Gimme That Old-Time Religion: A Growing Number of Greeks Bow To Zeus, Apollo, and Hera

Talk about nostalgia!

Public Radio International has a pretty entertaining piece from Greece about the Return of the Hellenes,

… a movement trying to bring back the religion, values, philosophy and way of life of ancient Greece, more than 16 centuries after it was replaced by Christianity.

Remember the good old days? Neither do they, but that doesn’t prevent them from worshiping the dodecatheon, including the long-moribund deities Zeus, Apollo, and Hera. The New Hellenes don’t pray to the old gods, they say, but they do hold them worthy of veneration (as representations of things like beauty, health, and wisdom), and some revivalists offer them sacrifices such as flowers, fruit, milk, and honey.

They also have a soft spot for the Greek hero Prometheus, who helped humans by stealing fire from the gods. There’s an annual festival dedicated to him, held each summer solstice. On Friday, the event was kicked off by

… six runners — in full Greek battle gear — racing the six miles up Mount Olympus, home of the gods, their shields and long spears clanking as they go.

The New Hellenes consider Greece to be a country under Christian occupation, and they chafe under a majority of more than 95% of the population who identify as Greek-Orthodox followers of Jesus. The lack of affection is mutual: in 2007, an official of the Orthodox Church said the Hellenes were “a handful of miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion.”

When I first heard about them, I thought perhaps their intention was to gently satirize (satyrize?) religion — to be Greek Pastafarians, if you will — but that doesn’t appear to be the case. It’s true that followers see the movement as a platform to complain about Christianity, and that it attracts new recruits on the back of the financial and cultural crisis that has gripped Greece since late 2009. But that doesn’t mean that adherents are lacking in sincerity. The founder of the Return of the Hellenes, Tryphon Olympios, explains that

… 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.”

The New Hellenes have twice applied to the Greek religion ministry for official status, and twice the application went nowhere. Until they receive the government’s imprimatur, they are officially prevented from holding mystical gatherings at Greece’s ancient temples. They also can’t build their own because, in Greece, that requires the sign-off of the local Orthodox bishop.

But their marginal status may improve as their numbers increase. The movement already claims to have hundreds of thousands of supporters, and it could grow to have real influence — Zeus willing.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.

  • Hugh Kramer

    Oh boy, an opportunity to try out some Greek mythology puns like Q: What do you call insect parasites who afflict the Greek queen of the gods? A: Hera-tics!

  • Joseph Herrera

    That’s so retro

  • pagansister

    Beats Christianity anyday, in my book.

  • LesterBallard

    Troy better watch out.

  • GabyYYZ

    i for one welcome the return of the Dionysians.

  • Stealth Avenue

    ““a handful of miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion.””

    Remember that phrase in 100 years. :-p

  • jamssx1

    The BBC had a great piece on this I liked the line “You can’t import an ancient religion into a completely different environment
    and social system.” which could just about apply to all the major religions…

  • Ryan

    Toga! … Toga! … Toga!

  • raerants

    People seem to forget, though, that the ancient Greeks make fundamentalist Muslims look like radical feminists.

  • Don Gwinn

    Ah . . . Screech, the Greek god of music.

    I hope my “I’m a Pagan mystic warrior, MAN!” kid doesn’t find out about this.

  • RobMcCune

    Me too, I hate for “THIS IS SPARTA!!!!!!” to make a comeback.

  • RobMcCune

    I was fine with them up until the part about honoring Prometheus, that movie was a giant disappointment.

  • anniewhoo

    Finally! A religion for cosplayers.

  • anoncow

    Can you elaborate?

  • WallofSleep

    I’ll believe them when they start offering up hecatombs. Just out of curiosity, is this in any way connected to some kind of neo-fascist* movement?

    *Not related to anything, but the spellchecker tried to correct that as “neon-fascist”, which of course made me chuckle.

  • WallofSleep

    Half a dozen in one, six in the other. Either way, rotten eggs.

  • Richard Wade

    “We want to develop a free individual, free from superstitions and free from dogmas.”

