Of gods, rites, culture and sites

These last few months have been something of a period of reflexion aimed at a simplification and greater Romanization of my practices, both for pragmatic and cultural reasons. And at one point, an additional drive originated from a series of discussions on identity and religion that again made clear the fracture between American and European perspectives, universalism and culturalism, fossilization (or fetishization) and modern reintegration. The final push for a revision came at the start of this month and the result focuses on two points: rites to non-romance deities and the festive calendar. There’s also an extra development at the end.

From Norse to Roman
When I left wicca, roughly two decades ago, and stepped into neopagan reconstructionism, my choice fell upon Norse polytheism. And it brought me enriching experiences. But after about a year living in Sweden and having been in daily contact with a culture different from the one I grew up in, I started leaving that initial choice in favour of a convergence between native culture and religion. It was my departure from Norse towards Roman polytheism. Of the former, two things remained: an ongoing academic interest and the worship of Norse deities, initially a considerable number of them, but eventually narrowed down to a more limited group focused around Freyr.

Originally, that worship of northern gods kept the traits with which I had practised it for years and there was a period when my religious practice was, so to speak, bicephalous: part Norse, part Roman. But as the latter cemented itself and the convergence between culture and religion accentuated, I started Romanizing the way I paid tribute to Freyr and others. At first, by creating a separate, Roman-inspired rite, but more recently by simply using the standard Roman rite in full. From the initial Norse adaptation there remains an offering to Freyja at the opening and closing, a toasting section and, rarely, the use of a small hazel wand to consecrate offerings that are later ritually made profane.

That’s where I am at the moment. And it reflects a set of basic principles: 1) the definition of religion not by belief or faith, in the Abrahamic fashion, but by ritual praxis or orthopraxy, which is closer to the pre-Christian model; 2) the same gods can be worshipped in different ways or, to use another formulation of the same idea, the general principle according to which deities are universal and religious traditions ethnic; 3) approaching a revived ancient religion by way of a modern, historically-relevant identity (i.e. linked to the original cultural context of said religion) and thus the integration of the former into the latter; 4) and the resulting modern definition of Roman polytheism as the worship of many gods, Roman and others, according to Roman ritual tradition, in a romance cultural context. Hence why I, a Portuguese cultor deorum, worship Freyr, Freyja, Njord and Ullr using Roman rite, within a Latin culture, employing Portuguese as a ritual language.

More Ibero-romance
The same impulse that led me to switch from Norse to Roman polytheism also originated a new focus on pre-Roman Iberian deities. Which may seem like a contradiction – I go for something and then take a look at an older thing? – but it’s linked to the third of the four principles listed above, that of approaching a revived ancient religion – in this case, Roman – by way of a modern, historically-relevant identity – in my case, Portuguese – integrating the former into the latter. Now, the Portuguese cultural matrix is predominantly Latin (and hence romance), but it is not pure, as virtually no culture is. It also has Celtic, Germanic, Hebrew and Arab layers, no doubt that in different degrees, but they’re there. They’re part of the language, History, customs and land; on that note, the Germanic stratum adds another side to me worshipping Norse deities. Also, the cults of many of the Iberian gods were Latinized during the Roman period, and so, in the convergence between native culture and religion, my practices came to include deities of Celtic origin tied to the territory that is now that of my country, worshipped the Roman way and in a Latin context, just as they were for several centuries in the pre-Christian period.

The first I integrated was the goddess Nabia, followed by Quangeio, the pair Arentio and Arentia and finally Reue. And far from just worshipping Them, I placed Them at the heart of my religion: to Nabia I started making monthly offerings and gave Her a local epithet I later identified with my Family Lar; to Quangeio, which scholars believe to have been a canine god, I equally awarded a day for monthly offerings and associated Him with Mercury, which also plays into the Iberiazation of my cult to the Son of Maia; and Reue, apart from integrating my morning and night prayers (just like Nabia and Quangeio), also began receiving offerings on the Ides of every month. And I’m not setting aside the addition of further Iberian deities to my religious practice. The god Crouga, for instance, is a possibility under consideration.

