This will be the first post in my “I Am Series,” a series of posts in which I will attempt a self-definition by explaining the terms and phrases I’ve listed on my About Me page. I will start with the first term, and the primary focus of this blog: I am a Hellenic Pagan.
Here’s the requisite Wikipedia article on the subject, but what exactly does that term mean to me?
As Ezra Pound says in his Guide to Kulchur – “I assert that the gods exist . . . I assert that a great treasure of verity exists for mankind in Ovid and in the subject matter of Ovid’s long poem, and that only in this form could it be registered.” Elsewhere, he says something to the effect (I’m paraphrasing) of “I believe in the gods of Homer and Ovid.”
I have been a practicing Hellenic polytheist/pagan for over 15 years now. My interest in the Greek gods began at a very young age, sitting on my Greek grandmother’s lap as she read me the myths from The Golden Treasury Reader, a very old and weathered book of children’s literature. It was lost or thrown away at some point in the intervening time between my childhood and adulthood, and I’ve spent years trying to find a copy. Last year I found a free .pdf copy online here. What an amazing book for a child with an active imagination! It was Part III, entitled “Stories of Mythland,” that first awakened my love of mythology. The story of Baucis and Philemon is the one I most remember my grandmother reading . . . I still remember the kindly old couple’s goose running to Zeus for protection. The story of Hermes, Apollo, and the invention of the lyre was another favorite. And having recently found a digital copy of this book, I am pleasantly surprised that the incredibly homoerotic tales “Hyacinthus and Apollo” and “Apollo and King Admetus” were included in this children’s reader from 1912 (albeit with delightfully campy subtext):
I have no doubt that my born-this-way, proto-gay, chasing-and-kissing-boys-at-recess-in-the-first-grade childhood subconscious was carefully paying attention to these beautiful gods and their pleasant companions. At some point I should actually write a whole post on the beauty and charm and literary value of these childhood readers from a century ago – there are myths and legends and folktales from all over the world, poems by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti . . . even the wonderful pre-Harlem-Renaissance, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar! I wish the writers of textbooks nowadays had so much faith in the intelligence of children. Raise the bar, my fellow educators! But I’m veering off-topic . . .
Anyway, while my grandmother was reading me the myths, she was also emphasizing that we were Greek and telling me stories about the old country. She even visited Greece when I was about two or three, and brought back many photos of her adventures in Athens and the little mountain village near Mount Kyllene where her father was born. She also gave me my first illustrated book of Greek mythology, the Usborne Illustrated Guide to Greek Myths and Legends, and that book likewise had a profound impact on my life. From that moment on my soul caught fire with the Hellenic spirit.
I was raised by a wonderful single mother with the help of both grandmothers, and fortunately my family was not religious in the traditional sense, as I was never forced to attend any churches and my mother wanted me to make my own decisions about my spirituality. In the words of Friedrich Hölderlin, “I grew up in the arms of the gods.” I read every book I could find about Greek mythology (and all of Aesop’s Fables), and in high school I fell in love with Joseph Campbell, Homer’s sublime epics and the Athenian playwrights. Which led me to a Great Books program, where I spent my first two years of college reading the great works of literature, history, and philosophy from Homer and Herodotus and Plato all the way up to the late 20th Century. This dedicated course of study also allowed me to appreciate the continuity of the classical tradition throughout Western culture, especially in the realms of poetry, the arts, and the history of ideas. The majority of my independent reading now included the works of Karl Kerenyi, Jane Ellen Harrison, Walter F. Otto, Walter Burkert, and other great scholars and mythographers, as well as the many Greek and Latin texts that weren’t covered in my Great Books classes (Pausanias, the Hellenistic poets, the Neoplatonists, Nonnus, the Greek Anthology . . .). In that first year of college, I also fully embraced two important aspects of myself that had always been there, but up to this point had been repressed and/or hidden: I came out to my friends and family as a gay man, and I began openly honoring the Hellenic gods via ritual, poetry, and daily prayer.
