SPORTS

Ancient gods seek place in modern Greece

In a sweet Athenian spring evening with the sacred rock of the Acropolis bathed in the white light of a full moon, a chorus of voices join in prayer, chanting: «Hail Zeus!» The voices are not those of actors in some ancient tragedy or Olympic ceremony, but a group of modern-day Athenians solemnly worshipping the Olympian Gods. Long before the Olympic Games became a rich commercial bonanza, they were among the most important religious festivals of the ancient Greeks, held in honor of the heavenly 12 of Mount Olympus. Now, as the Games return to their birthplace in August, a small group of Greeks are pressing for official acknowledgment of their pre-Christian roots. They have applied for formal religious recognition and sought court injunctions against the commercial exploitation of their religious symbols by organizers of Athens 2004. The trouble is, no-one is taking them seriously. In some cases, they even face prosecution for participating in an illegal cult. While Classical Greece is revered as the seat of Western civilization, its gods, heroes and monsters are more commonly associated these days with the muscle-bound characters in American-made cartoons. Gathered on the balcony of a 21st century Athens penthouse, adults stand with their eyes screwed shut, hands aloft and colored ribbons in their hair as the moon is eclipsed. A plastic God Apollon looks down nobly from his black teak altar. On his right, Athena is wearing a warlike helmet, while an image of a bare-breasted Aphrodite recalls her status as the Goddess of love. The worshippers finish their ceremony by linking arms to form a circle. Vassileos, a chemical engineer who preferred not to give his surname, is convinced that he and his fellow worshippers are the real Greeks and that 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.» Giorgos, 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. Are you telling me they didn’t know what they were doing when it came to religion?» he asked. Panayiotis Marinis, a doctor and spiritual leader of the group, was born into a family of polytheists in the tiny village of Kithra on the island of Cephalonia. He said the tradition was still strong in many smaller communities. «My family were believers, a lot of people in our village were,» he said. He pointed to the huge crowds who have followed the Olympic torch since it was lit in a ceremony borrowed straight from the traditions of their religion. Marinis estimated there were as many as 100,000 followers of the 12 gods spread around Greece but that they were no closer to getting state recognition. They have been waiting two years for an answer to a petition for an official place of worship to the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs. In the meantime, they are keen to correct some popular assumptions about them. Marinis said they did not believe that Zeus actually lived on Mt Olympus in northern Greece, though it is considered a holy site on a par with Mt Sinai. Many in the group are unimpressed by Orthodox Christianity, which they regard as an unwanted visitor to Greek shores. «Christianity was the first form of globalization,» said Doretta, a writer. «To us a god is not a boss, he is a friend, and you can fall out with friends – look at Odysseus and Poseidon,» she added in reference to a famous spat between the Greek warrior and the god of the sea. Giorgos was keen to point out that mythology should not be taken too literally: «It is allegorical; it is like symbolic theology. Hercules didn’t do battle with a Hydra; it is an allegory about battling the many-headed desires within all of us,» he said. Aside from the ribbons, statues and incense, the gathering could be mistaken for an archaeologists’ meeting. But it is not always thus. Panayiotis Kakkavas said the group got «properly dressed up» with togas and, in some cases, head-dress for outdoor celebrations at archaeological sites around Greece. The rituals are carried out in secret, as the country’s Culture Ministry refuses official permission. Their holiest site, the Acropolis, still referred to by most Greeks as the «sacred rock,» is out of bounds. But anyone who doubts its sanctity should look to birds for confirmation, the group said. «Have you never noticed that no birds fly over the Acropolis? Even they know it’s a holy place,» said Giorgos.