'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 decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era