'Our Gods and Goddesses Are Closer to Us'
How modern pagans are reviving the polytheistic religions of the ancient Greeks, Druids, Egyptians, and other civilizations.
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."
In solemn single file, they moved into the room to form a circle about a center altar draped with a black cloth and set with a candle and brass bowl of burning frankincense. They poured water into a bowl to wash their hands and faces, then raised their palms to the sides of the their faces as they continued to chant hymns to Pan, Artemis and Zeus:
"I shall sing of Zeus, the best and the greatest of Gods,
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."
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.
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.