by Stilian Korovilas
In this short text, I would like to share some of my ideas on the more fundamental differences between universal and ethnic religions, also known as indigenous religions, that have been on my mind for a long time because they concern my ancestral religion, too.
When it comes to worship, the main difference between ethnic and universal religions is found in the relation to god. Which gods do we worship and why? Generally speaking, in universal religions, which are in majority faith-based religions, people choose to believe in some specific god, they choose or «feel drawn» or «called» to a godhead, a concept that is foreign to Hellenes. In ethnic religions, the question of worship is determined by birth: you worship the gods of your family, clan and tribe. You sacrifice to your hearth’s gods (theoi ephestioi), as we Hellenes say. In the case of Hellenism, there are, of course, some pan-Hellenic gods or cults, but Hellenic religion is in general structured around the local and regional situation, which in turn explains the natural diversity of this and all the other ethnic religions. The sum of all Hellenic rites and cults (household, public, mystery) constitutes the phenomenon we call «Hellenic religion.»
The rites you perform connect you to your ancestors and the land around you; they are part of your people’s culture of memory, permeate your contact to the world, the perception of yourself. While sacrificing, you feel close to your ancestors, your beloved grandmother, your strong grandfather. Although we belong to the same ethnicity, we all have different parents, belong to different clans, tribes, speak different dialects, live or come from different places with different historico-cultural backgrounds, gods and unique mores. In ethnic religions, people are born into an already existing network of relations between the living, the ancestors and the gods. The ethnosphere is colourful and diverse, at both macro and micro level.
There are tribal gods, local gods, worshipped only in a specific geographic region, pan-Hellenic gods and gods that can be considered universalist, though I would like to avoid this term if possible, since it reminds me of some unpleasant attitudes respectively entitlement mentality. For example, the main god of the Pontic Hellenes of Trapezounta is Zeus Stratios and Soter, the main god of the Athenians is, as we all know, Pallas Athena; Athenians and Pontioi belong to the same tribe, the Ionians. A Pontic Hellene, nevertheless, has no reason to worship the Athenian city-god unless he lives in Athens. It just would not make any sense and honestly I am not obliged to honor other people’s gods.
Our gods are the gods of our clans. This is another specific but often neglected characteristic of ethnic religions: they are collectivistic, just as their cultures. In western societies humans are considered as persons or individuals. In collectivistic cultures, however, people are defined by their relations to other people, above all to their family and clan members. The strong emphasis on the social dimension and the feeling of duty toward ones family were the primary sources of the political systems of the Greek states, whether democratic or aristocratic.
Ethnic religions are not religions in the western sense of the word, but rather a conglomerate of practices, rules and traditional views, an integral part of ones ethno-cultural identity and quality of life; you cannot separate the cult from your everyday life – at least not completely, since it is also your value system and even part of your people’s particular political order. It mingles with your being just like the sweet scents of frankincense with the fresh morning air coming from the mountains. The ancestral cults are interwoven with every aspect of a person’s life, with the language we dream in, the words we choose when speaking to other people. This kind of religion is not faith. There is no revelation, no prophets, no creation of the world out of nothing, which is typical for monotheistic religions. The god of monotheism is a person or, to be more precisely, a personal god. He creates the cosmos by will and is not subject to any law.
Ethnic religions, on the other side, are usually cosmotheistic. This means, the world itself stands in the centre of consideration. The term cosmotheism describes a worldview in which the world is no creation, but was always there or emerged by itself. Either way, the demiurgic cause lies within the universe. The gods themselves, impersonal and neuter, are subject to an eternal law that is known in Hellenismos as moíra (fate), anánke (necessity) or heimarméne (predetermined cause). The monotheistic godhead is one and unique, the ethnic one is polymorphic. In Hellenismos, the sacred is diversity in unity, the gods multiplicity of oneness.
Many ethnic Hellenes know both perspectives. I cannot speak for all Hellenes, but personally, I feel whole when I practice «eiothótos,» i.e. according to the ancestral custom. Rites are not arbitrary, not subjected to the dictates of feelings, likes and dislikes. This is definitely a factor of stability, especially when you are in a phase of transition, from the conqueror’s culture to that of your ancestors, and you have the wind in your face.
There are moments in the household worship when you truly realize that you are a link in a chain of lives, part of the cosmos, a being in Being; it is a time when the veil falls from your mortal eyes, enabling you to see the sacredness of home, community and family. This may be the most important lesson I have learned in Hellenismos.
As the name suggests, ethnic religions are ethnic in nature, meaning they concern specific groups of people. They do not proselytise or force themselves unto others. They shape their people’s identity, are bound to them and their habitat, but at the same time they speak to all of humanity and everything that makes us humans, because they contain man’s primary collective experience, the primordial «reflection» or «impact» of reality on the psyche of the first humans. «Ethnic religions, or as some better informed people prefer to call them ‹natural› religions, were, are and will always be the only natural religious manifestation of humanity, of humanity as a whole, united by its diversity. Thus understood in the singular number precisely because of this unity through diversity, the ethnic religion turns out to be panhuman, but non-equalizing, non-monolithic, non-leveling and therefore in accordance with nature, that is, multifaceted, dialectical and sound» (Vlassis G. Rassias, taken from the foreword to his Greek book The Great Lexicon of European Polytheism, Vol. I, Athens 2018).
- The Albert Team: Ethnic vs. Universalizing Religions: AP® Human Geography Crash Course, in: AP Human Geography, June 1, 2020, last time checked: August 5, 2021.
- Chris Park: Religion and geography, in: Lancaster University, 2004, last time checked: August 5, 2021.