Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.

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Reconstruct? Y/N

This blog post is the third installment in a very loose series focussing on the practice of reconstruction. The other parts can be found here: Standardizing Hellenismos and Thinking like a Recon. In this third--and probably final part--I will talk about trying to figure out which practices should be reconstructed, and which should not be. I can't speak for all Recon faiths on this, and I can only offer my opinion on Hellenismos. Others will disagree. In order to illustrate some of the points in this post, I will use the ancient practice of animal sacrifice. I have spoken about the practical and ethical difficulties of reviving that practice before, but it is such a fantastic example, I can not ignore it.

With the disclaimer out of the way, lets get on with this post, shall we? As previously discussed, Reconstructionist faiths work on a basic premise: those who practiced it first, practiced it best. If we want to worship these Gods, we should do it in a way which the Gods are used to and expect of us. Yet, society has changed. Other religions have come and gone. People have changed. Some practices have no place in current society but... how do we decide which practices should or should not be revived? And is it really up to us to decide this?

There are a few factors which influence the decisions of modern Recon practitioners when it comes to answering these questions. Influencing factors are current laws, the time period which the practitioner is trying to reconstruct, if the practice was part of the culture or the religion and--somewhat unfortunately-- the preference of the practitioner.

Modern day laws
Some practices from the source culture and its religious practice are simply forbidden in modern day. In the Netherlands, the sacrifice of animals at a home or temple altar without properly anesthetizing the animal first is one of these practices. It's understandable; killing a creature that is aware of being killed results in a bloody and painful mess. In ancient Greece, the animals weren't anesthetized before slaughter but a case can be made that, as animals in ancient Greece had to be willing participants, anesthetizing them after they have walked the required procession should not interfere with the validity of the sacrifice. A license is required, however, and this raises another need for dedicated clergy who are willing to invest in the time and money to go through this process. Other examples include (family) vendetta's in which murder is standard practice and slavery.

The time period
Which practices to reconstruct is largely dependent upon which time period you are trying to reconstruct. To go back to animal sacrifice: the practice was prevalent in the beginning of the Hellenic period and continued on into Roman times but the practice did lose favor with scholars along the way. The later one gets in time period of practice, the less need there is to reconstruct the practice of animal sacrifice.

Culture or religion?
The most important question to answer is this one; was the practice part of the culture or the religion? Of course, separating the two is hard. Especially in ancient Greece, religion was so entwined with daily life, they would not have understood that there was a difference between the two. Every single practice, for them, was tied to the Gods and Their worship. We try to reconstruct the religious practices of the ancient Greeks, not their culture. For us, the distinction can be made, although some issues remain hard to decide upon. Here are some points to look at:

  • Were there Gods directly responsible for the practice?
  • Did the practice have a deciding influence on festivals and/or household worship?
  • Was it a job for clergy?
Two examples: animal sacrifice was practiced for all Gods, although no single God or Goddess was responsible for the practice. Animal sacrifice was incredibly important on both festivals and household worship and although the common man could do it, in large scale festivals, the task of sacrificing an animal fell to clergy. Animal sacrifice could be considered a practice that needs constructing.
 
Slavery was not overlooked by a specific Deity. It was a major influence on Greek culture but festivals and household worship could take place without them. Priests and priestesses were almost never slaves. Slavery can be left in the past as it did not influence religious practice directly. 
 
Personal preference
Personal preference goes both ways; either it can lead to the incorporation of ancient practices which could be left in the past, or it can lead to the exclusion of ancient practices which should not be left in the past. Both have their reasons and they largely depend on individual practitioners. If Hellenismos is ever standardized, the very core of practices need to be filtered out. These practices must then be adhered to in order to call the practice Hellenic. Any other practice should come with a recommendation, either to encourage the practice or discourage its use. Doing this would clear up a lot of confusion but also leave the practitioner free to shy away from practices they do not agree with or incorporate practices they don't. Animal sacrifice would be a good example of the first, the tending of a continual flame for Hestia an example of the latter. 
 
