Pagan Paths

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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Unverified Personal Gnosis

Interestingly enough, I had already written half of this post when Anne commented on yesterday's post, mentioning that practicing by UPG, to her, is more important than practicing by the ancient sources. I've been thinking about UPG a lot lately, in the same thought stream that produced yesterday's post of standardizing Hellenismos.

I have a love/hate relationship with Unverified Personal Gnosis (or UPG, for short). On the one hand, I believe, with every fiber of my being, in the knowledge I have been made privy of by the Gods. I believe in my experiences and they are sacred to me. They run anywhere from synchronicious events to detailed biographies and some of them I will never share with anyone, they were that special. Throughout my practice, I have allowed UGP to push me forward in my path. Much of what I know, have done or now practice is directly related to a UPG event, this blog and Little Witch magazine included.

On the other hand, there is UPG out there that contradicts mine, that I personally think is completely incorrect or that questions everything I believe in. Needless to say, this is UPG I struggle with. I can't view it as invalid; I respect everyone's path too much for that, but where does it fit in with my believes? We are talking about the same Gods, right?

One of my major struggles with UPG is that the mere mention of it often seems to cut short any form of discussion about the subject or, and I find this more worrying, UPG gets used to prove a standpoint. The problem with UPG is that it, by its very nature and definition, can't be verified. It can therefor never be used to give credit to or discredit a viewpoint or hypothesis. I can't rightfully say: 'Athena's eyes are blue'. What I can say is 'I believe Athena's eyes are blue'.

Within the Hellenic community, UPG is almost completely ignored. It may play a role in individual household worship but does not enter into the religion at large. Only UPG from the ancient Greeks is used to base the religion on. I think it's valid to say that anything the ancient Greeks did, was based upon UPG, too. Oracles made predictions, rulers made declarations and myths came into being to explain why certain days were special or how major spheres of influence came to be. That stream that sustains the community? That's Arethusa, who got transformed into the steam in order to escape from Alpheus. Why are there seasons? Because Demeter makes it so in her grief over Persephone.

These myths are either completely made up or revealed through UPG to those who dealt with these phenomenon. I prefer to believe the latter. Once into existence, these UPG events became part of daily life, of mythos and of Deity. Shrines were erected, rituals were decided upon. UPG upon UPG until doctrine formed and the belief spread. Some rituals never traveled further than a village or two because the UPG applied only to a very specific event or phenomenon. Others traveled the whole of Hellas.

I wrote about my wish for UPG to be included in modern day Hellenismos a couple of months ago. While the sentiment still holds true, I realize that my viewpoint has changed since then. I think it's fair that UPG doesn't play a part in Hellenismos. It's incredibly sad for these lines to end but as a pure Recon faith, modern UPG can not be included because it would muddle the lines between old and new.

That having been said, I can see a denomination of Hellenismos forming where UPG is allowed, where myth builders and oracles come together to stretch out the Divine genealogy lines and get revealed the name of the grand daughter of Hephaestus who rules over modern technology or the name of the son of Hermes who guards those who travel by plane. I would love to know if Hephaestus is still married to Aphrodite and if Persephone has driven her husband nuts yet.

There is a time and place for UPG and, as long as everyone is clear that this is (modern) UPG, there is absolutely nothing against using it in your practice, even in a Recon faith. I think we all do that, just by having a certain idea about a Deity and interacting with Them. We get to know Them, and sometimes we see a different side of Them than described in mythology or experienced by others. Sharing this with others is a good thing but, especially within Recon Traditions, it's important to know that others may--and most likely will--disagree. And that's alright, because they have received their fair share of UPG events too.

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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

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Wednesday, 22 August 2012

    Elani,

    What a thoughtful post about the balance between personal mysticism (which has come to be known as UPG) and received tradition. My thanks to you for raising and considering these vital questions.

    My Paganism -- coming, as it does, out of a long history in Christianity, including a Master's degree from a Christian seminary which taught me the logical limits of received tradition through the tools of textual analysis and exegesis -- landed in a UPG heavy place because of my overweening desire for *connection* with Deity.

    I respect Reconstructionist polytheists, and their desire to return to "That Old Time Religion," but do not share their belief that such a thing as a normative ancient practice is either desirable or, more to the point, *possible.*

    My response is this: the ancients have much to teach us, of course, but how can their experience of deity be considered fundamentally more correct than our own? What's more, especially with a long-dormant tradition, how can a faith based in the Bronze Age possibly be *perfectly* relevant to the digital one without *new* revelation? Lastly, how can it be logical, or emotionally-satisfying, to believe that the gods spoke to us thousands of years ago but must be considered silent today?

