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The Ancient Greek practice of Hellenism lives on as a modern religion

Ian Harvey

Modern-day religions are central to the lives of billions of people around the world. For the faithful, religious practice provides a link between humanity and the spiritual world, joining people together in communities of worship and service.

Ancient religions were no different – they created communities, influenced cultures, and linked the ancients to the infinite beyond.

Laurel wreath Photo Credit

Laurel wreath Photo Credit

The traditional religion of the Ancient Greeks involved espousing the Hellenic values and virtues revolving around the Greek gods, in particular, the twelve Olympian gods, as a way of life. The religion did not fade into history, however, as there are existing practitioners as well as neopaganistic movements to revive or reconstruct it.  The religion lives on well into the 21st century as Hellenismos, Hellenic Polytheism, Dodekatheism, or Olympianism.

Hellenism is the most common term used to describe the continued practice of polytheistic Ancient Greek religious beliefs; it stems from the name given to Roman Emperor Julian’s revival of Greek religion, but it can also refer to Ancient Greek religion and culture in general. Hellenic religion and Hellenic polytheism are also used frequently while Dodekatheism and Olympianism are less commonly used terms. Subgroups of the religion may use other names to identify with various schools of thought, traditions, and practices.

Hellenistic practices involve polytheism via the worshiping of the Greek gods, heroes, natural divinities, and underworld deities of Ancient Greece. A primary practice involves exchanging offerings for the gods’ blessings, and a key belief is kharis (grace), which creates reciprocity between humans, gods, and communities.

Moral and ethical codes of followers are inspired by Ancient Greek virtues like moderation, reciprocity, and self-control, and texts such as the Delphic maxims, Tenets of Solon, Golden Verses of Pythagoras, and Aristotle’s Ethics. In addition, the fundamental belief of eusebia (piety) involves commitment and action to worship the Greek gods.

There is no main official church, assembly, or hierarchical clergy in modern Hellenism. Although some groups offer training for roles in the church or clergy, the consensus is that followers learn about the religion independently and perform rituals on their own.

Most practitioners of Hellenism fall somewhere on the revivalist-reconstructionist side of the religious spectrum. Revivalism centers on Hellenism as a living religion that changes with time, thus giving believers more freedom to decide what is right to practice. Reconstructionism aims to base modern religious practice on culturally and historically accurate examples of Ancient Greek religious practices.

Most believers of Hellenic polytheism state that reconstructionism is not the only way to practice Hellenism; however, they maintain that a practice is Hellenic only when it promotes the humanistic values and virtues of Ancient Greeks, reveres the Ancient Greek gods, and uses a religious structure that an Ancient Greek would be able to identify.

Modern Hellenic temple built on private land of Aristoteles Kakogeorgiou, in Thessaloniki. Photo Credit

Modern Hellenic temple built on private land of Aristoteles Kakogeorgiou, in Thessaloniki. Photo Credit

In 1997, the Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes, or YSEE, first openly promoted the revival of Hellenic polytheism in Greece. The organization is still active today, and it refers to its Hellenism as “ethnic polytheistic” and “genuine Hellenism.” Its followers are called Ethnikoi Hellenes (ethnic Hellenes). The YSEE is a member of the European Congress of Ethnic Religion and the European Union’s action program to fight discrimination. There are no official figures worldwide for the number of Hellenic polytheistic practitioners, but leaders of Dodekatheism stated in 2005 that there were approximately 2,000 in Greece, with 100,000 having an interest in the religion.

The Labrys religious community of Greece has also been active in promoting Hellenism since it was founded in 2008. They stress the necessity of household worship and that family and community are the basis of religious practice. Labrys organizes the largest Hellenic festival in Athens and participates in the oldest Hellenic festival in Greece – Promitheia, which is held annually on Mount Olympus.

Outside of Greece Hellenic polytheistic organizations developed in the late 1990s, although some people claim to have practiced the religion in some form since the 1970s. Two of the most well-known groups in the United States are Hellenion and Elaion. Hellenion defines its practice as Hellenic Pagan Reconstructionism with an emphasis on historical accuracy. It offers training for clergy, adult religious education classes, and other courses for members.

The precise number of members is undetermined since the organization does not provide such information to the public. Elaion describes its practice as Dodekatheism, meaning belief in the twelve gods. Elaion’s membership numbers have not been reported. In addition, there is a Hellenic religious organization in Brazil called the RHB, the Reconstrucionismo Helênico no Brasil. The organization was started by Brazilian members of Hellenion and other groups.

Priest performing ritual. Photo Credit

Priest performing ritual. Photo Credit

In a world that has a myriad of religious beliefs, the practice of Hellenistic polytheism has found modern practitioners in Greece and other countries.

Read another story from us: Ancient Greek philosophers coined the term “akrasia” to explain the lack of motivation

Whatever part of the spectrum believers fall in or however they practice, it is evident that ancient religions continue to have something to offer to modern society.