Not My Hellenism: The Danger of Narrow Definitions

I almost named the MeetUp, “Greek Pagans,” but then, I thought better of it. The words seemed to resonate with baggage.

Besides, I said to myself, I’m not really a, “Greek Pagan.”

No, just because I had a deeply important, mystical relationship with a Greek deity or two, was deeply fascinated with Greek culture and had spent several years writing love poetry and little stories for Hermes, Apollon and Pan… that didn’t make me a Greek Pagan.

This is Pan. If you write him a poem and bake him some cookies, you are probably a Greek Pagan.

This is Pan. If you write him poetry and bake him cookies because you believe in him, or if you do this for any other Greek deity, you have the right to call yourself a Greek Pagan.

I wouldn’t be welcome, I told myself, in the Greek Pagan community. I remembered being uncomfortable in that community way back when and feeling shocked into silence when someone I respected was ostracized for belonging to a Unitarian church.

I’m not recon. I’m dual-trad and that other trad is Judaism. I wouldn’t be welcome in a Greek Pagan group. Or any Pagan group. That was what I told myself. People might tell me that I couldn’t be a Hellenic polytheist because I worshipped the Hebrew god, or because I practiced multifarious types of magic.

So, hoping just to find a few people who were interested in talking about Greek mythology, to whom the gods seemed alive, at least as characters in a book, even if not as sacred personalities, I named it, “Greek Mythology.” That seemed neutral and unassuming enough that no one would question whether or not I had the right to be running it. It was the only one of its kind in the Bay Area at the time. Do you know who showed up to the first meeting? Two people whose primary tradition was something other than Hellenismos, hoping against hope that by, “Greek Mythology,” I meant something more than talking about the stories as an ancient curiosity, or a literary influence on Percy Jackson. 

Pretty cool, but not my only interest in Greek Mythology, actually.

Pretty cool, but not my only interest in Greek Mythology, actually.

While the details of my particular narrative may be unusual, the heart of it is sadly common. I hear the lament echoing across the country, from friends in the East and Midwest and even here in California. Groups with mission statements spring up and then peter out, usually for lack of attendance. I remember very well looking at those groups from afar and feeling like I wanted to attend, but that I would be out of place or unwelcome if I did. I somehow feel like I probably wasn’t alone.

The problem is that the larger Greek Pagan community is both small and diverse. If we put every single person interested in some form of Greek Paganism in a “big tent,” we could probably all fit in one medium sized function room. What that means for us is that, in order to have community, we need to avoid narrowly defining our focus before seeing who shows up.

I think the pitfall certain people run into — and I think this because I have heard people say as much — is that they feel that their identity in the larger Pagan community is defined by the exact mission statement of the group with which they are affiliated. I know a guy — a Heathen, actually — who sits at home because he’s “not recon” but doesn’t want to be associated with “Wiccatru.” There is no group doing exactly what he is doing, so he remains solitary rather than compromising on his identity. Greek Pagans are no different. I’ve seen people quit groups because they simply contained members who participated in mysticism, and the person in question identified as “non-mystical.” Then, they got together with other non-mystics and tried to start a specifically non-mystical branch of Hellenism. Frankly, we don’t actually have enough Greek Pagans to support that sort of thing. 

I like to think about the community we are building as being like a cake. The people are the batter. The space we create for those people is our baking pan. Belief in the gods is the heat that bakes the cake. The exact ritual practices we use to connect to the gods is icing.

Before you even ask, yes you can have icing without cake. Look at my blog, some time. I am the metaphorical epitome of the lady sitting on the floor next to her fridge eating out of a plastic Duncan Hines jar. 

The regret begins before I even eat my first spoonful.

The regret begins before I even eat my first spoonful.

However awesome it might be to eat frosting sometimes, we never talk about having a birthday frosting. We talk about having a birthday cake. Until we have that cake baked, (to finally wrap up my metaphor, and come to the actual point) it is silly to argue about what sort of frosting we’ll put on that cake, once we have it, or to throw out our only box of cake mix because it doesn’t fit with our frosting concept.

Just so, it’s better not to define the our local Hellenism until we’ve all gotten together. It’s a thing we don’t need to decide, so much as discover by learning about one another. Until we’ve gotten to that point, we’ll maybe have to compromise on ritual and cut one another a lot of slack. 

