Ællînismόs (Hellênismos, Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion, is renowned for its plenitude of Gods, while Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are monotheistic faiths, with the worship of but one god. Nonetheless, there are ideas in ancient Ællînismόs, which border on, hint at, and even teach monotheism. Is this true? ... and if it is true, should the polytheism in our religion be understood as expressing some kind of emanation or expression of a single God? The idea of monotheism in Hellenic religion has its root, primarily, in the way some people understood the ideas of the philosopher Plátôn (Platô, Πλάτων), both in the ancient world as well as in our contemporary world.

Plátôn, Definitions, and the Ideas

In many of the dialogues of Plátôn, discussion would often commence by asking for the definition of a term. The participants typically present a list of things that seemed to embody the qualities of the term, while the precise definition of the term itself will be elusive. The various items in a proposed list appear to share in a basic quality connected with the term in question. This leads to what is now called in philosophy the idea of a universal, that there is something beyond particular instances that exists independently of those particular instances. Such a universal was called by Plátôn a form (εἶδος). The ultimate form, it could be said, was described by Plátôn as The Good and likened to the sun, ideas which will be discussed more thoroughly later in this too brief essay. What should be kept in mind here is the idea that there is one thing which has qualities which are shared by other things which are, to some extent, reflections or copies of it.

The Tímaios

The Τίμαιος Πλάτωνος can be used as an example of what appears to be a monotheistic idea, with its description of the Dîmiourgόs (Demiurge, Δημιουργός) and how it portrays the traditional Gods of Greece. Plátôn describes the narrative as a "likely account" [1] of the creation of the universe. In the dialogue, the Dîmiourgόs, the creator or worker, is portrayed as a well-meaning God who creates an orderly universe out of kháos (chaos, χάος); he is also responsible for the creation of the Gods [2], in contrast to an idea of self or spontaneous generation. The Dîmiourgόs appears to be a personification of a perfect principle, but it is somewhat unclear what exactly he is from the dialogue. In the writings of later Platonists (Plôtínos [Πλωτῖνος] as one example) the Dîmiourgόs is portrayed as an emanation of Æn (Hen, Τὸ Ἕν), in English, The One. In any case, the Platonic view is that all that exists seems to have one source: either the Dîmiourgόs, or the principle of which he is a copy or reflection.

Orphismós and materialism

In Orphic literature, the primordial nature of the Kózmos (Cosmos, Κόσμος) is described as a state yet to be expressed, and is, therefore, called the Unutterable Principle, the Árritos Arkhí (Ἄρρητος Ἀρχή), as it is impossible to understand something in which its constituent parts are yet to become manifest. This reality consists entirely of matter, in which there are two primordial substances: Earth and Water [3]. Therefore, since every single thing in the universe consists of something, the Orphic view is that of materialism, not in a hedonistic sense at all, but pure philosophical materialism.

Platonism, Æn, Mind and Matter

The Neoplatonic philosophers seem to equate the Ἄρρητος Ἀρχή with Τὸ Ἕν. When Neoplatonists speak of Æn, they are referring to a first principle, but they are not thinking of two substances, or just one of these two substances, or, really, of any substance at all. "Substance" in Greek is ousía (οὐσίἁ), meaning "material" or "matter." Neoplatonists say that Τὸ Ἕν cannot be defined and cannot be material or matter. Further, they identify Mind (Νοῦς), the first and most perfect emanation of Æn, as different from and opposing matter and, by extension, opposing the body. How do the Neoplatonists view Æn and what does it have to do with our overall discussion regarding monotheism?

Æn and the Goal of Neoplatonic Philosophical Practice

The Neoplatonic idea of Τὸ Ἕν, the One, along with its implications, can be summed up as follows. The foundation, or first principle, of the universe is One. The One is a principle that is entirely simple, yet incomprehensible by reason. The One is beyond being, yet it is the source of all being. The One is sometimes called the Good or the Sun, for its conception, in part, is derived from Πολιτεία Πλάτωνος in book 6, and the implications of these ideas being expressed in book 7 with the Allegory of the Cave.