    That person would be a consistently skeptical, freethinking atheist. You’re just adopting a set of superstitions and dogmas that haven’t been widely adhered to for a few centuries.

    …and some revivalists offer them sacrifices such as flowers, fruit, milk, and honey.

    When the flowers wilt, the fruit gets moldy, the milk sours, and the honey is covered with flies, what do they do with it? Most ancient temples had a main altar where a statue of the honored deity stood, highly visible to the public. Behind that was small room where only the priests were permitted to go. The priests would accept the faithful’s offerings of perhaps a lamb, slaughter it, and then they would burn the flesh before the icon of the god. They’d tell the congregation that its “essense” was rising up in the form of smoke to the heavenly plane to nurture the god. Then when the meat was about medium-rare, the priests would announce that the god was satisfied for another day, dismiss the faithful, and take the corrupt, earthly dregs of the lamb into the back room.

    Not knowing what else to do with such base, unworthy stuff, they’d eat it. Mmmm.

    Even though most religions now accept offerings of cash to their gods, it’s still basically the same scam.

  • Matt Eggler

    Neon-facists? Weren’t they big in the whole ’80s health kick and spandex manufacturing?

  • Bdole

    I had my doubts, but when I saw one of their gods – the fat slovenly one up front – I felt the burning in my bosom…heartburn. This, truly, is THE WAY.

  • C Peterson

    Like any religion, it’s batshit crazy, of course. But it’s also a damn sight more interesting than Christianity. These are the sort of gods that the Universe could actually produce: powerful, but flawed. Gods with human emotions, and human behavior. Interesting and understandable gods.

  • Stev84

    It depends on the time and city state. In some states like Sparta women could be wealthy property owners and manage their own affairs. But in Athens they had no legal rights of their own and no participation in public life. They weren’t citizens. They wore rather concealing clothes and were expected to mainly stay at home.
    That’s also very different from ancient Rome which was a patriarchal society too, but still didn’t restrict women in the same way. Roman women had some legal status, could own land and run businesses for example.

  • WillBell

    Perhaps I’m perceiving them how I want to perceive them but it seems this is less about worshipping ancient gods than using them as personification of concepts. So they could be consider atheist – sort of like most satanists (which still seems pretty rubbish IMHO).

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    “a handful of miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion.”

    I find your abundance of faith disturbing.

    (EDIT: Oddly, DISQUS automatically closes even fake HTML brackets. I intended that force choke to continue…)

  • Mario Strada

    The Greek government has a very silly approach to this. Considering their economy, if this type of religion became more widespread and accepted it would be a boon for their tourism. Imagine the tourists flock to the ancient temples to see the very rituals they used to hold there.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    It’s true. The bible is horible literature, but the mediteranean pantheon has inspired some of the best works of literature ever. If it’s all just a fantasy, why not go with the more interesting fantasy?

  • Houndentenor

    At least a decade ago, one of the Scandinavian countries started accepting paganism (of the Norse kind) as an offical religion so that people could have traditional Viking funerals. (Before that it ws very hard to get buried if you weren’t Lutheran.)

  • Houndentenor

    And art, music, opera, etc.

  • A Christian

    From what I understand, Paganism is a fast-gaining religion.

  • Hugh Kramer

    The Chinese burn paper money for the spirits of the deceased. It’s not real currency but the dead don’t seem to mind.

  • Erp

    Strictly speaking some Athenian women were citizens just as some Athenian men were (a large proportion of the population in later days were aliens [perhaps of several generations standing] or slaves). Also at least in the later days an Athenian male needed to have both parents citizens to be a citizen. However female citizens had no civic rights (beyond being eligible to participate in certain female only religious rituals).

  • indorri

    Some of the neopagan/reconstructionist pagan movements in Western Europe have been taken up by neofascists as a sort of “volkish” meme, but I don’t know if that’s the case here.

