Why Ancient Greek Religion?
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 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 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.
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.
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
Suggestions for the Practice of Ancient Greek Religion (Hellenismos)
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.
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 ...