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EXPERIENCING GODS IN ANCIENT GREEK RELIGION
ATHEISM AND BELIEF
FEELING AND SENSATION

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To more fully understand this page, please visit this link: The Materialism of Orphism.

Personal and Impersonal Gods

Ællinismόs (Hellenismos; Gr. Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion, is the worship of many Gods. How charming and fantastic are the stories which whisper impressions of their character! Mighty Zeus reigns forever alongside beautiful Hera, and hosts and hosts of deities flank them in a magnificent hierarchy. It all seems so glorious, such that we would like to believe it all, yet it would seem that a rational person must relegate these stories to the realm of fantasy. Are the Gods real? These are ancient stories from a religion whose season, we are assured, has expired. Yet the stories persist in our literature and culture; they are compelling and it is not so easy to completely dismiss them. But how are we to interpret this literature and how should we understand the Gods it speaks of?

The deepest and most profound understanding of Ællinismόs is found in what are called the Mystíria (Mysteries; Gr. Μυστήρια). The Mysteries speak of personal Gods. This means that the stories of our religion reflect something eminently real, but what exactly does this mean? 

The tradition holds that there are various classes of deity. Some of these deities are impersonal, i.e. without consciousness. For instance, the ideas of great majesty are divine, but devoid of sensibility. Some examples of these are Providence (Τύχη), Law (Νόμος), the Four Boniform (Cardinal) Virtues, being Courage (Ἀνδρεία), Temperance (Σωφροσύνη), Justice (Δικαιοσύνη) and Wisdom (Σοφία), and many others. Furthermore, there are other types of impersonal deities, but to innumerate them here is not necessary.

The personal deities, on the other hand, are sentient beings with consciousness. As outrageous as it may seem, the tradition tells us that they have sensibility. They are living beings who have awareness, and they can act and respond. Examples of such personal deities would be the Olympian Gods Apóllohn (Ἀπόλλων), Ártæmis (Ἄρτεμις), Athiná (Ἀθηνᾶ), and Poseidóhn (Ποσειδῶν), etc. And there are hosts of other deities who share this characteristic. The personal deities can "hear your prayers," as explained by the teachers of our religion.

Atheism and Belief

There are many people who cannot accept any belief in personal Gods. This is atheism. Such individuals do not admit the existence of God as having any validity, and the innumerable deities of the polytheistic religions would be thought of as even more preposterous. Theism of any kind is relegated to the domain of primitive beliefs concerning reality. Buddhists prefer the term non-theism because they do not have the aggression associated with many atheists in the West. Buddhists arrive at the conclusion of non-belief through the use of reason. In the ancient period of Europe, while it would seem that most people believed in the Gods, there were also educated people who denied their existence, some of whom wrote treatises expounding their views. 

Then there are individuals who are suspicious that there may possibly be a personal God or Gods, yet they are not certain. This is agnosticism. Often agnostics are quite friendly in their position. Many of them would prefer to believe, but their integrity prohibits them from doing so. Agnosticism implies a type of openness, a willingness to admit that one is uncertain.

And, finally, there are people who do believe in personal Gods. These people are often viewed with contempt by atheists who cannot fathom how a reasonable person can accept something which, to them, appears absurd and devoid of evidence. How do such people come to believe in Gods? Is it through some kind of logic, or is it something else? Obviously, if you are born into a family which practices religion, you may be inclined to accept the beliefs of your parents. However, in the modern practice of Ællinismόs most participants do not come from families who believe in the ancient Gods, yet somehow they become convinced of something which was not taught to them by their parents, parents who are often hostile to these beliefs. Yet by some means there are people who come to believe in the ancient Gods as personal deities with consciousness. Are they foolish, naïve, or perhaps overly imaginative and romantic people, who prefer a fantasy to the often bitter reality of our modern world?

It is the opinion of this author, who spent most of his life agnostic, that you cannot rationally prove the existence of Gods, nonetheless, there have been many noble attempts to do so. One of the best can be found in book ten of The Laws (Νόμοι) of Plátohn (Plato; Gr. Πλάτων). Cicero also wrote an excellent dialogue (De Natura Deorum) on the nature of the Gods which includes proofs of their existence. While these are splendid works, the arguments have defects, and this author has found similar failings in every such proof he has examined. There have been many other such "proofs" for the existence of deity through history, most of which this author has not read, but occasionally I read some examples from these works and, again, they all seem to have flaws.

