A Detour from the “Modern” & “Rational”: Archaic & Classical Hellenic Religion & Magic
Welcome to part 7 of Magic 299 and my quest to explore and communicate some of the philosophical, religious, and historical underpinnings of two important concepts held as axioms by many Neo-Pagans, Pagans, Magic(k)al and New Age communities. The two ideas in question are variations on what is known as reality formation, i.e. “We create our own realities”, along with the related concept of “responsibility assumption”, or, “Each of us is 100% responsible for the occurrences in our lives”. It is my hope that this exploration will be of service as it attempts to critically illuminate a modern context for these ideas through an examination of their spiritual and philosophical significance.
A Brief Summary of Where We’ve Been Parts 1-6
In Part 6 we moved into the dawn of modern thought with the rationalist philosophy of Rene Descartes built upon ideas such as those of Francis Bacon (whose ideas were also explored). So, with that previous post we found ourselves in the 17th Century, CE. Because so far I have been following particular philosophical threads through time, we’ve progressed from Classical Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophical thought (particularly Stoicism, Skepticism and Neo-Platonism), to then touch upon Medieval thought (particularly looking at ideas rooted in Scholasticism, and specifically the medieval efforts to reconcile Neoplatonic ideas with Christianity). We then moved briefly to the return to Neo-Platonism at the start of the Renaissance, and we’ve taken a cursory look at characteristics of mysticism and metaphysics and then we hopped into 17th Century rationalism. Because of this we’ve as yet to touch upon Hellenic and Hellenistic Magic and religions. We have also not explored any other Western Magic(k)al thinking nor have we considered hermeticism and humanism. We’ve also remained planted firmly in Western thought so far.
Where Next? One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
A discussion of the roots and context of the axioms of reality formation and responsibility assumption can’t really be seen as thorough without also considering at least some of the roots of magical and hermetic thought and practices, as well as the ideas of Middle Eastern and Eastern thinkers and Renaissance humanists. So we’re going to take a couple of steps back from the rationalism of the 17th Century and briefly head back to the archaic and Classical Greek periods. Then in subsequent posts we’ll move forward again along parallel paths to the content of some of my previous posts until we again reach the rationalists and can take up the next threads of our exploration forward from the 17th Century.
Ancient Hellenic Religions and Magic
While there are some internal differences between ancient Greek magical and religious practices, an understanding of Hellenic magic requires a familiarity with Greek religious beliefs and rituals. These were practiced not only in the form of public religious rites but also in private, mystery, and cult practices. There were a variety of Greek religious practices, some particular to certain regions or islands while others were more widespread. There is enough variation in early Hellenic beliefs to distinguish between separate Greek religions and cults, although there were also a number of similarities. Hellenic religious ideas extended well beyond mainland Greece and the nearby islands, reaching to Magna Graecia (Sicily and southern Italy), the Ionian islands and nearby coasts in Asia Minor, and the outlying Greek colonies which were scattered as far as Massalia (Modern France’s Marseille).
Ancient Greek religious practices were deeply rooted in a polytheistic world view and they included private and small public ceremonies, rites of passage, and seasonal (and other) celebrations which usually involved some sort of work at an altar including votive placement and manipulations, sacrifices and libations. An important expression of Greek religion involved the building, maintenance, and use of temples dedicated to various divinities. Temple care included related practices having to do with honoring the characteristics and nature of the associated deities (for example, love, sex, passion, and beauty associated with Aphrodite). Formal worship often involved making offerings (sacrificial or libational) particularly (as described in Homer’s works) preceding banquets, at times of danger, or at the start of a trip, a new venture or similar such “beginnings”.
Of particular importance beyond the more public ceremonies for the various Greek divinities was the participation through initiation in various Hellenic mystery religions. Mystery religions offered their initiates not only the insights of mystical experiences or metaphysical explanations and practices, but also gave the practitioners more advanced structures and practices beyond “congregational” attendance at a public rite. The Mysteries also gave initiates the opportunity to participate in spiritual fellowship.
Ancient Mysteries such as those of Eleusis and Samothrace were localized to particular areas, and involved pilgrimages to their respective sites, while Mystery celebrations like those of Dionysus were not limited to one place and occurred periodically and seasonally in a variety of possible locations.
The Greek Gods with whom most modern people are familiar (The Olympians and the Chthonic deities) descended from (and in some cases were) the Titans who descended in turn from an older genealogy known as the Protogenoi, who were believed to be the first beings to come into existence. These primordial Greek gods–Protogenoi literally translates as “first born” –are a group of immortal deities who emerged at the very beginning of our universe. Formed of and embodying the very universe itself, the Protogenoi represent aspects or elements of nature and are usually seen as directly emerging from a sometimes female gendered Chaos (sometimes paired with the male-gendered Cronus, or Time).
