On LABRYS’ ‘Household Worship’

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1 Introduction

In 2014, the LABRYS Religious Community (off-site link), a Greek organization for Hellenic Polytheism, published a 157-page book titled Household Worship (originally written in Greek by C. P. Panopoulos, P. Panagiotopoulos and E. Armyras, and translated into English by M. R. Madytinos and L. Madytinou). The slender volume immediately became a widely recommended resource in English-language Hellenic Polytheism, and understandably so. There is a dearth of good introductory handbooks, and of the few that exist, this is one of the most usable.

There is no reason, however, to be content with this if the best we have is still unsatisfactory, and in my view at least, there are countless minor issues, and also a fundamental flaw in how the book represents itself. As the blurb says, Household Worship outlines “the central concepts and basic guidelines to the ceremonies that form a part of Hellenic Household Worship as has been established and practiced by the ‘LABRYS’ Polytheistic Community in Hellas (Greece)” – but it also claims to be explaining to newcomers how “to worship the Hellenic Gods in a traditional manner.” To put it bluntly, these two goals are in tension, and Household Worship distinctly neglects the latter for the former.


2 On the Ceremonies (pp. 91–156)

Now, to be clear, the authors are open about the specificity of their project. They acknowledge that “these particular rites are representative of the beliefs of the members of the Labrys Devotional Community” (p. 145); that one of their rites, the Heliodites, is “a modern ceremony” (p. 113); that the “hymns and prayers” they use “have been selected or adapted” and “are only guidelines” (p. 92). Nevertheless, by claiming at the very outset of the section that “the more common household ceremonies are presented in the simplest form possible” (p. 91), they strongly imply that what they describe is a kind of minimum that may be further expanded upon, when in reality, they are arbitrary elaborations of (in most cases) little more than a few vague hints from ancient sources.

Take “the basic structure” (p. 91), which is introduced before any of the caveats I have just quoted, and thus appears to be exempt from them:

  • “Preparation and opening of a ceremony: it may include full ritual cleansing or a little time of internal mental preparation according to personal needs and special circumstances.
  • “Lighting of the hearth fire – if an eternal fire is not kept in the home, one is lit, usually accompanied by the Orphic Hymn to Hestia or another such hymn or prayer.
  • “Placement of offerings and lighting of incense.
  • “Opening of ceremony, first invocation.
  • “Hymns/prayers, accompanied by libations.
  • “Closing of the ceremony, and thanks giving [sic].”

In fact, even this seems to be purely their invention, and at any rate has no claim to normative force. Firstly, unless worship directly involves the hearth fire, there seems to be no reason to light one. The fire of the hearth has essentially the same function as the flame of an altar, the burning coals of a censer for incense, or a fireless offering table: it is a medium for offerings. There is, of course, no reason not to invoke Hestia whenever a ritual fire is lit, but there is also no real reason to believe that this was the done thing in antiquity.

Secondly, the order of offerings – incense – invocation – hymns + libations – thanksgiving is arbitrary. Unless libations are poured over a burnt offering, there is no reason to make them after the main offering; nor does incense burning need to precede prayer; invocations are usually part of hymns rather than a separate action; and to my recollection, the notion of formally ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ a ceremony does not feature in ancient Greek sources. In short, while this order of steps is not wrong, it is also not more correct than others.

One can certainly do much better for beginners than to tell them that they need an open flame and so-and-so-many steps in a definite order to perform a rite “in the simplest form possible”. A more user-friendly “basic structure” would run as follows:

  • Purify (clean) yourself and ritual implements.
  • Make offerings (be it incense, libations, etc.) through an appropriate medium or platform (hearthfire, burning altar, offering table, incense burner, dish for libations, etc.).
  • Before, during and/or after offerings, say a prayer (or hymn).

Which may be satisfied by something as simple as this:

  • Wash your hands and a small vase.
  • Place a sunflower in the vase.
  • Say (or think), “O radiant Sun, I pray for your blessings.”
  • (Remove or replace flowers as they begin to wilt.)

Or:

  • Wipe a table and wash your hands.
  • Set a plate of fruit on the table and say, “I offer this produce in thanksgiving to Demeter and Dionysus, who provided it, so that we may always continue to have what we need.”
  • (After a few hours, or even days depending on ripeness and availability of space, place the fruit elsewhere so that it can be eaten by members of the household.)

For more elaborate rituals, of course, a more definite structure is required, especially in a group setting, but those are not basic requirements. Their structure will also not hold to some universal rule, but organically develop in divergent directions.


3 On the Purification Ceremony (pp. 95–98)

I do not think it is necessary to address the actual ceremonies laid out in Household Worship. They are not really objectionable, but also only very loosely based on ancient evidence, so that there is simply not much to discuss. Only the purification ceremony demands some comment, because, as the authors (rightly) tell us, “purification is central to Hellenic Worship” (p. 95).

One element of the introduction to this ritual I find dubious is the claim that “[b]efore beginning the purification rite, it is important to bathe and rid the body of toxins through a cleansing diet.” The latter idea (cleasing ‘toxins’) is modern pseudo-science – in antiquity, different rites required various different dietary restrictions. The former is simply impracticable, expecially if this ceremony is really to be “used before prayer or other household ceremonies”. Beyond ordinary cleanliness (which would be equally fulfilled by a shower or the like), ancient texts typically mention only the washing of hands as a prerequisite for prayer and worship.