  • Erp

    Do you mean “Golden Dawn”? I believe that group protested violently a play, “Corpus Christi”, on the grounds of blasphemy which would be an Orthodox position. However it has also evoked ancient Greek culture including the Greek gods. Allegedly Bishop Seraphim had been friendly to Golden Dawn but turned on them earlier this year because the endorsed neopaganism according to him (other Orthodox clerics had opposed them earlier but for other reasons such as their violence and racism). Golden Dawn has become a political player in Greece and something seriously to worry about.

    The new Hellenes seem to be more formally known as Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes with their festival known as the Prometheia. There is some minor anti-semitism (or gross ignorance of Hebrew) on their web site. They denounce any connection with fascism though they seem to recognize that some fascists are claiming an ancient Greek identity
    They don’t seem to have any political clout.

  • indorri

    I find it interesting how quite a few of us here find this to be good. Personally, I do as well. Despite some anachronisms, I’ve found such movements to be more resistant to harbouring fanatical elements that threaten society and reject secular principles.

  • indorri

    Well, Paganism isn’t really a religion in its own right. It’s a loose term referring to many different religions that don’t fit the traditional Christianity-Judaism-Islam-Buddhism-Hinduism mold. As an identity, I believe it tends to be held by either Reconstructionists, who specifically are looking for a pre-Christianised version of religion, or Neopagans, who attempt to draw themes from these religions but which is ultimately different from them.

  • wombat

    The ancient Greeks did it somewhat differently – the delicious medium-rare meat was consumed by the worshippers present as part of the ritual. So it wasn’t just the priests that got to have a decent meal

  • Pseudonym

    These are the sort of gods that the Universe could actually produce: powerful, but flawed.

    The Hebrew sacred texts do pretty much the same thing, only they roll the contradictory flawed aspects of the universe into one entity. He ends up coming across as something of a split personality, of course, but it’s all there.

  • Pseudonym

    It sounds more Athenian than Spartan to me. I hope they allow women to go outdoors.

  • Pseudonym

    Perhaps I’m perceiving them how I want to perceive them but it seems this is less about worshipping ancient gods than using them as personification of concepts.

    One of the benefits of living in a post-Enlightenment era is that unlike the Ancient Greeks, we distinguish between the two. Of course, that could also be considered a drawback, depending on your perspective.

  • WillBell

    Its just that the article 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.”

    And this seems more like a philosophy than a religion, it seems they could be doing all this without calling themselves members of Hellenes, they just are using the organization as a community, sort of like the atheist churches we’re seeing elsewhere. I’ve heard of atheist churches that do communion, perhaps this could be considered like that except with sacrifices instead of communion. Another thing it might be is like the universalists, meaning that it invites true believers and atheists to their progressive cause.


    At least they have the balls to admit all their gods are screwy idiots who go around f***ing each other and humans all day.

  • mike85

    Whatever gets the orthodox church upset I’m good with.

  • Richard Wade

    Well that would certainly make temple attendance more popular. It might also keep the more skeptical Greeks in the congregation from grumbling as much about those fat priests.

  • Cuallmequib

    Nice article!

  • wombat

    Skeptical Greeks were in a pretty interesting position, one that I don’t think we have a parallel for in the modern world. Their beliefs actually didn’t really matter. They could go on not believing, as long as they performed the rituals. Religion was very much about doing, not believing. And when the rituals almost always ended in a really decent meal, well, why the hell not?

  • Mark Moore

    If you are going to be crazy, go all the way. None of this weenie apologetics, go for broke. Zeus is our man! – God! Zeus is our God! That is my story and I am sticking to it. Now Zeus wasn’t that the one that . . . . . .

  • Paul D.

    I prefer “Dionysiac”.

  • jaduncan

    “They also can’t build their own because, in Greece, that requires the sign-off of the local Orthodox bishop.” …as an EU citizen, consider me incredulous.

  • Richard Wade

    I admire their pragmatic honesty. Just going through the motions reminds me of many of the families described in the letters I get, and how they respond to their young atheist members: Just shut up about not believing it, be a phony, and go through the motions of the prayer, the confirmation, the communion, the baptism, the wedding, whatever the hell the ritual is, so that the priest, the grandparents, the in-laws, and the neighbors won’t know. Instead of the Greek’s honest pragmatism of getting a good meal out of it, it’s about keeping up appearances for social status.

