- What Is Hellenismos?
- I heard from one person that doing X wasn’t Hellenismos, but someone else says it’s historically valid. How do I know if it’s real Hellenismos or not?
- Who was this Emperor Julian guy and what does he have to do with Hellenismos?
- Is ‘Hellenismos’ Hellenic reconstruction?
- This guy I know said what I’m doing isn’t Hellenismos, but I think it is! How do I tell him Hellenismos is whatever I want it to be?
- What are primary and secondary sources? What are their differences?
- I heard syncretic paths, like Graeco-Roman, or Graeco-Aegyptian aren’t really Hellenismos?
- Is it “Hellenistic” or “Hellenic”?
- Are you a Devotional or Immersive polytheist? What’s the difference between the two?
What Is Hellenismos?
“Hellenismos”, in 21st Century English, is a word used to describe Hellenic polytheism; in modern Greek, “Hellenismos” is more comparable to the English word “Hellenism”, meaning “to be Greek” or “Greekness” if translated to English, and is used to describe anything having to do with the whole of Greek/Hellenic culture, ancient or modern, including the Greek Orthodox sect of Christianity.
In the context of a movement to revive or reconstruct pre-Christian Hellenic religion, though, “Hellenismos” is a distinct religious movement with its own history that is separate from Wicca, Eclectic Paganism, Heathenery, Neodruidry, and many other religions typically lumped under the (neo)pagan umbrella. Because of the connotation of the word in Greek, Hellenismos is generally considered to be a polytheism that exclusively or near-exclusively honours the Hellenic pantheon in a manner that more resembles what is known of ancient Greek practises than Wicca or other (neo)pagan religions.
You could always check sources for yourself and see if it IS historical or not, and then judge for yourself whether or not it: a) can easily fit the basic ritual script, b) fills a gap in the ancient record, or c) fills a modern spiritual need unaddressed by the ancient record.
As an aside, the eCauldron Hellenismos FAQ states:
An Important Note: No one speaks for the entire world community of Hellenes (including the author of this FAQ!), nor is there any central religious body that dictates dogma, ritual, or membership requirements. Hellenic religion was, and remains, pluralistic in the extreme. Therefore, not everyone who worships the ancient Greek gods will agree with every detail of what follows. That is as it should be, and need not be a cause for concern or ill will.
So, basically, just like with the ancient Greeks, there are going to be differences in practise depending on the local traditions and philosophies a person focuses on.
Who was this Emperor Julian guy and what does he have to do with Hellenismos?
The term “Hellenismos” is often credited as being initially coined by Emperor Julian, the last polytheistic/pagan Emperor of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Julian more often used hellēnizein, essentially synonymous. The oldest source on “Hellenismos”, in a religious context is from a Jewish writer.
Regardless, I still recommend checking out his work.
Yes and no.
eCauldron.com defines “Reconstructionist”:
Reconstructionism, as used here, is a methodology for developing and practising 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 desirable to practice ancient religions—albeit in modified form—in the modern world.
Some Hellenistai feel that there is already enough of an established practise now, so eschew the term “reconstruction” as they don’t feel that they are “reconstructing” anything anymore. Furthermore, some Hellenistai are so deeply wrought in their spiritual lives that their practises go far above and beyond merely “reconstructed” ancient practise and consider most of their practises and rituals to be “innovations” built from either the reconstructionist method or beyond that. Furthermore, there are some living Hellenes/Greeks who claim to practise an unbroken tradition of polytheism that somehow managed to survive underground since early Christian times —as dubious as such claims tend to be, if taken to be true, well, that’s clearly not “reconstruction”, but easily argued to fall within the scope of “Hellenismos”.
Well, first off, I can’t tell you how to do that, if only because Hellenismos is not “whatever you want it to be”. That said, Hellenismos certainly encompasses many practises, dozens of philosophies, and indeed, ancient Hellas was a loosely-connected collection of thirty-some tribes, and thus the religious practises of ancient Hellas, were not a unified, monolithic organisation of rituals, and there were dozens of philosophical schools founded by ancient Hellenes, so clearly there is no singluar way to practise Hellenismos.
