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.
Taboos in ancient Hellas
Society is an ever-chancing construct, influenced by the people living (in) it and changing those people in return. What was socially acceptable as little as ten years ago, may not be socially acceptable today. Smoking in public spaces, for example. Imagine going back hundreds of years to a society much unlike our own. Most of what we do today would have been taboo then, and much of what was daily practice then, is taboo today. This post will serve to highlight some of these taboos, from both sides of the coin. Please, remember this post is all in good fun; some of these practices may seem barbaric, but that's your culture speaking. For the ancient Hellens, it was absolutely normal: it was their culture and no modern Hellenic would try to bring back practices which are now against the law.
On to the taboos!
Animal sacrifice: at this point, even I realize I talk about animal sacrifice too much, so I'll just leave you with a few sentences on it, and a link to more information about the practice in ancient Hellas and modern Hellenic Reconstruction. Animal sacrifice is a controversial practice these days, although many religions, even within Paganism, practice it. Back in ancient Hellas, it was a very common practice. While I have never been to a ritual which included the sacrifice of an animal, I am not morally opposed to it in a religious setting where it makes sense and when it is done in a way that is quick and painless for the animal.
Pederasty (παιδεραστία): pederasty was a socially acknowledged erotic relationship between an adult male and a younger male usually in his teens, and was practiced mostly in the Archaic and Classical ages of Hellenic history. The courtship of the younger male (although the age difference could be neglectable in some cases) started with a ritual abduction of the younger male. The older male selected a youth and enlisted the chosen one's friends to help him, and carried off the object of his affections to his andreion, a sort of men's club or meeting hall. The whole group spent one or two months out in the countryside where they feasted, hunted and simply spent time together, enjoying life.
The next step in the process was to court the youth with gifts. Three gifts were traditional: military attire, an ox, and a drinking cup, but the youth most certainly received more expensive gifts. When the youth returned to the city, the ox was sacrificed to Zeus and and the youth and his friends feasted. The young man also received special clothing that in adult life marked him as kleinos, 'famous, renowned.' The young man was called a parastatheis, 'he who stands beside', and served as cup bearer for the older male, the philetor, during meals in the andreion. Remind you of someone? Sex was part of this relationship, although the younger male rarely carried any love for the older male. Semen was said to transfer wisdom, so this is why younger boys accepted the practice. The rise in status also helped. There was a female version of this practice, but it's much less documented.
Homosexuality: although the practice of pederasty is often interpreted as a 'homosexual practice', no ancient Greek in their right mind would see it as such. If they had known the term 'bisexual', they would not have used it. Marriage was to someone of the opposite gender. You were heterosexual. Period. While members of both sexes may have shared their beds with someone of the same gender, this had nothing to do with the way they identified on the Kinsey scale. In ancient Hellas, what mattered was the role you played in bed. The males, especially when older or higher up in the hierarchy, were supposed to be the dominant ones, the active ones, while the women, the young and those lower in the hierarchy, the passive ones. Because of the age difference and the difference in social standing, the young male assuming a passive role was permitted in pederasty, but a grown man assuming that role was a social and sexual taboo. A wife who took charge in the bedroom would have been frowned upon as well. Especially within the marriage, sex served to make babies, nothing more. Prostitutes and concubines were still supposed to assume a passive, female, role, but I am willing to bet there were some exceptions to that rule.
Adultery: although it's not exactly cheered on in modern times, both partners tend to walk away with emotional and financial pain only. In ancient Greece, the punishment was a tad more severe. If a married woman had intercourse with a man other than her husband, she could be killed. Another option was to divorce. she was then sent back to her father. If he rejected her (and he usually did), she was left to fend for herself, which often led to a life of slavery. The man she cheated with was often worse off. He was also liable to get killed, especially if caught in the act, because the husband had the right to kill him, without getting punished for it. There is another reported punishment for a man who slept with a free woman who was married: rhaphanidosis. Rhaphanidosis is the act of inserting the root of a horseradish into the anus. A mulletfish could also be inserted. The act of rhaphanidosis is part of the comic play 'Nephelai' (Νεφέλαι) of Aristophanes, but no one knows for sure if the punishment was ever really applied.
