Mind you, it’s not a closed text. In time, if needed, I may add new sections and I’m open to suggestions and corrections, especially with regard to the orthopraxy. Feel free to put forward ideas for consideration. It may not be a unanimous view of the topic – nor is it meant to, because very few things in life are unanimous – but it’s supposed to be more than just my personal view of Roman polytheism.
There’s certainly no obvious reference to it in the surviving lore, where She’s presented as a goddess of love and sex, wealth and beauty, seiðr and war. Her connection to the boar, both in stanza 7 of Hyndluljóð and in the name Sýr or Sow, which is listed in Snorri’s Edda (Gylfaginning 35 and Skáldskaparmál 75), points to that triple nature: swines are symbols of fertility, prosperity and, in the case of the boar, of military valour. Which also gives substance to the occasional allusions to Freyr’s warrior side, though that tends to be ignored due to an anachronistic use of the three functions theory, a simplistic equation of friðr with “peace” and a focus on more obvious deities of conflict. Anyway, while there’s no reference to Freya as a goddess of roads and travellers, there are a few hints in the lore that may suggest or, at the very least, give some traditional basis for a modern development of that aspect of Hers.
The clearest clue is Her connection to Odin, whose role as a wanderer is well established. It is said that they share the fallen ones on the battlefield (Grímnismál 14), that She taugh seiðr to the Aesir (Ynglinga saga 4) – thus presumably explaining Odin’s expertise and Loki’s accusation of unmanliness in Lokasenna 24 – and Her husband is said to be an obscure god named Óðr (Gylfaginning 35 and Skáldskaparmál 20), which is the root of the name Odin or Óðinn in Old Norse. And like the One-Eyed Himself, Freya too is said to have wandered through the world, though not in search of knowledge, but Her loved one (Gylfaginning 35). Also, Her falcon cloak is one of the tools used by Loki to travel to Jötunheim, in what is no doubt an allusion to spirit journeys, but journeys nonetheless. It should be pointed out that elsewhere in ancient Europe, gods of roads and travellers were also connecters of worlds, like the psychopompic Hermes or the oracular Apollo. And then there’s Mardöll, one of Freya’s several names listed in Gylfaginning 35 and whose meaning is disputed, though one interpretation is something like “sea light” (marr and dallr), which could be anything from a lighthouse to a star. There are actually modern polytheists who see in Mardöll a goddess who aids or rescues sailors, which is hardly surprising if you consider who Freya’s father is.
Now, again, none of this is an obvious reference to a side of Hers as a goddess of travellers, be it on land or sea. But religion is not static – unless it’s a dead one – so at the very least, there’s enough material to place the possibility and explore it in modern polytheism. On that note, I honestly don’t know if others, heathens or devotees of Freya, have thought about it, but if not, consider this a heads-up. Granted, I may be looking at it from the perspective of a Roman polytheist, which probably explains why I thought of Hermes and Apollo a few lines above. But that too is nothing new in the world of ancient religions, since there was plenty of cultural exchange and reinterpretation between the Latin and Germanic worlds along the Rhine a few thousand years ago. No reason why it shouldn’t be so today and new aspects of the gods shouldn’t be explored.
And no, I’m not thinking about pairing Freya with Mercury as queen and king of byways, if nothing else because I’m already exploring a similar possibility with Ilurbeda. Of course, there is something mercurial to all of this, in that if I’m putting something new on the table, it’s perhaps no surprise that a Mercury devotee noticed Freya’s potential for a goddess of roads and travellers. So at the very least, I may take it up as a task of sorts and yet another case of “liminaling”.
There’s another classical parallel that can be made here: in southern Europe, deities of magic can also preside over travellers and roads. Hermes/Mercury again is a clear example, but so is Hecate. And similarly to both of them, Freya too is a psychopomp, even if specifically tied to the battlefield.
A few weeks ago, Fareed Zakaria interviewed Jonathan Weiler, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina. He asked him about the root of the support for Donald Trump in the current US political cycle, which Jonathan Weiler placed not on social-economic hardships, as is so often argued, but on differences in the personality of the voters. Simply put, some people are drawn to authoritarian figures because, and I quote, “they believe very strongly in a need for social order as traditionally defined and (…) feel very fearful and resentful towards groups and social norms that challenge that traditional order”. This is an issue related to upbringing and, because of those personal traits, some people prefer “leaders who speak in clear, simple, direct terms about imposing order in the world around them”. They have “a strong need for order”, “want to ensure that people who are not like them are sort of put in their place and want clear, simple solutions for complicated problems”. You can watch the video here, which includes a brief look at survey results on parenting and personality types.
