Imagine

medievalImagine a world where Catholicism was suppressed and vanished in c. 1000. And now imagine that a group of people decide to revive it in c. 2000. So they start wearing medieval clothing, gather at religious feasts where they eat mostly or entirely medieval dishes, refuse to worship saints that were not recognized as such by the medieval Church, structure their beliefs based on the writings of pre-1000 theologians and perform both private and public religious ceremonies that reproduce those of c. 900 – including clothing, replicas of ritual tools and the use of Latin. Compared with modern Catholics, these would-be medieval folks look pretty out of touch, outdated even, if not outright fossilized. And yet their actions are akin to those of some modern-day polytheists.

It’s true that there is a difference. Modern Catholicism is a world apart from its medieval version because it has evolved as a living religion, often by pressure of wider society, whereas Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Norse, Celtic or Canaanite polytheisms were suppressed centuries ago and can only be revived if people connect with the historical expressions of those religions. To that end, you need to immerse yourself in ancient cultures in order to see and experience things the way they did, which in turn allows for a greater understanding of their practices and beliefs. Yet this is not an end in itself; or at least it shouldn’t be. The point of immersion in ancient cultures is to understand what is essential and what is non-essential in the ancient religion you’re striving to revive. What is appearance and what is principle. What is social and what is religious. In other words, the point is to re-emerge carrying basic notions into a modern context. If you stay immersed, you’re not reviving an ancient religion: you’re re-enacting it or, to use Dver‘s words, fetishising an ancient culture.

Of course, this is not to say that you should do away with every trace of the past as if it was outdated trash. That would be as radical as trying to go back in time. Respect and reverence for the ancient world is a good thing, especially when your religion is rooted in it, but, again, one thing is respect and quite another is fetishising or fossilising. Traditional Shinto priests, for instance, wear clothes that are modelled after those of court officials of the Heian period (c.800 – c.1200 CE), which is to say that during ceremonial events, they put on ceremonial robes. Yet most of those simply attending don’t wear medieval clothing and instead use what today is deemed as well-dressed or modern formal wear. In the same manner, Catholics don’t put on medieval clothing while attending mass, though a Catholic priest wears robes whose origins go back several centuries. There’s a difference between conducting the ritual-religious and living in the mundane, the former being more conservative than the latter (especially in orthopraxic religions). And even ritual forms change as social context mutates: ancient Jewish communal worship involved sacrificial offerings, but after the destruction of the second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE, it fully morphed into a form that we recognize today. This is an extreme example, granted, but the basic idea stands: context changes living things, including religious ritual, which may remain rooted in the past, but will evolve together with trends, ideas, conditions and social practices. And this is equally true for beliefs.

shinto 01

So Romans conducted their religious ceremony in Latin? Why wouldn’t they? It was their native language! Which means that if you’re interested in reviving their religion, as opposed to simply re-enacting it, you can use your own native tongue in religious ceremonies. Add a few Latin words for a sense of connection with the past, if you will, especially if you don’t speak a romance language, but replicate the principle and not the appearance. Romans used togas during religious events? Of course they did: it was formal clothing at the time! So follow the basic idea by dressing nicely to attend a ceremony instead of imitating the appearance by wearing a toga. Romans never syncretised a Mayan or Japanese god with a Latin one and therefore modern cultores shouldn’t do it either? Ridiculous! The only reason why Romans never did it is because they never came in contact with Mayan or Japanese culture. Unless you want to live in the past instead of reviving an ancient religion in the modern world, you can follow the old practice by syncretising whichever deities you know just as ancient Romans syncretised gods they knew. Singers, poets and political leaders who lived after the 5th century should not be worshiped because doing so would be unhistorical? Again, ridiculous! That’s practising a fossilized religion, not a living one! If Romans honoured heroes and venerable dead known in the ancient world, you can imitate the principle by honouring heroes that lived after the fall of the Roman Empire.