    In my radical little soul, I *must* steer my own course, and being told "this god/dess must be worshipped in this particular way, because the texts tell us it is so" reminds me so much of the rigid fundamentalism of the Christian Biblical literalists of my youth that I have to studiously restrain my natural recoil to the concept in favor of respect and an open mind. Reconstructionism fills a gaping intellectual, sociological, and philosophical hole in the contemporary Pagan world of radical individualism, but it does not, alas, fill the void in my heart. I kinda wish it was in me to have that kind of faith in tradition; I think I would find a lot more peace in my soul if I could.

    Blessings to you,

    Anne

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Wednesday, 22 August 2012

    Dear Anne,

    I completely understand where you come from as I practiced something resembling your path for roughly twelve years. I find the practice absolutely beautiful and I completely understand the need and reasoning behind including UPG in your practice.

    I think the lack of UPG inclusion is (or will be) one of the major downfalls of Recon faiths, or at least a limiting factor. This is why I expect parallel Traditions to emerge where UPG plays a more profound role. It may even be included in the faith in forty or fifty years, when the religion is better established.

    I, too, believe the Gods have much to tell us, still, and expect Them to have evolved much since their worship was banned. Yet, the foundation of, most likely, any Recon faith is the question 'how are the Gods best served?'. Since we know how They were served before and we assume They liked that way, this is what we try to re-create to the best of our abilities.

    The point, then, becomes figuring out if you want a unified faith (see yesterday's post) or a group of people doing roughly the same thing. In the first path, UPG has no place, in the second, it does.

    This is a fundamental difference between Recon and non-Recon faiths, and I completely understand why Recon faiths are not for everyone.

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply!

    Gods bless,

    Elani

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Wednesday, 22 August 2012

    Elani,

    Thanks for your generous and gracious response. Honestly, I wish I *could* believe in "tradition" but having given up my faith in the received Christian flavor of religion, changing to another faith that utilizes the same basic mindset would make me buggy in a hurry. However, in our rapidly-evolving and increasingly chaotic world, I expect the "no-UPG" version of Recon to be "just the ticket" for many. I in no way wish to denigrate that personal choice, which has many positive aspects such as natural tendency to community, firm ethical guidelines, and a sense of certainty in a turbulent world.

    If I might make a humble suggestion, I believe that it would behoove non-UPG Recon trad theologians and leaders to closely study the history of Christianity as a cautionary tale demonstrating the unanticipated results of making "text" or "tradition" paramount in a religious path. (I believe that study of the evolution of Christianity in the pre-Constantinian period would be especially enlightening.)

    Here's my primary point: I do not believe that being polytheist instead of monotheist exempts Pagan/recon tradition-based paths from tendencies to hierarchy, fundamentalism, and schisms which are embedded in the basic principle that "there is one way that our gods wish to be worshipped."

    I realize it may seem far-fetched to imagine a Hellenic religious hegemony embedded in some future culture that's as dogmatic and reactionary as the RCC or the Christian protestant right today, but weirder things have happened. After all, what were the odds that an obscure Palestinian rabbi would be venerated as a god two millennia after his ignominious execution as a wannabee terrorist?

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Wednesday, 22 August 2012

    Dear Anne,

    I most certainly think that Hellenismos (I can't speak for the other Recon Traditions as I can barely speak for mine) runs the risk of ending up in the same way as Christianity has. That is the difficulty with religious texts which can be interpreted by the clerical class as they see fit.

    Yet, the inclusion of UPG would not change this fact. In fact, it might speed the fragmentation along even more rapidly. Excluding it gives a 'cleaner' version of the faith. Anything that is practiced besides that is not part of the religion. It can be a part of household worship but a basic framework needs to be observed in relation to others of the faith. This, though, has more to do with yesterday's post than this one.

    As said, I could see a mystery cult or denomination forming where oracular messages are received and recorded. Perhaps some of these could bleed into the main religious body after time, when UPG becomes SPG. I think we may be speaking of a couple of decades into the future, though.

    An advantage of Hellenismos is that household worship is more important than communal worship and festivals. This varies somewhat from Christianity where the main acts of worship are placed outside of the household (in Churches, etc.). This means that the actual influence of clergy is (and definitely was!) far less involved in Hellenismos than in Christianity.

    I am deeply curious to see how Hellenismos is going to evolve in the coming years. We are now 20 years into the religion and we have come quite a ways. Who knows what can happen in another twenty?

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Wednesday, 22 August 2012

    You give me hope: if anyone can make a tradition-based religion open and compassionate, it will be people like you. Being "deeply curious" is a really, REALLY healthy way to proceed. I salute your optimism and your open spirit.

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Wednesday, 22 August 2012

    I think that as long as people keep thinking about and questioning what they are doing, they will be able to avoid most of the pitfalls. Thank you for your kind words. I have the deepest respect for your practice, conviction and your person. Your continued support means a lot. Thank you, for everything.

  • Sarah Avery
    Sarah Avery Wednesday, 22 August 2012

    How unified was the worship of the Hellenic gods before Christianity? I ask as a curious and humble dilettante--I can barely limp through a sentence of Ancient Greek even with the lexicon open on my lap, and I have only attended one ritual in your tradition. Please help me amend my ignorance.

