A few days now, I have tackled controversial topics on this blog so to give everyone, including myself, a rest, I'm going to tackle a good old fashioned ancient Hellenic topic; the peculiar place of beggars in ancient Greek society. After all, of all professions there were in ancient Hellas, the profession of beggar is, perhaps, the most difficult to understand.

A beggar, or ptóchos (πτωχός), was both a welcomed and a loathed sight at the gates of ancient Greek cities. According to some sources, most notable Hesiod's Works and Days, being a beggar is a profession, equated with potters and minstrels. They performed a public function simply by being who they were and doing what they did. But what did they do?

In Hómēros' Odysseia, Odysseus is dressed as a beggar when he heads home, so his wife's suitors won't kill him on sight. He then runs into Antinous, one of the least noble of all of Penelope's suitors who tells him and his guide Eumaeus:

" ‘Eumaeus, the famous, why on earth did you drag this fellow here? Haven’t we vagrants enough already, beggarly nuisances to ruin our feasts? Isn’t it enough for you that they all crowd in here, swallowing your master’s stores, without you inviting this wretch too?’

Eumaeus, the swineherd, you answered him then: ‘Antinous, noble as you are your words sound ill. Who searches out foreigners himself, and invites them home, unless they are masters of some universal art: a seer, or physician, or architect, or perhaps a divine minstrel who delights men with song? Such men are welcome throughout the boundless earth, but no one would invite a burdensome beggar. You are the harshest Suitor where Odysseus’ servants are concerned, harshest of all to me: but I don’t care as long as loyal Penelope, my lady, and godlike Telemachus live here.’ "

Eumaeus seems to indicate that a beggar is not sought out and brought into a home. That, however, does not mean that being a beggar is not a profession. But what function did beggars fulfill in society? Why would he be welcomed in the house? They take food and drink, smell foul and generally don't keep their mouth shut. Yet, beggars were welcomed into a home. Most were glad to have them. This, of course, ties in heavily with Xenia; ritual hospitality. I wrote before about beggars in relation to Xenia but focussed only on the many occurrences in myth where Gods and Goddesses disguised themselves as beggars to test their hosts. Besides that, any wanderer, beggars included, are protected by Zeus Xenios.

There is a very specific ritual surrounding beggars who come to the home. The Odysseia is very clear about the role of both kurios and beggar and most likely reflects actual practice. Lets look at this ritual, step by step:
  • The beggar comes to the house, wearing the mandatory beggars' outfit (rags, staff and a beggars bag) and sets himself down against the doorpost, rubbing his shoulders against it to indicate discomfort while he waits to be acknowledged.
  • The kurios comes to to the door to offer the beggar a share of his food.
  • If a feast is held, the beggar is then encouraged to go from person to person to beg for more.
  • The beggar thanks the kurios and begs to plead to Zeus Xenios about the kindness bestowed upon him by the kurios and does so, asking for prosperity for the household and kind viewing of the kurios.
  • The beggar then visits the tables, asking for food. He receives his share but continually begs for more, until the guests are angered into striking the beggar or throwing objects at him.
  • The beggar takes this abuse and meanwhile accepts the food gifted to him. When he has made his rounds and his beggars bag is full, he returns to the doorpost and eats, blessing those who have given freely and cursing those who did not, or who abused him. 
  • Those who did not give him enough or who abused him eventually come to the beggar to offer more to him, usually some of the best meats or sweetest treats, if he will perform a task or tell a story. In most cases, this means beating the other beggars who have showed up for the feast.
  • The beggar accepts the challenge and performs it. He then receives his treats and eats them, taking his blessings from the appeased guests.
  • The beggar then leaves or finds a place to sleep on the property where he will not bother the guests, who will hear no more of him after the sharing of food is done.
The custom is an odd one; beating up a beggar who is a willing participant to the abuse and one who may not strike back. This series of exchanges can be boiled down to a single practice; purification. The beggar becomes a scapegoat to load onto the impurities of the kurios and his guests. He comes in to take not only gifts and abuse but, through them, impurity. When he leaves, the impurity leaves as well. This is also why a beggar is not invited to the home, like Antinous says, but is still a welcome sight at it. Inviting a beggar would be to invite the impurities of others into your home.

Those who have read my blog for a while know the importance of katharmos and the cleansing of miasma in ancient Greece. The beggar's function was thus two-fold; he ridded the giver of his miasma and even went a step further by asking the Gods--and Zeus Xenios, specifically--to bless the giver. All the giver had to do to receive this blessing was put up with the smell and behavior of the beggar long enough for him to be appeased. Once the sharing of food was over, the beggar caused no more fuss. That said, it was the task of the beggar to eat and drink everything offered to him. Nothing could be saved for later or refused; it was part of his role as purifier to consume everything offered to him--and that was usually a lot.

The life of a beggar was not an easy one and many endured injury during this ritual. All dangers of the road were part of his life, but he served a useful role in society. He was a purifier but also a warning of hubris towards the Gods. Often, beggars shared their life's story, how they had ended up on the streets. Others listened and were reminded of the role of Deity in their lives, and that of fate. They gave freely to appease them and minded their step. Many gave out of sympathy for the beggar, as well. Eumaeus says it best when he allows Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, inside his humble home;

"Stranger, it would be wrong for me to turn a guest away, even one in a worse state than you, since every beggar and stranger is from Zeus, and a gift, though small, from such folk as us is welcome."