It all started with some genitals. Specifically Poseidon's facsimile, plaster ones.
In April 1976, Augoustinos Kantiotes, a monk from the Greek Orthodox Christian sect in Mount Athos, penned a furious article “concerning the genitals of the pagan God and the shame of Athens.” Particularly incensed by a replica of the sea god Poseidon residing erect and nude at the entrance of the Ministry of Education, the article inspired another monk, Nestor Tsoukalas to drive across Greece to take a sledgehammer to the statue. Guards were unable to control the single-minded frenzy of an Orthodox hell-bent on protecting Christianity, and Tsoukalas succeeded in smashing the statue’s extremities.
“Why do they have the idol in the Ministry?” one reporter asked the monk after police apprehended him. “Do they want to restore paganism, as did Julian the Apostate?”
“No,” the monk retorted. “They will not succeed in that.”
Vlassis Rassias was a teenager when Kantiotes’ act of vandalism hit the Greek news. “I got a hint that Christianity was something bad,” he told me. Now the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes (commonly referred to by its Greek acronym, YSEE), he is one of 2,000 active followers of the polytheistic Hellenistic religion Kantiotes was so afraid of.
Ancient Greek religion, on which modern Hellenism is based, was a thousand-year polytheistic theology void of clergies and sacred texts. Devotees believed in 12 anthropomorphic gods — you remember Aphrodite, Hades, and their peers — under one almighty god, Zeus. Their sacred home was Mount Olympus. While proselytizing was completely unknown, atheism was rare, as the only requirement for ancient Greeks was to believe in the gods’ existence, and to perform in ritual ceremonies and sacrifices. They did not concentrate on the afterlife, as they did not believe in rewards or punishments post-mortem. Instead, they believed their dues would come in this life, and the relationship between deities and mortals was based on gift-giving.
“Hellenism is something that supports life, and puts order to the beauty,” Vlassis said. Aside from having an encyclopedic knowledge of paganism, his duties as Secretary General include publicly representing the YSEE and coordinating any legal administration. “We have a different perception of gods. Whatever gives power to life is god, even death is god. Our perception of god is not an immortal person that does things to us.” He delivered this last statement with a chuckle.
As Christianity began to forcefully spread in Greece, Hellenism declined. Historians point to the reign of Constantine II in the fourth century A.D. when Christianity became spread more earnestly, and prosecution against paganism began. In the centuries that followed, pagans were effectively wiped out from Greece. Today, Christian Orthodoxy is the official religion of Greece, enshrined in the constitution, and a fundamental aspect of Greek identity. But still, many of the things that are a source of pride and national identity for modern Greeks — architecture, literature, the Olympics, theater, philosophy, the very concept of democracy — comes from the ancient Greeks. But until this past April, worshippers were still, in a sense, discriminated against.
The YSEE was unofficially established in 1997, and is often presented as a totally modern representation of ancient Hellenism. While there were brief moments when Hellenistic believers did publicly worship, for most of Greece’s history the Orthodox Church has had a firm hold on the country’s religious identity. A firmly entrenched conservative and traditional institution, it has furiously spoken out against any pagans. “We are the modern point of a very long chain,” Yannis, a fifty-three year old geologist and modern Hellenistic believer told me. “There was no interruption to our religion, it just wasn’t on the surface of society. It went underground.”
Now, they are firmly — or at least, legally — in Greek society. On April 9, 2017, the Greek government officially recognized YSEE as a “known” religion, granting it the right to openly worship, build temples, perform marriages and funerals, and write their religious beliefs on birth certificates. It’s a huge legal step for the religion — until recently, the Greek state did not recognize any non-monotheistic religion, and even non-Orthodox Christian religions, like Protestantism and Roman Catholicism faced challenges. Greek Muslims are still struggling to build a mosque.
Modern Hellenism is often presented in today’s Greece as a kooky revival of an ancient, dead religion. “Careful they don’t cut out your liver for sacrifice,” a friend half-jokingly told me before I went to the YSEE headquarters. The group has faced some harassment — in the 1990s, a bookstore was burned to the ground — and for years, the Greek Church decried the “satanic” modern Hellenists. But with their new legal status, they feel more secure, though some members do face problems in Greek society.
