Book Review – Greek Religion

Introduction

Students seeking a thorough introduction to the religious practices and beliefs of Hellenic civilization need look no further than Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion. First published in 1977, Greek Religion remains the definitive survey of the theories, scholarship, and archaeological evidence related to the religion of the Hellenes. Burkert maps out the most recent and prominent theories of the development of ancient Greek religion while simultaneously acknowledging that there is much that is not known.

 
One of Burkert’s most useful contributions is his comparison of the mythological and poetic stylizations of Greek religion to existing archaeological and linguistic evidence. Burkert makes clear that Homeric poetry is just as likely to obscure and distort the beliefs and practices of Hellenic culture as it is illuminate them.

 
Burkert’s introduction to Greek Religion begins with an exploration of the most prominent scholarship in the field of ancient Hellenic religion. Burkert identifies the work of Wilhelm Mannhardt, James Frazer, and Jane Harrison as forces which have shaped 20th (and 21st) century ideas about Greek civilization and culture, and counts the theories of Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud among the lenses which have dramatically altered modern interpretations of the ancient civilization.

 
Burkert also spends time exploring our sources for what we do know about Greek religion, and acknowledges that literature, especially in the form of Homeric poetry, is our “principal evidence” (4). However, the picture that emerges in the works of Homer is sometimes at odds with what we have learned from other sources: ancient Greek art, inscriptions, statues, pottery, cult monuments, altars, ritual vessels, votive gifts, and temples.

 
Finally, Burkert uses the remainder of his introduction to sketch out the Mycenaean, Minoan, Indo-European, and Near Eastern influences on the religious practices of the ancient Greeks. Burkert argues that it is more accurate to speak of a “plural of Greek religions” (8) than a single unified system of belief or practice. Further, Burkert argues that “The Greeks themselves regarded the various manifestations of their religious life as essentially compatible, as a diversity of practice in devotion to the same gods, within the framework of a single world.” (8).

 

In other words, religion in ancient Greece was characterized by the mutation and proliferation of beliefs and practices as well as the influence of local customs and varying degrees of influence from other civilizations.

Prehistory and the Minoan-Mycenaean Age

In laying the foundation for a contemporary examination of Ancient Greek religion, Burkert notes that “for all periods of prehistory, the evidence of language to interpret the manifold and often confusing finds is lost forever. Moreover, what survives is always only a very one-sided assortment of remains decided by the accidents of physics and chemistry” (10). In other words, there is only so much we can ever expect to know about what the ancient Greeks believed or how they practiced their religion.

 
Burkert quickly stakes out the various influences on Greek religion, by pointing out that many of the plants and animals that are today seen as characteristically Greek were in fact imports from the East. This is significant because it means that cultures to the East of the Greeks wielded considerable influence over them from the Neolithic period onward. Burkert also calls into question the once widely popular theory of a prehistoric, matriarchal culture in which a “great Mother” goddess was widely worshipped. Burkert argues that such speculations go “far beyond the evidence” (12) and notes that this theory is being increasingly met with skepticism.

Instead, Burkert suggests that archaeological evidence from the excavations at Çatal Hüyük offer more insight into the earliest Greek cultures. From Çatal Hüyük archaeologists have learned what they do know about the earliest sanctuary sites and are given a glimpse at a tradition of religious continuity that stretches back over five thousand years.

Indo-European, Minoan, and Mycenaean Influences on Greek Religion

At this point Burkert begins to consider the second major influence on early Greek religion: the Indo-European migrations. After offering a short summary of the IE hypothesis, Burkert notes that Greece only came under the IE influence in the Bronze Age (16). From this point forward, Burkert traces linguistic evidence beginning with the first known record of the Greek language in Linear B. In staking out the significance of linguistic forensics, Burkert observes that

The vocabulary of Indo-European enshrines a spiritual world in which value structures, social divisions, and also religious ideas may be discerned. Evident is the patriarchal organization, the central position of the father within the extended family; agriculture is known, but pasturage, cattle, and horses and much more important. (17)

Burkert also considers the mingling of the IE Greek language with linguistic elements from neighboring civilizations, concluding that “there is no single origin of Greek religion (17).

 
For the remainder of the first chapter, Burkert focuses on what is known about the two major influences on Greek religion, the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. Particularly helpful is his discussion of their places of worship/sanctuaries, including mountain peaks, caves, trees, graves, temples, and homes shrines. Also familiar to ADF members will be the practice of exchanging gifts with the deities in exchange for blessings or some divine intervention.

