Hellenism

Hellenism (the Hellenic ethnic religion, also commonly known as HellenismosHellenic PolytheismDodekatheism, or Olympianism, comprises various religious movements which revive or reconstruct ancient Greek religious practices, and which have publicly emerged since the 1990s.

The Hellenic religion builds on traditional religion and on a traditional way of life, revolving around the Greek Gods, and primarily focused on the Twelve Olympians and embracing ancient Hellenic values and virtues.

In 2017, Greek governmental authorities legally recognized Hellenic Ethnic Religion (Hellenism) as a “known religion” in Greece, granting it certain religious freedoms in that country, including the freedom to open houses of worship and for clergy to officiate at weddings.

Modern Hellen ritual in Greece

Modern Hellen ritual in Greece

Name

There are no official naming practices for the Hellenic religion, and the ancient Greeks did not have a word for ‘religion’ in the modern sense. Some informal naming conventions have developed since the formation of the first Hellenic religious organizations in the 1990s, based on academically accepted descriptive definitions. Hellenism (or Hellenismos) is the most common term, used chiefly as a name for the modern religion by its adherents today, though it can also refer to the ancient Greek religion and culture. The term Hellenismos originally stems from a 4th-century AD systematization and revival of Greek religion by the Roman Emperor Julian. Julian used the term to describe traditional Graeco-Roman religion. Additionally, subgroups within Hellenism have used a variety of names to distinguish branches focusing on specific schools of thought, or various different modern traditions. Hellenic religion and Hellenic polytheism are often used interchangeably to refer to the religion. The phrase Hellenic Polytheistic Reconstructionism refers specifically to the methodology used by some practitioners to recreate the religion based on academic sources, rather than the religion itself, and not all Hellenic Polytheists are reconstructionists. Other organizations, such as Dodekatheon (Δωδεκάθεον), the Helliniki Hetaireia Archaiophilon (Societas Hellenica Antiquariorum), and the Thyrsos (Θύρσος) use a combination of terms interchangeably, including elliniki thriskia (ἑλληνικὴ θρησκεία, ‘Hellenic religion’), Hellenic polytheistic religion, and Hellenism.

Symbol used by Hellenism followers.

Symbol used by Hellenism followers.

Other terms in common usage by Hellenic polytheists include “Greek reconstructionism” and “Hellenic Traditionalism“, but the two are not synonymous. The American group Elaion uses the term “Dodekatheism” (Greek: δώδεκαdodeka, ‘twelve’ + θεϊσμόςtheïsmós, ‘belief in the gods’) to describe their approach to the Hellenic religion, stating that the term “has been used for some time within and outside Greece to refer to ancient Greek religion and we feel that it is important for those of us outside Greece share a common name and identity with our co-religiosts in the homeland of our spirituality”, and that the term ‘Hellenism’ is linked too closely in current use to the modern Greek nation.

Beliefs and practices

Further information: Ancient Greek religion

Hellenic polytheists worship the ancient Greek Gods, or the Hellenic pantheon, including the Olympians, nature divinities, underworld deities (chthonic gods) and heroes. Both physical and spiritual ancestors are honoured. It is primarily a devotional or votive religion, based on the exchange of gifts (offerings) for the gods’ blessings. The ethical convictions of modern Hellenic polytheists are often inspired by ancient Greek virtues such as reciprocity, hospitality, self-control and moderation. The Delphic maxims, Tenets of Solon, the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, or even Aristotle’s Ethics each function as complete moral codes that a Hellenic Polytheist may observe. Key to most ethical systems is the idea of kharis (χάρις, ‘grace’), to establish reciprocity between humanity and the gods, between individuals, and among community members. Another key value in Hellenic Polytheism is eusebeia, often translated as piety. This implies a commitment to the worship of the Hellenic gods and action to back this up.

There is no central church/assembly (‘ecclesia’) or hierarchical clergy, though some groups (i.e., Hellenion) do offer training in that capacity. Individual worshipers are generally expected to perform their own rituals and learn about the religion and the gods by reference to primary and secondary sources on ancient Greek religion and through the personal experience of the gods. The information gained from such personal experiences is often referred to in Hellenic groups as “UPG” (Unverified Personal Gnosis), a term borrowed from Ásatrú, though now commonly used among many pagan religions.

Relationship to ancient Greek religion

Further information: Polytheistic reconstructionism

The majority of modern historians agree that the religion practiced by the ancient Greeks had been extinguished by the 9th century AD at the latest and that there is little to no evidence that it survived past the Middle Ages. The majority of modern Hellenic polytheist organizations view their religious traditions as either “revivalist” or “reconstructionist”, though most modern individual adherents exist somewhere on a reconstructionist to revivalist spectrum.

