(Addendum: I don’t use this term anymore — I just call myself a polytheist.)
The only definition for this exists in my About Me or that long post I made after a summertime Twitter situation a while ago. This post will serve as a definition reference link so I can link to it whenever I mention the term in a post. The abbreviation is HeSP.
Hellenistic Syncretic Polytheism essentially means that I worship the Greek (Hellenic) Gods, but that I am someone who is not of Hellenic/Greek descent or culture and not Hellenized (which means acculturated into a Greek community). The transmission of information about the Gods into the culture I was raised in means that there are some key differences in our approaches to worshipping the Gods that should not be brushed aside. There is a real narrative for how Hellenic myths and philosophies were transmitted into the English-speaking world — both beautiful and ugly. Acknowledging that narrative and avoiding terms that are ethnonyms (like Hellene) form the only pathway to worship the Hellenic Gods in a way that is not problematic. I encourage others to adopt the term HeSP, too, when appropriate.
Hellenistic Syncretic Polytheism, when broken down, has these meanings:
Hellenistic: Admittedly, I don’t like this term because I associate it with post-Alexander the Great. Many people who use it actually mean Hellenic, but are misusing adjectives, so it has some usage baggage when used online. However, after speaking with several Greeks, this term of Hellen + ist + ic conveys an appropriate level of distance.
This is an oversimplification, but exposure to Hellenic Gods, myths, and theologies comes from three specific strains: (1) continuous exposure to the Hellenic Gods since antiquity; (2) reintroduction of major writers in Hellenic philosophy during the Renaissance, and (3) the combined impact of colonialism, modern Classics, and the Neopagan revival. Colonialist ideas often treated the modern Greek people like inconveniences, and people who appropriated Mediterranean antiquity into white supremacist narratives in the 19th and 20th centuries said extremely problematic things about modern Greeks in order to delegitimize their relationship to their own ancestors and history. Hellenes are the ones who practice survivals of ancient cultus for the Hellenic Gods in folk religion and some barely-Christianized Greek Orthodox rituals. There are also polytheistic Hellenes practicing in both public and private religious groups in Greece and abroad.
A combination of the three strains of transmission is the reason most of us non-Hellenic Americans — I’m Scandi and Québécoise, for example — learn the Hellenic Gods from childhood, not the Norse, Celtic, and so on. This has a significant impact on many of us because we end up worshipping the Hellenic Gods and do not necessarily develop non-colonizing ways for integrating the Gods into our religious practice because we are taught in school to over-identify with Ancient Greece. Problems in Neopagan New Religious Movements arise when we ignore the three cross-cultural transmission routes and instead promote supersessionist narratives in which we see ourselves as the “heirs” of various cultures’ polytheisms when the modern descendants of those groups are still literally here. We can worship the Gods, but we need to approach our new religious movements with honesty and integrity. We practice Americanized, Britishized, or [adjective]ized worship of the Greek Gods.
For people who do not worship the Hellenic Gods (or who worship only one or two), Hellenistic could easily be replaced with another term.
Syncretic: The actual outcome will be a new thing that combines the root culture (e.g., American, Brazilian, French) with some level of Hellenization, and the worship of the Athanatoi will thus be Americanized, Brazilianized, or *-ized. Rather than pretending to be what we’re not, it’s better to respectfully acknowledge that we are doing something that is new, and we should spend some effort considering important theological questions that impact us.
Polytheism: Yes polytheism. Do I actually need to say anything about this? If so: There are many Gods.
Now that I have given a basic definition, here are some exciting theological questions and themes:
- What does household worship look like when you do not worship the Gods of your ancestors, or you worship some combination?
- How do you reconcile and approach the different cosmogonies and theogonies?
- Are certain Gods syncretized with each other?
- Do you venerate your ancestors using Gallic, Roman, Norse, &c. methods or is it imperative that ancestor veneration be integrated into the religious paradigm of the main pantheon you worship?
- The syncretism will look different depending on heritage and local custom.
- For example, my family is Swedish/Norwegian on my mom’s side; we’ve done St. Lucia’s Day since I was a young girl, and saffron buns are such a staple during the holiday season that I actually committed to learning how to make a gluten-free version so I could still eat them. The aesthetic in the horror film Midsommar looked like the heritage art in my maternal line’s family homes, and the hygge thing sweeping America right now is a commercialized mashup of hospitality stuff we learned as kids and self-care. (My dad’s side didn’t pass down as many traditions, just genealogy and ancestral crimes because my ancestors conquered Québec.) American families without this heritage will not likely have the same traditions or outlook. That’s OK. I offer saffron buns to Hêlios sometimes.
- What are the holidays that matter?
- Work has already begun in polytheism as a whole on theology and philosophy in schools ranging from Stoicism to Platonism and beyond.
- What does this project look like, and how are these ideas integrated and successfully, sensitively adapted to new paradigms as New Religious Movement (NRM) polytheisms grow?
- Mystery traditions. What do we do about those? How do those develop? How are they to be marketed accurately?
- How does what we do relate to the Hellenes and to their struggles for religious freedom and decolonization? How do we come into a space where we can respectfully dialogue and ensure that religious seekers know what’s what? As a start, the major difference between Hellenic and Hellenistic is that Hellenic denotes a strong commitment to Hellenization through learning from and integrating oneself into a community of Hellenes, not just their Gods.
That’s essentially it, and I acknowledge that there are more questions in here than answers. Questions make things exciting, though, because it means we have so much room to grow into as long as we prepare ourselves and commit to excellence — there is such fruitful space for exploring them and coming to solutions that can bring us into proper relation with other people and the Gods.
And Happy Noumenia. 🌒
7 thoughts on “Hellenistic Syncretic Polytheism (HeSP)”