Jeremy J. Baer
So you want to join Hellenism? Congratulations! You are about to know the joys of the Olympian gods and one of earth’s most compelling cultures.
Perhaps you had a life-long love of Greek myth and history that brought you here. Or perhaps a Hellenic deity nudged you along this path. Or maybe you were a neopagan who wanted a more culturally specific religion. However you came here, and whatever you want to find, Hellenism can be a rewarding religion – provided you are willing to put in the work!
But I bet you may be confused about where to start. You may not know some of the issues and concerns in the modern Hellenic community. This essay is intended to serve as an informative and hopefully objective look at some of the most common concerns for the daring young neophyte to the religion. These are questions you probably have, or at least should be asking.
1) What is your level of interest?
A blunt question, but every neophyte should ask themselves this before they go any further.
You don’t need a graduate degree in Classics to practice, but Hellenism is a religion that honestly does require a lot of reading and study. Keep in mind you have the rest of your life to take up this study, so no worries about learning everything at once. But at some point, if you want more than a superficial understanding, you’re going to have to read a lot of books on mythology, religion, history and culture. Many of these books are interesting, but some admittedly are dry and involved studies that you just have to stick through.
Also, books mean money. If you can get them through a library that is just great, but that means you can’t keep a well-highlighted, dog-eared copy as a reference like many Hellenes. You can find a lot of books cheaply used, but then again some you can’t. The books that Hellenes read are major publications from prestigious universities like Oxford and Harvard, and not cheap texts from Llewellyn.
Another thing that costs money is statues and supplies. Once a Hellene finds the deities they want to honor, they usually set up a home shrine with candles, incense and figurines of the deities. This takes money and of course some space.
Finally, presumably at some point you going to start performing devotional rituals to the deities. This can take anywhere from five minutes to half an hour depending on how complicated you want it to be. I can’t presume to speak for the gods and what they want from a devotee; and I can’t presume to speak for you, reader, and what you want out of the religion. But I can tell you that if you can’t find five minutes every day, or around 30 minutes once a week, to revere your gods, this may not be the religion for you.
As much as we Hellenes like to read and study, we are expected to put that knowledge to practice. Those who don’t feel the calling of a clergy or other special path are not expected to devote their entire day to the deities, but the gods nonetheless demand regular offerings. And if you begin to develop a particular fascination with a certain deity and want to take your devotions to a new level, I promise you that you will be putting in more than a few minutes a week.
So at this point, you have to choose. If you want to be a serious Hellene, are you willing to dedicate a significant portion of your time and a little money to learning this religion and practicing it? If not, there is really no point in reading further.
2) What kind of Hellenic polytheist do you want to be?
Assuming you are dedicated to this religion, there is still a question of which flavor of Hellenist you want to be.
First, if anyone ever tells you that there is only one true path to the Hellenic deities, take them with a grain of a salt. There are those who say you must practice a particular philosophy to be considered smart and sophisticated, or that you must practice a form of mysticism to get close to the gods, or that you must be ethnically Greek for Zeus to like you, or that you must practice a certain lifestyle and politics to really be a pagan. These people are all charlatans who want special recognition for themselves and their supposedly one true way. If you don’t give it to them, they try to make you feel inferior. The truth is they need you far more than you need them. In fact, you really don’t need these people at all, which is probably the root of their troubles.
There are a variety of paths. There is what I would call the general practitioner, someone who studies and honors the gods without any special slant. There are those who take a particular philosophical approach to the deities. There are those who practice a form of mysticism, usually in connection with a particular deity they especially revere. And there are still other paths, too.
Unless you know what you want from the beginning, I suggest starting with a generalist approach of simply study and straightforward devotion. You can then develop a special focus, if you so choose, once you better understand the playing field.
3) How do I know if I am in the right group/organization/list/forum?
Does the list moderator/ group leader seem to feel he/she is always right and beyond reproach? Do they presume an air of entitled authority because they’re just so much smarter than everyone, or so much closer to the gods than everyone, or have better ancestry than anyone? Do they keep a cadre of cronies to praise their deeds and shout down naysayers? Do they feel they always need to be in the center of attention, and cause drama and insults for those not in their clique?
If so, then you’ve stumbled into a cult. Get out. Now. Run!
Aside from that, look at the general tone of the list. Do they politely answer your sincere questions? Do they seem friendly and helpful? If you have a particular slant on your religion, do they share it or at least tolerate it?
Just be advised Hellenes are an argumentative and knowledgeable bunch. If you give historically inaccurate information, they will correct you. If you try to pass yourself off as an expert when you are clearly not, expect a barrage of well-deserved heckling.
4) What gods to worship?
When you enter Hellenic lists, you will see people talking about their favorite deities, and perhaps a close relationship they feel they have with these deities. Do not panic! This is normal. These deities are sometimes called patrons or primary deities. If you don’t have a patron deity, don’t worry, you don’t need one. Some people never take a patron, and many more take one (or two or three) only after they have been in the religion a while and studied all the gods in depth.
There are 12 or 13 major deities, called Olympians, and there are a wealth of minor deities or demigods. Informally speaking, Apollo, Dionysus and Hermes seem to be the most popular patron gods among modern Hellenes. Athena, Aphrodite, Artemis and Hecate also have significant followings.
