Posted Under Paganism & Witchcraft

Discovering the Religion of the Ancient Greeks

Parthenon at Night

Why Ancient Greek Religion?
Many are drawn to the practice of an ancient religion through a geneological link—a blood connection. They believe that they are well-suited to a religion that was developed by and for the use of their ancestors, rather than something that was introduced from people with whom they have no ancestral link.

Others are drawn to the practice of an ancient religion purely because it resonates with them, meaning that it somehow feels right. A big part of something feeling right is of it being familiar. Familiarity can come from either that which is perceived as a past life connection, or through prolonged exposure.

From the time of the European Renaissance (which is literally a "rebirth" of the classical world) until at least the nineteenth century, a Classical Education, which involved a study of ancient Greek and Latin texts, became standard throughout much of the Western world. Ancient Greek and Latin classes were phased out of many school curricula by the second half of the twentieth century. Many, but not all, of the texts studied dealt with Greek and Latin myths. As a result, Greek and Latin myths permeated the work of numerous artists, writers, poets, playwrights, and composers of the past, while the twentieth century saw the film industry following suit.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that while a Classical Education was the standard, Greek and Latin myths were the most familiar religious writings outside those of mainstream religious writings, such as those of the Bible. My preference is for Greek writings as they predate those of the Romans, meaning that in many respects the Roman writings can be seen as derivative. In addition, many of the core values of Western civilization, including the ideals of democracy and the right of individuals to have freedom of speech, came from the Greeks.

Overview of Ancient Greek Religion
The ancient Greeks had no primary text outlining religious practices, no founder, and no centrally organized church or priesthood. Most scholars believe that there was no formal training or ordination for priests and priestesses.

The Greeks lived in several hundred independent small city states that differed from each other in religious beliefs and practices, which changed over the centuries. There were also many Greeks living in isolated rural areas. More is known about Athens than any other city state (polis), and so this is where most religious studies tend to have their primary focus. The most prolific writings pertaining to religion are those of philosophers and other intellectuals, but they are not necessarily representative of popular belief.

The differences in religious beliefs and practices were so great that Dr. Simon Price referred to "the plural 'religions' … to suggest the resulting variety, in both space and time." In Athens, the basic social unit was the oikos, or "household," which consisted of a family, their slaves, and their estate. The next largest unit was the genos, or "noble kin group" of aristocrats. All Athenians were members of a phratry, or "brotherhood," and there were at least thirty of these in Athens. There were also country districts or villages known as demes. It is important to note that each household, noble kin group, phratry, and deme had their own methods of worship.

Public religion brought the whole community together for practices in accordance with ancestral traditions.

The Greeks would change the way they worshipped to conform to whatever group they were participating in. Yet, despite differences, religion bound Greek society together.

The most important festival of Athens and was the annual Panathenaia—honoring the birthday of Athena Polias (meaning, "of the city"). Numerous citizens were involved, including hoplite warriors and cavalrymen, old men; young women, resident aliens and foreigners, and possibly even slaves. The resident aliens and foreigners, and possibly the slaves, worshipped non-Greek gods. Yet for the Panathenaia they would venerate the Greek gods in accordance with Greek ancestral traditions.

Xenophon, known for his histories of the fourth century BCE, wrote about his experiences as the leader of ten thousand Greek mercenaries who fought their way back to Greece. These mercenaries were drawn from numerous Greek cities, and despite having differing religious beliefs and practices, found common ground.

The lesson is that it is important to conform to public religious practices for the sake of fostering a sense of community. Personal religious practices can be performed privately.

The Ancient Greek Mindset
The Greeks were expected to demonstrate piety (eusebeia), which meant doing the right thing with respect to the gods, their parents, their city, and the deceased. Regarding the gods, it was important to observe all the public festivals as well as those in the home.

The nature of the relationship between the Greeks and their deities was one of reciprocal favor (charis), where votive gifts were given in the hope of gratitude. Votive offerings took the form of foodstuffs, flowers, branches, shells, gold implements, and clay images of offerings. The most widespread offering was a granule of frankincense strewn in the flames. A libation (spondê) would be poured to the gods so as to request their protection. Libations would normally be one or more of the following: wine, honey, olive oil, milk, and water.

The Greeks believed in avoiding pollution (miasma) whenever possible, which was caused, in increasing order of severity by, having sex, giving birth, coming into contact with the dead, and murder. While there were specialists available to advise on purification techniques, these normally involved bathing, salt water, fire, sulphur, and blood sacrifice. As an added precaution against pollution, hands would be washed in pure water (chernips) poured from a jug prior to entering a sanctuary.

Public Religion
Male deities were normally served by priests, while female deities were normally served by priestesses. As stated previously, there was no formal training or ordination, but priests and priestesses had to be free of deformities or disabilities. Many priests and priestesses only worked part-time, and were given annual appointments. Some of the older cults, however, were held for life by members of a particular noble kin group/genos.

