Living Hellenic Reconstructionism

by Dave

As many in the Pagan community are aware, Hellenic Recons spend a lot of time reading. Because we are reconstructing, or recreating, an ancient religion, we have to. We need at least a passing familiarity with ancient writers in order to help us connect with the Gods we are drawn to. We need information on ancient festivals, epithets of the Gods, how They were worshiped, what sacrifices are appropriate, etc. As a general rule, our sources tend to be quite academic, with numerous footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies. This attitude tends to carry over into our discussions as well. We tend to cite sources, question unverifiable personal experiences with the Gods, and discuss the rather intellectual topics which many ancient philosophers debated.

What we do not spend a lot of time discussing is how we incorporate all of this into our daily lives. We argue, rightfully so, that our religion is alive and well, as are the Gods we worship. We talk about how we try to reconstruct ancient values and place them into a modern-day context. We always assert that sexism, racism, slavery and other values of the ancients are not part of that modern-day belief system. What we don’t seem to touch on in our intellectual discussions is how exactly one can live the values of the ancients in modern-day times; why debate and dissect them and not live them?. This is probably the most disturbing aspect of Hellenic Reconstructionism, although many Pagan paths in general suffer from this shortcoming. What I hope to accomplish in this essay is to use my own personal experiences as an example of how one can actually live the values we learn as we read and discuss.

The most important value to a Hellenic Reconstructionist is Piety. Piety is our way of recognizing the supremacy of the Gods and honoring Them for who They are and what They mean to us. Traditionally, ancient homes had an area for a shrine for the Gods, whether it be personal Gods, a God of the Pantheon, or a God whose worship was powerful in a particular region. Hestia was offered the first bite at every meal. Festivals were important to bring the community together and worship as a whole.

We try to keep our worship traditional. We incorporate Greek into our rituals, and make every attempt to follow ancient festival outlines and cycles. We don’t always have the same ability as the ancients to participate in large public rituals; rather, we either practice as a solitary or with a very small group. For example, my “congregation” is comprised of two people. The numbers aren’t important, it is the sense of community which comes from worshiping with another which is important.

Many of us have small home shrines where we make offerings and sacrifice to the Gods. My home shrine is located in my bedroom, and I make a small offering and prayer of thanks every morning and every evening before bed. My co-religionist and I use my home shrine for our festival celebrations. At any given time you will find incense burning, candles lit, or offerings of wine, honey, barley, breads or fruits on my shrine. There is also an image of all the Gods over the shrine, and many smaller physical symbols of the Gods on my shrine. Things like a small Greco-Roman war helmet and swords for Ares, candles for Hestia, mystical symbols for Hekate, and physical offerings I made for the Gods in times of need; most recently I added a beautiful silver Greek-style bracelet as a token of thanksgiving for the help the Gods gave me during an especially hard time. Piety is probably the easiest of the values to talk about, and one of the easiest to incorporate into one’s daily life.

A second very important value in ancient Greece was Xenia. “Xenia” is translated as “hospitality”. Closely related to Xenia is Philanthropia, “philanthropy” in English. Zeus is the God of strangers, Hermes the God of travelers, and Hestia the Goddess of the Hearth and Home. These Gods epitomize our obligation to participate in our communities and at least try to make a difference. For the ancients, opening one’s home or extending help to a stranger created a sacred bond, and Gods help you if you betrayed that bond.

This is another easy one to live daily. It simply entails stepping away from the computer (after you finish reading this essay, anyway), and stepping outside of yourself for a few moments. Is there an elderly person living nearby who needs help with basic household things like shopping or shoveling out her car? Is there a local shelter or soup kitchen where you can volunteer? Is there a friend in need who you can help out? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, then as the slogan goes, just do it! You can also give money to charities as an offering to the Gods; I joined the National Wildlife Federation recently. I got a really cool teddy bear, some name labels and a monthly magazine, but I was also able to dedicate the check and the membership to Artemis, Goddess of wildlife. No one is asking for a tithe or oodles of money to be given away; I’m not rich, and neither are a number of my co-religionists. But can you spare $10 to give to the ACLU, the NWF, the United Way, American Red Cross or some other organization which tries to make a difference in the world? That’s not so difficult to do once a year, is it? So you may have to sacrifice that movie rental for the week or have to cook at home one extra night a month instead of going out to dinner. But you gain the satisfaction of helping one of these organizations continue working and doing good for the community. That’s living hospitality and philanthropy.

Another cultural value of the ancients, and one which is quite common in many ancient texts is the individual’s attempt to achieve Glory. To strive to be something great in the eyes of your fellow men. Ok, this one admittedly sounds self-serving. But hey, do we all want to be mediocre? Isn’t there something you do, and want to do well? Probably the easiest expression of this is our cultural fascination with competitive sports. Being a good player gets you a contract or the opportunity to compete in the Olympic games. Being a great athlete gets you multi-million dollar contracts, a household name, product endorsements, or the Olympic Gold.

