Some Frequently Asked Questions
by Drew Campbell
What is Hellenismos?
Where does the term "Hellenismos" come from?
What is "Reconstructionism"?
Is everyone who worships the Greek gods today a Reconstructionist?
How does one become a member of your religion?
Are there any Hellenic organizations that people can join?
What is the source of your beliefs? Do you have any holy books or scripture?
What do you believe about the divine?
What deities do Hellenes worship?
What other beings do Hellenes honor?
What happens at a typical worship service?
Where do you worship?
Do you sacrifice animals?
What holidays do modern Hellenes celebrate?
How do you celebrate life cycle events like weddings or funerals?
Do you have ministers/clergy? How are they trained?
What are the core ethical values of Hellenismos?
Weren't the ancient Greeks awfully patriarchal? What about all the negative aspects of their culture, like slavery and the subjugation of women?
Isn't Greek mythology just fairy tales? How do you know your gods are real?
How do Hellenes view Christianity?
What is your understanding of the Bible?
What about Jesus?
Are you Satanists?
Is Hellenismos a (neo)pagan religion?
How, specifically, does Hellenismos differ from Wicca?
What is your relationship to other reconstructionists?
How do Hellenes view the gods of other religions? Can one be a Hellene and worship, say, Thor?
What are some of the challenges Hellenes face as a minority religion?
Issues and Debates
Is Hellenismos an ethnic religion? Must one be ethnically Greek to practice
Is magic(k) part of Hellenismos?
Why do Hellenic reconstructionists complain about Wiccans so much?
What's the deal with "sources"? Why are you all so obsessed with books? Isn't religion all about what you feel inside?
What is the Hellenic perspective on moral issues such as abortion, capital punishment, suicide, etc.
An Important Note: No one speaks for the entire world community of Hellenes (including the author of this FAQ!), nor is there any central religious body that dictates dogma, ritual, or membership requirements. Hellenic religion was, and remains, pluralistic in the extreme. Therefore, not everyone who worships the ancient Greek gods will agree with every detail of what follows. That is as it should be, and need not be a cause for concern or ill will.
Hellenismos is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It is also called Hellenic Polytheism, Hellenic Reconstructionist Paganism, or simply Hellenism. Those who practice this religion are variously known as Hellenic polytheists, Hellenic pagans, Hellenic reconstructionists, Hellenists, or Hellenes. (For variety and fairness, these terms will be used interchangably throughout this FAQ.)
Hellenic polytheists worship the ancient Greek gods—the Olympians, nature divinities, underworld deities—and heroes. We honor our ancestors, both physical and spiritual. Ours is primarily a devotional or votive religion, based on the exchange of gifts (offerings) for the gods' blessings. Hellenismos has a highly developed ethical system based on the principles of reciprocity, hospitality, and moderation.
Hellenismos was the Greek term used by the Roman Emperor Julian—one of the first figures to attempt to revive the religion after the advent of Christianity—to refer to the traditional religion of the Greeks and all those who embraced their religious culture. It is in this religious, inclusive sense that we reclaim and use the word today. (The word also has other unrelated meanings in modern Greek.)
Reconstructionism, as used here, is a methodology for developing and practicing ancient religions in the modern world. Reconstructionists believe that the religious expressions of the ancients were valid and have remained so across time and space. We believe that it is both possible and desireable to practice ancient religions—albeit in modified form—in the modern world. (N.B. Polytheistic groups that describe themselves as "reconstructionist" should not be confused with Christian or Jewish groups using the same term.)
No. Some members of neopagan religions such as Wicca also worship our gods, although their views of Them are often at variance with traditional Hellenic understanding.
In the ancient world, one learned to worship the gods by being born into a Hellenic family or by participating in the public religious culture of a Hellenic community. Today, we understand a Hellenist as one who honors the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece in the traditional manner; that is, by offering prayer and sacrifice regularly and by celebrating traditional festivals. There are no specific conversion rituals, initiations, or oaths to swear.
