25 August 2012

Defining Hellenism

Hellenism stands for something. We’re not entirely sure what, and we do disagree about some of the particulars, but it generally comes down to several different ideas.
  • We worship the gods of Ancient Greece through prayer and sacrifice.
  • We disavow a connection with Christianity and Jesus.
  • We link ourselves intellectually and through historically-based practice to the Ancient Greek world. Our practice may derive from historically Greek areas or from Hellenized parts of the Ancient Mediterranean.
Skating Painter - Bottle Depicting Women in a Ritual Dance - Walters 48192 - Detail
Bottle Depicting Women in a Ritual Dance,
The Skating Painter
Greek, ca. 600 BC-575 BC
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD
Of course, there are things I did not say there. Each of the statements overflows with nuance. Once we have declared ourselves not Christian, what does it mean for our relationships with Christians we know? Which gods do we consider properly Greek, and which ones do we not? When it comes to practice, do we use the ritual language of Athens or of Hellenized Alexandria?

I’m bringing this up partly out of my feminism. As a feminist, I have a keen interest in evaluating modern culture — especially modern religious institutions — judging both what other religious feminists say about their religions and the trends in modern culture. Otherwise, this post definitely reacts to a lot of the talk in the blogosphere over the past year or two: the appropriateness of the word “pagan,” who may define him- or herself as a Hellenist, and Ruadhán’s recent post about how the term “pagan” seems to have lost all meaning.

Let’s start with the feminist parts, and hopefully by the end this will all be synthesized nicely into one point.

In the most recent issue of Bitch Magazine (which I subscribed to back in 2009 because I was homesick for Smith and, I kid you not, reading it is like distilled and bottled Smith dinner conversations), “Life on Mars (Hill)” discusses the anti-feminist Mars Hill Christians. These people have committed to a Christian denomination that synthesizes modern culture with evangelical and Calvinist beliefs, such as that women belong in the home and men should make all of the decisions. It follows previous articles on feminism in Mormonism, New Atheism, and other religious (or not) movements.

One recurring theme in these — and a theme repeated elsewhere in the feminist blogosphere — is that forms of Christianity with clear-cut gender roles and expectations concerning faith have experienced a resurgence among men and women in the 15 to 35 age group (“Life on Mars (Hill),” p. 37). A large chunk of this could be that unlike a lot of more moderate Christianities, these incredibly conservative ones stand for something. That specific “something” may be creepy, but it’s better than nothing.

On the other hand, that group is primarily the adults-under-30 set, which the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has done research on. The overall trend shows less traditional religiosity, but the survey agrees that those who do gravitate to a specific religion are more likely to take an all-or-nothing approach:
Young people who are affiliated with a religion are more inclined than their elders to believe their own religion is the one true path to eternal life (though in all age groups, more people say many religions can lead to eternal life than say theirs is the one true faith). Nearly three-in-ten religiously affiliated adults under age 30 (29%) say their own religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life, higher than the 23% of religiously affiliated people ages 30 and older who say the same. This pattern is evident among all three Protestant groups but not among Catholics. [source: “Religion Among the Millennials,” 2010].
If you have followed Internet pagan controveries at all recently, you might see how this relates to both the “Are You Pagan?” flurry and to Ruadhán’s recent blog post. The new religious movements that fit under the pagan umbrella experience tremendous difficulties with communicating how they define themselves to seekers. In my view, these basic tenets and practices form a foundation and core. We need this because it links us together and forms community.

A lot of us have reacted to the lack of definition and cohesiveness by moving away from the label, but that doesn’t solve the problem. If progressive Christianity is sputtering, conservative movements such as Mars Hill continue to grow, and we cannot even cluster ourselves into groups that can disseminate our actual community values and expectations, what does that say about our health as movements?

And this is a shame. Part of our endeavor should go to promoting and preserving the health of our various religions so that we carve out a space for ourselves in religious dialogue — not just internationally, but in conversations happening in our own backyards.

Epicteti Enchiridion, Angelo Politiano interprete (Basel 1554) page 1
First page of Epictetus’
Enchiridion (in Latin)
I can place myself securely within the group of Millennials who have a strict approach to faith, and I resonate with the idea that a significant minority crave a set of beliefs that provides a solid world view. That general trend could have had a role in my decision to convert from Neopaganism to Hellenism. Hellenism, while still offering a plurality of philosophical schools, has a set of basic ethics and practices that one must accept at minimum. It makes sense in this context that reading Sallustius resonated so much with me and that I decided at that point to worship the Athanatoi.

