No one speaks for the entire world community of Hellenes (including the author of this FAQ!)
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.
Hellenic polytheists worship the ancient Greek godsthe Olympians, nature divinities, underworld deitiesand heroes. We honor our ancestors, both physical and spiritual. 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. Where does the term "Hellenismos" come from?
Hellenismos was the Greek term used by the Roman EmperorJulianone of the first figures to attempt to revive the religion after the advent of Christianityto 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. (The word also has other unrelated meanings in modern Greek.) What is "Reconstructionism"?
Reconstructionism, as used here, 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 desireable to practice ancient religionsalbeit in modified formin the modern world. (N.B. Polytheistic groups that describe themselves as "reconstructionist" should not be confused with Christian or Jewish groups using the same term.) Is everyone who worships the Greek gods today a reconstructionist?
No. 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. How does one become a member of your 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. There are no specific conversion rituals, initiations, or oaths to swear. Are there any Hellenic organizations that people can join?
In North America there is, to my knowledge, only one incorporated religious organization ("church") dedicated to promoting Hellenismos:Hellenion.
In addition, there are a number of independent groups, such as Thiasos Olympikos in Northern California and Daitales in Boston, associated with multifaith or interdenominational pagan churches.Groups also exist in Greece and Australia, and possibly elsewhere as well. Some links can be found on theresourcespage at this site. What is the source of your beliefs? Do you have any holy books or scripture?
Unlike the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), most ancient religions were not "revealed" ones. Hellenes are not a "people of the book"; we have no single authoritative text that we believe to be the word of God.
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").
An important note on sources: Scholarship and intellectual honesty are very important to us, and reconstructionists of all types emphasize the importance of distinguishing carefully between different sources of knowledge. In particular, we tend to be very critical of those who attempt to pass off personal gnosis as ancient fact or who make historical claims for which they cannot provide any hard evidence. What do you believe about the divine?
Modern Hellenic polytheists, like their ancient spiritual ancestors, hold a variety of beliefs about the nature of divine reality, ranging from pantheism to monism. However, 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. What deities do Hellenes worship?
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. What other beings do Hellenes honor?
Most Hellenists honor other types of divinities, including nature spirits (Pan, nymphs, river gods), chthonic or underworld deities (Persephone, Hermes Psykhopompos), and heroes (e.g., Herakles). The form of worship may vary slightly depending on the type of divinity being honored. What happens at a typical worship service?
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. Where do you worship?
At present, there are no 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. Do you sacrifice animals?
In ancient times, the Greeks sacrificed animals, as did virtually every other people, including the Jews. Even then, some sects (the Orphics, for example) objected to blood sacrifice.
Today few if any Hellenes sacrifice animals to the gods. (I personally know of none.) 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. To many Hellenes, this seems more reverent than simply buying meat packed in Styrofoam and plastic wrap and ignoring the fact that a life that was offered for our dinner. 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. What holidays do Hellenic pagans celebrate?
We have historical evidence of many different festivals celebrated throughout ancient Greece; there were more than 30 annual city-wide festivals in Athens aloneand 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, described here.
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 festivals of Pyanepsia and Thargelia relate to the fruit harvest; Dionysian festivals like the Anthesteria and 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 Elaphobolia and 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 inHesiod's Works and Days . Many carry out regular rituals at home in honor of their favorite deities. How do you celebrate life passages like weddings or funerals?
In ancient Greece, baby blessings, weddings, and funerals were usually handled by families, as they are in many traditional cultures. Some modern Hellenic polytheists continue this tradition; others, in deference to modern laws and practice, have a clergyperson lead the ritual, but otherwise follow a more or less traditional format.
Some elements of a traditional wedding (gamos) include: a purificatory bath; blessing and veiling of the bride by her family; procession to the groom's (or couple's) house at dusk; welcoming by the mothers; offerings and prayers to the gods of marriage (especially Hera); showering with nuts and fruits and/or foods symbolic of fertility; feast; seclusion of the couple in the thalamos or bridal chamber; the bringing of wedding gifts the next morning. To read some more detailed information about Athenian weddings, clickhere.
Elements of the traditional funeral rites (kedeia) include: the purification and laying out of the body on a bier in a white garment, shroud, and head garland; lamentation by family and friends; early morning procession to the burial site; burial with prayers to the underworld gods (especially Hermes Psykhopompos, Hades, and Persephone); return to the deceased's home for a feast; ritual purification of the participants and the home afterwards; regular graveside memorial observances at three, nine, and thirty days after the death, and annually thereafter. Do you have ministers/clergy? How are they trained?
It has often been said that, unlike many of their contemporaries, 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 ( hiereis, sing. hiereus ) and priestesses ( hiereiai, sing. hiereia ) were selectedsometimes by lotfrom 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, 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 exegetical counseling. In general, it is the communityand, of course, the gods themselvesthat recognize someone as a hiereus or hiereia. (Note: Some groups use other titles for their clergy; Hellenion, for example, uses the title "Theoros," meaning "sacred emissary.") Formal clergy training programs are available through pagan churches and other organizations..
What are the core ethical values of Hellenismos?
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 ). More detailed discussions of Hellenic ethics can be viewedhereandhere. Weren't the ancient Greeks awfully patriarchal? What about all the negative aspects of their culture, like slavery and the subjugation of women?
