The Return of the Hellenes Produced by Jon Miller (6:27)
was the centerpiece of the 2004 convergence at Mount
Olympus. It's a retelling of the myth of Prometheus,
who stole fire from the gods.
Modern Greeks are famously proud of their past, and with good reason.
Ancient Greece produced an astonishing array of philosophers, scientists,
architects, planners, poets and dramatists. It also produced a memorable
cast of celestial beings, whose exploits have entertained and enlightened
countless generations around the world.
It's an oddly double-sided legacy. While the great thinkers engaged
in rational debate about the nature of things, the gods used trickery
and force to get what they wanted. While Plato and Aristotle tried
to determine how humans should behave, the gods often acted like,
well, humans: petty, jealous, capricious and cruel.
Eastern Orthodoxy, which became Greece's official
religion in the 4th century, drew from both these
traditions. It incorporated aspects of paganism (allowing cults
of the Virgin Mary and of many saints, along with the veneration
of religious icons); it also claimed some concepts of classical
philosophy as central to its dogma. For the Church, Orthodoxy
belief") is therefore the ultimate expression of Greek civilization.
And indeed, for more than 1,500 years, most Greeks have viewed their
legacy through an Orthodox prism.
officiates a multiple baptism on Mount Olympus. The
new names won't be official. Olympios legally changed
his last name from Kostopoulos.
In the last few years, though, some have come to
distrust that prism, and to say so in public. While Church membership
is still extremely high (more than 95% of all Greeks are at least
nominally Orthodox) and the leadership is still highly involved in
state affairs, there has been a resurgence of popular interest in the pre-Christian
past. With it has come a small explosion of pagan groups, philosophical
societies, Spartan schools, "Hellenist" magazines and
performances of classical theater.
Zissis Papadimitriou, a sociologist at the University of Thessaloniki,
in northern Greece, says foreign travel, international integration
and economic pressure have ironically fueled the renewed interest in
of globalization, because of the European Union, the Greek people
are in a period of transformation," he says. "So they
are seeking a new identity—a Greek identity."
Papadimitriou says national identity has long been a political
football in Greece, and the Orthodox Church has always been right in the middle of the game. The Church played a crucial role in the battle
for Greek independence in the 19th century, and still works hard to
connect itself in people's minds with the very concept of "Greekness," based on what it calls "Helleno-Christianity." The political right has often called on Greece's
glorious past to rally public opinion against foreign influence.
says the new Hellenism is different. Although the revivalists
are diverse—some are New Agers, others atheists, others humanists—the
overall impulse isn't nationalist, he says, but cosmopolitan. "As
a country, as a people, we are too small to be important economically.
We have to play a cultural role in the world, and to play this
role we have to have a very strong identity."
A baptism at the
Orthodox chapel on Mount Olympus, performed at the same time as the
annual pagan celebration. Greece is the most religiously
homogeneous country in Europe, with more than 95% of Greeks
baptized in the Orthodox church.
Like many of those propelling the revival, Tryphon Olympios became
fascinated with classical Greece—and with his own Greek identity—when
he moved overseas. Olympios, founder of the "Return of the
Hellenes Movement" (an umbrella group for revivalists
of many stripes), fled to Sweden under Greece's military junta
and taught philosophy at university in Stockholm for 18 years.
Although he presides
over neo-pagan rituals, he says he is not religious. His
philosophical work deals with the future, not the past. He says
ancient Greece provides a model of a world where freedom
freedom of religion—is paramount. "We
want to develop a free individual, free from superstitions and
free from dogmas. No one tries to impose on you how to worship
your god or practice your faith."
One of the most visible facets of the revivalist movement has
been the campaign for recognition for the Dodecatheon, or "Religion
of the Twelve Gods." The campaign has hardly been successful: polytheists have twice applied to the
Greek religion ministry for official status, and twice they have
been ignored. Coverage of the movement in the popular press has
not been flattering. (The word many Greeks use when asked about
the pagans is "funny.") But the movement has been attracting attention.
Members of the Apollonian
Society meet in Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest
city. Talk of philosophy, history and mythology often
turns to contemporary political issues.
Not everyone who practices the old religion is a true believer. Many Hellenes see pagan-inspired ritual not as an expression of religious conviction, but as a way to bring people together—and to provide a platform for their complaints about the Church.
"If people want to believe in the gods they can, but we don't
believe that," says Marina Tontis, a computer programmer
who attends the "Return of the
on Mount Olympus each year. "The difference between philosophy
and religion is that philosophy is open to all ideas, and religion
is based on dogma."
Tontis, who spent eight years in Chicago, helped found a philosophical
club in Thessaloniki. The Apollonian Society meets twice a
week in a former storefront. It has no sign, but the door is open
during meetings and anyone is free to join. Apollo is their
favored deity, and the group can talk for hours about cosmology
and mythology, but they are not believers. "We support the
investigation of our cultural background," Tontis says. "To
find messages, good messages, to bring to today's world."
— Jon Miller
Thanks to: Matthew Brunwasser, Jamil Said, Gail Holst-Warhaft, Barry Strauss, Aristoteles Mentzos, Faidra Papavasiliou.