Angelos Nasios recently wrote a piece entitled “Who Defines Hellenism?” in which he posited that those who do not embrace modern Greek culture are not true Hellenists. To give a summary of the post; they might worship the Greek gods but unless they Hellenize they aren’t practicing Hellenism. In doing this, Nasios put forward an argument that is fallacious and dangerous.
The argument relies on equivocation
Nasios claims to have a Masters in History and as such is familiar with Hellenism as a historical concept and the development of that concept as an identity within the past few hundred years. Yet, when modern Pagans speak of Hellenism many are not even remotely keyed into Hellenism as a historical concept but rather Hellenism as a religious construct. Nasios takes advantage of this murky territory and seamlessly slips between using Hellenism as it refers to the historical-cultural construct and Hellenism as it refers to the religious construct, but this is disingenuous. One’s religion cannot be Hellenism if we are talking about Hellenism as it relates to the expression of modern Greek culture, Hellenism as a historical construct refers to the whole of modern Greek culture. While Nasios is honest when he points out that artifacts remain in modern Greek culture that have been inherited from their ancestors, but he overblows these artifacts as a means of dismissing the influence of the Orthodox Church on Greek culture both in the country of Greece and in the Greek diaspora. Yet the influence of the Church cannot be denied; according to Pew Research 90 percent of Greece is Orthodox. The influence of the Orthodox Church on Greek-Americans also seems to loom large, but that is just anecdotal. These artifacts do not change that the religious heartbeat of modern Hellenism is the Orthodox church. We can then see that Hellenism as modern American Pagans use it cannot be switched in for Hellenism as a cultural movement; they simply are not interchangeable. That being said, I am moving away from using that term to describe the religious movement. More on that later
Greece is not a host country
Nasios also implicitly relies on the idea that Greece is a host country and culture. When we are talking about religion a host country or host culture is one that is deeply entwined with the expression of that religion and therefore one must have some level of engagement or assimilation to genuinely practice that religion. Some examples of this include Judaism and the Jewish people, some forms of Hinduism* and specific regions of India, Shinto and Japan, Vajrayana and Tibet, Haitian Vodou and Haiti, we should get the picture. The reason why engagement is important for these religions is because of the fact that religious practices are so tied up in that culture. Engagement with that culture allows you to contextualize these religious practices and experiences that brings new understanding to the adherent. This is not true for Hellenic Paganism, the expression of the religion is not found in modern Greek culture and engagement with modern Greeks is not going to contextualize these religious practices because they are just now being revived and as a community we are creating them. We are still laying down the building blocks of the modern Hellenic Polytheistic movement and a host country/culture is not going to exist in my lifetime. These traditions must continue for generations and it very well may evolve into an ethnoreligious system or something else entirely. But for now, no such thing truly exists.
This is a take on gods of blood
Nasios tries to evade this fact by pointing out that anyone who wishes to can worship the Greek gods, but to really be practicing Hellenism as a religious expression one must Hellenize. That is, one must assimilate to Greek culture. Yet this is a dangerous stance even if it were accurate (it isn’t); those trying to assimilate to a culture are often told implicitly or explicitly that they aren’t X enough. You can find reams of examples of this phenomenon by reading Jewish conversion and assimilation stories and other’s reactions to these stories. When I was trying to find work as an ALT in Japan, I read about and met a few individuals who had lived in Japan for years, married Japanese spouses, become fluent in the language, and still felt like they simply weren’t being allowed to assimilate into the culture. One individual was even told that a non-Japanese person could never be fluent in Japanese. So when one says that an individual must Hellenize for this religious expression it is only a short hop to saying one must be a Hellene to engage in this religious expression.
Let me paint it for you another way, when someone in the American Pagan scene says that a person must really adopt Anglo or Irish or German culture to practice a particular form of Paganism we immediately discern that as being a dog whistle. It looks no less like a dog whistle simply because we are talking about Hellenization. It is all but outright saying gods of blood**. This is where the argument goes from simply fallacious to potentially dangerous to the health of the religion.
Modern Hellenic Pagans are rebuilding a religion, not reclaiming a culture.
It has been said by many Hellenic Pagans I’ve met through the years, but (almost) no one has an interest in reviving the complete world view of the ancient Greeks. The treatment of women was absolutely abhorrent, for example. Instead the intent and focus has been to revitalize and breathe new life into these religious practices that were lost through study and through active participation. Through the integration of these practices into our lives, such as keeping a flame lite for Hestia, observing the lunar months, giving to Hekate at the crossroads at the deipnon, we are building a new religious culture. By integrating these practices into our lives we will necessarily pass them down to our children and hopefully they to their children; this is how a religious tradition is built and sustained but anyone who wishes to “claim” Greek culture by merit of practicing these revitalized traditions is being foolish and disrespectful to the modern Greek culture.
Credit where it is due
Despite vehemently disagreeing with the core of the article Nasios did say a few things I deeply agree with. First, that if you aren’t engaging with Greek culture don’t say you are practicing Hellenism. As I said above I don’t believe it to be appropriate to call Hellenism a religion despite that being the de facto term for these revitalized religious practices among American Pagans. I hope that in time we resort to less confusing terms such as Hellenic Polytheism, Hellenic Paganism, or similar phrases. Nasios is also absolutely correct in saying that Greek people have a right to self-determination but what does that have to do with the price of milk? You can’t lump in a religion that has been absent as more than an echo for almost two millennia as being a core expression of a modern culture simply because it fits your ideology of re-Hellenizing Greece through readopting the worship of the gods.
If I believed it was a genuine necessity to engage with Greek culture in order to authentically practice Hellenic Paganism I would say so in a second. I believe for some religious expressions it is absolutely necessary to engage with a particular culture. I do not believe that Hellenic Paganism is one of those religions. With that being said, I do believe at the very least one should keep up with Greek news and at least attempt to engage with modern Greek culture in some way. Despite my arguments against the necessity of such engagement I do think it is respectful to the place the religion was born and seeing those echoes can be very insightful. Maybe even one day someone’s yiayia will call you chubby.
*I say some forms of Hinduism as Hinduism as a myriad number of expressions and permutations in India and it could be quite possible that cultural engagement is a tertiary concern
**I’m not trying to imply that religions such as Shinto or Judaism are dog whistling when they ask for assimilation and/or engagement. There is a difference when ancient continuous traditions ask of this and when revitalized religious traditions ask of this, but I highly suggest readers read some firsthand accounts of “not X enough”.