  • meekinheritance

    Have you seen the pope?

  • meekinheritance

    I think African Americans might disagree, or at least provide a counterpoint.

  • History Goy

    Real Greeks view chrisitans the same way christians view scientologists.

  • Cafeeine

    Not only the Hellenes, any non-GOC temple requires the sign-off of the bishop. This has been a sticking point for the growinjg number of muslim immigrants, who want to have a larger mosque built in Athens and can’t. Right now they are praying in converted work spaces.

  • rufus_t

    Same as my personal opinion of the etymology of the word Politics – from
    Poly – meaning many, and
    Tics – meaning bloodsucking parasites

  • CelticWhisper

    Yes, and there was a very distinctive sound as their hi-tops impacted the pavement during their marches.

  • jaduncan

    That really is a future ECtHR defeat for Greece.

  • baal

    Could you name that entity for us?

  • Cafeeine

    Possibly an existing one. I know we’re paying fines for some religion related asshattery, not sure if this is it.

  • Katherine Lorraine

    Bring on the Baccanalia!

  • Robin Banks

    Terry Firma? I see what you did there…

  • Alexis

    Now I have to go out and rent “Fantasia” tonight, for its realization of Beethoven’s sixth symphony!

  • A Christian

    Thank you for the explanation. Very interesting. I thought all those who practiced modern pagan religions were Reconstructionists, although I had heard of the term Neopagan.

  • C Peterson

    One entity can’t be remotely human-like. Humans are sexual animals, and the Hebrew deity is some kind of bizarre asexual being. It is the relationships between the Greek gods, and their relationships with humans that is a big part in humanizing them. Unlike the Hebrew deity, the Greek gods are not arbitrary- we can understand their motives. We can recognize that, like any intelligent creature, they can be right or wrong. They recognize they can be right or wrong. They recognize that they are not perfect beings, and make no such pretense.

  • Artor

    Well, neo-pagans may be reconstructionists too. The term distinguishes the new pagan movements from old pagan traditions that never died out, like Shinto, or the various African traditions. While there might be some genuine old Celtic pagans in obscure corners of Ireland and Cornwall, most Celtic pagans are neo-pagans, having built a new tradition from forgotten scraps of the old and bits of Crowley, Gardener, etc.
    I lurves me some pagans; they’re mostly nice people, but there is a strong current of woo, (big surprise?) and some anti-intellectual attitudes among some groups, which is frustrating. They have their own versions of history that may or may not align to reality. (Did you know that 9 million witches were burned at the stake by the Inquisition? And the world lived in matriarchal peace & harmony before the coming of monotheism? What? You have a degree in ancient history? Well, that’s just the lies perpetuated by the patriarchy…)

  • Artor

    Imagine a dedicated group of volunteers taking care of the old temples, instead of the State paying for it all.

  • Artor

    Pretty much. As a Celtic pagan/atheist, that’s largely my attitude. No, I don’t believe in gods, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t relevant to me, in an esoteric way.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    Woohoo does this mean more sacred orgies in the temples honoring Zeus, Aphrodite, or Dionysus?

    If I actually believed in any sort of deities I’d be more inclined to believe in flawed, human-like deities like the greek gods. Talk about petty and cruel and angry.

  • Ken

    An unreasonable response considering how unlikely you’ve ever met one of these Greeks. Not even all Christians are “rotten eggs.” I’d make a similar assertion of your character if I knew more of you beyond these two sentence fragments.

  • Guest

    I believe it was Iceland…

  • Ianmacfarlane

    Someone needs to send this information to the Egyptians. A revival of the old gods there would be an improvement over what they have now!

  • Spuddie

    Dionysian rites were a bit on the rough side. Men going into hiding while wild drunken women are tearing animals (and sometimes snotty wayward princelings) apart. Not a pleasant experience.

