'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
"It seems to me like I have personal relationship to my god," Ashton said of what draws her to her faith and the goddess known as Aset, or Isis. "She is looking out for me. Then I look at strangers and they, too, have a personal connection with their god, be it Jesus or whoever, and we are all connected. We are all part of this. It helps me understand strangers better. It helps me understand humanity better. It helps me get in touch with the rest of the world, it helps me be more compassionate."
In Walnut Creek, Calif. Stefn [CQ] Thorsman is "steersman," or chief executive, for the Troth, an organization of affiliated "kindreds," or small groups, and solo practitioners of Asatru, a form of Norse reconstructionism. Thorsman, a stand-up comedian, said one of the appeals of Norse polytheism is that it reveres the divine in all things, living and inanimate, male or female.
"Our gods and goddesses are closer to us," he said. "We don't grovel before them. We stand before them. We don't look to them for perfection. Just as there is male and female in all of nature there, there is male and female in the spirit world. Having a male, all-seeing, all-perfect, very angry and vindictive God just did not call to me."
In meetings, Asatruars study and discuss the gods of the Norse pantheon-Thor, Freya, Frigg and Odin among them. They celebrate a number of festivals, including the "freyfaxi," a harvest festival, and the "einherjar," a celebration of those killed in battle.
Offline reconstructionist groups are rare, though their numbers appear to be growing. Berman's group, called Hellenion, made the leap from cyberspace to temple space in 2001 when they founded as a religious non-profit and began holding monthly worship services. By the end of that year they numbered three "demoi," or congregations, though the largest was Berman's with seven members. There are now nine Hellenion groups in places as far away from Athens, Greece as Jackson, Miss., Lancaster, Penn, northeastern Ohio and Dallas, Tex.
Like most reconstructionists, Hellenion's members want to reproduce the ancient rituals as closely as possible. But this is a problem when it comes to animal sacrifice, which the Greeks performed routinely. At the ancient Olympics, 100 bulls were sacrificed to Zeus. But at July's Bouphonia, Hellenion members decorated a hollowed-out loaf of bread with two small brown cones inserted in one end to represent horns. The crusty loaf had been hollowed out and filled with barley to represent blood.
During the ceremony, Tim Anderson, a 19-year-old college student studying for the Hellenion clergy, lifted the bread over his head and pierced it with a knife. The barley fell into a bowl that he then raised over his head and presented to the gods as an offering and left on the altar as sacred to Demeter and Persephone. He then handed the gutted bread to Kyrene Ariadne and asked if she would "scry for divinations."
"For obvious reasons, we don't want to sacrifice a bull," Berman said later. "We have lots of arguments in our community about the purity of ritual, but this is one thing that people generally agree on-that doing animal sacrifice is outdated and has lost any original meaning it once had."
Berger, the religion sociologist, says this is where the reconstructionists, so dedicated to the past, are actually doing something quite original. While most say they are dedicated to the past, they are, like most neo-pagans, innovative and creative when it comes to the actual practice.
"It is more or less like post-modern architecture," said Berger, who once attended a reconstructionist ceremony in which a pineapple was sacrificed. "They are taking bits and pieces of things from different places and making something that is really contemporary."
Peering into the gutted "bull," Berman reported to the group that she saw the Greek letter lambda, and books on the temple room's shelves revealed it meant a sinister thing or event may be a blessing in disguise. Berman sees this as a positive sign. She expects interest in Hellenic reconstructionism to rise after the Olympics, as it did after this year's television broadcast of "The Odyssey" and the release of the movie "Troy," when the number of hits to Hellenion's website spiked.
That's fine with Berman, who hopes others will find their way to the Greek gods.
"Doing group worship is so much different than doing it alone," she said. "I feel like I am in touch with something. I feel like I am not the only one."