My Hellenismos 101

by Nichole M.

Basic Definitions

What is Hellenismos? From Drew Campbell: “Hellenismos is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It is also called Hellenic Polytheism, Hellenic Reconstructionist Paganism, or simply Hellenism. Those who practice this religion are variously known as Hellenic polytheists, Hellenic pagans, Hellenic reconstructionists, Hellenists, or Hellenes.”

Hellenismos was the Greek term used by the Roman Emperor Julian-one of the first figures to attempt to revive the religion after the advent of Christianity-to refer to the traditional religion of the Greeks and all those who embraced their religious culture. It is in this religious, inclusive sense that we reclaim and use the word today.

Ours is primarily a devotional or votive religion, based on the exchange of gifts (offerings) for the gods’ blessings. Hellenismos has a highly developed ethical system based on the principles of reciprocity, hospitality, and moderation.

Many Hellenists consider themselves Reconstructionists. Reconstructionism is a methodology for developing and practicing ancient religions in the modern world. Reconstructionists believe that the religious expressions of the ancients were valid and have remained so across time and space. We believe that it is both possible and desirable to practice ancient religions-albeit in modified form-in the modern world. Examples of other reconstructionist religions: Asatru, some groups practicing Celtic religion and Druidism, Nova Roma, some Kemetic houses, etc.

It is a distinct practice from Wicca and related religions, although some overlap in membership. Some members of neopagan religions such as Wicca also worship our gods, although their views of Them are often at variance with traditional Hellenic understanding.

Beliefs, Practices, Worship, and the Gods:

So, how does one become a member of our religion? In the ancient world, one learned to worship the gods by being born into a Hellenic family or by participating in the public religious culture of a Hellenic community. Today, we understand a Hellenist as one who honors the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece in the traditional manner; that is, by offering prayer and sacrifice regularly and by celebrating traditional festivals. As opposed to many common pagan religions, in most cases there are no specific conversion rituals, initiations, or oaths to swear.

Once you become a member, there are several groups one can join, including ones such as the incorporated organization of Hellenion. These groups vary with their focus and purpose, but are working towards moving our religious community into one of solitary practitioners to more ”real-life” group worship.

As for our worship and belief systems, Hellenismos is not a “book-based” system. Unlike the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), most ancient religions were not “revealed” ones, therefore we have no single authoritative text that we believe to be the word of our Gods.

Instead, Hellenic Reconstructionists base their theological beliefs and ritual practices on three sources:

(1) the works of Homer, Hesiod, and other ancient writers;
(2) mainstream scholarly research on ancient religion;
(3) individual spiritual experience and intuition (“personal gnosis”).

The majority of us are polytheists and, as such, believe that the gods are individual beings with distinct personalities and wills. We believe that it is possible to form relationships with the gods and invite their good will through worship and prayer.

The format of our worship is relatively fixed, although certain festivals require variations and additions. The usual components are as follows:

Prayers of Supplication and Thanks
Feast and, on occasion, Games or Competitions

What doesn’t happen in our rituals is: circle-casting or other ceremonial/Masonic elements; raising of energy or magical work.

One important thing before entering ritual, is that we are expected to cleanse ourselves of miasma. Miasma, or ritual impurity, is a normal product of our mortal activities, but tradition teaches that we must purify ourselves before approaching the altars of the gods. Childbirth, sexual activity, and contact with death all produce miasma. Miasma should not be confused with “sin” or moral taint; it is simply a temporary state which is natural for mortals, but which can separate us from the gods.

The purpose of worship and rituals are strictly devotional in character. Focus is on securing the good will of the gods. Key concept: reciprocity (xenia).

Exception #1: Mystery Initiations (test case: Eleusis)–more focused on benefits to individual, particularly better afterlife.
Exception #2: Oracles (test case: Delphi)–oracles as “living scripture”; source of insight into the will of the gods for individuals and communities.

As for sacrifice, in ancient times, the Greeks sacrificed animals, as did virtually every other people, including the Jews. Even then, some sects of Hellenismos (the Orphics, for example) objected to blood sacrifice. Today few if any Hellenes sacrifice animals to the gods for varying reasons. Instead we offer items like grain, fruit, wine, and incense. Foodstuffs and clothing may also be collected, blessed, and donated to food banks and homeless shelters. Those who live on farms or who hunt for food may choose to dedicate the animal’s life to the gods, just as traditional Jews and Moslems eat ritually butchered meat. While, some Hellenes are ethically opposed to animal sacrifice and indeed to the eating of animals under any circumstances, and so choose a vegetarian or vegan diet.

We have historical evidence of many different festivals celebrated throughout ancient Greece; there were more than 30 annual city-wide festivals in Athens alone-and that’s not counting the offerings made by local religious associations or family groups. In some cases we have little more than a name of a festival or an isolated reference; in others, we know much more. Consequently, modern Hellenes generally celebrate a number of major festivals, often following one of the better documented city calendars, such as that of Athens.

The Athenian New Year begins in the summer, at the first new moon after the solstice; 12 lunar months follow, with an occasional 13th month inserted to bring the calendar back into conformity with the solar year. Throughout the year, festivals honor the major gods, especially Zeus, Athena, Apollon, Artemis, Demeter and Dionysos. Lesser holidays honor Hera, Poseidon, Asklepios, and Aphrodite, among others. Many of the holidays relate to the old agricultural cycle: the Apollonion festival of Thargelia relates to the fruit harvest; Dionysian festivals like the Lenaia celebrate the grape harvest and vintage; festivals of Demeter, often celebrated by women only, assure the fertility of the grain fields. Other major festivals include the Panathenaia, in honor of Athena, the Mounikhia, in honor of Artemis, and the Pompeia, Olympieia, and Pandia in honor of Zeus.

