Friday, April 26, 2013

Walking in the footsteps of Plato: A chat with a Hellenic Polytheist from Italy

Ask a Greek what Hellenism means and you may be surprised by their response. Answers could range from anything dealing with Greek Culture, language, or the Greek people themselves, but what of a worldview?  In modern times, Hellenism has been used by academics and Greeks alike, to identify the totality of the Greek people and their culture, encompassing not only ancient Greece and its civilization, but also the Eastern Roman Empire and the Modern Greek state. However, there are some with a truly compelling argument that would disagree with this definition. For these individuals, the moment Greeks broke with their ancestral traditions and adopted the Christian faith, and through it a Biblical worldview, a new legacy was born. This Greco-Roman blending with Christianity resulted in the birth of Romiosini, which has since masqueraded itself as Hellenism.

This philosophical split of the Hellenic ethnos came during the early days of Christianity, when ethnic Greeks that adopted Christianity began identifying themselves as Romioi (Romans), and in some cases Grece [1]. It is around this time that the word “Hellene” became synonymous with those who had not converted to the new faith, and remained loyal to their ancestral traditions [1]. Those who kept these ancient traditions eventually began to refer to themselves as Ethnikoi [2].

Today in Greece the total number of Ethnikoi is unknown; however some estimates claim that there are roughly 2,000 adherents to the ancient traditions and 100,000 sympathizers [3]. Referred to simply as Hellenismos, the movement and/or methodology for re-establishing this historical pre-Christian “religion” of ancient Greece is known as Hellenic Reconstructionism.

The Theology and Practices of Hellenismos

“Ethnikoi Hellenes’ perceive the Cosmos to be a self-created, infinite, ‘ordered and adorned’ entity that arose from within itself, and that we and everything else in existence, are but infinitely small organic parts of this entity” [2]. Modern Hellenismos is non-dogmatic, hence in an Abrahamic sense; it may be conceived more as an orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. For those unfamiliar with this terminology, for the former, maintains emphasis on conduct, while for the latter on blind faith. This is not to say that Hellenismos does not have a philosophical belief system, but rather that it does not stress centralized beliefs in the form of creeds. It instead focuses on matters, such as cultural integrity, through the transmission of traditions, a worldview, and ethical systems.

Hellenic Polytheists worship the Hellenic Pantheon of ancestral Gods (Olympian and Chthonic), natural divinities, and ancient heroes, as well as honor both their physical and spiritual ancestors. As stated by the Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes (Y.S.E.E.), “Our Gods are a multitude of apportioned immortal beings, self-energizing and self-sufficient ‘forces’, not personalities, that inhabit this ‘Unity’ that gave birth to itself. They are the multiple expressions of this Unity that give substance and order to the Cosmos and keep it interconnected and harmonious” [2]

Since ancient Greeks did not have a systematized theology or doctrine; modern adherents synthesized their theology from a rich collection of ancient texts and schools of Hellenic philosophy, such as Neo-Platonism and Stoicism to name just a few. Their ethnical convictions are inspired by ancient Hellenic virtues such as reason, reciprocity, hospitality, self-control, moderation, and heroic self-sacrifice.

Ethnikoi Hellenes of Italy

When Greeks in the Diaspora discuss the Hellenic heritage of Italy they immediately think “Magna Graecia” or of the Griko people of Southern Italy. However, there is an entirely unknown, living heritage that has never been thought of, the Ethnikoi of Italy. It is here that I would like to introduce the reader to a young woman named, Laura Mainardi. Known as Daphne Eleusinia by most people, Daphne is a 30 year old Hellenic Polytheist from Milan. As a link in a forgotten chain of Italiote and Siciliote heritage, I was curious to learn more, and was honored to have a chance to chat with Daphne about the Hellenic Polytheists of Italy.


What leads a girl from Milan to adopt the ancient Hellenic Religion?

