Hellenismos: Practicing Greek Polytheism Today, by Tony Mierzwicki
Llewellyn Publications, 9780738725932, 312 pp., 2018

Before reading Hellenismos: Practicing Greek Polytheism Today by Tony Mierzwicki, my knowledge of classical Greek religion was pretty spotty, limited to the popular myths and some experience with Homer. So, I have a beginner’s perspective, which makes me squarely a part of the author’s target audience. Mierzwicki doesn’t get into a lot of personal context — and there are certain subjects I wish he would have covered in more depth — but he does do an admirable job of laying out the basics in a way that would allow someone to start practicing Hellenismos (reconstructionist Greek religion) in a clear and doable way.

Hellenismos itself is presented as fairly simple and straightforward. The basic practices involve purification, prayer and sacrifice to the deities of the Greek pantheon. Traditionally, some of these rituals were practiced at home, while others were community celebrations organized by professionals. The home-based rituals take place around a lunar calendar, so particular practices are recommended for the new moon, the full moon, and so on. These all struck me as very doable — requiring minimal time and supplies — though I did need to get out a notebook to keep track of exactly which things were supposed to happen daily, only on certain days, and so on. 

There’s also an overview of the community festivals, based on an annual calendar. Some are described in more detail than others, but overall these seem to be too many and too much work to expect anyone to deal with on their own. The author does mention, though, that not everyone would have celebrated all of these festivals — there’s a sense of permission to adapt and maybe focus on adding a few festivals for gods and goddesses you particularly relate to. 

In an introductory book like this, of course there’s plenty that can’t be covered in depth. There’s a brief overview of magical practice as distinct from religious worship, but if that’s an area of major interest for you, you’ll probably want to add another book on that (and, for what it’s worth, the author does recommend several). You might also consider a book of the traditional Orphic hymns (a few are included in this book, but hymns to many gods are omitted), and a website to consult for the current dates of annual festivals, which fall on different days every year. 

My only real complaint relates to the surprising absence of Persephone. She’s briefly mentioned a few times, but all the major and several lesser-known deities get their own sections, and she comes up mainly in relation to Demeter, with no worship suggestions whatsoever. I’m not sure if this is because she wasn’t actually a big deal in Greek religion and has only gotten more popular in modern times, or if it’s because her worship was a secret part of the mystery cults, which are briefly mentioned but with no practical suggestions. If either is the case, a full explanation and maybe some suggestions for further research would have been helpful. 

In general, I would have appreciated more emphasis on what’s left out of the conversation. While the author does discuss ethical issues in ancient Greece, including the treatment of women and slaves, he does little to address how those imbalances might have played into the historical record. As interesting as it is to learn about how religion was described by educated Greek men, it would have been helpful to have a historical perspective on how the religious lives of other folks in ancient Greece might have varied, and in general how actual practice might have differed from the ideals described in books. 

Still, Hellenismos: Practicing Greek Polytheism Today is a great resource for the beginner looking for a practical introduction to the documents of Hellenismos collected in one place, giving you enough information to get started and a lot of pointers on which directions to go if you want to learn more.