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Tropaion is a web-log / electronic journal and Carnival for the ancient Greek Religion and history. The main goal of the web-log is to present original peer-reviewed and well referred posts on theoretical and practical aspects of the ancient Greek religion, to add to a broader circulation of Humanities and Classics in the Internet as well as to rise awareness for the Hellenic Polytheism today and to explore its relation with its ancient past.

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Below is the abridged transcript of “Part B” of a talk presented to youngsters on the Oxford University Summer Academic Program (July 2008). “Part C” on the importance of myths in the ancient and modern worlds was posted in July 2008 on Tropaion and several people have subsequently asked to read the earlier part of the talk. (James Head)

Brief from organizers of talk: ….. My aim with this course was to elevate myths beyond the status of static, immutable, ancient morality tales, and to encourage discussion about mythology's place in both the ancient and modern worlds. To that end I was hoping to invite you, as a modern Hellene, to give a guest talk to the students, as I think it would be incredibly valuable for them to hear about how one approaches worshipping the ancient gods from a 21st century perspective.

Part B – Modern day practice of Hellenism – Summary posted below.

Part C – Posted previously on Tropaion – July 2008 dealing with the title:
‘The Importance of Myths in Ancient Greece - and to Modern Day Followers of the Greek Hellenistic Religion’.


Part B ………. So let me now give you a little background on modern Hellenism and how people follow the Gods today. Then I will move onto the important role of the myths in both ancient and modern times....

I have to say that from an organisational and administrative point of view we are a pretty funny bunch. Yes, like many people we make use of on-line networking to keep in touch and meet others of the same faith. In addition there are groups like Greek Gods UK in Britain which organises regular “get togethers”. In Greece events like Promitheia – an annual meeting on Mount Olympus each June 21st – can attract 3 or 4 thousand people. However, the total number of followers In Greece alone could be as much as 1 and 2% of the population according to a US State Department report on modern religious practice in Greece. This translates to somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 followers in Greece alone. However, the membership of the various "organised groups" in Greece and elsewhere is very small and does not reflect these large estimates of modern day followers of the Gods in any way. So let’s ask ourselves why?

As a religious faith we seem to have a big dilemma when it comes to organised groups and “official” organisations. Let me try to explain by using the following statement:

An ancient Athenian was once asked where his altars of Zeus, Herkios and Agathos Daemon were located. His answer was to give the address of his home, adding that: ".... and I am worshiping there as my ancestors have before me"

One reason for the small membership of official groups of Hellenic Polytheists is that many people who follow the Gods today see their faith as a personal relationship with the Gods and pray and worship in the privacy of their own homes with family or friends – and I’ll say a little more about this shortly.

Another factor for Greek followers has been discrimination in Greece over the years which has kept many followers "in the closet". Happily this discrimination has dissipated greatly since Greece became a full member of the EU and many followers are now "coming out" of the closet as it were. This discrimination could happen in the work place, socially, in the armed forces, and most professional and public bodies where people were obliged to swear an oath of allegiance to the Greek State and Orthodox Church. Such obligations begin to be re-considered now in view of European human rights legislation. For example, it was just this March 2008, that a landmark legal decision was made in Greece, when a new lawyer wishing to join the Greek bar was, for the first time ever, “not” obliged to swear his allegiance to the Orthodox Church in order to do so. This will hopefully have far reaching effects and set a legal precedent for other professionals who will no longer be denied access to legal bodies if they do not wish to take this oath to the Church. (Further information on this legal decision can be viewed on this link to the Athens News March 7th 2008:
http://www.athensnews.gr/athweb/nathens.prnt_article?e=C&f=&t=11&m=A16&aa=1

So let me tell you now a little on how many modern day Hellenists worship. What makes me a Greek polytheist today in the twenty first century, is exactly what made an ancient Greek a worshiper of the Hellenic Pantheon. Contrary to what many people might think or are taught in schools, Greek polytheism today largely follows a long-established pattern and format; and the blueprint of our religious practice is the sacrifice, the offering, libation and prayer. Many of us have wrongly been led to believe through books or in schools that our faith completely died out and vanished without a trace. This is simply not so.

These days, as in ancient times, household worship is what makes an individual a part of his religious community, and it is the most fundamental part of Greek polytheism today. It is not just the local ‘demes’, Pan-Hellenic and state-wide divinities that one should or could worship, but it is also the everyday worship of one’s chosen household divinities and of one’s ancestors.

