Monday, August 20, 2012

A Hellenic Polytheist's Problem: Who Am I?

Those who have read my blog know how I name myself and my path. I am a NeoHellenic Witch. Here's a brief explanation of what it means:

  • Hellenic because: I am Greek, the deities involved are Hellenic, I draw on Hellenic customs, the ancient Hellenic religion (though not in a truly reconstructive sense) and my culture overall, old and new.
  • Witch because: I practice the Art and Craft of Witchcraft, both in a religious and non-religious manner (that is, it is incorporated in my religious practice but I use it independently too).
  • Neo- because: It is a modern system, a system by and for the people of this day and era, relevant to our modern needs.
Many Hellenists, especially Recons, seem to think that people with practices like mine are not Hellenic. I vehemently disagree. Why?

  1. The Hellenic religion in antiquity was never dogmatic or based on belief. Furthermore, it was only loosely unified (sharing some panhellenic holidays and feasts such as the Olympics, certain Mystery cults that were accessible by all [i.e. Eleusynian Mysteries] and finally, many Gods who were worshipped and honoured by all Greeks [like the Olympians]). There was never one, single, over-arching and wholly unified "Hellenic Religion". In the field of Religious Studies there is even a theory that questions whether it was truly one religion (even loosely) or many smaller ones. Indeed, every region and city-state had its own version, its own cults, sacred days, feasts, practices and even Gods (different aspects of them at least). There was never a body of belief (dogma) that had to be professed by the followers, at least not in the public religion. The Mystery cults had their own "rules" so to speak. Based on this, it seems strange that anyone could tell people how to believe or, worst of all, that their beliefs and the way they experience they divine is wrong or undeserving of the same name. There is no holy book to base this on, no rigid dogma that tells you that x or y way is wrong!

  2. Many people claim that Magic and thus Witchcraft are inherently at odds with the Hellenic religion (in all its many forms), since it is actually coercion of the Gods. This, in my opinion, shows a lack of understanding of Magic, Witchcraft and cultural beliefs, not to mention blatant disregard for a lot of sources, both of modern academia and archaeological evidence. In fact, there is ample evidence showing that the ancient Greeks, throughout their history (Classical, Hellenistic etc), practiced Magic in two ways:

    • Alongside the "mainstream", acceptable religion in the various feasts and sacred days.
    • In the "shadows", as witches.

    The first refers to such practices as the katadesmoi (bindings, Latin: defixiones) aka the infamous curse tablets, poppet Magic (kolossoi) and even mystical/mystery rites (like the Hieros Gamos*).

    The second refers to those individuals outside the normative, those that flourished on the fringes of society and usually had no regard for its laws and ethics. Groups of people like the Thessalian Witches were feared and believed to indulge in harmful acts that sought only to bring misery to the world (e.g. drawing down the moon to milk her and remove her light and blessings from the world). Others portray them as masters of herbs, poisons and pharmakeia, using it both to benefit and to harm. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, Medea was taught by them, under the auspices of Hekate (who is believed to possess knowledge of all herbs and poisons and even credited with the discovery of aconite).

    Understandably, after taking into account how those called "witches" were perceived in the ancient world, it is not surprising that having a Hellenic Polytheist call him/herself that, causes intense reactions. However, this is not the ancient world, the term "Witch" has been reclaimed and its meaning changed for many and, like "gay" and "queer", it now means simply a practitioner of Magic - mostly devoid of negative connonations, save for rural or under-educated regions.
  3. Some claim that the Gods people like me worship and work with are not the actual Hellenic deities but others that happen to be given (wrongly) Hellenic names and epithets. I personally find it incredulous that any human would profess to know whether another person's deities are "the real deal" so easily. I can understand being doubtful about whether claims about specific deities are true (e.g. identifying Hekate as a Crone), especially if it is conflicting heavily with historical and collective UPG** information and knowledge. Even then however we cannot be 100% sure of the authenticity. Gods are often portrayed in myths to act out of character and indeed, it is foolish to think that deities do not change or that we can place them in neat, labeled boxes with our limited perception. Not to mention that in the Hellenic religion (again, in its many known forms) there is little talk about the nature or true character of the Gods. They act and appear differently from era to era, person to person, region to region. Of course, there are some common attributes (i.e. the simplest of them all, the name) that allow us to identify two aspects as belonging to the same deity but even then, it's only well-grounded speculation - a theory!


     I cannot, for the life of me, accept someone's claim that I am not practicing (one form of) the Hellenic religion. I am a Hellene, a Hellenic Polytheist, plain and simple. There is little to no historical, archaeological or academic evidence that can discredit that and show that I am in the wrong for identifying as a Hellene/Hellenic Polytheist (religiously-wise of course - my nationality and cultural identity as a Hellene are hard facts and cannot be doubted at all). Of course, there are some points that one must fullfill in order to be a Hellenic Polytheist, and this holds true in most religions. You can't, for instance, do nothing even remotely Hellenic and then call yourself a Hellenic Polytheist because it sounds cool. Here's what I think those points are:


    1. Celebration of Hellenic sacred days. Any number or kind of them, in a manner close enough to the original feast's theme and meaning (i.e. not necessarily Reconstructionist but not so different that it's not recognisable as the same holiday anymore).
    2. Worship, honour or servitude in whatever capacity, level or manner, of Hellenic deities. Any number or kind of them, in a manner that allows for recognition of said deities as Hellenic beyond their names (i.e. not just worship of an "Artemis" with no recognisable, historically or mythically, attributes but worship of a deity that is a Goddess of so-and-so that can be supported through history, archaeological evidence and/or mythology).
    3. Personal identification as a Hellenic Polytheist.

     If those are fullfilled (and they are rather liberal requirements, if I may say so), one is a Hellenic Polytheist and none should say otherwise. Also, we should not forget that the Hellenic religion today is as (or perhaps even more!) multi-faceted as its ancient counterpart. There are many versions, many types, many kinds, all loosely connected to allow for inclusion in a "single" religion. The only real difference is that, instead of city-states with different versions of the religion, we have different individuals or groups with varying versions of the religion.


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    * Hieros Gamos: There are two types of Hieros Gamos. The symbolic one that is a kind of ritual acting and the mystery/magical one, which seizes to only be symbolic - the participants completely embody the deities and stop being "actors".

    ** UPG: Unverified personal gnosis (often abbreviated UPG) is the phenomenological concept that an individual's spiritual insights (or gnosis) may be valid for them without being generalizable to the experience of others. It is primarily a neologism used in polytheistic reconstructionism, to differentiate it from ancient sources of spiritual practices. (taken from Wikipedia)  I will also add a personal opinion: I believe UPG to be the progenitor of myths. One person's or group's UPG becomes known and accepted by more people, gradually gaining status and recognition and through time and generations it becomes a myth.

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    Sources:

    Walter Burkert, Greek Religion
    Robert Parker, Athenian Religion: A History
    Encyclopedia Mythica, "Witchcraft: Chapter Two - The dawn of Witchcraft"
    Biblioteca Arcana
    Helen Pilinovsky, Studies of Magic in Ancient Greece