Why I No Longer Call Myself a Hellenic Polytheist

This blog post gets into our desire for authenticity and how self-reflection and being challenged pushed me to confront unhealthy thoughts, behaviors, and assumptions over the past few years, culminating in dropping the label Hellenic polytheist in favor of describing myself as theistic — I worship Gods. It uses three interwoven things — the article I wrote for Eidolon in 2019, an organization I lurked in for years before becoming active, and Twitter fights — to describe this change and argue that these hard questions are things that many of us will need to confront and respond to if we are ever to create a healthy constellation of modern polytheisms and paganisms. As a heads up, this post is very personal, and it will describe some negative emotions and experiences. I apologize for not being able to write it otherwise.

Wanting to label this is a desire for sensibility, of tracing out a line and saying I am that — but how does that make sense? how does that center the Gods? — and even something like Hellenistic Syncretic Polytheism (another label I’ve used) is guilty of using that label-focused triangulation to get at something that is far messier in practice. We each have a hearth shrine, we worship Gods, we blend what we know of tried-and-true ritual methods from various regions in antiquity with our modern materials and our complex sensemaking. That is theism, or polytheism, or simply worshipping Gods.

Now, how did I get here? Let’s get to those interwoven pieces of backstory.

The wake of the Satanic Panic, especially for those of us who grew up in rural areas with large conservative Christian populations, left scars. I grew up assuming that, in many parts of the country, and in many sectors, disclosing one’s religion would mean being covertly fired for it. The news stories I read on WitchVox described the tip of the iceberg of firings. My mother always put her pentacle inside of her shirt, as did others who wore jewelry; many more people took theirs off when they went outside of the home unless they were at Circle.

We were outed by a neighbor when I was in seventh grade, and that ostracism experience was a foundational part of my religious, mental, and emotional development. Whereas my youngest sister sought to flee from the stigma by becoming Christian and being antagonistic towards the family, I leaned into our pagan identity as a source of strength and sensemaking. The ostracism, however, left significant (negative) mental and emotional impacts, which I had to work through in therapy in my late 20s.

As I’ve stated many times, my primary reason for transitioning from the Wiccan-like practice I had to reconstructionism was my knowledge that the Gods I worshipped the most (like Apollo(n)) were perhaps better worshipped outside of that framework. I had also read Sallust’s On the God and the World, which lit a fire in me that doused the struggles I’d had as a 20-year-old trying to figure out the world, a struggle that had left me vulnerable to atheistic tendencies for some months due to the inadequacy of the scant Wiccan theology being published at the time. Over the next few years, I “cleaned up” ethically through studying the Delphic Maxims and Solon’s Tenets, as my ethical training as a child had only been basic and tacit — I’d rarely self-examined, and I was often on autopilot, driven by the wounds I’d received growing up and very confused and unsure of what to do whenever I felt emotions. (I’d trained myself since I was twelve to not have them because they were painful and inconvenient, and I was bullied for crying. I was a mess in college.) It took me more than a decade to unpack all of that, but “turning off the tap” of reactive, immature behavior was the first step in getting better. I also learned the ritual methodologies common in reconstructionist polytheism at the time, specifically in Hellenic Polytheism as practiced in the United States.

One of the things I did, based on my upbringing, was join an organization. I knew that it was essential to have documentation just in case one was fired unjustly, and the annual dues seemed like a fair price for the assurance that I could use the membership in a court of law to argue my side of a religious discrimination employment case. Which org it was doesn’t matter at all for what I’m about to say, but it focused on “Hellenismos” (sic). I lurked on the listserv and barely posted to the forums, preferring instead to do stuff on my blog and in other parts of the Internet.

In late 2018 and early 2019, I worked on an essay for Eidolon about how modern Hellenic polytheists read and interpret the classics. This piece forced me to be self-reflective in a way I had never been before, and the editors’ comments were invaluable for thinking through what we were doing as recons. I remember puzzling through elements of the article and trying to figure out what to say. I remember wanting to ensure I mentioned that there are Greeks, that they also have a modern community that we’re not always in sync with, and I struggled while writing it with how to accurately integrate it. While drafting, I had a foreboding sense that it wasn’t me who should be writing something like this; I attributed it to imposter syndrome at the time, but it was actually my conscience telling me that it wasn’t my place to talk about this. Actually thinking about what we were doing, and feeling through the emotions that came up for me while writing, was an invaluable stepping stone to my current thinking.