Continuing, the One emanates an archetype of itself, which participates in its nature, yet is subordinate to it. A flow of emanations unfold which are sometimes thought of as the Blessed Gods, those which most closely participate in the nature of the One. As the outpouring of emanation expands downward negatively, a hierarchy forms [4]. As the "distance" from the One increases, the participation in its nature diminishes, a process known as katávasis (catabasis, κατάβασις), a descent into embodiment. At its greatest extremity are ignorant beings who are likened to men in a cave, bound with chains in such a way that they cannot turn around, and who see images which are created from puppets placed in front of a fire to produce shadows on a wall. Since they have never experienced anything else, these beings believe that the images are real and not just shadows, but one of these beings is freed and made to turn around and see what is actually happening. He climbs out of the cave and discovers the sun. The realization of reality and the climbing back towards the sun, or the One, is called anávasis (anabasis, ἀνάβασις), the "ascent," and frees the soul from the bondage of delusion.

Two Different Views of Seeing Reality

The views of Orphismόs regarding deity share many things with the monotheistic religions, but in one important view, there is a chasm between them. In those religions, their one God always exists; he has always existed, so they say, and he will always exist in the future. The general view of Ællînismόs is that Gods are generated; this is true of the two most prominent theogonies, that of Isíodos (Hesiod, Ἡσίοδος) and that of Orphéfs (Orpheus, Ὀρφεύς), and it is also true of Neoplatonism, in that the Gods emanate from the One, rather than being first. The Neoplatonic One, however, seems to have this quality of having always existed, the One being the ultimate Form. In Neoplatonism, the greatest of the Gods, deities such as Íra (Hera, Ήρα) and Zefs (Ζεύς), are as they are, from the beginning of their creation; in other words, they are as perfect as they are, as soon as they come to be. Whatever perfection they possess, is instantaneous with their emanation, and does not seem to progress further, but is fixed. As being extends further from the One, participation with it deteriorates, and particularly so as being continues outside of deity, in other words, with those sentient and non-sentient entities which exist but which are not deities.

The Orphic view shares some things with the Neoplatonic view. For instance, the One is usually identified with the Árritos Arkhí, an Orphic term. Both terms refer to a first principle which is said to be beyond human expression, ineffable, and eternal. Indeed, the two terms seem to be referring to the same thing, but the "creation" is described quite differently in the two views of reality. While Neoplatonism describes a descent from perfection to decay, Orphismós describes an interaction of two kozmogonic substances, Earth and Water, such that a progression occurs towards advancement, an ascent. And this ascent does not seem to be the same anávasis of Neoplatonism, for even the Gods participate in the ascent, as they are the first to ascend. This progression can be seen in the mythology in many ways, as, for example, in the theogony, the succession of the Six Kings, for, as the Alexandrian poet Kallímakhos (Callimachus, Καλλίμαχος) says of Zefs, that his greatness is not won by lot, but, rather, his greatness is of his own accomplishment, something which would be unnecessary if his supremacy was primal rather than earned:

"Thou wert made sovereign of the Gods not by casting of lots but by the deeds of thy hands, thy might and that strength which thou has set beside thy throne." [5]

The Orphic theology implies that the Gods are generated as simple, and through eons of time become great, as with all the beings in creation, until the universe is destroyed in a phenomenon called ækpýrohsis (ecpyrosis, ἐκπύρωσις), and the process begins again (This cyclical idea of generation and ἐκπύρωσις being one possible solution to a Kózmos of progression) [6]. This idea of progress in kozmogony was noted in τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά Ἀριστοτέλους (1091a.30-1091b.14), for Aristotǽlis (Aristotle, Ἀριστοτέλης) did not accept it.

