Hellenismos as a Living Tradition relevant to the UK
As a young child my bedtime reading was the Greek myths. I was fascinated by tales of Gods and Heroes, of how the natural world was inhabited by nymphs and daemons and by how closely entwined the realms of Gods and mortals were. The Gods walked on earth, consorted with mortals, heroes and heroines became deified and became themselves Gods, and others shape changed into flowers, trees or animals, merging with the natural world, and giving their names to the flowers, trees or other concepts, which they became, – such as Narcissus, who falling in love with his own reflection in the river, thinking it was a beautiful water nymph, was transformed into the narcissus flower which grows by the river, bending ever over the water to gaze upon its own reflection; and the Mountain Nymph (or Oread) Echo, who loved Narcissus, but ignored by him due to his love for himself, and cursed by Hera for her deception of the Goddess, such that she could only repeat the last words that another person had just said, pined away, and faded until she was but a voice, echoing what others said. At the same time, the myths contained wisdom and lessons about life, the importance of virtue and the heroic quest, of piety, of honour, the dangers of Hubris or excessive pride, of self-obsession, of greed and other human vices, and the common pitfalls that could befall mortals. The human condition is explored to its full in the Greek myths. What was also apparent was how much of our everyday language comes from Greek mythology, words such as echo, atlas (from the Titan Atlas who carries the heavens upon his shoulders), cloth (from Clotho, the youngest of the three Fates, who spins the thread of life), hypnosis (from Hypnos, the God of sleep), Ocean (from Okeanos, the God of the rivers and seas) and many more. Greek mythology and the Greek Gods are inherent in our very language and culture.
As I grew older and went to high school, I began to study English literature and poetry, and again, the Greek and Roman deities appeared, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, to Byron and Keats, and even in modern poetry. Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, written in the 14th Centure CE, tells of the Greek hero Theseus, though embellished with the values and chivalry of medieval England. Shakespeare’s epic poem Venus and Adonis is based on Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and presents contrasting views of love and passion, with an Elizabethan veneer. Lord Byron wrote The Curse of Minerva whilst in Athens, to express his vehement disapproval of the removal of the Elgin marbles from Greece (the Romantic poets didn’t distinguish between the Greek and Roman pantheons as many modern pagans do today), and was so enamoured with Greek culture, that he joined the Greek War of Independence to help the Greeks fight against the Ottoman Empire, such that he is still revered as a National hero by many Greeks today (including the teachers of my Hellenic tradition). I have always felt that there is a strong connection between British culture and the Greeks, and the Hellenic path has certainly been with me for as long as I can remember. I think I knew of the Hellenic Gods before I heard of Jesus or the Christian God, and most certainly well before I knew anything at all about the Celtic or Saxon Gods.
When I went on to University and began a Humanities degree, I studied the works of Plato, and Classical Greek tragedies and Comedies, such as the works of Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes, and I was hooked.
Throughout my life I felt particularly drawn to Dionysos, the God of Wine, with all his contrasts – He who is perhaps the most human of Gods, but also the most Divine, who teaches the mysteries and brings us liberation. When I began to seek out pagan groups in my late teens, I was surprised that given the influence on our culture and language of the Greek and Roman religions, that there were very few pagans in the UK who actively worshipped or celebrated the Hellenic Gods. Those who were eclectic in practice would sometimes include them amongst other deities in their rituals, but few seemed that interested, inclining more towards what they deemed to be “’native” traditions such as Celtic or to a lesser extent Saxon or Norse, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that so much less was known about those traditions or deities. However, being a seeker of wisdom and generally interested and curious in a lot of things, I explored many different paths throughout my life, both Eastern and Western. I explored Buddhism and Hinduism, which I still have a lot of respect for, trained as a Priestess in the Fellowship of Isis, was initiated in Wicca, which I pursued as my primary path for many years, explored Druidry and spent a year or so studying Heathenry, and of course, living in Wales for the past 30 years, studied the Welsh Celtic tradition. But the Greek Gods continued to call to me, and I wanted to honour them not just as part of an eclectic Wiccan or neo-pagan tradition, but to explore more traditionally Greek ways, with every holiday to Greece I had, increasing that desire. We are lucky that so much literature and archaeology has survived from Ancient and Classical Greece – though so much more has been lost, destroyed and burnt by Christian fanatics from the time of Constantine onwards. But nevertheless we have a wealth of literature, myths, philosophy, plays, hymns and ritual texts, as well as material remains. Far too much for the religion to ever have been destroyed completely! What’s more the philosophies continued to be developed in the works of the Neo-Platonists over the following centuries up to the present day. In my research and search for others who honour the Hellenic Gods, after encounters with various Reconstructionist groups (mainly American), I came across people who practice a tradition passed down and practiced through generations, that has developed organically and naturally though the ages, though firmly rooted in the myths, philosophies and spiritual practices of the ancient mystery traditions. This is not the same as Hellenic Reconstructionism which attempts to re-create the mainstream rituals and religious practices of Ancient and Classical Greece, but is a tradition which includes ideas and practices which have developed through the philosophical schools throughout the centuries, but based on the mystical traditions known as Orphic.
