Hellenic Polytheism, Part One
So, some god has thwacked you and you’ve come to the realization that you just didn’t have enough to do if your life. I’m so sorry. Welcome to the world of Hellenic Polytheism.
I’m going to do something a little groundbreaking for me: I’m not going to talk about gods in the introduction. Obviously, they are important, but an introduction format, to me, is too shallow to really start to understand.
Part of what I’m posting is from a workshop I was supposed to lead, but the group disbanded before the workshop happened. I’m using portions of my unfinished outline to flesh this out. In this installment, I want to address concepts of methodology and a common ritual format.
Basically, Hellenic Paganism/Polytheism is yet another umbrella within paganism. In this case, it’s paganism that work with/worship/whatever word fits with the Greek Gods, and within a Hellenic worldview. This second part is important — there are many people out there who will call upon a Hellenic god from time to time, or even a majority of a time, but that don’t consider themselves Hellenic, or that the community might look a little odd at if they did.
This isn’t to say that everyone limits themselves to a Hellenic worldview all the time, but that their practice is grounded in it.
That being said people bring all sorts of methodologies to explore that worldview to the yard. Methodology is the how and occasionally the why of a religion — it focuses more on what you do, rather than what you believe, for the most part. Some methodology contains both.
Reconstruction generally works how it sounds: It re-constructs the religion and practices of an ancient culture for the current times. This is one that is often on a spectrum, with some people picking and choosing what they bring in all the way to people who rarely do anything that the Ancient Greeks wouldn’t recognize.
However, this doesn’t mean that Reconstructionists are living in the past. While Reconstruction requires a great bit of homework, its primary focus is on reviving practices that had previously died out, and not the cultural specifics. I consider myself to be somewhat of a Reconstructionist in methodology, my first source is primary texts, and my ritual structure is primarily ancient and I try to keep much of my view of the Gods rooted in that. But I have no desire to keep slaves or live in a separate part of the house away from my husband!
But all this still ends up as an evolving, living religion. Recons are looking into the past to help us now, because much still works with a bit of adaptation. For instance, many individual Recons have created their own festivals suited for where they live.
Reconstruction as a methodology tends to focus on verifiable history and primary sources. For Hellenics, this means going to the sources for looking at mythology, for instance, Hesiod and Homer give much of what we know. Secondary sources and the works of Classicists, Archeologists, Anthropologists and so on inform the rest.
Of course, there always has to be wriggle room — interpretations can vary greatly and there is always UPG or unverified personal gnosis. UPG is a term that I believe Asatru seems to have coined to bridge that gap as well. People will always bring their modern perspectives and their own personal beliefs, and in religious practice we find that people get new insights. UPG means that something you believe and have found works may not be transferable to the rest of the community.
One of my own is the association of peacock feathers with Dionysos. There is nothing in ancient lore that would bring the two together; in fact, peacocks are far more sacred to Hera. My association comes from first a gut reaction, then from my readings from Thorn Coyle.
When there is confirmation from others that they are getting the same response/reaction, it’s called shared gnosis, when you can find confirmation in history, it’s confirmed gnosis.
Reconstruction can be a very research intensive path, and a different type of research than other types of pagan methods might utilize.
Neo-paganism is what most people in the pagan community practice and there isn’t a good definition of it, because the beliefs vary so often. Some of the general ideas that seem to come through is a semi-soft-polythiesm, focused around a God and Goddess, following the Wheel of the Year, with a dying and rising god, and a goddess who goes through life stages as an expression of how nature works.
The beliefs of general neo-paganism don’t make it into Hellenic Polytheism very much, however the what you do, sometimes does. Things like modern approaches to the gods, based off of the poetic works of Robert Graves or other Victorian, Romantic and Enlightenment era poets, are fairly common, to various degrees of usefulness.
Rituals are what are often adapted to worship of Hellenic deities as many people will work with, call upon or offer to Hellenic Gods within different traditions contexts. Things like casting circles, more modern divination techniques, different ritual structures do abound.
There are groups within the Hellenic context who would decry the mixing of Hellenic and neopaganism. I’m not one of them — the Greeks were syncretics and would combine into the fold.
Archetypal Psychology stems from Jung, but the thread in Hellenic Paganism is generally through James Hillman. If Archetypes are an ideal form, the perfect model of traits, then a Hellenic Archetypal Psychology takes these perfect forms coming from Greek and Roman mythology. It’s here that we find concepts of “Mother Goddess” and “Trickster God”, who are generally not specific gods, but mythic patterns.
Since HP is predominately hard polytheistic, archetypal psychology isn’t used to worship or honor the archetype but to use it to try to understand the gods and how we relate to them. One of the main authors that Hellenic Polytheists study here is Ginette Paris, with her works Pagan Grace and Pagan Meditations.
Personally, I’ve been known to mix all three general approaches, which is why I embrace Hellenic Polytheism as a label. I love reconstruction for its honesty, a neo-pagan approach for its inventiveness and a smattering archetypal psychology for how to relate and look sideways at what I’m doing, and at the gods.
Rituals and Ritual format:
One of the interesting things to look at when we talk about ritual format is what it is already similar to. If you have been to a Catholic Mass, the following is going to seem a little similar.
The first step is preparation. You gather everything you’d need for the ritual, washing hands , taking showers and so on, and likely lighting a fire or candle.
The next step is the processional, this can be as simple as a few steps up to the altar, or as elaborate as you can imagine.
You would next purify, declaring that the space is free of miasma and suitable for the gods, then make a small offering, traditionally of barley, but other things work as well. I often start incense at this point.
The meat of the ritual comes next: Invocation of the god or gods. You state your intentions, thank them, do whatever work here you wish, offering prayers, etc. From here is more offerings, whatever you have decided to do as the main offering.
Then libations, another form of sacrifice and concluding with the gods, thanking them again.
Now, this is similar to a Catholic Mass, because the Mass was more or less codified in Greek areas. They used what they were familiar with, after all.
As for prayer, that had a general format to (From Kyrene)
A basic outline of a prayer, taken from Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion on pages 74-75 is the following:
1. Greet the god
2. Address the god by his many names. The safest way to handle this is often to add “By whatever name or names you wish to be known by” in case you’ve forgotten something, don’t know one, or they have a preference that you can’t possibly know because you’re human (or haven’t read through Walter Burkert). The reference to this custom is on page 74.
3. Make a reference to the times you’ve honored the god in the past (“If I ever threw pennies on the ground, gave you dice for your altar, or burnt incense in your name…” for the Hermes example above)
4. Make the request
5. Thank the god in advance. It’s only polite!
Now prayer isn’t always done in this format, but it is a pretty traditional way, borne through the various ancient sources that we have and a good place to start or to return.
Hellenic Rituals in general are sacrificial or votive in nature. Giving sacrifice (which these days, is usually not animal, though some larger groups will do it in the very traditional way — as in, you get fed afterwards!) and offering gifts of many sorts forms the backbone of Hellenic practice.
Part two of this series will deal with some common concepts in Hellenic Polytheism, and will be the second in the H’s for the Pagan Blog Project, but also part of a short series. Please suggest topics you’d like for me to address and I will do my best to do so.