While the interview was about the whys of Trump supporters, its content can be applied to other groups of people, such as polytheists who are on either end of the ideological spectrum. Because often, they’re the ones who are uncomfortable with diversity, mixture, nuance and social modernity. They tend to see difference, change and grey areas as chaos and anarchy, an unnecessary complication of what should be straightforward, preferring instead well defined groups and categories where people can be organized in a simple manner, with everyone and everything in their proper place. On one end of the spectrum are the radical leftists who are unable to separate religion from politics, even if just thematically, and see anyone who is not as “progressive” as no more than fascists or minions of the new right. For them, there’s little or no room for nuance, middle ground or large differences of opinion, but only a simplistic view of us versus them, a zero-sum game where a brave new order stands against a capitalist chaos that can be found across the dividing line. They long for uniformity, a time and place where everyone can think and do as they do, because that’s how it should be. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the more folkish polytheists, who have a deep suspicion or outright disdain, if not disgust, for ethnic or cultural mixture and also for the modern values of equality and inclusion. They long for traditional order, sometimes (or often?) to the point of wanting to go back in time, to an ancient society where people weren’t pacifist sissies, equal rights campaigners, sluts or perverts and everyone knew their proper place. For them, anything that resembles ideological, sexual or racial ambiguity is an invitation to chaos. I’ve come across both types of people, one of them quite recently in an online discussion on orthodoxy, the lack of which a certain person equated with anarchy.
Here’s the thing, though: because its basic definition implies the religious regard for many gods, polytheism is inherently diverse. There are differences within the category – since that’s what polytheism is, a category and not a single religion – but if you let divine plurality run its course, instead of trying to curb it through politics, monism or henotheism, you’ll find that it will naturally generate an outrageously diverse theological dynamic. And it can be summed up thus: different gods have different agendas and hence equally different goals and sets of values. You think sexual promiscuity is wrong? Vesta, Minerva and Hera may no doubt agree with you, but the same can’t be said of Aphrodite, Pan or Apollo. There’s value in war and physical violence? Ares or Odin are likely to wholeheartedly agree, but don’t be so sure with Pax, Concordia or even Freyr, who has a bellic side, but not as a primary function. Ma’at, Heimdall or Terminus might say that you should always be honest and stay within accepted boundaries, but you’ll hear a different story coming from Hermes or Loki. This is how it goes in a polytheistic system. There are many voices, many worldviews, many directions, precisely because there are many gods. The only common thread you can take from all of it is the need for co-existence, for some form of unity in diversity, not uniformity. This is not so in monotheism, where there’s only one divine player in the game and hence what he says is law. There are no opposite voices, no counter-opinions, no competition, just a let it be written above and a let it be done bellow. Which is fundamentally different from the ocean of plurality that can be found in polytheistic religions. As I said before, diversity has theological consequences.
Perhaps it’s not by chance that Odinism and Odinist are popular labels among folkish bigots in Heathenry. It is, after all, a choice of terms that expresses a focus in a supreme god, almost like a heathen Jehovah, and hence a figure of authority in a “confusingly” diverse pantheon. In other words, it simplifies the complexity and hence perceived chaos of divine plurality, as if a more general name that better reflects a polytheistic religion would imply the existence of multiple sources of authority and hence anarchy. And thus it matches the taste for traditional order that Odinists often have with regard to other areas of life, like race and gender.
These polytheists are our equivalent of the Trump supporters. They may not vote for the man nor have the exact same ideas as he does, but their thought process and motivations are very much the same. It’s a similar dynamic, an equal fondness or desire for simple, straightforward order where differences can create a mess and should therefore be quickly sanitized. To be clear, I’m not saying that there are no limits: words carry meaning and they should be used accordingly, so for instance, if you don’t believe in gods or in more than one god, then you really shouldn’t be calling yourself a polytheist. Clarify your ideas first and then pick the corresponding label, not the other way around. But there are different types of limits or rather a spectrum, where on one end you have a narrowness that allows only for what’s fully identical and on the other you have wide limits that permit unity in a large diversity. A good example is the issue around orthodoxy and orthopraxy, for whereas some like me accept as fellow Roman polytheists people whose exact practices, beliefs and choice of philosophy are different from mine, so long as they retain a basic orthopraxy, others desire an orthodoxy that narrows down that diversity and sends people off in different directions depending on what they believe in. Because while I’m perfectly comfortable with seeing coreligionists in people who don’t share all of my beliefs, but just a basic set of practices and mutual respect, others see in that a form of chaos.
