'I'm the first highest female representative of a religion in the whole world.' Doreta Peppa is the spokeswoman for Ellinais, one of the associations of the Greek polytheists. The movement inspired by the belief in the plurality of gods is currently undergoing a media revival, whilst in the same stroke suffering internal fragmentation between various other groups who also claim to be polytheist - without managing to agree on what being polytheist actually is.
Ellinais HQ lies on the first floor of a building tucked away in a quiet street just behind the Acropolis. The windows are barred with metal, and the main office appears deserted. In the stark interior four books lie on a tiny bookcase to the right, whilst a plaster sculpture stands at the opposing end of the room.
High priestess Peppa shows up within seconds. The newfound celebrity has been splashed all over the media of late, after the Ellinais association held a landmark ceremony at the Temple of Olympian Zeus on 21 January 2007. With her hoarse voice, dishevelled hair and glitter-varnished nails, Peppa begins the conversation in the presence of three other association members. 'We are a religion,' she explains. 'Justice has recognised us as a religion. It's the state that is waging war against us,' she adds, 'which with its affiliation to the church doesn´t allow us to operate peacefully. We are not battling the beliefs of the conservative Orthodox church, but the dictatorship they enforce on the Greek people.'
Neopaganism as a religion?
Peppa isn´t 100% spot on when she says that 'justice has recognised' her movement as a religion. More accurately, Ellinais has been recognised as a 'cultural association with a religious goal' by a tribunal. Today, there is no formal legal mechanism to gain the status of 'recognised religion' in Greece. The only way forward for minority 'religions' is to ask the Ministry of National Education and Religious Affairs to provide grounds for religious worship. Once recognised, they gain the legal status of 'religious community.' This differs from the status of 'spiritual community' which any association can apply for once they have formally applied to the court - like Ellinais.
'The religious community in question then becomes a ´recognised' religion,' explains Yannis Katistakis, researcher and lawyer in international public law. 'There´s no other legal procedure,' says the specialist in minority religions. In this way, these organisations manage to have the same advantages as the Orthodox church, such as in fiscal terms.
Article thirteen of the Greek constitution guarantees the 'freedom of religion' in this southern end of the Balkan peninsula. But Greece has two particularities with respect to other European member states laws on minority religions. On the one hand, the constitution helps the Orthodox church be all-powerful. The second curiosity – or Greek exception as it were - is that article three of the constitution protects the holy scriptures of the dominating church. It´s the only European constitution which does this.
'The Greek system is one of the least secular in Europe,' explains lawyer Ktistakis. The Orthodox church benefits from public funds, receives subventions and the state pays all its priests. But no public service is there to verify nor investigate the management nor outgoings of the church itself. So they get all the advantages from the public administration, but at the same time maintain an autonomous status where the state doesn´t have authorisation.
There´s plenty of diversions of opinion and rivalry between similar groups which are trying to re-establish the old Hellenic religion in Greece. 'Politheism is an ancient religion which has existed in Greece for many years and which finds itself in the mythical sphere,' according to Father Kyriakos, a representative of the Orthodox church. 'To be recognised as a religion,' he continues, 'it has to first find a consensus in amongst the different groups. They are more in confrontation with one another than with the Orthodox church itself.'
The politheist Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes (YSEE) headquarters lie on the second floor of a modestly decorated building. Dressed in virgin white, six priests – four men and two women – begin a pagan ritual and offer prayers to Zeus, Hera, and the ten other ancient Greek gods. They surround an altar decorated with grass, statues, wine and incense, its stark scent invading the hall. With more than 1, 000 members, it is gearing up to mark its tenth anniversary this year.
Earlier, various members put the final touches to celebratory party preparations for the night. 'We represent the native religion of this country,' explains Vlassis G. Rassias, one of the members. 'We are not a cultural association with religious intentions.' Above all, these politheists criticise the 'theocracy' which the Orthodox church exercises over the Greek people and Ellinais. 'Ellinais have been misinforming people by confronting politheism with the state. And they shouldn't provoke arguments over insisting on having their religious services on ancient archaeological sites. They try to shove us all in the same bag,' affirms Rassias. 'This worsens the problem,' agrees lawyer Ktistakis.
Place of worship, object of discord
These archaeological sites 'have a huge energetic strength,' justifies Peppa. But there´s an entire procedure to follow to be able to hold ceremonies in these 'energetic points'; to pray on the grounds of ancient Greek monuments, permission is first required from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture to whom they belong. 'Even if the Orthodox church wants to have a liturgy in the grounds of a historic monument like a Byzantine church, we need the ministry´s go-ahead, and we don´t always get it,' explains Orthodox priest Kyriakos.
Be it internal confrontations or legal and bureacucratic difficulties which minority religions need to become 'recognised' in Greece, the politheists continue to pray to the goddess Athena to justify their cause, whilst waiting for news from Niké – goddess of victory.
Translated from the Catalan to the Spanish by Jose Luís Dolz