Zeus Kteseios, Zeus Herkeios, Apollo Agyeus and Herakles Apotropaios were the deities of an Athenian ‘oikos’ (domicile). The performance of the necessary rituals of the household divinities by the household keepers was not just a matter of responsibility but an identification of their status as a legitimate member of the wider society. If we had to ask that ancient Athenian mentioned above where his home or estate is, we should have to ask him: “Where is your Zeus Herkeios?”

The worship in the oikos (home) was part of everyday life to the ancient Greeks. Sacrifices were offered on numerous occasions such as daily meals, demes and polis festivities, family celebrations and symposiums etc. Household worship therefore, is the main connection between ancient and modern day Greek polytheism. In other words, whilst state and community cults were optional in ancient times on many occasions, the Greek domestic religion was obligatory. Household religion remains today the main religious practice for the great majority of Greek polytheists, and largely helps to explain the relatively small membership of organised groups. Nevertheless, spiritual isolation is sometimes tough, and meeting together with others of the same faith can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. This is why things like the for-mentioned Promitheia festival are organised, and informal groups like Greek Gods UK organise their regular get togethers.

Many devout Hellenes are supporters of liberal political thought. These days it is difficult to conceptualize that a committed religious faith can be described as liberal in notion. We normally understand “religions” today as very structured organisations, with one sacred book and a professional priesthood – often insisting on old man made dogmas about what we should and should not do. In Hellenic Polytheism we do not have or indeed want that. Certainly there is no historical precedent for it. Personally, I think that this is because a modern Hellenic Polytheist must work out a bit for themselves what is good and what is bad… Indeed, thinking about these things is part of being a responsible adult in my view. We should not need someone to tell us that say stealing and murder are bad things to do.

The ancient Greek civilisation was normally tolerant towards new thought and diversity, because it was diverse and liberal at its core, and that core was its religion. For example, on a personal level as a follower of Apollo for over 18 years, I do not feel the need to be a member of a religious organisation, with man-made dogmas and practice, since like that old Athenian mentioned above I can worship in my own home and in my own simple way. I also believe that it is my responsibility to think through what is right and wrong to a large extent on a personal basis.

So what does all the above mean (or should it mean) in our day to day practice as modern day Hellenic Polytheists? Let’s consider what the ancient Greek poet and philosopher PINDAR (518 – 438 b.c.) has to say about the subject. Firstly and most importantly, Pindar talks about the idea of “philia”, that is, the idea of a personal "friendship" with our chosen God or Gods. We are lucky in that we can enjoy this special friendly relationship with our God and for example pray to Apollo or the other Gods as we would talk to a close and respected friend. We can pray simply and intimately, and have no need to pray in fear. I would say we were very lucky in this respect.

Secondly, and logically from what I have said previously, it is very important to have a special place in our homes such as a small shrine, where we might turn our thoughts to the Gods regularly. Sacrifice and offerings such as libation (the pouring of wine) is an important part of our worship. This pouring of wine is a symbolic offering - we do not of course believe that the Gods drink the wine when it is poured or that it turns to blood or anything like that.

Pindar also talks about the idea of a special place (sacred place) where we go regularly by ourselves or perhaps with others to be close to our Gods. This could be to a park, by a beautiful lake or at another attractive location. We go to these places when we need or want to be particularly close to or inspired by our Gods. Indeed, in a sense this is the basis of a temple – a sacred place where one goes regularly for prayer and worship to the Gods – alone or with others.

Knowledge of all sorts is seen positively by us. This is not just religious knowledge – but all kinds of knowledge such as science – history – art etc.
We can get religious knowledge from the reading of our many ancient texts such as the tragedies and this helps us with knowledge and religious enlightenment. For me, knowledge of all kinds is very important since it is hard to discuss many spiritual or philosophical things with people who still think the world is flat, or that the sun goes around Europe. Modern scientific knowledge cannot be denied and should not present a problem of faith for anyone, irrespective of the faith they choose to follow………….

James Head

…….. Part C of talk previously posted on Tropaion Blog – July 2008.


Footnote:
I am grateful to Nikolaos for his article on the New Statesman magazine faith blogg for the above details on household worship. I have borrowed heavily from his article at: www.newstatesman.com/writers/nikolaos_markoulakis
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