The Neoplatonists put emphasis on the One, and that the Gods, and all of creation, have it as the source. The Orphic view is a bit different. The emphasis is more on the two kozmogonic substances, how they interact, and how this creates the Kózmos (Cosmos, Κόσμος) with all its Gods.

In reality, the Neoplatonic view is also considered Orphic; certainly the Neoplatonists themselves seemed to see themselves so, and this other view ... with the Árritos Arkhí, etc. described as coming from Orphéfs (Orpheus, Ὀρφεύς) by the Neoplatonists themselves.

Damáskios (Damascius, Δαμάσκιος), describing the kozmogony according to Ieróhnymos Ródios (Hieronymus of Rhodes, Ιερώνυμος Ῥόδιος) or Ællánikos (Hellanicus, Ἑλλάνικος), summarizes:

ὕδωρ ἦν, φησίν, ἐξ ἀρχῆς καὶ ὕλη, ἐξ ἧς ἐπάγη ἡ γῆ,

δύο ταύτας ἀρχὰς ὑποτιθέμενος πρῶτον, ὕδωρ καὶ γῆν, ταύτην

μὲν ὡς φύσει σκεδαστήν, ἐκεῖνο δὲ ὡς ταύτης κολλητικόν τε καὶ συνεκτικόν,

"Water exists from the beginning, and mud, so he (Orpheus) says, from which the earth became solid: these two of origination he holds as first principles, water and earth, the latter indeed producing dissolution, the former glutinous and holding together." (trans. by the author) [7]

To distinguish between the two is necessary in order for us to conduct our discussion, but, as Plátôn says in the Tímaios, the dialogue is a "likely account," [1] not an orthodoxy. Perhaps all theogony, kosmogony, and philosophy have an aspect of being tools to enable us to get a grasp on reality, to give us a hint; they may actually be saying the same things, but as observed from different points of view, or as different vehicles to achieve the same end, yet being expressed by the most expedient means under the right circumstances to effect that end.

Æn, Henotheism, and Monotheism

This website generally avoids the use of the term Æn, not because this idea is necessarily incorrect, but because the idea of Æn implies, in many people's minds, a monotheism. The term monotheism is not really accurate because in Ællinismόs ideas about Æn usually include belief in more than one God; the term usually applied is monism, the belief that everything is ultimately derived from one source, but perhaps a more accurate term for some of the Neoplatonist ideas may be henotheism, i.e. a theology with one primary deity, or in this case one primary principle, while acknowledging the existence and importance of subordinate deities.

Ideas suggesting a progression towards monotheism, ideas connected with and implied by the concept of Æn, show up in both Christian and pagan writers. The early Christian philosophers used Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas concerning Æn as one of the foundations of their theology; they liked the ideas, especially as expressed in later Platonism such as that developed by Plotínos and Próklos (Proclus, Πρόκλος) because these ideas seemed to resonate with the monotheism of their religion. Hence there is a type of Christian Platonism. This Platonism can be seen in various Christian philosophers such as Augustine of Hippo, Origen (Ὠριγένης), and Dionýsios the Areopagite (Pseudo-Denys, Διονύσιος ὁ Ἀρεοπαγίτης). And it is also naïve to think that influence flowed only in one direction...towards the Christians...but one must consider also that Christian ideas likely influenced some of the Platonic philosophers, as would be only natural and true to the spirit of philosophy. As but one example, the Neoplatonic philosopher Iámvlikhos (Iamblichus, Ἰάμβλιχος) studied under the Christian Aristotelian scholar Anatólios (Anatolius, Ανατόλιος), who became the bishop of Laodíkeia (Laodicia, Λαοδίκεια) in Syria, and whom the Eastern Orthodox regard as a saint. And the Christians were not merely reading the works of the pagan philosophers, some were also studying directly under them. As time moved forward and the old religion was persecuted, there was a defensive reaction in the writings of the pagan philosophers, perhaps reflected in the emphasis of their philosophical ideas.