There are those who love the classical world, who love the history and the mythology, and want to somehow participate in the religion, but they cannot in honesty believe in personal Gods. One solution is to view the Gods as archetypes, principles, or concepts. Thinking in this way allows a rational religion. The idea of archetypes incorporates a conception of divinity, a power or idea superior to the mundane, and this does have some merit. Yet to classify all the Gods as archetypes is a friendly type of atheism, at the very least from the point of view of the Mystíria, which teaches that the most important of the Gods have consciousness, and that their function in regards to human beings requires this consciousness. Yet people who cannot accept such ideas are not at fault. Indeed, this author is convinced there is actually nothing anyone can do to convince someone of the existence of Gods. The atheistic view is rational. People perceive the natural world, do not see convincing evidence, and arrive at the conclusion of atheism.

We hold philosophy as one of the very pillars of our religion, and to be rational is a requirement of philosophy. Since the atheistic view is, for those who have actually done the work, rational, how can we justify belief in Gods? If the existence of Gods was obvious, everyone would believe in them. Do we just want to believe in a pleasant fantasy or is there some other legitimate means, perhaps beyond reason, by which people come to believe in Gods?

All things consist of material substances

The theology and underlying philosophy of Orphismós (Orphism; Gr. Ορφισμός) is materialistic, not at all meaning hedonism or the pursuit and accumulation of possessions, but in the literal, philosophical sense. Specifically, the tradition states that Orphéfs (Orpheus; Gr. Ὀρφεύς) taught that everything which exists consists of material substances (Δαμάσκιος Πρώτων ἀρχῶν 123c bis {i. 317-19 R.}; = Orphic fragment 54). This position differs considerably from the Christian point of view, which places deity on a separate plane from the material world. The opinion of Orphism is that "spiritual," as being something immaterial, is illogical, for if anything exists, it must consist of something, and that something is, by definition, material (οὐσία), matter. There is no substance or matter which is beyond the material world. Therefore, if the Gods exist, even they consist of material substances, and everything which exists is part of the natural world. There is no such thing as super-natural, for by definition, the Kózmos, which is the natural world, consists of everything; nothing is excluded, and the Kózmos consists entirely of matter. The implications of this philosophical position are enormous and far-reaching.

Because the Gods are material, we can sense them

It is because both we and the Gods consist of matter, that there is the genuine probability of great intimacy between mankind and deity, for, according to Orphism, we are composed of the same substances (οὐσίαι) as the Gods. It is not that they consist of one kind of ("spiritual") substance and that we are made of another kind of substance: both the Gods and everything else all consist of the same primary substances, the same matter. 

How do we perceive things in the material world? ...through our senses (αἰσθήσεις). Because the Gods are material beings, we have the potential to sense them, to feel (ψαύω) them. With what organs of sense can we feel the Gods? It is through the aithirial garments (αιθερική χιτῶνας) which surround the soul (περί πνεύμα). The aithirial garments also consist of matter (οὐσία). These garments are the means by which we are able to feel and communicate with anything at all, even beyond the traditional senses. But can you sense Gods? Can you feel them? Yes, if you are a person of great sensitivity (εὐαισθησία). In using this word, the literal meaning is meant; we do not mean "delicate" or "easily hurt," but, rather, sensitive as "being in touch with" and "using the senses." In very rare circumstances, you can even see Gods (αἰσθήσεις θεῶν), for the very reason that they consist of material substances.

You can feel the other by dropping your defenses

Between the soul/body and the outside world are the aithirial garments by which you communicate, but these garments are not a barrier, exactly the opposite; they are a type of sense-organ. Nonetheless there is something else which forms a barrier between oneself and the other. This barrier is created by the mind to protect yourself. In order to communicate with the outside, to authentically communicate, this barricade must come down, and if it comes down, you have the possibility to sense others fully, to feel them. But if you genuinely feel others, you become vulnerable. It is inevitable that your perception becomes empathetic and you will develop compassion (ἔλεος). This creates a new challenge, for when you give birth to compassion, you let the others in, and there is the probability of danger, and this probability is very, very real. 