Revivalists view Hellenic Polytheism as a living, changing religion. Hellenic Revivalism allows room for practitioners to decide what feels right to them, and to adapt historical religious practices to modern life.

Reconstructionism is a methodology that attempts to accurately base modern religious practice on culturally and historically genuine examples of ancient religious practices. The term is frequently used in the United States to differentiate between syncretic and eclectic Neopagan movements, and those based on the traditions, writings, history, and mythology of a specific ancient polytheistic culture. In contrast to revivalist traditions, Reconstructionists are culturally oriented and attempt to reconstruct historical forms of religion and spirituality, in a modern context. Therefore, Kemetic, Canaanite, Hellenic, Roman, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic Reconstructionists aim for the revival of historical practices and beliefs of Ancient Egypt, Ancient Canaan and Phoenicia, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Celts, the Germanic peoples, the Balts and the Slavs, respectively.

Most Hellenic polytheist groups unequivocally state that reconstructionism is not the only correct method of practicing the ancient Greek religion, but do identify a practice as Hellenic only when it embraces the humanistic values and ethical virtues of the ancient Greeks, demonstrates loyalty and reverence toward the Greek Gods, and uses a religious structure that would be recognizable to an ancient Greek. These groups make a clear distinction between themselves and the Neopagan movement, and identify some ‘Hellenic’ groups as “simply disguised as ‘Hellenes’ for reasons that exist hidden within the depths of their own minds.”

Some adherents, like Greek Dodecatheon member Panagiotis Marinis, have claimed that the religion of ancient Greece actually survived throughout the intervening centuries, and some claim they were raised in families that practiced this religion. Whether or not they believe that the Hellenic polytheist religious tradition is continuous, there is evidence that Greek Hellenic polytheists living in modern Greece see the movement as an expression of Greek cultural heritage in opposition to the dominant Orthodox Christianity.

History

Renaissance revivals

During the Renaissance, new translations of ancient texts that had fallen into obscurity led to a renewed interest in the religious traditions of Late Antiquity, particularly Neoplatonism and the more syncretic Hermeticism. Hermeticism was rediscovered in 1460 by the monk Leonardo de Candia Pistoia, who found a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum as part of Cosimo de’ Medici’s effort to uncover lost ancient writings in obscure monastery collections. Hermeticism was a Graeco-Roman tradition that emerged alongside Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and the Chaldaean Oracles, and also incorporated elements from mystical Judaism and Christianity. It emphasized the practices of alchemy, astrology, and theurgy, which included the practice of magic or Goetia. Though it drew heavily from Hellenic sources and its central text was held by some traditions to have been written or handed down by Hermes, Hermetism was essentially monotheistic rather than polytheistic, containing sayings such as: “it is a ridiculous thing to confess the World to be one, one Sun, one Moon, one Divinity, and yet to have, I know not how many gods.” Nonetheless, the Renaissance interest in Hermeticism and Neoplatonism would heavily influence many later Hellenic revivalists and other neopagan traditions.

Early reconstructionists

During the 18th century, several notable authors and freethinkers embraced Ancient Greek religion to some extent, studying and translating ancient works of theology and philosophy, and in some cases composing original hymns and devotionals to the Ancient Greek pantheon. The English author John Fransham (1730–1810) was one example, considered an eccentric by his peers, who was also referred to as a pagan and a polytheist. In Fransham’s 1769 book The Oestrum of Orpheus, he advanced a theology similar to that of the Neoplatonists: that the first cause of existence is uncreated and indestructible, but not intelligent, and that the universe is shaped by “innumerable intelligent powers or forces, ‘plastic and designing,’ who ruled all sublunary affairs, and may most fitly be designated by the nomenclature of the Hellenic theology.” Despite his apparent belief in the Hellenic gods, Fransham does not seem to have been particularly devoted to their worship. According to an 1875 profile in Fraser’s Magazine, Franshem’s “libations to the Penates found their way down his own throat, and when he sacrificed a fowl to ‘Esculapius it was usually in the form of chicken-broth for his supper.”

Another example of an 18th-century literary figure who may have considered himself a Hellenist was Thomas Taylor (1758–1835), who produced the first English translations of many neoplatonic philosophical and religious texts. Taylor was widely known as the “English Platonist”, and rumors existed that he had produced anonymous pamphlets advocating a return to a sort of pagan religion (these rumors have been debunked by modern scholars). Though the extent of his actual devotion to Ancient Greek spirituality remains unknown, brief descriptions written by others about him tend to portray him as a sincerely devout polytheist. One such sketch, written by Isaac D’Israeli, describes Taylor delaying answering his door until he has finished his mid-day hymn to Apollo, and reports that his study contained a hanging globe of clear glass, representing Zeus, that scattered sunbeams he would use to read and write, shifting his position in the room to follow them throughout the day.

