True Blood

One of the books I’m reading as I learn about Hellenismos is Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored by Sara Kate Istra Winter.  Early on in her discussion of modern Hellenism, Winter notes that a minority of Hellenic groups feel that the religion should be reserved for those of Greek blood.  Okay, I’m covered; one of my grandparents was born in Greece.  However, it’s a story I’ve heard before and I don’t personally support it, even though I probably would make the cut.

In the early days of my Pagan seeking I was interested in Native American spirituality, particularly because I feel a strong tie to the eagle, and in the USA the eagle is associated with three things:  patriotism, motorcycles, and Native American cultures.  (I know that this is not very precise, but it’s exactly what I perceived at the time.)  Since my Wiccan teacher didn’t have a strong shamanic background and my shamanic teacher came from a Norse tradition, I turned to a friend of theirs for advice.  I knew that this man was a member of a tribe in Canada, and I told him that I was interested in learning more about the ways of his people.

He was gentle in his rebuke, but nevertheless he told me, “you should follow the traditions of your people, and leave ours to us.”

The next day I attended the handfasting of my teachers, and this particular Native American presided as high priest in the Wiccan ceremony, since he’d been practicing that faith for many years and was much respected.  Typical for my thought patterns, the irony of this didn’t dawn on me for some years – by his reasoning, Wiccanism should only be practiced by the British.

Modern worshipers at a Hellenic temple

I can understand where the rationale comes from – in bygone days religion was taught by one generation to the next, and that means it’s a family affair.  However, for good or ill we’ve mucked things up with our moving about and mixing up the genes, and also by taking up lifestyles that discourage an interest in the gods.  Our souls are much less likely to be born into a family that follows the faith that we belong in than they were centuries ago.  If there is to be a test to determine worthiness to worship in a particular fashion, I submit that it should be divine rather than scientific – let the gods choose their own, in their own way.  DNA analysis is not the way to discover one’s true calling.

Of course, this mindset is nothing new, as Winter points out in Kharis.  Isocrates said, some 2400 years ago, “The name Greek is no longer the mark of a race, but of an outlook, and is accorded to those who share our culture rather than our blood. (p 32)”

Full circle: finding Hellenism

I remember the day it happened.  I was in college, first freshman year, sitting with a friend of mine in the Union.  We’d been talking about some of the people I’d recently met through him, and the secret community to which they all belonged.  My friend had glanced around quickly before lowering his head and his voice and saying, “There’s a lot of Pagans around here.”

I knew exactly what he meant, of course – it was like the Greek gods.  I’d read all the myths I could get my hands on and even tried out some of that Norse stuff when I was a kid, but didn’t like it as much.  Sure, I knew what Pagans were, but I was sure that if people were making animal sacrifices in great, stone temples I would have noticed.

Of course I was at the same time completely right and completely wrong about Paganism.  To learn, I soaked up Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler and a lot of much less substantive works.  My early exposure was to a variety of Wiccan practices, which strengthened my love of the Earth and desire to defend the spirits of the land.  My relationship with Herne and later, the Green Man, defined how I related to the world around me, but I was never a Wiccan.  I enjoy Wiccan ritual and practice, and I respect that Wicca has given momentum to all manner of Pagan revival and reconstruction movements.

When I eventually discovered Hellenic polytheism, I was intrigued but not drawn to it particularly.  Learning a new language is a pretty high barrier to entry for me, and the first group I met prayed in ancient Greek.  It was also a couple decades after my interest in Greek religion had peaked, so I filed it away.

Starting this summer, though, I started getting clues that it’s time to take a second look at the religion of some portion of my ancestors.  Little snippets of conversation about gods I’d never heard of.  Flashes of insight . . . while watching Xena.  Meeting a teacher who was offering a class in Hellenismos and didn’t mind using English.  Having a conversation with Margot Adler, who started me and many others on our Pagan paths, and having her tell me, “I’ve always been a Hellenistic pagan, but it just wasn’t an option back then.

So in a way I’m beginning again, but more seriously this time, because for the first time in many, many years I feel like I’m not responsible for defining who it is I’m praying to.  These gods have been around for a very long time, and I want to give them the latitude to be a bit set in their ways.  I’m pretty okay with it.  One of the things about Wiccanism which made it hard for me to anchor myself there was the amorphous identity of God and Goddess.  They could be represented by specific deities, or be referenced by the broader terms developed in the 18th century like Great Goddess and Father Sky, but if the specific face keeps changing it’s tough for me to develop a relationship.

Of course, I’m mindful that without many years of exposure to Wicca, I wouldn’t have any basis of comparison.  I’m grateful that it’s the right choice for so many people, because it’s also a visible conduit that helps all manner of seekers find what they’re looking for.

Now what I’m discovering is that it’s tough not to form relationships.  I had originally believed that one god alone took the initiative to wave some ambrosia under my nose, but the more I meditate on it the more I see the work of several divine hands.  There are certainly at least three that come to my thoughts almost daily, and I imagine that time will only expand those relationships.  Just today I did some reading about Hermes, and how he comes to fill so many roles:  luck, messages, soulbearing, thievery, cleverness.  I was so intrigued that I bypassed Demeter and Athena to pray to Hermes, because he’s the one that whispers the messages of the gods in our ears.  So without pressure, and in a very organic way, I’m learning how to talk to each of them.

The one book I have read every night since I began this path is Devotion: Prayers to the Gods of the Greeks – it has a selection of prayers in English to each of the gods, a tremendous help for me.  The one big stumbling block for me right now is mastering the pronunciations of the gods’ names; even though I will be slow to learn ancient Greek, I want to get everybody’s name right.  It’s simply about respect.