Modern Greeks tend to be 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 (it means “right 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.
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 deeply 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 antiquity. “Because 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.
But Papadimitriou 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.”
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 of thought – and 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.
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 Hellenes” gathering 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.”
– Jonathan Miller
Thanks to: Matthew Brunwasser, Jamil Said, Gail Holst-Warhaft, Barry Strauss, Aristoteles Mentzos, Faidra Papavasiliou.