Mercury’s anniversary

Mercury’s number is four. This is not a declaration of an esoteric principle or a personal revelation, but a fact of history of religions: the Latin name for the fourth day of the week was dies mercurii, from which come the days’ names in modern romance languages that preserved the theonymic nomenclature. Thus, Wednesday is miércoles in Spanish, mercredi in French, mercoledi in Italian. At the source is the Homeric hymn to Hermes – which may contain older beliefs, as suggested by Karl Kerényi – where it‘s said He was born on a fourth day of the month. That idea is reflected on the calendars of ancient Greece and then found its way into Roman culture, where the number was tied to Mercury. Expressing that link, for instance, is a 3rd century mosaic found at Orbe-Bozceáz, in Switzerland, where the fourth day of the week is represented by the god.

The spark
In the context of Mercury’s cult, the fourth day of the fourth month thus has a particular symbolic relevance. There’s no word of it being noticed in ancient Rome, though there are references to a collegium Mercurialium, which could have been responsible for its own celebrations, and we have very little information on the festive calendars of other cities. As our knowledge stands, the ancient Roman feast to Mercury was on the 15th of May, perhaps out of a connection with Maia, His mother. But none of this prevents the creation of festivities today, just as each community in the ancient world was entitled to institute new or expand existing ones, a freedom equally true – if not more so – in the domestic context.

As such, wanting to make use of the date’s symbolic charge, for several years now I’ve been marking the fourth day of the fourth month as Mercury’s birthday, a practice whose meaning is reinforced by the traditional April Fools, since Mercury is also a trickster. And because of that, instead of a single day, the festivity lasts four, from the first to the fourth of the fourth month, thereby stressing the numerical link even further.

Tell me a story
It’s one thing, however, to have a general concept; it’s quite another to give meaning and especially bind everything together in a coherent fashion. That’s where tales can come in, stories that create a narrative frame and award an overarching significance to a series of practices that could otherwise be just disjoint gestures with a common date. And so, in the manner of traditional tales…

Once upon a time, there was a confusing first day of April, full of laughter. Nothing seemed safe, because everything could be a prank, and there were many who laughed for no apparent reason. Alarmed or just curious, the following day people consulted oracles, cast dices, drew cards and observed auguries. And Maia, the mountain nymph, declared herself pregnant and about to give birth. One day after, processions of Lares Viales were seen along the roads, singing about how they were waiting for Maia’s son, the lord of pathways, and invited those who heard them to join in. So people saluted the gods of roads and erected cairns, pouring offerings on them, and readied themselves to celebrate the birth of the god. They prepared food, cleaned the doorways of their homes and made wreaths. And on the fourth day of the fourth month, Maia gave birth to a son, the crafty Mercury of many gifts, acclaimed by the Lares Viales, who spread the word. On the streets, people took part in games, theatre and pranks, while at home they hanged wreaths on their doors and set the tables with abundant food. There were sacrifices in the morning and afternoon, parades and long walks and people visited each other, going into their neighbours’ homes as if arriving from a journey, sharing food with them.

To be clear, this is not an account of historical events, the product of a personal revelation or a parable, allegory or any other kind of story with a metaphorical purpose. It’s simply a fictitious tale I created to give a narrative codification to religious practices and ideas, so that they have a story that inspires and gives meaning, rather than just being a simple list of things to do in a given time. Specifically, the pranks and humour of the first day of April, the worshiping of Maia on the second, the veneration of the Lares Viales on the third and, on the fourth day of the fourth month, the celebration of Mercury’s birthday with sacrifices, wreaths, food and activities connected to Him, at home and on the streets and roads.

So it went like this…
In line with that structure, the first day went normally with a bit of humour – a prank would have been ideal, but the surprise effect gets lost if there’s one every year. On the second day of April, I performed a formal ceremony to Maia, in both her celestial and terrestrial aspects, offerings portions of the ingredients used to produce the food I prepared for Mercury’s birthday. On the third day, I went for a walk – small, due to the stormy weather – raised cairns by roads and poured offerings on them. And on April 4th, I performed two ceremonies to Maia’s son, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, offering him flowers, food and beverage. A walk or a bike ride would have been a good activity in tribute, but the weather was far from encouraging. Still, I bought a few lottery tickets and left coins by crossroads.

