My latest read was Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored, second edition by Sarah Kate Istra Winter – also known as Oinokhoe and Dver. You can find her website at https://forestdoor.wordpress.com/ The book is published by CreateSpace, and a new copy will cost you something in the region of £10:20 or $15:65. Kharis, as the book explains, is the idea of reciprocal favor – giving and receiving offerings, gratitude and feeling. This concept is the axis around which this book revolves.
I’ll start right off by letting you know that I’m very enthusiastic about this book. The author has studied to a high level and it really shows; it’s a book you can get your teeth into. Right at the front is a Notes On Language section. The first proper chapter is Ancient Greek Religion, and at first I wasn’t madly enthusiastic about reading it. I was learning about Hellenic Polytheism because two Hellenic Deities had contacted me, not because I was drawn to it – or even interested in it. However, I very quickly became fascinated. It began by looking at the myths, and provided an open and balanced look at how we could view the them – allegories, metaphors or something more literal. The book then goes on to discuss various aspects of ancient religion and how we may relate them to contemporary worship – temples, rites of passage, miasma…It’s really helped me to understand what my Deities may expect, want or appreciate. I think anyone, polytheist or no, who worships the Greek Deities would enjoy and benefit from reading this chapter.
Chapter two is Modern Hellenismos. It starts off with explaining how there are a wide variety of views and approaches to Hellenismos – or Hellenic Paganism, Hellenic Polytheism or Hellenic Reconstructionism, depending on your preference. It also quite rightly explains that Hellenismos (or whatever you’re calling it; comments in appendix IV include Hellene, Hellenistos and Hellenista) is not an attempt to revive the Ancient Greek *culture*, as – in common with most if not all ancient cultures – it contained many things that are best left in the past, like patriarchy and slavery. It gives advice about conducting solid research, which I think many of us would do well to heed (me included!). A range of modern debates are discussed, such as language and clothing, UPG and priesthood. One thing I really like about this book in general and this chapter in particular is Ms.Winter’s balanced and non-judgmental approach. She will give both sides of a debate, regardless of her own position, in a way that belittles and ridicules no-one. She also provides many different ideas for practicing Hellenismos, so you could take what suggestions work for you and your life – creating a crown of leaves or flowers to wear during ritual, for example, to connect with the customs of the past instead of donning an entire period outfit.
The third chapter is Kharis Through Ritual. I swear, prayers get answered in the most unexpected ways! Regular readers may already be aware that, where ritual is concerned, I somehow transform from an intelligent human being to some sort of brainless amoeba. Well, I don’t know how she’s done it, but Ms. Winter has managed to break through my intellectual brick wall with this chapter. If anyone out there is struggling with ritual, read this. After the fundamental basics of constructing ritual, religious calendars are discussed. I was particularly interested in A Personalized Religious Calendar, which I felt had some good ideas. The whole ‘animal sacrifice issue’ is confronted, as well as other types of offering like incense, libations and hymns. Lastly, an example of a modern festival day is given, which I found very helpful.
Next we come to Kharis through Relationships. This chapter does include some ideas that people may find controversial, such as the idea that we can have personal or even romantic relationships with Deities and Spirits. Any book with ‘polytheist’ in the title will tend to embrace these ideas, though (unless the title is ‘Why Polytheists Are Wrong About Everything’, obviously). There are no run-downs of facts about individual Deities, because Ms. Winter feels that would be too simplistic and constraining; Deities are, in polytheistic thought, full and complex individuals. First ‘the Olympians’ are discussed, including the khthonioi (Deities of the Underworld). We then move on to Ancestors, Heroes, the Nymphs (anyone ever heard of a nympholept?), other spirits and the totally fascinating Agathos Daimon. The section on Household Religion was interesting and gave me some good ideas. Other important basics are covered, such as shrines, prayer and divination. I felt like Everyday Practice and “Everything is Full of Gods” were extremely worthwhile and inspiring sections, and I will strive to take these lessons to heart.
The final chapter is Mysticism, Magic & Mysteries. This is one of those things – it’s either the whole point of the experience for you, or you want to skip it all together. It’s made clear that this path is not a necessary part of Hellenismos, so you could leave this chapter if you wanted to. I read it, of course, and found some useful new ways to look at the world. It talks about modern ways to commune with the Divine as well as Ancient examples of people who did this, such as the Pythia.
After the main text are four appendixes; ‘The Ancient Athenian Calendar and Major Festivals’, ‘Plants, Animals, Places, & Activities Sacred to Specific Gods and Goddesses’, ‘Useful Greek Words and Phrases for Religious Practice’ and ‘Results from the Hellenic Pagan Survey’.
This is one of those books that inspire you to do better. I came to the end of it filled with ideas and a renewed determination to forge stronger, closer bonds with my Deities, Spirits and Ancestors. It was perfect for a beginner like me, but I think those with more experience could benefit from it too.