Why Hellenism?

This is the post that people seem to be waiting for… so here it is, finally. :)

…In 2000 I stumbled across the Reconstructionist Religions forum on Beliefnet, and discovered Hellenism. (A short while later we also joined ADF, but that can wait for the next post because it doesn’t impact what I’m writing here.)

At that point, I was still sort of drifting theologically; UU is not exactly demanding in the theology department, and I was caught between the two loci of my mystical experience, one recent but effectively out of reach, the other available to me but now several years removed.

Most of what I had been exposed to up that point was either traditional Wicca, or so broad and general as to be useless to me in my search for a more traditional theology; I couldn’t wrap my head around duotheism, the Celtic thing never felt right to me despite my bit of Irish blood, and at that point I was not really aware of Heathenism, which would have been the other logical avenue from an ancestral perspective. However, when I discovered that the worship of the Olympians was not dead, the pieces fell into place; I had an immediate feeling of “coming home”, and I knew that I had found my way forward in paganism. The Quakers speak of following “leadings”; I think that is what I was (and am) doing in Hellenismos. From the immediate comfort of the old familiar myths, to the pleasure of finding a way to reconnect spiritually with my native culture, to the deep sense of *rightness* that comes with answering the call of your God(s), I knew I had found something real and true. I did not connect with the Gods of my blood ancestry, but the Theoi are the ancestral Gods of all Western civilization; the cultures where Their worship first flourished are at the very origin of our history, and They are a vital part of the evolving fabric of our culture still today – They have never truly left us.

Hellenismos – American Style
The other day I posted my favorite line from the Japanese writer Basho – I do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; I seek the things they sought. Surely this is a contradiction, coming from someone who worships ancient Gods and follows a path based at least in part on ancient practices? Maybe; but not, I believe, completely. I do seek what the Ancients sought – to come into relationship with my Gods, which were also their Gods – but I do not feel constrained to do this always the *way* they did. The answer lies in the difference between reconstruction and revival.

Speaking again in very broad terms, Reconstructionists try, wherever possible, to celebrate our religion in ways as close to the ancients as can be done; for them, the old ways are generally the best, and the act of reconstruction is itself a form of piety. That said, of course, complete reconstruction is impossible, and even the most hard-core Recon recognizes this. In cases where innovation is required, especially in public ritual, Reconstructionists will generally try to innovate as little as possible, and make clear where the new bits are.

And I’m very glad they do! Their research is invaluable, and there certainly *is* something special about knowing that the words and actions you are using in worship are virtually the same as those done 3,000 years ago… but it’s not as vital to my personal practice, which I think of as more Revivalist than Reconstructionist. A sort of “Reform Hellenismos”, if you will – like Reform Judaism, I believe that the old ways have inherent value, but that for individual worshippers they are only essential to the degree that they make us more receptive to the presence of the Gods and foster kharis (relationship or reciprocity).

A couple of illustrations should suffice.
* At the Hearth, we make entirely traditional offerings: the first bit of a meal, some barley or olive oil, lighting a terracotta oil lamp at her shrine (which is in the kitchen, naturally). Hestia, at least as She shows Herself to us, seems to be fairly conservative; hardly surprising in the Mistress of the Home.
* For Hermes, on the other hand, who as the Messenger of the Gods and the Patron of tradesmen is the obvious choice to pray to as Patron of computer technology, I adapted the “spinning prayer flag” idea I found on the Internet and wrote a short prayer which I store at the root of all my hard drives on the theory that with each revolution of the disk my prayer is renewed. I also offer more traditional libations on special occasions, such as when I travel.

So what’s up with all those Gods, anyway?
For a non-believer raised in our monotheism-dominant culture, real live polytheism can be a stumper. I’ve seen the above question phrased a hundred different ways – and surprisingly often, the second question is something like “How do you decide which ones to worship? Do you just pray to whoever you feel like that day, or draw names out of a hat, or what?” If the person asking is Catholic, I usually answer by asking how they decide which saints to pray to… and they usually get it. Everyone else gets a version of this. (NB: The use of “us” and “we” below refers specifically to my family.)