Most people have some experience of dropping this wall. For instance, when you truly fall in love, the wall drops for the object of your affection, and, very typically, the wall drops, at least a little while, for everything. You suddenly fall in love with everyone, and with the world. Everything has become beautiful. But if you remain open, you also begin to feel the tremendous suffering of others, their love, hate, and indifference, for the world is on fire.

Feeling is life; ego* is death. The wall is the illusion of ego, the deception of self-importance and separation which entombs the soul.** One of the prime functions of the Mysteries is the dismantling of this wall, but you must be willing to do so, for you have freedom. If you are not willing, your progress becomes very slow, because of nature. And even if you are willing, it is not so easy, and there are natural limitations. For some individuals, it is almost impossible to drop that wall except by the tiniest of increments. 

Ǽrohs and Sensing the Gods

The exact same process of feeling other people is the very means by which you can sense the Gods. It is by dropping your defenses that there is the possibility of experiencing the divine. When the wall drops, you see beyond yourself and are given an opportunity, a glimpse of the divine. It is only when this barricade comes down that you can clearly glimpse deity, a perception which is very beautiful (καλός). When you perceive something beautiful, it is only natural to want that beauty (κάλλος), so you move towards the Gods, whose minds and bodies are beautifully formed (καλλίμορφος) and sensible (αἰσθητός). That desire is called ǽrohs (eros; Gr. ἔρως)It is also a type of permission, for the Gods do not violate your freedom. They do not violate the barrier which you have constructed. However, if you, of your own free will, dismantle the barrier, you are given an opportunity. By desiring beauty and goodness (ἁρετή), you desire Gods who are beautiful and good (ἀγαθός), and you grant them permission to approach. When the wall comes down, the Gods understand that you have underwent some kind of struggle (ἀγωνία), and your openness and vulnerability are very, very beautiful to them. They, naturally, also want beauty, so their desire or Ǽrohs flows to you, and a great exchange commences. If you want the divine, follow the beauty; if you follow ugliness, you are always wrong. The Gods are Life; ego is death. When you experience the true radiance of Life, your soul yearns to be free from its tomb (τύμβος), and the Gods are waiting with pure, cool water to refresh (ἀναψύχω) you.

Conclusion: Logic and Experience

Our religion is a sensual religion, for you feel Gods who are material beings of great majesty, and when you perceive their beauty, you desire (ἔραμαι) it. Therefore, our religion is also erotic (ἐρωτικός), not meaning sexual, but based on the desire for the beautiful. First you must sense (ψαύωGods; you must feel them. It is for this reason that people discover that they believe in Gods. They believe in Gods because they can feel them, they can sense them. It is actually not a rational (λόγον ἔχων) experience; it is a sensual experience, not that it is irrational, but, rather, that it is experiential (ἐμπειρικός) and sensual. It is not unlike how you appreciate music. When you love a piece of music, it is rarely a rational experience; rather, it is an aural/sensual experience. If you do not like the melodies that Beethoven creates, ultimately it does not matter how clever he is at developing his themes. Understanding the structure of music (reason) can enhance your appreciation of classical music, but if you do not have a gut reaction (experience) to the piece, your appreciation is greatly limited, despite rational efforts to deepen your understanding.

During the Age of Enlightenment beginning in the 18th century, logic and science swept through the Western world like a torrent such that it has also been called the Age of Reason. There was a backlash against this rationality in the cultural movement following it called Romanticism, associated with the first half of the 19th century, in which feeling and emotion was emphasized. So we have these two movements embodying what would seem to be opposing approaches to reality. I think it could be said that we have been in a new age of reason, beginning certainly by the 1950's and extending into our lifetimes in the 2000's. We belong to an era of hyper-rationality. It is so very prevalent that I do not think that people are even aware that they are participating in it. This hyper-rationality has produced an imbalance in the world, not because there is anything wrong with logic and reason, but that the human animal is not merely some kind of computer with only one way to interact with the world. It is possible to lose contact with huge sectors of reality by cutting off, ignoring, or denying our experience. This essay began with a discussion of belief in deity contrasted with atheism. I had stated that I myself spent the majority of my 66 years agnostic. To discover God, I trusted one tool only...logic...and using logic, I could not prove the existence of deity, but I think that I was using the wrong tool. If you want to taste water, you drink it; you don't think about it. Actually, if you consider that statement, only a scientist would legitimately desire to spend a lifetime analyzing the mechanics of drinking water, but anyone can appreciate water by simply drinking it. When the facilities of the human psyche are demoted and ignored, they can go dormant, and there is a tendency in the modern world to dismiss experience for which there are preconceived prejudices. It is not that rationality or logic does not have a place, but logic should not compromise experience. The rational mind must be balanced by empirical knowledge. If you analyze the way we function in the world, it could be argued that experience takes the greater part by a long shot over logic, for practical reasons if nothing else.

