31 January 2009

Temples and Soil Types: No, Really?

We have heard stuff about soil analysis and temple sites for several months now, and today Live Science came out with a short article, “How Ancient Greeks Chose Temple Locations,” about the choice of temple locations and the natures of specific deities:

In a survey of eighty-four Greek temples of the Classical period (480 to 338 B.C.), Gregory J. Retallack of the University of Oregon in Eugene studied the local geology, topography, soil, and vegetation — as well as historical accounts by the likes of Herodotus, Homer, and Plato — in an attempt to answer a seemingly simple question: why are the temples where they are?

No clear pattern emerged until he turned to the gods and goddesses. It was then that he discovered a robust link between the soil on which a temple stood and the deity worshiped there.

For example, Demeter, the goddess of grain and fertility, and Dionysos, the god of wine, both were venerated on fertile, well-structured soils called Xerolls, which are ideal for grain cultivation.

For me, this isn't a revelation: deities more relevant to a village or town's lifestyle will naturally have larger temples and shrines because they are tied more closely to the deity's sphere of influence. Demeter and Dionysos receive veneration in fertile regions because fertile regions have more reasons to venerate them. You don't just choose temple locations. As Mikalson states repeatedly in Ancient Greek Religion, temple sites evolve organically from small shrines and altars into larger sites as they gain importance (the only really essential parts of the shrine are the boundary marker and sacrificial space with the deity's name marked on it).

For this reason, I could see a modern-day temple to Dionysos in the upstate NY Finger Lakes Region, but I would not expect more than household shrines in a more urban location that doesn't depend on wine and grape juice production for a substantial part of its economy and tourism.

Even with my criticisms of this, I find it rather satisfying that scientists and archaeologists are devoting these sacred sites to so much study, especially when it validates religious practices that classicists have documented from a social perspective.

25 January 2009

Thoughts on Piety and Libations

[Socrates] took it perfectly calmly, Echecrates, without a tremor, or any change of colour or countenance; but looking up at the man, and fixing him with his customary stare, he said: 'What do you say to pouring someone a libation from this drink? Is it allowed or not?'
'We only prepare as much as we judge the proper dose, Socrates,' he said.
'I understand,' he said; 'but at least one may pray to the gods, and so one should, that the removal from this world to the next will be a happy one; that is my own prayer: so may it be.' With these words he pressed the cup to his lips, and drank it off with good humour and without the least distaste. (Phaedo, 117b:2 - 117c:4)

Over the course of centuries, some have interpreted Socrates as an atheist (like the Athenians who put him to death), tied him to monotheism, or linked him to pro-change movements, but in the dialogues of Plato he emerges as one of the most interesting polytheistic philosophers of his day. The end of the Phaedo presents a powerful argument for Socrates' piety because he wants to perform a sponde (a form of libation).

Hands-On Hellenism lists two kinds of libations, the sponde and the choe; the former goes to the Deathless Gods and the latter is offered to the dead and the Chthonic deities. In a sponde, you only pour some of the drink; a choe requires that all of the liquid be poured out.

Libations are much more than the simple mechanics of how you do them, as shown above when Socrates wants to offer some of his own poison to the Gods. They are backed by piety. The Oxford English Dictionary defines piety as "reverence and obedience to God (or to the gods); devotion to religious duties and observances; godliness, devoutness." Libations are pious because they are backed by ancient tradition, which remains as straight as one of the Far-Shooter's arrows no matter how much the specifics of practice vary from person to person or from group to group.

I relate piety to reverence and thoughtfulness—the kind of thoughtfulness a toddler may have for a parent when she desperately wants to help to prove herself virtuous or able-bodied. To me, Socrates was pious because he maintained his beliefs and devotion to his religious observances even though he acknowledged an unknown daemon or divinity and died for that “impiety.” On the surface, his desire to libate poison to someone may seem somewhat uncomfortable considering the nature of the Deathless Gods, but it is really no different from a modern worshiper's libations of Odwalla or offerings of Indian food.

18 January 2009

Death and Purification

Thanks to everyone who offered kind words about my grandfather's condition. He passed away last Sunday shortly after I returned to school. My grandfather had requested cremation without a final viewing, so we had the memorial service yesterday.

