There are a plethora of resources online for Hellenic reconstructionists and other modern people who want to worship the ancient Greek gods. However, some information might not be the most accurate or relevant for beginning a ritual practice. It’s even possible that people who already have established practices might be working from misunderstandings of the textual evidence of the traditions. One person who knows a good deal about these issues is Martiana. Martiana translates ancient texts and has a breadth of knowledge of classics. She is translating Hesiod’s Theogony and crowdfunding it on Patreon. I came upon her website Sartrix on Twitter in 2022. There are a number of posts about ancient Hellenism and Platonism, some of which I perused. One of the blog posts that I read addresses the issue of worshiping the gods and the interpretations that have become commonplace. I reached out to her and she agreed to do an interview on this topic. The interview follows. It should be noted that Martiana answers the questions in her own order in her response. It was tempting to just use her answers, and let them stand alone. However, it might not always be clear what the answers are responding to despite references to parts of them. I included the original questions because without them, it might not be clear exactly what was being asked.
MSA: The lines hekas, hekas, este bebeloi are mentioned in some online resources as being a phrase to read during purification prior to a ritual. What are some more appropriate and historically accurate phrases to use?
M: Let me answer your questions in what seems to me their logical order. Firstly, since you ask my advice for new practitioners, I do not recommend using Ancient Greek (or any other ancient language) in prayer unless you already have a little familiarity with it. I think some people see using ancient languages as a path to authenticity, but that is only so if you take the time to study. Besides, there are not really set prayers like the Our Father anyway. The simplest petitions are enough: “O immortal gods, help me!” Elaborate and specify as needed. Or, if you want to make an offering of words, there are many ancient hymns that have been translated into English and other modern languages, and not a small number written by contemporary practitioners.
MSA: For people that don’t have the condtions, do you think it’s ok to incorporate their sacred space, offerings, disposal of offerings, and so forth in their own manner, based on circumstances?
M: Prayer and hymning are the simplest offerings, I think, and they can be offered in silence too. Everything else must depend on people’s circumstances, as you suggest. If you can build a house shrine in the ancient manner, a sort of miniature temple housing images of the gods, that is wonderful; but if you have a Christian-style home altar (set up on a table, shelf, mantle or the like), that is perfectly good, too. If you have no “sacred space” at all, you can still worship: a vase of flowers, an incense stick, water poured into the soil, flowers left beside a tree, these are all reverent offerings.
MSA: Many Neopagans do their own thing when it comes to how they worship the Greek and Roman gods. Some people seem to think it might be important to follow a traditional ritual form for a number of reasons, beyond the regularity and discipline it instills. Do you think that following forms of Hellenic Reconstructionism based on 4th BCE classical Athens is helpful or necessary?
M: This leads us to another of your questions: “Many Neopagans do their own thing”, you say, while others “seem to think it might be important to follow a traditional ritual form for a number of reasons, beyond the regularity and discipline it instills. Do you think that following forms of Hellenic Reconstructionism based on 4th century BCE classical Athens is helpful or necessary?” I believe there is an invalid presupposition here, that offering according to your means and circumstances, with prayers in your own words, is “doing your own thing” as opposed to “tradition”—when of course the ancients often made simple, informal offerings, too. And while in theory, “following a traditional ritual form” is commendable, there are no ancient handbooks on household worship that survive, if any were ever written to begin with. So, any reconstruction of (for instance) classical Athenian customs involves a great deal of speculation, and is in consequence more traditional in aspiration than in reality. The best thing in my view is to read ancient literature; and not just what your community recommends, but stuff you find for yourself, or that group will become an echo chamber. You can get a good sense for the flexibility of ritual and beliefs through a little random reading. If you only read instructions from modern practitioners, on the other hand, you might easily get the sense that worship must follow some one strict and complicated protocol—which is almost sure to actually be ahistorical.
MSA: You mention in your post that one writer from late antiquity doesn’t say to use khernips. Why do you think that this matters? What does it indicate about khernips? Are khernips necessary?