 
Burkert’s summary is exhaustive. One of my favorite lines from conclusion of this chapter is this:

…the fire altar which stands open to the sky is the most essential part of the sanctuary. This is not an exchange of gifts celebrated by a hierarchical society of gods, kings, priests, and commoners: together on the same level, men and women stand here about the altar, experience and bring death, honor the immortals and in eating affirm life in its conditionality: it is the solidarity of mortals in the face of the immortals. (53)

The remainder of Greek Religion consists of a catalog of what was, at the time, everything known from archaeological and linguistic evidence. Burkert gives ample consideration to topics such as rituals and sanctuaries, the Gods, the dead and the chthonic cult, polytheism, plurality in beliefs and practices, various cults and mystery traditions, festivals and calendars, and the emergence and impact of new philosophical traditions on the Hellenic religion.

 
Overall, Greek Religion is an essential resource for anyone interested in the Hellenic religion and in celebrating ADF Druidry in the Hellenic tradition. The book is almost encyclopedic in scope, so it serves as a both an excellent introduction to the subject as well as an indispensable reference guide.

 

 

 

Book Review – The Druids

 

The Druids. Ellis, Peter Berresford. Constable & Co. London: 1994.

 

Ellis’ book is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in Druids or Celtic society, but it is especially helpful for those exploring ADF Druidry or beginning their Dedicant Program. Ellis is clear from the very beginning that the historical information available about the Druids is incomplete and that what information we do have may have been distorted or fabricated. Ellis provides an excellent overview of the historical writings which describe the Druids and/or Celtic society while at the same time remaining in conversation with other recent or current scholars and their interpretations of these writings.

In his own words, Ellis acknowledges from the beginning that “no Druid, nor sympathetic contemporary observer, ever committed to writing the necessary unequivocal information” (11) of the sort that would provide an undisputed, historical account of who the Druids really were. Instead, he reminds us that that “one person’s Druid is another person’s fantasy “(11) and that in the pursuit of any sound understanding of who the Druids were or what they believed depends upon the quality and scope of the inquiry.

Ellis also uses his introduction to sketch out his own theory about the Druids. According to his argument, the Druids were a kind of specialized group within Celtic society, a “parallel caste to the social group which developed in another other Indo-European—the Brahmins of Hindu culture” (14). If Ellis is correct, then the Druids may have served a number of functions throughout Celtic Europe, occupying such specialized occupations such as judges, lawyers, teachers, poets, political advisers, historians, or musicians.

From this starting point, Ellis embarks upon a thorough survey and analysis of the few written records regarding the Druids. In his second chapter, Ellis reviews theories about the origins of the Druids, including several possible meanings of and sources for the word “druid” itself. Ellis is convinced that the term druid means something akin to “[those with] oak knowledge” (39). He argues that the “Druid caste” (39) originated among forest dwelling societies as a group of men and women(!) who accumulated practical knowledge and survival techniques, and who became associated with the oak tree because of its role as a source of food and shelter and its prominence in native folklore and mythology. Ellis spends much of the chapter exploring the veneration of the oak tree throughout Europe and concludes that “the symbolism of the oak is all-pervasive in ancient Celtic culture” (42).

One critical point that Ellis makes in this chapter is that, as MacCulloch observes elsewhere, “there is no reason to believe that Druids did not exist wherever there were Celts” (46). He goes on to argue that throughout the Celtic world, there were groups of men and women who appear to be “Druids by other names” (46). This is especially significant considering the extensive influence of Celtic culture throughout Europe and the influence of a common Indo-European language. For those interested in ADF Druidry, this insight cannot be overstated. Since ADF Druidry includes the whole of the Indo-European spectrum, it is helpful to remember that the Celtic peoples and culture were not restricted to the British Isles or Western Europe.

The third chapter of The Druids provides a survey of Classical writings which describe (however inaccurately) the Druids, their practices, and their beliefs. The real value of the chapter lies in the way it traces written texts on the Druids to their common sources, and dissects the information through which modern understandings of the Druids have come into being. Ellis explores the political impulses behind many such writings, as in the case of Strabo and his Geographica. Ellis observes that the work “was a pointed attack on the Celts, which was written as a justification for Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and the subsequent attempts to suppress the Celtic intelligentsia and their centers of learning” (53).

Ellis also focuses on criticism by other historians including Chadwick, who describes one passage of Pliny’s account of the Druids as “picturesque fantasia” (61). However, Ellis detects some truth in Pliny’s writings, particularly with regard to the association of the Druids with oak groves. Ellis notices that other authors similarly describe this association and concludes that it does not derive from a common source; he thereby enlists its support in defending his own position.

