From Hellenismos to Threskia to Dodekathiesm
In late 2004, I was part of a group of people that came together to discuss our shared concerns about the state of the ancient Greek spiritual revival. It was a serendipitous moment; half a dozen online iconoclasts bumped into one another, and found they had a great deal in common. Some of us had been longstanding contributors on Hellenic mailing lists. Others were new to Hellenic spirituality, and concerned about what was available for them online.
We felt that the traditional nature of the Hellenic religion had been compromised. Existing mailing lists, websites and online organizations were effectively ‘owned’ by a small number of people. The range of permissible views was increasingly narrow. Ethics, philosophy, poetry and art – once central to our religion – had been marginalized. Under the guise of ‘reconstructionism’, occult doctrines had come to take centre-stage, where once they had been a fringe practice. The internet was flooded with Hellenic oracles, mantikoi, prophets, soothsayers and high priests, and there was very little substantial discussion about theology and right living.
Elaion and Traditionalist Hellenismos
We decided to create a new religious organization, one that considered ethical and piety to be central to spirituality. Initially, this was a way of life that we called ‘Traditionalist Hellenismos’. This was a term that, we hoped, captured the mainstream and community-minded nature of our religion. At the time, there wasn’t a place available online to discuss the ethics-based religious life that had once formed the backbone of Hellenic spirituality. We felt that ‘Traditionalist Hellenismos’ was the term to demarcate a space apart from the esoteric monopoly.
In his breakthrough book Old Stones, New Temples, Drew Campbell used the word ‘Hellenismos’ to describe ancient Greek religion. This was a word that had been popularized by the modern revival, and we adopted it, not uncritically. We set up a website and two mailing lists, and Elaion was created. To our delight, the mailing list took off, and Elaion embarked on a series of ambitious projects aimed at enriching the spiritual life of members. Our first thiasos was formed in early 2005. We began to develop our own internal culture and identity as an organization.
In that process, the word ‘Hellenismos’ became increasingly problematic. Campbell had referred to the works of the Emperor Julian as historical precedent for the use of ‘Hellenismos’ in this context, however, Campbell had misunderstood the subtleties of translation. The word essentially means ‘the Greek way’ – which, in the 4 th century, included the Greek religion. However, in the modern day, ‘the Greek way’ is the tradition of the modern Greek nation and the Greek Orthodox Church.
‘Hellenismos’ was not only historically and linguistically inaccurate, it also represented the imposition of an alien theology into Hellenic spirituality. The ancient Greeks did not have a ‘name’ for their spirituality. In fact, they had no word for ‘religion’ at all. They did not conceive of their religious lives as being fundamentally separate from their day-to-day, or from the spiritualities of neighbouring countries and cultures.
In searching about for an alternative, Elaion hit on the ancient word “threskia” – meaning the practice of worship. This was the central term used by the ancient Greeks when referring to religious life. T alking about ‘threskia’ rather then the clunky “Hellenismos” turned the focus to what we think and do, rather then who we are. It recaptured the pre-Christian ethos in which a religion was more a way of life and thought then a pre-fabricated identity. It enabled a sense of sense of spiritual solidarity that comes from the communal spiritual practice of prayer, ritual and right action.
The use of “threskia” also subtly changes the boundaries around how we approach religions and cults beyond our own. By removing issues of ‘identity’ and ‘purity’ it allows us to engage more creatively with other spiritualties. We can, for instance, consider the similarities between Mithras, Attis, Apollo and Dionysus more freely if I am not bound up in questions about “being” a “Hellene” and maintaining the “ Hellenic” spiritual boundaries.
Threskia, as a way of doing/thinking, places us within the river of spiritual thought. We are polytheists, pantheists, henotheists, even monotheists … in the end we are simply ‘theists’, and we are only separated from other theists by our focus on specific currents of spiritual tradition. The exclusive ‘enclaves’ of monotheism are pools off to the side, declining to directly add to the momentum of the stream, and pretending that they don’t draw from it. Our notion of ‘Hellenismos’ seems to me to be (at least partially) based on this model – it denies just how centrally and vibrantly we partake of the broader momentum of human spirituality.
“Threskia”, however, had some drawbacks. The word itself doesn’t designate ancient Greek religious practice, it simply means “worship”. We looked at incorporating ‘threskia’ into specific phrases to identify our religious practice – ‘Paradosiaka Hellenika Threskeia’ (Traditional Greek Worship) or ‘Ethnikoi Hellenika Threskia’ (Ethnic Greek Worship).
As one member, Carolyn, said, “Maybe if you’re already a fluent Greek-speaker, it doesn’t seem so bad. It’s not much more than you’d say to order a cup of coffee. But to the average person, it’s quite a mouthful of intimidating foreign language!” She pointed out that, if we were looking at a name for our religion, we had to be practical. And she had a point.
The word ‘Dodekatheonism’ is already in circulation in Greece to describe those that worship the ancient Gods. The most common criticism of the word is that it ignores the lesser daimons and Gods that inhabit our spiritual world; the gods, heroes and ancestors. However, it identifies the core aspects of the religion – the twelve Olympian Gods – and it bypasses the ambiguities of Hellenismos. It was raised by two members, and the rest of Elaion promptly slapped themselves on the forehead and embraced it.
It seems odd to follow a religion and then decide on it’s name, but I feel that it was to the credit of our forbearers that their spiritual practice was a verb, and not a noun. However, the modern theological arena requires a label, and we found Dodekatheism in the homeland of our religion, Greece . Some members of Elaion will speak of ‘Greek religion’, some of ‘threskia’, and some may continue to use ‘Hellenismos’ – what is important is our shared values and commitment to the Gods, and to one another.