Much debate goes on among pagans about reconstructionism, and the degree to which we can, or even should, recreate the ancient rituals, festivals and practices as we carry out our own polytheistic practice. My own position, which I think is fairly common in ADF and other neopagan groups, is that reconstructionism should be a methodology, not an end goal.
Sarah Kate Istra Winter’s new book, Komos: Celebrating Festivals in Contemporary Hellenic Polytheism, reflects just that approach. Focused on contemporary practice of Hellenic religion, particularly in America (though it could be applied anywhere), the book begins with what we can know about ancient practices and then provides a very practical guide to using that information for new, culturally relevant ceremonies.
Winter’s previous book, Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored, was kind of a Hellenism 101, and put its emphasis on solitary home worship. The excellent Hellenic Polytheism : Household Worship (Volume 1) does as well. Komos, by contrast, is centered on festivals, the kind that in ancient Greece would have been full-day or even multi-day affairs organized by the state and attended by thousands. How can solitary or small-group Hellenic pagans, in 21st-Century America, capture the essence of such an event? That is the key question Winter seeks to answer.
For the most part, she succeeds. She does not offer prescribed festivals, ritual scripts or other cookie-cutter approaches. Instead, she advocates understanding what the ancient festivals were intended to commemorate, and then find ways to honor that intent in the practitioner’s location. The book is interactive in the sense that it challenges the reader to do the work rather than using pre-fab scripts.
She is especially insightful in the chapter on localizing practice. She suggests honoring local heroes and historical figures, and the local spirits of the land and waterways. Rather than (or in addition to) celebrating the ancient Greek heroes of myth and legend, she suggests, create a festival to honor the founder of your town, or a prominent person who lived there (in her town, Eugene, Oregon, the author Ken Kesey is one such person).
That’s right, create a festival. Modern practitioners are able to develop entirely new observances that are relevant to our time and place, and Winter’s book provides some very useful guidance for doing just that.
Throughout the book she does offer examples of her own festival celebrations, to show how the principles can be applied, and she offered a list of other books that provide useful information. The onus is on the practitioner, though, to personalize and localize the celebrations — which is how it should be.
If there is any significant fault in Komos, it is its brevity. The book is only 84 pages, making it quick read, but there could have been more supporting and explanatory material in that would have made it even more useful. I would have liked a full chapter, for example, on developing an annual ritual calendar that factors in both festivals and regular home rites. She touches on that, but not in much detail.
All in all, though, Komos is a valuable addition to the growing list of quality books on Hellenic polytheism, and in particular to those resources that go beyond the 101 level. Pick it up on Amazon. Also, read an interview with the author at The Wild Hunt.