By the way, it just so happens to be International Pagan Coming Out Day (out of the broom closets and onto the streets!), and I can definitely understand the parallels between coming out as a LGBTQ person and coming out as a pagan . . . especially since, for me, they happened in the same year. My best friend Pandora (not her real name, though I later found out her father originally wanted to name her Pandora after I’d already been using that nickname for years) was the first person I officially “came out” to by sitting her down and having “the talk.” It was actually on National Coming Out Day, 1996. I was 18 years old, and Pandora would soon give me my first Tarot reading and introduce me to a paganism that existed outside my own imagination and childhood spiritual experiences. We were kids. So naturally, we were reading Scott Cunningham and other popular Wicca books from the time (which shall remain nameless because they are completely embarrassing now). But those books opened the door.
An experience that same year with Hermes (which I will have to write about at some point), helped me make the spiritual and intellectual shift from “college kid dabbling with Wicca” to “Hellenic Polytheist/Pagan.” And from that point onward, Hellenic Paganism has been a major part of my life. (I may address the whole controversy surrounding the word “pagan,” at some future date. Or I may not, because honestly such controversies bore me.)
I consider Hermes to be my patron deity, though I am also especially devoted to Hestia, Hera, Apollon, and Dionysos. But I have always honored the entire Hellenic pantheon aka “the gods of Homer and Ovid,” plus all of the deities of the Homeric Hymns and the Orphic Hymns, as well as more obscure figures from Hesiod, Pausanias, and other sources. For 15 years, my daily devotions and prayers have always involved a “core” pantheon of 18 deities: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Hades, Hestia, Hephaestus, Athena, Hermes, Aphrodite, Ares, Artemis, Apollon, Dionysos, Persephone, Hekate, Pan and Gaia. I also regularly honor Asklepios, the Dioskouroi, Eos, Helios, Selene, Phanes (and other cosmogonic/primordial powers), Mnemosyne, the Muses, and a fairly wide assortment of other Greek gods, local nymphs/land spirits, and numerous ancestors and heroes, including Antinous and the Athenian heroes Harmodius and Aristogeiton. For a relatively complete list, please see My Personal Pantheon page.
I pray, meditate, and perform devotionals at my home shrine every morning when I awake and every night before bed, and I pour a libation of wine to Hestia and Hermes (reading their shared Homeric Hymn) before we eat dinner each evening. I follow the ancient lunar calendar, and the Noumenia (the first sliver of light after the New Moon) is an important sacred day, while other days are sacred to specific deities and heroes/heroines. My husband and I (occasionally joined by others) have long celebrated a number of festivals in various informal ways, though I have recently begun leading/co-leading rituals for a small group (eight of our closest friends/family) of fellow pagans. In fact, we have been meeting regularly to formally celebrate the Pagan Wheel of the Year (I will have photos of our Walpurgis Night/Beltaine celebration in my next post).
I visited Greece once, about ten years ago. I could only afford a week, so I stayed in a youth hostel in Athens, with day trips to Delphi and Eleusis. It was an amazing spiritual experience, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that many modern Greeks, including the genial cab driver I met en route to Delphi, still honored the ancient gods.
There’s so much more to say about this subject in future posts, but this will hopefully be at least a cursory explanation of what I mean when I say “I’m a Hellenic Pagan.” [Feel free to imagine a parody image of those annoying “I’m a Mormon” billboards and ads.] My spirituality is a major part of my life, and “Hellenic Pagan” is a label I am comfortable using. I am also a contemplative poet and educator of Greek-American descent, with a lifelong devotion to the Hellenic gods, and a profound appreciation of the Hellenic spirit as it has manifested throughout the last three millennia or so of civilization (even further back if you count the Minoans). I am a deeply spiritual person, a lover of mythology and philosophy, art and history, nature and culture, and my wonderful family and friends. I am a reader of Homer and Hesiod and Sappho, Plato and Proclus and Thomas Taylor, Montaigne and Shakespeare and Keats, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). I have found wisdom and beauty from a wide array of spiritual traditions, from the many books in my home library, and from the trees and birds in my backyard and the stars and planets in the night-time sky.
As always, I speak for myself and only myself. Please let me know if you have any questions!
“Everything is full of gods.” – Thales
“Everything is overflowing with gods.” – Proclus