The calendar
Unsurprisingly, the convergence between cultural identity and religion had an impact on my festive calendar, too. Actually, the correct verb tense is more present than past, since that impact wasn’t an isolated moment in time, but an ongoing process that recently contributed to new changes, motivated also by a desire for some simplification.

Thus, I’m removing from my calendar the separate tributes to Freyja and Njord and instead make them a part of my two annual sacrifices to Freyr around the time of the solstices, in accordance with evolution of who I worship among the Norse gods. The only other northern deity that retains a festive day of its own is Ullr, by virtue of being a god of yews, a tree for which I have a particular fascination; enough at least to consider a tattoo and go through the effort of resorting to friends and contacts to acquire two common yews from a tree nursery over 100 kilometres away and add them to a small grove I’m planting. But if Ullr’s annual sacrifice remains, its date changes from December 12th to November 21st, so as to be aligned with Freyr’s and close to Silvanus’, on the 23rd of November, which is also Portugal’s Native Forest Day. In that, too, there’s an element of integration of a cult to a Norse god into a romance cultural context.

Simultaneously, I’m adding a separate festive date to Reue, given His growing presence in my religious life, but in order to accommodate it I had to move the day of Nabia’s sacrifice, which is now on April 9th, also the exact date of a tribute paid to Her in ancient times, according to the inscription on the altar of Marecos. Reue is thus to be honoured individually on March 15th – He’s also already worshipped on October 15th as part of a rain-making triad – and the new festivity will be called Pastoralia, from Latin/Portuguese pastor, in reference to His (modern) role as Shepherd of Clouds. And also stressing the Ibero-romance side of my practices, Arentio and Arentia will receive offerings on the Nones of every month.

Finally, I’m also removing the annual sacrifice to Hercules, which will still happen this year, since He was given tribute in the New Year ceremony, but it probably won’t be repeated next year; the monthly libations to Thor will likewise be discontinued, since they’re a trace of when I wore a hammer and had a half-Norse practice, but may remain as ad hoc; offerings to the Portuguese Lares, seen as communal ancestors or heroes, will be added to those to the Family Lares during Caristia; the end-of-year ceremony will be dropped, too, with only the cleaning of shrines on the 31st of December remaining; and I’ll also remove my annual sacrifice to the Egyptian god Khnum, which started at a time when I did clay figures with some regularity, though that hasn’t been the case at all for several years now. As with Thor, offerings to Khnum will become ad hoc, whenever I take up home pottery. The result, already published in the calendar section in the top menu, is the following:

Calendário

The Egyptian exception
The only deity to whom my practices remain non-Roman is Anubis. At first, it was because I didn’t know enough about ancient Egyptian religious customs in order to adapt them; then, because the simple format that I had improvised ended up sticking. A candle, some incense and water (part of which I then pour on the graves of some of my ancestors), bows with bent knees so that the forehead touches the floor, em hotep as a salute, food offerings later consumed in full – by me and my dogs. So it was and so it remains. The only element of Romanization in it is the date of the annual sacrifice, on February 12th, on the eve of Parentalia. Not that that changes who I am, a Roman polytheist, because, again, it is not faith, creed, belief or simply which gods one worships that determines my religion. It is ritual praxis! And given that out of roughly thirty yearly sacrifices, plus over eighty sets of monthly offerings, only one is performed in a non-Roman way, there’s no doubt about what I am, religiously.

Why Anubis? For nothing more than being a canine god; and dogs are a significant part of what I practise. For instance, the addition of an annual sacrifice to Diana to my festive calendar was born out of a vow I made to Her about a decade ago, when one of my dogs underwent surgery. She survived and recovered and, as such, I fulfilled my vow and Diana later became a part of my religious practices. Quangeio is another canine element and, in the yearly sacrifice to Him, I include dog food I then consecrate, ritually make profane and then give to my dogs. My Family Lares include deceased pets – like the one behind my vow to Diana – including photos of them on my Lararium and offerings three times per month. Silvanus, too, has a connection to dogs, judging at least from the traditional iconography, and I’m not above lighting a candle to Saint Roch if I happen to find a chapel or church dedicated to Him.

