The two visitors came through the city, seeking a place to stay the night. Their clothes, caked with dust and sweat, reeked of their travels. But it was not a welcoming city, even though the people were rich. They could hear the sounds of the bolts being slid into place, as door after door remained closed to their knocks. Finally, they came to the last home, a decrepit shack owned by an old peasant couple, Baucis and Philemon.
They knocked and the old woman opened the door. “We are travelers, from far away, seeking shelter for the night and a bit of food and a sip of wine for our empty bellies and our parched throats.” Baucis waved them inside.
The couple scrambled, as best they could, to put a meal together for their visitors. Instead of the gold and silver plates of the rich, they served their guests on their old beechwood plates and cups. They placed their only pitcher with their last bit of wine in the center of the table.
As she filled their cups again and again, Baucis realized that the pitcher remained full of wine. She whispered to Philemon, “They must be Gods.” The old couple fell prostrate on the dirt floor, begging forgiveness for not recognizing them, and for feeding them a poor meal of vegetables and cheap wine. But Jupiter and Mercury only smiled on them, thanking them for the meal.
Philemon, in a sudden panic, decided that this was not food fit for Gods and ran outside to find their goose. But the goose, having no desire to be cooked, ran between his legs and jumped into Zeus’ lap. The God laughed, and stroked its feathers.
“Dear children,” said Zeus, “you will not kill your only goose for us. Your hospitality is more than enough for us. But come now, we have something to show you.”
Hermes and Zeus led them outside the city onto the hill that overlooked the city. Baucis and Philemon looked on in disbelief as a great flood suddenly swept across the city leaving nothing standing but their tiny shack, which had been transformed into a great golden temple.
The Gods made Baucis and Philemon the guardians of that Temple. As the Gods departed, the couple made one last request: they wanted only to live together for the rest of their lives, and when the time came to die, they only wanted to die together.
“Your love for each other is a great as your love for others,” said the Gods. And so, when the day finally came that they finished their lives, they were transformed into two intertwined trees, and oak and a linden, to remind the world of how to welcome the stranger.–Adapted from Ovid, The Metamorphoses
Yes, it’s only a myth, from Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, Book VIII. “Only a myth” we say, as if that safely dismisses the story as having no reality at all. But it is a very real story. That’s why it’s a myth.
When we welcome strangers into our care, we have no idea who they really are. They might be terrorists, hiding in the water-logged clothes of a refugee. They might be bandits, seeking only to steal from us. They might be dangerous criminals, who would turn on us, the moment our back is turned. They might, however, be Gods.
Or as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews put it, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” In the Hebrew Bible, there’s a similar story (Genesis 19), where two angels are welcomed into the home of Abraham’s nephew Lot, after being attacked by a mob in the city of Sodom. In that story, the angels are joined by Yahweh himself who, rather than water, calls down fire and brimstone on Sodom and the neighboring village of Gomorrah. (This kind of sucked for the people of Gomorrah, who as far as I can tell, did absolutely nothing but live in the wrong neighborhood. Oh, well, Gods can be capricious. Maybe he hated that damned Gomorran surburb where all the houses look alike. I know I would have, and I’m not even a God.)
The point of the story, and of similar myths from the ancient world, is that we are supposed to extend kindness and hospitality to everyone we meet, and especially to those who are strangers in a strange land. That’s because each of us, at some time, will be a stranger, emerging if only from an inner journey, to find ourselves hungry, thirsty and cold in spirit. When we are welcomed and we welcome the stranger in others, we are transformed by the encounter into Angels, into Gods, into Trees standing guard over the Temple.