The Ancient Art of Sweet Tea
“When Death’s dark stream I ferry o’er
A time that surely shall come;
In Heaven itself I’ll ask no more
Than just a Highland welcome”
~ Robert Burns, Scottish poet (1759-1796)
Hospitality is one of the most revered qualities in Gaelic and pan-Celtic cultures, in both the ancestral homelands and the diaspora. It is something good we’re known for in the U.S. South. When I am a guest in someone’s home, if the host does not offer any refreshment, even just a glass of water if that is all they have, my observation is, “you weren’t raised right”. Hospitality is not about being treated on someone else’s coin. In accord with old Gaelic, and wider Celtic and Indo-European tradition, hospitality is a sacred and practical expression of the spiritual principle of reciprocity.
It would be unthinkable for me to not offer a guest the proverbial “sweet tea (or lemonade) on the porch”. But more than that, guests are owed fellowship in conversation and good cheer. The pineapple became a symbol of Southern U.S. hospitality because it was considered “breaking out the good stuff”, a mark of prestige if you could afford such an exotic and costly delicacy. You offer the best you have at any given time.
But there are mutual responsibilities. Just as there is a way of being a good host, there is also an obligation to be a good and proper guest, who is expected to behave with peace, gratitude, and respect for the host and their home. Among the ancient Gael, customary law held that hospitality was sacrosanct, and that even one’s enemy was not to be harmed while a guest under one’s roof. At least, for the obligatory period of three days, after which a guest could be turned out. To quote Ben Franklin, “Fish and guests stink after three days”. Likewise, it was considered polite to not inquire into a tranger/traveler’s person or affairs until after they had taken comfort with food, drink, and the warmth of your fire.
But value on hospitality is not just for the home. It underpins a wider Gaelic and pan-Celtic cultural worldview. It is a way of responding to and being in the world. It reveals an appreciation of generosity of spirit by way of friendliness and warmth, a sense of community and looking out for one another. It shows noble-mindedness and an openness of heart.
For instance, in Gaelic Polytheist religious ritual we are recreating the cosmos in micro. We invite the Holy Powers; the Gods, Ancestors, and friendly Spirits into our sacred space to show them honor and devotion, reaffirm our mutual bonds of goodwill and ask for their blessings in return. They are our guests, and they deserve the best we can offer as appropriate and desirable for each occasion and season.
The reconstructed proto-Indo-European word, “ghosti”, means “I give, and you give; mutually bonded”. In the context of spiritual practice, an example of this is through giving offerings such as praise poems, songs and chants, flowers, incense, special foods, etc. to the Holy Powers, and in exchange receiving Their blessings of inspiration, wisdom, and prosperity. Implicit in this is a reciprocal obligation of hospitality. It is a mutually beneficial bond of interdependence. I often emphasize that word, interdependence, because it is a foundation of our ecologically oriented worldview and spirituality.
Those who were miserly or inhospitable were open to being shamed and humiliated. Bres, the Fomorian king, was usurped in large because of his lack of generosity. Poets among the Gael could satirize an ungenerous ruler, causing them to become red-faced and blistered with shame. Part of the King’s Truth was in being a just and generous ruler who looked after his people well. The Goddess of Sovereignty Herself could withdraw Her blessings in protest of a miserly king, in the wake of which ensued increase in strife and lawlessness, crop blight, and disease. To be generous and hospitable is to live in accord with Nature, and thus with Truth.
Your home, whether a barn, a mansion, or an apartment, can be a sanctuary of comfort where your guests find succor in the warmth and genuineness of your hospitality. This shows something of who you are as a person, and what you value in life. Let that wholesomeness radiate outwards, where you carry it in your way of being in the world. Those whom your kindness touches will shine in return. Your “sweet tea” will be the soma of lasting relationships.