In May 2019, I had a religious experience that shifted a lot for me. It was about two months after coming down from that experience that some drama happened on Twitter, and by “drama” I mean an important (albeit heated, often with abusive speech) conversation about Greece, Greek Gods, and cultural appropriation. It centered on the usage of the terms Hellenism and Hellenismos, although sometimes, the conversation veered into topics like spiritual bypassing and cultish red flags. Those terms, it became clear, are ethnonyms used by Greeks today, and in our globalized modern world, this created (and still creates) a lot of friction. I seemed to be one of the only people in the conversation who was willing to set aside how stressed and upset the language made me in order to get to the bottom of why they felt that way; most people blocked them or refused to take them seriously. What motivated me was that I knew staying in the conversation would lead me to a resolution of that feeling I had had while writing the Eidolon piece.

When I came to an understanding of what was behind the abusive speech and hostility, I reflected on things with my girlfriend. She’s Jamaican American, and she said to me, “I always found it weird you were doing this ritual reenactment. Like, you’re not Greek. I’d get it if you were doing Norse stuff because you’re Scandi and that’s your culture and I’d be like, okay, that makes sense. You people are all as Greek as I am, and the only reason you get away with it is because you’re white.” And, of course, she was mostly right, and only “mostly” because she doesn’t have insider context for some of the theistic devotional stuff — even if I were worshipping Norse Gods, there’s nothing that says I can’t worship Apollon or Hera or whomever at my shrine, too. There would just be a different type of ritual at the core of the prayer. That said, she was mostly correct, and I will rephrase what she said in terms of two questions: What was it that actually linked me to Greek Gods? What was I actually doing here with these rituals, and were they authentic to my own context?

This led me on a journey of self-examination and sensemaking. I didn’t want platitudes from people saying oh, you’re okay, they’re just assholes. I wanted the truth, even if it meant I would have to make changes to my life. I worship Apollon. Truth can be cutting, and it can pierce the heart like a volley of arrows. Being unwilling to do this, to me, was a denial of the God. It wasn’t a normal situation. It was about piety, and if something was wrong with the way I was being pious and the religious edifice built around that core devotion, I wanted to fix it. Especially for those of us who mark ourselves as belonging to his chorus, to choose the convenient over the truth is an act of violence against the self. Truth can be communicated by bitter people, by violent people, by angry and warlike people, by kind people, by compassionate people, by people who love peace. It’s often not the truth someone thinks they are communicating. People are bad at knowing what they actually want. We are taught this in library school, and it is backed up by research on human behavior. Emotions and desires can really whiplash a person.

During the first year of the pandemic, my involvement in the organization I belonged to increased. I enjoyed the online rituals and conversation. For a time, I truly thought that it was possible to make changes on the inside and come into a place of right relationship. There were warning signs that this would be impossible, but I’m fairly stubborn, so I didn’t want to see that. What actually motivated me to leave was an event that I could not have known would lead where it did — I’d started posting divination things here on KALLISTI for the general polytheistic communit(y/ies), and someone asked me to cross-post to that organization’s forum. I was accused of doing divination for the organization without their permission and of violating the consent of everyone there, of being an unethical person. The one who had asked me to cross-post apologized, but they were ignored by the people on the forum who were angry and wanted me to apologize. I was puzzled. The Wild Hunt does divination in its roundups — is that also a problem? How did my independent actions have anything to do with them? Thankfully, the organization didn’t want to formally discipline me.

I had always thought of myself as a free person. If the organization wanted to claim what I did on my own time and on my blog as falling under its rules and approval processes, then this was not a social contract I had ever signed up for. I had joined the organization simply to have a paper trail if religion ever came up in a legal setting. Yes, I was frustrated and angry and hurt and deeply upset about the claims that I was an immoral person and that I had behaved unethically, but I was even more upset that nobody listened every time I said that the divination hadn’t been done for the org. I decided to leave. Because I care about integrity, I didn’t just storm out. I made a to-do list of everything I had said I would do for the organization. I worked through the list over the course of a few weeks and left after its completion.

Now solo, I had much more room to puzzle through everything I was learning. I had more room to engage with Platonism and fewer bonds to tie me to rigid historical practice. I wanted to actually work through what an ethical practice looked like and how one builds it. The Twitter situation evolved, sometimes explosively. Rather than centering my own pain and becoming lost in my own anger, I needed to advocate for the future of others. I grew up in the modern pagan movement, and I want it to be viable. I am willing to set aside what is personally convenient for what I judge will contribute to that generational viability. Most people are not looking for me to have personality, or be complicated, or have emotions, or be myself. That’s what friendship is for, not the transactional public sphere. They’re also, as I said in a previous post about everyone’s awkwardness with second-gens, curious to know what it looks like when people have these deep personal histories with Gods and ritual, except when they actually meet us, they realize we do not match their fantasy and are not validating their expectations. This weighty baggage is the reason I apologized for being personal in this post’s intro.

