Who Is Plethon?
George Gemistos (c.1355–1452) was the most important Platonic philosopher of his time, but he had a secret: although he lived in the heart of medieval Christendom, he was practicing a Pagan religion that worshiped the ancient Greek gods at a time when such practices were punished with cruel torture and death. There were rumors of his Paganism during his life; for example, he had adopted the Pagan name "Plethon," and was an outspoken advocate of Platonism, which was considered a threat to Christianity. The monks on Mount Athos would spit whenever Plato's name was mentioned, as though he were the devil. According to a Christian enemy, Plethon had once remarked that in the future there would be one universal religion, and when asked whether it would be Christ's or Mohammad's, Plethon replied, "Neither, but one not differing from Paganism." There were also rumors of a secret Pagan brotherhood in Mistra, a small Greek city near the site of ancient Sparta, where Plethon lived and taught later in his life; Mistra was considered a hotbed of dangerous "free thinking."
Nevertheless, Plethon was widely respected as a philosopher and advisor to the Byzantine rulers, and he had many ideas for the preservation and revitalization of Western civilization. He reawakened interest in Platonism in western Europe, which helped to launch the Renaissance and to inspire such Renaissance occultists and mages as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Cornelius Agrippa.
The rumors of Plethon's Paganism were confirmed after he died in 1452, when his Book of Laws was discovered. This book contained a complete Pagan polytheist theology grounded in Platonism, with a comprehensive system of rituals, invocations, hymns, and even a sacred calendar to organize the holy days. It also included legislative principles for organizing a community based on this Pagan religion and Platonic philosophy. Although Plethon's followers attempted to obtain the book, it fell into the hands of George Scholarios, the future Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian Church, who long suspected Plethon of Paganism. He burned the book, but saved enough, as he said, to prove Plethon's "crime," and so to justify his destructive act. Only about one-third of the book survives, but it is fortunately the part that is most useful for those of us today who want to practice Plethon's religion. But why should we?
Plethon was a Platonist philosopher, and so I should say a few words about Platonism, which was founded by Plato (c.428–347 BCE). Of course the ancient Greeks had worshiped the gods according to their traditions for millennia before the first philosophers came along, seeking to understand the gods better and to teach people how to live better through this understanding. All the ancient philosophers did this, but especially the Platonists, who by the sixth century CE had developed the most detailed and sophisticated Pagan theology in the West. They accomplished this by a combination of philosophical analysis and theurgy (ritual invocation and evocation), by which they were able to interact directly with the gods. Unfortunately Christian theologians saw Platonism as a serious threat to the growing hegemony of Christianity, and in 529 CE the Christian emperor Justinian closed all the Pagan schools; Pagan theology and worship had to go underground.
Platonists investigate the eternal Ideas or Forms as the ultimate cause of everything in the universe, for the Forms give structure and order to the world around us. These Forms exist in a Platonic realm outside of time and space, which seems mysterious, but numbers are a good example. The numbers 1, 2, 3, etc. exist eternally, independently of whether anyone has ever thought of them, and relations among them, such as 1 + 2 = 3, are eternally true. Moreover, numbers govern many processes in our universe. According to Platonists, the gods are also eternally existing Platonic Forms.
Based on the work of earlier Platonic philosophers, Plethon was able to describe the various orders and ranks of gods. In accordance with ancient Greek tradition, he called the highest god Zeus and, like other Platonists, considered him the Good Itself. Zeus is the chief over the supercelestial gods, who are the gods who exist outside of time and space, like other Platonic Forms, but are ultimately responsible for creating the things that are in space and time: our world. There are two ranks of supercelestial gods: the gods of Olympus and the gods of Tartarus, also called Titans. The Olympians create beings that are everlasting, although they exist in space and time; these are the celestial gods of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars, and also the terrestrial daimons. The Titans, with the help of the celestial gods, produce mortal beings here on earth. Plethon explains that all daimons are beneficial, and that they assist the gods in their care for the cosmos. Moreover, since the world is an emanation of Zeus and the other gods, who are good, the world is fundamentally good. Here is a summary of the gods:
We humans are unique in that we have an immortal soul, given to use by the Olympian god Pluto, and a mortal body, given to us by the Tartarean goddess Kore or Persephone, his queen, for this earth is the "underworld" ruled by these gods. Thus humans fulfill an essential and unique function in the cosmos by uniting its immortal and mortal realms.
Plethon determined the wheel of the year by the Sun and Moon, who are gods, and used it to organize the holy days. The month is determined by the Moon and begins with the new moon; the year is determined by the Sun and begins with the new moon following the winter solstice. Because there is not a whole number of lunar months in a solar year, there are either twelve or thirteen months in each year.
Plethon provides rituals for every day, with morning, afternoon, and evening worship services, including ritual gestures, invocations, and hymns, but there are also special rituals for the various holy days in his calendar. The month is divided into four seven-day weeks, each of which ends in a holy day, as follows:
Therefore, the monthly rituals address all the beings with immortal souls, from the highest, Zeus, to the lowest, human beings.
Plethon's sacred year is divided into four quarters, but they don't correspond exactly with the solstices and equinoxes, because the year begins with the new moon following the winter solstice; this is his way of solving the problem of having a calendar that obeys both the Sun and Moon. The annual celebrations are as follows:
Thus, the annual celebrations cycle through all beings from the highest, Zeus, to the lowest, us.
This may seem like a lot, and it can be, but Plethon makes it clear that we do not need to perform all the rituals he provides, and he gives suggestions for making practical alterations (as I do also in my book, Secret Texts of Hellentic Polytheism). The goal is to help us live our lives in better relation to the gods, not to take over our lives. In the remainder of this article I will explain two of Plethon's rituals, which you can include in your own practice.
Threefold Adoration Ritual
The Threefold Adoration is a ritual that Plethon includes in all of his ceremonies; it is quite simple and effective, and goes like this:
Normally the Threefold Adoration would be part of morning, afternoon, and evening rituals, but you can perform it on its own at those times, or if this is too much, then once a day. The kneeling and bowing may be new to you, but it has precedents in ancient Greek ritual and it is good for grounding your practice in the earth. By the way, Plethon says that if kneeling is difficult for you, then you may approximate the gestures in any way convenient.
A Hymn to Chant
Plethon provides 27 hymns or chants for various ritual purposes, including for the days of the week, for each lunar month, and for the various holy days within the month and the wheel of the year. All of them are exactly nine verses in length. Here is an example:
Second Perennial Hymn, To the Gods
O noble children of All-father, Being, Zeus,
you govern us with justice under his command.
To follow you for guidance, let us never fail,
obeying laws both right and dear to you,
as best we can, the only laws to rule us well.
And you, O gods, direct us, straightening our minds,
which you have made with nature similar to yours.
And grant to us, O gods, good order in our lives,
but most of all, with you to celebrate great Zeus.
You can recite or chant this hymn after you perform the Threefold Adoration.
I hope this article has given you a small taste of Plethon's Pagan religion. It is a complete system, based in ancient Greek Paganism and Platonic philosophy, with a complete system of rituals, suitable for individuals and groups, for every day around the wheel of the year. Two-thirds of his book was destroyed, but we can reconstruct much what has been lost from his other writings and his sources. My new book, The Secret Texts of Hellenic Polytheism: A Practical Guide to the Restored Pagan Religion of George Gemistos Plethon, makes this all ready to use: I explain all his rituals and ideas about the gods, and I provide the first complete English translation of the surviving parts of The Book of Laws as well as reconstructions of the material that was burned. Although written six hundred years ago, it provides a perfectly modern Pagan theology and a practical system for worshiping the gods.