Thursday, July 26, 2012

Kharis (Χάρις); our relationship with the Gods

One of the most important practices within Hellenismos and ancient Hellenic orthopraxy is kharis (xάρις). Kharis is--to give an incredibly limited definition--the act of giving to the Gods so They might give something in return. It's religious reciprocity. It's also so much more.

Kharis is an important word. It means everything from beauty to joy, delight, kindness, good will, grace, favor, benefit, boon, charm, attraction, appeal, elegance, gracefulness, pleasure, cheerfulness, wit, gratitude, thankfulness and gratification. It's the name of a Goddess as well; the Goddess of Grace and Beauty. This seems to complicate matters, but it actually ties in pretty well.

When we, in Hellenismos, petition the Gods for aid, we always do so with an offering. This offering can be incense, a libation, a food offering or anything else. It must be something tangible. Good thoughts and intentions don't count. This offering is given freely, joyfully, with pleasure, out of respect and love for the Gods. We ask what we feel we need--sometimes that's a new job, sometimes just a vague sentiment like honor and prosperity to the household--and never expect to be granted this request. Petitions aren't bribery. We give to the Gods and should They feel inclined to grand us our request, we thank Them by offering to them again, to which the Gods might respond, to which we will sacrifice, and so on. This circular practice of voluntary giving is called kharis.

Kharis is one of the pillars of Hellenismos, together with xenia and katharmos. Those who practiced kharis properly in ancient Hellas were seen as humble, grateful and good people in general. Kharis is the base of a good few words we use to describe related acts and characteristics to this day; charisma, for instance, and charity. To word it differently; kharis represents your reputation with a specific Deity.

Building a relationship with the Theoi was vital for the ancient Hellens and it's vital in Hellenismos today. It's the foundation of daily practice, of the large-scale festivals of old, of Xenia, katharmos and the whole of Hellenismos. You can't practice Hellenismos without striving for a reciprocal relationship with the Gods. This means investing in the Theoi; living with Them every day and learning as much about Them as you can. It means leaving bread for the Nymphs, it means upholding your household shrines, it means practicing, even when limited, it means assuming that, when good things happen, it's by the hands of the Gods you have been given this bout of good luck, and thanking Them with offerings.

Petitions were said to have a greater chance of being granted when the sacrifice was grand and--more importantly--done correctly and to the right Deity. While ancient Hellens often petitioned the Gods they had good kharis with, often Gods ruling over certain domains were also appeased. An example from Hómēros' Odysseia as Menelaus is prevented from leaving Pharos;

"Though I was anxious to return, the gods kept me in Egypt, because I failed to offer the right sacrifice, and they want men ever to remember their commandments. Now there is an isle in the sea-surge off the mouth of the Nile, that men call Pharos, a day’s run for a hollow ship with a strong wind astern. There’s a good anchorage there, a harbour from which men launch their trim ships into the waves, when they have drawn fresh black water. The gods kept me there for twenty days, with never a sign of wind on the sea to speed our ship over the wide waters. All my stores, and my crew’s strength would have been lost, if a divinity had not pitied me and saved me. Eidothee, it was, the daughter of mighty Proteus, Old Man of the Sea, because I stirred her heart most of all. She met me as I walked alone, far from my men, who, pinched by hunger, roamed the shore fishing with barbed hooks.

She approached me, saying: “Stranger, are you a fool and slow-witted, or willingly trapped, and happy to suffer? You have been penned here so long you can see no end to it, and your men are losing heart.” So she spoke and I replied: “Whichever of the goddesses you are, I assure you I am not willingly trapped here, but it seems I have sinned against the deathless ones who hold the wide heavens. Tell me, since you gods know everything, which of the immortals holds me here, hindering my path, and tell me how to return over the teeming sea."

Menelaus is prevented from leaving because he has not appeased the right Deity. The appeasing of Deities, ghosts and Daímons is part of Hellenismos as well, and related to kharis. Kharis is build with appeased Gods, ghosts, Daímons as well as petitioned Gods. It was--and is--not uncommon to proclaim 'If I have offered to You once, please, grant my request' when petitioning the Gods for aid. This way, kharis is invoked and the petition has a better chance of being granted.

I need to make a note here, again, to say that the granting of a petition was not expected. It was appreciated, yes, but no one found fault with the Gods if the petition was not fulfilled. They would look into themselves to see if they had done something incorrectly and else assume that by not granting the request, the Gods helped them along anyway. They might seek out oracles for guidance on how best to approach the Gods with this or another problem and offer offerings of gratitude none the less.

Kharis is continuously build with the Deities we petition and honor. Simply reading to Them Their hymns or myths helps build kharis. Offerings of any kind helps build kharis. Dedicating events or activities to a certain God builds kharis; a campfire meeting to Hestia, for example, or the victory in a soccer match to Nikè. There are countless of ways to involve the Theoi in your daily life and build a relationship with Them. One of the most fundamental ways is to be ever-mindful of your kharis with a certain deity and to build upon the foundation you have. 


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