Hellenismos, roughly meaning “the way of the Greeks”, developed during the Hellenistic and early Roman periods as a result of deep and sustained contact between Hellenes and other populations in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. It was a combination of linguistic, religious, political and cultural strands of identity that helped set them apart as a distinct ethnos or nation. Despite all of the many ways they may have historically differed the Greeks felt they still had more in common with each other than they did with barbarians. The seeds of this Pan-Hellenic spirit had been sowed by the Eleusinian mysteries and the Olympic, Pythian and Isthmian games and brought to fruition by the Persian Wars when the mainland Hellenes had to unite in order to defend their country from expansionist aggression by the Orient. Unsurprisingly Athens came to dominate the movement.
Koine, a heavily Atticized language of trade, edged out other dialectical forms and Athenian orators, historians, artists and playwrights became the standard models everyone else imitated. Local customs and religious institutions spread, often with accompanying Athenian-style democratic institutions. And their spiritual and intellectual hegemony was ensured by the Romans who saw Athens as the pinnacle of Greek achievement and not only copied them but expanded their influence throughout the ever-increasing territory of the imperium. The Second Sophistic was basically an attempt to replicate Classical Athens in the Greek East. Anyone who was adequately educated and culturally refined was considered a proper Hellene, regardless of their ethnic origins. It was in this sense that the term Hellenismos was originally coined by Jewish authors writing in Greek and later was refined to emphasize its religious connotations by the Emperor Julian, who sought to create a Neoplatonic polytheist rival to Christianity.
Consciously or not, this is what a lot of contemporary Hellenic polytheists draw upon in their reconstruction of ancient Greek religion, which is perhaps not terribly surprising since Athens has dominated most of the readily available scholarship over the last couple centuries. Most of the information on festivals and religious practice you find online have a heavy Attic slant or else people pick and choose from a variety of regions and time periods without much thought for context.
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach and it clearly works well for a lot of people. I’d go so far as to say that it meets the need many have for a simple, coherent system to order their lives by. It’s like the picture one forms of Greek mythology after reading Edith Hamilton or Thomas Bullfinch – all the rough edges and inconsistencies are ground down and smoothed over by the imposition of an overarching narrative structure – and that structure is Hellenismos. Consciously exploited as such it could become a strong rallying point for contemporary Hellenic polytheists who want a shared practice and culture but for the most part it is just taken for granted as the default expression within the community.
Either way I have very little interest in it.
My religious tradition is Magna Graecian. From the eighth to the fifth century BCE a number of poleis from different parts of mainland Greece sent out parties of colonists who took up residence in sparsely populated areas along the coasts of Southern Italy and Sicily. Sometimes they established harmonious relations with the indigenous populations and sometimes there were intense conflicts, with a couple colonies even being entirely wiped out. Those who thrived tended to have stronger ties to the metropolis or “mother city” which sent them out, relying on this for economic and military support until they grew strong enough to stand on their own. Some even became powerful enough to establish their own colonies, as Taras did with Herakleia and Thourioi.
During these early periods of dependence the colonists made a concerted effort to maintain their ancestral customs and so built temples and performed festivals primarily in honor of the major deities of their homeland. (Apollon, Poseidon, Hera and Athena in particular.) They also carried over ancient rivalries so that the Doric colonies tended to be in conflict with the Ionian or Aeolian and vice versa. (These wars were often orchestrated by the metropoleis who used the colonists as pawns in covert games of realpolitik comparable to the treatment of Korea, Vietnam and Latin America by the United States and the Soviet Union in the latter half of the last century.)
Over time there was a shift away from these Pan-Hellenic relations. The colonies began having less to do with their metropoleis and forged stronger local ties, among both their fellow Greeks and the various indigenous populations. One expression of this was the Italiote Federation which gave both the Carthaginians and the Romans a run for their money before inevitably splitting apart at the seams and another expression of it was the chthonification of their religion. There had always been strains of this, but over time you see a rise to prominence of cults of Demeter, Persephone, Aphrodite and Dionysos as well as a stronger interest in heroes and daimones – even the Gods of the state develop a more pronounced interest in fertility and the underworld on Italian soil. A complex and interconnected mythology develops among the colonies of Magna Graecia, often differing in substantial ways from the stories told abroad – a process that continues through Roman and Christian domination.
The Mezzogiorno is and has always been a land apart and out of step – dark and earthy and slow and sensual and dangerous and violent and superstitious. It is where you go to experience the ecstatic release from remorse.
And that is something fundamentally different from Hellenismos – in either its ancient or modern manifestations.