    -See The Baccae by Euripides

  • Spartacus

    As a fan of ancient myths this pleases me. Anything that challenges the grip of orthodoxy in Greece is going to be a good thing, because it will make people think about why other people believe these things, which in turn will make them think more about their own beliefs and create more atheists. It’s also going to become easier to be an atheist in Greece (hopefully) because it won’t be just those weird atheists against the Church, it will be a culture of many beliefs. And I think the religion of ancient Greece is more LBG friendly than Christianity- Zeus and Apollo were bisexual and there’s the famous hero Achilles who had a thing for his comrade-in-arms, Patroclus.

    On the other hand it is a step backwards for scientific understanding and I don’t really get how people can believe in a moon goddess when mankind has already walked on the moon, or a sun god when there are stations orbiting and observing the sun and so we know what its’ made of and roughly how it works…it’s not a bloke in a chariot with flaming arrows. Even Zeus’ thunderbolts can be explained by science.

    Still, good luck to them. I think they should be allowed to have their temples and ceremonies, it will add a bit of colour to the world.

  • raerants

    At least in Athens (and I did overstate, since things were quite different in Sparta), women had zero legal rights, period. They couldn’t own property, they couldn’t come before a court. At all. They were property. If their husband *and* their father were both dead, some guy would be appointed their legal guardian.

    Basically, these Hellenese seem to be falling into the same trap as other neo-Pagans, and that’s to completely fluffy-bunnify their interpretation of ancient gods and utterly bowdlerize ancient ways. The ancient Greeks not only had no concept of freedom of religion, but their theology was so entangled with their politics that it would be somewhere between meaningless and impossible to suggest separating them. Religious rituals were compulsory and depended on what town you lived in.

    I have no problem with

    “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.”

    by itself, but it’s dishonest to pretend that people a few thousand years ago embraced this.

  • brianmacker

    Anyone foolish enough to do that in Egypt is on the short list for a beheading.

  • brianmacker

    “That person would be a consistently skeptical, freethinking atheist.”

    Unfortunately, there aren’t very many consistently skeptical atheists even around here.

    “The priests would accept the faithful’s offerings of perhaps a lamb, slaughter it, and then they would burn the flesh before the icon of the god.”

    You sure they weren’t just eating it? I’d be skeptical of claims they weren’t benefiting in some way from these sacrifices.

  • brianmacker

    They get real pissed if you (as a nonbeliever) try to buy any of this fake currency (which is for sale all over Chinatown).

  • Grotoff

    No. I’ve been to Ephesus, and I’ve seen the thing that they worshiped. Artemis of the Ephesians was not some girl hunting deer. She was a bloody fertility goddess, and I mean bloody literally. Let’s not Romanticize the past, even the Roman one, just because we dislike the current crop of religious extremists.

  • Pseudonym

    The entity goes by several names, which suggests several traditions, several gods, or changing thoughts over time.

    Elohim acts like a big super-human. He even walks around the garden.

    JVHV, on the other hand, is more like a non-corporeal spirit.

  • Pseudonym

    I think I see what you’re saying, but I do find the claim that if it’s not sexual, it’s not anthropomorphic… well, certainly ahistorical.

    Not every anthropomorphic god was as much of a sexual predator as Zeus.

  • YerpYerp

    Ectoparasites, technically.

  • John Brockman

    You hit on the truth there. Satyr –> Satyrize

    The Greek tragedies were written as tetralogies. A trilogy of tragedies followed by a Satyr play. It was a satire of the trilogy, with guys dressed as satyrs: hairy goat leggings and big fake leather penises that they waved at the audience.

  • MedMarine

    To be completely pendantic (if only to help you improve your joke), ticks aren’t insects.

  • A Christian

    Your assessment has always been my understanding as well. Yes, I have definitely run into that kind of thinking. Sadly, it is similar to some Christians’ beliefs about the founding of America. If you question them, well, that’s just the lies perpetuated by secular media.

  • Itsrealfunnythat

    Mm… Not much better when you consider Zeus was raping women and turning into animals to trick other women into having sex with him all the while cheating on his wife… But sure, Beauty.