Hellenism (Greek: Ellinismós, Latin: Hellenismus) is the traditional polytheistic orthopraxic religion of the ancient Graeco-Roman world which, at one point, was the dominant religion of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Hellenism proper beginning during the Hellenistic period, an era which begun following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, and with the spread of Greek (and later Roman) culture would go on to become the dominant religion of the Mediterranean world. The term Hellenism was first coined by the blessed Emperor Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus to refer to the general Graeco-Roman religion derived from the Greeks.
Broadly speaking, Hellenism is a polytheistic religion that believes the Gods are unchanging, unbegotten, eternal, incorporeal, and not in space. It is primarily a devotional or votive religion, based on the exchange of gifts between the divine and mortals typically through offerings/sacrifice and correct practice. The ethical convictions of Hellenes are inspired by ancient Graeco-Roman virtues such as reciprocity, hospitality, and moderation.
Hellenes worship a large number of deities, which includes the:
- The Ouranic/Dii Superi, or Olympian deities
- The Khthonic/Dii Inferi, or Underworld deities
- The Protogenoi, or Primordial deities
- The Titans
- Nature spirits (Nymphs, Nereids, Dryads, etc.)
- Ancestors and ancestral divinities (Lares, Penates, etc.)
Those who practice Hellenism are called Hellenes, which is an ethnos. An ethnos has nothing to do with one’s blood or anything remotely similar to contemporary social constructs invented by European imperialists such as “race,” but instead means a group of people who share a common ethos (meaning “character” or culture; including literature, history, philosophy, science and so on). One does not become a Hellene by mere birth— they become a Hellene through work. This is a clear understanding from the ancient world, as the divine Emperor Julian tells us: “though my family [the Constantinian dynasty] is Thracian, [I] am a Greek in my habits,” or in other words, logos displaces genos (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, II 501). Being a Hellene does not designate a people (genos), but a mindset (logoi) (Libanios, Or. II.184) (Kaldellis 2011, 54). One becomes part of Hellenism because they share in a culture which was attained through education (paideia) rather than “common stock (physis)” (Elm 2012, 378-379). So while Hellenism is ethnic because it originated with a group of people, it is at the same time katholikos, or universal, because by its very nature it reflect the reality and universal principles of the Cosmos itself. As stated prior, Hellenism proper began after the death of Alexander the Great and the spreading of Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean. Hellenistic and Hellenized culture interacted and mingled with local cultures throughout the region and created new, diverse traditions. The religion can and will manifest in different forms in different regions and adopt itself effortlessly to the religious customs of the area where it becomes absorbed— so long as they do not conflict with Hellenism— though with a consistent Hellenic tone at the foundation. A prime example of this is the eternal city of Rome, which though having had a distinctiveness both linguistically and in many regards religiously, had established and maintained sacred rites and pious belief in the Gods which were nonetheless culturally descendent of and shaped by the influence of Greek civilization– a descendancy acknowledged by the divine Emperor Julian.
Because of Hellenism’s great universality there is equally great diversity. There is no one “Hellenistic” faith, and that’s okay. Instead, there is a grouping of shared cultural faiths. Individual practice varies widely. Some Hellenes may not focus their worship each day upon every member of the pantheon, while others will give direct urgent prayer requests to all of them. Some may feel closer or more distant to some Gods, or may adhere to Mysteries that focus on a particular deity and their retinue. Familiar among all forms of Hellenism, however, is the importance of ritual practice, as ritual animates belief, and the respect to all the deities by being polite and gracious to all of the divinities equally, for they are like kind masters, teachers, fathers or guardians who put us on the right path.
Historically, Hellenism went on to continue on for many centuries, even after Christians took control of the Roman Empire and begun bloody persecution against Hellenes, all the way into the Dark Ages. The Greek region of Laconia in particular resisted conversion for an extended period of time and the last public Hellenes were the Maniots in 875 ACE, though they continued to practice their religion until the 10th-11th centuries, which was noted by Constantine VII’s in his work De Administrando Imperio. Although publicly Hellenism was seemingly defeated, it continued on for several more centuries among intellectuals. Michael Psellos (c. 1017/1018 – 1078/1096 ACE) was accused of, and likely implicit in, being secretly a Hellene, and the renown Hellenic philosopher Gemistos Plethon (c. 1355 – 1452/1454 ACE) wrote a piece, the Nómoi, which called for the reorganization of the Byzantine Empire and the return to Hellenism. Plethon founded a Platonic school in the Peloponnesian city of Mystras which is said to have had students often praying to statues of Hellenic deities. Further there was Michael Tarchaniota Marullus (c. 1458 – 1500 ACE), a Hellene who was either from Sparta or Constantinople, who privately translated many ancient Hellenic works such as the Orphic Hymns, and wrote the Hymni naturales, hymns dedicated to the Gods.
Hellenism sees a large revival movement, and Hellenic Polytheism, Hellenic Revivalism, or simply Hellenism, refers to various religious movements that revive classical Graeco-Roman religious practice which begun public emergence in Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy during the 1990s. The religion makes use of reconstructionist methodology to reconstruct classical Hellenism to form a living tradition and uphold proper practice appropriate to the modern day.
Elm, Susanna. Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome. University of California Press, 2012.
Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave. Wright. The works of emperor Julian. London: Heinemann etc., 1962.
Kaldellēs, Antōnios Emm. Hellenism in Byzantium: the transformations of Greek identity and the reception of the classical tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011.
Siniossoglou, Niketas. Radical Platonism in Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.