The question remains if it's up to us to decide what the Gods require of us. By trying to sort out which practices were part of culture and which were part of religion, this question can be avoided for a number of issues. In my opinion, those who truly wish to follow a Recon path do not get to decide which practices they are comfortable with or not. Yet, that statement is too black and white. Our personal practice depends not only on our ideas but also on the opinions our family, friends and general community have of us. Butchering a pig in your back yard--even with anesthetics--will not go over well with the neighbors. If there is a dedicated (and secluded) Temple space available, this issue may be resolved but for most of us, that is not the case. 
 
Reconstruction is hard. The two cultures are often irreconcilable and our ideals and knowledge about the world has changed. Still, it's a worthy struggle to decide for yourself how far you are willing to go for the Gods you worship. As  Recons, we walk a fine line and there are many people, Pagan and non-Pagan, who do not understand our religion. These struggles do not make the religion any less valid, though, and there is definitely a place in the modern religious landscape for Recon Traditions.
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Elani Temperance is a twenty-seven year old woman, who lives with her partner in The Netherlands. She has been Pagan for a little over twelve years and has explored Neo-Wicca, Technopaganism, Hedge Witchery and Eclectic Religious Witchcraft before progressing to Hellenismos. Although her home practice is fully Hellenic, she has an online Neo-Pagan magazine called 'Little Witch magazine' (www.littlewitchmagazine.com) in which she and several co-writers try to cover the whole gamut of Neo-Paganism. Baring the Aegis is also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BaringTheAegis

Comments

  • Rose
    Rose Sunday, 02 September 2012

    I think a great example of how to modernize Hellenismos is to look to the Jewish and Catholic religions. Recently we had a reform of the old Catholic practices in the last century. There are also modern Jewish practice and Hasidc Jewish practice. Looking at how one old form of a religion became the new form might be of great benefit to Hellenic Recons. Hope I'm making sense.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Wednesday, 05 September 2012

    If I may be permitted to interject once again from the Théodish perspective on Reconstructionism, animal sacrifice (Old Norse blót) forms one of the central cores of our modern practice.

    The situation in the United States is, of course, quite different in the legal sense. The First Amendment to our Constitution, and the case-law surrounding it, support the right of individuals to conduct animal sacrifice as a religious act (interestingly, the primary case that tested this was one brought by practitioners of Santeria). Laws regarding hygiene and public health must still be observed, of course (unless they're enacted specifically to block a group that practices sacrifice, which runs afoul of the First Amendment protection of religious practice).

    Théodish Belief (and Heathenry in general) makes much less of a distinction between culture and religion than you posit for Hellenic Reconstructionism, for many of the reasons you describe above. Heathens tend to gravitate towards the same sorts of skills that our ancestors had, and Théodsmen in particular consciously attempt to emulate their social structure with our own tribal structure and differing arungs (social classes).

    In such a context, we see much less need to agonize about the three questions you pose, since we view the social and human-derived elements of Germanic culture as no less important than those that are explicitly derived from divine revelation.

    The question about clergy is an interesting one, but once again it's one for which Théodish Belief has an answer. The entire concept of "clergy" is one that is based on social strata. The head of the family is considered the "clergy" for that family, the king is considered the "clergy" for the folk as a whole, and various intermediaries are considered to be at various intermediate levels of organization.

    There were formal "clergy" as we currently understand the term, but they were more designees of the person who might otherwise have the function (thus, if the king weren't around to perform a particular rite on behalf of the folk, a priest might be called upon to do so in his stead), rather than some separate and unique function.

    I'd be interested to know whether or not the Greeks assigned priestly functions to their political leaders.

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Tuesday, 11 September 2012

    Thank you for your reply! I am sorry that I am responding to it this late; I had a bit of a tough weekend. I really appreciate the Théodish viewpoint you provide me with. thank you for that!

    As to your reply; the major focal-points for Hellenismos are the Theoi and ethical life. Culture is of far lesser importance. This is why these questions function well within a Hellenic framework. Because of these focal-points, anima sacrifice is rarely practiced; our modern day ethics are against it. I don't really understand this, but such is life. I think that when the religion grows a bit, it might become more prevalent again.

    As for clergy; the male leader of the household was in charge of household worship while other clergy positions tended to fall to the elite, but not necessarily the rulers. There were exceptions to this rule, however, and women had their fair place as priestesses.

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