DE:  It is quite difficult to reply precisely to this question, since a deep love and interest towards the Hellenic religion has always accompanied me, since my childhood. My first memories are full of recollections of trips to Hellas and Magna Grecia with my parents, of Temples and of images of the Gods and of myself who used to pray to Them, since I was a little child. After all, the first book I read was about ancient Hellenic mythology, and all this has affected my life, and still affects it, in a very beautiful way. I was about fifteen years old, when I started to read seriously the dialogues of Plato, and to him I owe the greatest debt since it was from that moment that I started to openly follow the Hellenic religion, by saying to all people, teachers, friends, kin: "yes, I worship the Gods, as Plato, the greatest philosopher, used to do!" So, I have always felt as if I had received a very great gift by having come to know the Hellenic Tradition, and when you receive such a gift, you have an infinite debt of gratitude, a debt which I try to compensate by spreading the knowledge that I have received and by encouraging people, from all around the world, to study, understand, and love the Hellenic religion, history, heroes and values as gifts to all humanity.

What type of religious up bring did you have; and what type of reaction did you receive from your family and friends after adopting Hellenismos?

DE: My family was moderately catholic. So I was brought up in a mildly Christian environment, but my parents always encouraged me to find my own way, to use my brain to not become just another sheep in the flock. Thus, I didn't have problems with my family; on the contrary, even my father started to practice Hellenismos! Family and friends, even those who do not follow the ancient Traditions, respect my choice. They’ve come to see that it is not a 'fashion' or something playful, but something very serious to which I’ve dedicated my entire life.

With Italy being such a devout Roman Catholic country, what type of reaction do individuals that take up polytheism face?

DE: Italy is unfortunately heavily influenced by the presence of the Vatican state, an influence that can be seen in many fields: politics, economy and, of course, religion. And yet on the other the other hand, the churches are almost devoid of people and very few would define themselves as 'good Christians'. Thus we have a country which is formally the core of Catholicism, with a population who doesn't care at all for the dictates of the Vatican. Moreover, the Italian State has recently recognized Hinduism and Buddhism as official religions of the country, and it is clear that many Polytheists wish for the same acknowledgment. I have to say that we face two kinds of reactions: one is of openness and curiosity, interest and respect- and it's, fortunately, the prevailing one. There are also, however, cases of great intolerance: some friends of mine have erected public altars and found them destroyed, the stones scattered here and there, just like in the old times when the monks and priests travelled throughout Europe to destroy each single image and altar dedicated to the Gods: the same fanaticism. We also face a malignant propaganda against us, which depicts us, as the pope has said, as worshippers of Satan, evil people without values, foolish or nostalgic persons, and so on. I think that the only way by which we can change the mind of the population toward the ancient religions and their followers is to demonstrate practically what we are, what our values are, and most important, what our Ideal is. We have now a great opportunity since, as I have said, the population is weary of the model offered by the Christianity, and is eager to see if there is another model, and another possibility. Our duty is to tell them: yes, there is another possibility, that of our common Ancestors!

Tell me a little about the Hellenic Polytheist community in Italy. 

DE: First off, I must say that the Hellenic community in Italy is a very particular phenomenon, because we do not have a 'formal' association, and therefore I cannot tell you precisely how many of us exist. I will say that we consider anyone who is a devotee and shares the principles and ideals of the Greco-Roman world as a member of our community.
Curiously enough, the Hellenic Community- Hellenismo- was born as a 'virtual symposium', about three years ago. Many friends joined together wishing to have a group/community to share knowledge, experiences, thoughts and doubts...we wished to grow together in a spiritual way, against the degradation and decadence of the modern world, and to motivate others interested in doing the same. The more we worked and the more we saw a growing demand for more knowledge, more dialogues, more events, etc. After three years, we have an ever-growing participation from individuals who feel an attraction towards the ancient Hellenic religion and values. My hope is that this may be just the beginning of a more wide and sweeping phenomenon, just like the Renaissance, whose greatness was based in fact on the principles of the Greco-Roman world- which is precisely what is needed now. We must first create a cultural Renaissance, and then, naturally, will follow the religious one, because, as the Ancients said, every ascending movement of the soul starts with the acquisition of knowledge.
The only problem currently is visibility. We are scarcely known outside the sphere of Polytheists, and we need to reach more people to spread our message. That is why I have always insisted on the opportunity given by modern technologies, by which we can reach a wider range of people. For example, I have decided to publish our monthly magazine online and free for all and, after a year of publication, we have a total of thousands of readers, not only from the Polytheistic community, but also from scholars, students and average people…people who write comments like this: "this is our ancestral culture and heritage, this is paideia of the soul" or "I see here everything that represents the best of the Western civilization, the Ideal of Greece is never dead, a millennial archetype does not vanish." These people are not 'formal' members of our community, we do not know even their names outside the internet, but the message has reached them, they are ready for the new Renaissance.