In addition to the public festivals, some Hellenists observe a regular monthly cycle of holy days with private devotions, as described in Hesiod’s Works and Days. Many carry out regular rituals at home in honor of their favorite deities.

In ancient Greece, baby blessings, weddings, and funerals were usually handled by families, as they are in many traditional cultures and not clergy. Some modern Hellenic polytheists continue this tradition. The ancient Greeks did not have a priestly class. Instead, the head of each household was expected to perform the necessary rituals for the family. In the cities, priests and priestesses were selected–sometimes by lot–from among the eligible populace. Some positions, such as those associated with the Mysteries at Eleusis, were hereditary. Since people grew up seeing the rites performed around them daily, there was little need for extensive ritual training.

The family is still the “home base” of Hellenismos, and each individual is responsible for his or her own relationship with the gods. No special training is required for an individual to perform the basic offertory rituals. It is common for group ritual to be led by the most experienced person present, or the host (if in a home), or by someone who has a special dedication to the deity being honored.

However, in modern times, some people will undertake more intensive study and dedicate themselves to serving one or more of the gods in a public capacity. These religious specialists may lead ritual, teach publicly about Hellenismos, or offer services such as divinatory or counseling. In general, it is the community-and, of course, the gods themselves-that recognize someone as a priest. This formal clergy training programs are available through pagan churches and other organizations. For example, the aforementioned Hellenion offers a Clergy Education Program to its members that is specifically Hellenic Reconstructionist in content.

The most basic value of Hellenism is eusebeia, which is often translated as “piety.” For Hellenes, piety means a deep-rooted personal commitment to the traditional worship of the Hellenic gods and a life of action to back up that commitment. Other values include hospitality (xenia), self-control (sophrosune), and moderation (metriotes).

At present, there are no official buildings set aside solely for our worship services, nor are the ancient temples in Greece available for us to use. Therefore, most Hellenes maintain personal shrines or altars at home where we worship individually or as families. We also worship outdoors on public or private land, or in rented halls or other indoor spaces. Private prayers may of course be said anywhere and at any time.

Hellenismos very deity-focused religion and there is strong devotional emphasis rather than focus on “personal growth,” although this may of course result from religious practice. Hellenes also believe in the distinct nature and personalities of their Gods and that not all Gods are one God or all Goddesses one Goddess, nor are they the same as any other Gods in their own or other pantheons. For example, Venus and Aphrodite are two separate goddesses from two separate pantheons and are not the same.

The primary gods that modern Hellenes worship are the Olympians: Zeus, Hera, Athena, Hephaistos, Apollo, Artemis, Demeter, Dionysos, Hermes, Ares, Poseidon and Aphrodite, along with Hades and Hestia.

Most Hellenists honor other types of divinities and beings, including:

Nature divinities (daimones): Pan, Nymphai, rivers, winds (note importance to “folk” faith of Greece, even today–similar to fairies, landwights in northern Europe)

Heros: special category for Hellenism–humans or demigods at work in the world; Most important fall into the demi-god category: Herakles, Achilles, and Asklepios.

Some differing beliefs of our Gods from other belief systems are:

Hekate as a crone or in the maiden-mother-crone schema. Also, her being solely a mistress of magic and Goddess of Witches. Instead she would be more of “maiden” who is associated with crossroads and the underworld.
Hades is a God, not a place. Hades is the ruler of the underworld with his queen Persephone and the underworld is, well, just the underworld. Also, Hades is not a malevolent God as the underworld he rules over is not a Hell-like place. It is a place that is neither good nor bad, it just is. The only fear of Hades is the human fear of death, not evil.

Unlike you may have learned from Bulfinch, the Roman Gods and the Greek Gods are two distinct pantheons and not the same deities. While the Romans were basically the first real eclectics and basically took pieces of religions from here and there, their main deities actually have more in common with the Etruscan deities they merged with concepts of our Greek ones, than the Greek deities themselves. One exception is Apollo, who was directly adopted into their pantheon as a “Greek God” who was even worshiped in what they referred to as “the Greek way/style.”

Hermes doesn’t have the association with magic that he does with Hermetic and Ceremonial traditions. That concept was of later Hellenistic or Egyptian origin.
Dionysos is not just a “party guy,” nor an excuse to get high or drunk in rituals.

As for the relationship of gods and mortals there are different orders of being and are separate from us. As a result, one of the greatest transgression a mortal can commit is to try to claim the gods’ portion as one’s own – hubris. Therefore an important axiom is the Hellenic “Know yourself” (i.e., to be a mortal) which differs greatly from the Neopagan “Thou are God/dess”. Such thought is blasphemous in our religion.

Still, the gap between gods and mortals can be bridged in two ways: (1) by the gods themselves (see Homer) and (2) by human action, that is, prayer and sacrifice.

In Summation:

– Hellenismos today – as mentioned before, many organizations around the United States and the world are trying to bring the individuals of the community together for group worship and activities. Part of that movement is trying to bring Hellenismos into the light a little more and make it a bit more well-known among the other pagan religions.

– Hellenismos in modern Greece – the trails and challenges of Modern Greek worship along Greek Orthodox religion and the changes with the advent of the European Union.