Reasons For Paganism’s Obsession With Hellenism

I recently read a paper by classicist Sarah Iles Johnston titled Whose Gods are These? A Classicist Looks at Neopaganism, which I recommend all Hellenes and Hellenists to read (you will find the link to the article at the bottom of this page). It demonstrates with clarity the reason why neopaganism, especially its American form, tends to imagine Greek culture, especially Greek religion in accordance with Christian categories. Johnston describes this as «a tendency within neopaganism to model their new religions upon precisely those that they have rejected, particularly Christianity» (p. 128).

This is, of course, not a new discovery, particularly in view of the fact that paganism has arisen from occultism which in turn has arisen from Western Christianity, but, nonetheless, the explanation given by Johnston highlights the cultural specificity of American neopaganism. In order to take insight into paganism’s mentality or «imagination» (as Cornelius Castoriadis called a social framework of values and principles), one must take its culturally determined context into account. This is also important as regards the culture of cultural appropriation in neopaganism, for it is this framework that justifies and rationalizes the colonial attitude that is so typical of paganism.

Furthermore, the text explains why some American pagans and occultists think that Hellenismos, or Hellenism as it is called in the Anglo-American world, is their culture, too. Indeed, the Greek gods and their myths are especially popular in paganism. They have «familiar faces» and have become an integral part of pop culture. They seem to belong to the West. According to Johnston this is mainly due to the Renaissance poets and dramatists and their reception of Greek mythology, making the myths accessible to the West. Then came «Walt Disney, John Updike and the History Channel» (p. 131). That, however, has created some confusion regarding the Greek gods. «They seem to belong to everyone and therefore to no one in particular» (p. 131). Yet, the author offers a very clear and far more problematic answer with regard to the question to whom they «belong.» But in all fairness, we cannot expect scholars to take the Hellenic perspective.

Johnston’s arguments are quite plausible and therefore worthy of consideration, although she makes the mistake that many of her American colleagues make, namely interpreting, or rather misjudging, Hellenismos as «the revival of ancient Greek religious practices,» a «form of neopaganism» (p. 123, 129), ignoring the fact that Hellenismos and paganism are differentiated from each other culturally, historically, and by time, since paganism emerged from occultism, which is a by-product of Western Christianity. Hellenismos, on the other hand, is a Mediterranean culture that emerged from the commingling of Mycenaean, Minoan and other Helladic cultures. But it is still common to mistake revitalization or even re-indigenization for neopaganism, even in academic environments. The good news is there are researchers who learn to differentiate between these two cultural phenomena. Apart from this, the paper is well thought out and can help advance our understanding of the pagan problem.

Whose Gods are These? A Classicist Looks at Neopaganism by Sarah Iles Johnston