Pagan Paths

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.

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Vengeance in ancient Hellas

If you were a citizen of ancient Hellas, you strove for honor. It was earned through hard work, through arete, through excelling in combat (usually for men), athletics (men and women), science (mostly men, some women) and/or exacting vengeance upon those who wronged you, your family, or your country/city state.

We will look at large scale war--as described in the Iliad--first. Failure to bring a foe to justice was truly dishonorable to the ancient Hellens. Just the thought of leaving Troy without victory after nine years was impossible to bear for the Hellenic warriors who had come all this way.

"Doesn’t a sailor in his benched ship fret, when the winter gales and roaring seas keep him from wife and home for even a month; while we are still held here after nine long years? Small blame then to you Achaeans, impatient by your beaked ships, yet how shameful it would be after this to return empty-handed! My friends endure a little longer, so we may know the truth of Calchas’ prophecy."
 
The entire Trojan war is based upon honor and vengeance. The Trojans stole Helen away and bringing her back was unavoidable. To make it worth while, however, the grievance to every single man and the family he left behind had to be avenged, doubly so for those who stayed behind on the battlefield. As Nestor says:
 
"So no scrambling for home till each has slept with a Trojan woman, as reward for the pain and toil Helen brings him. If any man proves anxious to be gone, let him lay hands on his black benched ship, and meet his fated death before the others."
 
To stay with Hómēros; the link between honor and vengeance applies not just to large-scale wars, but also--or even more so--to the home. Take Odysseus' homecoming for example. Before he even reveals himself to his grieving wife, he plots to kill all her suitors. When he draws sword upon the suitors, he shouts:
 
"You dogs! You thought I’d never return from the land of Troy, so you laid waste my house, forced my maids, and wooed my wife in secret though I was still alive, without fearing the gods who rule the wide sky, or that mortal vengeance would find you. Now the net of fate is thrown over you all."
 
Before he can reclaim his wife, Odysseus must redeem himself in front of the men who have dishonored his oikos and all that is tied to it. By killing the suitors, Odysseus reclaims his honor before his son, his wife, his serfs, his deceased family line, everyone in Ithaca he rules over, and anyone who will ever hear his story.
 
Several  daemons and Theoi preside over vengeance, either from mortal upon mortal, or from the Theoi upon mortals. The latter is firmly the domain of Nemesis (Νέμεσις). Nemesis destroys those who commit hubris. She takes from those who have too much. She crushes those who boast about skill, power or items they do not possess. She's a powerful Goddess, feared by mortals, respected by the Deathless Ones.
 
As for the former: the first are the Erinyes (Ερινυες). Although there are other stories about Their birth, the most common is the one where these three chthonic deities were born from Gaea, from the blood of Ouranos, as Kronos cut off His testicles and threw them over His shoulder, into the ocean. According to ancient Roman poet Virgil, They are three sisters: Alecto ('the angry'), Megaera ('the grudging') and Tisiphone ('the avenger'). They can be petitioned by victims--or family of victims--of homicide, unfilial conduct, crimes against the gods, perjury and crimes committed by a child upon their parent(s). They are famous for continuing their unrelenting punishments until the perpetrator shows remorse. Due to their ability to enter and leave the Underworld at will, they will even continue Their punishment after the perpetrator is dead.

Then there is also the daemon Alastôr (Αλαστωρ), daemon of family blood feuds and the inflicton of vengeance upon a new generation for the crimes of their fathers. Where the Erinyes go after the perpetrator of the crime, Alastôr goes after the family of the perpetrator. In this regard, he is close to an epithet of a very familiar Theos: Zeus.

Zeus Meilichios (Ζεύς Μειλίχιος) is a chthonic epithet of Zeus, who received only nighttime sacrifices, and only by way of a holocaustos. Zeus seems to have adopted the Meilichios epithet from an older chthonic serpent daemon or Theos. He is--like the Erinyes and Alastôr--an avenger of blood feuds between families. Yet, unlike the others, Zeus Meilichios is also a purifier. When someone avenged the murder of a family member by killing the killer--or even someone else from that family line--they could petition Zeus Meilichios with a holocaustos of sheep (although another four-legged creature would also suffice) and be cleansed of miasma caused by this murder. As a personal note, I would say that appeasing Zeus Meilichios would also get the Erinyes and/or Alastôr off of your back.

