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Author Topic: Is It Time For a "Reformed" Hellenic Paganism?  (Read 32911 times)
RandallS
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« Topic Start: March 14, 2007, 06:26:29 pm »

[I'm tossing this short article out for comment -- especially from those interested in Hellenic Paganism. I'm putting in "Special Topics" because I want the discussion to stay on topic and not wander off into side issues -- RSS]

Why Reconstructionist Religion Does Not Always Work

I'm going to say something that is going to upset a number of people, but after much thought, I've come to the conclusion that Reconstructionism can be a dead end for certain types of religion: specifically more highly organized state religions -- like the religion of ancient Greece.

The main reason should be obvious. The highly organized state religions of ancient civilizations cannot really be recreated without large numbers of people in one location with a lot of money to spend building temples, supporting the priests of the Gods who maintain those temples, and recreating the often lavish, state-supported festivals of those religions.

There is also the problem of context. In ancient Greek religion, each city-state had somewhat different important deities and festivals tailored to the history (both mythological and real) of their city. Detailed records only survived for Athens so most Hellenic recons focus on Athens for their religious calendar and festivals -- even though they do not live there and some of the festivals held in Athens really only make sense if you live in ancient Athens.

A third problem is difference in culture between the classical era and the twenty-first century. It's not just obvious things like the fact that men and women are equal today while women were definitely second class citizens in most of ancient Greece, it's seeming minor things like not having anyone home for many hours during the day to safely keep a home fire burning or the rigid work schedule of work weeks and weekends that makes holding a large number of religious festivals during the work week almost impossible for most people.

For years I've watched recon-oriented Hellenic groups try to do the nearly impossible: recreate ancient Hellenic religious practices with a tiny membership scattered across the world. Why do these groups try for the near impossible? I honestly do not know, but I think it is because to do otherwise isn't "recon enough." Doing less would be slipping toward Hellenic-favored Neo-Wicca or something else obviously not Recon.

Therefore, from what I've seen, you end up with a large number of people interested in Hellenic Paganism and in worshipping the Gods of Ancient Greece joining one of the various Hellenic Recon groups. Most members drift away after a year or two because these organizations generally offer only a place to talk and the hope of some type of regular (and practical) religious observances sometime in the future.

Does it have to be this way? If one is trying to recreate the religion of classical Athens, I suspect it does for all the reasons listed in the first few paragraphs of this editorial. But what if one were to drop this somewhat unrealistic goal and try to create a Hellenic religion for the modern world? I'm talking about a middle road between trying to reconstruct an ancient religion and grafting the Hellenic Gods on to some generic neo-Pagan ritual. There is a lot of area between those two extremes, after all.

Reformed Hellenism -- Off the Top of My Head

I started thinking about this idea yesterday and I have already thought of a way to start a practical Hellenic religion that would work without the need for large groups or lots of money for festivals, that would work without requiring its members to become scholars of Classical Greek Religion to do anything, and yet try to remain true to the spirit of Ancient Greek religious belief and practice. If I can come up with an outline of something minimal, but workable in 24 hours, I suspect that with a bit of effort some type of "Reformed Modern Hellenic Paganism" in the middle ground between strict reconstructionism and generic neo-Paganism is quite possible.

Here's the basic outline:

Major Festivals (One a month, normally on a Sunday)

There are 12 months in a modern year and 12 Olympic deities, so have one festival a month honoring each of the Twelve. These festivals would start simple, but could be added to as the religion grew. They would be feasts (very true to ancient Greek practice) with some type of sacrifice to the deity being honored and the reading of some of the myths about the deity and/or the hymns to the deity. Perhaps part of the day could be dedicated to activities in the deities areas of interest as well. These festivals could be done by a family or a small local group (if there are enough Hellenic Pagans in the area). No need for lots of people and lots of money.

Minor Festivals (3 or 4 a month, the Sundays not a Major Festival)

1) Minor feast with sacrifice/libation to deities important to family/group
2) Study of Hellenic myths and/or philosophy.

Daily Practice:

1) Prayers
2) Some type of home fire to Hestia (perhaps real while someone is home and symbolic when no one is home?)
3) Libations to a different deity each day.
4) Divination when needed

I agree that this is simple, but I think it is better to start with something simple that can be done by just about anyone truly interested in worshipping the Greek Gods than something so complex that it scares people way. After all, as time goes on, one can always add to a simple start.

Is this one "one true way" to do a modern Hellenic religion? Of course not. The fact that it is just a very basic outline I thought up in 24 hours should make this obvious. But it is a starting point. A starting point that is actually doable instead of a wish and a hope for "someday" (when there are large numbers of members of our religion in every city so we can recreate Athenian festivals without looking silly).

Notes:

1) I realize that the lists of the twelve Olympians vary. The exact deities and which month their major festival would be is something that would have to be decided.

2) Sunday was picked for festivals because it is one of the two weekend days that most people are likely to have off from work and because it seemed more appropriate to honor the Gods on the first day of the week (Sunday) than on the last day of the week (Saturday).

