LIVING THE HELLENIC TRADITION
"...In my soul I know that those that accept the Gods by love, they shall be offered happiness." Anonymous
"...a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong--acting the part of a good man or of a bad." (Plato's Apology 28a, translated by Benjamin Jowett, 1892; found here in the 1937 Random House edition of The Dialogues of Plato Vol.1, p.411)
The Scholar's View of Hellenismos
This author has read many books concerning the ancient Greek religion and listened to numerous lectures on the subject. Although there are significant exceptions, I must say that the religion that has been presented by many scholars (not all) bears little resemblance to what I have been taught by my teachers, the teachers who actually practice Hellenismos, teachers from Greece itself. Only a couple of days past, I listened to a lecture by a scholar who presented the religion as distinctly ugly. He said that the ancient people believed that their gods were petty deities who committed heinous crimes, that these gods had absolutely no compassion for human beings, and that these gods only pay attention to mortals at the behest of what amounts to a kind of business deal. Moreover, this scholar described the typical worshiper as highly superstitious with little idea of any kind of ethics, who had concepts of deity that were primitive at best. The gods were presented as though the mythology was accepted as literally true. In later lectures, this scholar presented the early Christians as being far more reasonable. I could not help thinking to myself, "And did these early Christians believe their mythology as literally true also? Did they believe that Balaam's donkey actually started talking to him as is taught in the Old Testament, or that Jonah actually lived in the belly of a whale?" I wonder if this scholar realized how one-sided this presentation sounds to someone who actually practices Hellenismos, and further, how grossly unfair these criticisms appear knowing that this scholar must feel that he is quite safe from criticism, as the scholars generally believe that the ancient religion disappeared centuries ago and the contemporary scholar need never fear that he will confront a credible person with a different opinion.
Another lecturer described the ancient Greek religion before Platohn (Plato; Gr. Πλάτων) as "just not impressive" in comparison to the ancient religion of Israel. Yet the scholars should know better, and some actually do. To give but one example, we could briefly discuss one tiny aspect of the Ælefsinia Mystiria (Eleusinian Mysteries; Gr. Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια): the secrecy. These Mysteries were practiced for almost two-thousand years, commencing hundreds of years before Platohn was ever born. These teachings and practices were conducted and kept in complete secrecy. This secrecy alone should arouse the curiosity of any scholar. Just why would the numerous initiates of these Mysteries keep their vow of secrecy? Why did these initiates take such a commitment so very seriously that the secrets were kept for centuries, such that we still do not know their content except in the most general way? How could anyone assume that such an astonishing feat was accomplished by individuals whose inspiration for such secrecy was a religion that was "just not impressive?"
The scholars also like to point out that the philosophers of ancient Greece saw a problem in their religion. That they criticized the myths and questioned many things about Hellenismos. Did Platohn, for instance, find the ancient Greek religion defective, or was he actually pointing to a problem in the way people understood their religion? Careful examination of the dialogues will lead one closer to the second conclusion. Further, self-criticism is a sign of maturity and growth, not necessarily defect, particularly as regards to our subject. In any case, the scholars like to separate ancient philosophy from the religion. Some scholars like to generalize and say that the philosophers, with their criticisms of primitive beliefs, tended toward atheism. They are generally aware of the contribution of philosophy to history and rational thought but when confronted by a philosopher such as Proklos, they tend to dismiss his works as gibberish. Proklos is very difficult reading and it is obvious when you study him that his belief in the ancient Gods is absolute. This approach, combining immense scholarship and reason with actual belief, is not so much appreciated by scholars, who, not believing in Gods, may not wish to make the effort to actually understand what Proklos was actually saying, dismissing his writings as unintelligible. Even the Timaios of Platohn (Plato; Gr. Πλάτων) does not seem to be held in the same regard as the dialogues which do not so much imply belief in deity. And the Timaios is very difficult, so why exert so much effort on something that you personally think is nonsense. The assumption of many contemporary scholars is that religion and theism, and in particular polytheism, consists of primitive beliefs concerning reality...but we hold a different opinion.