This year, however, was special, given that April 4th was also the month’s first Wednesday, which is when I make my monthly offerings to Mercury. Something exceptional was therefore in order.

Fourgasm
And the solution was to multiply the offerings and tributes, emphasizing the number four whenever possible. As a result, in each of the first four days of April, I made four morning offerings to Mercury – a portion of grinded anis, one of cinnamon, one of wine and a tea-light candle – left four coins by crossroads and, on the third day of the month, erected four cairns, pouring four offerings on each – wine, wheat, honey and cinnamon.

Ludi Mercuriales

A celebratory table: the domestic shrine, already with flowers and a wreath, and four dishes before it. The strawberry-tree is on the right and the liquor is peeping from behind the biscuit cake.

For the god’s anniversary, instead of preparing one dish to share with Him, I prepared four, three of them home-made: a pineapple semifreddo, aletria, a biscuit cake and four custard tarts. With the exception of the semifreddo, they’re all common, traditional even in Portuguese cooking, so there’s an element of cult regionalization there. Take aletria, for instance, a thin pasta partly baked in milk, then added sugar and egg yolks and sprinkled with cinnamon: it’s Arab in origin, at least by name – from al-itria – thus expressing the Islamic layer of Portuguese culture. And since it’s typical of Christmas celebrations, if it’s good enough for the birth of one god, it’s good enough for the birth of another. In this case, I accentuated the mercurial purpose by choosing to sprinkle cinnamon in a pattern of squares and crossroads.

On April 4th, during the first ceremony, I burned the morning offerings – a gesture I had done every morning since the start of the month – and made four floral tributes to Mercury: flowers and a wreath for his domestic shrine, an additional wreath to hang on the front door and a strawberry-tree to be planted in family land. In the afternoon sacrífice, the four dishes were consecrated, a small portion of each placed on the sacrificial fire, and then ritually deconsacrated, a process accompanied with libations of medronho strawberry and honey liquor. And then, once the ceremony was over, that same beverage was used for four toasts to Mercury, followed by a brief urban walk during which I bought four lottery tickets.

It was, in short, a “fourgasm”. Because Maia’s son deserves the effort – and may enjoy the pun.

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Duped by translation (& finding a Lar?)

As a devotee of Mercury, I’m naturally interested in what is traditionally associated with Him. And because I believe Him to be the same as Hermes, one of the best online places to look for historical information in a nutshell is Theoi.com – which, to be clear, is an excellent website I highly recommend. This post is not a critique of it, just a personal admission of having been duped by double translation.

So the story goes like this…
In the section on Hermes’ sacred plants, you find krokos and andrakhnos, the latter of which translates into English as strawberry-tree. The translation is correct, but my interpretation of it was not, because when I hear strawberries – or in this case read it – I immediately think of a roughly conic red fruit, when in fact the Greek andrakhnos refers to something else. Something that may be translated as strawberry in English, yes, but which in Portuguese has a different meaning. To put it in pictures:

On the left are regular strawberries or morangos in Portuguese, but on the right are the “strawberries” meant by the Greek andrakhnos, which translates into Portuguese as medronhos, the fruit of the medronheiro or “strawberry-tree”. You see where this is going, right? By neglecting the original word, I assumed Hermes was associated with the plant on the left based on the common Portuguese translation of the English term, thus failing to realize that it can mean different plants. Had I looked further on Theoi.com, I’d have found a list of plants of various myths and gods with additional information, including the scientific nomenclature (and photos!): the andrakhnos is also called in Greek komaros and it stands for the arbutus andrachne or arbutus unedo species, i.e. the Portuguese medronheiro.

So what, then?
Ok, so this is interesting and may even be conceived as a religious experience, since mistakes, translations and hence lapsus linguae are well within the universe of Hermes or Mercury. If He’s a god who likes to play tricks, I’ve obviously been at the receiving end of one or at least walked myself into an error with a mercurial value. But so what?