In North America there is, to my knowledge, only one incorporated religious organization ("church") dedicated to promoting Hellenismos: Hellenion.
In addition, there are a number of independent groups, such as Thiasos Olympikos in Northern California and Daitales in Boston, associated with multifaith or interdenominational pagan churches.Groups also exist in Greece and Australia, and possibly elsewhere as well. Some links can be found on the resources page at this site.
Unlike the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), most ancient religions were not "revealed" ones. Hellenes are not a "people of the book"; we have no single authoritative text that we believe to be the word of God.
Instead, Hellenic Reconstructionists base their theological beliefs and ritual practices on three sources:
(1) the works of Homer, Hesiod, and other ancient writers;
(2) mainstream scholarly research on ancient religion;
(3) individual spiritual experience and intuition ("personal gnosis").
An important note on sources: Scholarship and intellectual honesty are very important to us, and reconstructionists of all types emphasize the importance of distinguishing carefully between different sources of knowledge. In particular, we tend to be very critical of those who attempt to pass off personal gnosis as ancient fact or who make historical claims for which they cannot provide any hard evidence.
Modern Hellenic polytheists, like their ancient spiritual ancestors, hold a variety of beliefs about the nature of divine reality, ranging from pantheism to monism. However, the majority of us are polytheists and, as such, believe that the gods are individual beings with distinct personalities and wills. We believe that it is possible to form relationships with the gods and invite their good will through worship and prayer.
The primary gods that modern Hellenes worship are the Olympians: Zeus, Hera, Athena, Hephaistos, Apollo, Artemis, Demeter, Dionysos, Hermes, Ares, Poseidon and Aphrodite, along with Hades and Hestia.
Most Hellenists honor other types of divinities, including nature spirits (Pan, nymphs, river gods), chthonic or underworld deities (Persephone, Hermes Psykhopompos), and heroes (e.g., Herakles). The form of worship may vary slightly depending on the type of divinity being honored.
The format of our worship is relatively fixed, although certain festivals require variations and additions. The usual components are as follows:
Prayers of Supplication and Thanks
Feast and, on occasion, Games or Competitions
An example of one type of standard worship service can be seen here.
At present, there are no buildings set aside solely for our worship services, nor are the ancient temples in Greece available for us to use. Therefore, most Hellenes maintain personal shrines or altars at home where we worship individually or as families. We also worship outdoors on public or private land, or in rented halls or other indoor spaces. Private prayers may of course be said anywhere and at any time.
In ancient times, the Greeks sacrificed animals, as did virtually every other people, including the Jews. Even then, some sects (the Orphics, for example) objected to blood sacrifice. Today few if any Hellenes sacrifice animals to the gods. (I personally know of none.) Instead we offer items like grain, fruit, wine, and incense. Foodstuffs and clothing may also be collected, blessed, and donated to food banks and homeless shelters. Those who live on farms or who hunt for food may choose to dedicate the animal's life to the gods, just as traditional Jews and Moslems eat ritually butchered meat. To many Hellenes, this seems more reverent than simply buying meat packed in Styrofoam and plastic wrap and ignoring the fact that a life that was offered for our dinner. Some Hellenes are ethically opposed to animal sacrifice and indeed to the eating of animals under any circumstances, and so choose a vegetarian or vegan diet.
We have historical evidence of many different festivals celebrated throughout ancient Greece; there were more than 30 annual city-wide festivals in Athens alone—and that's not counting the offerings made by local religious associations or family groups. In some cases we have little more than a name of a festival or an isolated reference; in others, we know much more. Consequently, modern Hellenes generally celebrate a number of major festivals, often following one of the better documented city calendars, such as that of Athens, described here.
