Friday, July 30, 2010

The Hellenic Priesthood

NOTE: These are completely my own observations and conclusions. In no way do they represent a universal point of view or a concrete belief in Hellenism.

Before I discuss the Hellenic Priesthood I believe first I have to define what a priest is.

1. In many Christian churches, a member of the second grade of clergy ranking below a bishop but above a deacon and having authority to administer the sacraments.
2. A person having the authority to perform and administer religious rites.
tr.v. priest·ed, priest·ing, priests
To ordain or admit to the priesthood.

Obviously, I'm keeping the second definition. A priest is a person having the authority to perform and administer religious rites. How does that work in Hellenism though?

The Hellenic Priesthood is a bit different than other priesthoods such as the Priesthood of the Wica. First of all, it is divided into two different forms. I will call those "Liturgical Clergy" and "Devotee Clergy".

"Liturgical Clergy" is the term I use to refer to the part of the Hellenic Priesthood that holds the duties of performing and administering religious rites (as per the dictionary definition). However, the difference from other clergies is that the Liturgical Clergy is, more often than not, elected by the community or the organization they may be members of, they rarely undergo formal training and usually are simply chosen ritual leaders (as in people chosen to lead a ritual or ceremony without being ordained).

"Devotee Clergy" is a peculiar and less public part of the Hellenic Priesthood. On par with our ancestors' ways, the Devotee Clergy is a category composed by those people who may or may not be formally ordained and who may or may not have received training but are wholeheartedly devoted to specific deities and serve under them.

Before I further explain those two branches, I ought to present my sorting of the Hellenic religious scene. Note that this is not a hierarchy, merely a presentation of the religious scene. Everyone in this is equal to each other even though their duties might differ.

First Stage: Average religious follower: Any Hellenic Pagan may fall under this category. It's about your basic follower, that observes holidays and worships the Gods as well as delve into whatever practices they deem fit. Their relationship with the Gods and the community might be sincere and true but does not extend to service of either. Most do have patrons but not necessarily all of them do.

Second Stage: Liturgical Clergy: Any Hellenic Pagan may be elected to act as a priest/ess for a set time. Certain groups exist solely for this purpose and their members are permanent priests. The latter tend to also seek out formal training and possibly, ordination. Their relationship with the Gods and the community is again sincere and true, but in this case it extends to service towards both. Generally, a Liturgical Priest/ess may have patron deities but they usually perform rites regardless of the deity involved. They offer their services to the community by taking the role of leading rituals and ceremonies and occasionally offering counselling and other clerical services, albeit in a limited manner.

Third Stage: Devotee Clergy: Any Hellenic Pagan may reach this stage. A Devotee Priest/ess always has patron deities, usually seeks some sort of training and is considered a "specialty priest/ess". The reason is because their duties are specified to the specific Gods they serve (although of course they are able to perform other rites as well). They offer their service to the community in relation to their specified duties. This is similar to the ancient Greek priests/esses of the various deities. Those were responsible and in charge of a specific shrine/altar/temple and served a specific deity alone.

Most known priests/esses in the Hellenic scene today are Liturgical. The Devotee ones are less public and less encountered, usually because the Pagan community of today does not always have need of "specialty priests/esses". In addition, most people do not necessarily wish to take on such a duty (another reason why most Liturgical Priests are also temporary). A Devotee Priest is often called by his/her Gods to their explicit service and that is also a variation of a patron relationship. Not all patron relationships form priests.

Hekate - A Devotee's View

Hekate (Hecate is the Latin spelling and being Greek I prefer the Greek one hehehe) is perhaps one of the most misinterpretated and misrepresented deities in modern Paganism. From being given the Crone aspect when no historical or mythological source supports it verifiably (and because Neo-Paganism tends to cater to stereotypes heavily) to the misinterpretation of Her triplicity to unfounded overemphasizing of Her darker traits to virtually anything you can imagine.