Little wonder then that Anubis ended up becoming part of my religious practice. It doesn’t mean that He will remain so for the next ten or twenty years, but it wasn’t by chance and, presently, my annual sacrifice to Him is already a special religious moment I share with my dogs.

And then there are the southern waves
Will I ever use Roman rite to worship an Egyptian deity? Likely not in Anubis’ case, but it may happen with another and the reason is one: the climate! See, droughts and heatwaves in southern Europe can be caused by hot air coming in from north Africa (even sand blown from the Sahara desert hasn’t been rare) and the phenomenon is expected to become increasingly common as climate change rages on. Also, changing weather conditions mean that diseases that have thus far been largely confined to Africa may start moving north and I’ve wondered about the religious ramifications of all of this as I reflected on my practices these past few months. As a result, I started looking into heat and desert deities, which are virtually absent from traditional European pantheons, but can be found in north-African and Middle-eastern ones. Gods one could, perhaps, petition for a short or light presence so that cooler weather may return or remain, in a type of apotropaic cult where the source of affliction is addressed and placated directly, not driven out by an antagonist or adversary.

To that effect, one of the deities that’s at the top of my list of possibilities is Sekhmet. Because She’s the goddess of the fiery breath and of the sun’s aggressive aspects, maker of deserts, and She’s also connected to diseases, both as a bringer and as a healer. And in the surviving myths about Her, She’s placated out of a rampage, which strikes a very similar tone to the apotropaic cult that I have in mind. She’s thus a strong possibility, but I’m facing it with caution, because She is an old and powerful goddess and I don’t want to make a decision lightly. Especially since I could include Her in my practices in a Romanized fashion, as Dea Leonina, and worship Her using Roman rite. The next several months will tell.

If I do end up worshipping Sekhmet, would that contradict the convergence of native culture and religion mentioned at the start of this blogpost? Happily, no; and I say it’s a happy thing, since the fact that it makes sense is yet another reason that pushes me towards Her. Because the Mediterranean has been a cultural melting pot for millennia and, while western Iberia is technically located beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, it nonetheless has a long History of being part of that mixing dynamic: Phoenicians sailed along what today is the Portuguese coast and founded or developed several settlements, Lisbon among them; the Iberian Peninsula was not foreign to north-Africans, even before many of them entered and settled in following the Islamic invasion of 711; and Jewish presence in Iberia is old, like really old, perhaps even pre-Roman! That, too, is part of the mix of peoples and cultures on which Portugal was later formed. In short, the Iberian Peninsula is so close to the north of Africa that it is impossible to radically separate the two places, not only regarding people and cultures, but also the climate. Which is why taking an Egyptian deity in order to religiously translate an Iberian reality that originates in the deserts of the southern half of the Mediterranean is not just in line with a millennia-old dynamic of mixing and interchanging. It is also a natural option.

Whoever claims that Europe is white or that it stands radically apart from the north of Africa and the Middle East – culturally, genetically, religiously – is either focusing on a very particular (real or imagined) part of the European continent or doesn’t know the History of Europe. No matter how much he or she pays lip-service to “European pride” and identity.

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An Iberian Jupiter

One of the tragedies of ancient Iberian History is how little has survived of its oldest religious traditions. There is nothing in the likes of Greek, Norse or Celtic mythology, no extensive written account of Iberian myths or of religious practices. There are only brief references in outside sources – like Strabo – and archaeological traces, namely in the form of altars where theonyms and epithets have been inscribed. So essentially, we have the names of deities, rarely any iconography and no narratives. It’s a lost tradition.