In chapter 4, Ellis examines the Christianization of Europe and its impact on Celtic culture. The first salient point he makes here is that it was the insular Celts (i.e., those of the British Isles), who most absorbed Druidic knowledge and practices. Ellis gives proper due to the Celtic monastic tradition and its emphasis on writing for providing access to our most illuminating insights into both Celtic and Druidic culture. Two insights presented by Ellis that were new to me include the incorporation of the Druidic tonsure into Celtic monasticism, and the relative omission of the Druidic tradition from Welsh narratives when compared to the Irish. The chapter focuses on the historical and cultural relationship between Druidism and Christianity, and concentrates on the literary traditions of the insular Celts.

Chapter 5 of The Druids is perhaps one of the most significant in terms of ADF Druidry. Not only does Ellis provide substantial proof that women were included in the ranks of the Druids, he also pays attention to the role of women in Celtic society in general. Ellis points out that the portrayal of Celtic culture by classical writers was distorted by their own biases towards women. He writes that “what we are actually looking at is a more permissive and open society, not fully understood by the foreign observers” (95).
Ellis reviews a selection of Welsh and Irish literature in which female figures are depicted as leaders, warriors, and sources of community power.

The first impressive moment of chapter 6 occurs when Ellis takes MacCulloch to task for a passage in The Religion of the Ancient Celts in which he describes the Celts as submissive to the will of the Druids. Ellis argues that what MacCulloch is doing is projecting his own experience as a Christian minister onto a culture that he does not fully understand.

Ellis also warns his readers that “no clear knowledge of the Druidic system of worship or ritual has come down to us in spite of romantics such as Edward Davies…” (114). He goes on to say that “having said this…we can glimpse some of the religious ideas and rituals connected with the pantheon of the Celtic deities and their roles by studying insular Celtic literatures and comparing them with the archaeological evidence and place-name references” (114).

The remainder of the chapter focuses on Irish and Welsh myth, including an examination of the great mother and the relationship between god/esses and heroes. Here, Ellis touches upon more well-known figures such as the Dagda as “the patron of Irish Druidism” (123), Cernunnos, the Gundestrup Cauldron, and the Stone of Destiny, as well as Celtic origin myths.

One last note on this chapter: Ellis observes that “the ancient Irish bards deemed that the river’s edge, the brink of water, was always that place where éicse, wisdom, knowledge and poetry was revealed” (118).

Chapter 7 is particularly fascinating for its insights into Celtic ritual practices. Ellis explores a range of rituals including “Druidic baptism” (133), the veneration of wells and springs, the ritual use and importance of fire, and Celtic funeral customs.

Another important point that Ellis brings up in this chapter is the dubiousness of Pliny’s description of the ritual significance of mistletoe. Ellis points out that Pliny is the only source of this information and directs his readers’ attention to similar practices in ancient Egypt. In other words, Ellis wonders whether or not Pliny has simply confused (deliberately or not) a practice of one foreign culture for that of another.

With regard to human sacrifice, Ellis concludes that “the idea of widespread human sacrifice among the Celts was mere Roman propaganda to support…imperial powers in their invasion of Celtic lands and destruction of the Druids” (154). Ellis takes strange turn here and redirects his argument toward supposed evidence of human sacrifice “occurring widely both in Greek and Roman civilizations” (154). Other scholars, including Elisabeth Vandiver, have observed that human sacrifice was detested by the Greeks and the Romans. Even though Rome was famous for its gladiator battles and blood spectacles, the ritual sacrifice of humans was rare.

The most illuminating insights from The Druids are presented in Chapter 8, ‘The Wisdom of the Druids.” Ellis begins by asserting that “there is certainly enough evidence to show that the Druidic caste was in charge of Celtic education” (157). But what I find most intriguing in this chapter is the frequency with which Ellis points to the relationship between Druidic philosophy and Indo-European philosophy. He writes that “the Druidic concept of Truth as the supreme power [is]…a basic Indo-European thought” (162).

Ellis examines the Irish teaching tradition and points out that the Druidic influence in the lay schools remained intact far longer than it did in the ecclesial schools. He also claims that the bardic schools lasted until the 17th century, when they were finally suppressed by the Christian Church. Ellis also points out that the Irish and Welsh proscriptions on written records was abandoned when they began writing in other languages. As a result, some of the Irish and Welsh keepers of Druidic wisdom began to write in Latin.

