"I will watch it to see if anything even remotely resembles anything I would know as an ancient ritual and tradition," Berman said. "But I kind of have mixed feelings. On one hand it will be great to see ancient traditions represented. But on the other hand, I know what the country of Greece thinks of our religion and people there who want to do this do not have the religious freedom to do it."
"This" is worship the Greek gods. Berman is a Hellenic reconstructionist-a practitioner of the religion of ancient Greece. A spare bedroom in her Boston area apartment is decorated as a temple room with statues of Apollo, Pan, Artemis, Dionysus and Eros. And like all Hellenic reconstructionists, she knows the original Olympics were not just a massive sportsfest, but a religious rite central to the worship of Zeus, chief among the Greek gods.
Reconstructionists are a group of neo-pagans-people who look to pre-Christian cultures for their faith-different branches of which worship the gods of ancient Norse, Roman, Egyptian, and Druid peoples. And while scholars say their numbers are only a fraction of the neo-pagan community, they also say they are a vibrant illustration of the rejection of traditional religion in the United States. And, in a curious boomerang effect, they are part of a movement away from the more eclectic forms of neo-paganism, like Wicca, taken up by pagan pioneers in the 1960s and 1970s.
"Reconstructionist groups seem to be kind of in the middle," said Sean McCloud a professor of religion and modern culture at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. "On the one hand they want to embrace a coherent religion where they are not making things up. On the other hand, it is not the religion of their parents."
That is certainly true of Berman, a 26-year-old web developer who was raised in a non-religious home by a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. As a young teenager, she practiced Wicca. By college, she was into Celtic spirituality, but moved to the Greek gods literally overnight when, she recalled, a god appeared to her in a dream and said, "I am Apollo. You belong to me."
On a Saturday afternoon in July, Berman, known in her faith as Kyrene Ariadne, dressed in a long silky skirt of blue roses to join three likeminded worshippers and a guest to mark the Bouphonia, or Greek new year. The two men and three women assembled in the hall outside the temple room and chanted together from a prepared script:
"Hestia, tender of the hearth, first among gods, you sit at the center; steadily burns your flame."
"I shall sing of Zeus, the best and the greatest of Gods,After the ceremony, which included the ritual disemboweling of a loaf of bread representing a sacrificial bull, the group shared a meal of hummus, pita, dolmatas and rice pudding around Berman's dining room table.
Far-seeing, mighty, fulfiller of designs who confides
His tight-knit schemes to Themis and she sits leaning upon Him.
Have mercy, far-seeing Kronides, most glorious and great."
Berman, who wears a sun pendant as a symbol of Apollo, said venerating the Greek gods brings her a sense of peace and connection she has found nowhere else.
"I don't know how to describe it except to say that I felt like I was coming home," she said. "I know it is where I want to be."
No one knows exactly how many neo-pagan reconstructionists there are. There is no formal membership, no centralized authority like a church or a seminary, though several groups run clergy training programs. But Helen Berger, a religion sociologist and author of "Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States" (University of South Carolina Press, 2003), estimates there are between 200,000 and 400,000 neo-pagans in this country. Reconstructionists, she said, are a sliver of the whole picture.
Because their numbers are so small, the majority of reconstructionists are "sole practitioners," conducting rituals, ceremonies and study on their own. Because of their isolation, and because many are young enough to have been raised with computers, the internet serves as a pipeline to the broader reconstructionist community. There are numerous websites and chatrooms devoted to each of the reconstructionist faiths, outlining the customary worship of the various gods, the origins of festivals, and the proper preparation of rituals.