ORTHODOXY AND ORTHOPRAXY
IN ANCIENT GREEK RELIGION
Orthodoxía (orthodoxy, ορθοδοξία), an ancient Greek word, is defined as "correct belief" or "right opinion;" the English equivalent is orthodoxy. Orthopraxía, on the other hand, is defined as "correct action," or "correct practice;" this word, ὀρθοπραξία, is Modern Greek, a neoclassical construct; the English equivalent is orthopraxy, the ancient word being orthoprayía (ὀρθοπραγία), which means “right conduct.” So, we have two words, one which is concerned with belief, and the other which is concerned with practice.
There is the idea amongst some modern practitioners of Ællinismόs (Hellenismos, Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion, that the religion is only concerned with religious practice, rather than particular beliefs, that if you worship the Gods and do rituals faithfully in accordance with what was done in antiquity, that you are practicing Ællinismόs. Indeed, this would be a form of Ællinismόs for sure, but is this all? This idea comes from the reconstructionists, those who are trying to replicate the ancient religion, who rely upon secondary sources. They have read books by scholars who have observed that Ællinismόs, like virtually all ancient religion, is not exclusive, that it is tolerant of other religious systems, that it can even accommodate the Gods of other religions into its own system; therefore, one could conclude that belief is not particularly important in our religion and if it is not important, what is left are the religious practices, the rituals etc. It is unfortunate that some modern practitioners of the religion would take a scholastic observation about the ancient religion and apply it to their belief-system as though it were some kind of rule.
It has been pointed out by scholars that the ancient polytheistic religions generally had no dogmatic texts, unlike Judaism and Christianity, which have books which give a practitioner the theology and required beliefs of their religions. But it is quite difficult to imagine that the religious practices of which so much was made in ancient literature had no belief-system attached to them. It would seem more likely from the evidence that the ancient peoples were simply more tolerant of different belief-systems such that they did not demand the participants to accept the dogma of the priests or temples of which they participated. Just because a religion is tolerant of other religions does not mean that it does not have its own beliefs.
With the rise of Christianity and their texts, we do indeed have something new, a religion where belief is paramount and highly exclusive, condemning all other religion --- literally --- and a book which is declared to be the very word of a God, to such an extent that even obvious contradictions found in the text itself are accepted as not contradictions, something rather hard to conceive when looked at from the outside. The contrast between the new monotheist religion and the ancient Greek religion seems to be very dramatic in this regard, but does this mean that the old religion did not have significant beliefs? No, what it really means is that the new religion, Christianity, has made the concept of belief foremost and sovereign, to such an extent that it even knowingly bypasses reason.
If religion is only concerned with correct practice, an outward form, without concern for some kind of belief or understanding, using ordinary logic one can see that such a religion would be based on a shell, a façade. It is what is concealed within the outside that must be important, the very heart of it, for there to be intrinsic value in a religion. As a matter of fact, there are many scholars who have come to such a conclusion and have dismissed the ancient religion as being entirely superficial, largely based on testimony in the ancient texts themselves, for there is considerable evidence of a religion in which the people seemed to worship Gods in order to obtain favors or to propitiate them etc., leading one to think that this was the entire religion. Likewise, many practitioners of our religion in the 21st century also read these texts and imitate this, believing the same as the scholars have observed. Undoubtedly, there certainly was such religion in antiquity. But there was something more, and the scholars who specialize in ancient religion are also aware of this. Just as in modern times, there is superficial religion amongst the masses, but there also exists deeper religion for those who wish to access it, so also in antiquity there was, for instance, philosophy (philosophy, φιλοσοφία) for those who wished to pursue a more substantial religion with great meaning. So, what is concealed in the heart of the shell of our practices? … the Mystíria (Mysteries, Μυστήρια), the deeper meaning of our religion, which includes the pursuit of wisdom, the aim of philosophía. And indeed, when digging deeper in what is known of the ancient world, there were texts, many texts; where are these texts? The scholars say that these texts are “lost,” but this author believes, with good reason, that most if not all of them were deliberately destroyed. Logic tells you this, for the Christians burned even their own texts when the theology found in these texts did not agree with their orthodoxy, so much more for books which they entirely disagreed with.
