“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” a phrase once commonly heard amid the every day lexicon of collective American vocabulary dates back to a time when just about everyone read and studied the classics. The quote is, of course, a reference to Homer’s Iliad, and the Greek army who hid themselves within a giant wooden horse presented to the Trojans as a peace-making gift. Obviously, this present, which led to the downfall of Troy, turned out to be an unwelcome care package.
They say only the victors of wars write history, and yet gift-bearing Greeks were met with wariness for centuries after the battle and the Homeric epics that followed. Now that the phrase “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” has fallen out of common usage, no longer are we Greeks who show up at birthday parties with wrapped boxes met with skeptical smirks, and that’s certainly a good thing. 😉 Yet, and on a serious note, in today’s culture we are often skeptical of those who bear gifts in the form of a kind gesture. The cynical among us automatically look for an ulterior motive or a sign of weakness when someone expresses an unprompted gesture of good will. A cynical person might think, “What is this other person expecting in return?” or “Why are they trying to get close to me?” It’s one thing to have a healthy guard up, and another to live life in a vacuum of paranoia. I chose to believe that a majority of people are good, and I think I’m happier because of that.
Despite the trickery displayed by the ancient Greeks in the Iliad, we are presented with a different view of gift-bearing Greeks in Homer’s other epic, the Odyssey. Set in the years post Trojan war as the Greek hero Odysseus struggles in his journey back to Greece after such a long period away from home, we see him time and time again rely on the kindness of both friends and strangers alike. The ancient Greeks treasured the concept of kindness, of helping others, both because it was virtuous and because they knew that there would come an occasion when they would find themselves in need of a helping hand.
Modern day Greeks are known for their hospitality, their kindness to strangers, through open-hearted displays of philotimo. A recent image that perfectly expresses this is the widely circulated photograph of three elderly women from the island of Lesvos, a hotspot of entry for Syrian refugees fleeing to Greece. In the picture making internet rounds, the three women sit on a bench, one of them feeding a bottle to an infant cradled in her arms, while her two companions look on lovingly. Next to their bench stands a Syrian woman, the infant’s mother, contently gazing out in the distance while enjoying a moment’s rest. In this photo we see true kindness at work, the far-reaching impact of a small, positive gesture.
As much as Greek culture is one built upon the concept of hospitality, it is also one–like many Mediterranean cultures–built on superstition. Just as I have witnessed hospitality in my travels back to Greece, so have I seen bitter feuds between family and friends in the wake of a supposed glance from the “evil eye.”
Among Greek men–born of the land’s hardscrabble, arid terrain–there is a tendency toward machismo and leery suspicion of outsiders. Perhaps it’s a mechanism of defense, and yet it can lead to a cold, closed heart. In turn, you are left with a life of bitterness, and what kind of life is that? As a man of Greek descent, I refuse to follow suit. Many times I have felt alone, only to look around and suddenly find myself surrounded by loved ones, family and friends alike. The kindness I have shown, the kindness I live by, is ever reflected back at me. For that reason, my heart will always remain open, remain generous, and optimistic. I will be a Greek bearing gifts.