Avoiding cultural appropriation or Searching for the right name

Recently, some people who have noticed the Hellenic counter-attack to pagan colonialism approached me with the question «if it is okay» for them as non-Greeks to worship the Greek gods. They were honestly concerned; they «believe in the Greek gods,» as they put it, and just want to worship them. So they asked me if they are allowed to do so. As I understand it, they are searching for a way to worship the gods outside of the context of Hellenismos, while avoiding the appropriation of our ethnonym. One of them doesn’t want to call himself a pagan, so he asked me what he should call himself instead. As I said, they were honestly concerned and interested to hear my thoughts. It was a relatively short conversation. They brought specific questions about things they got wrong or content they didn’t understand. It occurred to me afterwards that my answers might be of interest to others, so here they are, in a very abridged version.

First of all, every man and every woman is free to worship whatever or whoever he or she wants. No Hellene I know of ever expressed the opinion that non-Greeks are not allowed to worship the gods. Nevertheless, I would respect such an opinion, and there are indeed cults exclusive to members of particular tribes only. Hellenic religion is structured on a regional basis, dominated by the respective local moment. Pan-Hellenic cults were the exception, not the rule, though, this is rather a matter of public cults, which differ from the household cult. But that is a completely different story.

Our concern is focused in particular on the appropriation of our ethnonym. It is offensive when people claim that they «practice Hellenismos» (when in fact they practice just another version of paganism or occultism). And quite frankly it is wrong: Hellenismos is not a «religion» you can practice today and abandon tomorrow. It is like saying: «I practice Japanese culture.» It just doesn’t make any sense. What does that mean in concrete terms? If something is not misrepresented as «Hellenism,» as Hellenismos is called in the Western world, and our ethnonym is not exploited to boost sales or deceive the public, it doesn’t concern us. It simply doesn’t concern us.

It only becomes our business when people drag our culture into whatever they are doing by pretending to be members of the Hellenic community or by spreading false claims about us. (I really can’t read sentences beginning with: «The Hellenes believe…» or: «The Hellenes do…» anymore.) If something is not misrepresented as «Hellenism,» if our culture and history is not exploited and distorted to serve political agendas, then it doesn’t harm us and therefore we have no reason to raise objection. People are, of course, allowed to worship the Greek gods, draw ideas and inspiration from Hellenic history and religion, build temples to their gods and find their own way in life. However, what they are not allowed to do is to usurp other people’s ethnonym, misrepresent their practices as something they are not and exploit or distort other people’s ethno-cultural identity, religion and language. And, of course, they are not allowed to speak on behalf of foreign communities. Not even I am allowed to speak on behalf of entire Hellenismos, since we all belong to different tribes. Actually this should be a matter of course. For a long time I thought it was. All this was before my encounter with Angloamerican paganism, occultism and white supremacy. The derivations of political, cultural and religious monotheism taught me better. Whatever the reasons, cultural appropriation is a declaration of war upon the people concerned. It is a depraved and corrupting practice at the same time, no matter what rationalization is used to justify it. But there is no common ground between cultural appropriation and the search for one’s own way to approach the sacred.

People should not feel guilty for worshipping the Greek gods, should not feel bad for learning from Greek philosophy, adapting Greek ethics, listening to Greek music, enjoying Greek cuisine or learning Greek. This is not cultural appropriation. Loving Greek mythology or feeling drawn to a specific god is not cultural appropriation. Cultural appreciation is not cultural appropriation. Cultural exchange is not cultural appropriation. It never was. People enjoying the cultural goods of Hellenism are not appropriating anything. Sabina Magliocco, Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, makes it very clear: «So cultural appropriation, the notion of cultural appropriation is itself rooted in consumer capitalism and in a Western notion that culture can be owned. That it is an object a commodity that can be owned. The second assumption in cultural appropriation is that the unauthorized use of cultural material deprives its owners of rights and benefits or harms them in other irreparable ways … So the unauthorized use of someone else’s culture either takes something away from them, which is rightfully theirs or harms them, for example, by promulgating harmful stereotypes, negative stereotypes … Cultural appropriation is always about power and it is not just about the transfer of cultures or the enjoyment of one culture by another culture … So if you are, for example, invited to a religious service that is not your own and you participate in that religious or spiritual service, that’s never cultural appropriation. Why? Because you are being invited as an outsider to participate in it … But then if you take elements of that service and you bring them to your spiritual practice without discussing it with the people who invited you, or if you take those elements and you then market them as authentic examples of extradition, then you are engaging in cultural appropriation because there’s no consent there. There’s no invitation. And without consent or invitation, it’s not appreciation anymore» [emphasis mine] («Cultural Appropriation in Neopagan and New Age Religions: A Conversation», Harvard Divinity School: Center for the Study of World Religions, December 1, 2021).

That brings us to the next question: what should people who worship the gods outside the Hellenic context call themselves? I don’t know. I would agree that people who don’t «work with deities,» but actually worship the gods in a virtuous manner are not pagans. Yet I don’t know what they should or could call themselves. Some suggest that perhaps «Theolatreia» (from theos = god and latreia = cult) would be the right term for them. But what if they worship the daimons and heroes too? Others say «polytheism» would make more sense. But «polytheism» leaves the animistic and cosmotheistic aspects completely outside. Besides, this term is surrounded by odd stereotypes and furthermore accentuates the artificial opposition between «to hen» (the One) and «he aoristos dyas» (the indefinite dyad) or the «henades» (the many unities or gods), which is alien to Hellenic culture, but predominantly present in the Western world. In the end, I think, this question can be satisfactorily answered only by the people concerned, since it is not up to us to come up with the right name. Only the people concerned can find out what is right for them and what term can properly express their religious identity. It is not our concern, and we are not responsible for the names people choose for themselves.

Anyway, worshipping the Greek gods outside the Hellenic context is in no way a transgression, it is just simply non-Hellenic. As long as people are honest about it, it’s fine. Why would we have a problem with that? Our problem is with people with behavioural issues who consciously ignore and refuse to accept the difference between worshipping the gods in the Greek way and worshipping them according to what feels right, presenting the two as facets of one and the same religion, in order to pursue their desires, regardless of the damages caused. But people who just want to worship the Greek gods without having the intention of exploiting, distorting, consuming Hellenic culture are not our enemies. They have no hostile intentions towards Hellenic people, don’t deny the genocide of the Greek people, don’t attempt to squeeze us into the narrative of «Western civilization» and haven’t given notice of any intention to «correct» us into them or their notion of «the ancient Greeks.» They go their own way in life and seem to respect our self-determination. We have no problem with that, no problem with people worshipping our gods, never had. It doesn’t affect our lives, so why bother with it?

How someone labels or misrepresents his religiosity, is where appropriation enters the picture. Yet to some, it is somehow hard to identify the line between their legitimate religious practice and cultural appropriation. Hence, I have added the image below to the article. The image shows how one can worship the Greek gods, whilst avoiding the appropriation of Hellenismos. Far more importantly, however, is that it highlights the fundamental distinction between the pure, joyful want to adore or show reverence to the gods and the toxic phenomenon of cultural appropriation. I think the underlying message is obvious, but I would like to make it clear once and for all: the pious worship of the Greek gods is not cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is not the pious worship of the Greek gods.