So. I asked myself many questions: What did I need to do to develop solutions and puzzle through these challenges? What was necessary to help others? How could I prevent what I gave others from being contaminated by my own bitterness at the painful things I’ve learned over the past half decade, a pitfall similar to the ones I had seen so many others walk into? How could I get out of my own way while observing my boundaries and following my best judgment? I went back to my shrine and prayed. I did research. I reflected. I did divination. I iterated.

Everything from 2019 to 2022 has culminated in The Soul’s Inner Statues, a book that avoids using the terms pagan or polytheist and that definitely isn’t centered around a “Hellenismos” or “Hellenic polytheism.” It’s culturally open, albeit with some authorial biases and theological Platonism.

Over the past few years, my thinking has developed from oh, this is syncretism between Ancient Greek history and America to the idea of cultural reception, that all of us outside of Greek culture and the Greek diaspora are the recipients of a cultural transmission from Greece that is concentrated in several waves — some in antiquity, some in the Renaissance, and some during the nineteenth century during the antiquities craze. It has lasted for thousands of years for some of us, less for others, but everyone from America to Sweden to Japan to Senegal to to Peru to Madagascar, of every social class and background, is exposed to Greek mythology and some amount of history about Greek antiquity. This reception is heavy-handed in Europe and in many former colonies, and racism has led to many thinking that Europeans somehow have more of a “right” to this reception than others. For most of us around the world, it is barely even a transition step to go from learning about these myths in school to lighting incense for a deity like Aphrodite.

When we are honest about where we are coming from in this conversation, it is clear that syncretism is not the word we want, nor is something like “Hellenic polytheism” or “Hellenism(os)” — we are who we are, and Gods have moved around the world for centuries. Herakles is found in East Asian Buddhism. Hermes is worshipped in a Japanese New Religious Movement, Kōfuku-no-Kagaku. Mercury is part of some African Diaspora faiths. Hekate is one of the primary Goddesses of many new religions centered around modern witchcraft. Hermes is a big part of esotericism, and modern Hermeticism is its own big thing. The list goes on.

At its heart, this desire to be the continuity instead of being grounded, honest, and developing our own way of worshipping the Gods is a misinterpretation of what Iamblichus is getting at in V.25 of De Mysteriis when he discusses how maintaining one’s ancestral rites are important, as they contain names, symbols, chants, and a plethora of tacit information that is lost if it stops being transmitted. As discussed above, we often think of ourselves as the ones who are linked to this past through heritage, when in fact we are receiving Gods through cultural reception. They are like shooting stars come down into our lives, dazzling us, quickening our minds and hearts with fire. One might think that becoming more aware of these issues would drive me into Norse or Gaulish or another polytheism related to my ancestry, but that only creates other problems — from my standpoint, after learning what I have learned, it is still a denial of the present, a retreat into history.

While we are not starting tabula rasa, we have no idea what an American (or Brazilian, or Canadian, &c.; what I write is likely most relevant to melting-pot cultures with many inputs) polytheism looks like, and that is the puzzle that we much solve. We can learn and reflect on what our inputs are, we know our challenges, but we often seek out mentally living in historical eras rather than doing the hard work of figuring out what worshipping Gods even means for us Americans in 2022, with our legacy of colonialism and injustice on the one hand and representative democracy on the other.

Where I landed is accepting that much of what I do for the Hellenic Gods, and most of my devotion, is informed by a long history of cultural reception by Western and Northern Europe. Where I landed was blending that with some practices related to my ancestry, bringing in Gods and trying things out until I had a rough idea of what was going on and what my obligations were and who I wanted to worship. Most of the blending occurs with hearth and home-related Gods and divinities, like Frigg and her Handmaidens, Nantosuelta, the Disir, and so on. Getting out of my own head and paying attention at shrine is what led me to Belesama and Eir, two Goddesses I would have ignored had I still been in that rigid recon framework. One eerie thing that came up during this self-discovery process is that many of the Hellenic Gods I worship more closely are apparently Gods who were syncretized to Roman deities who were syncretized to Gaulish deities worshipped in the places where my paternal family comes from. The Platonists and other polytheistic theologians mention Gods being tied to families and people, and perhaps that speaks to the persistence of these connections through even the most razing cultural revolution. For us mortals, it is difficult (if not impossible) to know which cross-cultural identifications are the sameness of a God being active in different places and which are merely likenesses (meaning it’s a different God), so I don’t know what to do with this beyond make the observation and monitor it.

