Hellenic religion, cosmotheism and polytheism

Hellenic religion is not only «polytheism.» I consciously avoid using the term «polytheism,» since it’s surrounded by odd stereotypes. In addition to that, I avoid calling myself a «polytheist.» Polytheism refers to religion, but the Hellenes are not a religion or religious community. We are an ethnicity. It would be irrational to reduce a whole ethnicity to a «religious community.» I am a Hellene, and I practice my ancestral religion, because I am Hellenic. Not because I am a «polytheist.»

The core or special character of Hellenic religion lies in its cosmotheism, i.e. the relationship between the gods and the cosmos. The term «cosmotheism» is a recent construction. It describes a religious conception or notion of the universe as an eternal wholeness. According to this view, the cosmos is beginningless or arose out of itself. Its laws come from within.

However, the cosmos is permeated by a principle that is superior to the will of the gods. This principle is called in Hellenismos moira (fate), ananke (necessity) or heimarmene (causal determinism). Consequently, in cosmotheism, the cosmos itself takes on the central role and also ranks above the gods in importance.

The gods did not create the universe, they just gave order to the world, united the various primordial substances into the cosmos.

«έθυον δε πάντα πρότερον οι Πελασγοί θεοίσι επευχόμενοι, ως εγώ εν Δωδώνηι οίδα ακούσας, επωνυμίην δε ουδ’ ούνομα εποιεύντο ουδενί αυτών, ου γαρ ακηκόεσάν κω. Θεούς δε προσωνόμασαν σφέας από του τοιούτου ότι κόσμωι θέντες τα πάντα πράγματα και πάσας νομάς είχον.» (Herodotus, 2.52)

Translation:

«Formerly, in all their sacrifices, the Pelasgians called upon gods without giving name or appellation to any (I know this, because I was told at Dodona); for as yet they had not heard of such. They called them gods from the fact that, besides setting everything in order, they maintained all the dispositions.»

Theos/θεός, the Greek word for god, means «disposer,» and is connected with thesmos/θεσμός (law, ordinance) and tithemi/τίθημι (put, place). Cosmos, on the other hand, means «jewel, order, ornament, decoration.» The verb «kosmein,» or kosmizei (Contemporary Greek), means «dispose, order, arrange.» And kosmiotita is the virtue that describes appropriate behaviour (propriety), good manners. This is not a coincidence, since all aretai (virtues) are celestial properties translated into Human, as Vlassis G. Rassias used to say.

The cosmos is the Alpha and Omega of Hellenic religion. When I look to the skies, I feel awe. It is a religious, sacred experience. I adore this well-ordered wholeness. There is no creation, no mercy, no divine plan – only this endless vastness.

The question some may ask now is, «What about the gods? Hellenes worship many gods, that makes you polytheists.» Yes. And no. In Hellenism we have both, the One and the Many. The gods are multiplied oneness, and there is no One without Many, and no Many without One. There is no kind of antagonism between the categories One and Many in Hellenic ontology. On the contrary, «the essences of the gods are neither generated; for eternal natures are without generation; and those beings are eternal who possess a first power … nor are they separated from the first cause, or from each other; in the same manner as intellections are not separated from intellect, nor sciences from the soul» (Sallustios, Ch. II).

One last thing. The term «polytheism» carries in itself centuries of misunderstanding, for instance the notion of the gods as persons or beings with male and female properties. Till this very day people still believe that the mythoi (mythology) and eusebeia (piety or religion) are one and the same thing. Or that the myths are revelations. Or that Homeros‘ Ilias and Odysseia are «holy scriptures.» When you tell them, that your gods are not «prosopa» [personal gods], but impersonal, asexual «onta» [beings], they look at you like you are from a different planet. Or even try to «correct» you. That’s why I avoid the term «polytheist.» It reproduces stereotypes, but much more importantly it is simply not able to speak to what I consider the heart of my religion.

Sometimes I shake my head when I hear or read what Hellenes supposedly believe. In real life I want to avoid getting involved in arguments, because my personal experience has been that it leads nowhere. It’s lost time. People have their opinions. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what they think, after all I am not responsible for the content of their mind. This is the lesson I have learned from many discussion over the years: Let them have their opinions. Let yourself have your own.