It’s ok to have an identity label that is different from the sort that other people in the community have. Right now, the important thing is making space for one another, and making sure to avoid those narrow definitions.

6 thoughts on “Not My Hellenism: The Danger of Narrow Definitions

  1. I have a perverse urge to argue your assessment of the parts of cake…

    That said, I have done devotional parties to which non-Hellenic Pagans, atheists, and Christians all attend together. One of the opening lines of the ritual is, “I do not require anyone to believe as I do, I only require that we all participate sincerely, whatever we believe is going on (or not) at a metaphysical level.”

    The nuts-and-bolts of ritual may not be central to public ritual, but the act of participating together in a common action, with a common intent is. So to some extent, the specifics of ritual are important, if only so that everyone involved can participate without having to suppress disagreement so hard that it distances them from the feeling of being a group.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “So to some extent, the specifics of ritual are important, if only so that everyone involved can participate without having to suppress disagreement so hard that it distances them from the feeling of being a group.”

      Yeah, I have had that feeling in ritual. That feeling where I have to suppress the intense urge to roll my eyes, correct the person running the ritual on a point of history, douce a clergy-person with a bucket of khernips, or just lie down and hearth out, World of Warcraft style.

      I take your point that people running rituals have the responsibility to try and put on a ritual they think others will like.

      As a corollary, people attending have the responsibility to cut the ritual-leaders some slack on their particular ritual style, give constructive feedback about what they’d like to see going forward, and to show appreciation for the effort made.

      If everyone does their best in this regard, we’ll have a stronger community and a better future than if we don’t do this, I think.


      • It’s true that ritual snobbery will get its nowhere. It’s a balance between working with someone, indulging them, and indulging them to much.

        No ritual will work for everyone, but some definitely work better for more. I think this is one reason for public/initiates or general/close-group distinctions.


  2. Here, here! As long as we’re all honoring the Gods, does it matter how?

    The same issue can be seen in many parts of Heathenry, though. (“Heathen” is capitalized, btw.) And for your friend, have him connect with Ember to hook him up with a wide variety of Heathen groups; it sounds to me like he does have your original fears, but as you found out, you’ll never know any different until you actually attend events and see what’s going on.


    • Capitalization fixed, and points well taken. I’ll mention the idea of connecting with Ember to my friend.

      “As long as we’re all honoring the Gods, does it matter how?” — Lon made some interesting points about ritual. I have worked hard to demolish my personal ritual snobbery. And yeah, a part of that was definitely prioritizing community over ritual trappings.

      However, as people who might potentially run rituals for the public, we should consider our responsibility to that public. The Hebrew word I’m thinking is “Parve.” It means, roughly, “unproblematic,” or “neutral.” It’s that stuff that might not be the most powerful, but is definitely the most widely accepted. That’s the thing that community organizers and ritual hosts can do, on their end, to facilitate community — to let go of that super-neat thing they had in mind to do, and instead opt for something that everyone can relate to.


      • Nods. When I err, it’s usually on the side of “relax, everything will be fine”. But then I have a very 12-step and Heathen approach to ritual–simple and open to the Gods doing their thing (as long as that thing is not possessing people and running around starting fires of one kind or another). Set sacred space, set a simple stage (ritual structure), invite the people in, and invite the Gods to do their thing; game, set, match.

        In teaching, I found that the most elaborate, detailed, and highly symbolic lesson plans I created were usually the ones that failed most frequently, which was highly frustrating to everyone involved. And so I learned not to plan the details such much as to come up with a sound, easily repeatable yet effective structure.

        I think the underlying principle is sound in both teaching and leading ritual–if the goal is to give people a chance to experience the Gods (or understand a myth better, or whatever your goal is), if that goal is reached, does it matter how? Does it matter if everyone saw the same images during the guided meditation? Does it matter if everyone felt the presence of the specific Gods that were called? For that matter, does it matter if what they took from the experience was not what you had intended at all?

        In my experience, people are going to get what they get; there’s really only so much control or say that you have over it. You can do your best to make the ritual as friendly, open, or structured as you can, but what people end up experiencing is really up to them and their Gods.


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