Well, there are practical consequences, in particular when it comes to offerings. Not so much in the sense of having used regular strawberries for sacrificial purposes all these years, since there’s nothing wrong in offering things for which there is no historical basis, provided that they’re well received by the gods. It’s more of a matter of the world of possibilities that opens up, in particular for a Portuguese individual like me, who’s trying to formulate a regional cult to Mercury and the Lares Viales, something that grants the use of equally regional products a special meaning. Things like the Portuguese aguardente or brandy made from medronho, which can be employed for libations or in baked cakes to be given to Mercury and his host. Or a similar liquor with honey that’s traditional from Monchique, in the Algarve, or medronho bread, not to mention groves of strawberry-trees as native sacred spaces. There are multiple possibilities that can make a perfect bridge between the ancient history of the god and His modern regionalization.

Speaking of which…
And since we’re on the topic, I realized my interpretational mistake while researching the heraldic symbolism and decorative elements on the tombs of Portuguese princes in the Chapel of the Founder, at the Batalha monastery, at some point googling part of the information in English so as to look for additional sources.

Now, for the purpose of context, my interest in a religious structure from the 15th century is due to me being 1) a historian and 2) born and raised in the small city of Alcobaça, located relatively close to Batalha and even closer to the village of Aljubarrota, which gave its name to the nationally quintessential battle that led to the construction of the monastery. If you’re familiar with English history, think of it as a Portuguese equivalent of Agincourt. Its history and the people involved in it are therefore part of the national and local lore, which is why I occasionally dive into the subject, more out of personal interest than professional need. And one of tombs in the Batalha monastery is that of prince John (1400-1442), where you’ll find a depiction of his chosen personal heraldic symbols as carved at the time of his death: a pouch with three scallops and a plant whose identity is not entirely certain, though it’s commonly believed to be a strawberry-tree – and hence why, when looking for the information in English, I realized my mistake. It’s all well within the world of hermits and pilgrims, matching the prince’s status as general administrator of the Portuguese branch of the military Order of Santiago and his presumed devotion to Saint John the Baptist, to whom there was once a shrine within the chapel, in a corresponding position to the tomb. Hypothetically, according to the reading of the funerary set that several scholars have argued for, the heraldic elements chosen by the prince may also express his view of life as a journey.

The pilgrim pouch with the three scallops and the presumed “strawberries” on the tomb of prince John in the monastery of Batalha.

To be clear, prince John was a devout Christian, pretty much aligned with the prevalent anti-Semitism of the time, though also critical of the Church, in particular the idea of holy wars, all of which can be read in a letter he wrote to the his brother king Duarte. He was not in any way or form a polytheist. Which is okay for me, because I don’t expect him – or my family ancestors, for that matter – to be anything other than someone from his own time, with all the differences in mentality and religion that that entails. Yet with that in mind, I nonetheless have to consider that…

If I’m formulating a regional cult to Mercury as leader of the Lares Viales, who were very popular in Roman Galicia, a popularity that finds a curious (and coincidental) continuity in the camino to Santiago, so much so that I’ve decided to drink from that continuum and adopt the scallop as a modern symbol for a polytheist cult.

If I practice Roman polytheism as part of the modern world and hence entwined with a modern culture, language and country, instead of practicing it as part of an anachronic re-enactment of a long-gone empire or republic of which I’m not an actual citizen, and if as a result the heroes I worship are largely those of my country, not those of a Roman state that ceased to exist over a millennium ago.

And if you view the Lares Viales as a category of wayfarer deities that may include not just greater gods like Mercury or Quangeio, but also smaller ones, including deceased humans, and if, in line with what I said above about hero worship, I’m considering the inclusion of Portuguese travelling heroes among the Lares Viales

… then I should take note of the fact that a Portuguese prince’s choice of personal symbols were the pilgrim’s pouch with scallops and the strawberry-tree, perhaps expressing a view of life as a journey. Not to claim that he was a polytheist – he wasn’t! – or that his worldview was identical to mine – it too wasn’t – but to stress the coincidence of symbols, those of the prince and those of the modern cult I’m working on, emphasized by the fact that the former’s nationality and the regional focus of the latter are also coincidental. Perhaps, who knows, I found another historical figure to count among the Lares Viales of modern western Iberia.

New Year gestures

Stepping in with the right foot is one of those small modern superstitions with ancient roots that expresses a timeless valuation of the idea of a good start. And faithful to that notion, the first days of the new year are to me a time for multiple ritual gestures that, taken together, aim at a kind of entry with the right foot in the new twelve months’ cycle. Starting, of course, with the January 1st ceremony, which is one of the longest in my practices.

