Hellenism (Greek: Ellinismós, Latin: Hellenismus), also less frequently called Olympianism (Greek: Olympimanismós) or Dodekatheism (Greek: Dodekatheïsmós), is the traditional polytheistic and animistic orthopraxic religion, lifestyle, and ethos of the ancient Graeco-Roman world which, at one point, was the dominant religion of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Its origins are Minoan-Mycanean, and it came to be practiced not just by the ancient Greeks, but also by the cultures that they had shaped and influenced. Hellenism proper (i.e., Hellenism on a global scale), however, truly began 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 sacrificial rituals which are correctly performed. 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 Einalic/Dii Mari, or Sea deities
- The Khthonic/Dii Inferi, or Underworld deities
- The Protogenic/Primordi, or Primordial deities
- The Titans
- Nature spirits (e.g., Nymphs such as Nereids or Dryads, etc.)
- Ancestors and ancestral divinities (e.g., Lares, Penates, etc.)
Hellenism is a Universal Religion
Those who practice Hellenism are called Hellenes, which in this context is not the same as citizens from the contemporary Christian nation in Greece who likewise call themselves Hellenes but partake in a “Christian Hellenism” invented by the Romiosyni (i.e., Greek Christians) 200 years ago. Rather, Hellenes in the context of Hellenism are 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, language, history, philosophy, science and so on). One does not become a Hellene by mere birth— they become a Hellene through work via a process of education, paideia. 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 simply through 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. As such, individual practices can and do vary 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. There is no one “Hellenistic” religion, and that’s okay. Instead, there is a grouping of shared cultural and philosophical denominations which are linked together by their shared concepts, recognizable ritual formats, shared textual resources, and sacred sites, which share a common foundation, Hellenism, which must be nurtured. Familiar among all forms of Hellenism is the importance of ritual practice, as ritual animates belief, and the respect and worship that is given to all the deities equally, for They are like kind masters, teachers, fathers or guardians who put us on the right path. Central to its teachings is the universal desire to satisfy the human striving for eudaimonia, the contented state of having a good indwelling spirit in which we are healthy, happy and prosperous.
Etymology of Hellenism
The precise etymology of Hellenism is uncertain, and largely speculative. One theory is that the ancient Hellenes originally called themselves Selloi, and that through time the initial sigma in Proto-Greek became aspirated in ancient Greek, turning /s/ into /h/ in initial positions. As such, Sell probably led to “Hellene” through regular sound change. This is supported by Aristotle in Meteorology 1:14, who writes: “The deluge in the time of Deucalion, for instance, took place chiefly in the Greek world and in it especially about ancient Hellas, the country about Dodona and the Achelous, a river which has often changed its course. Here the Selli dwelt and those who were formerly called Graeci and now Hellenes.” As such, the Selloi became the Helloi, though again no one is absolutely certain.
Another, perhaps more mystical approach, builds off of the previous example. Here, the myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha tell us of how following the great deluge, they repopulate the land by casting stones which become people, the first being Hellen, the eponymous king of the Hellenes who would come to be the progenitor of the Greek peoples. This can directly relate to another etymological theory, where the word Hellene comes from the prefixes el/ελ (meaning “sun, bright, shiny,” related to elios, “sun“) and las/λας (meaning “rock, stone”). As such, Hellas, the Greek word for Greece, means “the land of the sun and the rock,” the Hellenism means “the culture and/or religion of the sun and the rock,” and the word Hellene can be understood to mean “person of the sun and the rock.”
Hellenic Religion is a Lifestyle
There are individuals who, thinking that religion and lifestyle must be separate, have come to assert that Hellenism is “not a religion, but a way of life.” This is a dangerous mistake for two reasons. Firstly, because it allows atheists (i.e., monotheists) to be the one who define what is and what isn’t a religion, which can have large ramifications, both against Hellenes and non-Hellenes alike. This can be seen in much of colonial history, where by defining religion in a way that was incompatible with certain religious traditions (e.g., defining that it must have a holy book and a prophet) colonialists were able to levy themselves on those without “real religion,” as seen with the conquest of the Americas. Secondly, it has consequences at a legal level, because it means Hellenes cannot ask for the rights of a religion, which including the right to construct temples, enroll their children into a Hellenic education (paideia, a pillar of the Hellenic religion) or conduct Hellenic marriages, which many countries in the world, even Greece until recently, still do not grant them. Furthermore, this means that they forfeit the claim to their sacred sites, which currently lack the legal rights of a religion and are thus often deemed secular and state property.
As such, we understand that Hellenism is a religion, which, as an orthopraxic tradition, is not merely confined to a temple in an artificial divorce from secular life, but rather is an everyday lived ethos which encompasses a person’s entire lifestyle.
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 either from Sparta or Constantinople who became a mercenary in medieval Italy, who privately translated many ancient Hellenic works such as the Orphic Hymns, and wrote the Hymni naturales, devotional hymns dedicated to the immortal Gods.
Today 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.