To argue that to use a modern language in a religious ceremony, to worship Jim Morrison as a Bacchic hero and prophet or to syncretise Mercury with Inari is any less genuine or worthy because it is not something the ancient Romans did, is as ridiculous as claiming that modern Catholicism is not genuine because it is different from its c. 900 form. You don’t have to live in a medieval fantasy in order to be an honest, modern Catholic, just as you don’t have to agree with Cicero, take Marcus Aurelius as gospel, speak fluent Latin, wear Roman clothing or stick to what the Romans did in order to be a true, modern Roman polytheist. Unless you want to have a fossilized practice or be the polytheistic equivalent of the Society St. Pius X, you’re free to grow past the historical forms and give new, rooted shapes to an old religion and still be a good cultor or cultrix.

After a vow

Several years ago, I made a vow to Diana when one of my dogs had to undergo a life-saving surgery. The procedure was successful and so once my pet was fully recovered, I fulfilled my promise and erected an altar of heaped stones to Diana. I picked a site in a nearby valley with several springs and dense woods and the altar has been standing there ever since. It does need to be rebuilt at least once a year, since the winter rains normally flood the area and the heap of stones tends to collapse in the process. Pass-byers and city hall workers seem to have grown used to it and appear to let it be, for whenever the grass is cut to keep the nearby path clear, they go around the altar.

Altar Diana 11

Rebuilding it has become a sort of family tradition. My mother and I used to do it on June 20th, which was the anniversary of the fulfilment of the vow, but our dog passed away last year, so the date lost some of its significance. Still, Diana is honoured at our home as one of the protectors of our pets, the other being Mercury, since strays and homeless are part of His people and our dogs we picked up from the streets. Which is why in our New Year ceremony, Diana receives offerings for their well-being and every year, on August 13th, me and my mother go on a sort of pilgrimage to our altar to Her. We walk a distance of around three kilometres, carrying flowers, food and drink, and rebuild the heap of stones on the spot where it’s been for years.

This year was no different, though we had to do it on the nearest Sunday, which was August 10th. We thought about taking our dogs with us, but the weather was too hot and rebuilding the altar takes a considerable amount of time, so even under a shade, it would be a tiresome experience for them. As such, we went for ourselves and did the job, at one point under the gaze of two backpackers that passed by. And three days later, on August 13th, after making and burning the Ides’ offerings, I went there by myself to offer a tribute to Diana. I poured wine for Janus, water for the local genii, and milk along with wheat, flowers and an apple for the goddess. And when I got back home, I offered my dogs a special treat. After all, Nemoralia is also their day.

A sign?

And about five hours after publishing the previous post on whether I’m in a Hermes matryoshka, I found a coin on a crossroads. It wasn’t on a spot I normally walk by, but one of my dogs insisted on going that particular way and I didn’t feel like contradicting it. And after I crossed the road, there it was on the sidewalk: a shiny one cent coin. Spontaneous divination? A nod?


Like a matryoshka

Sometimes, you wonder about the bigger picture, the wider perspective where things fall in place like pieces of a larger puzzle. For good or for bad, being an historian means that I have the habit of thinking about that a lot, since I’m expected to detect long-term trends that go beyond the immediate consequences of specific events. So when I wondered about being on a Hermes trip, my mind sort of saved the idea in the back of my head and kept working on it while I moved on with my everyday life. Until it produced a new thought two or three days ago.

When I first wondered about a hermetic pattern, I considered it from the point where Mercury became part of my religious life. There was certainly a background, one that made it extremely easy for Him to become a focal point of my practices in a short amount of time, but the square one was that online conversation, as well as my first prayer and offering to Him. But then my mind wondered about the differences between conscious and unconscious religious life, at which point it triggered another idea: what if the Hermes trip can be traced to long before that initial hello to Mercury? So I gave it a thought, connected a few dots and eventually reached the question of whether I’ve been on a road that’s part of a wider road which in turn is part of a greater individual trip. Like a Russian matryoshka doll, where a series figurines are inside larger ones.

See, the reason why I specialized in a particular field of History is because in my early days as a pagan, I gained an interest in Ingui-Freyr after going through an encyclopaedia my parents have at home. Eventually, that interest became religious, leading me to Heathenry, and in an effort to understand the native culture and cult of the god, I started doing research on Norse History and mythology. In fact, religious devotion and academic work nurtured each other. That’s nothing new among reconstructionist polytheists, but it was that dynamic that led me to Sweden to do a Master’s in History a few years later. If I had not developed an interest in Freyr and Heathenry, things might have happened differently. But I did and while I was in Sweden, I first researched about what later became my doctoral topic, which is now taking the form of a book to be proposed for publication. At the same time, it was after coming back from Sweden that I turned to Roman polytheism and it was during my PhD that I started working on a Latin cult of Freyr and began worshiping Mercury. In a way, it all fits and the dots connect.

