Greece: Exploring The Revival of Ancient Religious Traditions | Terra Incognita | DW | 18.09.2007
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Greece: Exploring The Revival of Ancient Religious Traditions

Greece has been experiencing a resurgence of polytheism, the ancient belief in many gods. Its followers are causing a stir with ceremonies in old temples, in which they pay homage to the ancient gods from Apollo to Zeus.

Ellinais followers worship the ancient Greek gods

Ellinais followers worship the ancient Greek gods

On paper at least, 98 percent of the Greek population belong to orthodox religions -- and it's no coincidence. After all, the constitution names the Eastern Orthodox Church as the country's predominant religion.

But alternative forms of belief have been gaining ground in Greece. Ellinais -- or the Holy Association of Greek Ancient Religion Believers -- is at the forefront of this movement. It was founded in 2005 by a group of polytheists. Doreta Peppa is their spokeswoman and high priestess -- and accordingly an avid advocate of their belief.

"Our concern is to rekindle the light and revive the divine energy," Peppa says. "You can sense that it has pulled away from the Earth."

But according to Peppa, the movement faces much opposition.

"The popes accuse us of worshipping false gods and of Satanism," she says. "In the countryside, our followers have a lot of problems, especially since we were filmed by television. They don't dare to come here anymore."

No sympathy exists for this religious minority

At the Apollo Temple, some 30 kilometers outside of Athens, Peppa and the followers of the Olympic gods celebrated the summer solstice according to ancient rites -- legally. The police didn't get involved, the temple wasn't blocked off and no one came to harass them. Such incidents were more common in the past.

Zeus Tempel in Athen Griechenland

The Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens was once the largest temple in Greece

But the Greek state and a large part of the population by no means sympathize with the ideas of this religious minority. Though the gods of Olympus are a regular part of school instruction, they belong to Greek historical tradition and culture. Sociologist Sofia Peta believes this is precisely where the bone of contention lies.

"These ancient religions are reclaiming precisely that space which is held by the Greek-Orthodox church," Peta says. She says that both are part of the Greek identity.

"Both want to be considered the genuine expression of Hellenism and it matters who gains more ground," Peta says. "That is what troubles the Greek church, and the state doesn't want to risk a conflict with the church. So it buckles."

Greek-Orthodox church fears proselytism

Even though high priestess Peppa claims that Greek law has recognized Ellinais as a religion, this doesn't quite comply with the facts. All the same, the highest court granted Ellinais the status of a "cultural association based on religious grounds" in 2006.

Peppa and her fellow priests can now conduct marriages, baptisms and funerals according to ancient traditions. But in practice, this means they can at most burn a bit of incense in the temples, says ancient priest Giannis Kontopanis, an actor in his normal life.

Glaubensgemeinde Ellinais Bild 1

Ellinais worshippers follow ancient traditions

"I got married according to our rituals in Delos," Kontopanis says. "When I went to the town hall to register the marriage, I was told that I had to have either a civil or church ceremony. Neither my wedding nor my witnesses are recognized." Though married since 1990, authorities still consider him officially single.

"I don't understand it," Kontopanis says. "We're not hurting anyone, we worship our gods and we don't hide in dark cellars. Anyone can come here and watch what we do. We're not practicing proselytism."

Proselytism is actively recruiting someone for one's own belief. Even when the polytheist Kontopanis denies such efforts, this is precisely what the Greek-Orthodox church fears.

On the other hand, Ellinais and the other polytheistic groups are not true competition despite their media-effective appearances, especially in terms of numbers, says Father Gabriel, a Greek-Orthodox priest.

"Even so, the proselytism is a thorn in our side," says Father Gabriel. "If they want to worship their gods, they can't do it in Delphi or in the Acropolis. Those aren't cult sites anymore, but rather places of pilgrimage for tourists. Ellinais has to respect this."

The same note is struck at the Greek cultural ministry, which is very sensitive about this problem. Vivi Basilopoulou is an archeologist and shares the opinion that land marked sites are not suitable for accommodating religious ceremonies.

"We don't want to put obstacles in anyone's path,"Basilopoulou says. "But according to existing law, these temples are architectural monuments and such buildings are not suitable locations for ceremonies."

Not even the gods can help Ellinais

Father Gabriel isn't fazed by this reawakened ancient religion as competition. He doesn't believe that rituals adapted to modern tastes could seduce his lambs.

Karte Griechenland Athina

Athens is a major tourist attraction for its historic past

"If their message is up to today's reality, Ellinais will survive; if not, they'll disappear again," says Father Gabriel. "Christianity has such a long history precisely because it time and again has something new to say. Of course, love is not something completely new, but it is necessary in our world."

In their love to the ancient gods, Doreta Peppa and the indefinite number of Ellinais followers are in any case determined to keep fighting.

Peppa is encouraged by the official recognition of her organization and wants to travel through the country to bless even the smallest temples. Recognition as an official state religion remains extremely unlikely, though -- and not even the gods can help in this case.

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  • Author Angélique Kourounis (August 2007)
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  • Author Angélique Kourounis (August 2007)
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