The actual rite is a less than entirely successful combination of several elements. Based on ancient rituals in which young men engaged in noisy dances using bronze implements, imitating the divine Curetes or Corybantes, the LABRYS purification ceremony employs two Orphic Hymns (not designated as such), one to the Curetes (OH 38) and one to Corybas (OH 39), which include prayers that are vaguely along the lines of purification. The practitioner is also instructed to produce noise with a bronze implement (p. 96), although in the ritual situation implied by the text of the hymns, the speaker of the hymn in no way takes on the role of a Curetic dancer or noise-maker. In my view, the authors should have chosen to follow the logic of the Orphic Hymns they selected, or to write a ritual more akin to ancient descriptions of Curetic dances; the present arrangement is somewhat incongruous.

Before the hymns, an opening in which the deities are invoked is added; this is structurally superfluous, as the hymns themselves begin with invocations.

The invocation and translation of OH 39 also show a certain incomprehension of the ancient Greek, as Corybas is referred to as Koryvanta. This is not the ordinary modern Greek singular, which would be Koryva, nor the ancient Greek, which would be Korybas, but the ancient accusative (Κορύβαντα) in modern Greek pronunciation. In the original Greek of OH 39.4, this is the correct form to use; in translation (be it modern Greek or English), it is not. That is a mere slip, but the translation of OH 39 also contains a gross mistake in referring to “Zeous [Zeus in feminine form]”. In fact, the original Greek reads Dēoûs, i.e., ‘of Dēō’, which is a very common poetic name for Demeter.

In another incongruity, the vaguely purificatory hymns to Curetes and Corybas are followed by an original hymn to purificatory Apollon. This latter would really have sufficed for the purpose of purification, and has no organic connection (historically or in the ceremony as written) to the Curetic rites.

Finally, the ceremony closes with the words Êkas, Êkas, ostis alitros, to be repeated seven times. This is from Callimachus, Hymn 2.2, “Begone, begone, whoever is wicked” (hekàs hekàs hóstis alitrós), but in the original context, it refers to the impious or uninitiated, who are warned off at the outset of the ritual. In the LABRYS ritual, the ‘wicked’ are supposed to be daemons, which does not work well with the semantics of alitrós. So, even if the rest is retained, the function of this word would be much better served by ponērós, which is consistently used with daemons (rather than impious persons, as with alitrós).

In summary, while this ritual certainly can be performed as-is, and is at this point perhaps hallowed as tradition by its use in the LABRYS community, it is not exactly an expertly composed ceremony, and I do not see how a beginner would not be better served by simply reciting the hymn to Corybas (OH 39) and making an incense offering, or simply improvising a short prayer for purification or protection.


4 On Offerings and Tokens (pp. 47–65)

This chapter lists offerings, tokens/symbols, colors, sacred animals and plants/fruits for each of the following deities: Athena, Apollon, Ares, Artemis, Asklepios, Aphrodite, Demetra, Dionysos, Zeus, Hekate, Hermes, Hestia, Hera, Heracles, Hephaistos, Pan, Plouton, Poseidon. (The order of the names is based on the modern Greek spelling, which is why Zeus – modern Greek Dias – comes after Dionysos.)

From a cursory reading, I believe that the information is largely, perhaps even entirely based on some ancient textual or archeological sourcing, but it is given in too compressed a fashion to really be usable. For Hestia, for instance, we are given the following (p. 59):

  • Offerings: various fragrances of incense” – true, but also true of all other gods.
  • Tokens/symbols: fire, altar, veil” – again correct, but in completely different ways: Hestia is represented by the hearthfire itself, to which the fire on an altar can be analogous; but if she is depicted anthropomorphically, it is sometimes with a veil. But altar and veil are too general to reliably symbolize the goddess, whereas fire is often identified with her!
  • Colour: white” – I do not know the source or application for this.

Thus, without conscientious citations (the few footnotes that are given do not suffice), it is impossible to really make use of this information in a historically informed manner. (And if history does not matter, why care about precedent at all?) There is also no advice on how to find such information for other deities, nor (as far as I could see) about offerings that are appropriate to larger groups of gods, or for collective offerings to the gods as a whole.


5 On Prayers and Hymns (pp. 67–71)

With regard to this chapter (the last I will discuss), I wish only to correct two serious blunders. Firstly, the claim that hymns typically do not contain prayers is simply incorrect; examples of hymns that do not end in a prayer are in fact rare.

Secondly, a quotation from A. P. Ragavi, according to which Persians and Egyptians leaned down “like four-legged dogs” in worship, “while the Hellenes slightly bent the knee and body”, is racist nonsense. There may (at certain periods) have been differences in how kings were honored, but prostration to the gods was part of Greek devotional practice – and even if it had not been, it would not justify dehumanizing comparisons of non-Greeks to animals.


6 Conclusion

Although Household Worship does better than some of the alternatives, it is beset by many of the same problems that plague contemporary polytheistic publications: insufficient understanding of the primary sources, bad citation practices, shoddy editing, and an all-pervasive uncertainty about what we are really talking about (Athenian history? transhistorical normativity? modern examples? – somehow all and none of these).

Much of the specificity of the advice is difficult to put into use without further research, or simply impracticable without significant expense of time and money. For a book so focussed on ceremonial practicalities, concrete advice for the solitary practitioner setting out to establish simple household devotions is curiously lacking, unless their interests happen to fall squarely in line with those of the authors.

In short, LABRYS’ Household Worship is bogged down by concurrent superficiality and over-elaboration, severely limiting the applicability of what is meant to be a straightforward practical guide.