So if I’m on a Hermes trip, I’m wondering how far back it stretches and how big it is. Because when I think about it, I am where I am because at some point in my life I was, so to speak, a guest at Freyr’s place. He was truly a patron, in the most practical sense of the word, in that He hosted and nurtured my interest in a given topic, leading me to where I am today. And now I find myself doing that very hermetic thing that is bridging worlds, be it by translating a Norse cult into a Latin context, taking it from one cultural realm to another, or by working Norse topics in Portuguese academia (or vice-versa). I guess you can call it “liminaling”, i.e. doing things in a liminal fashion, with one foot in a world and another in a different one. All thanks to that initial look at the letter F in an encyclopaedia fifteen years ago and the ensuing religious interest. So I guess the question now is how far my devotion to Ingui-Freyr is actually a doll inside a larger Hermes matryoshka? Of course, this may be nothing more than my mind trying to find rational patterns in a series of random events. That possibility is always there, but so is its opposite and I wonder if there’s a winged foot behind the whole thing. This calls for divination…

More on roots

On the matter of roots or the realization that there’s a re-enactor’s mentality that’s sadly common among Roman polytheists, go and read Dver’s blogpost on Reconstructionism. She’s not a Roman cultrix, but what she wrote can be easily applied to a significant part of the modern cultus.

Because the thing is, I think Recon is a very good initial methodology when approaching the gods of an ancient religion. But when taken too far, it risks fetishizing the culture – in other words, humans – rather than focusing on how best to honor the gods. Once again, it becomes an issue of “It’s Not About Us.

I wonder…

HAT

First it was Mercury, who, to my knowledge, came into my life during an online conversation with a Hellenic friend of mine. The Facebook chat kept failing every few minutes, so my friend commented that Hermes was having fun with us. And that was the seed. Internet glitches, a laugh and the race was on. When I say Mercury showed up like a sudden gust of wind, that’s because He did. I did not see it coming, but He quickly made Himself at home. And I reckon I pulled a chair or two for Him to sit on, ’cause once the seed was planted, it soon became obvious that Him and I have multiple common interests: sports, writing, research, long-distance trekking, travelling, humour and dogs, including the stray kind, of which me and my parents are usual adopters or feeders. Interestingly enough, our newest dog was sitting in the middle of a road when I my mother drove by on the same day my father got a job offer. She stopped the car to see if the animal was alright, but as soon as she opened the door, the dog jumped right in. Next stop: a new home! And then we sometimes go the extra mile to help lost travels and tourists: several years ago, we drove 15 kilometres just to lead a group of motorcyclists to a nearby main road and, when I was a kid, we invited a Belgium tourist to dine with us, after we led him to the local camping park. Which, come to think of it, may not have been the safest thing to do, since he was a complete stranger, but what the heck. It all went well. I guess there is a reason why my mom loves our domestic shrine to Mercury and says she feels good next to it. Or why I found a 5 Euros banknote on the floor of a crowded canteen by the time the mailman delivered my caduceus pendant; the same 5 Euros I then used to buy a lottery ticket and got a 25 Euros prize out of it. And did I mention that I was born on a Wednesday of May? Yeah…

So this is how or why Mercury came to be such a huge part of my life in just a couple of years. About two months before that started to happen, I added the Egyptian god Khnum to my religious life, for reasons that are completely unrelated to Mercury. Yet the Potter of the Nile did open the flood gates (now there’s a good metaphor for a water god), in that before Him I did not consider worshiping Kemetic gods. I knew they were out there, but they were also outside my cultural focus, which already had to juggle between Roman and Norse pantheons. And this despite the fact that, as a child and I guess like many other children, I had a fascination for ancient Egypt. In fact, the only book I ever borrowed from my high school’s library was on Egyptian mythology. From then until 2011, the only two Kemetic gods that caught my eye were Anubis and Thoth, for obvious reasons: a dog-friend like myself has a hard time resisting a dog-headed deity and the ibis god presides over writing, study and books, which is right up my alley. But, like I said, I never considered worshiping Them, even if They were on the back of my head. Until Khnum opened the gates, followed by Anubis several months later. And now it may be Thoth’s turn… perhaps. I honestly don’t know.