Surely it must be true that many, if not most average people in ancient times had a somewhat simplistic view of religion. To view Hellenismos as deeper than the surface-level of the mythology may seem like an effort to resolve some type of cognitive dissonance, but in reality, transcendent meaning in ancient Greek religion is obvious from a careful study of the antique evidence and can even be surmised in a comparative examination of contemporary religion. As an example, this author is very familiar with the world of Buddhism, having spent many years studying the religion with a renowned Tibetan teacher, as well as having read a great number of books on the subject, from the Dhammapada to The Life of Milarepa. If you study the common people of many countries in Buddhist Asia, you will find that their understanding of Buddhism is often rudimentary and that they may have somewhat simplistic views of its beliefs and practices, reducing it to a simple type of theism more common with polytheistic religions. Western scholars of Buddhism know that there is a difference between what the common people believe and what the genuine teachers believe, and what is presented in the books handed down from the tradition since the time of the Buddha. One of the principle reasons the scholars must admit that there is substantial legitimacy to Buddhism is that they will confront living representatives of the tradition who will not allow the scholars to diminish their religion. Before the 20th century, books were sometimes not so kind to Buddhism, describing the religion as a type of negativism. The scholars did not have such easy access to living teachers at that time nor did the Buddhist teachers have such easy access to Western students, nor did Buddhist teachers have the opportunity to publicly disagree with scholastic opinion. In our contemporary world, there are Buddhist teachers everywhere as well as students who have direct access to their teaching. Criticism of the religion cannot escape the eyes of practicing Buddhists who not only can read the texts but can learn how these texts are interpreted by living representative of the religion. Consequently, there are now many Western scholars who have a much more nuanced and realistic idea of genuine Buddhism. But this is not so easy with Hellenismos. The great teachers in Greece do not feel quite so free to teach publicly. And there have been many, many centuries in which Hellenismos was interpreted by Christian scholars convinced of the superiority of their own tradition and who would not accept any belief other than their own as having any significant legitimacy. This legacy has not entirely disappeared. But things have been changing, albeit slowly. It is rare that a Greek perspective on ancient Greek religion is even noted. Perhaps this is due in part to the isolating effect of the rejection of the Reuchlinian method of pronunciation of ancient Greek in universities outside the country. But there are many reasons.
A Different View
So if you have read that the ancient Greek religion is all about propitiating Gods and obtaining their favor, burning incense and engaging in all kinds of exotic ceremonies, if you believe you can learn the secrets of how to read omens from the entrails of birds and by other means, if you wish to learn witchcraft or read horoscopes, or enjoy the freedom of Bacchic rituals or sexual promiscuity, if you think that Hellenismos is a Greek form of shamanism......all these things and more: you will find none of this here. If you complain and say that all of these things can be found in the ancient literature, we will not disagree. Virtually all human activities were found in the ancient world, both bad and good, both shallow and deep.
It is certainly true that a superficial popular religion existed. Nonetheless, in ancient times there were those who had a more profound understanding. In particular, we are interested in the traditions passed down by the teacher who the Greeks call The Great Reformer or The Theologian: Orphefs (Orpheus; Gr. Ὀρφεύς). Orphefs taught a cosmology which, when properly understood, presents a natural and logical explanation of being and becoming. It is primarily the lineage of this teacher that we use as our inspiration, as have many in antiquity. Orphefs is regarded as the founder of all Mystiria (Mysteries; Gr. Μυστήρια). This term Mystiria is easily misunderstood; it requires a great conversation, but for the present essay it is sufficient to know that the Mysteries are, quite simply, the deeper meaning of our religion, the deeper meaning of Hellenismos. What is outside of the Mysteries is the superficial, the surface level of the religion.
This Hellenic journey is based on experience, reason, and practice. We have formal rituals and ceremony (thriskia or religion), but we also act in the world. Hellenismos is a path...a spiritual journey, a progression that has a goal. That goal is sacred. The way we live our life determines our relationship to the Hellenic path. The genuine spiritual journey requires much more than simply burning incense and having pleasant thoughts. We talk of the Hellenic soul, the soul of someone who is on a committed journey leading to great aræti (arete; Gr. ἀρετή), great virtue. The genuine path of Hellenismos is concerned only with aræti, not so much with practices or even beliefs. This position is in stark contrast to what is commonly thought, that Hellenismos is said to be more concerned with orthopraxy (correct practice: orthopraxis; Gr. ὀρθοπραξις) over orthodoxy (correct belief: orthothoxia or orthodoxia; Gr.ορθοδοξία). This author was taught another way, that the genuine Hellenismos is only concerned with the progress of the soul, practices and beliefs are secondary.
The Four Pillars of Hellenismos
We find ourselves standing before this religion, this great tradition, but how do we engage ourselves in it? What is the approach? How do we proceed? There are endless means of great skill from which we can progress forward, but they generally fall into four categories. These activities are deeply interconnected, interwoven into one another:
Akoí (Akoe; Gr. Ἀκοή; pronounced: ah-koh-EE) Akoí means "things heard;" it is the tradition. By means of Akoí we learn the stories of the Gods, the rituals, the practices of our religion, and the philosophical viewpoints. Because of our inspiration and an ability to perceive things of beauty, we suspect the validity of Hellenismos. Our intuition tells us that there is great wisdom to be found here. Because of this, we begin with a simple trust in the tradition; we learn all the mythology and practices with some confidence in our teachers. This does not mean that we blindly believe, but rather that we accept these things as part of our heritage and learn them and allow ourselves to be influenced by their richness.
At some point, these things, these "things heard," like everything in our experience, must come under the eye of Philosophia (see below). Belief, which in Greek is referred to with the term pistis (Gr. πίστις), is subjective conviction. It is not genuine knowledge, for which we use a different word: æpistimi (Gr. ἐπιστήμη). Belief, as taught by Platohn (Plato; Gr. Πλάτων), is inferior. Nonetheless, we must begin somewhere; when we come to our religion, particularly at this beginning, we simply listen and learn the tradition...for a very long time. We study the mythology, the ancient literature, Omiros (Homer; Gr. Ὅμηρος), Platohn, Proklos (Proclus; Gr. Πρόκλος), etc., and we listen to our teachers.
