Pagans fight for divine rights of old Greek gods

IN THE shadow of Mount Olympus the toga-clad worshippers sway to the beating of a drum as the bearded man leading the ceremony throws a pinch of grain into a torch, then circles his hand above the flames.

While the group, dressed in yellow, red and blue robes, may appear to be taking part in some bewildering historical re-enactment, they are members a growing pagan movement dedicated to resurrecting the religion and way of life of ancient Greece.

The pagans have gathered in a meadow near the sacred mountain where their ancestors believed the gods lived and held court to perform a naming ceremony for a nine-month-old boy, Nikoforos Xanthopoulos.

The bearded man officiating, Tryphon Olympios, 58, from Skliva in southern Greece, was a philosophy professor at Stockholm University for 25 years.

"May he be worthy of being Greek" Olympios calls out.

"Worthy," the crowd roars in response.

Leaders of the "return of the Hellenes" movement say they have 2,000 "hard-core" practising followers, about 5,000 who travel to Mount Olympus, 100km southwest of the city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece, for the annual celebration, and 100,000 "sympathisers" who support their ideas.

The colourful Hellenes are viewed with interest by many in Greek society but largely ridiculed by the media. Yet their unsuccessful efforts to be recognised as an "official" Greek religion highlight Greece’s intolerance of the expression of non-Christian religions.

Olympios - now his legal name - is one of the founders of the revival. He first attracted national media attention when he publicly married his wife in an ancient ceremony in 1987.

"We want to take the world view, concepts, ideas, religion and values of the ancient Greeks, the founders of western civilisation, and adapt them to today," Olympios explained. "The Greek way is to establish a scientific society. Christianity today is hostile to science."

The Hellenes have dozens of websites and books on ancient history, culture and ideas. Ancient Greek language courses and unofficial associations are popping up throughout the country. They also hold ancient ceremonies for weddings and funerals, although only the rites of Greek Orthodox Christian clergy are legally recognised.

"We think of Carl Sagan as a Greek, and all the people in the world who love knowledge and don’t hate others," said Giannis Psomiadis, 48, a medical doctor at the naming ceremony. "We wouldn’t have Socrates or Plato without polytheism."

One of the group’s followers is Cornelia Buschbeck. The 32-year-old from Chemnitz, in the former East Germany, was wearing a white T-shirt showing a picture of a bust of Zeus.

She started teaching herself Greek at 15, and later obtained university degrees in Greek and archeology. She moved to Thessaloniki eight years ago.

"It’s a religion from here," said Buschbeck, placing a hand on her heart, "rather than here," pointing to her head.

Buschbeck explained that Hellenes do not worship the pantheon of 12 gods as deities. Rather, each god represents a natural phenomena or human value.

The movement appeals to many different tastes: for some it provides an intellectually satisfying philosophy, for others an antidote to the Greek Church’s political power, New Age reverence for the ancient or something exotic for the curiosity-seeker.

However, the movement has also attracted a small number of more sinister followers; right-wing nationalists who believe their anti-Semitic views are reflected in its rejection of the Judeo-Christian religion.

Meanwhile, the Hellenes are viewed with disdain by the Greek Orthodox Church.

About 200 yards from the meadow where the naming ceremony was being held, a small crowd filed out of a stone Christian church, following a baptism. When the priest was asked for comment, he responded with hostility: "I have only one word to say about them: idolaters."

The Hellenes still mourn the end of their civilisation in the 4th Century AD, when Christians representing the new official religion of the Roman Empire began destroying their temples, statues and libraries.

"The Greek Orthodox Christian Church is still at the scene of the crime," said Vlassis Rassias, a human resources manager at a bank, who writes books about ancient Greek history. The 44-year-old is indignant that the Greek Orthodox Church today builds new churches at every site where an ancient temple is uncovered.

One group of Hellenes, led by Panaghiotis Marinis, from the Committee for the Recognition of the Greek Religion Dodecatheon, applied two years ago for the movement to be officially recognised. The Greek government has still to make a decision on the application and, without official recognition, the group cannot build temples, have an office, or hold public ceremonies.

"We are the only religion in the world not allowed to visit our sacred sites," said Marinis. He intends to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if the Greek government does not act.

According to the US State Department’s 2002 human rights report on Greece: "Laws restrictive of freedom of speech remained in force, and some legal restrictions and administrative obstacles on freedom of religion persisted."

Making Greek society more tolerant will not be easy. According to official figures, 98% of Greeks are Greek Orthodox Christians. And Hellenes report occasional harassment. During one ceremony at a lake near Mount Olympus, Buschbeck recalls, the local Greek Orthodox Christian Bishop and some monks led a group of 100 people to the other side of the lake to oppose them. The Bishop shouted at them through a megaphone, and played cloister music through a PA system to drown out their ceremony.

"The Bishop said they would have to throw a cross in the lake to cleanse it of us," Buschbeck said. When the Hellenes complained to police, they were told it would be better that they leave, rather than have a stand-off with the Bishop.

At the Greek Ministry of National Education and Religious Affairs, Konstantinos Kontogiannis, general director of the religion directorate, claimed recognition of the movement was being considered "at the highest levels". But he added:

"We might love Manchester United, but we can’t say it’s a religion."