Hellenism is an interest in, devotion to, and replication of the culture and ideals of ancient Greece. The term denotes an unhindered love of liberty and a free life, which is often in contrast to the modern Judeo-Christian monotheistic faiths which promote a strict moralistic and more despotic way of life.
Hellenist is the term used for those who practice the religion of Hellenism. The word Hellenist is derived from the Greek root word hellenizein, which means, “to speak or make Greek”. In modern usage, the term designates an individual who adopts the Ancient Greek way of life but is not of Greek descent. Historically, the terms is especially applied to those people who adopted the Greek culture and language following the conquest of the Middle East by Alexander the Great.
The religion of ancient Hellas, or Greece – as we call it today – often conjures up images of white-robed figures worshipping the gods of Greek mythology – gods that are as familiar to us today as they were in ancient times: Zeus, Apollo Athena, Poseidon, Hermes, and the rest. Almost immediately, the mind recalls Homer’s great epics – the Iliad and the Odyssey – Greek sculpture, the Parthenon in Athens and a host of popular versions of stories of the gods. All these things have become fixed in our minds as a very clear picture of what we believe the religion of the ancient Greeks to have been.
This image of the religion of Hellenism is strikingly anthropomorphic, where the gods have become very definite persons, with recognizable features and idealized human forms. This sharp-cut statue type of god is largely the result of the great literary achievements of Homer and Hesiod, and the work of the Greek sculptors. The Greek historian, Herodotus, tells us that it was Homer and Hesiod who “made the generation of the gods for the Greeks and gave them their names and distinguished their offices and crafts and portrayed their shapes.”
For the modern person to understand who and what the gods truly are, he or she must first look past the dazzling images which shine into our eyes and see into the half-lit regions behind them – the dark primeval tangle of desires, fears and dreams from which the gods of Hellenism draw their vitality. If we want to get to the root of the religion of the ancient Greeks, we must get behind these luminous deities of the artisans’ workshops and the myth-maker’s imagination and look into the strange world of archaic thoughts and feelings from which the twelve Olympian gods emerged.
The earliest form of Greek religion was filled with a background of spiritual dread and magical ceremonies with a much deeper emotional appeal than the Homeric gods of the classical age. The mysterious and impersonal forces of this ancient religion were more feared than loved and therefore these mysterious “theoi” (deities) must be appeased. Their existence was connected with the fertility of soil and body, and nature must be stimulated by sacrifices and rites.
So here we have two distinct phases or forms of religious belief – the earlier propitiatory phase and the more familiar Homeric or “Bright Gods” phase. There is also a third phase, which is the most important phase for the modern Hellenist. This third phase came about during the period of social and political decay following the Peloponnesian War, having its roots in the earlier, more archaic cults, but utilizing the more personal view of the Bright Gods. This new form of religious worship came to be known as the religion of the Mysteries, and it brought salvation and redemption out of this world. According to some scholars, it was these Mystery cults which later influenced the then burgeoning Christian movement.
In some branches of modern Hellenism, these three phases have found roots which blend the three into a growing and living faith. Hellenism contemplates human weakness in the face of powers whose presence can be detected in nature, in society and within our own bodies, powers that seem to impede our actions and, sometimes, constitutes a threat to our very existence. These powers or forces are formidable and it is through the use of ritual and worship that we seek to understand the sources of these mysterious powers.
The Olympians are joyous gods and Hellenists seek to win divine favor by organizing beautiful performances, ceremonies, sporting competitions, torch races and games. To pray and offer libations and sacrifices to the gods is good, to celebrate festivals in their honor and perform plays where they could sometimes be made fun of, is still better. The gods love laughter. Homer wrote that the laughter on Mount Olympus is inextinguishable.
While the Hellenic gods do from time to time intervene in the affairs of mortals, their interest in our daily lives is somewhat limited. Here is where we begin to look behind the shining images of the gods and peer beyond the veil that separates the mortal from the immortal. While the gods are impervious to death, we, as humans, must learn to deal and cope with our own mortality. Without an understanding of what comes after death, we quickly become disenchanted to the goals of human effort and we begin to feel helpless and alone in a pointless world.
It was this profound sense of uncertainty that led others to delve deeper into the secrets of the gods and to work to glimpse beyond death to find some meaning to it all. These explorations of the unknown are what later evolved into what came to be known as the Mystery Religions. Such names as Pythagoras, Orpheus and Eleusis still hold a degree of sacredness to this day.
The purpose of these Mystery Religions were, and still are, to bring us to a better understanding of life and death, to show us our purpose on earth, to foster hope, to turn our soul to the supernatural by proving that we are the chattels of the gods. Each person is connected to a divine source through the mediation of a spirit or daemon (do not confuse this with the Christian concept of demons) who is actually their true self. The Agathos Daemon or ‘good spirit’ is the part of us that is divine and not subject to death, but continues onwards towards a predefined purpose.
The ceremonies performed by the Mystery Religions of ancient times are still, for the most part, unknown to modern scholars, as they were protected by strict codes of secrecy and those who spoke of them were punishable by death. We do know that these ceremonies included a strict form of religious discipline, purifications, prayers, sacrifices and offerings. Once the ritual was completed the person emerged from the rite as a new man or woman. They were forever changed by what they witnessed, which we can safely assume entailed some form of communication with their Agathos Daemon.
Not all modern forms of Hellenism focus on the Mystery aspect of ancient Hellenic worship – being content with veneration of the deities and celebration of festivals. Other Hellenic traditions, like the Thessalian tradition, have incorporated a form of all three phases of ancient Greek religion by maintaining traditional household rites, performance of Hellenic festivals and also by the reinstitution of the mystery schools, making communication with the Agathos Daemon a prerequisite into the clerical order.
The Concept of Evil
The problem of dealing with the concept of “evil” is as real today as it was in ancient times. Even in the so-called “rational age” of today, there is still nothing which fully explains the unexpected evils which come upon us from all sides. The Hellenist has a sophisticated understanding of fate, of death, and of the mysterious powers of the gods and daemons that influence humanity through their subtle, yet formidable, powers. The earth is a sphere of both light and darkness, filled with happiness and dread. Thus life and death are filled with both terror and delight. A person who has never been thoroughly frightened by the unknown can never truly come to an understanding of the Immortals, because it is salvation from this terror that is the basis of religious experience. To truly understand that in order for us to be complete we must embrace both the positive and the negative is one of the “secrets” of the Mystery Religions. Understanding this concept of good and evil with full comprehension is a completely liberating experience and one which forever changes those who are initiates of the Mysteries.
To practice moderation in our lives is the goal of the Hellenist. To embrace the knowledge that every person is as noble, as vile, as divine, as diabolical, and as lonely as you are. When you can look into a puddle and see something beyond the mud, and into the face of the most forlorn fellow mortal and see something beyond failing. When you can hold a sword against evil while keeping a song in your heart, is when such a person as this has found the only real Mystery. They understand what Thessalian Hellenism calls the essence of life – that is to have the liberty to be, to think, to speak and to do.