You should read a good bit about the major deities: their cults, their mythologies, their attributes, their representations in art. Eventually you’ll find one or more that connects with you (and if you don’t, maybe you’re in the wrong religion).
Perhaps the easiest deity to approach is Hestia, the Virgin Goddess of Hearth and Home. This gentle goddess should appeal to anyone not homeless, and she requires little more than a candle and a quick prayer. If you’re lost, start with Hestia.
5) What about other gods?
The foreign gods most closely associated with Hellenism are the Phyrgian Cybele, and the Greco-Egyptian deities Isis and Serapis. (The Indo-Iranian Mithras was not unknown in Greek speaking lands, but he was far more popular in Latin speaking lands.) Honoring these deities is well within the Hellenic mindset.
There is nothing that prevents you from honoring other deities in other pantheons. However, these deities are outside the Hellenic mindset, thus requiring you to explore that deity’s particular cultural paradigm. In other words, if you want to honor Wotan, don’t expect a Hellenic group to have much knowledge or interest in Wotan. You’ll have to visit an Anglo-Saxon list to learn how to properly approach Wotan. If you approach Wotan from a Hellenic standpoint, Hellenes may take issue with you, Anglo-Saxons may take issue with you, and Wotan himself may take issue with you.
6) What about Neos Alexandria?
Neos Alexandria is a special group in that it is not solely Hellenic. It is an organization dedicated to Greco-Egyptian syncretism: that is, the historical mingling of religions and cultures from the Hellenic and Egyptian world. Zeus-Amon or Hermanubis are examples of syncretic Greco-Egyptian deities that were historically honored and which Neos Alexandria seeks to explore.
Neos Alexandria, to a lesser degree, also has an interest in other Mediterranean cultures such as Rome and the Near Eastern border states.
7) What about Roman religion?
The Religio Romana is a separate, though highly related religion, for Roman deities and spirits. Some people have called it, with justice, a first cousin of Hellenism. You’ll find that Roman polytheists and Hellenic polytheists usually get along with each other and lurk on each other’s lists. The most direct overlap comes in the form of the cult of Apollo, which the Romans imported directly from Greeks.
Neos Alexandria is friendly to Romanophiles. Hellenes interested in Roman gods and culture might also be interested in Nova Roma (www.novaroma.org) or Templum Deorum (http://community.livejournal.com/templum_deorum/profile)
8) How do I perform a ritual?
Until you learn enough to develop your own rituals, the following can serve as a very basic devotional rite to get you started:
* Set up a domestic altar. You should have a lamp or candle, a bowl to pour libations (liquid offerings) and/or a place to burn incense or scented candles. An image of a deity is nice: you can print one from online if you don’t have a statue.
* Wash yourself before doing the ritual. The best time to perform a ritual is right after a shower.
* Approach the altar. Be mindful you are in the presence of a deity.
* Light the candle or lamp.
* Invoke Hestia and any other deities you want. It is best to recite a hymn to them. These can be historic hymns such as a Homeric Hymn. They can be hymns that moderns have written and which are housed on a website for your benefit. But once you have studied a god, it is best to write a hymn yourself.
* Ask the deities for their blessings, or what you specifically want from them. If you have a specific request, it should be asked of a deity who specializes in such requests, i.e., if you need healing you would ask a healing deity such as Apollo.
* Tell the deities what you will give them if they grant your requests. This could be something general, or something very specific.
* Pour your libations and/or light the incense or scented candle.
* Thank the deity for listening. Blow out your initial candle or lamp. At some point later dispose of the libation reverently outside if you made one.
* If you can’t perform rites inside for whatever reason, you may make libations outside. You should pick a nice calm, quiet spot.
9) What are some of the best books to read first?
The Homeric Hymns. Homer. Penguin Classics
The Iliad and The Odyssey. Homer. (I strongly recommend the Fagles translations)
Theogony & Works and Days. Hesiod
Ancient Greek Religion. Jon D. Mikalson
Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. Thomas R. Martin
Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored. Sarah Kate Istra Winter
Greek Religion. Walter Burkert
The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World.
Greek Art. Michael Siebler.
Euripides. (various plays)
This should give you a taste of Hellenic religion, past and present, as well as its mythology, history and arts. You should be able to generally follow discussions on lists. You may not have all the answers, but at least you’ll know the right questions to ask. You’ll have a good basis for delving further in you studies if you chose to remain with us!
10) Where can I get statues and supplies?
11) What are some Hellenic organizations?
For an excellent list of online resources of the Greco-Roman world, go here: http://www.unrv.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=8719
The most important thing, dear neophyte, is this: follow your head and your heart. Use your head to learn the ins and outs of Hellenic religion and culture. Use your heart to find out where your interests lay, and what the gods speak to you. When you put the two together, you shouldn’t go far wrong.
And the other thing to remember is: don’t burn out. Don’t try to do everything at once. Nothing in Excess and Know Thyself perhaps best express the central tenant of Greek culture: you’re only human. In knowing the gods and their place in the cosmos, we come to know humanity and our place in the universe. We accept both our strengths and our limitations as humans. This religion takes time, patience and work. But you’ll find that all the investment pays off when you begin to immerse yourself in the beauties of classical culture and the deities who presided over it!