Today we will look into the little talked about practice of the washing of feet within the context of xenia. It's something I have been curious about ever since I first read the Odysseia. 

When I first read the Odysseia, I was struck by a two of the later passages, where Odysseus is home, but in disguise, waiting to take his revenge on the suiters of his wife Penelope. During these passages, Penelope offers xenia to Odysseus, disguised as beggar.

"But, come, my maids, wash the strangers’ feet and make his bed, with blankets and bright rugs over the bedstead, so he may rest till golden-throned Dawn in warmth and comfort. In the morning early, bathe and oil him, so he is ready to breakfast in the hall, sitting by Telemachus’ side. And if any man vexes him and pains his spirit, so much the worse for that man’s prospects: he’ll gain nothing here, rage as he might."

A little later on, Odysseus has refused the washing of his feet by anyone but Eurykleia, his nursemaid whom is still alive, and living at the house. Penelope agrees to have the old woman wash Odysseus' feet, which she does while she laments the fate of Odysseus:

"Perhaps the women of some great house mocked at him in a far-off foreign land, just as these shameless hussies here mock you, sir.  You will not let them wash your feet, for fear of their insults, but wise Penelope, Icarius’ daughter, knowing my willingness, has asked me to wash them. So I shall wash your feet for Penelope’s sake and yours, while my heart is stirred with sadness. But listen to one thing I must say. Many a long-suffering traveller have we welcomed here, but never a man resembling another as you resemble Odysseus in looks and voice – even your feet.’

Then resourceful Odysseus answered her, saying: ‘That is what everyone says who has met us both, old woman, that we are very alike, as you remark.’

With this, the old woman, preparing to wash his feet, poured cold water into the shining basin then added hot. Odysseus swiftly sat down by the hearth, and turned towards the shadows, though he had a sudden premonition that as she handled him she would notice his scar and the truth would be out. As she approached and began to wash him, so it was: she immediately knew the scar Odysseus had received from a white-tusked boar, while hunting on Parnassus, when visiting his mother’s father, noble Autolycus, the greatest of all in thievery and oath-making.


It was this scar the old woman felt as she passed her hands over his leg, and recognising it she let his leg fall. The bronze rang as his foot struck the basin, upsetting it, and spilling the water on the ground. Joy and pain filled her heart at the same moment, her eyes filled with tears and her voice caught in her throat. She touched Odysseus’ face and said: ‘It is Odysseus, it must be. Child, I did not know you, until my hands had touched my master’s limbs."

Acient evidence suggests there were three major contexts in which foot-washing was important: body hygiene, xenia, and religion. The first is easy to grasp: the ancient Hellenes rarely wore shoes. They tended to travel barefoot, or with light, open sandals. Boots were only for the rich. As roads were unpaved, and often dusty in the dry and hot climate, a traveler's feet tended to get dusty and dirty. Upon arrival at their destination, it was customary--and part of xenia--to offer the traveler a chance to wash their feet. Those with female serfs could offer the service of one of them to have their guest wash the guest's feet for them. In cases where no serfs were precent, in case of very special guests--especially those above the host in standing--or between great friends, the host could offer to wash the feet of his guest for them.

Foot-washing was often the chore of female serfs, and was considered lowly work. For the ancient Hellenes, honor was very important. To wash the feet of those below themselves in standing was a breach of societal rules and would most likely be looked upon negatively, or even outright refused. I have found no ancient texts to support this, but I suspect that washing the feet of one of equal standing would be done only between dear friends, perhaps between those who had fought together and saved each other's lives. I suspect that, if this is true, this would extend also to the son(s) of one of the men: the son of the deceased host would extend these honors to the family guest to whom the father was indebted.

At home, washing the feet of elderly family members was considered a form of respect. Aristophanes, in The Wasps (Sphēkes/Σφῆκες ), mentions the pride and joy felt by a rich man when his daughter washes and anoints his feet upon his return from a day of hard work:

"But I am forgetting the most pleasing thing of all. When I return home with my pay, everyone runs to greet me because of my money. First my daughter bathes me, anoints my feet, stoops to kiss me and, while she is calling me "her dearest father," fishes out my triobolus with her tongue; then my little wife comes to wheedle me and brings a nice light cake; she sits beside me and entreats me in a thousand ways, "Do take this now; do have some more." All this delights me hugely." 

Women rarely traveled--if at all--so as far as I can tell, no record of the washing of feet of women, or between women, has survived. I also suspect that this has to do with modesty: in an age where women often went around baring one or two breasts, the ankles and feet were almost always covered up. To bare one's feet--to a man--might have been a sign of seduction. In the rare event of a woman traveling, she would travel with her husband, father, brothers, and/or female serfs. Once arriving at her destination, she would undoubtedly have been allowed and encouraged to wash up and change her clothing. If she had serfs, she would be assisted by them. Else, serfs of the hosting household might have lend a hand, or even the wife of the host. I do wonder if they would ever was the feet of one another.

It seems it was also considered unclean and disrespectful to the Theoi to enter a temple with unwashed feet. Some temples, therefor, offered special basins which a traveler could make use of. It's difficult to find proper information about this, however, because the washing of feet in a religious context is now considered a near-solely Abrahamic thing, and bible quotes are far easier to find than ancient Hellenic texts on the subject. I'm still picking apart Christian and Jewish writings for clues about the Hellenic practice.

I am not sure why this subject interests me so. There is something so very intimate and humbling in the practice; it speaks to me in a way that goes beyond the intellectual. I imagine that having your feet washed upon arrival would make you feel both welcome and respected--as that was what it was, a sign of respect. I would also imagine it would be wonderful to bestow a honor like this to a valued guest. If shared between host and guest--or simply very good friends, or even lovers--it would strengthen the bond between them, and be a wonderful way to practice strong xenia. I think it's a beautiful practice, although not very applicable in modern Hellenismos. Agreements could be made about this, though, like the giving of gifts--another vital part of xenia.