books to read to learn about Hellenismos

I was quite blessed when I was first called by my gods, because I found a teacher. I do a tremendous amount of reading and practicing on my own, but having a framework — even one that I bend out of shape from time to time — has made all the difference.

Not everyone is as fortunate as I have been. Some people coming to this path must rely entirely upon written materials, which is a more challenging way to absorb the culture that’s infused therein. Moreover, because reconstructing or reviving an ancient religion requires research, there is a fairly heavy bias toward the academic. That’s appropriate, but if my first forays into Hellenismos had been met with some of the suggestions I see offered to newcomers, I would probably have thrown up my hands in frustration and moved on to learning how to play the ukulele.

Okay, that was hyperbolic. I would never try to learn the ukulele.

Nevertheless, not everyone who hears the call of the theoi is ready to dig into primary sources right from the start. To that end, here’s a list of books often recommended for beginning reading, and my thoughts on where they belong in the process for people who are not scholars and also don’t have a lot of in-person support.

  1. Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored
  2. Hellenic Polytheism: Household Worship
  3. Greek Religion

I’ve listed these in the order I would recommend them to students.

Kharis is an excellent place to start one’s journey into education. Sara Kate Istra Winter provides the reader with an overview of what Hellenic religion might have in store. Winter touches on reasons one might be interested in or called to this path, and sketches a general pattern of ritual which at least makes these forms comfortable and recognizable. I found the take on prayer and how gods speak to us to be particularly meaningful, because in them I found a commonality of experience.

The book includes results of a survey which some have found less meaningful than intended. I’m not much of a statistician, and I found the results to be of passing interest. It’s certainly not the most profound controversy to sweep through Hellenic polytheists, and I haven’t seen the third edition of this book (2019), with survey data that are likely reflective of the maturing of this community.

Household Worship is a fascinating glimpse into the local practices of the Labrys community, members of which are practicing this religion in Greece itself. Some of the rituals contained therein are in heavy rotation at Temenos Oikidios, my spiritual home. When dealing with a broken tradition and trying to apply it in modern context, it’s valuable to have insights from people who live in its land of origin. The folk practices of Greece and presence of ancient temples most assuredly gives the traditions of Labrys well-earned gravitas.

I would never, ever suggest this as the first book someone reads about Hellenic religion, however, unless they happened to be part of the Labrys community already. The reason is simple: it was written for members of that tradition rather than the wider audience it has since received, and as such the authors did not contemplate concepts such as “your mileage may vary.” It’s perfectly acceptable for leaders of a tradition to tell their students, “This is how we do it, end of story,” but someone picking this book out on Amazon could easily interpret that orthopraxy as universal, which is not true and never has been true. A seeker should be aware, by the time they read Household Worship, that Hellenismos is always a local religion and has had regional variation since the very beginning. They should know that divination is an important tool to help discern which practices the gods are asking them specifically to employ. For some, that might mean joining Labrys and adopting that tradition whole cloth. Others might be advised that the gods find two-dimensional images of them in shrines to be acceptable, while that’s never okay for a member of Labrys if I understand the book correctly.

This is a good book, but it needs to be introduced by a teacher to a student lest discernment not be applied during the reading.

Greek Religion is an incredibly valuable resource. It is also a large and intimidating tome; I read the whole thing because I heard a rumor that most of us don’t. Now I wish I had taken more careful notes, because this is the go-to academic text on ancient practices and when I’m sucked into an online debate, I find myself flipping through it frantically to recall what author Walter Burkert said about a particular practice.

If this was the first book assigned to someone seeking to worship the theoi, that someone may well vanish and never be heard from again. Certainly there are people who revel in a dense, academic tome, but I wouldn’t recommend this one to a beginner unless I intended on scaring that person off (which is a technique some of my college professors used to winnow down the number of students in a popular class). I do believe every hellenic polytheist should read and even own this book eventually, but it’s a crappy introduction for anyone who wants to participate in the religion, rather than just study it. I do not wish for our religion only to be available to scholars.

While I think most people offering suggestions to newcomers have good intentions, what they often lack is an understanding of the beginner’s mind. The books we suggest to a seeker must be placed into some kind of context, else we could be scaring people away from a very really calling by our gods. I’ve looked only at these three books because their titles crop up on beginning reading lists. I would recommend each of them—but not necessarily as a first book to read. If readers have different ideas about the books we should be suggesting and when, I’d be curious to learn.

2 thoughts on “books to read to learn about Hellenismos

  1. Kharis is excellent and the author has a second book available too on Greek ritual cycle –can’t recall the title atm. “Greek Religion” is dated — the conversation has moved on– but it is still a very, very important book and I agree: it’d be one of the first I”d recommend. But I likewise agree: start with Kharis. For kids, there’s “D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths” which has lush illustrations.

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