That, at least among modern polytheists, is the question.
It is also the main difference between Wicca/eclectic Paganism and the belief systems of Hellenismos, Kemeticism, Asatru or Celtic reconstructionism. While the former focus on a connection with the Earth and are more inclined to use archetypes instead of defined deities – perhaps drawing their lineage back to prehistoric Earth-based faiths – the latter are culture-specific and focus on reviving an ancient religion. Generic Paganism and Wicca tend to be non-dogmatic, so there are few fixed rituals to recreate. In Hellenismos, however, most followers have an interest – however large or small – in how things were done in Ancient Greece.
This raises a question. Since culture and religion were so closely entwined in those days, to what extent should a modern polytheist reconstruct their faith?
One thing is for sure: you can’t reconstruct everything, but neither can you reconstruct nothing at all. You don’t find many people talking about exposing unwanted children on mountaintops, nor do you hear about people worshipping Artemis by having wild sex with multiple partners! Some common sense does apply, and there are limits to what you can get away with. That said, Hellenic polytheists can be found anywhere between these two extremes, from being as true to history as possible to verging on eclecticism. The general consensus seems to be that cultural aspects need not be reconstructed, but religious ones must be accurate – which leads to some debate on what exactly is cultural, and what is religious.
Animal sacrifice: One of the most controversial topics among Hellenic polytheists. Some view it as a cultural practise and wouldn’t imagine doing it themselves. Others argue that the Gods demand it, and are happy to comply. Get ready for a shocker, because I personally believe that animal sacrifice is okay. And before you scream and run in the opposite direction, let me add a major BUT: I only approve if it’s done respectfully (i.e. the animal doesn’t suffer) and has a purpose other than the sacrifice itself. In many ancient cultures, nothing of the sacrificed animal was wasted: the fur and hide were used for clothes, the meat was eaten, the guts served for divinatory purposes, and so on. It’s not very different from how we kill animals to eat them – in fact, if done correctly, it’s a lot more humane. So basically, I believe that if the animal dies quickly and nothing of its body is wasted, this aspect is okay to reconstruct.
Hair binding: Deciding to do this, for me, was a personal choice, as it’s a highly cultural aspect of Hellenic religion. I don’t believe the Gods will despise you if you don’t do your hair up. Yes, hair is supposed to carry miasma (which raises another question: how long does it have to be? In Ancient Greece, men didn’t bind their hair, only women – why? Personally, I believe shoulder-length is the limit, but that’s only my opinion). Overall, though, I think this is something that should be done out of devotion and personal choice, and not to be forced on anyone. I do it because it feels right, not because Ancient Greek women did it.
Hellenic calendar: If you follow Classical Greek religion, and especially Athenian Greek, then I’d recommend that you follow the calendar of Hellenic festivals. It provides an excellent base for honouring the Gods, and it was a major part of religious life in Ancient Greece – both good reasons for reconstructing it. That said, with a few exceptions, I don’t really follow it. My influences are mostly Minoan, Mycenaean and Archaic, so I don’t view Classical festivals as very important to my religious practise. (Not to mention that I live in the Southern Hemisphere, and since many festivals are based around the seasons, it gets a bit complicated to follow them.) The Mycenaean in me prefers to honour the Gods where I find them, whether that be in the mountains, by the sea or at the side of my hearth fire.
Prayers and offerings: I’ll be straightforward here and say that if you want to follow the Greek Gods, you should make regular prayers and offerings. The Gods demand it, simple as that. As for how you pray and offer, that is once again open to interpretation. Some people (like me) recite daily hymns in Ancient Greek. Others are a lot more informal. I’ve heard a lot of arguments where people insisted that you should wash your hands with khernips before offering, or recite hymns every morning and evening, or have a procession to your altar before every ritual, and to be honest, unless you want to be a Classical reconstructionist, I think such arguments are a bit petty. So long as you take time to honour the Gods and research appropriate offerings depending on their personalities and areas of expertise, I’d say you’re good.
As for how much you should reconstruct in order to call yourself a Hellenic polytheist, it depends on what kind of Hellenic polytheist you want to be. To be a Hellenic recon, as the name indicates, you should strive to be historically accurate. (Note the difference between recon and polytheist.) But I believe that as long as you’re honouring the Gods correctly (i.e. not dedicating your sexual adventures to Artemis, or offering pretty love hearts and flowers to Ares), you’re a Hellenic polytheist. As for what kind, that’s up to you.
The bottom line? Before anything, know what you are reconstructing. If you want the whole Hellenic lifestyle, make sure you can commit to it and that you’re okay with binding your hair, making daily offerings and spending hours at your altar reciting hymns. If you feel drawn to Minoan religion, look up their practises before assuming they were the same as those of Classical Greeks. Most of all, don’t assume that everyone who calls themselves a Hellenic polytheist will worship in the same way as you.
So, to recon or not to recon? It’s up to you.
(A rather late R post for Pagan Blog Project.)