    I read Pausanias's _Description_of_Greece_ in translation some years ago and was surprised at how much variation there was in myth, doctrine, and practice. Would modern Hellenismos as practiced in Athens have to be different from Hellenismos as practiced in Argo because ancient texts suggest differences in pre-Christian worship? Would worship of deities whose cults spread into Greece from the east, like Hekate of Dionysos, have to be worshipped differently by practitioners of Hellenismos living today in Turkey than by ones living in Megalopoli? And if so, what would that mean for practitioners living in places like the U.S., where there is no indigenous tradition of worshipping the Hellenic gods? The archeological stuff I've read about Ancient Greece is not at all current research--I read a lot of the Cambridge Ritualists' books from the 1920's when I wrote my dissertation about a Modernist poet who was influenced by them--but one of the most memorable things Jane Ellen Harrison wrote about was the possibility of significant differences in myth, doctrine, and practice between the poor and the elites. Whose Hekate speaks to me in the space between waking and sleep? If Harrison is right, Hekate as understood by, say, Aspasia would have been very different from Hekate as understood by the slaves in her kitchen. How would a unified 21st century Hellenismos reconcile those two Hekates, or choose between them? I would have guessed that the idea of a unified Hellenic Pagan religion would be, ironically, anachronistic.

    But no doubt this kind of question has already been part of the conversation inside Hellenismos. How do people deal with this kind of issue?

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Wednesday, 22 August 2012

    Dear Sarah,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and inquisitive reply. I am going to do my best answering it but also realize I could write an essay--or blog post--on the subject and would still not have said all.

    The short answer is as follows: Hellenic religion was incredibly un-unified before Christianity came up. The worship of the Big Twelve was prevalent throughout the whole of Hellas but certain areas could have a completely different view of the same Deity. Most often this 'problem' (because it was rarely viewed as one) was solved by the use of epithets (1).
    Ritual practice was actually described pretty well in various sources (at least for Athens, see below) so that's more easy to hold fast to. The procession--> purification--> hymns--> prayers--> offerings--> feast--> (games)(2).

    There was a lot of overlap between the city states, and these are the issues Hellenics are trying to decide on right now. Modern Hellenismos has asked many of those questions but, without a central body to answer them, many are left unanswered to this day. For the continuation of Hellenismos, I find this problematic (3).

    I'm going to take the liberty of another sweeping statement and say that, because most of what has survived in terms of festivals, festival dates, practice and world view , was from Athens, Hellenismos today follows that model for worship. Many people also include festivals and practices from other areas they are most drawn to but, in comparison, not much has survived from these. More so the mystery cults. This means that any Hellenic Recon automatically fills in some of the blanks with Athenian material.

    Modern Hellenismos also seems to have taken a bit of a leap and has concluded that limiting worship to a single aspect of a deity (especially when not living in Greece, where local customs might influence you) is foolish. That is why, in modern day Hellenismos, practitioners are encouraged to worship all epithets of Deity and state clearly which ones they are referring to. In fact, the variety of interpretations of Deity is one of Hellenismos' greatest goods, as far as I am concerned.

    As for Hekate; she is a special case. She was a fairly minor deity overall, although she was favored by Zeus, but she features heavily in Hesiod's work, especially the Theogony. It has been posed by scholars that Hesiod hailed from an area where the worship of Hekate was extended beyond the maiden (or in rare cases, mother) who guarded the home from spirits and curses.

    There are many differences between Hekate as she was understood to be in ancient Hellas as compared to her modern, Neo-Pagan counterpart and a lot of irritation from Hellenics (2, 4) towards Neo-Paganism stems solely from Her worship. Just something to remember ;)

    As for the poor and the elite; I am not sure. I will look into it, though, and blog about it in the coming week. I can certainly imagine there were differences. Many of the festivals included the common man but slaves were a different group altogether. There are only a few festivals where they are allowed to celebrate with their masters. As for household worship; I think the general structure of ritual was probably the same but for the help who lived in the house of their employers (or masters), any ritual task would be taken away in favor of the male head of the household. I also imagine both groups asked for very different things. Most often, it was also only the elite who had access to Temples and/or could offer there.

    And yes, with a grin, I also say that the ancient Hellens would probably not be amused by our anachronistic ways. That having been said, we aren't trying to please the ancient Hellens but their Gods.

    I think I have addresses most of your issues? If you still have questions, feel free to ask them. Also check the links below for more information about the statements above.

    Gods bless,
    Elani


    1. http://baringtheaegis.blogspot.com/search/label/epithets
    2. http://baringtheaegis.blogspot.nl/2012/06/h-is-for-hellenismos-surprise-surprise.html
    3. http://baringtheaegis.blogspot.nl/2012/08/standardizing-hellenismos.html
    3. http://baringtheaegis.blogspot.nl/2012/08/hate-and-tolerance.html

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