Morning prayer to Minerva

Today is an unmarked feast day in my religious calendar. It doesn’t have a fixed date, but it’s normally anywhere between mid-September and mid-October. It signals the moment when the weather has clearly shifted and I stop my almost daily Summer bicycle rides to the beach, replacing them with urban jogging in preparation for March’s half-marathon. I never actually converted it into an actual festival, though my mind has been brewing the idea that it can be dedicated to Minerva. For one, because the practical end of Summer (as opposed to simply its formal end), with the rain and the drop in temperatures, means that my activities become much more indoor and thus more focused on reading, writing and crafting instead of only partially so. And secondly, since every year I offer Minerva my half-marathon medal, it makes sense that the start of my training should be a time to honour Her, even if not in an exclusive manner.

As it stands, however, it’s still a very fluid feast day, slowly taking shape, and this year I’ll be marking it by pouring libations to Janus, Mercury, the Lares Viales, Minerva, Apollo and Hercules. And adding to that, this morning I uttered a brand new prayer:

Minerva 12Salve, Minerva,
the Owl-Eyed Goddess!
I salute you this morning,
with good prayers and good heart,
hoping to honour you today and every day,
Noble Lady of the Olive Tree.
With my hands,
with my voice,
with my mind,
may I pay you sincere tribute,
Most-High Virgin,
and may you look kindly onto me and my family,
oh Goddess of One-Thousand Crafts.

You say dogma, I say reason

In the recurrent debate about faith, ritual, devotional polytheism et alia, statements on the nature of the Gods, namely that They are reasonable and not dictatorial, can easily be one small step away from orthodoxy. Or at least be interpreted that way. This is especially true when words fly in a heated discussion and there’s little mental room or not enough characters for careful theological considerations. It creates a sense that some want to tell others how to believe correctly, which is problematic in orthopraxic religions like Roman polytheism and, I reckon, in other polytheistic traditions as well. We’re not supposed to have regulated beliefs or dogmas, but traditional practices and personal faith. Which frankly, in my opinion, is a huge plus in a world where religious conflicts often arise from differences on doxa. But it is also my view that freedom is the first principle of Roman polytheism and that the Gods are reasonable. I truly believe in this! And it’s not out of divine revelation, but because that’s the conclusion I reach after considering the nature of polytheism, orthopraxy and the overall modern context. Allow me to explain in what is a very, very long post from the perspective of a cultor.

I. Freedom to choose
As I’ve said here and here (and probably in some other instances I don’t remember), it’s not faith that defines me religiously, but practice. And that’s because, as I rule, I don’t deny the existence of any god. Which is another way of saying that I believe in all the deities worshiped in the past and in the present. All something million of Them. That’s what non-exclusivist polytheism is: a belief in many gods without the exclusion of any. Inari, Ganesha, Eshu, Quetzalcoatl, Melqart, Shiva, Taranis, Veles, Ra, Mithras, Jesus, Allah… I believe They are as real as Hermes, Jupiter, Apollo and Freyr. Honestly! So if you ask me what gods I believe in, expecting the answer will tell you my religion, the only thing you’ll find out is that I’m a polytheist. If you want a more specific identity, you need to ask me what gods I worship and how, in which case the answer will point towards the label “Roman polytheist”: most of the gods I honour are Roman and most of those who aren’t are nonetheless worshiped under a Latin name and in a Latin or Latin-inspired fashion, since I follow a Roman calendar and generally use a Roman ritual framework. It’s who I (mostly) worship and how that says what am I, religiously. And the how is key here, because the same god can be honoured by different traditions: Apollo has both a Roman and a Greek cult; Ganesha is worshiped by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists (including Japanese Buddhists). This is definition by practice, people. It’s not enough to say that you believe, you have to tell how that translates into practical terms. And it goes to show the importance of orthopraxy on at least a basic level.