What other types of activities does your community do? 

DE: As a community, we have not yet begun to hold public celebrations, mostly because we live a great distance from one another and it is almost impossible to meet on a regular basis. We have small groups here and there who celebrate privately the main rituals of our religion. Thus, we strongly encourage each one to undertake the private cult in his/her oikos, following the religious calendar that we have reconstructed- the Attic Calendar- which is not the result of inventions or arbitrary additions, but is philologically valid and, at the same time, perfectly applicable in our present days. The same thing holds true for the basic manuals that we are creating for the household worship, on purifications, libations and other various necessary rituals. At the same time, we are convinced that we need to spread this knowledge and this is our greatest and most important activity. We promote dialogue on our groups and blogs, we continue to publish our online magazine that contains the results of those dialogues and of the passionate and precious works of our friends. We have recently started also to publish books- the last one is about the ancient poets of Hellas, as Corinna and Erinna, which are scarcely known outside the circle of the scholars and were never translated before into Italian.
As our conversation came to a close, I had but one question on my mind. Did Daphne identify as an Ethniko or as an Italian Hellenist? 

DE: This question it is not easy to reply. I have often pondered this problem within myself and I have come to this conclusion: of course I was born in Italy and I love this country, it is such a beautiful place and full of ancient cities, culture, traditions, etc. and all these things will always be important to me. At the same time, the only place that I have always felt as 'homeland, land of the Ancestors' is Hellas, so, in the end, my reply can be only "Ethniko Hellene".

The ‘taboo’ image of Hellenic Polytheism in Greek America

For many inside Greek America and the Diaspora itself, the idea of Hellenic Polytheism seems a little too taboo. I’ve heard many Greeks say privately, “I do not associate with those types of people” or attempt to portray the Hellenic Reconstructionist movement as a conspiracy, in which ‘masons or other similar types of people’ are trying to divide the Greek people. For me, this is an extremely ignorant and furthermore closed-minded attitude, especially when we are speaking about people that are honoring the views of our ancestors. If this belief system was good enough for the likes of Plato and Aristotle; the cause behind the Renaissance, and the train of thought that lead to Democracy, why should it be so taboo or thought of in a negative way? Why should those who choose to follow it be looked at differently within our community?

Today, the remnants of Hellenic Civilization in Italy are much more than just the Griko people or the archaeological sites of Magna Graecia. For the first time in generations, it is now also the Ethnikoi. Communities such as this one are an opportunity for Greeks to connect with an entirely forgotten and overlooked part of our Diaspora. These Ethnikoi communities should be embraced by the entire Greek Diaspora and not only by other Ethnikoi.


[1]Rassias, Vlassis G. TheEnglish Lexicon of Standard Terminology for Hellenismos. Translated and adapted by Mano and Lesley Madytinos. 

[2] The Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes. Frequently asked questions about the Ethnic Hellenicreligion and tradition

[3] Brunwasser, Matthew. Letter From Greece: The Gods Return to Olympus. Volume 58 Number 1, January/February 2005 

Daphne Varenya Eleusinia, email interview, March 27th, 2013