Fun fact: the Ancient Greeks didn’t have a word for “religion”. In those days, religion, culture, philosophy, society and everyday life were so closely entwined that it was almost impossible to differentiate one from another.
Though this is an interesting piece of trivia, it poses a problem from modern followers of the Gods.
What should we call ourselves? What should we call our religion?
In this post I will overview the most commonly used terms to describe modern followers of the Greek Gods and what we do, as well as several incorrect ones. Since many of us worship differently from one another, some of these terms may apply to you but not to some of your co-believers. Overall, however, the aim of this list is to give a better understanding of our religion and what we may or may not call ourselves.
Names for the religion
Hellenismos is the term I use most often, and one which is easily recognised and understood in the community. Invented by the Roman Emperor Julian in the 4th century A.D., it was used to describe traditional Greek religion. I don’t see any drawbacks to using this term – it’s simple, concise and dates back to Antiquity, though it was never used by the Ancient Greeks themselves.
Hellenism is an anglicised form of Hellenismos. As such, it’s a good term to describe the religion, but it is also used in non-religious contexts (which Hellenismos isn’t), and it does have connotations of Greek nationalism. My computer’s dictionary describes it as “the national character or culture of Greece, especially Ancient Greece”. It also encompasses the entire Hellenic society, not just their religion, so bear this in mind if this is the term you want to use.
Hellenic polytheism is another term I often use. It’s nicely descriptive and easy to understand: “polytheism” shows that we worship many Gods, and “Hellenic” shows that the Gods in question are Greek – which is basically true. It is a mouthful to pronounce, though.
Hellenic Paganism is also practical in that it links us to other Pagan paths and the general Pagan community. It describes, in essence, a subset of Paganism. If you don’t want to be affiliated with Wiccans and other Pagans, though, I’d recommend sticking with one of the other terms as this one might cause you to be mistaken for a Hellenic Wiccan (a Wiccan who mainly focuses on the Greek pantheon). Another thing to consider is that “pagan” comes from a Latin word used to describe country dwellers, who weren’t up to date with the “cool city stuff” (aka Christianity). Some modern practitioners find the term offensive, and while I personally don’t, that’s also something to take into account.
Greek polytheism is Hellenic polytheism with two less syllables, and without the complicated word “Hellenic” (which some people might not be familiar with). It’s a useful term to use if you don’t want to confuse people. However, I don’t find it to have a very genuine feel – it seems rather scholarly to me, like someone describing Judaism as “Hebrew monotheism”. Another minor issue is that Greeks prefer to call themselves Hellenes, so Greek polytheism, as opposed to Hellenic polytheism, has a bit of an outsider vibe to me. But then, that’s just me.
Dodecatheism means “the worship of the twelve Gods”. This is a rather posh and fun term to use if you want to see people’s confused reactions when you tell them what your religion is. It’s also hard to pronounce. What I do like about it is that once you understand it, it’s simple and straight to the point, and even conveys some of the devotional spirit of our religion. My main qualm is that it only refers to the twelve main Gods, while minor Gods, heroes, nature spirits and ancestors also play a part in many people’s practise.
Ancient Greek religion is, in my opinion, the easiest term to understand. Everyone is familiar with the Parthenon, Herakles’s Twelve Labours and the image of Zeus sitting on his throne with a thunderbolt in his hand, so they won’t be mistaken when you tell them that is your religion. The only problem is that, in most cases, that isn’t our religion. We follow a modern version of the Ancient Greek religion, adapted to the world of 2014 A.D. Many of us, myself included, don’t view our beliefs as a reconstruction of the old ways but as their continuation, their legacy. So saying that we follow the Ancient Greek religion isn’t exactly accurate – but at least it gives an idea of what we do.
Names for the followers
Hellenic polytheist is what I call myself. It has a lot of syllables, but for the reasons outlined above under “Hellenic polytheism”, it’s good to describe me and what I do. It’s also the only term I’ve found that I’m more or less satisfied with.
Hellenic is shorter and more user-friendly than Hellenic polytheist, while conveying the same idea. There is one problem: in modern usage, while Hellenic as an adjective means Greek, Hellenic as a noun means the Ancient Greek language. Sure, we could always reclaim the term, but in the meantime you should expect some surprised looks from Classical scholars when you tell them you’re an extinct language.
Hellene is more accurate than Hellenic in that it does refer to a person – however, that person tends to be ethnically Greek. If that’s you, then feel free to describe yourself as such. But if you don’t have Greek ancestry, some people might get offended if you call yourself a Hellene. The correct term is Philhellene, which literally means “a lover of Greek culture”. The only problem with that is that it could mean anyone from a Hellenic polytheist to a Greek nationalist to a Classics student at university.
Hellenic reconstructionist is long, complicated and autocorrect doesn’t recognise it, which makes it annoying to type. On the other hand, it’s very precise and if reconstruction is indeed what you do, it’s a good term to use. Make sure, though, that you really are a reconstructionist before calling yourself one, especially in the company of other reconstructionists. But if you’re focused on tradition and being as historically accurate as possible in your practise, you should be fine using this term.
Hellenic Pagan presents the same advantages and drawbacks as Hellenic Paganism. It shows what your “subset” of Paganism is, but if you don’t consider yourself as part of the Pagan and especially Neo-Pagan community, it’s not the term to use. It also has more liberal and UPG connotations than Hellenic reconstructionist.
Pagan is fairly simple and straight to the point. Like I said, some people find the term offensive, but I find it practical when I’m among non-Pagans, or when I don’t want to get into detail about the differences between various Pagan paths. When I’m talking to other Pagans, however, I find “Hellenic polytheist” a much clearer description to use.
Hellenic, Hellenistic, Helladic… what’s the difference?
This is something I have at heart since I have seen so many people misuse these terms, and end up calling themselves something they’re not. Once and for all, the history of Ancient Greece spans over several millennia, and is divided into the following periods: Helladic, Dark Ages, Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic and finally Roman.
Helladic Greece is not the same as Hellenistic Greece. One saw the invention of the Linear B script, while the other dealt with the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death. One spoke Proto-Greek while the other spoke Classical Greek, the language of Plato and Sophokles. One refers to the period from 3200-1000 B.C., while the other began in 323 and ended in 146 B.C.
As you can see, there is a major difference between Helladic and Hellenistic civilisation. So unless you truly are a Hellenistic reconstructionist, or a Helladic or Archaic one for that matter (good luck on being a Dark Ages recon, though), please just stick to the term “Hellenic” which, though it is especially used to describe Classical Greece, encompasses the entire culture.
I’m a Hellenic polytheist with Late Helladic/Mycenaean influences. What kind of polytheist are you?