(Typos and Randallisms courtesy of the Goddess Eris Wink )
« Last Edit: March 14, 2007, 06:35:10 pm by LyricFox, Reason: Word change edit. LF » Logged

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« Reply #1: March 14, 2007, 08:37:27 pm »

I've had some similar thoughts about the untenability of strictly reconstructed Egyptian practice, with regards to the major state cults and such.  (More strongly put, I think that attempting to do god-king theology with modern minds may be possible without degenerating into cult of personality at best, but I have seen no evidence that anyone is actually doing so.)

I mean, flippantly put, I don't believe that a strict reconstruction of a state in which all property belonged to the king, who was responsible for supporting the people, is well-represented by anyone who's paying a mortgage.  Or anyone soliciting donations for, well, anything.

This is one of the reasons I've been studying the transition from priestly to rabbinic Judaism; there are enough theological similarities between the two that figuring out how they translated from state cult to diasporic religion would be really useful.
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« Reply #2: March 14, 2007, 08:57:44 pm »

I've had some similar thoughts about the untenability of strictly reconstructed Egyptian practice, with regards to the major state cults and such.

I suspect some type of problem like this may arise with any modern attempt to strictly reconstruct any religion that was urban-oriented and supported by the state. Such religions tend to need large numbers of people, a good chuck of money, and facilities. All of which can be hard to recreate in the modern world.

Quote
This is one of the reasons I've been studying the transition from priestly to rabbinic Judaism; there are enough theological similarities between the two that figuring out how they translated from state cult to diasporic religion would be really useful.

I don't think that would be as applicable to Hellenic religion, but it might be worth a look just in case.
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« Reply #3: March 14, 2007, 08:59:09 pm »

What you've proposed seems like a logical step in the process of recontructing an ancient religion.

The religion practiced in Athens was a modern religion at that time.  It makes sense that part of the process of reconstructing Hellenic paganism would involve developing the principles and practices of that religion as a wholly modern religious system with a solid historical 'anchor' in the ancient system.

Betty
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« Reply #4: March 14, 2007, 09:28:23 pm »


I think something else to keep in mind (and one of the biggest reasons Reconstructionism as I've seen it always makes my head hurt) is that religion has to serve the people, as well as the people serving the gods.  If it's not /working/, it's not /good/.

It seems to me that a lot of Reconing in general doesn't actually work for the people.  There's a lot of focus on what it could be, but not focus on what it is and what people need.

If the religion doesn't serve the people, it's not working.
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« Reply #5: March 15, 2007, 12:19:24 am »

I agree that this is simple, but I think it is better to start with something simple that can be done by just about anyone truly interested in worshipping the Greek Gods than something so complex that it scares people way. After all, as time goes on, one can always add to a simple start.

...

A starting point that is actually doable instead of a wish and a hope for "someday" (when there are large numbers of members of our religion in every city so we can recreate Athenian festivals without looking silly).

One of the reasons I never even considered a Reconstructionist path was the thought of all the research I'd have to do before I could even start properly.  It's just daunting for a newcomer.  Also, I know myself, and it's pretty hard for me to keep up the research when I don't have practice to reinforce.

I think one of the appeals of book Wicca is that you can start doing right away, in addition to learning/studying.  Maybe that's also a reason why people go for Insert-Culture-Here Wicca rather than reconstructionism.  A simple "beginners" practice is a much friendlier place to start, and in my opinion more likely to "stick" as well.
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« Reply #6: March 15, 2007, 12:34:05 am »

What you've proposed seems like a logical step in the process of recontructing an ancient religion.

The religion practiced in Athens was a modern religion at that time.  It makes sense that part of the process of reconstructing Hellenic paganism would involve developing the principles and practices of that religion as a wholly modern religious system with a solid historical 'anchor' in the ancient system.

Betty

I'm not Hellenic, but very interested in the topic of making recon religions actually work in the real world we currently live in.  I totally agree completely with how Betty put it, as well as others' comments.  To me, the point of reconstructing a religion is not to practice it as it *was* praticed, since that's pretty much impossible, but rather to try to apply it to our world in the here and now.  That's why I've never been really comfortable with hard-line Celtic recon.  It doesn't work for me in my life.

We need a different word from "reconstructionist", though.

Interesting article, Randall.  Thanks for sharing it!
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« Reply #7: March 15, 2007, 12:59:27 am »

We need a different word from "reconstructionist", though.

This is why the Celt and I describe ourselves as neo-reconstructionists. Wink

(We are the only two people on Livejournal with that listed as an interest, at least last time I checked.)
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« Reply #8: March 15, 2007, 01:00:40 am »

This is why the Celt and I describe ourselves as neo-reconstructionists. Wink

I kinda like that.

I've been going with recon lite.  But I guess that sounds a little flip...
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« Reply #9: March 15, 2007, 07:11:36 am »

You have no idea how much I'd be cheering if I find a proposal like this for Kemeticism. I've always considered the attempt to recreate Kemetic religion as it was, including nisut-bit and everything ridiculous. There is no place in the modern world for a god-king of Egypt, who rules over people who live all over the place without any real pattern. Just like Darkhawk, I've been seeing the links to the Jewish diaspora.