The vendettas Zeus Meilichios presided over were common in Homeric Hellas; like scholar John Gwyn Griffiths has stated: "Vendetta is a war, just as war is an indefinite series of vendettas; and such acts of vengeance are sanctioned by the gods". In a society where family matters often overruled the law, or where local law was set by local communities, it's understandable that taking vengeance into one's own hands makes sense. And so, the closest male relative to the murdered family member took it upon himself to reclaim the honor of the slain family member. This was usually the brother of the deceased, or their son.

How often this act was actually performed is unknown. If one counts the victims of war amongst those who died because of blood feuds, the number is huge; the Hellens fought a huge amount of wars. My gut instinct says that this practice was prevalent in ancient Hellas, and was most likely executed more often than we would like to accept in our current law-regulated society.

As I have said before: reconstruction of a religion is exactly that: reconstruction of a religion, not the full culture in which that religion was placed. This is not a call for Hellenics to go about murdering people (obviously!). Yet, the Erinyes and/or Alastôr can still be petitioned when seeking (judicial) vengeance upon someone who has wronged you or your family. The downfall of someone else is not a pretty thing to wish for, but there can still be situations in which it is called for--the decision to kill someone was most likely not taken lightly either--and Zeus Meilichios can still be petitioned to get rid of the miasma of the act of said vengeance.

Vengeance has become an ugly word. I'm not a vengeful person myself, and following the Rule of Three for nearly twelve years didn't help that any. Yet, in ancient Hellas, vengeance was seen as justice served. It was a punishment for a crime committed. It was serious business and was presided over by Theoi and daemons who were not to be messed with. They still aren't. I have spoken about wishing things for yourself, and how that is perfectly alright within Hellenismos. Sometimes, we wish for dark things, and that's also alright.

Image credit: Nemesis, Zeus Meilichios
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Elani Temperance is a twenty-seven year old woman, who lives with her partner in The Netherlands. She has been Pagan for a little over twelve years and has explored Neo-Wicca, Technopaganism, Hedge Witchery and Eclectic Religious Witchcraft before progressing to Hellenismos. Although her home practice is fully Hellenic, she has an online Neo-Pagan magazine called 'Little Witch magazine' (www.littlewitchmagazine.com) in which she and several co-writers try to cover the whole gamut of Neo-Paganism. Baring the Aegis is also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BaringTheAegis

Comments

  • Sophie Gale
    Sophie Gale Sunday, 04 November 2012

    This post comes at a good time. I've been thinking about blogging about our Pagan history. A couple of years ago, I came across a book called Irish Jesus, Roman Jesus. I was surprised to learn that the Galatians, who have their own chapter in the New Testament, were Celts--very early converts to Christianity. Why, I wondered, did they embrace this new religion? And the answer? They were sick to death of headhunting, blood-feuds, and tribalism. They were looking for a way past the constrictions of family loyalty, honor and vengeance.

    In the last two months I've read The World of Odysseus by M. I. Finley, The Great Transformation: The Beginnings of Our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong, and Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. And by golly, it looks like the narrator at the beginning of Xena had it almost right: in a world of warlords and kings, the people cried out for a hero...but it wasn't Xena. From Greece to China, that hero turned out to be Krishna, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates, and finally Jesus and Mohammed.

    By the middle of the fifth century BCE, the Erinyes were becoming the Eumenides. Aeschylus, in his play The Eumenides, has Athena extol reason and the rule of law. Don't be glossing over vengeance; don't go all fluffy and say it's okay "to wish for dark things." Honor and vengeance were sucking the life out of Greek society and people were relieved to put them away.

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Sunday, 04 November 2012

    That depends on the time period, but I get the sentiment. It's a rough way to live, and the eye-for-an-eye mentality largely existed because there was no govenmentally organised vengeance system like we have today (because that's what the judicial system is). 'The Eumenides' hints at a need for this system, but it most certainly was not wide-spread. Also, I'm not saying that the ancient Hellens weren't sick of it, but Christianity only really took off after their reign had ended. Jesus wasn't a savior of some kind for these people. It's an interesting viewpoint, though, and I thank you for adding it.

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