Like one of the women featured in the Bitch article who had been a feminist before her conversion to conservative Christianity, my pathway was, “So, I have this renewed faith. Let’s focus on that first and figure out how feminism fits in later.” And I’ve been around in Hellenism long enough for later to actually be now.

But enough about feminism for the moment. Let’s talk honestly about what our expectations are when someone adheres to a specific label (Hellenism, for example) — and be clear whether we are talking about essentials as I did at the beginning of this post or about the “pluses,” those expectations that we secretly know are too high for a general coreligionist call but that we still care about (I’m looking at you, strict traditionalists).

Right now, I’m feeling especially ambitious and plan on actually devoting posts to talking about my expectations surrounding the term “Hellenist” and what each one means. If you disagree (and I know some of you do about #2 and #3), feel free to comment or make sets of your own expectations on your blog.

Think of it as definition crowdsourcing.

Lastly, a shout-out to Neos Alexandria for this handy guide for people new to Hellenism. It’s really good.


henadology said...

I think that if people had a properly emptily-formal sense of the term "Pagan", they could use it comfortably without thinking that it is bringing content with it that will or might conflict with the content internal to a particular affiliation, such as Hellenic or Kemetic. My definition of "Pagan" is basically somebody who belongs to a tradition that is about certain deities, rather than certain doctrines, and that has an indifferent, rather than antithetical, disposition relative to deities from other traditions. My hope would be that with a definition like this, "Pagan" could be a term that people identify with in addition to, rather than instead of (or in spite of) their other more specific affiliations.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

OK - I admit I haven't finished reading the whole post yet. But the three points at the beginning that essentially define Hellenism are very close to perfect. And the main thing that makes them so perfect is the simplicity and directness. There is lots of room for nuance, but one has to have a solid foundation to build on. And, well, it's important to start at the beginning: the Gods.

Ruadhán J McElroy said...

...the three points at the beginning that essentially define Hellenism are very close to perfect. And the main thing that makes them so perfect is the simplicity and directness. There is lots of room for nuance, but one has to have a solid foundation to build on. And, well, it's important to start at the beginning: the Gods.

Yes, this. I seldom self-apply "pagan" anymore because it really doesn't mean anything these days. The only real qualification for being "pagan" lately is an affirmative answer to the question "Are you or do you want to be a pagan, regardless of what some-one else might think 'pagan' means?" It was a little easier when "pagan" meant something closer to the dictionary definition, at least in casual conversation amongst the "pagan community". This last couple years, I realise how, well, spoilt that the Hellenic community has made me, because regardless of all the arguments amongst co-religionists, we knew where we stood, and that even if two of us hated each-other enough we can't even share a ritual together, we nominally knew and had some understanding of what we stood for. The nuances of what Hedonists and Platonists, for example, might seem to vary widely (especially among other Hellenists), but the basics of Hellenism, we stood for that.

Venturing into the Pagan community, a task I first endeavoured cos I was trying to find other people in Michigan who were at least interested --after all, they can't all have been as lucky as I, to find other Hellenists on their first Internet search-- but stuck around because it was confusing in an inherently fascinating way, I'm always perplexed by the lack of unity on much of anything. in small groups of self-identified pagans, there can be unity --there kind of has to be at least some degree of unity for people to have rituals together. But when you start increasing that group, from a tiny demos or coven, and look at the entirety of the community, even in just the English-speaking world, there's only one thing that essentially "unites" all these people: They consider themselves, on some level, to be pagan. That's not really a group united in what it stands for as a whole; that's more like a fan club. I've got nothing against fan clubs, I used to be part of a Cyndi Lauper fan club when I was ten, but outside of talking about the fandom, the liklihood that you'll have have a similar outlook on life to those people is rather low.

Ruadhán J McElroy said...
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Ruadhán J McElroy said...
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Ruadhán J McElroy said...

Also: Thanks for the reference. :-)

Anonymous said...

I agree, the definition really is excellent.


Kaye said...

Edward Butler » Yes, that would be a very sensible way to define “pagan.” However, I wonder if it has already become too late for something like that --- it’s already synonymous with Wicca, for example, in the mainstream media. The indifferent-rather-than-antithetical point is good, too.

