'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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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue