by Amanda Artemisia Forrester
From her forthcoming work, Journey to Olympos: A Modern Spiritual Odyssey
As it was explained in the first chapter, Hellenismos is an orthopraxic religion. The beliefs of an individual took a back seat to ritual practice in community. Even the Gods considered to be the Twelve Olympians varied from city to city, but the basic structure of ritual remained very similar.
Greek religion is based on the concept of Kharis, reciprocation. The Gods give to us, so we give back to them. This is not a form of bribery, but of thankfulness. We do not grovel before the Gods, debasing ourselves and begging forgiveness for minor sins. Greek Pagans, like our spiritual ancestors, approach the Gods with our feet planted and our heads held high. We are not on equal terms, for mortals can never be equal with the Divine. But we are not worms begging for attention. There is no original sin, so we have to reason to feel ashamed for simply be what we are.
But it is important to remember that our existence alone is not enough to earn the admiration and love of the Gods. The love of the Gods is earned, through dedication and good works. They may see potential in us, as individuals, but belief in the Gods is not enough. There is more to an orthopraxic religion such as that of the Greeks then warm fuzzy feelings towards Deity.
Ritual is important. Ritual brings us closer to the Gods. It draws Their attention to us, and brings Them into our minds and consciousness. The act of giving offerings to the Gods, the thusia or sacrifice, is the basic act of Greek ritual, around which everything else revolved. We can never truly repay the Gods for everything They do for us, so it is important not to look at offerings as a tit-for-tat kind of deal. The offering acknowledges the Divinity of the Gods and shows our desire to give them something in return.
Those coming from a Neo-Pagan background may not recognize many of the steps for Hellenic ritual. There are many elements unique to Greek culture. There is no casting of the circle, no calling of the elements. Although our system of elements – Fire, Water, Earth and Air – comes from Greece, it was not an part of ritual, but rather a theory of philosophy.
A Few Basic Tools
Hellenic ritual requires a few basic tools, most of which are simple to obtain from your average supermarket.
Besides being the basic Greek offering, barley was also considered to be a purifying force, along the lines of khernips. The knife used in sacrifice was stored in a basket of barley to be carried in the procession to the temple, and sprinkled on the altar before it began.
Washing your hands and face with khernips, or lustral water, is absolutely essential element to Hellenic ritual. Khernips is simple to create. Traditionally the water used came from a pure source such as a free-flowing river or stream. But truly pure water can be hard to find these days. The main body of water near my home, the St. Joe River, is notoriously polluted, and therefore unfit for khernips. It is common knowledge here that it is not a good idea to go swimming in the river, so why would we use it for spiritual purification? I try to use bottled water, but in a pinch even tap water is perfectly acceptable.
It was then consecrated by a priest by dipping a burning branch into it, or on occasion mixed with salt. You can extinguish a burning twig or stick of incense in it. Rosemary is standard, but any stick of burning incense will do, especially if the scent is related to the God you are doing the ritual for. If the ritual is for Apollo, I often light laurel leaves and drop them directly into the khernips bowl, where they are allowed to float. You can say a prayer, something along the lines of “Blessed God, Pure Apollo, who dwells on Olympos, consecrate and make pure this water, so that I, [your name] may be cleansed”, or this can be done in contemplative silence.
Incense is another simple offering that is very cheap, but is indispensable. Of the five senses, scent is the most powerfully connected to memory. Humans, like all animals, respond powerfully to scent. Oftentimes our reactions are not entirely or even partially conscious. The smell of incense does much to enhance the religious experience. The smell itself is an traditional Greek offering. The pleasing smell wafts upward, carrying the scent to Olympos for the Gods to enjoy.
Frankincense is the general offering appropriate to all the Gods, but there are many different scents that can personalize the ritual. Rose and myrrh for Aphrodite, bay for Apollo, hyssop or gum ammoniac for Zeus, etc. For a more detailed God-by-God list of incense offerings, see Appendix I.
Wine is one of the best bloodless offerings for the Gods. Wine is enjoyed by nearly all of Them, excluding Demeter. Although wine can be offered to the Gods of the Underworld, such as Haides, Persephone, and Hekate, it is important to remember that wine is never offered to the spirits of the dead. It need not be costly. A 5-liter box of wine lasts a long time and is usually cheaper then the bottled variety.
Olive oil is an excellent all-purpose offering, appropriate for all the Gods, including those few that would not accept wine and for the hallowed dead. It is doubly appropriate for Athena, the Goddess who gave the olive to Her city of Athens. In the ancient world, and in modern Greek cooking, spices were often mixed in with olive oil. Perhaps you could mix herbs or spices appropriate to the God you are offering the olive oil to.
A libation is a liquid offering to the Gods. The way a libation is offered depends on the Gods it is being offered to. A libation to the Olympic Gods is poured out steadily in a continuous stream. Khthonic libations, called a khoe, are dumped out onto the ground.