On the other hand, there are some practises that clearly have no historical trace to ancient Hellas, and even in the myriad of mythologies and philosophies, some beliefs would have just been laughable, if one were raised in the culture of ancient Greece.
Due to the natural religious evolutions between the “classical period” and the “Hellenistic period”, and the difference of practises between Sparta, Athens, Thespiae, and so forth, means that a wide variety of practises and beliefs are acceptable under the umbrella of “Hellenismos” much in the same way a wide variety of practises and beliefs are acceptable under the umbrella of “Hinduism”. Continuing with Hinduism as an example for modern polytheists to look to in their own practises, many sects (or denominations) exist within Hinduism, each with their own traditions, practises, theologies, and so forth; ergo, if unbroken and uncloseted traditions of Hellenismos survived to the modern day, many sects would exist — Orphics would be flourishing, Pythagoreans would be continuing with their work, Platonists would be continuing, Olympian sects would as well flourish, as would other defined sects and cults to specific Theoi, and so forth. Anybody propagating the idea of a “true” or “pure Hellenismos” or simply places too much emphasis on “ancient practise”, or even one narrow faction of ancient practise, is basically redefining Hellenismos for their own purposes (most likely, either money or power, no matter how much or how little) as there is plenty enough in both primary and secondary sources on the Hellenic religion to smash those faulty arguments with a wrecking ball.
“Primary sources”, for the purposes of this website (and other Hellenic websites I link to), are surviving ancient sources. “Secondary sources” are texts, usually academic/scholarly in origin, written about Hellenismos based on archaeological findings and data, summarisings of primary sources (often including very obscure things, such as temple records, papyrus scraps that appear to be from diaries, and other such errata that isn’t normally available as primary sources — do you have any idea how many Cuneiform receipts for purchases or debts are in the “classical antiquity” room at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio? the plaques in there include translations), and other conclusions made by people who study these practises.
Typically speaking, many primary sources for Hellenismos are most widely available in translation — and translations vary widely in quality. Still, a good rule of thumb when seeking a higher-quality translation is to stick with translations published by either a) those who are active or most-current university professors in a field such as Classical Studies, Greek, or Archaeology or b) are current editions published by a major university publishing label (such as Johns Hopkins University Press). If it says “Penguin Classics” or “Oxford Classics” on the spine or is a Barnes & Noble Press translation or other such very inexpensive translated edition, then the translation is almost always one that has lapsed into the public domain (usually older than 1927, with some exceptions) and is more-or-less guaranteed to be littered with Christian biases (such as monotheism in Aesop’s Fables) or simply filled with sacrifices of content and meaning for the sake of verse: A good example of the latter is the 18th Century Thomas Taylor translations of the Orphic Hymns when compared to the 1988 Apostolos N. Athanassakis translations; Taylor replaced many Greek names with Roman and some of his lines have apparently different connotations when compared with the same numbered line in the Athanassakis translations. Executive Pagan in this entry illustrates quite clearly that even the same hymn can vary immensely, even within modern translations, making the reputation of the translator immensely important.
Now, this is not to say that outdated translations are completely without merit. I must say, on the Neokoroi e-mail list (and maybe even Kyklos Apollon) I have argued that the Taylor translations of the Orphic Hymns are a sort of “work of literary art” on their own, even though they omit many of the finer nuances of a more-accurate translation. Spiritual gnosis can be sowed from outdated or less discriminating translations, though it may prove anywhere from somewhat to incredibly different from that garnered from more-accurate translations.
Secondary sources, similarly, vary widely in quality. Furthermore, much like translations of primary sources, older texts are less accurate — and in some cases, may not even be at all accurate. As loathe as I am to compare Wicca and other modern Witchcraft religions to Hellenismos, allow me a moment to draw a sort of parallel:
Margaret Murray was an Egyptologist who propagated the fallacy of the pan-European widespread “witch cult”: By Murray’s definition, the “witch cult” spanned most, if not all of Europe, remained an underground anti-Christian resistance until ca. 1450, maintained practises since neolithic times, and practised in covens of thirteen members (Witch Cult In Western Europe, 1921). Her later books on “witchcraft” and “paganism” were far more imaginative and took far more liberties with documented history, even claiming that Thomas à Becket, Jeanne d’Arc, and the English King William Rufus of the Norman dynasty were all ritually killed as members self-sacrificing for the magical purposes of the “witch cult”.