The Athenian New Year begins in the summer, at the first new moon after the solstice; 12 lunar months follow, with an occasional 13th month inserted to bring the calendar back into conformity with the solar year. Throughout the year, festivals honor the major gods, especially Zeus, Athena, Apollon, Artemis, Demeter and Dionysos. Lesser holidays honor Hera, Poseidon, Asklepios, and Aphrodite, among others. Many of the holidays relate to the old agricultural cycle: the Apollonion festivals of Pyanepsia and Thargelia relate to the fruit harvest; Dionysian festivals like the Anthesteria and the Lenaia celebrate the grape harvest and vintage; festivals of Demeter, often celebrated by women only, assure the fertility of the grain fields. Other major festivals include the Panathenaia, in honor of Athena, the Elaphobolia and Mounikhia, in honor of Artemis, and the Pompeia, Olympieia, and Pandia in honor of Zeus.
In addition to the public festivals, some Hellenists observe a regular monthly cycle of holy days with private devotions, as described in Hesiod's Works and Days. Many carry out regular rituals at home in honor of their favorite deities.
Click here to view one modern Hellenic ritual calendar, based on that of Athens, with descriptions of the holidays.
In ancient Greece, baby blessings, weddings, and funerals were usually handled by families, as they are in many traditional cultures. Some modern Hellenic polytheists continue this tradition; others, in deference to modern laws and practice, have a clergyperson lead the ritual, but otherwise follow a more or less traditional format.
Some elements of a traditional wedding (gamos) include: a purificatory bath; blessing and veiling of the bride by her family; procession to the groom's (or couple's) house at dusk; welcoming by the mothers; offerings and prayers to the gods of marriage (especially Hera); showering with nuts and fruits and/or foods symbolic of fertility; feast; seclusion of the couple in the thalamos or bridal chamber; the bringing of wedding gifts the next morning. To read some more detailed information about Athenian weddings, click here.
Elements of the traditional funeral rites (kedeia) include: the purification and laying out of the body on a bier in a white garment, shroud, and head garland; lamentation by family and friends; early morning procession to the burial site; burial with prayers to the underworld gods (especially Hermes Psykhopompos, Hades, and Persephone); return to the deceased's home for a feast; ritual purification of the participants and the home afterwards; regular graveside memorial observances at three, nine, and thirty days after the death, and annually thereafter.
It has often been said that, unlike many of their contemporaries, the ancient Greeks did not have a priestly class. Instead, the head of each household was expected to perform the necessary rituals for the family. In the cities, priests (hiereis, sing. hiereus) and priestesses (hiereiai, sing. hiereia) were selected—sometimes by lot—from among the eligible populace. Some positions, such as those associated with the Mysteries at Eleusis, were hereditary. Since people grew up seeing the rites performed around them daily, there was little need for extensive ritual training.
The family is still the "home base" of Hellenismos, and each individual is responsible for his or her own relationship with the gods. No special training is required for an individual to perform the basic offertory rituals. It is common for group ritual to be led by the most experienced person present, or the host (if in a home), or by someone who has a special dedication to the deity being honored.
However, some people will undertake more intensive study and dedicate themselves to serving one or more of the gods in a public capacity. These religious specialists may lead ritual, teach publicly about Hellenismos, or offer services such as divinatory or exegetical counseling. In general, it is the community—and, of course, the gods themselves—that recognize someone as a hiereus or hiereia. (Note: Some groups use other titles for their clergy; Hellenion, for example, uses the title "Theoros," meaning "sacred emissary.")
Formal clergy training programs are available through pagan churches and other organizations. Hellenion offers a Clergy Education Program to its members that is specifically Hellenic Reconstructionist in content.
The most basic value of Hellenism is eusebeia, which is often translated as "piety." For Hellenes, piety means a deep-rooted personal commitment to the traditional worship of the Hellenic gods and a life of action to back up that commitment. Other values include hospitality (xenia), self-control (sophrosune), and moderation (metriotes). More detailed discussions of Hellenic ethics can be viewed here and here.