“A lot of people call me names, or they don’t accept me as their friend. Sometimes my teachers call me crazy,” fourteen year-old Aristomohos told me. His whole family are worshippers, and he loves his community, but navigating through high school with any small variation from “normal” is bound to be a difficult experience. Still, Aristomohos said, summoning the wisdom of his ancestors, “that’s their problem, not mine.”
Hellenism also remains a misunderstood religion. A few years ago, Greek fascists wildly missed the mark and were drawn to what they perceived as YSEE’s nationalistic identity. “We don’t have the place to embrace totalitarianism,” Vlassis said. “The philosophy of ancient Greek religion is not compatible with fascism,” Peter, a 21-year-old economics student told me. He came to the YSEE headquarters to change the religion on his birth certificate — not because he necessarily believes in Hellenism, but because he doesn’t want to support the Christian Orthodoxy, which he views as “hypocritical… All the Nazis and nationalists I’ve seen are Christian.”
This year, the Winter Solstice coincided with the Birth of Hercules on December 23. I was invited to witness the two-for-one ceremony, which celebrated both Hercules’ birthday and the slow return to summer. It took place in YSEE’s state-recognized temple, housed in a nondescript apartment building in Athens’ Museo neighborhood. Inside, a very normal-looking group of devotees milled about: a bodybuilder in a button-down, a lipsticked grandmother, a ten year-old girl adjusting her flower crown. The wine flowed freely, amongst plates of savory cheese pies and cookies. The curtains were decorated with garlands and crimson bows. “These are winter decorations,” Vlassis corrected me when I mentioned something about Christmas. “Jesus was born in the Middle East, he didn’t have wreaths.”
For the uninitiated, the visual packed less weight inside a low-ceilinged apartment then it would in the Temple of Delphi. As Vlassis pointed out, this was a religion created under the burning Mediterranean sun — fluorescent lights don’t do it justice. “Of course we prefer to worship in nature, but this is our temple. It’s more practical here,” Sophia, a 22-year-old priestess and criminology student told me. There are no plans to relocate — they’re just happy to finally have a state-recognized temple.
The half-hour long ceremony started with a slow procession of 12 priests dressed in flowing white (“the color that brings us closest to the gods,” Vlassis explained), carrying bouquets of flowers, dried nuts, and dishes of wine — all offerings for Hercules. One priest plucked away at a small harp; another beat a drum. The offerings were placed on one side of the altar, as a priestess unsheathed a knife and pointed it in four directions, while reciting a prayer in ancient Greek. “Onmyomen,” she said solemnly. (The phrase translates to “we promise before the eyes of god.”) In a synchronized movement, all the devotees placed their right hand on their heart and loudly repeated after her, nearly everyone in the room looking radiantly happy.
It felt a bit like stumbling upon a group of happily tipsy, open-minded people in really nice robes. There was a profound respect for other religions and cultures. Many of the members I met came to Hellenism through other “ethnic” religions — Vlassis studied Mayan and Native American religions, and Yannis practiced Chinese martial arts. Since they don’t believe in proselytizing, they couldn’t care less about indoctrinating new members. Instead, curious people show up voluntarily to the ceremonies, like an Australian PhD student interested in paganism who came for the Birth of Hercules.
But while the religion’s legalized status and increasingly mainstream place in society means there are more people peripherally connected to YSEE, paid membership dues have actually gone down in the last few years. Like every other facet of Greek society, the economic crisis has also touched the Hellenists, making it impossible for some devotees to afford the 60 euro yearly fee to become official members — though in the true spirit of Hellenism (and Greek hospitality), they don’t turn anyone away at the door.
“It’s a very beautiful feeling, being connected to the deities, to the aura of the world. We worship the order of the universe, and the world itself makes you feel like you are part of something bigger,” Sophia told me after the ceremony. She had taken off her priestess outfit, and was back in jeans. “It makes me want to be a better person. With Christianity I always felt like it was humans first and then the world. Now I feel like I am truly a part of this Earth.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the role of Nestor Tsoukalas.