On a more personal level, there are things you can do to achieve this. Be a stand-up employee and lead by example; admittedly this is easier if you work in the public service sector, but why not try to have the best sales for the month or be the employee of the month? Maintain a webpage and keep working on your writing. Participate in local sporting events. These suggestions may not sound like a whole lot next to the Trojan War or the adventures of Jason or Odysseus, but the point is that you want to achieve the personal best that you can. The more you do your personal best, the more people will recognize you.

Now before we all run out to sack a local village, please keep in mind that Glory has to be worked for and earned. In order to properly earn it, you have to know your limitations. Be realistic about your skills and abilities. Take things at your own pace. Most importantly, keep everything in perspective. No one like a braggart, right? Modesty is the means by which a person reins in the ego and keeps the head at a reasonable size. Shame is the way in which a community monitors the individual and keeps him or her in line. Propriety is understanding what is and is not proper behavior. These are all simple, right? We all like making good impressions on people we meet. No one likes hearing bad things about themselves. We all want to be individuals, but we also understand what is and is not acceptable behavior in our particular culture. Now, admittedly propriety can sound a bit stifling, but it really isn’t. Follow laws, be polite, and don’t make a fool of yourself, and you’ll be ok.

Conflict was a recognized part of ancient life. This is probably one of the most contentious of ancient values. Most modern Pagans follow the Rede, which states “An do as ye will, and so shall it harm none”. Modern Hellenic Reconstructionists have no such creed. We understand that life is conflict, there’s no escaping it. On a large scale, we understand that self-defense is not only appropriate, but necessary. Violence, War and Strife are a part of life, so we just deal with it. On a smaller scale, sometime’s peoples’ feelings have to be hurt in order to keep them from getting too full of themselves or show them that they have hurt us. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself, for better or for worse. Now, we’re not talking about starting wars over stupid stuff here, but accepting the fact that people don’t always get along, that the guy who cuts you off in the parking lot is going to piss you off because of it, and that not every person whom you meet is going to be your new best friend. And that’s ok. We know we have to learn to deal with it, and that’s the point. The Gods are there for us if things get too hard, don’t worry. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself…no one likes a doormat! Just remember, the community is watching, and this attitude should always be tempered by a sense of propriety or you will be shamed.

On a related note, there were three classes of people to the ancient Greeks. Friends. Strangers. Enemies. Friends are those who have earned their way into our lives and deserve all that we can give them. On a certain level, friendship involves a give and take that is constantly going on. Because of that, there is a certain obligation to treat our friends with the utmost respect and honor. Strangers are those who have no established bond with us. Depending on their actions, they could become a friend or an enemy. Strangers should be observed carefully to see how they may fit into our lives, if at all. Also, keep in mind that if you help a stranger in need, a sacred bond has been created. Enemies are just that. People who have gotten on our bad sides for some reason or another. Enemies deserve no respect, and in fact may be the subject of your fiery vengeance. Now, to use a prior example, the idiot in the parking lot may have pissed you off, but that doesn’t make him an enemy. It just makes him a rude jerk. Enemies are those who have really gone out of their way to make our lives difficult. Someone beating up your little brother is an enemy. The stranger who breaks into your home is an enemy. The stranger who badmouths you at every chance in an effort to make your life a living hell. These are people who show absolutely no respect to you, and you have no obligation to show any respect to them.

Admittedly, this is the hardest. People want to give each other benefit of the doubt. We want to at least be civil to those around us. And that’s fine. If someone murders your parent you can ask the Furies to take care of it. Realistically, the end result of having an enemy means that you don’t have to invite them over for dinner or acknowledge their presence. You have every right to simply ignore them. It’s not fun, it’s not easy, but do you want someone in your life who has decided their sole purpose is to make you unhappy?

Finally, moderation is an extremely important value. Don’t go to excesses. Drinking once in a while is fine. Drinking to get drunk every night means you are an alcoholic. Eating and enjoying food is great. If it results in heart attacks or obesity, you might want to consider a diet. Exercise is certainly healthy; it makes you feel physically better and look good to boot. If your exercise regime involves lots of ice, more time in the gym than at work or home, and an awful lot of visits to the doctor, you may want to rethink your routine. But moderation also works the other way. Being a stuffed shirt is just as bad. Go out and have fun once in a while. Life is not a dress rehearsal, so don’t be afraid to live.

I hope that this gives you an idea on how it is possible to incorporate these ideals into real life. Hopefully more people will talk about living these values so people can see that we really are a living religion and not just a philosophical debate taking place online.