Hekate has been misconstrued by many Neo-Pagans, mainly due to the lack of research and study of reputed sources (Hesiod's Theogony comes to mind as a very basic and vital work on the mythology of the Gods) but also, due to the overwhelming sense of "being special" that many Neo-Pagans seem to have. Note that this isn't a blog on poking the - admittedly big - portion of the "bad apples" in our big community tree. This is a post attempting to educate somewhat regarding a well-known but also exploited deity. However, in order to do so, one needs to shed light upon the shadows of ignorance and misinformation that cloud Hekate's image.

Before I delve deeper into Hekate's case, let me share some information on Her.

Hekate is the daughter and only child of the Titans Perses and Asteria. She inherited power over the earth, sea and sky from Her parents. Hekate is one of the very few Titans to have survived the Titanomachy and the Olympian reign "unscathed" (which is an allegoric/mythological way to portray the survival of Her cults and worship as opposed to that of most other Titans) as well as the only Titan to be praised equally to the Olympians. In the Theogony, Hesiod notes how Zeus praised Her above all others, did not take anything from Her power and even gave Her a share in the dominion of most other Gods. She is the one He often went to for advice.

Hekate is a Goddess of liminal places and times, key and torch bearing maiden, guide, psychopompe and "opener of ways". She is a counsellor and companion of those in need and protectress from and against witchcraft. At the same time She is the governor of all magical acts and believed to have invented theurgy. That is also why Hekate, alongside Hermes and/or Iris, was to be appeased and petitioned before any ritual act for the Gods, as She was the one (or rather one of those) responsible for and permitting the mortals to reach out for the Gods. Should Hekate refuse to aid you, your calls will remain unanswered and fall to deaf ears.

Hekate is also a Goddess related to the Moon (especially with the Dark/New Moon), childbirth (or more apporpriately, child-nurturing) and crossroads. She is one of the minor household deities, a protectress of the home and household from outside perils, alongside Hermes.

She presides over the darker side of the self as well as the inner one. She governs intuition, divination and insight. Hekate is the Goddess-In-The-Shadows but also the one who can pierce the shadows. She is a "dark Goddess" in the sense that She is Queen of the Unseen but not in the sense of negativity or "evil". Gods are beyond such human concepts.

She is a maiden Goddess and NOT a crone contrary to popular (mis)belief. Most mythological-related texts consider Her a virgin as well although some have her double as the mother of Skylla (by Phorkys - in the works of Apollonius Rhodius) or as the mother of Circe, Medea and Aigialeus (by Aeetes - in the works of Diodorus Siculus). Personally, I prefer the virgin Goddess theory since the rest conflict with the other mythological family trees.

Hekate is often portrayed as a crone due to Her association with Magic. In medieval times, the image of Hekate merged with the stereotypical image of an elderly, scary-looking woman over a cauldron. From that, as well as Her, somewhat "grim" duties, spawned the image of a physically old Hekate, which is, of course, mistaken.

Another "faulty" interpretation of Hekate's is Her triplicity. Due to the popularity of the Wiccan/Neo-Wiccan tenet of a Triple Goddess, other "Triple" Goddesses were mass-appointed and understood as being "triple" in the same manner. That is also incorrect. Hekate is triple in a literal sense. Being associated with crossroads and liminal places, Hekate is literally a "three-headed/formed figure", seeing in all directions. The Triple Goddess tenet of modern Paganism (specifically Wicca) is allegoric in the sense that it's related to aspects and periods as opposed to a literal, physical figure. In addition, Hekate was also portrayed often as a single person or as having three distinct bodies.

Finally, Hekate is a strict and stern Goddess. She can be very loving, warm and intimate with Her followers, especially those that praise and satisfy Her but She is also not as forgiving as other deities as well as intolerant of many vices, in a greater degree than most deities. A bright example is how She can be quick to remove (at least temporarily or until reformation occurs) Her favour and aid from even a devoted follower of Hers, should he/she stray from the path and fail to meet the requirements and standards set, not so much by the Goddess Herself, as much as by the person. Unlike other deities, Hekate is less direct and more influencial, meaning She works in more subtle and indirect ways as well as more affecting ones, since She approaches you in a gentle fashion as opposed to a strong, straightforward manner.