I do think, however, that it speaks to why cross-cultural reception can spark devotion in any of us outsiders — there are some Gods we are primed to worship for whatever reason(s), and it’s best to withhold judgment about who others are devoted to because you don’t know what they have going on. Yes, many of us are outsiders to the ancient culture and modern daughter cultures of Gods like Apollo(n), Zeus, Janus, Inanna, and so on, and even those in daughter cultures have mixed experiences given how much time has passed since polytheism was outlawed, but we do what we do, and we learn to worship them according to what we each think is best based on our nurture and education. The only thing others can actually react to is how responsibly people behave in the public sphere, their impact (positive, negative, neutral) on others, and whether they seem to be spiritually bypassing or engaging in unhealthy escapism. Not every devotee of a God will have all of their shit together, and I don’t know a single person (myself definitely included) who is perfect.

Importantly, nothing I have said in this piece is against writing books and primers that draw from archaeology, historical texts, and other materials to describe how one can approach Gods today. None of the work of people in recon movements was or is wasted, including my own. My ten years of Odyssean wanderings gave me the learning experiences that I needed to move forward and pay forward and become a better person. The insights from historical study, especially where they engage with modern daughter cultures to both fill in gaps and ensure that one is behaving in a culturally sensitive manner, are crucial for knowing what once existed and what our own practices can draw from as part of a more holistic, pious practice that is, importantly, still cultural reception.

There are crucial, core elements of a prayer practice that transcend cultural barriers; there are specific nuances that one might emphasize depending on which Gods one worships; and all of this has been communicated to us by modern practitioners working in those paradigms who have been meticulous about that, even if they are less self-reflective about the modern assumptions and contexts they are bringing — for example, a book about Hellenic Polytheism written by an American is saying more about what the author thinks is the right way to incorporate veneration of Hellenic Gods into our preexisting American cultural reception than it is about authentic Hellenic practices. In our cultural reception in the USA, we’ve been taught that we’re the successors (supersessionistic, yes) of Ancient Greece and Rome, with upper-class white people being one of the driving forces of this identification in recent centuries. All of those books carry that baggage. The usefulness of many of these books for us is true despite the Llewellyn pagan, witchy, read my secrets, be YOUR true power marketing that many, even serious ones, carry. We may never see pagan and polytheistic publishers in the United States adopt more accurate, honest, and culturally-sensitive language to market their catalogs, and barring everyone in publishing suddenly becoming more culturally sensitive, it’s up to each of us to decide whether or not that is a dealbreaker when we make book purchases.

The Gods are here, now. Not in the distant past. What we do matters now, not in terms of how authentic we make a mimicry of the past, but in how sincere our devotion is. It must leave behind all that it is not and just be what it is, simply itself. Go to your shrine. Make your offerings. Be, and become.

8 thoughts on “Why I No Longer Call Myself a Hellenic Polytheist

  1. I never thought of joining a religious organization for the reason of protecting myself against discrimination. Then again, I’ve lived in a liberal area the entire time I’ve been Pagan. The way things are going tho, we all have to be on guard. Anyway, I used to have more a Hellenic practice & I belonged to at various times Hellenion & what was the other one- one Dver founded? It meant Temple-Keepers. Anyway, I was in a Hellenion Proto-Demos. But in general, I have noticed that compared to Celtic & Germanic recons, that at least have some awareness of & sometimes connection to living cultures, there is not much of that among Greek-inspired polytheists/pagans (insert word here) I think it’s in part because there is a smaller Greek diaspora compared w/ descendants of German, Scandinavian, Irish & Scottish immigrants. Even folks who don’t have those backgrounds, likely know people who do & have some exposure to customs/foods/music etc derived from those places. Greek immigrants also came somewhat later than most of those groups, & so likely have a more distinct cultural identity. (Being a lifelong Midwesterner, I haven’t encountered very many Greek folks- mostly in this part of the country, you’d have to go to Chicago. Anyway it’s definitely taken for granted that Greek mythology/classics etc are parts of “our” culture- often without much examination of what that culture is, & assuming that since we’re pagans, we’re culture outsiders/not privileged, etc.