Death fits in a strange place in Hellenic Polytheism. Human death outside of war carries miasma, or ritual impurity, that separates us from the Gods in part because death is the antithesis of beings who do not die. The exceptions to these are the Chthonic deities and perhaps Hermes Psychopompos, the Olympian god who transcends most limitations of time and place. While some modern polytheists don't pay much attention to miasma, it does carry historical religious significance, so I chose to refrain from making many modifications to this blog until purification.

As most readers know by now, I participate in the weekly Kyklos Apollon ritual, which is held every Saturday night (or in the wee hours of Sunday morning, depending on the time of year) at fixed Delphi dawn. In the Eastern USA, it means that the ritual takes place between 10 PM and 2 AM depending on the time of year. There are many kinds of rituals for Apollon, and the one I decided to perform last night was a purification ritual that someone else had constructed, but I modified it to suit my need and ability.

My modifications consisted in supplementing and replacing passages with stuff I actually have. Instead of the two candles (one for Hestia and one for Apollon), I used one for Hestia and offered Apollon barley in place of the other candle. One of the things I enjoy about Hellenic Polytheistic rituals is their versatility --- like Greek cooking, the components of ritual can be adapted and changed depending on what you have as long as the basic outline remains the same. To me, the candle for Apollon was an offering/sacrifice, and so I personalized the ritual by offering something else. For incense, I used an incense blend that contains no frankincense, but it's Japanese hand-rolled wood-free incense, and he seems to accept it. As I don't want to transport my poster of Apollon until May, I used the God-Stick I made for him as a focal image of the God.

The purification ritual went beautifully. Between the ritual washing and the forty minutes of prayer, sacrifice, and supplication, it really made me feel a lot better about my grandfather's passing and several other concerns. When all elements of a ritual click into place, sometimes it feels as though the God is there, because a presence seems to have come into the room. At some rituals, that happens; at others, it doesn't, yet it always seems to happen when most needed. This was definitely one of those “numinous” occasions.

During the ritual, I supplemented the ritual text with the Homeric Hymns to Apollon, the Orphic Hymn to Apollon, and some of my poetry; had I brought the Iliad with me, I would have read from the scene at the beginning when the Greeks sacrifice to Apollon. Whether during the Kyklos Apollon ritual or one of the God's Athenian festivals, that is a good passage to read. Several lines from the Oresteia are also suited to this type of purification ritual.

09 January 2009

Prayer to Hermes Psychopompos and a Request

Okay, the following is a bit personal. Please bear with me.

My grandfather was admitted to a nursing home a few weeks ago following hip surgery. He is in his mid-nineties. After the surgery, he entered physical therapy at the nursing home, but his condition deteriorated rapidly; he lost a lot of weight and strength. They started providing comfort care today because he asked in his health care proxy not to have a feeding tube. My grandfather served in World War II in the medical division, converting buildings into hospitals in England to receive the wounded, before traveling to the continent. Shortly before the war ended, he received short-term leave, and he was at home when they announced the surrender. The destruction he saw disillusioned him, and when I interviewed him about his experience (I now have an mp3 file), his final words were, “Heh. The military sucks.”

I prayed to Hermes Psychopompos this evening for him, speaking the Apostolos N. Athanassakis version of the Orphic Hymn to Hermes (#28) because the final sentence in his version of the hymn states, “Hear my prayer and grant a good end to a life of industry, gracious talk and mindfulness.” The Virginia Stewart-Avalon version concludes similarly: “Be present, Hermes, assist our works, grant us eloquence and flawless memories, and conclude our lives with peace.”

Following the hymn, I lit a stick of incense as an offering and asked Hermes Psychopompos to accept the hymn and the offering, and in return help my grandfather pass on without much more pain. While he doesn't care much for religion, it gives me some peace of mind.

But any pain I feel about his coming death is not as great as what my mother is going through at the moment. She and my uncle had to decide to implement his health care proxy, and it took a long time for her to come to terms with what he wanted. If you have any prayers, good thoughts, positive energy, or what have you, please send them her way.

UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who responded with kind words and/or actions. My grandfather passed away this Sunday shortly before 9 PM.

08 January 2009


To honor Hestia, goddess of the Hearth, I have taken to lighting a candle on the kitchen table at my mother’s house when we eat the evening meal together. I am not sure that my mother or sister knows what it is meant for, but it makes me feel better to have an offering of light for her at mealtimes. The established convention among Hellenists varies from honoring her once a week in a meal to offering her portions of all of one's home-cooked meals.

Unfortunately, the near-constant snowfall recently has presented a rather strong barrier to putting offerings outside, but the temperature outside is also well below freezing. This means that most of my cultic worship has occurred inside, and I am trying to minimize the amount of offerings I make that will need to be properly disposed outside. This means that I have a steadily-growing amount of incense ashes in my offering bowl now.

Hestia, first and last
child born of Rhea, swallowed
and kept by Kronos,
twice-born like all your siblings,
you tend the worlds’ hearths.
Elbows bent, hair protected
from the licking flames,
each god knows your sacred part
of sacrifices;
all revere you, offering
sweet incense and fat.
Eternal maiden, you take
these precious things;
then with necessary warmth
you reciprocate.
As breath enlivens a gas
stove’s flames, please accept
meek utterances, simple words,
and keep watch over
stove-fires fluttering, dancing—
yes, watch the modern
hearth;—let these words please, goddess.

04 January 2009

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lord of War

Some deities make worship complicated. They have numerous non-poetic epithets and extensively-documented cultus in the ancient world, leaving you dizzily wondering whether you are, in fact, praying to Apollon of the Mouse, or if he came to you in his aspect as Apollon of sacred Corinthian cake. Fewer titles and less widely-documented cultus can also complicate worship. As part of my New Year's resolution to honor Poseidon, Ares, Hephaistos, and Aphrodite more often, let's start by talking about Ares.

Helmeted in gold, destroyer of men, feasted by women, Ares presents his own complications to worship. In theory, one should not neglect any gods; yet, in spite of evidence that Northern Greece honored him quite highly, we have no festival evidence in the Athenian Calendar HMEPA. (Hesoid attributed no day of the month to him, either.) The Athenians had their own warrior deity to occupy their time―that virgin daughter of Zeus and Metis, Athene, whom they associated with strategy, weaving, and crafts. Large-scale Ares worship remained reserved for times of war, and even his small sanctuary at Athens emphasized many other deities as well:

[At Athens] is a sanctuary of Ares, where are placed two images of Aphrodite, one of Ares made by Alkamenes, and one of Athena made by a Parian of the name of Lokros. There is also an image of Enyo, made by the sons of Praxiteles. About the temple stand images of Herakles, Theseus, Apollon binding his hair with a fillet, and statues of Kalades, who it is said framed laws for the Athenians, and of Pindaros, the statue being one of the rewards the Athenians gave him for praising them in an ode.1

Other major warlike deities listed here include Aphrodite (who, as Aphrodite Areia the Spartans depicted in full armor), Athene, Herakles, and Apollon. That a sanctuary existed in Athens means that people must have honored him off the battlefield, but why? Perhaps “Homeric Hymn #8: To Ares” presents a clue. This hymn begins with the familiar poetic epithets, but it ends with a very personal prayer to the God:

[. . .] remove wretched cowardice far from my person,
Also to conquer within me the treacherous usage of my spirit;
Help me as well to control the sharp passionate temper provoking
Me to embark upon blood-chilling mayhem, and give me the courage,
Blest, to remain in the comfortable legal prescriptions of peacetime,
Thereby avoiding the conflict of foes and a violent ending.

From these lines, we can see quite clearly what prayers to Ares contain, and we can easily understand why people honor the deity during peacetime. Who wants to remain a coward, and who wants to be manipulated? Ares presents the worshiper with an opportunity for escape from these habits, allowing for a stronger attitude in complicated domestic and interpersonal dramas. He does not merely preside over slaughter and bloodthirstiness, giving all control over strategy to Athene, but remains a powerful strategist in his own right, able to increase or decrease ferocity as the situation calls for it. Make no mistake, though―Athene and Ares have very different ways of approaching things, and craftiness is still reserved for her and Hermes.