The central aspect of public religion was the sacrifice, which was a festivity for the whole community. Participants bathed, dressed in clean clothing, and wore twig garlands on their heads. A procession formed, which led the chosen animal to an altar for the blood sacrifice (thusia). A small portion of thigh meat rolled in fat was thrown into the fire for the deity, while the rest was distributed amongst the participants. Meat was a luxury item that many could not afford, and so the blood sacrifice would bring the community together and ensure that all received a fair portion, whilst demonstrating piety.

By way of contrast to the practice of blood sacrifice, the philosopher Porphyry (c 234 – c 305 CE) told the story of the most famous oracle in Greece, the Delphic oracle, singling out a poor man called Klearchos as the most pious of his time. All his sacrifices were bloodless, consisting of incense, barley-cakes, wheat-cakes, and first fruits. Klearchos, however, was careful to attend every single public festival and performed all his domestic observances.

Household Religion
Ancient Greek country homes were free-standing and typically consisted of a single large room, with a porch on one side and a hearth in its midst. They were surrounded by a courtyard, which in turn was surrounded by a wall or fence. In cities, a lack of space caused this design to be modified with houses adjoining, fences disappearing, and courtyards shrinking.

The hearth was the source of warmth and the place for cooking within the house. It was also the center of the house cult. The main household deities were honored with simple, meal-based offerings. Worship at the household shrines was organized by the head of the household, probably on a daily basis, and the entire household (including slaves) participated.

Reviving Ancient Greek Religion
Since the 1990s, there has been a revival of ancient Greek religious practices. While much of this revival has occurred in Greece, it is rapidly emerging throughout the rest of the world. There is no word in the ancient Greek language for religion, probably due to it being seamlessly integrated into everyday life. As a result, there is no general consensus as to what the current revival should be called. Greek Reconstructionists, for wont of a more appropriate term, refer to their tradition as Hellenismos, Hellenism, the Hellenic Tradition, the Hellenic Religion, and Hellenic Polytheism. Some Greek Reconstructionists, focusing on the twelve deities from Mount Olympus, refer to their tradition as either Dodekatheism (which is Greek for "twelve deities") or Olympianism. My preference is to use the term Hellenismos. Given the diversity within Greek religious practices geographically and over time, combined with subjectivity inherent within the process of reconstruction, it is not surprising that there are differing viewpoints as to exactly what form Hellenismos should take. Additionally, some Reconstructionists choose to limit themselves to the twelve Olympians, and ignore the numerous non-Olympian deities, daimones, and heroes.

Suggestions for the Practice of Ancient Greek Religion (Hellenismos)
Ancient Greek religion was characterized by appeals to ancient tradition and was simple in practice. There were no special robes that needed to be worn for public rituals, just clean, everyday clothing. Ensure you shower first and then rinse your hands with bottled spring water. For household rituals a quick rinse of the hands will probably suffice.

The modern equivalent of the hearth is the fireplace. If you don't have a fireplace, find a substitute in your home. This could be a barbeque in the backyard to burn small offerings of incense, food, and libations. Libations can also be poured onto the ground.

Apartment dwellers have to be more creative and can possibly improvise with a planter pot filled with dirt in which to bury food and pour out libations. The contents can then be periodically taken to a garden and the planter can be refilled with dirt.

Prayers to the gods taken from Homers' or Hesiods' writings are very appropriate, as are the Orphic and Homeric Hymns (these are written in a Homeric style, but postdate Homer's writings by several centuries). You can also make up your own prayers, by either praying from your heart or using a formula approach. Obviously, the prayer has to be in keeping with the nature of the deity being called.

While each Greek city had its own calendar, the most comprehensive surviving calendar is the so-called Attic calendar (the Athenian calendar). There is also a lot of online information about it that will enable you to know which Greek deity, daimon, or hero should be venerated on which day, should you choose to deeply explore the wonders of Hellenismos.

Hellenismos: Practicing Greek Polytheism Today aims to inspire readers to rediscover the world of the ancient Greeks through practicing their religion so as to make contact with their deities and then forge a personal relationship with them. Readers are equipped with the knowledge that the average person had at the time regarding history and mythology. They are then eased into daily, monthly, and yearly ritual observances.

Bowra, C M. The Greek Experience. New York: A Mentor Book, 1964.
Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd, 2000.
Garland, Robert. Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Garland, Robert. Religion and the Greeks. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1998.
Jones, Prudence & Pennick, Nigel. A History of Pagan Europe. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Mierzwicki, Tony. Hellenismos: Practicing Greek Polytheism Today. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2018.
Mikalson, Jon D. Athenian Popular Religion. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1983.
Nilsson, Martin P. A History of Greek Religion. New York: W W Norton & Company Inc, 1964.
Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Folk Religion. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961. Price, Simon. Religions of the Ancient Greeks. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Winter, Sarah Kate Istra. Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored. North Charleston: CreateSpace, 2008.
Zaidman, Louise Bruit & Pantel, Pauline Schmitt. Religion in the Ancient Greek City. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

About Tony Mierzwicki

Tony Mierzwicki (California) developed a fascination for ancient religions, which led him to immerse himself in the study of ceremonial magick. He has presented workshops and rituals recreating ancient magical and religious ...

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