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Letter From Greece: The Gods Return to Olympus Volume 58 Number 1, January/February 2005
by Matthew Brunwasser

In today's Greece, worshiping Zeus is a controversial practice.

[image] Tryphon Olympios, founder of the Return of Hellenes movement, presides over a baby-naming ceremony at the foot of Mount Olympus. (© Christos Liatsis) [LARGER IMAGE]

For some modern Greeks and a growing number of foreigners, conventional ways of embracing Greece's rich past are insufficient. A perusal of Herodotus or an excursion to the Acropolis lack the personal satisfaction of participating in something larger than oneself. They want to live according to ancient ways, and to bring those ways to life through themselves.

There is no way to confirm the number of followers, but leaders of the very loosely organized movement, commonly referred to as the Hellenes or the Dodecatheon, after the 12 gods of the Greek pantheon, say there are maybe 2,000 hard-core practicing followers, and perhaps 100,000 nationwide who are open to the ideas and pursue some sort of interest. The movement has two main goals: to introduce a reformed version of ancient Greek religion, philosophy, and values to modern Greek society; and to curb the enormous power of the Greek Orthodox Christian Church. Many of the Hellenes' values are based on secular ancient Greek principles. Their mission is spread through self-published books, the Internet, and, on a more local level, discussion groups, courses in ancient Greek, and field trips to archaeological sites. Religious ceremonies and rituals are held both in groups and by individuals, at home and in public. The liturgical texts are largely based on Orphic hymns--invocations to the gods attributed to the mythical singer--and other ancient poetry. Some followers have small statues of the 12 gods on their living room shelves at home. One family allegedly has a miniature indoor temple.

But in both scholarly approach and purpose, the return of the Hellenes elicits only skepticism from scholars. "In my opinion, it is impossible for a modern society to go back to the 'ancient ways' of any kind," says Aristotelis Mentzos, an early Byzantine archaeologist at Thessaloniki University. "They sound like old well-to-do ladies musing about how much worse modern society is and how much better it used to be in the 'good old days.'"

Matthew Brunwasser is an investigative journalist based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America