Stories told in South India in the twelfth century CE combine the nightmare of Thyestes’s feast, in which the guest unwittingly eats his own children, with the ancient Hebrew and Greek and Indian myths in which the disguised god rewards the good host only after endangering the host’s children, and the ancient Indian lesson taught by the myth of the son’s vision of retribution in the underworld. The result is a story in which the god, disguised as a guest, demands that his good host kill and cook and eat his own son, but ultimately rewards him. There are many variants of this story, but this is one of the earliest:

Ciruttontar and Ciralan

Ciruttontar was a good man, and a devotee of Shiva, whose greatest pleasure was in feeding other devotees of Shiva. He and his wife had a son, Ciralan. One day when the boy was five years old, Shiva came down to earth in the form of one of his own ascetic devotees. Ciruttontar was delighted and asked him what food he would like to eat. The ascetic said he would like to eat the meat of a five-year-old human boy, the only son of a good family. “The father must cut him and the mother hold him, as their hearts rejoice,” he said.

Ciruttontar agreed and rushed home to inform his wife, telling her all the conditions. “How are we to find such a child?” she asked. Her husband replied: “No father and mother would stand there and slaughter their own son. There is no time to be lost if I am to be saved: the boy that you brought forth is the one we must call.”

She agreed, and the boy came running to them. The mother wiped his face and combed his hair. The father did not kiss him or embrace him, lest he pollute the boy with his saliva. The boy laughed, and the father held him and cut off his head. But thinking that the head was not suitable for this meal, they set it aside, and a maid removed it. The guest, however, insisted that he would eat the head, too, and the parents were relieved to find that the maidservant had curried it as well as the rest of the body.

The guest also insisted that they eat with him and that they call their son to eat with them. His mother called him, and the son came, as if running home from school. She took him in her arms, and the father took him from her and rushed back into the house. But they found that their guest had gone, and the curries had also vanished. They went back outside, and saw, in the sky, the god Shiva with his wife and his own son, gazing down with compassion upon them.

(Periya Puranam 7.3.1–88, translated by Shulman 1993, 21–30; my summary)

Telugu retelling

This story has been much retold, and each telling adds new details. In a thirteenth-century Telugu retelling in Andhra, the parents do not at first cook the head because they are afraid it would be polluted by its hair, according to Hindu caste law; but the god, disguised as his own devotee, accuses them of withholding the head-meat “in order to preserve your love for your son” (Shulman 1993, 51). When the son is called and comes running into his mother’s arms, the god reveals himself to them and takes them all back to his heaven.

In another Telugu version from the early fifteenth century, the mother holds her son on her lap as if she were giving him the breast; the boy is still chanting a prayer when his head falls, and his face has the beauty of a child falling asleep (76). And when they call the boy and he comes running, “each part of his body is still redolent of the special fragrance of the spices used in preparing that particular dish” (80).

The father in all variants of this South Indian story is a passionate devotee of the god Shiva, whose main joy in life is to feed other devotees of the god. The text therefore emphasises, throughout, the joy that the father has in producing whatever food the visitor demands. (We don’t hear much about the mother’s joy in this, though she too joins enthusiastically in the slaughter and preparation of the child).

Horrors of hospitality

Yet we can see here links with the tales of Pelops or Thyestes in which there is no devotion and no religious feeling at all, in such details as the setting aside of the head (in the Telugu story) or the shoulder or the hands and feet (in the Greek). And even in these final texts that put a positive devotional spin on the story, the horror of the basic text remains in the contrast between the details of the love of the parents for their child and their joy in killing, cooking, and eating him in order to satisfy their even greater, one might say fanatical, love for their god and his devotees.

The moral of the story remains: though in the end you will be greatly rewarded if you offer hospitality to a stranger, along the way you may experience unspeakable horrors. The ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Indian texts tell tales of generous people rewarded for offering hospitality to strangers, particularly to gods in disguise, but these strangers often first subject their hosts to horrendous torments. And the broader and often gruesome ancient mythology of hosts and guests who are tricked or forced to eat their own children suggests that the widespread laws enforcing hospitality to strangers were needed to counteract a deeply embedded human fear of such guests.

This article is excerpted from an essay that first appeared in Social Research. It is from the journal’s Spring 2022 issue on Hospitality.