The reality of reconstructionist religions is that we no longer live in the world the religions were originally created in, and we have to deal with that. That makes our job harder than just remaking what the religion was, we need to extrapolate what it might have become by now had it been around all those years, which means that you have no direct resources. And yes, that is hard. The other side of the coin, however, is that it's POSSIBLE. You might not get exactly what it would have become, but you can come up with an adaptation that is workable in this day and age, which, Gods know, pure reconstruction isn't.

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« Reply #10: March 15, 2007, 07:26:06 am »

I think something else to keep in mind (and one of the biggest reasons Reconstructionism as I've seen it always makes my head hurt) is that religion has to serve the people, as well as the people serving the gods.  If it's not /working/, it's not /good/.

It seems to me that a lot of Reconing in general doesn't actually work for the people.  There's a lot of focus on what it could be, but not focus on what it is and what people need.

If the religion doesn't serve the people, it's not working.

Something I thought of after I went to bed .. The other thing that always gets me about strict Reconstructionism, with absolutely no allowance for the way the world has changed, is that it always makes me think that the practitioners think the people they're emulating were STUPID.

You can't tell me they wouldn't have taken advantage of computers if they could have found them.  You can't tell me they wouldn't adapt.  People do.  Heck, you can look at the very records we have and see that things changed radically over the years.

Anything that doesn't take that into account, and change just as radically for the modern age, looks to an outsider more like SCAdian Greek as opposed to an actual living faith.  It doesn't look like religion.
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« Reply #11: March 15, 2007, 08:23:05 am »

I think one of the appeals of book Wicca is that you can start doing right away, in addition to learning/studying.  Maybe that's also a reason why people go for Insert-Culture-Here Wicca rather than reconstructionism.  A simple "beginners" practice is a much friendlier place to start, and in my opinion more likely to "stick" as well.

I think statements like this are what scares many moderate recons away from even thinking about modernizing the info they research. They are afraid of ending up with "Insert-Culture(-Superficially)-Here Wicca" -- perhaps because that is the only modern Pagan religion they are really familiar with so they think that all modern Pagan religions will end up turning into just another Wicca variant. While Wicca is a fine religion, "Insert-Culture-Here Wicca" is nothing like any of the religions of any of the ancient cultures one inserts.
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« Reply #12: March 15, 2007, 08:24:36 am »

This is why the Celt and I describe ourselves as neo-reconstructionists. Wink

I like that term.
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« Reply #13: March 15, 2007, 08:28:49 am »

I'm not Hellenic, but very interested in the topic of making recon religions actually work in the real world we currently live in.  I totally agree completely with how Betty put it, as well as others' comments.  To me, the point of reconstructing a religion is not to practice it as it *was* praticed, since that's pretty much impossible, but rather to try to apply it to our world in the here and now.  That's why I've never been really comfortable with hard-line Celtic recon.  It doesn't work for me in my life.

We need a different word from "reconstructionist", though.
Before Reconstructionism really got going, the term "cultural Paganism" was often used as an umbrella term, with specific sorts identified by citing the culture - Celtic Paganism, Hellenic Paganism, etc.  At the time, these were all too often a matter of grafting culture-specific details (frequently inaccurate) onto a Wiccish template - Reconstruction developed, in part, as a reaction against that degree of intellectual laziness, and the lexicon of Cultural Paganism was largely dropped as if it had "fluffy bunny cooties".

I've long thought that this smacked of throwing the baby out with the (admittedly pretty dirty) bathwater - the terminology itself is descriptive and self-explanatory, even if a lot of people were applying it poorly.  IMO, there's much to be said for reviving the terms and applying them more appropriately.  Some folks may need to adjust them a bit - f'ex, while "Celtic Paganism" has been almost entirely eclipsed by "Celtic Recon" and can be revived as is, "Hellenic Pagan" is often synonymous with "Hellenic Recon" so adding "Reformed" (or something) may be inevitable.

Similarly, there's much to be said for reviving the idea of Cultural Paganism (and I've said some of it previously, though a bit tentatively, since my path doesn't run in that direction).  Eventually, one has to stop poring over primary sources to find out how something was done, and stick one's neck out and do it, or it's not religion, it's amateur anthropology.  This has been coming up more and more on TC in recent months, and I think it's a wonderful thing.

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« Reply #14: March 15, 2007, 08:38:43 am »

You have no idea how much I'd be cheering if I find a proposal like this for Kemeticism.

Feel free to steal it and adapt it. Wink

Quote
The reality of reconstructionist religions is that we no longer live in the world the religions were originally created in, and we have to deal with that. That makes our job harder than just remaking what the religion was, we need to extrapolate what it might have become by now had it been around all those years, which means that you have no direct resources. And yes, that is hard.

Well said.

Quote
You might not get exactly what it would have become, but you can come up with an adaptation that is workable in this day and age, which, Gods know, pure reconstruction isn't.

I think Asatru is the only place where a fairly pure reconstructionist approach has really worked. Of course, Asatru lacks all the religious features that make doing the same thing for the religions of Egypt, Greece, and Rome nearly impossible. Unfortunately, as the first working recon religion, it set the "standard" in many people's minds as to what a recon religion must be.
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