In the section devoted to Druidic philosophy, Ellis offers the following summary of Druidic teaching: “the Druids taught that one should live in harmony with nature, accepting that pain and death are not evils but part of the divine plan, and that the only evil is moral weakness” (168).

Throughout this chapter, Ellis points to similarities between Celtic and Hindu belief systems. For example, he observes that the modern Irish language the dead are referred to as being “in the place of Truth now” (169), a saying which has “an exact parallel in Persian-Iranian Parseeism” (169). As further evidence of the connection between Druidic philosophy and Indo-European thought, Ellis explores similarities in Celtic and Greek philosophy, patterns in mythology, taboos or geasa, and comparisons between Brehon and Hindu legal systems. For example, Ellis writes that “it seems very likely that the Druidic immortality of the soul was indeed a development from a common Indo-European idea, which developed with its own particular cultural attributes parallel to the Hindu philosophies and certainly to the metempsychosis of Pythagoras” (179).

The remainder of this lengthy chapter explores various functions of the Druids in Celtic society, including their work in the legal system, preservation of history, their work in music and poetry, medicine, divination, astrology, and magic.

Ellis begins the ninth and final chapter of the book by repeating and clarifying his thesis. He writes that

“My contention, which I hope I have demonstrated, is that the term Druid, in pre-Christian Celtic society, referred to social stratification, depicting the intellectual class. This division of social groups occurred in all Indo-European societies and is seen at its most obvious in modern times in the Hindu caste system. However, when Christianity established itself, the generic term Druid became corrupt, being connected with pagan society, and only applied to wizards, magicians, prophetic poets, and bards. (251)

The remainder of this chapter (and book) explores some of the ways in which the Druids have been romanticized and reconstructed. Ellis conducts a survey of literature related to the Druids, including some “historical” accounts that were the product of fantasy rather than research. Among his observations are instances in which the Druids were portrayed as “still in their gloomy oak groves with an oak-wreathed Druid, suitably robed, wielding a blood stained sacrificial knife” (253) and alternately, as “patriarchal Old Testament figures” (258).

Ellis also looks at the sources for many of the modern misconceptions about the Druids, including works by William Stukeley, Iolo Morganwg, William Blake, John Wood, and Simon Pelloutier. He then explores some facets of the Druid revival, including the Assembly of the Bard of Britain (1792), the Ancient Order of Druids (1781), the National Eisteddfod Association (1880), as well as more recent examples of uninformed scholarship and fantasy.

 

 

 

 

Autumn Equinox – Hearth shrine

Even though I celebrated the autumn equinox with an eclectic pagan group, I always try to keep my hearth decorated appropriately for the season. Above are two photos of my home shrine.

1st photo – a personal offering made in the forest at SweetWood. I set this up inside the ritual space as a votive for Artemis and the woodland spirits. This is about as simple as it gets: a candle, my olivewood bowl of keys and coins (I take these everywhere as they are personal power symbols and blessed for spiritual use only), and a bunch of acorns I gathered in the forest.

Photos 2 & 3 – I use a small cast-iron saucepan for my well, a living plant for my tree, and a candle for my fire. There is incense, some fresh-picked flowers, acorns, and berries, and personal tokens as an offering, and my current deity symbols (a rabbit and golden pillar). There is also a jar of water from a sacred well here in Wisconsin, some decorative items, and of course, Papa Smurf.

 

Midsummer with Wild Onion Grove

Midsummer altar with Wild Onion grove.

I drove down to Chicago to spend Midsummer with the folks of Wild Onion Grove. This was my first time celebrating with the group and, with one exception, my first time meeting everyone from WOG.

The hearth culture of the day was Hellenic, with a focus on Athena and the festival of Panathenaea. We met in a city park in what is probably the most public ritual space I’ve ever been in–there were several other celebration going on within a few steps of us, including a family reunion and a birthday party.

The group that gathered seemed to be eclectic and not entirely ADF, but the ritual did not reflect this. It was ADF style through-and-through. We began by consecrating our time and space, first with a musical signal and then by processing into our space and marking the sigil on each other. We then offered honor to Hestia and the Earth Mother, and the goddess Iris as the gatekeeper. (I usually honor Hecate as gatekeeper in my personal rituals, so this was new to me.) Apollo was petitioned as our bardic inspiration, and I made the offering to the outdwellers.