First and foremost, we honor Hestia. As the hymn says, “Hestia, in the high dwellings of all, both deathless gods and men who walk on earth, you have gained an everlasting abode and highest honor: glorious is your portion and your right. For without you mortals hold no banquet, where one does not duly pour sweet wine in offering to Hestia both first and last.” (Homeric Hymn XXIX, tx. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Loeb Classical Library vol. 57. Copied from the Perseus Project website.)

As a married couple, we honor Hera – we’re currently looking for just the right items to establish a shrine for Her.

All of us have a special devotion to Athena – there’s not a specific external reason for this, it’s purely an offering of the heart. Our daughter in particular seems to be developing quite the relationship with Her. My wife and I both do various types of crafts, and so sometimes will remember Her in that way as well. Last year we made a pilgrimage to the Nashville Parthenon, and it was an amazing experience. It may not have been intended as a temple when it was built, but She has plainly made it Her own.

I have already mentioned Hermes, whom I honor as my professional Patron; we also have an Ancestor shrine, where we light candles and also make offerings to Hades and Persephone.

We don’t really have ongoing relationships with the other Gods, for the most part, but can certainly pray to them as need or opportunity arises. When we go to the beach, for instance, we always take some wine and pour a libation into the ocean to thank Poseidon for His hospitality.

I think it’s important to note that, contrary to what most monotheists seem to think, most of these prayers are not petitionary; we really don’t ask the Gods for all that much, other than to remember us with kindness for our past offerings to Them, and to be present to us in our lives. Sometimes, prayer is as simple as lighting a candle at a shrine and just resting in their Presence; in fact, that can be the most powerful prayer of all.

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10 thoughts on “Why Hellenism?

  1. Sojourner

    Sometimes, prayer is as simple as lighting a candle at a shrine and just resting in their Presence; in fact, that can be the most powerful prayer of all.

    And also a great way to establish a relationship with them. :)

    Good post.

  2. Sara

    Great post, thanks! In my wanderings, I have explored Hellenismos along with a few other Recon traditions – the Hellenic gods and goddesses were among the first Pagan gods my heart responded to, when at a young age I became obsessed with Greek Mythology a la D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. Some of my mind’s images of the Greek gods are still the illustrations from that book. *grin* There will always be a place in my heart for Hestia.

    -S

  3. Erik

    Sojourner,
    Yep, there’s nothing like listening to get a relationship off to a good start.

    Sara,
    :) I’ve got some books like that too.. my mental vision of Robin Hood will always be at least 25% from Pyle.

  4. Jeff Lilly

    Erik, this post is really beautiful. How long have you been working in Hellenism? We’ve been doing Celtic Reconstructionism for maybe six months now, and we’re still working out ways to integrate it into our everyday lives and our ways of thinking. It sounds like you folks have done a really great job of that!

  5. Erik

    Jeff,
    About six years, give or take… and it’s really only in the last year or so that I am finding my thought patterns have shifted to a point that I have started truly *thinking* and reacting from that place. For us the key, or at least one of them, was to adapt a few basic practices (ideally ones that are specific to the tradition) and just DO them. In our case it began with Hestia, as discussed, and with libations for special occasions.

  6. Erik

    Hi, Chas!
    Thanks for stopping by, and for sharing your story; it’s always great to hear about others’ experiences with the Gods.

    We didn’t think to bring barley, but we did make a small food offering and pour libations by the pond out front; I assume they were accepted by the ducks, acting no doubt as Her agents. :)

  7. Calixto

    In 2000 I stumbled across the Reconstructionist Religions forum on Beliefnet, and discovered Hellenism.

    Heh. I discovered Classical Pagan Recon a year before, then helped form those pages on Bnet.

    The timing overlap is uncanny.

  8. Pingback: Hawk’s Cry » A Journey to Hellenic Witchcraft

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