See, I’m increasingly a writer. I’m working on a book right now and there’s a second project down the road. Not to mention the academic papers, which I’m trying to keep at a rate of at least two per year on peer review journals. And when I’m not writing, I’m speaking in public or teaching classes on History and mythology; or publishing posts here. A few weeks ago, as I was writing, Thoth clicked. There’s really no other way of putting this. I wasn’t watching any Egypt-related movie or show, I haven’t been reading on the topic, nor was I working on a text in any way connected. Out of the blue, as I was writing, my mind pointed the lights at Thoth. And just like Mercury a few years ago after the initial seed was planted, He’s been in my head ever since. What I’m going to do about it is yet unclear. It may be an involuntary mental connection, linking a childhood reference with the very action I was doing at the moment. Perhaps He’s saying hi or perhaps it was just my subconscious empathizing with a god I can naturally relate to, with no move from His part.

And then another thought occurred to me: first Mercury, then Anubis and now Thoth… am I on a Hermes trip? Starting with His Roman version, then an Egyptian god He was syncretised with and now another? I wonder…

A matter of roots

Recently, Camilla explained why she avoids calling herself a devotional polytheist, not because she’s not a practitioner, but due to the origin of the word in the Latin devotio (see here). It’s a good point that is significant for a Roman polytheist, but it poses a challenge. And warning: this is a long post!

Every day, people use words on religion and religious practices that have a modern meaning, mostly influenced by Christianity, but which ultimately derive from a Latin and hence pre-Christian origin. And if you’re a Roman polytheist, you try to use those words in a way that’s at least close to their original sense. It’s part of the effort of having a living religion rooted in the past, but it’s not always easy. In some instances, you can go back to the old sense of the word, like in the case of “rite” being different from “ceremony”, since the former meant a method of performing the latter (e.g. Roman rite, Greek rite). Or in the case of the word “sacred”, which referred to a status of ownership and not an innate nature. These things are relatively easy to return to their ancient meaning, even if it’s just among Roman polytheists. But the case of “devotion” is different: a devotio was the vowing of life to the gods of the underworld, namely the lifes of one’s enemies. To use a Norse comparison, it’s something along the lines of throwing a spear over the battlefield, presumably as a form of giving the troops to Odin. In other words, it amounts to dying, i.e. those consecrated join the deities of the underworld or Odin. A devotio could even take the extreme form of self-sacrifice in which a military leader dedicated himself and then sought death in battle, hoping to take with him as many enemies as possible. So you can see why a Roman polytheist can think twice before using the term “devotional”: if we care about the ancient meaning of Latin religious terminology, we care about the meaning of devotio.

This is, however, a case where a Latin equivalent of modern “devotee” is hard, if not impossible to come by. It’s just one of those cases where one has to concede to modern usage and employ the Latin form to signal that you’re referring to the original sense (so “devotion” becomes different from devotio). Besides, language is a matter of shared meaning and given that there is a growing community of devotional polytheists that spans across different traditions, to have cultores detaching themselves from the term “devotional” could end up detaching ourselves from the wider polytheistic community. For better or for worst, a modern meaning has become well established. Yet the matter did have an unexpected consequence, for when I asked fellow cultores about a Latin word that could express today’s sense of “devotee”, the replies I got made me realize that several modern Roman polytheists don’t do personal religion: they do State religion as individuals. Allow me to explain.

Ancient Roman religion is known mostly from sources that pertain to public cults and, in some instances, to the private practices of the elites, whose views on religion dominate our perception of the past. It is, in other words, a partial view of the matter, largely focused on State religion from the late Republican period on. And one of the ideas that comes out of the sources is that of superstition. To put it simply, superstitio is the religious equivalent of paranoia and obsession and Roman authors used the term to coin a deep fear of the Gods and the resulting extreme behaviours. In other words, it refers to the excesses of religion, which were frowned upon, because Roman religion was supposed to be based on moderation and the belief that the Gods are good and reasonable. This is something I can agree on, but what I don’t agree with is the idea that devotional polytheism amounts to superstition because it is excessive worship. Or that to claim a special link to a god is a Christian notion. Or that a cultor is a worshiper of the Gods and not Their fiancé. These are all things I was told when I explained what a devotee is and the ensuing discussion gave me the aforementioned impression: that several Roman polytheists don’t do personal religion, just State religion individually.