Modern Hellenes are emphatically not calling for a return to the social structures of the ancient world, any more than modern Christians wish to live like the 1st-century Jews of the Galilee. As much as we may admire certain aspects of ancient culture, no one wants to return to an economy based on slave labor or to a political system that denies the vote to more than half the population. In short, we are religious traditionalists, not political reactionaries. (For an interesting discussion of ancient Greek "political incorrectness" and modern thought, see Hanson & Heath's Who Killed Homer?)
How do Jews know that YHVH is real? How do Christians know that Christ is
real? Or Hindus Krishna or Shiva? There is no way to provide a meaningful answer
such questions in scientific-materialist terms.
Hellenes might answer that our devotion to the gods is not a matter of blind faith, but of direct, personal experience. We don't have to understand the mechanics of the internal combustion engine to drive a car, nor do we have to understand gravity to experience its effects. We observe the world around us and see the enormous variety of life and power. We pray to the gods and judge our prayers to have been answered. We may have intense personal experiences in which we feel "touched" by our gods. We are like most other religious people—only we tend to see multiplicity where some others see singularity.
Most Hellenic polytheists were raised as members of one of the dominant monotheistic faiths (if we had any religious upbringing at all). It must be admitted that some individual Hellenes harbor lingering anger toward their birth religions, usually as a result of abuse at the hands of religious leaders or well-meaning family members. But most would agree that, from a more objective standpoint, Christianity is simply irrelevant to our traditional beliefs and practices—as are Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.
On the whole, we take a live-and-let-live position regarding those of other faiths. Only when Christians try to convert us, slander our gods, or try to impose their beliefs as the "one true way" do we oppose their efforts.
Some Hellenes would say that there is wisdom to be found there, but the Bible is not our holy book, and as we are not in a covenant relationship with the Hebrew father god or with Christ, we do not consider ourselves bound by Biblical law.
Some Hellenic pagans respect him as a teacher, ethicist, and religious reformer; but, as Jesus was not part of ancient Greek religion, neither is he worshipped by modern Hellenists today.
"Satan" is not part of the Hellenic worldview, nor is any other figure personifying evil, and therefore Satan has no place in our religion, least of all as an object of worship. Of course those who believe that all gods other than Yahweh are by definition demons are unlikely to accept this. <g>
Occasionally people assume that Hades, the god of the underworld, is a Satanic figure. This is not the case. The Greeks did not have a "Hell" in the sense that some Christians understand that term, nor is it the role of Hades, or his queen, Persephone, to torment the dead or to tempt the living to commit evil acts. (We human appear perfectly capable of wrongdoing on our own, without supernatural intervention.)
Likewise, Pan's goat legs and horns sometimes lead people to believe he is "really the devil." He is not; he is an Arcadian herding and fertility deity.
It depends entirely on how you define those terms. If by "pagan," you mean "something other than Jewish, Christian, or Moslem," then yes, Hellenismos is pagan. If you mean "godless, lacking in religious belief," then obviously no. If you mean "an earth-based, magical religion honoring a goddess and her consort and following an annual calendar based on Northern European agricultural and pastoral cycles," then again, no.
To the extent that our religion is a reconstruction and adaptation of ancient religious practices in the modern world, one could argue that the label "neopagan" is both accurate and descriptive, and some Hellenes embrace it. However, the terms "neopagan" and "paganism" have become so closely linked to eclectic Wicca that many people now treat them as synonyms.
In response to the confusion created by this usage, there is currently a movement within the reconstructionist religions, including Hellenismos, away from using the term "pagan" at all. Some also object to the imposition of a Latinate label, created by Christians as a term of derision, that would never have been used by the ancient Greeks to describe themselves in the first place. There is, however, no consensus on this issue at present, and each individual uses the terms most comfortable for him or her. (The author of this FAQ, for example, prefers "polytheist" to "pagan" and eschews "neopagan" altogether.)
