Monday, June 28, 2004


Recently, the various ‘neopaganist’ groups that exist throughout the world met in Greece for a conference. At that conference, a major topic of discussion was the push to have the various neo-pagan movements that exist within Greece, be recognised as a religion.
Such a move is interesting and if successful, of historic importance. A ‘religion’ that died out almost one and a half thousand years ago will be resuscitated. The resuscitation of religions is not altogether without historical precedent. The Sassanian kings of Persia were able to restore Zoroastrian as the chief organised religion of the Persian State and transform it into a formidable rival of the Christian Byzantine Empire. However, that religion had not completely become extinct at the time of resuscitation and in fact, still exists today. Therefore, recognition of the Olympian ‘religion,’ will be a world first.
Such recognition is fraught with problems. For it is one thing to parade underneath the Attic sunlight resplendent in winding sheet, sonorously pronounced ancient and impressive mantras and pouring libations onto the ruins of archaeological monuments and it is another thing to truly belong to a religion. If one defines a religion as a common set of values and beliefs of the supernatural held by a group of people, then an impasse is reached. How does one codify, one thousand and five hundred years after the death of the Olympians, a belief system that existed for approximately 2,000 years?
Take Christianity for example, a religion that has developed slowly over two thousand years. Early Christianity, whether manifested through writings, practice and liturgy is in many respects vastly different than its later development. Herein lies the problem. Religion is never static, it grows in accordance to the needs and feelings of its adherents. If we were to resuscitate an ancient belief system, who would arbitrarily take the snapshot in time that would ‘re-create’ that system of beliefs? Would one include the primitive mother-goddess worship of the Pelasgians, the Minoan cult of the Bull, or the worship of Cybele, Serapis, Isis or Mithras, worshipped by Greeks of the pre-Christian era within other syncretic religions? Is the worship of any one of these ‘deities’ more important or ‘correct’ than any other?
Even if one would be a ‘purist’ and argue a religion based on the twelve gods of Olympus, further problems are encountered. In the case of the Olympians, all we have surviving are myths as they appear in plays and epic poetry, such of which are written by later, Latin authors. A religion that has pretensions to resuscitate their worship could not have the ability to re-create a belief system whose exact practice and form is not completely known to us, owing to our still imperfect archaeological knowledge of the period.
This is especially so in the practice of the religion. Events such as the Eleusinian mysteries, of vital importance to the ancient Greeks in their religious worship are still obscured by secrecy. One cannot ever hope to re-create these. Again, owing to the multitude of diverse religious practices throughout ancient Greece, someone again must arbitrarily pick and choose a set of ‘desirable’ practices and forms of worship to adopt. This is a subjective process and by its very personal subjectivity, belies the very object of the exercise.
A religion must have doctrine, a moral teaching that is the purpose for its existence. It would be interesting to see what ‘Olympian-worshippers’ will come up with. The whole corpus of the ancient Greek’s experience of the ancient gods is primarily one where mankind must know his place and never challenge the gods, though they be capricious, malicious and cruel. Can adherents of the resuscitation of the ancient religion honestly say that they are guided by Zeus, when the said gentleman is guilty (if we examine mythology) guilty of pederasty (abduction of Ganymede) and rape (rape of Europa)? It is obvious that already a spiritual crisis exists.
The neo-pagan conception of religion seems wrongly to be centred on the glories of ancient Greek philosophy. Indeed Plato and the neo-Platonists inspired Christian thinkers, as did Aristotle and it cannot be doubted that the vast majority of philosophers, from Epicurus to Iamblichus concerned themselves with human morality and the ‘correct’ way to life one’s life. It is incumbent upon all of us to feel proud of our ancestor’s achievements and to study them at length. It is also important however, that we do not confuse philosophy with religion. Socrates himself was caused to drink the hemlock on trumped up charges of blasphemy and it can safely be said that the ancient Greek thinkers were so revolutionary because their moral teaching was the first to largely be produced out of the sphere of religion. What spiritual or moral guidance was provided to believers by ancient priests is unknown to us.
At the end of the day, much of the supernatural would be gone from a resuscitated Olympian religion. One can prove that the Olympians do not reside in Olympus and much of the ancient belief system is embarrassing. While the same could be said about other religions, the fact remains that once the ancient religion became irrelevant (admittedly official persecution and sanction had a hand in that) it died a natural death. It is no longer necessary to our lives.
Neo-pagans therefore or just history boffins who take an eclectic like to all things ancient, love dressing up in chitons and himatia and re-enacting ancient ceremonies while chafing at the dominance of Christianity in Greek culture which they blame for the ‘chosen people’s’ (that’s us) fall from grace? I should hope the latter. A bit of colour and theatre is instrumental in keeping the ancient world at our fingertips and we do well to celebrate it. An attempt to imperfectly revive an ancient belief system that was never uniform simply for aesthetic reasons is quite sad, though amusing. Given the Greek people’s love of dwelling in the past, one wonders what will be next: investiture of the president of the republic on raised shield as in Byzantium or better still….Disney’s Byzantium on Ice!


First published in NKEE on 28 June 2004