For the central part of the ritual, libations, praise, and storytelling were offered to Athena. For my part, I brought some homemade crackers that I baked for the occasion (didn’t have spelt flour, alas!), some olive oil from my kitchen,  and told the legend of how women lost the right to vote in Athens.

According to Walter Burkert in Greek Religion, the people of Athens decided to hold a vote to see which deity–Poseidon or Athena–would be the principal patron of the city. The women supported Athena, while the men wanted to honor Poseidon. When the votes were cast, the women outnumbered the men by a single vote. So the city went to Athena. However, in retaliation, the men took away the women’s right to vote from that day forward. Not the most encouraging story from a humanist or feminist perspective, but it is part of the lore and a story which few know.

After our offerings were made, the omen was taken. The consensus among the group seemed to be that the omen was positive and the offerings were accepted, but some believed it also called attention to Apollo. Since Apollo is one of my principle deities, I was not sure what to make of this. After all, I think it’s always a good idea to call attention to Apollo!

And so we shared a blessing cup and some fabulous herbal cookies, closed our ritual by thanking all of the deities, spirits of the land, and ancestors, and having a simple meditation and grounding. Because of our location and people’s schedules, we did not have much time for fellowship afterwards.

So I am grateful to be able to join fellow Druids in celebrating the solstice. I hope we meet again soon.

 

 

 

My Indo-European ancestry

For many Druids and other Neopagans, ancestry is a focal point of their spiritual practice and one that determines the tradition or culture in which he or she practices. They feel a direct connection to their ancestors and try to honor their ways as best they can.

My experience has been quite different. My family did not preserve records of our past, and information about my heritage beyond three or four generations was difficult to obtain. This is due in part to illiteracy, poverty, and unreliable record keeping up through the beginning of the 20th century. My people had no family bibles to call upon, no important historical figures to which our name was tied, and no close relatives in another country to help keep our past alive.

To illustrate, I have copies of my third great grandfather’s enlistment and discharge papers from the Confederate Army. He was a wheelwright by trade, but a sharecropper in reality. He was illiterate and could not sign his own name, so the land owner to whom he was in debt had to sign for him. My grandfather simply marked an “X” for his signature. I believe my grandfather needed his landlord’s permission because he was in debt to him. Unconfirmed, but I’d place a wager on it.

So when people are not creating their own written records, the past gets lost. I have long suspected, based on the surnames present in our family tree, that my family was predominantly Western European, with an emphasis on the British Isles. So I did one of those DNA tests, and…

Wow.

The test confirmed my suspicion that much of my family originated in the British Isles. About half of my DNA is common in Ireland, Britain, and Wales. But the other half, well there were some surprises there.

The remaining half of my DNA comes from across Europe and Western Asia. I have genetic connections to Finland, Greece, Eastern Europe, and Turkey.

In short, I’m a Euro mutt.

 

 

Essay – February Feast

The February Feast celebrates the first stirrings of the coming spring, which can be difficult to detect in the upper Midwest at this time of year. Although my northern and western European ancestors may have been delighted by the availability of fresh milk after the first part of the winter, my experience in an urban environment of the 21st century does easily not lend itself to such a connection.

As a Druid working in the Hellenic tradition, the February Feast poses a second challenge. How do I incorporate a holiday into my practice that derives from Celtic, Gaulish, and Germanic traditions? Although there are similar festivals in the Ancient Greek practice, differences in agricultural, economic, and social realities do not readily lend themselves to a clearly compatible celebration.

To resolve this dilemma, I focus on the hearth customs of the season and the festival’s associations with fire and purification. In Hellenic paganism, Hestia, the Goddess of the Hearth and the figurative representation of the hearth fire, plays a crucial role in the spiritual lives of the people. Although there are virtually no myths about Hestia, her prominence in the lives of the Ancient Greeks is evident in the many offerings she received within the household and the critical importance of keeping the home hearth lit at all times.

The hearth fire was, for all Indo-European peoples, the center of domestic life. Fire protected people from predators, it provided warmth and comfort, and was the means by which food was prepared. In short, the hearth was an instrument of survival.

While my friends in the larger Neopagan community are celebrating hearth culture in the Celtic or Germanic traditions, I find it natural to do the same. I focus on giving thanks to Hestia, on celebrating the coming spring, and purification.

Psychologically, the February Feast plays a critical role for me because I know that astronomical and meteorological spring are not far away; the long dark of winter can wreak havoc on my mood. So I use the February Feast as a time to clear the mental slate and prepare for the brighter days ahead. This is my last real winter rest.