The only real link is that they are both non-Abrahamic religions, commonly described as "pagan" (although even this is not universal). Otherwise, they differ as much as Shinto and Christianity differ, which is to say, on almost all counts. They have distinct historical origins, different theological perspectives and worldviews, and very different styles of ritual. In short, the two religions share nothing with each other that they don't also share with other religions. (Which is not to say that they cannot cooperate in multifaith efforts on issues of common concern, of course.)
Religions that share some closer theological links with Hellenismos include most of the reconstructionist religions —Asatru and related heathen religions, Religio Romana, Romuva, etc.—and some indigenous/ethnic religions.
As polytheists, most Hellenes readily accept the existence of gods other than their own. Most see all of these gods as distinct beings, even where their areas of influence seem to overlap, a position often referred to as "hard polytheism." Others, following the common ancient understanding, assume a finite number of major gods that answer to a variety of names, depending on the background of the worshipper. So, Herodotos could say that the Egyptians worshipped Dionysos—by which he meant Osiris—and a modern Hellenic polytheist might identify Brigid with Hestia or Manannan with Poseidon.
There is nothing within Hellenismos that would prohibit a person from committing to the worship of more than one pantheon, if they felt called to do so. However, most Hellenes (and reconstructionists generally) believe that it is best to honor deities in culturally specific ways. In the case of someone called by Thor, it would make sense to seek out a heathen community that could support and instruct the individual, rather than trying to honor Thor in the context of Hellenic worship.
First and foremost, we face simple ignorance on the part of our fellow citizens. We are a small and admittedly obscure religion, and most people have—understandably—never heard of us. Some confuse us with Greek Orthodox Christians; others with Wiccans. A few extremists persist in believing that we, like all non-Christians, must be devil-worshippers. Others incorrectly assume we are something like the SCA, and therefore see Hellenismos as a hobby, not a religion. Scientific-materialists shake their heads over the fact that modern people could believe in, let alone worship, the Greek gods (or any other gods, for that matter).
But perhaps the greatest challenges are not those we face from the outside. Like the members of other religious minorities, we must work hard to maintain our practices in an often-indifferent and sometimes hostile society. We wrestle with how to pass on our traditions to our children when the media, schools, and their peers promote other religions or worse, secular consumerism and spiritual apathy. To be a devoted member of any religion today is a challenge.
We hope that by strengthening our own religious community and reaching out through education and civic community service, we may take our place at the table of world religions once again.
Although a few separatist groups in Greece do claim that one must be ethnically Greek to practice Hellenismos, the majority of Hellenic polytheists view the religion as culturally specific, but not ethnically exclusive.
To be sure, ancient Hellenic religion was the product of a specific people, and to that extent it may reasonably be referred to as an ethnic religion. But in the ancient world, Hellenismos achieved a wide adherence throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, and was practiced by people who were not ethnically Hellenic. So it is today, especially in North America.
Since most North Americans do not have a single, definable ethnicity, we tend to look to other criteria as signs of religious "belonging": a call from our gods, a life lived according to certain ethical standards, a commitment to the furtherance of ancient Hellenic religious culture. In addition, the bloody results of past calls to "ethnic purity" in Europe and elsewhere are enough to convince many people that radical ethnic separatism is not a tenable position, politically or religiously.
Certainly all Hellenes must remain sensitive to the concerns of those who face religious discrimination, especially in largely monocultural nations such as Greece. But in light of history, most Hellenists choose not to base their religious identity solely on genealogy or geography.
It might be more accurate to say that magic was, and is, a part of Hellenic culture, but not part of mainstream religious worship. We have considerable evidence of ancient Hellenic magical practices, many of them highly syncretistic and a fascinating subject in their own right. In addition, during the Roman Empire, several philosophical schools, particularly the Neoplatonic school of the Syrian Iamblichus, developed an elaborate system of ritual designed to elevate the individual human soul to its divine origins. These practices, known as theurgy, were distinct in intent, if not in method, from "low magic" or thaumaturgy.