Modern Hellenes are emphatically not calling for a return to the social structures of the ancient world, any more than modern Christians wish to live like the 1st-century Jews of the Galilee. As much as we may admire certain aspects of ancient culture, no one wants to return to an economy based on slave labor or to a political system that denies the vote to more than half the population. In short, we are religious traditionalists, not political reactionaries. (For an interesting discussion of ancient Greek "political incorrectness" and modern thought, see Hanson & Heath's Who Killed Homer? ) Isn't Greek mythology just fairy tales? How do you know your gods are real?
How do Jews know that YHVH is real? How do Christians know that Christ is real? Or Hindus Krishna or Shiva? There is no way to provide a meaningful answer such questions in scientific-materialist terms.
Hellenes might answer that our devotion to the gods is not a matter of blind faith, but of direct, personal experience. We don't have to understand the mechanics of the internal combustion engine to drive a car, nor do we have to understand gravity to experience its effects. We observe the world around us and see the enormous variety of life and power. We pray to the gods and judge our prayers to have been answered. We may have intense personal experiences in which we feel "touched" by our gods. We are like most other religious peopleonly we tend to see multiplicity where some others see singularity.
Most Hellenic polytheists were raised as members of one of the dominant monotheistic faiths (if we had any religious upbringing at all). It must be admitted that some individual Hellenes harbor lingering anger toward their birth religions, usually as a result of abuse at the hands of religious leaders or well-meaning family members. But most would agree that, from a more objective standpoint, Christianity is simply irrelevant to our traditional beliefs and practicesas are Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.
On the whole, we take a live-and-let-live position regarding those of other faiths. Only when Christians try to convert us, slander our gods, or try to impose their beliefs as the "one true way" do we oppose their efforts. What is your understanding of the Bible?
Some Hellenes would say that there is wisdom to be found there, but the Bible is not our holy book, and as we are not in a covenant relationship with the Hebrew father god or with Christ, we do not consider ourselves bound by Biblical law. What about Jesus?
Some Hellenic pagans respect him as a teacher, ethicist, and religious reformer; but, as Jesus was not part of ancient Greek religion, neither is he worshipped by modern Hellenists today. Are you Satanists?
"Satan" is not part of the Hellenic worldview, nor is any other figure personifying evil, and therefore Satan has no place in our religion, least of all as an object of worship. Of course those who believe that all gods other than Yahweh are by definition demons are unlikely to accept this. <g>
Occasionally people assume that Hades, the god of the underworld, is a Satanic figure. This is not the case. The Greeks did not have a "Hell" in the sense that some Christians understand that term, nor is it the role of Hades, or his queen, Persephone, to torment the dead or to tempt the living to commit evil acts. (We human appear perfectly capable of wrongdoing on our own, without supernatural intervention.)
Likewise, Pan's goat legs and horns sometimes lead people to believe he is "really the devil." He is not; he is an Arcadian herding and fertility deity. Is Hellenismos a (neo)pagan religion?
It depends entirely on how you define those terms. If by "pagan," you mean "something other than Jewish, Christian, or Moslem," then yes, Hellenismos is pagan. If you mean "godless, lacking in religious belief," then obviously no. If you mean "an earth-based, magical religion honoring a goddess and her consort and following an annual calendar based on Northern European agricultural and pastoral cycles," then again, no.
To the extent that our religion is a reconstruction and adaptation of ancient religious practices in the modern world, one could argue that the label "neopagan" is both accurate and descriptive, and some Hellenes embrace it. However, the terms "neopagan" and "paganism" have become so closely linked to eclectic Wicca that many people now treat them as synonyms.
In response to the confusion created by this usage, there is currently a movement within the reconstructionist religions, including Hellenismos, away from using the term "pagan" at all. Some also object to the imposition of a Latinate label, created by Christians as a term of derision, that would never have been used by the ancient Greeks to describe themselves in the first place. There is, however, no consensus on this issue at present, and each individual uses the terms most comfortable for him or her. (The author of this FAQ, for example, prefers "polytheist" to "pagan" and eschews "neopagan" altogether.) How does Hellenismos differ from Wicca and Wicca-influenced neopaganism?
The only real link is that they are both non-Abrahamic religions, commonly described as "pagan" (although even this is not universal). Otherwise, they differ as much as Shinto and Christianity differ, which is to say, on almost all counts. They have distinct historical origins, different theological perspectives and worldviews, and very different styles of ritual. In short, the two religions share nothing with each other that they don't also share with other religions. (Which is not to say that they cannot cooperate in multifaith efforts on issues of common concern, of course.)
Religions that share some closer theological links with Hellenismos include most of the reconstructionist religions Asatru and related heathen religions, Religio Romana, Romuva, etc.and some indigenous/ethnic religions. How do Hellenists view the gods of other religions?
As polytheists, most Hellenes readily accept the existence of gods other than their own. Most see all of these gods as distinct beings, even where their areas of influence seem to overlap, a position often referred to as "hard polytheism." Others, following the common ancient understanding, assume a finite number of major gods that answer to a variety of names, depending on the background of the worshipper. So, Herodotos could say that the Egyptians worshipped Dionysosby which he meant Osirisand a modern Hellenic polytheist might identify Brigid with Hestia or Manannan with Poseidon.