Philosophy is unquestionably part of our religion. The questioning and skepticism of philosophía is actually a required task of one who is dedicated to penetrating the heart of our religion. And the results of philosophía bring about beliefs. But there is a difference in the way we handle beliefs in our religion; we do not cling to them as if they were absolute truth or a creed. So again, we have a great contrast between exclusive religion and Ællinismόs, but not a religion in which beliefs are of no importance.
In a very real way, Ællinismόs is more a way of life, rather than religion. The manner in which someone conducts his or her life is the critical factor which gives value to true religion, both ritual observances and precise beliefs being secondary. We talk about the Hellenic soul, the soul of someone who is on a committed journey leading to great virtue. The deeper path of Ællinismόs is concerned with Arætí (ἀρετή), rather than practices or even beliefs. If this is what one means when one says that Ællinismόs is more concerned with orthopraxy, in this case, correct conduct or orthoprayía, then the term correctly applies; it is not the ritual observances, those things which anyone can be taught to do, even a chimpanzee; these are very secondary things. Arætí is supreme, not empty practices. And indeed, this is a form of orthopraxy, that correct conduct is paramount in our religion.
So now we come to orthodoxy, correct belief. The pursuit of the correct understanding of reality, of truth, is the aim of philosophy, and philosophy is part of the Hellenic tradition, and it is part of the religion, despite the objections of some scholars. Truth is the issue and, therefore, the Hellenic philosophical journey is not a matter of adopting a credo of beliefs and then memorizing them like some kind of catechism. Philosophy is the practice of attempting to find truth and to be open and challenge beliefs. In this process, we come to conclusions and develop insights and convictions. This development is difficult, and the conclusions which such work produces are the basis of action. The conviction which is the result of genuine philosophy cannot be put on like clothing; it must be achieved. Ællinismόs is not exclusivistic, because it recognizes that the development of conviction, or wisdom, is evolutionary or progressive. Beliefs come and go but genuine perception evolves, leading ultimately to insight. Unlike religions that exclude those who have not adopted particular creedal beliefs, Ællinismόs recognizes the natural evolutionary nature of the development of wisdom. Such development is a living process, our understanding changes and progresses. So, it could be understood, from this perspective, that orthodoxy, correct understanding or belief or wisdom, meaning the result of the aforementioned intellectual work, is also paramount to the religion.
To conclude, the commonly held position that Ællinismόs stresses orthopraxy (correct practice) over orthodoxy (correct belief) is not quite accurate. A more useful statement would assert that in Ællinismόs, belief (pístis, πίστις) is regarded as subjective opinion and not true knowledge, but that the genuine path is one which pursues truth, regardless of whether such a journey confirms our preconceptions. This is the legitimate path to wisdom, which leads ultimately to Arætí, virtue. The Hellenic philosophical view concerning belief is a major factor contributing to tolerance in our tradition, making an exclusivistic position untenable. Because of the naturally incremental way in which knowledge is obtained, belief could be seen to be somewhat elusive and changeable in our religion, but this is a realistic position not unlike that of modern science, which is willing to change its beliefs should convincing evidence be presented, or at least that should be the case.
The concept of belief in the two major monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, is solid and unchangeable; it is not obtained through intellectual effort, but is, rather, presented and accepted by those who practice these religions, and this belief is a requirement in order to participate. Therefore, since belief is so central to exclusivistic religions, Ællinismόs would naturally seem to contrast greatly, from the etic point of view of the scholars, but from the emic point of view of actually practicing the religion, the development of beliefs and understanding is as important as the practice of the rites. A more accurate understanding, from inside the religion, is that the ancient Greek religion values correct understanding (orthodoxy) because it leads to correct conduct (orthopraxy), but this understanding must be earned or discovered, and this process is a progressive one. Another way of thinking of it would be to say that the genuine Ællinismόs is not creedal (orthodoxy), but is only concerned with arætí, noble action (orthopraxy), then the terms apply and the common statement, that Ællinismόs is primarily concerned with orthopraxy, is correct. In reality, these two principles, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, are on an equal footing in Ællinismόs, but the scholars are correct to notice the contrast between our religion and exclusivistic religions regarding the way we view belief.
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.
Introduction to the Thæí (the Gods): The Nature of the Gods.
How do we know there are Gods? Experiencing Gods.
What has survived from Orphic texts? The Orphic Fragments of Otto Kern.
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 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.
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.
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