Worshipping the ancient Greek Gods

The different gods of Ancient Greek polytheism and how they are worshipped

What makes me a Greek polytheist today in the twenty first century, is exactly what made an ancient Greek a worshiper of the Hellenic Pantheon.

Greek polytheism today has to follow an a long-established pattern and the blueprint of our religious practise is the sacrifice, the offering.

The sacrifice played an important role in Greek religious devotion, which was practised and repeated more than once a day by a Greek polytheist and involved more than one divinity. There were the state’s sacrifices in honour of the city state's main divinities and their cults as well as the private sacrifices in honour of the household gods, the family ancestors and the demes’ heroes and local gods. So, which of these two aspects of religious practices was the most essential in the ancient times and how does this apply today?

In order to answer that question we should first visit the ancient world and try to step into the shoes of an ancient Greek citizen at a specific location in Greece. We must not overlook the fact that every community had its own divinities to worship and every altar and / or temenos had its own cult.

On the basis of this fact Greek polytheism was an extremely diverse religion in its notion and practice.

There were not just twelve gods but, on the contrary, thousands of divinities worshiped throughout ancient Greece.

For that reason, I will select a citizen of the Erchia Demes, located near the area of the new international airport of Athens.

Erchia provides us evidence of its religious calendar, in which we can see what our ancient friend worshiped every single day throughout the year. He had the opportunity to be involved in sacrifices for statewide divinities, such as Athena Polias, gods of small distance districts, Demeter Eleusinia, local deities, Epops, Menedeius and Heroines and Pan-Hellenic gods such as Apollo Pythios. But what the calendar does not refers to is the most essential aspect of our Erchian friend: his household's religious activity.

Household worship is indeed what makes an individual a part of his community, is the alpha and omega of the Greek polytheism. It is not just the local demes’, Pan-Hellenic and state-wide divinities that he should or could worship, but it is also the everyday worship of his household divinities and of his ancestors.

Zeus Kteseios, Zeus Herkeios, Apollo Agyeus and Herakles Apotropaios were the deities of an Athenian oikos (domicile). The performance of the necessary rituals of the household divinities by the household keepers was not just a matter of responsibility but an identification of his status as a legitimate member of the society. If we had to ask him where his estate is, we should query as follows: where is your Zeus Herkeios?

The worship in the oikos was a part of the everyday life. Sacrifices were offered on numerous occasions such as daily meal, demes and polis’ festivities and family celebrations, symposiums etc. Household worship, therefore, is the only connection with the modern Greek polytheism today. Whilst, state and community’s cults were optional, on several occasions, the Greek domestic religion was obligatory. Household religion remains today the main religious practise for every single Greek polytheist.

Today that community and state cannot hold such communal Greek divinities and cults, I feel that the household worship is the only practice of contemporary Greek polytheism which can be still linked with the ancient Greek religiosity at Erchia and anywhere else in ancient Greece.

Nikolaos Markoulakis holds degrees in Social sciences and Social research. He is the director of the Markoulakis Publications, editor-in-chief at the scholarly based, peer-reviewed Journal of Hellenic Religion and the educational periodical Sparta.
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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