Literary sources suggest that common sorcery was viewed with suspicion by the average Greek, as it was in so many cultures—even though people did not hesitate to use it when faced with a recalcitrant lover or a nasty lawsuit! Theurgy, on the other hand, was the province of a tiny philosophical elite, never achieving any sort of general practice or acceptance.
Today some Hellenic pagans do work magic, but this forms a part of their private spiritual practice, not public ritual. Many Hellenists do no magic at all, believing it to be hubristic or simply unnecessary, while others do not believe in the efficacy of operant magic in the first place.
Most Hellenists take a live-and-let-live approach to members of other religions, particularly those under the pagan umbrella. All of us suffer greater or lesser amounts of misunderstanding and persecution, and there is little to be gained from infighting.
However, that doesn't mean that we will all agree all of the time. There are three major areas of contention between Hellenes (and other reconstructionists, for that matter) and certain eclectic Wiccans.
The first has to do with labels and identity. Some reconstructionists object to what they see as the coopting of the term "pagan" by Wiccans. Because Wicca and other forms of Neopagan Witchcraft are by far the largest contingent under the pagan umbrella, "paganism" has come to be defined by many solely in terms of Wicca—so much so that the terms are often used interchangably.
The experience for a reconstructionist is something like this:
Imagine you are an Orthodox Jew. You discover a Web site entitled "The Judeo-Christianity Homepage" that includes a section on "the Judeo-Christian holidays." Interested to see what the author has to say about Passover or Purim, you click on the link, only to discover that the list includes only Easter and Christmas. In addition, you are informed that Judeo-Christians believe in the Trinity and that their main form of worship is called "Communion." Several recipes for pork and shellfish dishes are included; these are described as "traditional Judeo-Christian specialties." When you write to the site owner to complain, you are informed that "of course we are inclusive of Jews" but no attempts are actually made to change the content of the site.
Now multiply that experience by thousands of Web sites, magazine articles, books, rituals, gatherings, mission statements, etc. etc., and you can begin to see why Hellenic polytheists and other reconstructionists are frustrated.
The second area of conflict focuses on the differing relationships of Wicca and the reconstructionist religions to history and mainstream scholarship. It should be clear by now that Hellenismos and the other reconstructionist religions take history and scholarship very seriously; after all, they stand at the foundation of all we do and believe. While not everyone has the time or inclination to be a scholar, we expect people to take an active interest in religious study and to think critically about the sources they use.
So it is both shocking and frustrating to us to encounter people who are cavalier with their history, make claims they cannot back up, or simply don't care enough to learn how to pronounce the names of their deities or holidays. (To be fair, this problem isn't limited to pagans. How many well-meaning but misinformed Christians are running around saying the prayer of Jabez, which they pronounce to rhyme with "say Pez"? Poor "Yah-bets" must be rolling in his grave!)
The immense growth of eclectic Wicca, spurred on by the marketing ploys of unscrupulous publishers, has created a large and vocal mass of uninformed practitioners—who are as disconcerting to the many highly educated and thoroughly trained Wiccans and Witches as they are to us reconstructionists. These novices, derided as "fluffy bunnies," "wanna-blessed-be's," and "paperback priestesses," are equally shocked and offended when an Asatruar on a mailing list demands that they cite their sources, or the Kemetic at a pagan brunch snorts at their claims to be an initiate in a tradition founded by King Arthur. The reconstructionists are then labeled "intolerant," "snobbish," "elitist," or just plain "mean."
The last area of concern is more specific to Hellenists. As noted above, not everyone who worships the Greek gods practices Hellenismos. Many Wiccans and other neopagans honor our god/desses, especially Hekate, but their theological understanding of those deities are sometimes radically different from ours—so different that some Hellenists find their views offensive, even blasphemous. Specifically, some Hellenic polytheists may object when others
– force Hellenic
goddesses into the maiden-mother-crone schema
– describe Hekate as a crone
– focus on Hekate solely as mistress of magic (a relatively late, although authentic Hellenic conception of Her)
– characterize Zeus and other gods as unworthy of worship because they don't appear to conform to modern feminist standards of (mortal) masculinity
– stereotype Aphrodite as what one friend calls "a divine pin-up"
– treat a dedication to Dionysos as license to use illegal drugs or abuse any substance
– describe their relationship with the gods as "working with" or worse, "using" a particular deity to achieve a magical end (e.g., "I use Hera in marriage spells.")
– mix and match Hellenic deities with those of other cultures in ritual
– take on deity names as magical monikers.
What can be done about such conflicts? We reconstructionists continue to educate the public about our religions, and part of that education now includes "defining ourselves away" from the better-known modern pagan religions. Those who have time and steady blood pressure continue to point out shoddy scholarship where they see it, in hopes that eventually the overall religious literacy of the neopagan community will improve. We insist that "paganism" is not the name of a religion, but a convenient umbrella term that covers a wide range of otherwise unrelated historical and modern religions that fall outside of the Abrahamic lineage.
But at the end of the day, many Hellenes simply shrug and accept that theologies will differ—history has taught us at least that much.
While emotional response is certainly an important part of religious experience, there is no inherent split between intellectual rigor and religious sincerity. Both Hindus and Jews recognize study as a spiritual discipline, bringing us closer to the divine and encouraging us to develop virtue. Many reconstructionists, I suspect, would agree with them.
As to the concern for "sources," this stems from the reconstructionist emphasis on historical precedent as a model for modern practice. Because the progress of our religions was interrupted by conversion, we can't know how to approach our religion if we don't know, in as much detail as possible, how our spiritual ancesters worshipped and what they thought about the gods. We believe that it honors their memories to describe their lives as truthfully as possible (warts and all). Greater factual knowledge also allows us to be conscious of and principled in the ways in which we choose to adapt ancient practices to modern circumstances.
Finally, it is challenging to discuss one's personal spiritual experiences even in a group of friendly co-religionists, never mind in the midst of the anarchy we call the Internet. Many people shy away from sharing the intimate aspects of their spiritual lives with strangers, but that does not mean it is safe to assume that they have no authentic or meaningful religious practice.
Because Hellenic religion is not scripture-based, we do not have a definitive source to which we can turn for answers to thorny ethical dilemmas. In addition, the very fact that these life-and-death issues are assumed to be of importance to religion has more to do with Christian concepts of morality than with any inherently spiritual aspects of the issues themselves.
Take abortion, for example. There is virtually no evidence that the ancient Greeks looked at the ethics of abortion in religious terms. Abortion was legal, albeit with certain restrictions designed to preserve the rights of (male) citizen heads-of-household; an Athenian husband had to be informed and give consent for his wife to have an abortion, for example. The oft-quoted Hippocratic prohibition against giving a pessary to induce abortion did not assume the legal or moral personhood of the fetus but expressed concern for harm to the mother. There is only one piece of evidence that points to a religious prohibition relating to abortion: one sanctuary of Artemis in Asia Minor denied entry to women who had used a pessary. Even here, it is likely that this had as much to do with ritual purity requirements* as with any universal notion of criminality or sinfulness.
What we can say is this: There was no social prohibition in the ancient world against abortion, suicide, or capital punishment. But then again, there was no social prohibition against slavery either. In the absence of explicitly religious ancient discussions of these subjects, modern Hellenists must weigh ethical arguments on all sides and let reason and conscience be their guides. In practice, one will find a wide variety of opinions among Hellenes on such issues.
* Miasma, or ritual impurity, is a normal product of our mortal activities, but tradition teaches that we must purify ourselves before approaching the altars of the gods. Childbirth, sexual activity, and contact with death all produce miasma. Therefore, a woman who had had an abortion (or who had miscarried or given birth for that matter) would need to undergo ritual purification. Miasma should not be confused with "sin" or moral taint; it is simply a temporary state which is natural for mortals, but which can separate us from the gods.
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This article originally appeared on Andrew Campbell's Nomos Arkhaios site
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