The idea that Æn could be equated with the Judaic God provided a comfortable solution to conflicts with Christianity which proved useful not only in antiquity, but continues for some to modern times. In G. R. S. Mead's otherwise excellent book, Orpheus, 1895, we find this passage:

"If there is one doctrine more insisted on than any other in the Orphic theology, it is that all the deific orders and powers are but aspects of the One. It is entirely unnecessary to enter here into a consideration of the comparative merits of monotheism and polytheism. Both are true as facts, both are false as exclusive theories. Nor was the doctrine above enunciated peculiar to the Orphics; it was the common opinion of all the better instructed of antiquity. All men worshipped that aspect or those aspects of the One Deity..." [8]

The first thing that jumps out in this statement is that Mead is here identifying the later Neoplatonic idea of the One with Orphism, teachings which extend into great antiquity, long predating this philosophy. Mead reasons from the principle of Æn, the One, to the One Deity. He continues on to quote Simplíkios (Simplicius, Σιμπλίκιος) in which the Neoplatonic philosopher speaks of "first principles," not one deity. Following this, Mead discusses passages by various Christian authors, Justin Martyr, Cyril of Alexandria, Clement of Alexandria, Didymus of Alexandria, and the Jewish author Aristobulus, all who claim that the Greeks believed in one God. It is for this reason that we avoid the term Æn or One, because those who embrace monotheism find in it some kind of basis or justification for this belief.

But Æn is not a deity; Æn is not the one god; and the idea that Ællînismόs or Platonism are simply "stages" in the ultimate realization that there really are not many deities, but actually only one, is a demeaning idea which serves the Christian church, an institution which, historically, has persecuted our religion. And as what may be considered their just reward, this same argument of a progression towards monotheism is used by modern atheists to justify their beliefs, atheists who perceive an intellectual progression in history, from the belief in many deities, to a belief in only one deity, and finally reaching the inevitable conclusion that there is actually no deity. The idea is that the modern atheistic viewpoint is superior and that the older ideas are primitive, unscientific, and based on ignorance and stupidity.

Mead was, in truth, ahead of his time, a beam of light in a sea of darkness, but this understanding of Æn is influenced by Christianity, as were many of the scholastic writers of his era. And we also find this idea repeated in the 20th century and now in the 21st century, even by some of our religion, those who are inclined to the teachings of Plátôn and his philosophical descendants.

But it is not only Christians who identify the Neoplatonic ideas with a monotheism or henotheism; observe this quotation of Iámvlikhos, who lived in the Christian era (245-325 CE):

'"Prior to truly existing beings and total principles [or principles that rank as wholes], there is one God, prior to [that deity who is generally believed to be] the first God and king, immoveable, and abiding in the solitude of his own unity. For neither is the intelligible connected with him, nor any thing else; but he is established as the paradigm of the God who is the father himself, is self begotten, is father alone, and is truly good. For he is something even greater and prior to this, is the fountain of all things, and the root of the first intelligible forms. But from this one deity, the God who is sufficient to himself, unfolds himself into light. For this divinity, also, is the principle and God of Gods, a monad from the one, prior to essence, and the principle of essence. For from him entity and essence are derived; and hence, also he is denominated the principle of intelligibles." [9]

From this quotation we see a clear expression of a distinctly monotheistic conception held by a pagan author.

The idea of Æn reached its zenith in the era of the Neoplatonists who took Plátôn's ideas, particularly the idea of the Good, and extended these ideas to what seemed their logical conclusion. The resulting theology has a mathematical beauty which is very appealing. Nonetheless, the Neoplatonic ideas are best viewed as a proposal, a suggestion, a way of understanding the Kózmos; they should not be viewed as an orthodoxy (as is true of any idea presented in Ællînismόs). While the Neoplatonic universe presents a rather complete picture, many of its conclusions would seem to present as facts, things which are, in truth, unknowable, and provable only when referenced to pre-accepted hypotheses. Neoplatonism is cerebral and its epistemology is highly rational, in which logical conclusions are deduced from simple Platonic concepts, and it presents a hierarchy of an ideal state deteriorating to gross materialism, with the possibility of an ascent back to the ideal state. The pre-Platonic Orphism is also grounded in fundamental propositions to which conclusions may be drawn, but it is far more empirical and requires absolutely one's perception of and action in the phenomenal world, which is seen as sacred; there is nothing possible beyond the material world, as everything is seen as consisting of two fundamental material substances.

