Greek pagans battle government in fight for rites

In the distance, the Acropolis is bathed in the white light of the full moon as the chorus, with arms aloft, chants the name of Zeus into the night. Not an unusual sight in Athens, you might think, only they are not actors, this is not a theatre and there is no tragedy.

These are worshippers of the 12 Olympian gods, a hardy band of Hellenic pagans who have seen their main religious festival – the Olympics – become a bloated commercial extravaganza, their sacred flame sponsored by Coke.

Now they face an uphill battle for religious recognition from the Greek state. But they are having trouble getting anyone to take them seriously.

It is not hard to see why. As the moon reaches its eclipse, fully grown adults with coloured ribbons in their hair, screw their eyes shut to commemorate gods, men and monsters. A mainly middle-aged crowd mill about and incense floats around a plastic Apollo looking down from a blackened teak altar. On his right sits Athena, sporting a fetching, warlike helmet, and underneath, a bare-breasted Aphrodite plays up to her role as the goddess of love.

Georgios, a distinguished lawyer with a turquoise ribbon in his hair to signify the circle of life, cannot see where the credibility problem lies. “The ancient Greeks invented logic, science, medicine and philosophy and built the Parthenon,” he says. “Are you telling me they didn’t know what they were doing when it came to religion?”

Vasileos, a chemical engineer who preferred not give his surname, believes he and his fellow worshippers are the real Greeks, and the 97 per cent of the population registered as Orthodox Christians are impostors. “Who were these early Christians? They were the great unwashed, they had no athletics, no culture and they only had one book: the Bible.”

Panayiotis Marinis, a sexologist and spiritual leader of the group, was born into polytheism on the holiday island of Cephallonia and insists the tradition is still strong in many smaller communities. He says up to 100,000 followers have survived and points to the huge crowds that have followed the Olympic torch since it was lit in a ceremony borrowed straight from their religion.

But the group’s emphasis is on survival in what they say is a long history of religious persecution, up to modern day run-ins with the increasingly vociferous Orthodox Church of Greece who dismiss them as “New Agers”. Dr Marinis says: “We managed to survive despite persecution based on the Justinian Code which directed we be put to death by torture, using metallic objects; and the unquenchable hatred of the Eastern Orthodox Church.”

He claims the Hellenic religion is broadly similar to other primary polytheistic religions such as Hinduism and should be allowed an official place of worship under 1981 human rights legislation. The Greek state is either taking a mythologically long time to decide, or it simply does not agree. Two years have passed since a petition was lodged for recognition and there has been no reply.

So the faithful keep a low profile fearing a return to the bad old days of arrests. Press reports have even accused them of live sacrifices and satan worship. “Thanks to the ties between church and state, Greece does not have human rights or freedom of religion,” Mr Marinis says. These days, the pagans gather in the secular setting of a 21st-century Athens penthouse. But, as Panayiotis Kakkavas confides, the real fun is clandestine visits to ancient temples where they get “properly dressed up” in togas.

The followers of the 12 gods are not short of sacred places; the temples of their forefathers lie in various states of ruin all over the country. But the culture ministry refuses to let them hold ceremonies there.

Their holiest of sites, the Parthenon on the Acropolis mount in central Athens, remains as a frustrating reminder, floating above the modern city. Anyone who doubts the sanctity of Pericles’ architectural jewel should look to our feathered friends, Georgios says. “Have you never noticed that no birds fly over the Acropolis? Even they know it’s a holy place.” He keeps his face perfectly straight.

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The Independent, USA
May 8, 2004
Daniel Howden in Athens

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