So listen up, radical/folkish kids: you should probably reconsider whether polytheism is really your thing. There’s nothing wrong in being different, mind you, and you know it, since many of you regularly tell others that they should be elsewhere. It’s just while you do it because people don’t fit a very particular square, I’m okay with sharing my religious label and space with people who fit in different shapes and colours within a basic framework. But that framework has limits, even if wide ones, and they include the very diversity that’s inherent to polytheism. Simply put, if you’re uncomfortable with plurality, if you think a lack of orthodoxy amounts to chaos and anarchy and if you’re unease about different gods having different agendas and values, then perhaps you’re better off in monotheism, where only one voice gets to call the shots and that can make things a lot simpler, orderly and authoritarian, thus better reflecting your preferences. And if your answer is that you have a right to practice the religion of your ancestors, then go deeper on why you’re a polytheist: does it have anything to do with a love for diversity or is it born out of a disgust for ethnic and cultural mixture, leading you to prefer a native religion that feels less prone to what you perceive as chaos? Because if it’s the latter, then 1) you probably have the wrong motivation, as wrong as the leftist radicals who are unable to distinguish their religion from their politics, and 2) you may be in for a surprise when you realize that native isn’t an exclusivist category nor the same as closed, pure and uniform. Like I said, not everyone is the same and some things aren’t made for everyone. And if you prefer uniformity or simplistic order, you may be better off in a less diverse system.
The road towards it
It took me time to get there, though, and it wasn’t a linear process. At sixteen, when I left Christianity and felt atheism didn’t quite cut it, Buddhism was my first option. I still have about a dozen books from that time, including written material from a retreat I took in a Tibetan centre in the late 1990s. I was a different person back then, way younger and definitely not keen on gods or similar entities, so either because I failed to grasp the philosophical concepts or wasn’t entirely sure about the religious part, I ended up moving away from Buddhism and stepped into archetypal paganism. Several years later, while already a heathen and when considering the issue of fate, the notion of interconnectedness became evident. I’m sure I was told about it a gazillion times before, but there’s more to learning than just reading and listening. There’s also an intuitive side to it, epiphanies where your brain clicks and you suddenly make sense of something you were probably aware of, theoretically or intellectually, but was yet to grow roots in your mind. Transferring knowledge successfully can be a bit like transferring plants in that it’s not enough to just move ideas into fresh soil.
There was thus a moment when I became intuitively aware that nothing exists in isolation, that everything is connected and whatever free will one has is limited by causes that are beyond an individual’s control. That’s fate, the total sum of factors that preceded, surround and shape you. You’re not an island, but a knot in a web that links everyone and everything, where every single action has extended consequences and no thread is entirely free because it is tied to other threads. I retained this awareness ever since, revisiting and refining it over the years, even making it a part of my daily life. My education in History and subsequent work in the same field played a large role in that, because when your professional activity (and hobby) is to study the intricate pattern of past events, how they impacted on each other and shaped things, you get a persistent sense that nothing exists in isolation. In as much as there’s virtually not a single day I don’t reflect at least once on how human actions – past or present, individual or collective, mine or someone else’s – ripple through the pond of existence and in turn create or shape new actions.
Then a few years ago, I became a devotee of Mercury, after whom came the Lares Viales, and my interest in Buddhism was rekindled at some point. Can’t remember exactly how or why, but there was Stephen Prothero’s God is not one, talks on philosophical schools, a few discussions around the Greco-Buddhist culture of Gandhara, a bit of reading on the topic and I guess eventually I just grabbed some of the books I bought back in the 1990s. Which then led me to go through lists of Buddhist masters and schools, including Nagarjuna and Madhyamaka, whose view on sunyata or emptiness came across as brutality meaningful. Partly because the basic notion behind it – that of dependent origination – is easy to grasp once you realize that nothing exists in isolation, so in a way Buddhist thought gave a philosophical depth and solidity to ideas that were already rooted in my mind. And from that point on, it didn’t take long for everything to come together, for two things that initially seem unrelated – Madhyamaka and Mercury – to intersect via the notions of impermanence and emptiness, movement and connectedness. In a way, it feels like coming full circle.