If Hekate calls to you, don't freak out. She can be strict but also very rewarding. As Hesiod says: "He who has her favour will be showered with riches, for it is within her power." (paraphrased). However, be wary. She won't tolerate the unworthy.

Constructing/Erecting An Altar

First, I should define what I mean by "altar": an altar for me is roughly a "place" (or better some sort of furniture like a small table or a natural construct like a flat rock) where active religious and other spiritual practices take place (or if you wish, the centre of the place those practices take part in). An altar is a construct that holds symbols appropriate to the practice and its theme at hand and/or where offerings and sacrifices are placed. An altar is traditionally dedicated to a deity or a group of closely associated deities and is used for specific purposes. Some altars are "catch-alls" in the sense that they are used for a multitude of purposes, although even then there's a common, underlying theme (such as various practices that all fall under "Witchcraft" or "worship").

Now, I'll get into constructing (or erecting if you wish) an altar. Before one does so, they should consider a few things: What is the purpose of the altar? What will it mostly be used for? Which deity or deities will it be dedicated to? How do that deity or deities tie in with the aforementioned?

After those are answered adequately, one should begin the actual construction. This has two parts: 1. physical construction (finding an appropriate piece of furniture or natural construct to use as an altar, accumulation of the necessary objects etc) and 2. spiritual construction (cleansing, consecration, dedication etc).

Part 1 - Physical Construction

First, one needs to find an appropriate object to act as an altar. A small table, a cupboard, a large, solid box, a flat rock, any of these will do. Then, one needs to gather the appropriate material. I will use "making an altar to Artemis" as an example throughout this blog.

Let's say, you picked a cupboard to use as an altar. Then you will gather the material you need to make it appropriate for Artemis. Things sacred to her will be necessary. For instance, oak leaves and acorns, (wild)flowers, fruits or animal figures/statuettes, a small statue of Artemis, a cloth to cover the cupboard (altar cloth) in green, orange or light blue (colours associated with Artemis), (gem)stones etc. The ritual tools can also be placed on the altar (e.g. athame, chalice, bell, wand, pentacle etc)

Before you place all those things on the altar, you need to place it in the room. Traditionally, North or East are the preferred locations, although if the alignment and organization of the room (especially if it's a room already used for something such as living room or bedroom) do not allow the altar to be positioned in either places or if perhaps the space is limited, one can place it elsewhere. What matters is that you should be able to access the altar freely and with ease and should have adequate space to either move it for rituals (such as in the centre of the room) or be able to encompass it in the ritual/circle by default.

The altar should be kept clean and organized and any offerings/placements renewed/replaced regularly. Especially if you have things that can rot or attract insects (fruits, flowers or food and drink offerings), keeping it clean and tidy is a must if you don't wish to honour your Gods with your altar crawling with ants, flies and bees.

If the altar is outdoors (such as a flat rock), the ornaments and objects can be removed when the work is done (you may even have to do so if it's in public place like a park) and insects etc are a necessary downside.

Now that all physical requirements are met, I'll proceed to spiritual construction.

Part 2 - Spiritual Construction

First, you need to arrange the altar and its items in a manner that is helpful (meaning you won't have trouble reaching for the necessary items nor will they hide or obstruct each other) and if possible, symbolic. Do so in a sketch or plan first and not literally (meaning don't place them yet, just plan how you'll do so). Before you place any items on it you need to cleanse and consecrate them. I'll provide a simple consecration (which can be found anywhere on the Net or in books in a multitude of versions and variations) with salt water.

Note that some items can be destroyed or damaged by salt water. If there's such a possibility or you're unsure whether something can be damaged, use a different method for that item (e.g. something made of paper won't tolerate water, some gemstones can be corroded by salt etc).

The cleansing should take place before the consecration (even if it is in a single ritual, it should preceed it). I cleanse items by sprinkling salt water and saying a small prayer to the appropriate deity (Artemis in this example).