There are other early and competing references to the first divinity(ies) spread out over several hundred years from Archaic to early Classical periods including Homer ‘s Iliad listing the watery Oceanus and Tethys as first parents, Hesiod‘s claim in The Theogeny that it was Chaos who came first, Alkman (a Spartan Poet) claiming Thetis as the first Goddess, Orpheus‘ description of Nyx as the first principle in Orphic poetry, Pherecydes of Syros, who in the Heptamychia listed Chronos as the first deity, and Empedocles who described Aphrodite and Ares as the first deities, who, with their combined respective powers of Love and War wove the universe out of the four elements. Finally (and later), we have Plato’s concept of the artisan of the universe–the demiurge, articulated in his work Timaeus.
Aside from the delightful variety apparent at first consideration, there is the underlying significance that the Greeks were flexible not just in their ontological ideas but also in their ability to voice competing opinions and articulate differing possibilities as to the origins of the Gods. It is also clear that contradiction and uncertainty are not anathema to the Greek religious perspectives. On the contrary, flexibility, internal inconsistencies, and ambiguity can be seen to have enriched and expanded the religious practices and ideas that were available to the Hellenes. So polytheism involved more than many Gods, it also involved many opportunities for divine inspiration and the possibility that individual abilities, tastes and preferences might be drawn to and satisfied by different aspects of the religion and different divinities within it.
While later Platonism and various Stoic philosophies referred to a unifying and transcendent individual and singular divinity (i.e. a monotheistic perspective), and while different cities and areas recognized, emphasized, were dedicated to, or were held sacred to varying deities, most ancient Greeks were familiar with the Olympian pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, particularly the Dodekatheon, or Twelve Divinities (also known as the 12 Olympians). These deities were usually seen to represent some combination of the Titan family children including the siblings Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Hestia and Hades (these last two were sometimes replaced with other deities), and a number of Zeus’ offspring usually including Ares, Hermes, Hephaestus, Aphrodite (there was some disagreement as to paternity for both Hephaestus and Aphrodite), Athena, Apollo, Artemis, and Dionysus.
The later Roman version (with their Greek identities) of the 12 Olympian divinities usually were seen to include: Jupiter (Zeus), Juno (Hera), Neptune (Poseidon), Minerva (Athena), Mars, (Ares), Ceres (Demeter), Apollo, Diana (Artemis), Vulcan (Hephaestus), Venus (Aphrodite), Mercury (Hermes) and Bacchus.
I say “usually”, and the numbers above don’t always add up to twelve, because there was some fluidity as to who was included among the twelve depending upon who was doing the counting and the ranking, and when this counting and ranking took place.
For example, Hades (the Roman Pluto) was sometimes counted but often was not due to his usually existing in the Underworld, and Hestia (Roman Vesta), was often listed as one of the twelve prior to her decision to step down to allow for the inclusion of Dionysus.
The Chthonic Deities
The Olympian deities who resided for the most part on Mount Olympus, were not the only Greek deities by any means, and were complemented by the Chthonic divinities (meaning Earth God/desses) including Gaia, Demeter, Hecate, Hades, Kore/Persephone, Iacchus, Melinoe, Triptolemus, Trophonius, and the Erinyes (Furies). The Chthonic Gods tended to remain on Earth by choice, preferring their particular domains to the elevated and more distant Olympus, although they sometimes served in both realms of influence. It is likely that the worship of the Chthonic deities took place earlier among local, country “pagani” (to use a later Roman concept) while the Olympian overlay came in with a later wave of Greek peoples.
There is quite a bit of shifting of attributions and roles and syncretism is common among and between the Olympians and the Chthonic deities. There is indication of the Olympian “overlay” I mention above in the turnover of primary deity at Delphi (Ge or Gaia replaced by Apollo), and the synchretism I mention is certainly the case in many areas. This was similar to the later Christians adapting the attributes of various Gods and associating them with Saints; there were also the Graeco-Roman-Egyptian blends of God traits (for example, Serapis as a blend of Zeus and Osiris). A characteristic of Greek approaches to divinity was an openness to possibility and variety. Of particular importance later on was the widespread Interpretatio Romana, the process by which when Romans encountered the Gods of Germanic or Celtic tribes they interpreted them as local aspects of their own deities rather than considering them separate divine beings.
Other Olympians sometimes include Alpheus, Cronus, Rhea and the Charities sometimes joined by Heracles and Asclepius. Hebe, Helios, Eros, Iris, and Persephone are also sometimes included among them.