M: A case in point is khernips, or “hand-washing water”. Several websites will tell you that this is “lustral water”, which must be specially prepared, and that you must wash your hands with it before any ritual, while saying the words “hekas hekas este bebeloi”. In reality, however, khernips is just water. The requirement repeated by many ancient writers is simply to wash your hands, as most of us already do several times each day, and there are no words that must be spoken during this quotidian act of purification (certainly not the ones just quoted, which are not even ancient at all). There are more elaborate rituals that serve the same purpose, and these might involve specially prepared substances or incantations, but that is for specific occasions.
MSA: 1)Do you think it’s important to worship Zeus Ktesios, Apollon Aigyeon, Hestia, and others in the unnamed days using the Attic calendar?
2) Why do you think the oikos had very specific forms of Olympians and other minor deities, while temples and external forms focused on the most famous gods?
M: Now, let us come to the gods. You ask whether it is “important to worship Zeus Ktesios, Apollon Agyieus, Hestia” and other such deities of the household, and why “the oikos had very specific forms of Olympians and other minor deities, while temples and external forms focused on the most famous gods?” Well, this is not really the case. Zeus was worshipped under many bynames, by which his powers, temples, and forms of worship could be distinguished. Are these different “forms” of Zeus, just on account of the names? That is a theological question, and one which many ancient writers do not even consider—including Pausanias, who hands down more information about the gods’ bynames than anyone else. For most purposes, anyway, Zeus Ktesios is Zeus, just as Zeus Olympios (who had a temple in Athens) is Zeus. It is because he is one of “the most famous gods” that he was worshipped both in many temples and private households, while what you call “minor” gods were worshipped in few temples and few households. Of course, there might also be gods specially presiding over the home, as there are certain gods presiding over the woods and rivers, to the fields and mills, to the labor bed, or the cemetery. But this is not the same as the premise of your question.
That out of the way, is it important to worship the particular gods you mentioned in the household? No, what is really important is to worship the gods, any gods, and then those will be your household deities. If Zeus Ktesios, Hestia and so on speak to your needs and living situation, by all means turn to them, but remember that we do not have very thorough knowledge of how they were actually venerated in classical Athens. Any ritual templates you see are educated guesses, and often miseducated ones, and we tend to presuppose a lot more homogeneity than there was. Plenty of ancient people were living in rented accommodations without a hearth, for instance, and we have no idea whether they also worshipped Hestia or how.
MSA: Recently, John Opsopaus published a work on Plethon, a Renaissance Platonist. It seems that in Plethon’s view, one should bow three times and recite adorations to the Olympians, Titans and other gods, and Zeus. What is your view on these later innovations, and do you think Plethon had access to sources we no longer have in creating his system?
M: Finally, you asked about the 15th-century philosopher Plethon. I think the ceremonies he prescribes are no worse than any others, but they do reflect his quite idiosyncratic theology, so if you do not subscribe to that, I am not sure how satisfying his ritual system is. As for whether he had *some* ancient sources now lost, it is not impossible that he did. But sources that gave him substantial information about ancient theology and ritual which he put to use in his own work? No. There is no reason to think so.
This interview was conducted through instant messaging.
Martiana’s social media can be found on Twitter at @SartrixMartiana
- A Hellenic ritual takes place outdoors. Photo by Midjourney. Prompt: ancient Greeks in white tunics and cloaks participate in a ritual to the ancient Greek gods at an outdoor altar in 5th century bce Greece. Username:@david.k9
- An ancient Greek woman sits at a fire in a house. Photo by Midjourney. Prompt: an ancient greek woman in a toga kindles a fire in the hearth of an athenian home in the 4th century BCE. Username: @david.k9
David has studied traditional astrology since 2014. The Bay Area native completed Chris Brennan’s Introduction to Hellenistic Astrology course, and attended courses taught by Austin Coppock, Nina Gryphon, and Ryhan Butler. He is interested in exploring the less well known aspects of astrology, divination, and spirituality.