Yet if one believes in all the gods and They can be honoured in multiple ways, how does one determine who to worship and how? There are various possible answers to this question: for instance, non-denominational polytheists may perform generic ceremonies to all the deities, collectively; monists will claim that all Gods are one or a limited group of divinities, depending on your degree of monism. But for a non-exclusivist polytheist, it comes down to the freedom to choose who and how. This may have shades of grey and limits, like when you inherit religious duties from your ancestors, but still there’s a level of free choice in your personal practices. Even if you don’t adhere to a particular orthopraxy and worship the Gods in any way you see fit, you still choose which ones to honour. In the particular case of Roman polytheism, you don’t have to worship the entire pantheon and celebrate every single known festival that was marked in Rome and its territories. You and your community choose which deities to worship, which dates to celebrate and are even free to create new festivals or worship non-Roman gods. And this is largely true for other Euro-Mediterranean religious traditions as well. Freedom is the natural consequence of open and non-exclusivist polytheism.

This also applies to the Gods. In monotheism, the one god is naturally that of all because there is no alternative. But in polytheism, many gods means that there are different deities with different agendas, so don’t expect Them to be interested in everyone equally. People have different skills, qualities and experiences that naturally draw the attention of different divinities, so They too have a degree of freedom in choosing their followers. And the Gods can decide whether or not to accept an offering. The entire tradition of divination at the end of ceremonies is built on that premise. When there are multiple options, freedom to choose your own is the first principle.

Of course, you don’t have to be of the non-exclusive sort. Faith is personal and you’re free to adhere to a form of polytheism that claims that only a particular group of gods is real. I could, for instance, claim that only the Roman pantheon is true, but given how big it is, even then I’d still have to have the freedom to choose which gods and festivals to focus on. Otherwise, it would be an impractical religion today, just as it would be in the ancient world, if every cultor had to pay an equal amount of respect to every deity and mark every single one of their festivals. The religious focus of each person or community will be different and it results from a combination of inherited duties and freedom of choice. And even then, the point that the Gods Themselves are free to choose still stands.

Council 01

II. Co-existence
A god who claims to be the only one has it easy in that his will is law. It’s like a one-man show, a state of things where there’s no opposition and no diversity to accommodate. He dictates and others obey, because no one else is a god. It’s a matter of absolute power. Not so in polytheism, though, because there are multiple divine voices with different interests and agendas. Which means that They have to somehow co-exist and share power. Philosophers of the Enlightenment knew this principle when they considered the nature and needs of society. When you’re not alone, when you live in a community, your freedom stops being absolute because you have to make room for others, their needs and their rights. So a compromise is required, a social contract that establishes the rules of co-existence and allots rights and duties, the dos and don’ts of social life. Anyone who ever shared something with someone else knows the drill: when driving, there are rules on what you can and can’t do on the road because others are using it; if you have a shared workplace, you can’t expect to behave as if you’re the only one using it; if you share a flat, you have to make room for other people’s routines. You have to be reasonable and come to a middle ground where a compromise becomes possible. Diversity is sustained by balance. Otherwise, things will simply collapse: couples divorce, friends move into different houses, communities break apart, species extinguish others. And if that’s the case, why should it be any different among the Gods? They too are a diverse community made of different beings with power and different agendas, so it makes sense that They too need to be reasonable in order to make room for each other. It doesn’t mean that there are no disputes among Them. Conflict exists everywhere and it eventually leads to a resolution, but if there are many Gods and They need to co-exist, then a balanced resolution generally makes a lot more sense than a zero-sum result. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that They may well have rules of engagement. Willingly or not, the Gods are reasonable because that’s a necessity of co-existence.