Many of these deities had several names and roles, depending upon the aspect of the God or Goddess being addressed or worshiped at the moment, for example there were characteristic distinctions between Athena Nike (Roman Victoria) and Athena Pronaia (Athena the Guardian). Another example would be the differences between characteristics of Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice Great) as distinguished from Hermes Logios (Orator).
In an example of internal contradiction and openness to paradox in religion, while Plato described a singular pantheist divinity in some of his work, he also clearly embraced the existences of the Olympians. Plato connected the Twelve Olympians with the twelve months of the year, weighing in on the question of whether Hades was one of the twelve by proposing that the God of the underworld be honored with appropriate rites along with the spirits of the dead during the final month. Plato also attempts to associate the Twelve Olympians with the Zodiac in Phaedrus.
The siblings Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera and Hestia were children of Cronus, one of the Titans, and also therefore grandchildren of the primal (primordial) divinities which also included Cronus as well as Aether, Chaos, Gaia, Erebus, Hemera, Nyx, Uranus, and Tartarus.
While most Greek divinities were immortal, it is important to consider that unlike the deities of many other religious beliefs the Greek Gods were subject to fate–they were not all powerful.
For a truly wonderful examination of the various Greek deities (and then some!) I strongly recommend those with an interest in Hellenic religions to take a look at Theoi Greek Mythology. This site has over 1,500 pages profiling the Greek gods and other characters from Greek mythology along with 1,200 full sized pictures.
I also recommend a visit to The Theoi E-Texts library of ancient, classical Greek and Roman literature.
Magic and Hellenic Magic
Since despite some regional variation, and the interpretive and ontological flexibility mentioned earlier, most ancient Greeks shared similar beliefs concerning the Gods and their attributes and abilities, and as they also were mostly in agreement as to the variety of magical possibilities rooted within the Hellenic mythological system, there was a concomitant clarity and solidity to Greek magical thought. Hellenic belief in classical myths was not an exercise in fantasy as it is for many modern people. Certainly there was a good deal of creative license on the part of the poets and storytellers whose work has survived, but for the most part for the ancient Hellenes the mythological and magical world had a knowable, and established structure.
To understand the practice of Hellenic magic, it’s important to keep in mind that individual magical practices were interwoven with and informed by the overarching religious perspective. In a later blog post I’ll be discussing in more detail my own take on what magic (and reality formation) actually is, but for our purposes here, in order that my readers follow how I am looking at the Hellenic practices of magic, I will briefly give my definition of magic:
I have chosen to discard the practice of adding a k to the end of the word magic, which is often done in an effort to distinguish it from the magical practices of illusion or prestidigitation, primarily because I consider the seemingly more mundane theatrical practices of illusion to be a form of magical technique and to therefore fall within my definition of magic.
Magic & Reality Formation
Clearly, my definition of magic above and the purposes of Hellenic magic as described below are related to our larger discussion of “creating reality”. We’ll explore some of the connections between magical practices and modern Pagan ideas about reality formation in a later post.
Hellenic forms of magic were pervasive in Greek mythology and literature. In fact, magical practices directly informed the lives, beliefs, and cultural expressions of the Hellenes. Hellenic magic served to give its archaic and Classical Greek practitioners special knowledge, insight, and a sense that they could practice control over their surroundings. Hellenic magic also served as a method to control aspects of healing, birth, mortality and the forces of nature. Magic was employed to assist individual mediations with fate. The relationship of magic and fate echoes the philosophical discussion we’ve examined previously regarding free will and determinism.
We get our modern English word “magic” from the Greek μαγικός (magikos) which referred to the practices of a μάγος (mágos, plural is magoi). A particular usage of magickos from the 1st Century CE is found in the feminine μαγική τέχνη (magike techne, Latin, ars magica) as described in Plutarch’s writing. This gave rise to Latin magicus, and then to Old French magique, which in turn led to modern English “magic”.
As we get the word magic from the Greeks, so to do we inherit many of the associated ideas about magical practices. There is some indication of a distinction between types of Hellenic magical practices. Similar to distinctions between magic and sorcery, or curanderas (healers) and brujas (witches), these Hellenic magical realms of expertise tend to fall into the category of practices employing certain tools, incantations and plants to effect change for possibly selfish individual, political and social reasons, and the category of practices employing natural and God-given magical tools, rites, and practices primarily for healing, for actions taken in harmony with the natural world, and for actions taken in keeping with or at the behest of the various wills of the Gods.
Contemporary examples of these two practices and indications about Hellenic attitudes towards them can be particularly found in descriptions of Circe and Chiron.
My next blog post will begin with an exploration of some of the magical distinctions between Circe and Chiron and a look at other important representatives of Hellenic magic and religion.
All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.