Hellenism 101

HELLENISM 101 (90 min. demo and lecture)

This lecture was originally presented at PantheaCon 2001 by Drew Campbell.

Permission is hereby given for members of Hellenion to use these notes as the basis for their own lectures, as long as these are presented on a not-for-profit basis and contact information for Hellenion is provided.

1. Demonstration: Basic Offertory Ritual (e.g., Diasia: Festival for Zeus Meilikhios)

2. Introduce self and describe Hellenion’s work to date

3. Basic Definitions

A. Various names for this religion: Hellenic Reconstructionist Paganism, modern Hellenic polytheism, or just plain Hellenism (short historical interjection on “Hellenic” vs. “Greek” and on Julian’s use of “Hellenismos” as model for the English “Hellenism”)
B. Reconstructionism: a methodology for developing and practicing historical pagan religions in the modern world. (Expand depending on needs of audience.) Examples of other reconstructionist religions: Asatru, some groups practicing Celtic religion and Druidism, Nova Roma, Romuva, some Kemetic houses, etc. Distinct from Wicca and related religions, although some overlap in membership. Reconstructionism looks for the balance point between historical authenticity and spiritual authenticity.
C. Hellene: a person who worships the Hellenic gods in a traditional way (with what we mean by “traditional” being the subject of much of what follows); not necessarily exclusive dedication to one pantheon, although eclecticism (mixing unrelated pantheons in one ritual) uncommon.
D. Side note about sects (Orphics/Pythagoreans): won’t be talking about them much; please see online resources or the book for more.

4. The Gods

A. Hellenism very deity-focused religion; strong devotional emphasis rather than focus on “personal growth,” although this may of course result from religious practice. Philosophical monism vs. popular polytheism. Hard polytheism among modern Hellenes. (Note this as occasional source of misunderstanding and conflict with Wiccans and other neopagans.) Polytheism as a system. Note that priests are always “priest/ess of” thus-and-such a god.
B. Origins of the gods (Theogony, Hesiod): Gaia, Ouranos. Cycle of overthrowing of patriarch by son.
C. The Olympians (lists vary, naming up to 15 gods, despite the usual Dodeka). Elder generation (children of Chronos and Rheia): Zeus, Hera, Demeter, Poseidon, Hestia; Aphrodite (usually daughter of Ouranos); Younger generation (Tekna Dios): Athena, Apollon, Artemis, Hermes, Ares, Hephaistos, Dionysos. Note common use of epithets as mythological shorthand.
D. Chthonic (underworld) gods: Hades, Persephone. Also associated with the underworld as psychopomps: Hermes, Hekate.
E. Nature divinities (daimones): Pan, Nymphai, rivers, winds (note importance to “folk” faith of Greece, even today–similar to fairies, landwights in northern Europe)
F. Heros: special category for Hellenism–humans or demigods at work in the world; worship focused on grave, local character, uncanny presence leads to expiatory rites, cf. saints, esp. in Greek Orthodox Christianity. Most important fall into the demi-god category: Herakles and Asklepios.
G. Other beings: wide range of divine and semi-divine beings and monsters mentioned in the myths; usually little or no worship
H. Relationship of gods and mortals: different orders of being; greatest transgression a mortal can commit is to try to claim the gods’ portion as one’s own. (Note legal meaning of hubris as “unprovoked assault” either on one’s person or reputation.) Hellenic “Know yourself” (i.e., to be a mortal) vs. Neopagan “Thou are God/dess”. (Transcendence vs. Immanence.) 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.

5. Forms of Worship

A. Refer back to demo ritual: procession, purification, hymns and other preliminary offerings, scattering barley, sacrifice proper, libation, prayers of supplication or thanks, feast. Personal home devotions just scaled-down version of same. Examples of typical offerings: food (esp. first fruits), drinks and other liquids (wine, milk, honey, oil), works of one’s hands generally, incense. Priests have decidedly limited role in Hellenism: to lead rituals and tend the temple of their particular patron deity. Today, individual Hellenes encouraged to become “ritually literate.” Ideals of priesthood may have to change in response to modern needs; remains to be seen.
B. What doesn’t happen: circle-casting or other ceremonial/Masonic elements; raising of energy or magical work.
C. Purpose of worship. Important to understand that most Hellenic rituals are strictly devotional in character. Focus is on securing the good will of the gods. Key concept: reciprocity (xenia).
D. Exception #1: Mystery Initiations (test case: Eleusis)–more focused on benefits to individual, particularly better afterlife.
E. Exception #2: Oracles (test case: Delphi)–oracles as “living scripture”; source of insight into the will of the gods for individuals and communities.

6. Ritual Calendar

A. The Athenian religious calendar (lunar, new year begins at first new moon after summer solstice–but this is the only real solar link in the whole calendar, occasional month added to make things line up, cf. Jewish and Islamic calendars); 12 months of 29 or 30 days, most named after a significant festival.
B. Nature of festivals: community celebrations (aside from a few off-beat philosophers, no “solitaries” in ancient Hellenism, and modern religion is still very much group-focused); recreation; meat meal; some fertility festivals; some single-gender festivals; each polis would emphasize its patron gods (so, Hera gets little attention in Athens, although she was and is an immensely important deity, while she was supreme in Argos; Hermes was very popular and has no festival of his own in Athens).
C. Examples of a few festivals: Panathenaia (in honor of Athena as protector and patroness of the city); Thesmophoria (women’s fall fertility festival, honoring Demeter); Anthesteria (new vintage, flowers, in honor of Dionysos, also a feast of the dead); Elaphabolia (Artemis the Deerhuntress); City Dionysia (drama festival); Thargelia (purificatory agricultural festival in honor of Apollon with scapegoat theme).

7. Life Cycle (time permitting)

A. Life cycles rituals controlled not by priesthoods, but by families. (cf. Judaism)
B. Birth, childhood, adolescence (Amphidromia, Dekate, Khoes, Apatouria)
C. Marriage (contract between families)
D. Death (highly scripted, much concern for purification from miasma); ongoing obligations and memorials

8. Summing Up

A. Purpose of life: To serve the gods according to their will and to gather for oneself what glory and profit may be honestly and honorably got in this life.
B. Hellenism today: Hellenion and other groups
C. Q&A