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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Slavery in ancient Greece

A few days ago, I got into an interesting discussion with PaganSquare founder Anne about Hellenismos in general and slavery in particular. The discussion focussed on what should and should not be part of Recon practice and slavery, obviously, was one of the things we both thought had no place in it. I realized, though, that not everyone may know what slavery entailed in ancient Greece and the many difference there are between the ancient Greek form of slavery and the modern history version of the same practice.

Now, first off, I do not condone slavery in any way, shape or form and the whole idea of people owning people has no place in current society. This blog post is not about slavery in current time. I will get back to this a little later on, but no modern Hellenic in their right mind would think to bring that back. And even if they did, there are laws against that sort of thing now. 

With that out of the way, indulge me as I paint a picture of slavery in ancient Hellas. First, its prudent to describe the life of ancient Greek slaves, as slaves, too, could acquire rank and even slaves of their own. The word 'slave' wasn't known in ancient Hellas, in fact, the first mention of the word dates back to the seventh century C.E.. 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) and lived in the house of their master who was called a kyrios (κύριος). The female head of the household was charged with teaching--and keeping order amongst--the household serfs.

Criminals and unplaceable serfs were sent to work in the mills, mines, or as ship crew members. This was back breaking and dangerous work and comes closes to the image of slavery we have today. Women and sons of vanquished foes were often unfortunate enough to end up in one of the many brothels. Although many serfs worked in the mills, mines, and brothels, even more worked as artisans in the cities, in factories or for a household, where their work was appreciated and friendships with free citizens could even form. 

In the Odysseia, Odysseus and Penelope are seen performing tasks their servants should have done and their son Telemachos treats (and literally calls) Odysseus' serf Eumaeus as a grandfather. Eumaeus, in turn, continues to work for his master Odysseus even though he is away from the home for twenty years. In fact, after Penelope and Telemachos, Eumaeus may the the one grieving the most over Odysseus' disappearance--along with Odysseus' nursemaid Eurýkleia.
In democratic city states, the doûlos were protected by law and their masters were urged to care for them and treat them as fellow human beings. If a serf felt they were being mistreated by their master, they could seek asylum in a temple and request a new master. Murdering a doûlos was an equally severe crime as the murder of a free man. No servant could be executed on a whim; a court ruling was required. For a serf to be executed there should be a special reason imposed to the court. Any serf could buy his freedom for a certain amount of money and the state itself sometimes freed its slaves on their own accord. Usually, this was for war purposes. Despite doûlos outnumbering free citizens, no slave uprising was ever recorded in the democratic city states of ancient Greece. There were, however, recordings of slaves running away.
Of course, this all sounds a bit too positive. These conditions were prevalent in democratic city states but outside of those, life was hard for serfs. In Sparta, for example, serfs could be executed at will and were worked hard. Revolts happened on occasion. Punishment was prevalent, even in the democratic city states, and lashings were common place. Even if that wasn't the case, a huge portion of serfs were 'barbarian' men, women and children who had been kidnapped from their homes in non-Hellenic territories or who had lived for centuries on the land that the Greeks overtook.
There were many ways in which a citizen or non-Hellenics could become a serf:
  • They might have been born into slavery as the child of a slave
  • They might have been captured during war time
  • They might have been captured by pirates or bandits; if the ransom was not paid, they were sold
  • They might have been orphans, found and taken in
  • They might have been unable to pay of a loan, thus becoming enslaved to their creditor
  • They might have been sold into slavery by their family who needed money
  • They might have been kidnapped and consequentially sold into slavery
Some of these automatically set a kyrios for the doûlos but many more were bought by citizens. Owning slaves was so ingrained in society that not owning a slave was considered bad practice. Many small landowners owned at least one serf, sometimes two. Larger, richer, estates could hold up to a dozen servants or even more. Prices for a slave varied; children brought in about fifty drachma ($3000,-, if calculated from the day wage of 1 drachma = day wage of $60 today) but strong or trained serfs averaged out at around 170 drachma ($10.200,-) and a slave with leadership abilities or rare skills could cost up to 300 drachma ($18.000,-). Of note should be that a state slave 'earned' around three to four obolus a day, equating to roughly $30,- to $40,-, and a skilled artisan around one drachma. Rare skilled artisans or those in authority positions could earn more. The price of the slave's freedom was the average market price.

Once a household serf was bought in a democratic city state, he or she was brought to the house and courted like one would a newly-wed wife. This often happened with gifts of nuts and fruits. There was a ceremony in which the oikétês was placed under the protection of Hestia. They were then trained and put to work under the supervision of the matron of the household. Female serfs often bonded tightly to their matron, as they accompanied her everywhere she went and they were often sounding boards to her problems. Serfs were allowed to keep their own religious traditions intact as long as they also worshipped the Theoi. They celebrated festivals with the members of the household and were allowed to partake in sacrefices. They were even allowed to initiate into the Eleusinian Mysteries. In Athens, oikétês enjoyed great freedom and many artisans were indistinguishable from citizens. Visitors often complained of this because no serf would step out of their way to let them pass.