See, a State is naturally a formal thing because it is an institution. It’s made out of people, yes, but it works as a collective of large and diverse numbers, not an individual. It’s not your buddy or neighbour and so dealings with the State are marked by a degree of formality and emotional sanitation. Every time you resort to a government agency or department, things have to follow a certain protocol and bureaucracy (and if they don’t, it usually hints at corruption). The matter is of course different when it comes to your friends, family and partners. You don’t normally ask them to be emotionally sanitized or neutral with you and to fill in forms if they want something from you. When it comes to a one on one relation between individuals, it’s a naturally close, emotional and informal thing.

In the same fashion, State religion was naturally formal and emotionally sanitized. A priest or a magistrate in a public ceremony sacrificed in the name of the entire community, not separate individuals with their devotions or feelings. The only way that could happen is if you were an individual of public importance, like the emperor. Augustus is a case in point, since he had a personal devotion for Apollo and that propelled the god’s cult to the top places of the State religion. This is also one of those instances where you get a glimpse of personal devotion in ancient Rome. But otherwise, personal connections with specific deities were not expected to break through the fairly neutral, formal wall of public cults. Because they were public, not personal. Yet individual relations with the Gods are a different matter, since it’s a one on one thing, non-institutional. And as it happens between individual people, it’s naturally something close and emotional. To argue that to be a devotional polytheist is to be superstitious, is like saying that to like someone, to have a best friend or a partner, is to be obsessed about other people. It’s putting things in terms of extremes, which is a very Christian thing to do and also very ironic, since it’s claiming to stand for moderation by being immoderate: it’s either black or white; either a formal and emotionally sanitized cult or superstition. It’s the equivalent of saying that food is either a matter of cold chemistry or morbid obesity. But between the extremes of distant formality and emotional obsession, there is a vast middle ground where personal and healthy relationships with the Gods can be built. So long as you keep it balanced, so long as you maintain a sense of moderation, just like normal people do in their everyday dealings with other people. Close friends or partners are not obsessed or paranoid individuals: they’re just regular people who have close and healthy relationships with each other.

This is something that several Roman polytheists don’t get. For them, you’re a cultor if you worship a god on a yearly, perhaps monthly basis, and that’s it. More than that is considered by them as excessive. At some point, it feels like you’re in the movie Equilibrium. And the reason for that is that they don’t do personal religion: they do State religion individually. In other words, they take what we know of ancient Roman religion, which pertains largely to public cults, and apply it to the individuals, resulting in each cultor dealing with the Gods as a State would: formally, in an emotionally sanitized way. If you go beyond that, if you become a devotional polytheist, you’re being superstitious, just as you would be crossing the line if you became too intimate with a State official you’re working with.

There’s a sense of re-enactor’s mentality in all of this, in that people don’t go beyond what the sources present. If the texts focus mainly on public religion, that’s what you’ll get in your personal dealings with the Gods. I agree that it is important to be rooted in the past, since that is what distinguishes a recon or a revivalist from a wiccanish neopagan. It is essential to know how things were done and seen in the ancient world, but keep in mind the limitations of the surviving sources (stress on the word “surviving”) and, above all, never forget that only the roots are supposed to be buried, not the entire tree. If you don’t grow past them, you’ll never be a tree at all. Living things naturally change, evolve, diversify. That’s why they’re living and not dead. We can certainly question the quality of the evolution, which is why it’s important to be rooted in the past so we can keep things true to their origins. But that doesn’t mean that we should limit ourselves to what was done in the past or the views given to us by surviving sources. The difference between a revivalist and a re-enactor is that the former breathes new life and hence new forms into the old, while the latter never leaves the old. You may even be sincere in your practice, but if you don’t grow past the old, if you don’t go beyond the sources, you’ll still be in a re-enactor’s mental frame.