That Old Time Religion

Would you like to go back to that old time religion? Do you find monotheism monotonous? Would you prefer to worship older and more interesting gods? Then maybe Hellenismos is the religion you have been looking for.

Hellenismos is a revival of the polytheistic religion of ancient Greece and Rome. Followers of this religion worship the old gods of Greek and Roman myth like Zeus, Apollo, Athena, and so on. As far as I can determine, these people are serious about the matter. They are not play acting or pretending like Civil War re-enactors or the Society for Creative Anachronism. It has been centuries since any of the rites of the Greco-Roman religion have been practiced, but these new pagans practice them as best they can be reconstructed from the evidence of literature and archeology. The only concession to modern times is that they do not sacrifice live animals though they do give meat and bones as votive offerings. There aren’t many followers of the Hellenismos, only about 2000,

Photograph of Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hell...

Photograph of Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes (YSEE) ritual in Greece. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

mostly in Greece and the US. There are an estimated 100,000 people who have shown some interest in it.

The name Hellenismos is worth exploring. The ancient Greeks, as well as the followers of every other traditional ancient religion, did not have a name for their religion. Religion, in those days, was not something separate, but was an intimate part of culture and day to day life. There was no consistent theology or doctrine. There was not a separate class or hierarchy of priests or clergymen. Priesthoods were local and often political posts.  The people of ancient times would not have understood the concept of separation of church and state. Practicing the rites to gain the gods’ favor was an essential role of the state. You did not convert to the ancient Greek or Roman religion, unless you happened to adopt their culture.The closest thing to joining a church in ancient times might be being initiated into one of the mystery religions. Even then, the initiate still worshiped the same gods as everyone else.

The Greeks were aware that people in other countries worshiped other gods. If I understand Herodotus correctly, the Greeks seemed to assume that foreigners worshiped the same set of gods they did only with strange foreign names and ideas about their relationships with one another. In any event, people didn’t travel all that much and few Greeks had much opportunity or inclination to learn about the religious beliefs of people they called barbarians. This changed somewhat in the more cosmopolitan world of the Hellenistic Era and the Roman Empire. People and ideas moved back and forth throughout the ancient world and cults and sects spread far from their lands of origin. The culture became a little more individualistic than before and people could make conscious choices about their religious practices. A person could become a worshiper of Isis, or Mithras, or even of the God of the Jews. (In the century or so before Christ, Jewish monotheism was very attractive to some people). Naturally that person would still practice whatever local rites and customs were prevalent, except in the case of the convert or follower of Judaism. A little later on, a new option arose. One could become a follower of Christ, or a Christian.

Christianity grew fairly rapidly in the three centuries after the death of Christ, until Constantine became the first Christian Roman Emperor.  Most of this growth took place in the cities of the Roman Empire while people in rural districts tended to be more conservative in their beliefs and who clung to their idols. The growing Christian elite referred to these bitter clingers as “pagani” or country folk, or maybe even rednecks.

In 361 Julian, a grandson of Constantine, became Emperor. Although he had been raised a Christian, the deplorable behavior of the sons of Constantine as well as his studies in philosophy, convinced him to abandon Christianity in favor of neo-Platonism and the old religion. Julian realized that much of the success of the Christians was due to their organization and the way in which they took care of their members. He decided that if paganism was to survive, it would need to be reinvented. Julian wanted to create a new-old religion with a more consistent theology and a hierarchy of priests. He wanted the old temples to practice the same kind of charity as the Christians did and he wanted the priests to exhort the people to more moral behavior, as the Christian priests did in their sermons. He called this system “hellenismos” or the way of the Hellenes. (The Greek work for “Greek” is Hellene and the word for Greece is Hellas.)

Julian did not succeed. He was killed in 363 while fighting a war with the Persians. He successor was a Christian as was every Roman Emperor after him. By 395, the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire and the gods of the old temples were banished.

I suppose, in their way, the efforts of the modern followers of the way of the Hellenes are just as quixotic as Julian’s efforts to turn the clock in his time. I can’t imagine all that many people taking the ancient myths very seriously. In fact, I am certain that the modern pagans do not take them literally but metaphorically. Even so, while the Greek gods could be grand and noble, they were also petty, vindictive and selfish. Even in ancient times, some Greeks were embarrassed by the many affairs of Zeus. None of the gods were consistently superior to humans in morals, and in most of the myths, the gods were nothing but trouble to the hapless mortals they met.  They don’t seem to be the sort of beings that are very worthy of worship. I like the stories in Greek mythology myself, though I have never been tempted to worship Zeus or Hermes.

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