Hellenism (also known as Hellenismos and Hellenic polytheism) refers to the religious practices of those who honour the gods of ancient Greece.
Hellenic refers to a particular time in Greek history, beginning with the conquests of Alexander the Great. In practice, those who practice Hellenism base their spirituality on the time spanning from the Minoan Era, through the Hellenic Era and up to the Christianisation of Rome.
There is a great deal of variety in how followers approach Hellenism, ranging from a reconstructionist path, seeking to recreate ancient religious practices, right through to adaptations of contemporary pagan practice. Hellenismos often refers specifically to the reconstructionist path or Hellenic reconstruction.
Hellenismos is the religious path of the ancient Greek, faithfully reconstructed for pagans in the modern world. Followers seek to be true adherents of the public and family ways of honouring the gods, in a manner that is as close as possible to that of the ancient Greeks.
Hellenismos is a diverse religious path that allows the follower to be equally diverse. The religion of the ancient Greeks had no formal doctrine regarding what was considered canon or the right way to serve a particular god. Instead, there existed a great deal of variety in forms of worship and belief across the Greek world and over the centuries. Different city states had different times for festivals and many had festivals that were unique to their own city. The ways in which people celebrated their religion differed from place to place and people held different views of the gods and life, often influenced by great philosophers such as Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. In fact, the path of Hellenismos is closely linked to philosophy. Studying the great philosophical writings of the time helps us to discover how the Greeks lived and how they viewed their world, including their perception of the divine. This diversity is not however a license for modern Hellenes to mix together whatever they want and call it Hellenismos. The focus is upon what is true to ancient Greek culture, as opposed to that of the Celts, the Jews, the Norse, etc.
Hellenism and contemporary paganism
While Hellenismos concentrates on reconstructing the ancient ways in the modern world, followers of Hellenism can ground themselves instead in those practices and ideas that have become familiar aspects of contemporary paganism.
The ancient Hellenes would not have cast circles and called quarters, for example, but there is no reason why one who is dedicated to Hellenism could not do this as their means of achieving a sacred connection to the Greek gods. Indeed, the four elements of fire, earth, air and water commonly called at the quarters are Greek concepts.
Hellenism, whether centred on contemporary or ancient paganism, is characterised by its veneration of the gods of the Hellenic world, honouring them by means of prayers, hymns, offerings and rituals.
In Hellenism, the gods are not distant and untouchable; they are real forces in the lives of their followers. The gods are part of the greater society of the cosmos, which is made up of many different beings. Humanity is just one rung on the ladder and the gods interact with humanity according to the same societal guidelines that humankind holds in esteem. For the Greeks of old, society was based upon reciprocity: society rewards those who contribute to it. If you live up to your responsibilities and help to make the world a more pleasant place, you are rewarded by sharing in those benefits, as everyone else should also be benefiting society in the same way.
This is the significance of making offerings. The gods are not given offerings as payment or a bribe in return for help. Offerings signify that we are willing to give back to the gods as well, recognising that they are also part of our community and so deserve the same or a greater level of reciprocity for all that they do.
The main gods of Hellenism are the Dodekatheon, the twelve Olympian gods. There are also numerous other gods, many of them the sons and daughters of the Olympian gods.
Zeus: The chief and king of the gods, renowned for wielding the mighty power of the thunderbolt. Zeus is the son of the Titans Rhea and Cronos, the latter of whom he overthrew after causing him to regurgitate all his sons and daughters (who were the other gods), thusly earning his place as ruler.
Hera: The wife of Zeus and queen of Olympus. She is best-known for her jealous outbursts against Zeus’ mistresses and their offspring. Hera is concerned primarily with marriage, women and fidelity.
Poseidon: The god of the oceans. He is often viewed as a tempestuous god that is easily angered, but this is also a reflection of his unwavering authority. Poseidon is primarily associated with the sea and rivers, horses and earthquakes.
Apollo: Apollo is a god of light, far-viewing into the distance, inspiring us to raise our eyes to greater horizons. He is primarily concerned with music, poetry, healing, prophecy and the arts.
Artemis: She is the virgin goddess of the hunt who wanders in the wild places. Many associate her with the moon, which is fitting as she is the twin sister of Apollo, who is associated with the sun. Artemis is primarily concerned with animals, chastity, children and the protection of her sacred forest.
