Baring the Aegis: Hellenismos

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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Musings on Hellenic priesthood

I think I mentioned before that priesthood in ancient Hellas was a lot different from priesthood as we understand it now. In the modern (Pagan) interpretation, priests serve a mostly spiritual role; they serve the religious community as a vessel for or to a God or Goddess. The primary tasks of a modern day priest(ess) seem to be to serve the community, to spread the gospel of the God(ess) in question and to offer access to the God(dess) in question.

In ancient Hellas, the role of priest(ess) was a largely temporary, governmental, function. The profession of priest could be bought, and usually only lasted a few years at best. Minding a temple was almost exactly like minding a house; clean-up, clean-up, clean-up. In fact, religious celebrations weren't led by the priest(ess), but by the magistrate or other high ranking government official. The sole task of the priest(ess) was the animal sacrifice, but that was vitally important.

During most festivals, an animal was sacrificed. It was the job of the priest(ess) to pick out the animal, lead it to the altar and bless the animal. Especially the latter was a job only a priest(ess) could perform, because they were especially well versed in liturgy, and because a failure to preform the exact rites would result in a failure of the sacrifice.

After the blessing, the priest(ess) would slaughter the animal, skin it, cut it up and distribute the meat between the altar and the participants. He or she would see to it that the meat was cooked up properly and divided fairly, although he or she might leave the actual butchering and cooking to the mageiroi, ritual helpers.

What stands out from this practice is that the priest(ess) is not a representative of the Gods, but of the supplicants. Because of this, his or her presence during the ritual was indispensable. Because of their dual task, the ancient Hellens used two words to describe priests: hiereus, meaning 'sacrificer', and arètèr, meaning 'supplicant'. One of the most beautiful examples of a sacrefice comes from Hómēros. In the Illias, we find this:

"Meanwhile Odysseus had touched at Chryse, bearing the sacrifice. Entering the deep harbour, they furled the sail and stowed it in the black ship, dropped the mast by lowering the forestays, and rowed her to her berth. Then they cast out the anchor stones, made fast the hawsers, and leapt on shore. Next, the offering of cattle for far-striking Apollo was disembarked, and Chryses’ daughter landed from the sea-going boat. It was Odysseus, that man of resource, who led her to the altar, and handed her to her dear father, saying: ‘Chryses, our leader Agamemnon commanded me to return your daughter, and make holy sacrifice to Phoebus for all the Greeks, and propitiate your lord Apollo, who has brought the Argives pain and mourning.’ With this, he handed her to her father who joyfully clasped her in his arms.
 
Swiftly now they tethered the offering of cattle around the well-built altar, rinsed their hands and took handfuls of sacrificial barley grains. Then Chryses raised his arms and prayed on their behalf: ‘Hear me, God of the Silver Bow, protector of Chryse and holy Cilla, lord of Tenedos. Just as once before when I prayed to you, you honoured me and struck the Achaeans a fierce blow, so grant my new plea, and avert this dreadful scourge from the Danaans.’ So he prayed, and Apollo listened.
 
When they had offered their petition and scattered grains of barley, they drew back the victims’ heads, slit their throats and flayed them. Then they cut slices from the thighs, wrapped them in layers of fat, and laid raw meat on top. These the old man burnt on the fire, sprinkling over them a libation of red wine, while the young men stood by, five-pronged forks in their hands. When the thighs were burnt and they had tasted the inner meat, they carved the rest in small pieces, skewered and roasted them through, then drew them from the spits. Their work done and the meal prepared, they feasted and enjoyed the shared banquet, and when they had quenched their first hunger and thirst, the young men filled the mixing-bowls to the brim with wine and pouring a few drops first into each cup as a libation served the gathering. All that day the Achaeans made music to appease the god, singing the lovely paean, praising the god who strikes from afar; while he listened with delight."
 
In this beautiful written piece, Chryses is a priest of Apollo. He had previously begged Apollo to curse those who had taken his daughter, but performed the proper rites to Apollo to appease him as his daughter was returned to him.
 
There were other tasks a priest(ess) or the mageiroi performed. Depending on the temple, examples include oracular practices, the singing of oracles (usually by a thespiode), and dancers (especially for Artemis and Kybele, known as melissai).
 
Priests and priestesses were drawn from almost every hierarchical position, but mostly came from royalty. Still, coming from high birth was not enough. The priest(ess) had to be without deformities and if they were of particular beauty, they had a better chance of filling the position. Votes or lots are cast in order to choose the right priest(ess) for the temple at that time. 
 
Clergy lived 'off of the altar'; from every sacrifice, they received a large, good, piece of meat. For their services, they often received extra gifts of bread, other baked goods, and wine for the libations. As a counter, the priest(ess) brought the wood, oil and honey for the sacrifice, but these were paid back to the temple with interest. This practice led to a society where temples slowly accumulated wealth and could expand, bringing prosperity to the city or town around it.
 
As modern Hellenics, we need to decide where we will place priests and priestesses in our hierarchy. Which tasks will they be charged with? Will we add animal sacrifice to our practice? How will be pick our clerics, then? Will our priesthood be automatically made up by those who are legally allowed to sacrifice these animals, or would they have needed to build a physical temple? If so, will we sustain these priests and priestesses with gifts or money, or will we only make use of them at festivals and leave them a nine to five job to fend for themselves? How many clerics do we need and for how large a group do we need them? These are the questions that come to mind when thinking about priesthood in a modern Hellenic context. I have no answers for these, although I have my preferences. I would love to hear about yours. 
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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

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