Murray is important because in 1920, these bizarre and archaeologically, anthropologically, and historically unfounded ideas still made this woman enough of an “expert” on witchcraft to write an article about it for the Encyclopaedia Britannica; this definition remained in print for forty years (link). Murray is the most obvious reason for why the credentials of secondary sources are important. Newer may not always be better, but sometimes new information is important to have uncovered. Again, hunting down good secondary sources may seem expensive, but most libraries do inter-library loans for books that they do not currently have (usually free), and if you live in a large city or the vicinity of a major university (or just any university with a good Classics department), used copies of many books can often be purchased rather inexpensively at local used book stores (yet another reason that urban paganism rules).
Yeah, I hear a lot of dumb shit on the Internet, too. I’m not going to lie, the topic of historically syncretic paths (mostly: Graeco-Roman, Graeco-Aegyptian, Greco-Buddhism, and yes, even “Christ as a Neoplatonist Philosopher” Christo-Paganism is historically valid) is probably going to remain a hot-blooded topic within Hellenismos for years to come, much less newer syncretic religions (like Hellenic Wicca).
Historically, things got mixed together all the time, these religions did not exist in a vacuum, and people always adapted foreign deities to their native pantheon, and vice-versa. Furthermore, syncretism isn’t necessarily hand-in-hand with interpretatio graecae —the Hellenic practise of seeing one of one’s native deities in a foreign deity (like saying “Freya is the Germanic Aphrodite”)— religious syncretism is simply the practise of blending two religious paths into one cohesive system.
If modern Greeks are going to include the whole of Greek culture, including Orthodox Christianity, under the name “Hellenismos”, then in my opinion, it makes sense to include Graeco-syncretic polytheism under that heading, too. If you disagree, then be my guest, this is one of those things where the facts may be stronger for my position, but neither is definitive, so we’re certainly welcome to our own opinions.
In general, it’s “Hellenic”. “Hellenistic” refers to the post-Alexander era of ancient Greece, but before the Imperial Roman era –so about 300BCE to 100BCE. If the way you practise is based exclusively on that era, I suppose “Hellenistic polytheist” would be correct, but most reconstruction focuses on the Classical era, or mixes bits from all pre-Christian eras of ancient Greece, including Roman, so no, “Hellenistic” wouldn’t be correct at all. It’s “Hellenic”, and if you keep saying “Hellenistic” whilst practising something not exclusive of that era, I will beat you with a potato tied into the toe of a sock.
No, I’m a polytheist; sometimes I descdribe myself as a “polytheism reconstructionist” as shorthand for “I use a method of practise that emphasises historical correctness and, when historical accuracy is impossible due to modern realities or spiritual needs, I will innovate based on a fair understanding of the ancient mindset”. I think I may have used “devotional polytheist” once or twice a few years ago, as a means of describing my personal approach to polytheistic religion —one that places the Theoi first, but I never used it very much, and I quickly dropped it (as did many) in mid-to-late 2013 when Gus deZerega, John Halstead, and others from the Patheos Peanut Gallery started using “devotional polytheist” as shorthand for “pluralist, non-monistic polytheist fundie nutbars who think that deities actually exist and stuff LAWLBUTTZLAWL”.
I’ve seen at least a couple of the videos on “immersive polytheism” and I honestly think that any divide between the people who prefer that term and the few who still identify with “devotional polytheist” is a false one. The “immersive” camp does pretty much the same things as the people who prefer “devotional”, and the only potential difference is that a handful of those who do or did refer to themselves as “devotional poytheists” are more into intense mystic practises, though that’s certainly not a requirement to use the term.