All the pages of this website fall into this category of Akoí, "things heard;" no text can give you wisdom, no text can cause your mind to go through the necessary questioning that is involved with Philosophia, no text can give you virtue, no text can deliver your prayers to Gods. Akoí, the tradition, provides hints and suggestions; it is like a finger pointing in a direction; we must do the actual work ourselves, with the help of the Gods of course, but we must work to achieve this.
2. Thæouryia (Theurgy; Gr. θεουργία) Thæouryia is a much misunderstood term. Genuine Thæouryia has nothing whatsoever to do with any ordinary view of "magic" or the use of exotic incantations and so forth. Thæouryia is, simply, communication with Deity through ritual. If one has been drawn to the Gods, we have perceived something of great beauty. This beauty attracts us. This attraction, called in Greek Ærohs (Eros; Gr. Ἔρως), is of great significance; it is a divine force. The Gods feel our Ærohs and they have an immediate reaction. This interaction between Gods and mortals, when it occurs in a formal setting, is called Thæouryia, communion with the Gods in ritual. Does this mean that we cannot interact with Gods spontaneously, without formal ritual? Of course not, we can approach the Gods as our heart drives us, but as a practice when we call upon the Gods, we call this Thæouryia.
3. Philosophia (Philosophy; Gr. Φιλοσοφία) In the deeper Hellenismos, we attempt to practice true philosophy, but what is true philosophy? The etymology of the word is: φιλο (love) + σοφία (wisdom), so, philosophy is the love of wisdom. In general, what we are talking about here is the dialectic of Sohkratis (Socrates; Gr. Σωκράτης). We are not talking about philosophy which attempts to justify one's position, but rather we are speaking of philosophy which endeavors to discover truth and wisdom. Much ancient Hellenic philosophy after Sohkratis was involved with expanding, explaining, and justifying apparent conclusions of Sohkratis and Platohn (Plato; Πλάτων), topics such as the Forms and the Good. These are important topics but this is not the philosophy we are advocating. In Hellenismos we are very interested in what happens before conclusions, if conclusions are even possible, because one must experience for oneself and not simply understand things theoretically. In other words, when you have an existing belief or idea and your philosophy is to defend that idea rather than to uncover the actual truth concerning any particular idea, we question such philosophy.
As for philosophy beyond antiquity, the great bulk of this consists of Christian examination of the meaning of their own religion, or examination of the Kosmos with the assumption of the supremacy of their belief. Indeed, the Christian philosophers attempted to prove the existence of their one god and create a theology around this idea, even using the theories of Platohn (Plato; Gr. Πλάτων) to assist them. But the conclusion is always an affirmation of their beliefs, at least as concerns the philosophy which extends from antiquity until, roughly, the Enlightenment. This author admits that this summary is not entirely fair, but generally, this is the case. Consequently, such intellectual activity, whether pagan or Christian, has little to do with this "raw" philosophy of the actual Sohkratis which is far more challenging and genuine. Hence, in this unadulterated, pristine philosophy, we attempt to expose the ego, that which takes sides and skews arguments in favor of points of view rather than actual perception of reality. This, of course, is a rather impossible task, but progress is incremental. We try, stumble, fall, get up again, and try once more, on a daily, even moment-to-moment basis. This is why we say that there is that which is taught on the one hand, the tradition (Akoí), and actual experience of reality on the other, how well we understand and function in the Kosmos. From this point of view, most of philosophy, even pagan philosophy, really falls into the first category above, that of Akoí, "things heard."
4. Aræti (Arete; Gr. Ἀρετή) The ultimate goal of the higher Hellenismos is the achievement of Aræti, genuine virtue. Aræti is another term having common definitions which are not applicable; we are not at all talking about the "pursuit of glory," as many people seem to define the word. This is a vast subject, but we need an initial definition, a working definition. The achievement of Aræti is putting one's own ambitions aside in favor of those which reflect the Natural Laws. Thus, the acquisition of Aræti necessarily involves the development of conscience and absolute perspective in relationship to one's place in the Kosmos, and putting that realization into action. The realization of personal Aræti is a function of Progress, the progress of the soul.
Reading books and visiting websites can be very helpful for study, but ultimately you need actual human contact to properly learn the Hellenic tradition. You need to look into the eyes of flesh-and-blood people who love and worship the Gods. You need to hear their voices, to eat food with them, to hear their stories. Without contact with real people, it will be much more difficult to take this tradition from the realm of fantasy into reality. Take a bold step and try to mingle with those who are putting this philosophy into action. Furthermore, the most critical aspects of this teaching are not permitted to be transmitted publicly; you will not learn the most important things of Hellenismos from books.
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PLEASE NOTE: Throughout the pages of this Glossary, you will find fascinating stories about our Gods. These narratives are known as mythology, the traditional stories of the Gods and Heroes. While these tales are great mystical vehicles containing transcendent truth, they are symbolic and should not be taken literally. A literal reading will frequently yield an erroneous result. The meaning of the myths is concealed in code. To understand them requires a key. For instance, when a God kills someone, this usually means a transformation of the soul to a higher level. Similarly, sexual union with a God is a transformation.
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