His work inspired a limited number devotees. The most notable was Godefroi Izarn, the Marquis de Valadi, a young member of a wealthy French family who adopted a “Pythagorean mode of life”. In 1788, Valadi traveled to England in order to convince an unnamed “gentleman of eminence in the literary world” to become the head of a new Pythagorean sect, assuring him that Valadi would help him find numerous followers. He refused, and suggested Valadi learn Greek and become the head of the sect himself. Valadi began his studies at Glasgow, where he learned of Taylor, to whom he wrote in a letter:

“My determination was to go and live in North America, and there to keep a school of temperance and love, in order to preserve so many men from the prevailing vices of brutal intemperance and selfish cupidity … There I would devoutly erect altars to my favourite Gods: Dioscuri, Hector, Aristomenes, Pan, Orpheus, Epaminondas, Pythagoras, Pluto, Timoleon, Marcus Brutus and his Portia, and above all, Phoebus, the God of my hero Julian …“

Valadi paid Taylor to live in his house and study under him, but his tenure as Taylor’s disciple was short lived. He returned to France to fight in the French Revolution in 1789 (he reportedly said, “I came over Diogenes. I am going back Alexander.”), and was executed by guillotine in December 1793.

20th century

In the early 20th century, several neopagan groups were formed, often incorporating elements of ancient Greek religion and honoring Greek gods, but with heavily syncretic elements drawn from Hermeticism and 19th century folklore studies. Most prominent of these modern traditions are Thelema and Wicca, though Feraferia (an American tradition founded in the 1970s by Fred Adams) places heavier emphasis on a more Hellenistic style of worship and on the Greaco-Roman pantheon of gods. One Wiccan organization in the United States, the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, began to host a spring festival based on the Eleusinian Mysteries in 1985, which has continued to be held every year through the present day.

During the 1970s, some began to reject the influence of Hermeticism and other heavily syncretic forms of Greek religion in preference of practices reconstructing earlier or more original forms of Hellenic worship. Early revivalists of Hellenic religion tended to be individuals working alone, and early attempts to organize adherents into larger groups failed. The first successful revival attempt was made by the Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes (or YSEE). In 1993, a variety of adherents to the Hellenic religion in Greece and elsewhere came together and began the process of organization. This resulted in a “Hellenic National Assembly”, initiated at a gathering in southern Olympus on the 9th of September 1995. The process culminated with the formal establishment of the YSEE as a non-profit in Greece, in June 1997.

21st century and official recognition

2004 Olympics controversy

The 2004 Summer Olympics stirred up several disputes concerning Hellenic polytheistic religion.

  • Professor Giorgos Dontas, president of the Archaeological Society of Athens expressed public outrage at the destruction of ancient archaeological sites around the Parthenon and Acropolis in preparation for the Games.
  • Prior to the Olympic Games, MSNBC correspondent Rehema Ellis in a story called It’s Greek to Me: Group Tries to Restore Pagan Worship documented the vandalism and arson of a bookstore in Athens which sold books promoting ancient Greek religion. She also interviewed several adherents who were upset about the current state of affairs in Greece. Ellis said: “A contrast in this place where the Olympic Games were created to honour Zeus – now those praying to the ancient gods are criticized for putting too much faith in the past.”
  • The Greek Society of the Friends of the Ancients objected to the commercial use of Athena and Phevos as the official mascots of the 2004 Summer Olympics held in Athens. They felt that the caricatured representations of the Greek Gods Athena and Phoebus were disrespectful and culturally insensitive. In a BBC Radio interview on June 26, 2004, Dr. Pan. Marinis President of the Societas Hellenica Antiquariorum said that the mascots: “mock the spiritual values of the Hellenic Civilization by degrading these same holy personalities that were revered during the ancient Olympic Games. For these reasons we have proceeded to legal action demanding the punishment of those responsible.

Recognition and Places of Worship

In May 2006 an Athens court granted official recognition to the veneration of the Ancient Greek pantheon. Soon afterwards, on 22 January 2007, the Hellenist group Ellinais held a ceremony at the historic Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens. It was the first such rite performed at the temple since the ancient Greek religion was outlawed by the Roman government in the late 4th century. The ceremony involved participants dressed as ancient warriors who left their swords and spears outside the sacred site, in order to represent the laying down of arms before the Olympic games. The BBC referred to the event as a show of “intentional publicity”. The event caught the attention of the Greek Orthodox Church. Reporters at the event suggested the church might step up their opposition to the legitimizing of Hellenism. Father Eustathios Kollas, who presided over a community of Greek Orthodox priests, said: “They are a handful of miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion who wish to return to the monstrous dark delusions of the past.” Despite the 2006 court ruling, the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports continued to disallow ceremonies of any kind at archaeological sites, and some early 21st century Hellenic rituals therefore took the form of protests. In August 2008, a group of adherents, again organized by Ellinais, gathered at the Acropolis both to give libations and other offerings to the goddess Athena, and to protest the removal of architectural pieces from the temples to a new museum at the site.