Athena: She is the goddess of wisdom and the patron protector of the city of Athens, which still bears her name. She is regarded as a great warrior and extremely wise. Athena’s primary concerns are education, the arts and war.
Ares: Ares is the god of war and the son of Zeus and Hera. As god of war, this is his primary centre of concern, but he also takes interest in issues of strength, martial prowess and in some cases, assertive lust and virility.
Hermes: Hermes is the messenger of the gods and in this capacity is the god of guidance, who watches over travellers of all varieties – both physically and spiritually. He is concerned with travel, trade and animal husbandry.
Aphrodite: The goddess of love. She is connected to love in all its forms, as well as beauty and sexuality. When Aphrodite was born she was the most beautiful of the gods, so Zeus gave her in marriage to Hephaestus in order to stop the other gods warring over here. However, she had many affairs. Her main concerns are love, the sea, beauty and sex.
Hephaestus: Hephaestus is the smith of the gods, the god of fire and the forge. He is the god that is closest to workmanship, especially the construction of weaponry. His chief concerns are the forge, construction, the mastery of fire, and crafts.
Dionysus: Centrally, Dionysus is the god of wine and revelry, though in his mystery cults they may have explored many other associations to him. As it is, his primary concerns are wine, parties, drunkenness and sexuality.
Demeter: Demeter is the goddess of agriculture, who taught humanity how to work the land. She controls the fertility of the earth and the raising of crops.
In addition to these are Hades and Hestia. Hades is the god of the underworld, who took this area for his realm when the world was divided between him and his brothers, with Zeus ruling from the sky and Poseidon ruling the ocean. But Hades is still a very important god and holds a prominent place within the Greek pantheon. Hestia is the goddess of the hearth, who voluntarily gave up her place on Olympus so that she could dwell among humanity. Because of her care for humankind, she is afforded special favours in the homes of Hellenes, being given the libations before each meal and receiving prayers each day. This is certainly not the limit of Greek deities that may be honoured. There are a great many more, such as Pan, Priapus and the Fates, to name but a few.
Hellenes may also honour a variety of other spiritual beings, such as heroes and daemons. Heroes are legendary figures whose deeds have made them particularly noteworthy and who have achieved a divine or semi-divine status, or have otherwise earned the right to such honours. Examples of these would be the great hero Achilles, wise Odysseus and Jason. Daemons can take many forms, existing as the spirits of places and concepts, as well as free-roaming wild spirits. They may be beneficial or detrimental to humankind, generous, malicious or apathetic. They are as diverse in mood and temperament as humans, perhaps even more so. But like the gods, we may enter into relationships with them, helping to create a harmonious spiritual community between humanity, daemons and the gods.
One of the principal beliefs in Hellenismos is in the existence of an eternal soul, which is the vital essence of the individual. The philosopher Sallustius, for example, considered the body to be the vessel of the soul, through which it operates; yet the soul is not connected to the body. It is like a driver in a car, who begins life with no knowledge of how to drive. The soul must learn how to work the car and then how to navigate the road. In the same way, the soul must learn to find its way through life, by using a body that sometimes gets in the way or steers it in the wrong direction. This is not the only view of the soul. Different philosophers had different musings on the subject. But the existence of the soul is seen not only as a staple point of the religion, but also as a matter of logical sense to those involved.
Greek religion deals primarily with the afterlife from three angles. The most common is that the dead descend into Hades to spend their afterlife as a shade of their former self. There is also the view that the more deserving may spend their afterlives in The Asphodel Meadows, a place of natural beauty where the dead may dine upon asphodel flowers. To some though, the afterlife of Hades is simply a resting place for the soul before it drinks from the waters of forgetfulness and is reincarnated into a new life. Many within Hellenismos believe in reincarnation and it was a subject broached by many philosophers of the ancient world.
A chosen few may be able to avoid Hades altogether and ascend to places of prominence amongst the gods. The best example is the Hero Achilles, whose greatness was recognised by the gods who allowed him to avoid a regular human death and marry in the afterlife. To some, Achilles even elevated to the position of a god in his own right.
Hellenismos aims not just to worship the gods of Greece, but also to recapture the mentality and civility that the ancient Greeks aspired to. It is more than a way to worship; it is also a way to look at the world and find your place within it, both philosophically and physically. It teaches that we are accountable not only for ourselves, but also for the well-being of society and our fellow human beings. In Hellenismos, the gods smile on those that accept their responsibilities and honour those who honour them.