Please note that although I do not cite any sources in this piece, I’ve collected ample material covering this and related topics over at Eklogai, and will be adding a wealth of additional sources during the next couple weeks.
All of this talk lately about identity politics within contemporary Paganism has got me thinking about how much wiser than us the ancients were. One thing that you immediately notice when you set out to study the cultures that flourished around the Mediterranean a couple thousand years ago is that none of them – not the Egyptians, not the Greeks, not the Etruscans and none of their neighbors either – had a word in any of those languages for what we today consider religion. They had a very rich religious vocabulary, but it would have been incomprehensible to them if a person had said, “I am a ___.” Religion was merely part of a broader spectrum of culture and concerned primarily with what a person did not who they were or what they believed, a fact which is reflected in their vocabulary. To use the Greeks as an example, the word that is most often suggested as an analogue for our “religion” was eusebeia. Literally this means “good or proper reverence; piety, loyalty” or as one ancient Greek commentator remarked, “that portion of justice which is concerned with divine matters and giving to the gods their due.” Another commonly found term was threskeia which means “conducting religious ceremonies, worship.” Other words are therapon “divine tendance or service”, proskynesis “inclining towards; bowing, intense respect or devotion” and by extension any dedicated act expressing powerful religious sentiment, nomos “custom, tradition, law” and so on and so forth. A related concept was deisidaimonia “fear of spirits”, which had largely negative connotations suggesting superstitious, extravagant or foreign types of worship. All of these, as you can see, were primarily concerned with actions.
And although the Greeks were aware that they constituted a unique people with its own language, gods, religious customs and so forth which could differ significantly from those of their neighbors, there was no real sense of exclusivity among them. After all the similarities were far more numerous than the differences (everyone acknowledged a plurality of gods, built temples, had priests, conducted purifications, animal sacrifice, libations and related sacred rites, etc.) and very often it seemed to them that the same gods were worshiped in different lands, just under locally appropriate names. They were intensely conscious of their cultural and religious indebtedness to their neighbors – especially the Egyptians and Babylonians – and you could find incredible and far more significant differences among the various Greek city-states than you often could between generalized Hellenes and other races. Therefore they assumed that the same basic religion was common to all, and that over time each culture had developed specific customs that were best suited to their national temperament.
Much later on “Hellene” and “Hellenismos” evolved into terms for a distinct religious identity – but it’s rather telling that the earliest instances of this are found among Jewish authors writing in Greek. Hellenismos had originally meant stylistic proficiency or in other words someone who wrote or spoke excellent Greek. The Jews (who had long emphasized their cultural and religious separateness from the world and all other races, making this an essential characteristic of their faith) broadened the definition to include all aspects of Greek life, ranging from the worship of a multitude of gods on down to athletic competitions, politics and even fashion. The word was used derisively of those Jews who had forsaken their ancestral traditions in order to acclimate and participate in Greek cultural life. Many Jews had taken up the study of philosophy, adopted Greek names and spoke Greek instead of Hebrew or Aramaic, refused to have their sons circumcised, served in the Ptolemaic and Seleukid administration, and spent time in the gymnasion and theater instead of attending temple or synagogue. Some even converted altogether and began worshiping the Olympian deities, with Zeus and Dionysos being the most popular. Needless to say, this didn’t go over so well with their more traditional and conservative brethren and there were intense and often bloody conflicts with the Hellenizers.
The Christians – who of course started off as a renegade Jewish sect – continued this usage, making “Hellene” pretty much synonymous with ethnikos, gentilis, paganus and other terms of derision. Hellene was stripped of its ethnic connotations so that anyone who believed or worshiped as a Greek – that is to say sacrificed to a multitude of divinities – had this label applied to them, even if they happened to be Egyptian, Syrian, Arab, Italian, Spanish, etc. by birth. Amusingly, even though the Byzantine empire was centered in Greece and Greek the lingua franca of their dominion (used in everything from the administration, the arts, the Orthodox liturgy on down to casual conversation in people’s homes) they insisted, vehemently, that they were Rhomaioi or Romans and anathematized those who identified as Hellenes or sought to study Hellenic philosophy. This persisted up to the War of Independence from the Ottomans, when the partisans decided that calling themselves Greeks once more would help them gain support for their cause from European Philhellenes like Byron – though the anathemas may still be heard in Orthodox churches to this day.
When the Emperor Julian sought to abolish the religious policies of his predecessors and return Rome to its polytheistic roots, he named his hierarchically organized and philosophically oriented creation Hellenismos, even though it was truly oecumenical and drew upon Greek, Italian, Egyptian, Syrian, Persian and other traditional religious systems. He himself composed sacred verse honoring the Magna Mater, Sol Invictus and similar originally non-Hellenic deities; likewise he was intensely drawn to theurgy which had as its basis the Chaldaean Oracles and he appears to have been initiated into the Mithraic mysteries. All of the members of his close circle – Maximus, Sallustius, Aidesios, etc. – were similarly eclectic and syncretic in their religious tastes. This amuses me to no end because so many who insist on a narrow definition of Hellenismos today (excluding anyone who doesn’t think or worship as they do, especially if they happen to honor non-Olympian deities with some even arguing that only ethnic Greeks can belong) often have a great reverence for Julian and the Neoplatonism that underpinned his system. (A Neoplatonism, by the way, that counts the Greco-Egyptian Plotinos as its founder and the Syrians Porphyry and Iamblichus as its greatest proponents.) Yet by the standards they seek to impose, Julian and all of his associates would be booted out of the religion!
In fact, if you ask me, far too much time is spent on theological nit-picking, obsessing over semantics and drawing arbitrary boundaries in the sand. Every time I peek my head into a Hellenic list or forum they are inevitably engaged in some sort of debate or flame-war or are externally focused on Neopagans, Christians and other groups. Sadly this sort of thing isn’t limited just to Hellenics – most Pagan discussion, period, revolves around these and similar issues, to the point where little in the way of meaningful discourse ever seems to take place. I’ve ranted about this topic plenty of times before, and I doubt anyone really wants to sit through another diatribe on the theme of “quit being a dick and focus on your own shit instead of worrying so much about others” and if you do, then I suggest you just read Every time you perpetuate a flame war, you make baby Zagreus cry instead. (Also, I’m perfectly aware of the irony of my stating such things in a post that’s entirely about the opinions and actions of others. Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson so astutely observed.)
What I will say, though, is that the emphasis that creates this agonistic environment isn’t just a massively futile waste of valuable time and energy – it’s completely antithetical to the spirit of Paganism! Show me in Homer or the Eddas or the Táin where a bunch of heroes are sitting around debating identity politics, semantics, theology and the other stuff that seems so important to us today. They didn’t because they understood that the worth of a man is based on his deeds – not whether his thoughts conform to an arbitrary checklist. In this, as with so much else, we would do well to emulate them.