Paganism without the blood
One of the good things about working on ancient “pagan” religion is that no one actually believes in it any more. (“Pagan” here is in inverted commas, of course, because it wasn’t a term people ever used of themselves: it was a term of semi-abuse from the Christian camp, and probably meant something like “hick” or “hillbilly”.)
It’s easy to debate paganism because you’re not always looking over your shoulder at a community of contemporary believers. Whenever I try to teach the “rise of Christianity” with a group of undergraduates – did economics underlie it? the institutional support of the emperor Constantine? – I’m always horribly aware that part of the group doesn’t really think it’s a question worth asking. For them the obvious reason that Christians won out against the pagans was that their religion was true. Simple as that.
In contrast, paganism is a teacher’s joy. You can dissect it as fiercely as you like. You can even claim that Zeus, Aphrodite and co. did not actually exist, without fear of being arraigned on a charge of incitement to religious hatred.
Or so I thought. But last week a group of modern Athenians, dressed in ancient Greek costume (so they claimed), descended on the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, prayed to Zeus to bring about world peace and held a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of Zeus and Hera. A few months before they had gained official recognition as a religious organization from the Greek government.
At first sight not good news for me. But on closer inspection I needn’t have worried.
It isn’t entirely clear what this group (“Ellenais”) believes; but it is clear that, whatever they say, it bears very little relationship to ancient Greek religion. You can tell that already from the rather charming prayer to Zeus to bring about world peace. From an ancient point of view, whatever myths are peddled about the “Olympic Truce”, there could hardly be a less likely divine candidate for putting a stop to war in the world.
So far as I can tell they have rather airy fairy ideas about living in tune with nature under the pagan gods (as well as asking Zeus for peace, they put in an additional pleas for rain) – again not something that bona fide paganism put much stress on.
More crucial though is what’s missing from this religious revival. True, the worshippers last week poured a libation of wine and incense over a copper tripod. But where was the animal sacrifice?
As almost everyone who studies ancient Greek religion insists, the key centre of the whole religious system was sacrifice: it was the ritual of killing and sharing the animal that was, if anything, the “article of faith” that defined the ancient community of worshippers. And it was through sacrifice (rather than ecology) that ancient Greeks conceptualized their own place in the world – distinct from animals on the one hand and the superhuman gods on the other.
Until these eager neo-pagans get real and slaughter a bull or two in central Athens, I shan’t worry that they have much to do with ancient religion at all. At the moment, this is paganism lite.