Hellenismos refers to the native religions of Ancient Greece, whereas the term Hellenism refers to a love of or study of anything Greek. Orphism is a mystical tradition or traditions within Hellenismos, based on the teachings of Orpheus, the famous musician who was said to have calmed wild beasts with his music, even lulling Cerberus the guardian of Hades, and charming stern Queen Persephone and mighty Plouton, the Goddess and God of the Underworld. Orpheus may or may not have existed, we have no actual proof of his existence, but a number of myths and legends, and writings, texts and philosophies which are considered to be Orphic. Orpheus is said to have reformed Greek religion, and to have put an end to human sacrifice. He may well have tried to put an end to animal sacrifice too, but this was far too ingrained in Greek culture and he was unsuccessful, though many texts refer to the followers of Orpheus as being vegetarians, and Orpheus is often depicted surrounded by animals, suggesting his love for and care of animals. If Orpheus existed, it is likely that he lived around 2,000 BCE or earlier, and may have been of Thracian origin. In images he is generally portrayed wearing a Thracian hat. Some scholars believe that Orphism was a precursor not only to the Classical Greek religions and the great philosophical traditions of Ancient Greece, but also gave rise to the Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions (see Ralph Abraham, Orphism: The Ancient Roots of Green Buddhism at ralph-abraham.org). Theosophists (and some Buddhists) believe that Orpheus was a previous incarnation of the Buddha, teaching a philosophy of peace and benevolence. So what are the teachings of Orphism? Orphism and Hellenismos have survived and
The author on the steps of the Temple of Apollohn in Cyprus
developed through the works of the great philosophers, from ancient times, throughout the ages to the present day, particularly Pythagorus, Socrates, Plato, and the Neoplatonists. The Greeks are a nation who have always been proud of their past, their philosophers, myths, temples, architecture, sculpture, and all those largely Pagan things which Greece is famous for. Paganism/polytheism was therefore never entirely stamped out by Christianity in Greece, but carried on in the art and philosophy, the retelling of myths, and in folk practices. Paganism just went more underground. The Neoplatonist philosophers during the Christian era had to at least be nominally Christian, though evidence exists that pagan practices and beliefs carried on in secret. The C14th CE philosopher Georgius Gemistus Plethon, for example, a Greek scholar of Neoplatonic philosophy during the heavily Christian Byzantine era, and Chief Magistrate of Theodore II, founded a Mystery School in which he taught polytheism, and his students prayed to the Olympic Gods. After his death, manuscripts were found which he had not made public, due to their what would be considered then, heretical nature. His Nomon Singrafi, or Nomoi (Book of Laws) detailed his esoteric beliefs, and discussed daemons, astrology and the transmigration of the soul. He recommended religious rites and hymns to petition the Classical Gods, such as Zeus, whom he saw as universal principles and powers. The document was unfortunately destroyed due to its “heretical” nature. Plethon’s friend Marsilio Ficino, an Italian scholar and Catholic Priest, was one of the most influential humanist scholars of the early Italian Renaissance, reviver of Neoplatonism, and the first person to translate the Orphic Hymns, as well as the writings of Plato, into Latin. Although there are some fundamental differences between Neoplatonist philosophy and that of Orphism, Neoplatonism does preserve some Orphic ideas, and it is likely that just as the Neoplatonist philosophers may have been outwardly Christian, but practiced their pagan religion in secret, that so did other less well known Greeks, and that Orphismos and Hellenismos survived through family traditions passed down in secret through the generations.
The author’s garden altar
Side by side with the continuation of philosophical and hidden family traditions in Greece and Rome, the theurgic tradition first developed by the philosophers, developed further through its contact with other religions and mystery traditions. The neoplatonist philosophers were heavily influenced by the Chaldean Oracles and their Middle Eastern ideas and deities. Following the persecutions of pagans by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, the neoplatonist school firstly was influenced by Christianity, and the philosophers had to be at least nominally Christian, or to adapt their philosophy so that it wasn’t overtly Pagan, but talked more of The One, whilst still developing meditative and theurgic practices. But persecutions continued, and following the subsequent closing down of the Platonic Academy by Emperor Justinian in 529 CE, the Neo Platonist Philosophers fled to Persia, where they were welcomed by the Persian Philosopher King, and met Sufi, Asian, Egyptian, Middle Eastern and Jewish mystics. From this meeting of different traditions, the theurgic practices were developed and refined, and the first Hermetic school was formed. Hermeticism was later brought back to the West and influenced Renaissance magic and the Western Mystery Tradition. So Western Magic is also heavily influenced by Greek thought, as is every other aspect of our culture.