'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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.