To be clear, I’m not saying that I’m religiously a Buddhist. Modern westerners may commonly see philosophy and religion as being indistinguishable, in that if you follow one you must also follow the other, but that’s not how it went in the ancient world. Back then, you could be a Stoic, an Epicurean, a Platonist or even a Sceptic and still be a Roman polytheist regardless of your choice of philosophy, if any. Part of that was because religious identity was an extension of social and political status, but it’s also because religion was defined in orthopraxic terms, through traditional ritual practice, with beliefs being generally left up to the individual to speculate on. And that’s pretty much what I’m doing here: keeping a basic orthopraxy that makes me a Roman polytheist, while filling in the philosophical content with something that’s up the individual to choose. That I lean towards Madhyamaka, which wasn’t available as a school of thought in ancient Europe, means only that I’m a not fossilized cultor: I don’t limit myself to what was in existence in Rome up until the 5th century CE, but am interested in reviving Roman polytheism in the modern day and age, not re-enact it as it was 1500 years ago. Simply put, I take the basic dynamics – orthopraxy, no initiation, unregulated belief, etc. – detach them from the social specifics of a given time and age – e.g. morals, which run the risk of being grossly anachronic – and then apply them to the present, not a perpetual renaissance fair. And today, you have a lot more philosophical schools to chose from. Again, see here and also here.
The (somewhat) mercurial figure
Another thing Romans did – and weren’t alone in that – was worshiping or at least acknowledging non-Roman gods and even syncretizing deities from different pantheons. Again, you don’t have to limit yourself to what was available in the Roman empire up until the 5th century and can honour gods that were unheard of in ancient Europe. That’s what happens when you practice a living religion in today’s world instead of pretending to live in a bygone age. And you’ll still be a modern Roman polytheist if you worship Them according to Roman ritual or at least if it makes up the majority of your practices (see here).
For my part, I generally don’t syncretise and never assume that a Roman god is identical to a non-Roman one simply because they’re similar. I need to research, take some time to think about it and maybe resort to divination before reaching a conclusion that may not be definite. However, there is one thing I do a lot and that’s Latinization, i.e., worshipping non-Roman gods in a Roman or at least Romanized fashion (like this). It’s something for which there is ample historical precedent and allows for deities from other pantheons to be integrated into the realm of the cultus deorum. I worship four Iberian gods and five Norse ones in that manner, some of which already had (partly) Romanized cults in ancient Europe, and also historical figures from the 13th century on as a type of Lares. The only exceptions in my practices are two Egyptian deities – Khnum and Anubis – whom I honour according to Kemetic tradition (and I have a lot to learn on that regard). And now there’s something else, someone who’s been on the horizon due to my interest in Madhyamaka and who now comes as neither entirely religious nor entirely philosophical: Manjushri.
He’s the bodhisattva of wisdom, particularly the type known as prajna, which entails the awareness of emptiness. His historical origins are unclear, as are those of His cult, but He is commonly associated with Buddhist masters and teachers and is thus a central figure in the world of Buddhist thought. So it’s probably no surprise that I should end up “bumping” into Him, since I’ve been freely drinking from His philosophical well and major proponents of Madhyamaka, namely Nagarjuna and Je Tsongkhapa, are described as having been taught or inspired by Manjushri. In that sense, to honour Him would be akin to honouring ancient European philosophers (like Epicurus) or gods associated with philosophical schools (like Apollo). Again, this is taking pre-Christian dynamics and applying them to the options of the modern world instead of merely re-enacting the past. But Manjushri comes across as more than the divine keeper of a philosophical well that’s rich in mercurial potential: He Himself is a somewhat mercurial figure.