A long list
In normal conditions, when I mark a date of monthly relevance – like the Nones or Ides – the corresponding ceremony takes about 10 to 15 minutes, as it’s a simplification of my Roman rite, which I reserve for annual festivities and usually extends the ceremony up to 30 minutes. I repeat: in normal conditions. When it’s an exceptional occasion, it can last one hour or more

That was the case with this year’s New Year ceremony. Not because something different happened, though 2017 was fortunate in various aspects, as with the publication of my first book and the conclusion of another. Rather, the length of January 1st ceremony has to do with the number of deities it honours, which has been growing in the last few years and this time reached sixteen, plus the Family Lares and Penates. Almost all of them are recipients of specific prayers and offerings, which naturally takes times – and firewood, while we’re it, since the fire needs to keep on burning regardless of the amount of beverage it’s poured on it.

Structurally, the ceremony is identical to those of other annual festivities, with a beginning and end with tributes to Janus, Vesta and Jupiter and, in between, an invitation, prayer and giving of consecrated offerings to the main deity – in this case, Janus. As with other annual celebrations that occur in days of monthly relevance, there’s also a moment when I burn the Calends’ offerings that were given to Janus, Juno, the Family Lares and Penates during the morning prayers. And then, where in normal conditions the closing gestures would follow, there was yet a list of fourteen individual deities who were honoured with two offerings each, the first as a general tribute and the second with a specific request for the new year.

They are Mercury, Maia, Quangeio, Juno, Hercules, Minerva, Diana, Apollo, Silvanus, Nabia, Jupiter, Fortuna, Spes and Freyr, adding, I repeat, to the Family Lares and Penates, who also get a wreath that’s hanged over the fireplace. In the case of Maia and Silvanus, the offerings are not cast into the ritual fire, but poured into small circular bowls with soil, in harmony with the terrestrial identity of those two deities. Though, truth be told, I’m increasingly seeing Mercury’s mother as a goddess who has a celestial side as well, largely due to Her mythological link to one of the starts of the Pleiades. And speaking of liminality, note the inclusion of Freyr, who normally is worshipped according to an independent rite that fuses Norse and Latin elements, but exceptionally receives offerings according to Roman praxis on New Year. For practical reasons, if nothing else.

The feats of pathways
Then on the fourth day of January, there’s Vialia, which is not an ancient celebration, but rather a modern creation of my doing that’s focused on Mercury and the Lares Viales. Its sense is clear: to honour the god of pathways and His divine host and ask Them, in a more literal fashion, for safety on the road during the year and, in a more metaphoric way, help clearing the paths to success. Of course, with me being a Mercury devotee, the date also has a personal relevance.

Ready for the Vialia ceremony, 2018.

Thus, on the morning of the 4th, as in the morning of the day before, which was the first Wednesday of the month, I offered a candle, anise, cinnamon, wine and flowers to the son of Maia. Then I performed a formal ceremony where I paid tribute first to Mercury and then the Lares Viales with identical offerings: small crackers, raisins, walnut, honey, cinnamon and wine. Both also got flowers, though in different formats, since to Mercury I gave a wreath that now stands in His domestic shrine, whereas the Lares Viales were given a mixture of petals, leafs and wheat which, after the ceremony was over, were cast onto the roads in small portions during a walk. Ideally, I would have done it during a bike ride, so I could cover a greater distance and erect a few cairns along the way, but because it was raining, I ended up adjusting to a tour on foot around the edges of the city and with a few stops at crossroads and intersections.

Apollo and Janus again
There are two more formal ceremonies before concluding the celebrations of the New Year: Apotropalia on the 7th of January and Agonalia on the 9th.

The former is yet another modern festivity of my doing and it’s focused on Apollo, here as a protector and provider of health whose blessings are requested for the new year. The ceremony in His honour follows Greek rite and includes a wreath that’s offered to the god and then hanged over the house door. As for Agonalia, that’s an ancient festivity, in this case dedicated to Janus, who is thus, appropriately, the one who opens and closes the New Year celebrations. The offerings that were made to Him on January 1st, as well as the requests, are repeated in the Agonalia ceremony.