How do you engender the experience of deity? How do you feel, how do you sense the Gods? You do so by undoing your defenses and allowing yourself to touch and to feel them, and allowing them to touch and feel you. To have such an experience, you must take that risk. And this is all possible because we live in a universe based on sensation (αἴσθησις), for everything which exists consists of material which can be felt. To feel Gods, you can no longer be a wallflower, but, rather, you must take a chance and dance (χορεύωὀρχέομαι) with them, and when you engage and swirl onto the dance floor, the Gods will laugh and cry with you.

I have had students who tell me that they have believed in Gods from childhood. My teacher explained that the correct attitude in approaching the Gods is to acquire the innocence and imagination of a child. Children are vulnerable. As adults, we have learned to protect ourselves. Nonetheless, without that vulnerability, we cannot experience Gods, we cannot feel them, and we cannot feel other people either. Children play pretend and use their imagination (φαντασία). In order to develop empathy, you need to imagine yourself in the situation of other people, of other creatures. Without that ability, you cannot feel others, and you will never develop compassion.

It is said that people in high culture...actors, dancers, painters, musicians, composers, etc....find it easier to learn to feel. In reality, if you are unable to do so, you will fail in those careers. Great art has the ability to, at least briefly, open the soul and set its centers spinning. People in the fine arts recognize intuitively that without this experience they are unable to create with authenticity, and they attempt to dwell always in this world of feeling. Recently I have been enjoying some of the wonderful documentaries of Dominique Delouche. Monsieur Delouche has captured on film the great ballet dancers of a previous era, outstanding artists like Danseur Étoile Nina Vyroubova and Serge Peretti, aged and no longer able to perform, but teaching the lovely young dancers. To witness them mentoring these students is a huge lesson in sensitivity and a very beautiful thing to observe. To merely watch the face and hands of Vyroubova is to understand how to feel. Those educated in the world of ballet know that from the birth of this art-form in the Renaissance to modern times that Apollo, as leader of the Mousai (Muses, Μοῦσαι), is recognized as the Lord of Dance (Κύριος Ὀρχήσεως); watching these documentaries, you can see that he is also the Lord of Sensitivity, the Lord of Feeling (Κύριος Αἰσθήσεων).

Another means to access feeling is the smile. When you are pleased by someone, you smile at them...very spontaneously. At this moment, you open and are accessible to the object of your pleasure, the aithirial garments are open. But it can work the other way around as well. When you deliberately smile, with good intention, it can cause the aithirial envelope to open. In other words, you have some ability to open yourself at will. Please do smile frequently! When you make offerings during ritual, smile at the Gods and open yourself to them. They will smile back at you.

I have observed through years of study with my teacher a very consistent reality. On the one hand, she technically explains the religion, the theology, but when she speaks of the actual practice of the religion in daily life, she consistently talks of helping others, of participating, and of interacting in society, and doing things to make a difference in the world, to make a difference in other people's lives. The distinct emphasis is that one's way of living in society is ultimately more important than any theology you may have accumulated. The theology is, ultimately, a type of symbolism to help the human soul understand how to feel the world and how to live in the world. She recommends as a powerful illustration from the realm of literature, the magnificent novel of Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. You begin to desire to help others, because you first feel them. You feel the others when the fortress of ego falls and you become sensitive and empathetic to the other, and when this develops, the soul simultaneously gives birth to the capability to sense the divine.

The wise man imitates the Gods. And what are the Gods doing? They are engaged in fulfilling the providence of Zefs (Zeus; Gr. Ζεύς), the mighty father of Gods and men, who has sent his son Diónysos (Dionysus; Gr. Διόνυσος) to free us from the sorrowful circle of births (κύκλος γενέσεως). Thus wide-eyed Zefs showers us with his living compassion, for he is completely open and feeling us, the creatures who are suffering; and we, when we can feel them, help our fellows, for it is divine to do so.

