'The ancient gods of Greece are not extinct'

James Head gives his personal interpretation of the Greek Polytheist religion in the 21st Century

An ancient Athenian was once asked where his altars of Zeus, Herkios and Agathos Daemon were located. His answer was to give the address of his home, adding that: ".... and I am worshiping there as my ancestors have before me".

Estimates of the followers of the ancient religion in Greece vary between 1 and 2% of the population which translates to somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 followers. However, the memberships of the various "organised groups" in Greece is very small and does not reflect these estimates in any way.

A reason for this is that many people who follow the Gods see it as a personal relationsip with the Gods and pray and worship in the privacy of their own homes with family or friends. Another factor has been discrimation in Greece over the years which has kept many followers "in the closet". Happily this discrimination has dissipated greatly since Greece became a full member of the EU and many followers are now "coming out".

Some people ask me whether I am trying to convert people to my faith. Nothing could be further from my mind. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said that everybody naturally thinks that their own God, (or Gods!) and religion is the best - so why bother to try to convert people?

People's faith is largely an accident of birth although a relatively small number of people change faiths during their lives. If you were born in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to Saudi parents, then there's a very good chance that you will be a Muslim and the same applies if you were born in the Bible belt of America, you are likely to be Christian.

The same applies to the billion Hindus in the world. Trying to change people from one faith to another has caused hostility, prejudice, intolerance and war throughout the ages and still does today. The most important thing is simply to be a good human being and to live peacefully in respectful tolerance with other people.

I am definitely not trying to "convert" anyone from their chosen faith to follow Apollo. However, there are many many people these days (especially younger people) that seem to have no faith at all in the divine or any other spiritual awaresness. In these circumstances I only wish to make these people aware that there are many "faiths" in the world they could explore, and this "still" includes the worship of the ancient Gods of Greece such as Apollo. This is not an extinct religion.

As a follower of Apollo for over 18 years I have no need to be a member of a religious organistion, with man-made dogmas and practice, since like that old Athenian mentioned above I can worship in my own home and in my own simple way.

Nevertheless, spiritual isolation is not much fun and so recently, some Greek friends who live in England and I started "Greek Gods UK" which is an informal network of friends who arrange occassional "get togethers" for social dialogue and a simple communial ritual.

The advice of the ancient Greek poet Pindar (518 - 438 b.c.) has special importance to me when it comes to our relationships with the Gods and religious practice. Pindar talks about the dea of “phillea”, that is, the idea of a personal "friendship" with our chosen God. We are lucky in that we can enjoy this special friendly relationship with our God and pray to Apollo as we would talk to a close and respected friend.

We can pray simply and intimately, and have no need to pray in fear. I would say we were very lucky in this respect. Pindar also talks about the idea of a special place (sacred place) where we go regularly (perhaps monthly) to be close to our God such as a park, or by a beautiful lake when we need to be particularly close to our Gods.

It is also very important to have a special place in our homes, where we might turn our thoughts to the Gods more regularly. Sacrifice and offerings such as libation (the pouring of wine) is an important part of our worship. This pouring of wine is a symbolic offering - we do not of course believe that the Gods drink the wine when it is poured. As I have said there is a tendency among followers to see the Gods as good and special friends who don’t need expensive presents or people to show off about how much they paid say for the wine.

It's the same with Apollo, some wine poured on the ground at our “sacred place” is appreciated by the God as a personal offering as much as a lot of pomp and show, well at least in my opinion and the opinion of Pindar.

Knowledge of all sorts is seen positively by us, but the reading of our many ancient texts such as the tragedies helps us with religious enlightenment. One thing which does amuse me is that a few small minded people criticise us because we are "not people of a book" when the truth is that we had so many books on various subjects; indeed libraries full of them.

Many people refer to us as "pagans" which is not really a "label" I am entirely comfortable with since of course the ancient Greeks never called themselves pagans. It is a derogative post Christian word of Latin / Roman origin put on worshipers of some non-Christian faiths. The word is derived from 'paginus' meaning peasant or country bumpkin in the derogatory sense of the word. Ancient Greek science, art, theatre and philosophical thought was hardly the stuff of country bumpkins...

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.