The first modern Hellenic temple dedicated to the Hellenic Gods was started in 1994 just outside Thessaloniki in the village of Oraiokastro and completed in 2009. Another temple, dedicated to Alexander and the Earth opened in the nearby village of Mesaia in 2019.

A modern Hellenic temple in Athens is still in the planning stages, in the meantime worshippers meet at a temporary temple at the headquarters of the Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes (or YSEE) at an apartment building on Aristotelous street in central Athens.

In 2017, the Greek government finally recognised Hellenism as an official religion, over 1600 years after the Ancient Hellenic religion was banned by Emperor Theodosius I.

Modern groups and demographics

Priest performing ritual.

Priest performing ritual.

Hellenism originated in and is practiced in Greece and in other countries. Leaders of the movement claimed in 2005 that there are as many as 2,000 adherents to the Hellenic tradition in Greece, with an additional 100,000 who have “some sort of interest”. No official estimates exist for devotees worldwide. Outside Greece, Hellenic religious organizations began to emerge around 1998, with some individuals claiming to have been engaging in some form of traditional practice since the 1970s.

The first Greek organization to openly support the religious revival of Hellenic religion was Ύπατο Συμβούλιο των Ελλήνων Εθνικών (Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes or YSEE), established in 1997, and is publicly active. YSEE is a founding member of the World Congress of Ethnic Religions (now European Congress of Ethnic Religions) and hosted the seventh annual WCER Congress in June 2004. With branches also in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Germany, their level of real world public activity, and actual membership levels, the Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes can be argued to be the defining lead organization for the public revival movement. YSEE is also a member of the European Union’s action program to combat discrimination. The organization primarily refers to the religion as the “Ethnic Polytheistic” or “genuine Hellenism” and its practitioners as Ethnikoi Hellenes, “Ethnic [National] Hellenes”.

YSEE uses the terms “traditional”, “ethnic”, and “genuine” to refer to their religious practices. Greek polytheist author Vlassis G. Rassias has written a popular series of books on “Christian persecutions against the Hellenes,” and the “Church of the Hellenes” organization goes so far as to call for the wholesale extermination of Christianity, while the Athens-based group Ellinais emphasizes “world peace and the brotherhood of man.”

Founded in the United States in 2001, Hellenion identifies its practices as “Hellenic Pagan Reconstructionism” and emphasizes historical accuracy in its mission statement. The group uses the term Hellenismos (Ἑλληνισμός[elinisˈmos]) to describe the religion. Hellenion does not provide official membership numbers to the public, but an unofficial estimate of 43 members was made for 2007 and approximately 100 members for 2017. though this number can only give the roughest approximation, as Hellenion offers hardship waivers to those who cannot afford the typical membership fees. In early 2010, the organization reported 1 demos (fully chartered local congregation) and 6 proto-demoi (start-up congregations not fully chartered with less than 3 members) established, which offer rituals and other events for members and frequently for the public as well. Two of the six proto-demoi cannot be independently verified to exist. Hellenion offers legal clergy training, basic adult religious education classes, and other educational/training courses for its members.

Another American group, Elaion, was founded in 2005 after members of other groups grew dissatisfied with what was, in their view, a de-emphasis on Hellenic ethics, philosophy, poetry, and art, and a re-emergence of “occult” doctrines among some practitioners. Elaion aimed to create an organization that emphasized ethics, piety, and “right-living”, which they initially termed “Traditionalist Hellenismos” No reported numbers for current membership levels are known to exist.

Another active organization based in Greece, the Labrys (Λαβρύς[lavˈris]) religious community was founded in 2008. Labrys has focused primarily on the religious aspects of Hellenism or Hellenic polytheism, avoiding anti-Christian rhetoric and politics, establishing weekly public rituals and engaging in other aspects of practical promotion of polytheism like theater and music. Labrys has also promoted among Hellenes worldwide the need to actively practice household worship and the idea that family and community should be the starting points of religious practice. The community has been organizing since 2008 the largest festival in Athens and also actively participates and supports the religious aspects of the oldest Hellenic festival in Greece, Prometheia which is held every year on Mount Olympus. The Labrys religious community has published a book.

In Brazil, in Portuguese language, there is the website of RHB – Reconstrucionismo Helênico no Brasil, built since 2003 by Brazilian members of Hellenion and other international groups, such as the American Neokoroi and the Greek Thyrsos.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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