Outside of Attica, Ares remains a male-centric deity, but women also have a place in worship. Homeric Hymn #8 describes him as the “sceptered commander of masculine virtue,” which makes sense when we remember that war remains an activity dominated by men.3 Some locations had festivals that emphasized this: at Geronthai in Lakedaimonia, the yearly festival forbade women from entering his sacred precinct during the rites, which were reserved exclusively for men.4 As women can join the armed services, however, they can also honor Ares: in the Tegean marketplace in Arkadia, an image of Ares bore the epithet Gynaikothonias, or “Feasted by the Women,” because the women took arms during an invasion and drove the outsiders away. When it came time for Ares's celebratory ritual feasting, they would not let men join the celebration or have portions of the sacrificial meat.5

Our tempers can, at times, get the best of us, but Ares's strength is all about using that emotional rawness to his own advantage on the battlefield. Mortals, while not always on a literal battlefield, can ask him for assistance when their personal fights seem overwhelmed, and they can propitiate him when tensions between coworkers or family members make work or home seem like a fallout zone. Many historical sources honor Ares with traditional blood sacrifice, but the Orphic Hymn to Ares recommends frankincense as an offering. While pure frankincense can be difficult to find in modern times, many incense blends list their ingredients, and it is wise to find one that contains a good amount of that powerful bloodless item.

For more information on how to honor Ares, here are some places to start:

Neokoroi's Ares Page
Ares at Theoi.com
Homeric Hymn VIII: To Ares
Orphic Hymn to Ares

1. Pausanias. Description of Greece. Trans. Jones, 1.8.4. Retrieved from “CULT OF ARES: Ancient Greek Religion.” The Theoi Project. Accessed 1 Jan 2009. http://www.theoi.com/Cult/AresCult.html.
2. “Homeric Hymn VIII: To Ares.” Works of Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns. Trans. Daryl Hine. (Chicago: University of Chiago Press, 2005), ln. 12-17.
3. Ibid., 6.
4. Pausanias, 3.22.6. Retrieved from “CULT OF ARES: Ancient Greek Religion.” The Theoi Project. Accessed 1 Jan 2009. http://www.theoi.com/Cult/AresCult.html.
5. Ibid., 8.48.4.

01 January 2009

Blog Mission and Goals in the New Year

The Athenian New Year happened on 4 July 2008 this year, marking a transition from the 3rd year of the 696th Olympiad to the 4th year of the 696th Olympiad. As it coincided with America’s Independence Day, some American Hellenists decided to postpone their New Year celebrations for the following weekend so they could celebrate American independence.

Our civil new year, however, follows the Gregorian Calendar, which is based on the Roman solar year, and this begins and ends after their ancient Saturnalia festival and birth of Mithras. One tradition associated with the civil New Year celebrations is the creation of goals that individuals want to realize in the next twelve months. The New Year also presents a perfect opportunity to properly state the goals and general mission of this blog.

KALLISTI was created to serve modern Hellenists’ needs (especially those in the English-speaking world) by providing anecdotes of personal practice, communicating about various theological/moral/philosophical beliefs of both the author and others, linking to valuable and/or interesting media sources, and sharing resources about Hellenic Polytheisms with the general community, from the perspective of a young woman who worships the Theoi.

This blog does not seek to present a totalitarian “One True Way” of Hellenismos or Hellenic Polytheism, and it recognizes that modern polytheism and polytheistic reconstruction draw from many realities in the ancient world. Greeks in Ancient Bactria, exposed to Hinduism and Buddhism, still considered themselves Hellenes even though they drew from this ancient cultural melting pot (which was positioned on a silk road hub), so those seeking to reconstruct the atmosphere of these cultural nexuses have the right to call themselves by whichever religious label fits the majority of their practice. However, information focused on the Theoi and practicing our religion receives precedence here; any deviations will likely stem from cosmological thought problems or recipes I cooked from Classical Living and want to tell you about. I will also occasionally post creative devotional work as offerings to various Theoi.

Have a happy, safe start to your New Year, and welcome to 2009.