Principles & Values in Hellenic Polytheism

by | Hellenic Polytheism

Finding Principles & Values

Nearly all religions with have a set of rules or principles that inform the values of its followers. Christians would follow the ten commandments and the golden rule, for example.

However, in Hellenic Polytheism there isn’t really a single set of commandments. Instead, there are a few sources from which we can draw our own principles and values.

These include literary works such as Hesiod and Homer, the Delphic Maxims, and historical findings such as what we learn from archaeology.

Delphic Maxims

The Delphic Maxims are are set of rules that were carved into stone outside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. They are the closest thing we have to a set of commandments or rules.

There are 147 maxims, including commonly known ideas such as:

  • Know yourself
  • Nothing in excess
  • Respect your parents

There are others that you may or may not have heard of, for example “honour the hearth,” relating to Hestia.

The maxims are not absolute, but rather offer guidance on living well and with piety. They are not meant to be followed blindly without question. This is important to remember in modern times and considering changes in culture between classical Greece the society we live in now. The maxim “rule your wife” is out of place in modern times, in my own opinion at the very least.

Kharis & Reciprocity

The word kharis translates as ‘grace,’ though in the context of Hellenic Polytheism is best thought of as ‘reciprocity.’

The concept behind kharis is the reciprocal relationship between us as mortals and the gods we worship. It is the grace and favour nurtured through our offerings to the gods and returned with help or guidance from the gods.

Offerings in our faith are not simply transactional and there isn’t a belief that if you give so much in offering to the gods, you’ll get something in return. Instead, the relationship is founded on favour. On grace.

Give in honour of the gods that they might aid you when you are in need.

Evidence of reciprocal relationships can be seen several times throughout Homer’s works. One example of this is in Book 1 of The Iliad when Achilles’ mother, Thetis, asks Zeus to help with bringing justice to Agamemnon for taking Achilles’ prize Briseis.

“Father Zeus, if ever amid the immortals I gave you aid by word or deed, grant me this prayer: do honour to my son, who is doomed to a speedy death beyond all other men; yet now Agamemnon, king of men, has dishonoured him, for he has taken and keeps his prize by his own arrogant act. But honour him, Olympian Zeus, lord of counsel; and give might to the Trojans, until the Achaeans do honour to my son, and magnify him with recompense.”

– Thetis, The Iliad

Xenia & Hospitality

One of Zeus’ many epithets is Zeus Xenios, meaning ‘protector of strangers’ and ‘patron of foreigners.’ This embodies the spirit of xenia, which is commonly taken to mean ‘hospitality.’ Xenia is also often called referred to as ‘guest-friendship.’

For both Odysseus and Telemachus throughout their travels in The Odyssey, we see examples of hospitality, both good and bad.

Menelaus, for example, receives Telemachus and feasts with Telemachus sat next to him as an honoured guest. Guests were fed before business was attended to, and gifts were given, as was customary among nobility in ancient Greece.

On the other hand, back in Ithaca we see very poor examples of xenia with Penelope’s suitors taking advantage of Odysseus’ household and treating Odysseus in disguise with very little respect. Of course, this does not end well for them.

There should be an understanding and respect between guests and their hosts, in all forms.  This extends to any beggar, traveller, or stranger.

“But here’s an unlucky wanderer strayed our way, and we must tend him well. Every stranger and beggar comes from Zeus.”

– Penelope, The Odyssey

In short, xenia is about treating your guests with respect and treating them well, and treating your hosts with respect when you are a guest. The extent of this may be down to your own interpretations, but a good place to start is by offering your guests a drink and something to eat, make sure they’re warm enough, and don’t rush into any business your guest may be visiting for.

Eusebia & Piety

The final core principle to mention, and arguably the most essential, is eusebia, or piety.

The first and third Delphic Maxims are “Follow God” and “Worship the Gods,” which demonstrates the importance of piety in Hellenic Polytheism. Piety is how you show devotion to the gods and acting in a way the gods see as appropriate.

Most who follow this faith see it as orthopraxical rather than orthodoxical. This means that what’s important is “right action” rather than “right thought.”

This principle doesn’t just relate to worship, though. You should strive to live your whole life in a manner the gods see as appropriate. This can include avoiding spiritual pollution such as miasma, which is often thought of as closest thing we have to the Christian concept of sin.

Finding Further Principles

We may find and draw other principles from study of classical literature and through philosophy. You should explore and learn so you can construct a set of principles to inform your own practice and way of life.

Some other principles you may want to research are:

  • Sophrosyne & self control
  • Arete & the pursuit of excellence
  • Sophia & the pursuit of knowledge

There may be other principles you come across and discover in your own research. These sorts of ideas are sometimes referred to as “Pillars of Hellenism” or something similar. But, this is a modern label for what were simply aspects of day to day life in ancient Greece.

Though it may be useful to collate our interpretations like this, historically these were simply embedded into the culture. That is what we may aim for in our own daily lives – living by these values at the heart of everything we do and not just as an abstract concept to consider.

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The Olympian gods were worshipped in ancient Greece and are the main pantheon in the modern Hellenic Polytheism revival. They consist of most of the offspring of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, and children of Zeus.

Kharis & Reciprocity

Kharis is the reciprocal relationship between ourselves and our gods. It is the grace and favour nurtured through our offerings to the gods and returned with help or guidance from the gods.