Take each of the items (things such as leaves, flowers, fruits etc don't really need consecration, unless they are offerings - of course, if you wish, you can consecrate them), place them in a small plate (or other container they'll fit in), sprinkle with salt water you have previously blessed and say while visualizing light (of your colour of choice, though appropriate to Artemis) descending from the sky and bathing the item:

"I now consecrate you, oh _____ (name of item), in the name of Artemis (as per the example), Goddess of the wilderness and of nature and protectress of the females of all species. May She, the Wild Maiden of the Crescent Moon, the Radiant Flame of the Olympian Gods, pour Her energy and blessings and power over you, oh ______ (name of item), and may you be dedicated to Her honour and service. May you be a fitting symbol of Artemis. So mote it be!"

Repeat until all items are properly consecrated.

After the cleansing and consecration of all items have been completed, you need to do so for the altar. Ideally, the cleansing should take place alongside the physical cleaning of the altar (perhaps as a small prayer accompanying the cleaning). If not, you can sprinkle salt water or smudge with a sage-stick, the altar and say a small prayer.

The consecration and dedication of the altar ought to be a bit more elabourate, since the altar is the centre of the sacred space and of the dedicated area. I will provide a full such ritual. Note, though, that this is made up right now, and has neither been tried nor used. Therefore, I'd advice against using it as it is and instead change at least a portion.

Altar Consecration and Dedication

Three candles (white, orange, light blue or green)
A small branch with green leaves, a single large leaf or a flower
A bowl with twice blessed salt water

Place the three candles on the altar (which must be completely empty, without even the altar cloth) in a way so that they form an inverted triangle (the point should be towards you - make sure it is large enough and has adequate space between the candles)). Light the candles slowly, while visualizing light of the appropriate colour (same as the candles) appear and emit from them as you light them. Visualize that light "filling up" the whole altar, enshrouding it. Hold on to that for as long as you can. Then take the bowl of salt water and sprinkle some in the centre of the triangle and all around it, as if forming a circle. Say:

"Hail Artemis Goddess! To this altar may you descend, the circle of divinity that holds Earth. May you step unto this and make it part of your sacred domain. Hail Artemis Goddess, you I call upon, glorious Goddess, Wild Maiden of the Crescent Moon, Daughter of Leto and Zeus, Apollo's twin sister, midwife and child-nurturing Goddess."

Proceed to gently touch the centre of the triangle with the tree branch or the large leaf, continuing to do so in a sweeping motion, so as the branch/leaf will start at the centre, "exit" from the upper opening (the one on the base of the triangle), turn clockwise, continue and "enter" from the right opening, continue in a straight line and "exit" from the opposing, left opening and go anti-clockwise, ending the sweeping at the left opening again, tracing a full circle. The say:

"Your pace and dance makes sacred the land you touch upon Artemis, Great Goddess. May this altar be dedicated to you and your honour and your service from now and until you choose to undo it, gracious Goddess, Gaea's companion. So mote it be!"

Slowly extinguish the candles in what way you see fit, starting from the lower one (the one closer to you) and moving counter-clockwise (meaning the second candle you extinguish is the right one and then the left one).

Remove the candles, clean the waters and any other remains on the altar, place the altar cloth and the consecrated items, in the way you chose to arrange them beforehand.

The tree branch/leaf should either remain on the altar for a chosen amount of time (I'd say a week or six days since six is a sacred to Artemis number), placed in front of the statuette or main symbol representing Artemis or it should be respectfully disposed of (don't throw it away - it would be better to leave it at a garden or park or other place in the countryside). The salt water can be kept for future rituals and other methods that require it or you may pour it at your sink (not in a plant pot or other such place, salt is hazardous for most plants).

Hopefully, this completes the construction of an effective, dedicated altar. From this point on this altar oughts to be used in any working related to Artemis or her spheres of effect (it won't be appropriate to use it in irrelevant things, unless Artemis is your patron deity or you feel comfortable doing so or if the purpose of the altar is more broad and not "deity-specific" even if it is dedicated to a specific deity).