Atlas’ daughter
Of course, adding to this are the monthly offerings that are given in a regular fashion, in this case to Nabia on the 9th and Jupiter, as well as the Family Lares and Penates, on the 13th.

On the latter day, I’ll start honouring Mercury’s mother also, since in the Iberian cult that I’m constructing She’s the only member of the triad that’s yet without regular offerings. And the Ides seem to me like the most appropriate day for it, partly because She’s a mountain nymph and thus with a symbolic link to the peak of the month, just like Jupiter, and also as a reference to the May 15th Mercuralia, which to me is increasingly a festivity in honour of Maia. There’s also an allusion to Mercury’s parents, though I’m unsure about the relation between Zeus and Jupiter. And because, as said before, Atlas’ daughter has for me a certain liminality, having both a terrestrial and a celestial side – which, by the way, is appropriate for a mountain nymph – maybe I’ll alternate in the way I give Her monthly offerings, using the ritual fire in one month and a bowl with soil on the next one. Something that is also appropriate considering the overlap with the Roman Maia.

What’s the use of it all?
Okay, so all of this is lovely, long and probably complex. But what’s it good for, anyway? Am I hoping to have a 2018 without bumps on the road, bad luck, bad news, illnesses or problems, just because I performed a string of ceremonies with plenty of offerings in the first days of January?

The answer is no, I’m not. I mean, it would be good if I could have that rosy scenario and I’ll gladly take it if it’s available, thank you. But as said here and here, a polytheistic system tends to be decentralized, without a single god in control of everything, but with multiple deities with interests and goals that are different, if not contradictory. Therefore, I’m not expecting that those I pay tribute to in the New Year can or will do everything, but I hope – or at least ask – that they’ll lend their hand, even if only as a reaction to something they cannot prevent, but can at least help to overcome. A bit like friends and family, from whom I don’t expect assistance or solutions for everything, but do hope they’ll be present when it matters the most, even if only to help reacting to unfortunate events that neither I nor they can avoid.

End of year, end of hiatus

It’s been five months since my last post on this blog, in an absence motivated by work, academic or literary, leaving me little time and creativity to write here. Not that that has affected my religious practices: the sacrifices on the Calends, Nones and Ides have been performed, as have the other monthly offerings and annual celebrations, some with additional elements like wreaths and devotional gestures. There was even time to add new festive dates that will show up in my calendar and I was able to write a few pages of religious text. Again, the only thing lacking was the opportunity to post here. So, in an attempt to recover from the hiatus and return to the blogosphere, here’s a brief summary of what I’ve been doing, religiously speaking:

1. The opening of the flood gates
For some time now, the goddess Nabia has been a part of my practices, both as a major and local deity and Family Lar, but I’ve decided to elevate Her status, largely due to the drought that’s still affecting the country and the October fires, especially the one that consumed most of the Leiria Pine Forest. I’ve thus reserved a corner of a table as a shrine where the goddess is represented by a small schist stone brought a few years ago from a mountainous village called Piodão and on which Nabia receives daily drops of water as a form of tribute. It’s still a temporary set and the exact decoration is being worked out, but, hesitations aside, the shrine has already been used in the last few months for offerings of fire, water and scented oil, which is evaporated in a burner, and the gesture will be repeated on the 9th of every month. And adding to this, I’ve also devised a new annual festivity dedicated to Nabia, together with Reue and Jupiter, which I named Pluvialia – the celebration of rain fall. It will take place on the Ides of October, which was when the rain helped controlling the Leiria Pine Forest fire.

2. A populated sky
On that note, these last few months have also been used for some meditation on Reue, not so much in an academic sense, as that work was done when writing the several pages on Iberian gods, but in a more personal sense. Specifically, whether or not I should include Him in the pantheon I worship, which is already quite diverse and numerous, and under what guise. And the answer came in the form of a title that had already occurred to me, but which I had not yet awarded to a deity: that of Shepherd of Clouds! It’s in line with similar epithets of other celestial gods – like Zeus Gatherer of Clouds – but it has a rural touch that hints at the mountainous areas where Reue appears to have been worshipped. And furthermore it allows for a connection with torrential waters, which may have been part of the god’s sphere of influence in the past and can be metaphorically conceived as a violent stampede of bulls and rams. Eventually, I’ll write a post on it and, who knows, a connection to Nabia may be on the horizon.