Of course, serfs were lower in standing than citizens. They could not enter the Gymnasium or the Public Assembly. They could not use their own names, but were assigned names by their master. These were often names that indicated their enslaved nature like Dromon, Geta, Manes or Xanthias. They were not allowed to represent themselves in court, get married or enjoy a regular household life. Slaves were allowed to give testimony in court but they were always tortured to get the information out of them, even if they would tell their story willingly. If a serf managed to buy their freedom in Athens, they were seen as metics; resident aliens. Their former Kyrios became their patron and would still represent them in legal affairs. Metics also had other limitations but that is food for another post.

This post is becoming entirely too long so I am going to end it here. This is but a small introduction into the lives of slaves in ancient Greece and I will most certainly revisit it at a later date. I had promised to express the modern Hellenic views on this kind of slavery, however, and so I will.

As I put forth in the aforementioned discussion with Anne; Hellenismos strives to re-create the religion of the ancient Greeks, not the society of the ancient Greeks. Of course, these were very much linked and sorting out which issues can be let go of without damaging the core of religious practice, is an ongoing struggle. Hellenismos is not standardized and there isn't a central body to make these decisions for its followers. That said; slavery in ancient Greece was a tool to push forth the democracy. Because serfs executed the undesirable tasks, citizens could focus on politics, art and philosophy.

Nowadays, society is layered enough without the 'need' for slavery; those who wish to pursue theology, philosophy, politics or art can make a career out of it. There was no slavery for the sake of slavery in ancient Hellas, so we can say that in modern day, we have outgrown the practice. There would be absolutely no need to bring it back now. This even goes for house serfs; we can now hire cooks, cleaners, nannies, etc. We no longer buy their lives, we buy their time. The system has evolved and the word 'slavery' has no place in it anymore.
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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' ( in which she and several co-writers try to cover the whole gamut of Neo-Paganism. Baring the Aegis is also on Facebook:


  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Monday, 27 August 2012

    Thanks for an interesting post, Elani; the only part I didn't get was the disclaimer in which you disavowed the practice of slavery for modern society. (We both take that for granted, but what seems to be missing is a philosophical or, better yet, theological reason why modern Hellenics should disavow it. I'd like to see that dilemma -- how to separate ancient religion from ancient society -- discussed more in future posts.) Thanks for adding to my store of knowledge. Gaia bless, Anne

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Monday, 27 August 2012

    Expect that post coming somewhere this week. I'm still trying to figure out some ground rules for that as well. As for slavery; like I wrote, it was not directly linked to religious life plus the practice served to allow citizens time to persue politics, arts and philosophy without wasting tome on tasks they saw as beneath them. Now those who wish to pursue these arts are paid for their time, that reason fades as well. By method of exclusion, there is thus no valid reason to bring back slavery in any form within Hellenismos. Plus, the practice is a terrible one.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Monday, 27 August 2012

    Are you familiar with the Theodish practice of "thralldom"? They have essentially taken the ancient practice and turned it into a mechanism by which new people are brought into the group, taught its ways and means, and both the individual and the group get to know one another without the mistakes the thrall might make impacting upon the group. See for more details...

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Tuesday, 28 August 2012

    Even before checking out that link, I have to tell you that I literally woke up my girlfriend with my giggling at the use of the word 'thrall' in any practice unrelated to the Vampire: The Masquerade role playing game. ( ). that is not in any way intended to belittle your practice, but more to underscore my geekdom. I apologize.

    Alright, seriously though; I read your link and you (or one of yours) has written a really concise and clear article. I completely understand the practice and I think it's a wonderful initiatory tool to use. It strengthens the bond of the individual with the group and works to eradicate the individuality from the person without them losing their unique qualities and perspectives.

    I'm fairly sure there are more practices in history which come close to this practice; the page boys of medieval times come to mind. And there most certainly are connections between the serfs of ancient Hellas and those within Theodish Belief.

    There are, however, huge differences between them as well. For one, the serfs of ancient Hellas couldn't bow out or leave their master. They were never part of the family--although they were part of the household--, once they were servants, they remained servants, even if they bought their freedom. It also wasn't a voluntary choice as no one in ancient Hellas would willingly give up on their freedom and honor. There also wasn't a teaching period connected to serfdom besides the basic household tasks, although children were sometimes taught a trade.

    All in all, I see how thralldom would serve a Recon Tradition where slavery was ingrained in the source society. I've been trying to decide if thralldom would work in Hellenismos.

    Instinctively I say it wouldn't; not because it's a undesired practice but because current Hellenic practices are structured differently. The focus is on the household, not the community. I could see Hellenics 'serving' in a Temple--or even a household--in exchange for inclusion in rituals and sacrifices, knowledge and a chance to relive an ancient Greek household but they would never label themselves doûlos, or even serfs, because that would forever disallow them from practicing the religion on their own and in their own household.

    I much enjoy the idea of thralldom but doubt it would--or should--be implemented in Hellenismos. Thank you very much for the information, though! I was unaware this was a current practice.

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