Yet don’t blame Christianity for it, or at least not for the most part. The erasure and assimilation of the Iberian Peninsula’s older religious traditions was first and foremost a result of the Roman conquest of the territory. The pre-Christian Roman conquest. Because as the new rulers settled in, so did their ways and customs, from language to laws to, yes, religion. There’s a reason why almost every one of those altars that preserve the names and titles of older Iberian deities bear not inscriptions in a Celtic or an ancient native language, but in Latin and are shaped like traditional Roman altars. One word sums up the process in its various forms: Romanization! A reminder that not every cultural-religious erasure is the work of proselyte monotheism.

This is important, because before moving into the core of this post, I want to make two things crystal clear. The first is the extent of what was lost and hence how much needs to be created from scratch if one’s to give older Iberian deities a religious place in the modern world. For with generally nothing to go by other than names and titles, a simple reconstruction just isn’t an option. You have to create! And yet – and this is the second point I want to make clear – I bear no grudge towards ancient Rome for it. Honestly, it feels ridiculous just saying it, because of course I don’t! What would be the point of harbouring ill-feelings towards a long-gone civilization whose actions took place over two millennia ago? It’s no-brainer, but… don’t underestimate the ability of some polytheists to hold deep historical grudges. And additionally, I practise my polytheism as an extension of my native culture, and since Portuguese is a product of the Romanization of the Iberian Peninsula, it would be non-sensical for me to reject my country’s Latinity in favour of some anachronic re-enactment of a lost tribe or civilization that has long been subsumed into later, multiple layers of identity.

So having said that, what follows is focused on the pre-Roman Iberian god Reue, on whom I wrote a post a few years ago, when I refurnished this blog, summing up the surviving data, what scholars make of it and my own work hypothesis. I’ve had a few more ideas since then and have come to construct a more elaborate view of Reue, which is now a full part of my religious practices and the object of a growing attention of mine.

Celestial shepherd
A few known or proposed things about Reue serve as the starting point: archaeological findings suggest a link to mountainous areas and theological closeness to Jupiter, though the Iberian theonym is never employed as an epithet of the Roman one. Rather, Larauco (of the Larouco mountain in northernmost Portugal) is used as a title of Reue or as a stand-alone with the words deo Maximo (highest god), which also serve to describe Jupiter. So we’re dealing with a jovian god, but one who, by virtue of his name and according to several scholars, also has a watery connection, which is not incompatible with known roles of Jupiter or Jupiter-like deities throughout the old Roman world.

Another contextual point is the rural nature of ancient western Iberia, as there were virtually no civitates, just oppida or fortified hilltops. Granted, by some modern standards, even a lot of Roman cities would be villages, but in the ancient Latin world there was a legal and structural distinction to be made and which I took into account.

From this arose a concept: the Shepherd of Clouds! Part of the inspiration came from one of Zeus’ epithets in the Iliad – Gatherer of Clouds – and it holistically encapsulates what little is known of Reue – the Jovian nature, connection to water and rural context – while also serving as a fertile catalyst for a cascade of new ideas about him.

Think about it: clouds are his flock, which not only makes him a celestial god, but one who’s particularly connected to rain and thus water. In his beneficial role, he helps sustain rivers and springs, mountainous and others, but if you get torrential rain and sudden flooding, that can be envisioned as his flock running amuck. The sound of a rushing wall of water is not unlike that of a stampede. Also, if you hear thunder, that too can be translated as Reue’s cattle on the move, but because clouds advance with the wind, it too falls under the god’s influence. Think of the soft breeze as air coming out of Reue’s shepherd flute or of strong gusts as his dogs. Also, because water is fundamental for life and prosperity, he appears as a fertility god as well, a side of his reinforced by the connection to cattle. And if mountain tops are covered in clouds, yet no rain falls on lower lands and there’s even a partly blue sky in the surrounding area, take it as Reue’s flock grazing on the summit, with the god sitting among his cattle and walking on the mountainous ground.

Thus a simple rural concept, which may not have seem much at first, breathes new, rich life into an old god who initially appeared so distant, so abstract, by virtue of there being so little about him in the historical record.