3. Drawing a path
And what about Mercury? He’s still a centre of attentions: two daily prayers, a monthly sacrifice on the first Wednesdays, a libation of wine before the closing of every ceremony in Greek or Roman rite – and this month even in the end of a sacrifice to Ullr, as an experiment – adding to the small portions of wheat cast onto the road or poured on cairns in an informal and frequent fashion. And there’s also the book on an Iberian cult to the Son of Maia, whose first pages are partially finished, though with no rush. It is, after all, the most important part of the text, because it must be made clear that the book is not meant to be a bible, a crystallization of moral doctrine or the expression of an orthodox, saving or exclusivist cult. Things that need to be highlighted, explained and reinforced these days. As in a journey, the direction of the first steps influences or determines the destination one arrives at.

4. The new cycle
And as customary, I celebrated Saturnalia, Inguinalia and this year’s Winter Solstice and, a few days before, the annual sacrifices to Faunus and Ullr, besides the usual monthly offerings. Religiously speaking, this is to me one of the most busy months, which also didn’t help in finding time to keep this blog active. But now that there’s only the end of year ceremony to go and before the start of New Year’s hustle and bustle, here I am again. Worst case scenario, I’ll see you again on the Ides of January!

Winter solstice sunrise, 2017

The dog-bearer’s day

Tell me the story of when Mercury found baby Quangeio abandoned by the road and the son of Maia took Him in, carrying Him in His arms to Olympus.

In June, I wrote this post on the general outline of a modern Iberian cult to Mercury as part of the revival of ancient Roman polytheism in the present world, its regionalization – a process that also existed in the past – and the necessary creation of new elements, be it due to the modern context or the absence of information that forces one to fill in the blanks. In short and to resume the analogy, a religion that’s like an old tree, simultaneously rooted in the distant past and thus tied to it, but whose branches stretch out into the present sky organically.

1. The ideas
At the time, I referred to Mercury, Maia and Quangeio as the central figures of that cult, together with the Lares Viales as divine host, and mentioned that each would have at least one annual festivity. Well then, that of the third member of the triad takes place tomorrow, August 24th, under the name of Caniferalia – the feast of the dog bearer.

As far as I know, the term is a neologism, made from the combination of the Latin words canis (dog) and fero (bring, bear), and it alludes to a myth that’s still in its early sketches, where Mercury adopts the Iberian dog god Quangeio after finding Him abandoned by the side of a road. Obviously, it’s not an historical event, but a narrative meant to codify the relationship between the two deities and, at the same time, convey an ethical component that’s specific to the cult (though not necessarily to the rest of Roman polytheism).

Simultaneously, the date also serves to celebrate Quangeio’s rise to the status of prince among the Lares Viales and thus a foremost member of the divine host, something that in time will also have a corresponding myth. And taken together, all of this adds multiple layers of meaning to the festivity: at the most basic level, it’s a celebration of a canine god and as such a sort of day of dogs; but because Quangeio is a member of the triad of the cult I’m constructing, the date also highlights His relationship with Mercury and the Lares Viales; and then both lines of meaning connect through the dog as a protector and companion of wayfarers and Mercury’s cynophilia as transmitted by the myth, linking back to Caniferalia’s basic sense of a day of dogs.

There’s still an additional meaning connected to the mercurial cycle of four annual festivities on the fourth day of January, April, July and October, but that’s a topic for another post somewhere down the road, once the notions I’m playing with are clearer.

2. The actions
So much for the ideas, but what about the practical dimension of the Caniferalia? What gestures and actions should mark the feast? The most obvious is a formal ceremony in Roman rite, to which one can add more informal offerings in small shrines, whether they’re in or outdoors, by the road or in more isolated locations. Things like libations of wine, wheat, wreaths or incense. And of course, in any one of those moments, small homages to Mercury, Maia and the Lares Viales are also appropriate.