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  2. This has me re-thinking some of the ways I’ve thought about reconstructionism. For me, it has never been about replicating an earlier culture—while the cultural aspects are perhaps helpful in my overall project of trying to de-modernize my brain, I have never desired to actually be an ancient Irish druid or whatever. Instead it’s been about trying to respect the gods with whom I’m interacting. The idea was “you’re familiar with being approached in this way, and so if I approach you in a historically recognized way you might take it as a sign of respect.”

    But I wonder if that’s true. In human interpersonal relationships, showing off how well I know another culture’s greetings and holidays is at best unlikely to endear me to somebody from that culture, and at worst it’s just outright racist. Among other things, my knowledge of a culture as an outsider is usually decontextualized and incomplete, and so it’s offensive to pass myself off as if I am an insider. Given that most of the knowledge I have about, say, religion in ancient Ireland is necessarily fragmented, I might just come off as a jerk. (And gods forbid I try to pronounce Old Irish!)

    I think there is a way for cultural engagement to come across respectfully—knowing a little bit of a language, especially one English speakers don’t tend to learn, can go a long way toward smoothing interactions abroad. But I don’t quite know how to articulate the difference between where it’s touching and where it’s grating.

    Perhaps that abroad-domestic distinction is important: it’s polite to know a little Icelandic when traveling in Iceland because it’s a way of acknowledging your role as a guest and decentering your needs a bit. But it’s probably a bit tokenizing to do to your hypothetical Icelandic neighbor. I don’t know where the gods fit into that, though—are they our guests in our homes, or are we their guests in this world?

    Ultimately, I guess it comes down to intent—hopefully the gods know we’re doing our best, even if I can’t always perfectly realize what I’m trying to communicate when trying to speak to them.

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    1. Very insightful! Your comment about wanting to be respectful, not a replicator, is something that resonates with me — this is actually how I thought about my own approach, but it wasn’t the way the (mostly US?) recon movement’s behavior impacted others. The more I thought about it, the more I was able to think about (and hopefully correctly diagnose) what the issue was. What’s more, what’s has ended up happening is that those of us outsiders are taken as being insiders, or presented as such by corporate marketing, and that’s a big problem.

      We can all definitely still worship the Gods and integrate evidenced-based methodologies (after all, that’s what the historical record is — evidence of what resonates with the God). As I said in the post, we’re all operating in a cultural melting pot with many, many, many inputs. What really matters is framing and, if one judges it to be important, trying things out in hearth cultus if the best framing means doing something a bit different.

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  3. You know, it’s times like this that remind me why it was that our ancestors didn’t have a name for what they did. It was just what you did. Plain and simple. I feel like what you’ve said here is born of the stresses of practicing a faith in a socio-cultural context it was never meant for. A lot of our issues seem to stem from that.

    I’m not saying it was perfect nor do I think we should use it again but this is why I liked when we were Pagans. People knew what it meant back then. A worshipper of the Old Gods! It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t specific. It suffered from being torn between traditions that survived and traditions that didn’t. The etymology wasn’t even necessarily reflective of all aspects of the faiths described. It had all of these flaws and yet I miss it. It was the beginning of an identity. Poetic in its romanticism of those who really did wish to see Triton blow His mighty horn (to quote a famous poem). I loved it. I embraced it. It wasn’t much but it was something.

    And then people ruined it. Like they always do. People wanted to use it to describe everything but what drew me to being Pagan in the first place. I guess that’s just another example of why it’s hard to live in a world where everything has to be in a box but there’s no proper box for you to go in

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    1. Yes, everything was once so much simpler! It’s natural for things to grow and change in an NRM, though — hopefully we’ll all end up where we need to be.


      1. I just can’t help but feel we missed out on the good ole days. Hopefully we’re just in the “Bad times make strong men” phase and will one day be in the “Strong men make good times” phase.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Honestly, so many of the people who are very casually or shallowly pagan don’t stick around anyway. Problem is there are so many such people. If paganism developed a distinctive enough culture then having cultural pagans that don’t engage much spiritually might not have as corrosive of an effect. But as it stands, “secular pagan culture” as such is just a wing of broader consumer/identity branding culture. I think as we go further into various crises (climate change, political extremism etc) those who get thru such crises will need to root themselves in strong values & community ties. Preparing for this, & sharing ways for the casual pagans to go deeper (as you have been doing!) w/o burning ourselves out catering to them is important, in addition to connecting w/ our non-pagan/polytheist neighbors. I’ve been thinking of starting a sort of urban animist group that also has a resource sharing/activism side to it. Just a seed at this point…

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