Trees and animals
Of course, if he’s a Jupiter-like deity, then Reue’s tree will naturally be the oak. But because he’s a west-Iberian god, one can get specific and link him not with the more famous Quercus robur, but with the Quercus faginea or Portuguese oak. Alternatively, there’s also the Quercus suber or cork oak, which is Portugal’s national tree.

And as for animals, the white bull or ox is an obvious choice, but so is the sheep and ram, plus the dog, which are all part of the shepherd’s realm. Birds are still an unclear point to me, though naturally there’s the eagle, both the Aquila chrysaetos and the Buteo buteo, and I’m also considering the black kite (Milvus migrans) and even the black stork (Ciconia nigra).

Now, there’s some divergence here from traditional animal associations of Jupiter, but that’s okay. For one, I expect the rural emphasis of Reue to result in differences and, secondly, I don’t see them as the same deity, so again, distinctions are to be expected.

King and court
Which leads to the next point, for if Reue and Jupiter are to be understood as different gods, albeit similar in several ways, how does one integrate them pantheon-like? And the answer is hierarchically and functionally. That is to say, picture Jupiter as a celestial king with an entourage or heavenly court, of which other, similar gods are members to a varying degree. This is not unlike how Greeks and Romans saw the relationship between various deities, and so one only has to insert Reue into the fold as a sort of princely figure with a more rural, even rustic identity in the celestial realm. Hence the similarities and even overlap with Jupiter, but also the distinctions, with the end-result of fully integrating into a modern Roman polytheism of a present-day Latin country and culture a native pre-Roman god from that country’s territory.

The lady by the spring
There’s also the native goddess Nabia, with whom one can make a connection with Reue both on the basis of realms of influence and the view of him as a shepherd. She’s not without a Jovian link herself, since she’s mentioned together with Jupiter in one altar found in northern Portugal. But because she’s often associated with springs and rivers, the stage sort of sets itself up for a meeting with Reue: they both exert influence on the sources and availability of water, even complementing each other; and following on the idea of him as a shepherd, picture the bucolic scene where a keeper of flocks meets a fair lady by the well or spring and they become enamored, thus forging a link between the two.

This is not without historical basis and I don’t mean Nabia’s Jovian association. In one inscription from Cabeço das Fráguas, in the Portuguese northern interior, a sacrifice of livestock is listed, together with the gods to whom it was given, and among them is Reve Tre…. One possibility being that the final letters are part of an epithet that linked Reue with the native goddess Trebaruna, who’s also mentioned in the inscription and, judging from the theonym, may have been a deity of the village well or spring. If the two were paired, it would make sense, but given that their names don’t appear together anywhere else in the archaeological record, it could have been a geographically limited pairing. In any case, the hypothesis supplies something of a precedent for a link between Reue and Nabia.

Like a letter and a sound
Before I finish, and just so we’re clear, I don’t actually believe that clouds are flocks, thunder is the sound of moving cattle and a god is walking it around somewhere in the sky. The notion of Shepherd of Clouds is a means to understand and codify.

If you want a very simple analogy, I don’t believe the sound /a/ actually looks like the letter a, yet I’m content with the traditional Latin grapheme and engage with the sound through it. It’s a way to grasp, depict and make use of something that we can hear, but not see or touch. And the fact that the letter is a human-made representation of a phoneme doesn’t make it false – its everyday usefulness and shared understanding makes it true.

Something similar applies to Reue: I believe him to be a real entity with agency, able to exert influence on certain phenomena and activities, and his depiction as a Shepherd of Clouds is a way of engaging with him. Of making sense and thus interact. Just as grapheme is a way of reaching out to a phoneme, of giving it form it and using it, without it meaning that the former actually is the latter or truly looks like it.

So salve to Reue,
the Rustic Jupiter, Iberian Jove,
the Shepherd of Clouds and Thundering Flocks,
He of Breezes and Gusts,
of the Flute and Hounds,
Nabia’s Divine Friend!