It makes sense that the male involved with the adultery was more severely punished than the woman; birth control was available in ancient Hellas, but rarely applied. To bring an illegitimate child into the oikos was a terrible offense, and one for which the male was blamed. Needless to say, the husband was free to find pleasure with any woman who was not married. Prostitution was common, and men tended to have concubines. Some even lived at the house. Demosthenes, a Hellenic writer from ancient Athens, was recorded as saying: 'we have courtesans for pleasure, concubines to provide for our daily needs, and our spouses to give us legitimate children and to be the faithful guardians of our homes'.
Slavery: I have already written about slavery in ancient Hellas, so let me copy/paste the basics and direct you to the post for further reading. A Greek slave was called a doûlos (δούλος), which would translate best as a 'servant' or 'serf'. In ancient Greece, doûlos were the working class. They were teachers, farmers, shop owners, herders, doctors, city militia, cleaners, etc. Because many performed a public service, they had a house of their own as well as a salary. Household serfs were called oikétês (οἰκέτης). The female head of the household was charged with teaching--and keeping order amongst--the household serfs. Slavery as it is known today is a lot different than slavery in ancient Hellas. In fact, if I had the money, I could still hire a nanny for my children, a gardner for my garden, a cook for my supper and farmers to tend to my farm. All could come to live at my house if it was big enough. The only difference is that I do not have to buy these people, nor would I own them.
Nudity: the ancient Hellens were very proud of their bodies. Both men and women worked hard to retain or attain beauty. The men were warriors and athletes, women could be athletes as well. Both had the highest beauty ideals one could ever look to live up to: the Theoi themselves. Men went to school at a gymnasium. A large part of the curriculum consisted of sports, and these were practiced in the nude. Most often, the young men didn't dress again for the lectures on mathematics, astronomy and other sciences that were taught afterwards; the climate didn't require it, nor did society. Even women were fully or partially naked when practicing sports. Nudity--especially for men--was completely normal in ancient Hellas. When they felt the urge to dance, make music or practice sports, they threw off the loosely draped cloth they wore as clothing and went for it. Measuring how free women were with their nudity is more difficult as ancient Hellenic women rarely left the house, except for religious festivals. It is recorded, however, that nudity during festivals happened quite often. Although there were undoubtedly situations in which nudity was frowned upon, public nudity was very much an accepted practice.
Minor taboos: although these were not minor back in the day, to write an entire paragraph on each would make this post entirely too long. Fallatio was a big taboo in ancient Hellas. It was performed, on occasion, but the young boy, prostitute or lover would always refuse to do it, get beaten about some, and then surrender. To just perform the act was shaming for both, so the ritual needed to be included. A man never made his wife perform the act. Sex before marriage was also frowned upon. Eating meat from domesticated animals and drinking milk was also taboo. Eating meat from an animal which was not sacrificed to the Gods was also not done. Not performing the proper rituals to purify yourself for the Gods was also a big taboo.
There were a lot of other taboos in ancient Hellas, but since many of these prevail to this day, I have not listed them. Incest is one that comes to mind. Taboos say a lot about a culture and the people in it. The boundaries of what is, and what is not, socially accepted bind people together. They also give clues about Hellenic Reconstruction. I have said before that reconstruction separates religion from culture, but when reconstructing a religion where religion defined the culture, one is invariably bound to it by some extend. While pederasty was a big thing in ancient Hellas, no one is saying we need to bring it back today. There are laws against it, and those are justly in place. Yet, taking a second look at our bodies--especially in this age of prudishness, distorted body images and obesity--and our reaction to it, may not be such a bad thing.
This was a small sampling of ancient Hellenic taboos and modern practices which would have shocked the ancient Hellens. I hope it was a source of information and amusement. Take from it what you will, and--perhaps--take a look at our modern taboos and practices to say what it says about our culture and society. Which taboos and practices will future humans frown, laugh or gawk at? What will we change or leave behind... and what will--and should--we hold on to as long as possible?
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