One can argue that while that may be true for the Gods, it doesn’t mean that it’s also true for the relations between Them and human beings. There’s a difference of power and authority which, simply put, means that we are not gods and cannot expect Them to treat us as equals with whom They have to compromise. In principle, this is true, but it’s more easily applicable to monotheistic religions, because you have no divine option. It’s either that godly guy’s way or the infernal highway. But in polytheism, especially in the open and non-exclusivist kind, there are alternatives, even competition. And there’s freedom of choice. If a god doesn’t want you, you can try another one; if a deity isn’t right for you or makes you feel too uncomfortable, there are options. Options that don’t imply damnation, that is. It won’t always be as easy as just saying yes or no and sometimes there may be pressure, persistence and a punch on the table to make a point clear. But there will also be haggling, negotiation and an effort to accommodate. You may go an extra mile for a god/dess with whom you really want to connect or to keep your relationship strong; He/She might do the same to keep you as one of His/Her own, if nothing else because there are religious alternatives. Co-existence and competition calls for reasonability, which means that in open and non-exclusivist polytheism, the Gods are or at least need to be reasonable. They may give humans much less leeway than They give fellow gods, granted, but They’re not the only players in the game, it’s not a one-god show, so a degree of reasonable compromise is in order, including towards worshippers.

Council 02

III. Social framework
Relations with the gods were conducted under the sign of reason, not that of the irrational, in the same way as they were conducted between one citizen and another, or rather between clients and their patrons, but never between slaves and their masters.

So wrote John Sheid in his Introduction to Roman Religion (2003: 28). It means that relations with the Gods were seen as an extension of social interactions, in which case the former reflected the latter. Which brings me back to a previous post of mine, when I wrote that the goal of reconstructionism is to immerse yourself in an ancient culture and bring the basics of its religion into the modern world. And here’s one: you deal with the Gods according to the principles of social life. Romans applied the essentials of their society, so much so that at one point in the imperial period it became less about freedom among citizens and more about obedience by subjects. But I’m not interested in re-enacting ancient Rome, so I must take the principle and apply it to a modern context. And in today’s free western societies, compromise and critical thinking are paramount. Our lives are ruled by the written law, negotiated contracts, the notion of basic rights. And while respect for those in charge is required, blind obedience is out of place: you have to do what your boss tells you, but not his/her every bid; you should respect a police officer, but not look acritically at his/her actions; reverence for your elders is a good thing, but you’re free to disagree and chart your own path – ’cause otherwise a lot of us polytheists would be “well behaved” baptized sons and grandsons.

Just as it is in human social life, so should it be in our dealings with the Gods. It doesn’t mean that we can see Them as elected officials whom we’re free to replace if we get enough votes – which would be hubris – or that we should use Them as our personal money lenders, employees or even equal co-workers, because They’re not your personal bitches. Gods are still Gods – especially the greater ones! What it means is that reason, freedom and critical thinking should apply to our dealings with Them just as it does to interactions in free human societies. You respect Them, co-exist with Them in your everyday life, establish contracts with the Gods and fulfil your obligations, but there is room for adjustments or even re-negotiation. In fact, you’re free to do so, just as They are free to ask for changes, hopefully resulting in a rational compromise. This is also true for inherited religious responsibilities: conditions may change and you may not be able to afford or keep up with what your ancestors did, so you renegotiate the terms of the contract with the Gods, just as you would with a rent, a debt or any other inherited responsibility. There’s even the possibility of terminating the deal if both parties agree or if the contract was valid only for a limited amount of time. Being married or having a committed relationship with someone doesn’t make you’re your partner’s slave, so the same principle applies to those devoted or “married” to a deity. And while you trust the Gods, it doesn’t have to be blind obedience, just as trusting your loved ones, your elders or a police officer doesn’t mean you should do away with critical thinking.

IV. Diversity has consequences
This is why I believe the Gods are reasonable. It’s a rational consequence of diversity, which is at the heart of polytheism. It’s implied in the very notion of many gods. And diversity has theological consequences, generating dynamics that are essentially different from those of monotheism. It’s not that every god will be equally reasonable: diversity also implies differences between different deities. But in the end, multiplicity, co-existence, freedom of choice and also the application of social basics to one’s dealings with the Gods means that They are reasonable, however varied in degree. Because it’s not a matter of slaves and masters, of one ruling absolute over the others, but of rational interaction between multiple, co-existing and free parties. Just like in a free and diverse society – which, I’d add, is one we should strive for.

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.