Baring the Aegis: Hellenismos
Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.
Reader question: community worship?
Yesterday, I got a wonderful e-mail from a reader of Baring the Aegis, who came here through the Pagan Blog Project. Many who participate in the project are some form of Wiccan or witch--the writer herself included. The writer told me about reading this blog with only a Wiccan mindset to rely upon, and asked me the following question:
Because I write with Hellenists in mind, I realize I don't often make comparissons between Hellenismos and other religions or Traditions. Her questions are therefor absolutely logical. For those of you who also came here from a non-Hellenistic, or non-Recon path, I wanted to share my answer to her with you, just to see if I can clear up some confusion.
It's important to differentiate between household religion and state religion when looking at ancient Hellas and modern day Hellenismos. The two were virtually inseparable in ancient Hellas, but the difference has a huge impact on Hellenismos today. One thing to always keep in mind is that both household religion and state religion were practiced in groups; what differed was the size of the group and the grander of the offerings. Within household worship, it was the male head of household (based on age) who led the ritual, but every single member of the family--including mistresses and slaves, should the family unit, or oikos include them--was in attendance during rites. The male head of household, known as the kurios, led the proceedings, but through sacrifice, everyone was made part of the rites. Household worship offered the ancient Hellens a way to ask specific guidance, counsel or other assistance from the Theoi, as well as build kharis, ritual reciprocity, with the household deities, seeing as They were the ones who looked out for the family.
State worship was led by the Archōn Basileus, the magistrate in charge of religious affaires. He was assisted by the priest(s) or priestess(es) of the Theos or Theia. The priests took care of the practical side of the rites, like getting the fires started, preparing the ritual tools, baking sacrificial cakes and/or leading the animal(s) who would be sacrificed to the temple, as well as killing and butchering them. Everyone who was allowed to attend these rites--that differed per festival--was present for them, as it was a massive, state funded, boost of kharis for the city-state as well as everyone who attended. Whoever attended was made part of the ritual by taking part in ritual cleansing, chanting, making music, dancing, the tossing of barely groats, or presenting the Theoi in question with other sacrifices. They also ate of the meat from the animal that was sacrificed, and as such, the whole of society was included in a state rite.
While the two were invariably linked in ancient times, there was a difference between the calendar of the Mên kata Theion, the 'sacred month', and the city-state's festival calendar. The events on the festival calendar--which were hosted by the city, and included anyone who was allowed to participate--returned yearly, or sometimes every two, four or five years. The events on the Mên kata Theion were much smaller in scale, were practiced per oikos, and returned every single month. The festival calendar lists both, just to get a feel for them.
In modern day Hellenismos, the Mên kata Theion is observed in household worship, and the events on it are usually solitary events, as only one member of the family is usually a practitioner. By default, the practicing party, wether male or female, becomes kurios. He or she will ask for prosperity for the oikos, build kharis with the Theoi, and present problems of the non-practicing family members to the Theoi in hopes of guidance or aid. Most modern practitioners do celebrate the festival calendar in some way, but these festivals were celebrated with hundreds, sometimes thousands of people at once, and much of the practice is lost when trying to celebrate them alone. Small groups of Hellenists are springing up, often including a few oikoi, and they often have better luck recreating the feeling of communal worship.
So, yes, Hellenismos works very well in groups--in fact, that's the default. Due to the low number of practitioners, it's often not possible to practice that way, a fact I lament quite often on my blog, I'm afraid. As for a structure--if you want a modern reference, then it would be somewhere between a highly hierarchical coven and a Christian church service. There are modern practices that remind me a great deal of the festivals of ancient Hellas; Bhuthan, a landlocked state in South Asia located at the eastern end of the Himalayas practices Vajrayana Buddhism as a state religion. They are a modern example of polytheistic worship, and they practice many of the religious ceremonies the ancient Hellens practiced as well. Here is an example of a state festival where priests bring out the statue of Guru Rinpoche so it can be cleaned and cleansed. This is a practice also ascribed to the ancient Hellens, who did this once a year with most primary temple statues. Most famous is the bringing out of the wooden statue of Athena. The video shows some basics that were practiced in ancient Hellas like the chants, the burning of incense, the procession, etc.
This is the extend of my reply to this wonderful reader. I hope it offers a bit of clarity to other readers as well. If you have a question you don't want to ask in public, you can use Facebook or the gmail account 'baring.the.aegis'. I'll get back to you as soon as I can.
[Published with permission]
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