Apuleius » Thanks. :) I think the middle one ideally wouldn't need to be there, but it unfortunately does in today’s society.

Ruadhán » Yes, we are definitely spoiled! But I sometimes go by “pagan,” too --- usually just in situations in which I believe demographic numbers count, as grouping us together makes us bigger than if we look at our individual religions. A lot of groups build up around charismatic leaders, but I think that it could be equally compelling to build around a compelling set of values and some kind of story-narrative about where the community comes from. That’s the sort of thing marketing is good for --- and I hate to use that word here, as I mostly mean this in terms of branding and not as some kind of excuse to go after converts. It’d be nice if we could make ourselves known to more people with Hellenic impulses, though.

Aetius » Thanks. :)

henadology said...

I would say that we aren't discussed so much in the popular media that there isn't time to establish a simple, transparent definition of "Pagan" and teach Wiccans that they can't claim to own it, only belong to it. And the value of having such a notion, if it doesn't bring any content with it, is I believe sufficient to try to make it happen.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

This definition is even better than I had originally thought. In fact, you have come up with a short and sweet, but also quite robust and elegant, template upon which a meaningful general definition of "Pagan" can be modeled.

1. Worship of the old Gods.
2. Rejection of Christianity.
3. Follow the old ways (that is, adopt both the practices and the world-view of our ancient religious ancestors).

If anything, this more general definition, especially point #3, highlights the concerns that feminists (etc) might have with this kind of "Paganism". However, one thing we can borrow from the Christians is the motto "seek and ye shall find". If one wishes to find feminist voices among ancient Pagans, one can find them. If one wishes to find principled critiques or slavery, one can find those too. If one wishes to find defense of democracy, that is there as well, as are very thoughtful critiques of democracy as well.

I am going to steal Kaye's definition, in this more general form, and run with it!

Ruadhán J McElroy said...

Hey, good luck with trying to define "pagan" after all the years successfully spent by the "pagan community" in undefining it.

Don't get me wrong, I prefer words to actually mean things. Words with no meaning, or even nonsense meaning, are the domain of Lewis Carroll, and no-one else, if you ask me --he made nonsense an art, I tell you.

On the other hand, English is a living language, and words are defined by those who use them. If non-religious people doing wholly modern things want to call themselves "pagan", the only thing that someone might be able to argue them with is the dictionary definition --and in a couple editions or so, that definition might very well be changed or added to, in order to reflect this. It's been at least a 175+years that non-polytheist people have been referred to as "pagans" (neo- or otherwise), and it's been at least 115ish years that nominally Christian people have laid claim to "pagan" and its variations. In the mainstream media, and to most self-identified pagans, the word is synonymous with ostensibly "Wiccanate" eclectic, modern religions. The word hasn't been solely about polytheism or "the old ways" for quite some time --and considering its root word, it's kind of intellectually dishonest to claim that the word "pagan" was ever the sole property of traditional polytheism.

Kaye said...

Edward Butler » I think that’s going to take a lot, although it may be doable. Honestly, I have a secret desire to not sound like a jerk and sometimes feel like taking the term back would just hurt feelings --- you know, by saying Wiccans don’t own it completely somehow translating as them being somehow less than those of us who use reconstructionist methodologies? (Does that phrasing make sense?) That’s why I framed this conversation in terms of the “pagan” controversy, yet focused on Hellenism throughout. We’re a hell of a lot easier to deal with.

Apuleius » Feel free to use it. And, you know, scholars in women’s studies always need something to study. I’d love for someone to study patriarchy in modern recon culture. It would be fantastic and I think we’d learn a lot about ourselves.

Ruadhán » One time, I tried citing the Oxford English Dictionary on the Hellenic FB group. It ... didn’t work. I don’t exactly enjoy the term “pagan” myself, although I still wish it were broadened more to include those of us who base our practice on religious traditions against which the slur was originally used. However, in agreement with what you said, I think our best luck can be with adjectives that modify the word “pagan” or with specific traditions, such as Hellenism. Still, I think that everyone (even the eclectic Wiccans) should make an effort to explicitly define their assumptions about the term and any adjectives they apply to it. It’s a good exercise. Who knows? Maybe it'll even go somewhere.