Common libations are wine, olive oil, honey and pure water. Having bowls to pour a libation into is very helpful, as you can our the libation inside, during a ritual, and then dispose of it later. Simple wine glasses are suitable and can be obtained for only a few dollars.
Strictly speaking candles are not required for ritual, but they can be a great asset. Candles can be significantly change your mental state and signal that you are about to enter the presence of something sacred. A room that is completely dark except for several lit candles can be incredibly powerful.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, the most important element of Hellenic ritual is you. Your involvement, your commitment and engagement is crucial. Although I include instructions for conducting basic rituals and for festivals, I hope that you will not use them as a crutch, but as a starting point. Once you get the basics of Greek ritual down, it’s easy to create your own.
Basic Ritual Structure
Before the Ritual
First of all, be presentable. Make sure you are clean, hair combed, teeth brushed. Some Hellenes like to wear ancient Greek dress, like khitons and himations. This is perfectly acceptable if it’s something you’d like to do but it is certainly not required. The Greeks didn’t wear some fancy ritual robes, after all, they wore their best normal clothes. But do be sure that you are dressed nicely. You don’t have to wear a three-piece suit and tie, but don’t wear ripped jeans and a grungy t-shirt either.
Be sure you have everything you will need before you begin, so you will not have to interrupt the ritual to go grab an important item. If you do forget something, improvise, unless it is within easy reach. Nothing breaks a mystical mood like have to dash downstairs to find the lighter or a particular incense.
For big, more important rituals, I recommend taking a ritual bath or shower first. You can use bath oils whose herbs are significant, but simple soap will suffice. Be sure to wash your hair and your body completely. As you are bathing, do not think about your normal worries. Imagine all these cares and concerns, the shopping lists and do-lists and every other annoyance, flowing from your body and going down the drain. Concentrate on the ritual ahead. Meditate on the God you are honoring and the reason you are doing this ritual.
Greek ritual began with a procession to the local temple of the God being honored. The participants adorned their heads with stephinoi, garlands of leaves, flowers and colorful ribbons worn during festivals. People in the community were chosen to carried the tools in the temple, and the rest of the worshipers followed behind.
If this is a solitary ritual, then it can be hard to carry all the supplies yourself. Set up the altar or ritual space beforehand, and when everything is in order then take a step back, out of the area where the ritual will occur. Close your eyes for a moment before beginning. Take deep, calm breaths. Step forward in slow, measured steps as you enter the sacred space. Be aware as you proceed that you are entering the presence of Divinity.
Before any rituals calling on the Gods it is important to cleanse ourselves of any miasma so that we may be pure in Their sight. This is usually quite easy, and can be achieved by washing your hands and face with khernips, or lustral water. Wash your hands and face. Visualize the water washing away all that is impure and leaving you clean and shining.
Have a small container of barely prepared at the altar. If you are outside, then take a handful and throw it on the ground near the altar. If you are inside, sprinkle some on the altar.
The prayer began by calling the God using Their name and a list of their epithets. You can use the Greek words, or the English translation. Using a combination of both is quite effective, as you get the tradition and weigh of Greek language and the significance of the meaning behind it.
The second step of Greek prayer is to introduce yourself, and to list a few things you have done for the God before. If you have never had contact with this God and your intention is to start cultivating a relationship with this Deity, then you can skip the list of your deeds and simply state your name.
The third step of the prayer is state the intention of the prayer. whether you are asking the God for a boon, thanking Them for something They did for you, or your intention is simply to honor and commune with Them, this is where you say so. If this is your first ritual for them, then say so, and tell Them why you have chosen to honor Them.
I’m going to give two examples of prayers, one from a long-time worshiper and one as an introduction. For example, if the ritual to thank to Apollo for healing a sick friend, then it would be something like this:
Apollo Phoibos [bright], Healer, Son of Zeus and Leto,
He who shoots from afar, Nomios [shepherd],
I, [your name], have honored you greatly in the past,
and made donations in your name of Apollo Paian [Healer]
to cancer research.
I come before you now, to thank you for healing my friend.
I offer this barley and dark wine to you, Paian, Healer,
In return. Praise be to you, Bright God!
If this were and introductory ritual, so to speak, it might look like this:
Apollo Phoibos [bright], Healer, Son of Zeus and Leto,
He who shoots from afar, Nomios [shepherd],
I, [your name], have never honored you before.
I come before you wishing to do so.
I offer this barley and dark wine to you, Lord of Delphi,
In worship and praise of Your greatness,
And in hopes that You will come to know me.
Of course, if you tell a God that you want to cultivate a relationship with them, then keep up your side. If this is a one-time offering that you just felt called to make, that’s fine too. Don’t promise Them more then you intend to give, especially if it’s just because that’s what the prayer I wrote says. These are intended as templates, not scripts. True relationship with the Gods does not come from rote recital.