangerous sirens, narrowly avoiding disaster by strapping their captain to the mast and stuffing their ears with beeswax.
They barely fend off the six-headed monster Scylla, and then nearly all die at the whirlpool Charybdis, after which Odysseus is taken prisoner once again.
He ultimately escapes, then almost dies (again) in a terrible storm (again) and gets shipwrecked (again), this time on the island of Scherie.
It’s always something with this guy.
I mean… seriously. Odysseus goes from one disaster to the next. Just like Greece today.
Greece is in a never-ending crisis, going one misadventure to another.
And right before they collapse, someone always comes to the rescue. The IMF writes a temporary bailout check, and Greece just barely escapes disaster… only to fall into another disaster.
It happens over and over like a never-ending odyssey. Except that eventually it does end. And rather poorly.
When Odysseus finally makes it back home to Ithaca after two decades away, he finds that he’s completely broke because 108 Greek men had been staying at his house and mooching off the estate.
And as was Greek custom at the time, his wife Penelope had an obligation to take care of these men, all of whom abused the xenia tradition for their personal benefit.
Modern Greece is legendary for its absurd public benefits.
Hairdressers get to retire with full benefits on a taxpayer-funded public pension at age 50; dead people receive welfare benefits.
This modern-day version of ‘xenia’ is an insane, easily abused system that’s brought Greece to bankruptcy.
Odysseus responded by killing every one of 108 men who milked the system.
The Greek government is certainly set on doing the same. But since they can’t identify any single perpetrator, they’re going after the entire nation.
The capital controls the Greek government has implemented are punitive to nearly every man, woman, and child in the country. People can’t even access bank safety deposit boxes.
And there’s clearly more punishment to come.
This theme is not new. For thousands of years, nations have gone bankrupt from their own stupidity.
And on the way down, they impose an escalating series of controls designed to keep the party going for just a little bit longer.
Wage controls. Price controls. Capital controls. People controls.
Greece is once again in this position, along with nearly every government in the West.
Even the US has been narrowly escaping collapse for years. Government shutdowns are narrowly averted by some last-minute magic trick. Temporary emergency measures bail out the banking system. Etc.
It’s an odyssey. But it too shall come to an end… rather poorly for those involved.