Please note: The YouTubes below this essay are actually part of the lesson.

* not in the Freudian sense.
** Some Orphics call the body the tomb of the soul (σῶμα) as discussed in Πλάτων Κρατύλος 400c. The body is a type of prison because its cycle from birth to death is involuntary. The soul abandons the body at death ... it has no choice ... but returns in a new one, regardless of your wishes. In this sense it is a prison or tomb. But it is a mistake and an enormous source of endless mischief to think that the body is evil. The body is natural and, while producing tremendous pain, it is also a wellspring of much good and beauty. The ego is death because it entombs the soul in the body which will always end in death. The divine is life because it frees the soul from the endless and sorrowful circle of births (κύκλος γενέσεως).


Méditation Thaïs by Jules Massenet is one of the most beautiful compositions this author has ever heard. Here is an excellent performance of it. Perhaps you may be able to feel it. Violin: Maxim Vengerov, Conductor: Luciano Di Martino, Classic FM M-Tel Radio Symphony Orchestra, 2006. 

Angela Gheorghiu sings the very beautiful Les Chemins de l'amour (The Paths of Love) by Francis Poulenc.


Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev dancing excerpts from Chopiniana (also known as Les Syphides) from a performance in 1963 with the Royal Ballet. This is a reconstruction of the choreography by Michel Fokine for the Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, 1909 (there were earlier versions)The ethereal elegance of Dame Margot Fonteyn's dancing in this very famous ballet is ineffable. We are so very lucky that many of her performances were captured on film. Even though she was almost twenty years senior to Rudolf Nureyev, the great Russian ballerino insisted on dancing with her whenever with the Royal Ballet.

This video clip includes the famous Duettino of Iván and the Tsar Maiden from the ballet The Little Humpbacked Horse, music by Rodion Shchedrin, based on the fairy tale of the same name by Pyotr Pavlovich Yershov, published in 1834. The story draws on Russian folk tales which seem to have some roots in ancient Greek mythology. In the video, Iván is portrayed by Vladimir Vasiliev and the Tsar Maiden by Maya Plisetskaya, two of the greatest dancers of the 20th century. As one of his many labors for the Tsar, Iván is commanded to capture the beautiful semi-divine Tsar Maiden, but when he has succeeded, she is so terrified that she covers her face to avoid seeing the "monster" that has her in his command. When Iván gently pulls her arms apart he is so astounded at her beauty that he falls to his knees, and when the Tsar Maiden sees the handsome and well-meaning Iván, she is no longer afraid but she smiles at him and touches his hair. Iván then plays his magic flute and they dance.


The story of the birth of the GodsOrphic Rhapsodic Theogony.
We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.

Introduction to the Thæí (the Gods): The Nature of the Gods.


The logo to the left is the principal symbol of this website. It is called the CESS logo, i.e. the Children of the Earth and the Starry Sky. The Pætilía (Petelia, Πετηλία) and other golden tablets having this phrase (Γῆς παῖς εἰμί καὶ Οὐρανοῦ ἀστερόεντος) are the inspiration for the symbol. The image represents this idea: Earth (divisible substance) and the Sky (continuous substance) are the two kozmogonic substances. The twelve stars represent the Natural Laws, the dominions of the Olympian Gods. In front of these symbols is the seven-stringed kithára (cithara, κιθάρα), the lyre of Apóllohn (Apollo, Ἀπόλλων). It (here) represents the bond between Gods and mortals and is representative that we are the children of Orphéfs (Orpheus, Ὀρφεύς).


PLEASE NOTE: Throughout the pages of this website, you will find fascinating stories about our Gods. These narratives are known as

 

, 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.


The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony.
We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.

SPELLING: HellenicGods.org uses the Reuchlinian method of pronouncing ancient Greek, the system preferred by scholars from Greece itself. An approach was developed to enable the student to easily approximate the Greek words. Consequently, the way we spell words is unique, as this method of transliteration is exclusive to this website. For more information, visit these three pages: 

Pronunciation of Ancient Greek        

 

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