On the pages of this website you will find numerous references to Plátôn, and quotations from the dialogues; this is because Plátôn had genuine insight and tremendous brilliance; he is in the Orphic lineage; this author is heavily indebted to him and loves him immensely. You will also find quotations from the Neoplatonists as well, who likewise are brilliant. And to the Neoplatonists, we owe tremendous debts. It is because of them that we possess many fragments of lost Orphic texts, which they had quoted; without these quotations, much of our knowledge of the Orphic mythology and theology would be lost. In addition, and most notably, the Neoplatonic philosophers interpreted myth, in contrast to reading the myths literally. Because of these and other reasons, their writings are of immense importance, for they contain what remains of the theology of our religion as understood in the later forms of philosophy, an intensely religious philosophy. These are immensely significant contributions and inheritance for which we must be grateful to these philosophers.

Nonetheless, the Platonic ideas concerning the Good have, perhaps, been distorted to smooth over problems between the monotheistic religions and Ællînismόs. This author would like to propose that it may be better to make a clean break from monotheism and look at Plátôn anew with no preconceptions. The Socratic irony and aporía (dialectical impasse, ἀπορία), as can be clearly seen in the early Platonic writings, has been criticized, and, by some, ultimately denied, but may it here be proposed that the claim of Sôkrátis (Sôcrates, Σωκράτης), that his wisdom lie in his realization that he actually did not know, or, said another way, that his wisdom lie in knowing the boundaries of his knowledge, should be taken very seriously and not assumed to be only a commencement to some now-known conclusion, although that may be the case for some elements of the Platonic ideas.


[1] Τίμαιος Πλάτωνος 29d.

[2] Τίμαιος Πλάτωνος 41a-b.

[3] Ἀπορίαι καὶ λύσεις περὶ τῶν πρώτων ἀρχῶν Δαμασκίου 123c bis {i. 317-19 R.} = Orphic fragment 54.

[4] In medieval Europe, the Neoplatonic idea of a hierarchy became known as The Great Chain of Being and was the primary justification for the reign of kings and aristocrats. Under Christianity, the One was replaced with the one God and the Blessed Gods were replaced by angels; the hierarchy progresses negatively with kings and aristocrats nearer the angels and ordinary people below them, and the animals etc. below yet further.

[5] εἰς Δία Καλλιμάχου 65, trans. A. W. Mair, 1921.

[6] If Gods exist, they must progress, or they must be principles. Why? Because something which is alive is not static; a being which does not move, does not change, is dead (and even then, that which is dead must decay). But if the Gods continuously progress, what is the eschatology? ...we have a Kózmos of infinite progression, which presents a rational problem; the cyclical idea of ἐκπύρωσις and regeneration is one proposed solution to this problem. There are people in our tradition who do not see a problem with a Kózmos of infinite progression, and it must be admitted that what is possible is not limited by what we can understand in our current state of intellectual development.

[7] Ἀπορίαι καὶ λύσεις περὶ τῶν πρώτων ἀρχῶν Δαμασκίου 123c bis {i. 317-19 R.} = Orphic fragment 54.

[8] Orpheus by G. R. S. Mead, 1895.

[9] Περὶ τῶν Αἰγυπτίων μυστηρίων Ιαμβλίχου, Section 8, Chapter 2, trans. Thomas Taylor, 1821.

This logo 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 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 Apóllôn (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 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.

The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic 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: 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

Transliteration of Ancient Greek

Pronouncing the Names of the Gods in Hellenismos

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