He’s not just associated with a particular form of wisdom, but also with speech, music and memory, in as much as He’s sometimes paired with the Hindu goddess Saraswati. His weapon is the blade and He’s linked to mantic dice, thus fusing fortune and divination, which are two aspects of the hermetic realm. And He also shares a connection with number four, since His birthday is traditionally celebrated on the fourth day of the fourth Chinese lunar month. Yeah. So I guess that makes Him a sort of distant cousin of Mercury, thus adding a religious dimension to the use of Buddhist stone to construct the philosophical building of my mercurial devotion.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Manjushri has such a liminal status for me, somewhere between philosophy and religion. He stands at a source of ideas, of a river that runs through several parts of my life, providing intellectual sustenance, though He’s not the sacred fields, groves and temples. He’s not Mercury and I have no intention of syncretizing Them, because that’s not something I generally do. I don’t even know if I’ll ever award Him a Latin or Latinized cult, which honestly seems like a step too far at this point. But maybe it’s time I acknowledge Him in some way and mark His birthday, even if just by meditating, reading and offering a candle. Of course, one could ask why not honour the Buddha instead, which would also be in line with the practice of paying tribute to the founders of one’s philosophical school. But there are two answers to that: one thing does not exclude the other and I can indeed mark the Buddha’s birthday as well; though the thing about Manjushri is that He has the aforementioned mercurial traits, which gives Him a religious dimension and hence a greater significance for a Mercury devotee. And that in turn could lead to a festive blend where I honour the Buddha, as well as masters like Nagarjuna and Je Tsongkhapa, on Manjushri’s birthday, which this year falls on May 10th. It’s not what Buddhists do, I know, but like I said, religiously speaking I’m not a Buddhist.
The celebrations start with an opening prayer and morning offerings comprised of a candle and portions of incense, fennel and wine, all placed on Mercury’s domestic shrine. Since it’s also the start of the month, Janus, Juno and the Family Lares are honoured as well and all of the morning offerings will be burned before lunch in a ceremony dedicated to Maia. It seems fitting that if I mark April 4th as Mercury’s birthday, His mother should be worshiped at the start of the Ludi, which is also why She’s given a portion of cheese, cinnamon and coconut milk – i.e., some of the main ingredients of a cake I’ll be giving Him down the road. In the afternoon, as I take Her offerings to a nearby hill, I’ll leave a coin in a public place to be found by whomever the Lord of Fortune desires. And after returning home, I’ll start working on the wreaths and cake. There’s no point in making those things in March, due to the obvious reason that one honours the Gods not just by giving Them a finished product, but also by making it, so the work of preparing the offerings is a tribute in itself and hence a part of the festivity.
In the morning, a new candle is given to Mercury on His domestic shrine, though no further offerings are made. The second day is dedicated mostly to indoor activities: the wreaths are finished, as is the cake for April 4th, and I take some time to study divination and other mercurial topics. The only major outdoor exception is leaving another coin in a public place and, should the weather allow, maybe some jogging.
Again, the day starts with a candle being offered to the Fleet-Footed, followed by a prayer to the Lares Viales. They’re presented with wine, wheat and four small wreaths, all of which will be placed in small containers and taken outside in the afternoon. If it doesn’t rain, I’ll use my bike to go on a long ride of no less than forty kilometres, stopping four times to erect small herms by the road and placing on top of each one of the wreaths, as well as portions of the wine and wheat that were offered in the morning. As on the other days, I’ll also leave a coin in a public place.
The big day, the fourth of the fourth month of the year! In the morning, a candle and portions of wine, incense and fennel are given to Mercury on His domestic shrine. Before lunch, there’s a formal ceremony for Him, where most of the morning offerings will be burned and a cake consecrated, a slice of which will be given to the Fleet-Footed and the rest made ritually profane so it can be consumed by me and members of my family. He’s also offered a wreath that will then be placed on His shrine and should remain there until the end of the year (I use statice flowers for that purpose). In the afternoon, a new bike ride follows (if the weather allows), with libations being made along the way and, yet again, a coin left somewhere public. Also, I’ll be buying a lottery ticket and, once I’m back home, perform some divination before wrapping up at sundown with a prayer and lighting a final candle on Mercury’s shrine.
Apart from a desire to please the mercurial deities in question, there’s a somewhat narrative dynamic to all of this, in that you start by honouring the mother (foreshadowing later offerings), study the arts of Her soon-to-be-commemorated son, worship the Lares Viales as They make way for Their Lord and, when His anniversary finally comes, you lavish Him with presents. Naturally, there are other things that can be done in His honour, like watching a comedy and creating pranks (namely on April Fools). In some of those occasions, as indeed every time I go out as part of the Ludi, I wear on my wrist a leather bracelet with a coin tied to it. It normally rests in a small bowl on Mercury’s shrine and it serves the purpose of marking outdoor activities like biking and trekking on specific days as tributes to Him. And of course, if it’s raining, small walks instead of a forty-kilometres ride will have to do the trick. If that’s the case, I’m not sure if I’ll find the necessary rocks to erect a herm, but at the very least the offerings will be left or poured next to crossroads.
No matter the weather, come rain or shine, let April start under the sign of the god who was born on a fourth day, the ram-bearing son of Maia!