'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.
BY: Kimberly Winston
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.
Jennifer Guimaraes, a 22-year-old Las Vegas homemaker and mother, says the internet is vital to her worship of the Greek gods. She and her boyfriend, also a Hellenic reconstructionist, founded Thiasos Dionysos, an online discussion group dedicated to the Greek god of wine and agriculture with about 60 regular participants. Members exchange information online, but worship on their own.
Guimaraes, who came to the Greek gods after a period practicing Wicca, says tapping into the ancient rituals of the past brings a sense of authenticity she has not found in other religions.
"Even though a lot of people consider it a dead religion, reconstructionists approach it in a way that it is not dead. It is personal. If you crave some sort of tradition, this is where people are going to look for it."
It isn't just the Greek gods that are enjoying revived interest. There are Egyptian, Norse, Roman, Celtic and Druidic reconstructionists as well, with small groups of six to thirty people meeting in places as varied as Texas, California, Florida and Illinois.
Paula Ashton is a 35-year-old executive assistant in Chicago and a member of the Kemetic Orthodox faith, a group that worships the Egyptian gods. Kemetic Orthodox recently made the leap from online community to a physical one with the opening of a temple in Joliet, Ill.