The obvious acts of worship can be supplemented with more mundane gestures that still have a religious dimension in the context of the Caniferalia. Consider, for instance, offering gifts or exceptional treats to your dogs, taking them out for a walk to different or special places, giving them an afternoon of fun and games on a beach or field, making a donation in money or goods to an animal shelter, if possible adopting a dog or, preferably at the end of the day, visiting canine graves. The dog’s symbolic universe is vast and it includes the Underworld or the journey to it.

Finally, being a festivity of a cult centred on Mercury Viator and the Lares Viales, the simple gesture of leaving food or water on a street or by a road for stray dogs also has a strong religious charge, especially if it’s done next to cairns where on also pours offerings to Maia’s son and the Lares Viales. Just be careful with the distance from the road so as to avoid animals being run over while eating and don’t leave plastic containers or tin foil outdoors.

3. Just a final point
Of course, most of this – almost all of it, actually – is modern. But that’s inevitable when dealing with a god like Quangeio, on whom little is known, meaning that worshipping Him in the modern world requires one to innovate in order to produce something that’s living and functional in the present day. The same goes for the idea of a western Iberian cult of Mercury: in the past, Roman gods were not worshipped uniformly throughout Europe, but had local and regional variations and cults, which is what I’m attempting to give form to. Tradition here comes essentially in the form of ritual practices, gods and dynamics.

Unwanted preservation

Another still wanted to call himself Mercury, the inventor of all theft and all deceit, to whom greedy men offer sacrifices, as if he was the god of profit, forming heaps of rocks when passing through crossroads. (De Correctione Rusticorum, 7)

So wrote Saint Martin of Dume in the second half of the 6th century. Of course, he meant it as a condemnation of pre-Christian practices, though how far they were prevalent in northwest Iberia at the time is unclear. But as so often happens, when writing about what you think people shouldn’t do, you end up preserving the memory of it, thus offering the possibility of resumption of those practices later on. Which is exactly the case here: the text gives a clear account of road-side rock piles as a form of tribute to Mercury and so I do just that. As in the photo above, where you can see a cairn I erected yesterday next to a crossroad. Thank you, Saint Martin!

Also, if you’re a heathen and you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed how his description of Mercury resembles that of Loki in Snorri’s Edda, Gylfaginning 34, where Laufey’s son is called the “originator of deceits” (Faulkes’ translation). Pretty much in line with the character of the Greek Hermes, who’s described in his Homeric hymn as “very crafty” and “thief”, even “Prince of Thieves”, though that didn’t make Him any less godly or unworthy of worship. It did, however, make Him more prone to comparisons with the deceiver-in-chief of the Judeo-Christian tradition – aka, the devil – and you see some of that in Saint Martin’s words. I’m not saying that Hermes and Loki are the same god – it’s not something I believe in – but their resemblances, both in traits and the way they were treated by Christian authors, should be taken into consideration before arguing that Laufey’s son isn’t to be worshipped because He’s a liar.

Dropping the moral criterion

How can it be a god if it’s not perfect? How can it be worshipped if it’s not good? These are questions that I’m occasionally confronted with and not just by Christians. They also come out of the mouth (or fingers) of atheists and, every now and then, even pagans and polytheists, in what is a good example of how the current religious speech, at least in the western world, is dominated by Abrahamic assumptions, even if you’re not a Jew, Christian, Muslim or religious at all.

1. One’s criteria…
At the root of those questions – and the astonishment that may accompany them – is the prevalence of a concept of divinity that’s based on a moral criterion, as, for instance, in the idea that “God is good”. Or just or merciful or perfect. If it has flaws, it’s not a god. If it has no sense of justice, if it lets bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them, if it lacks compassion or possesses a moral imperfection, then it’s not a god. Thus, if the devil steals, lies, seduces, hurts or destroys, those are symptoms of its non-divinity. He’s the anti-god and therefore the opposite of perfection and justice. And if there was a god, “this” – insert whatever tragedy you can think of – would never happen.

It wasn’t always like this and one can find a more unpleasant notion of the divine in the Old Testament. For instance, the death of Uzzah after he touched the Ark of the Covenant, in Samuel II 6:6-7, is ruthless and takes into consideration no good intentions whatsoever. But the moral criterion isn’t new as well and you can see it in places like chapter 7 of the Correctione Rusticorum, where Saint Martin of Dume denies that Jupiter, Mars or Mercury are gods based not just on a belief in a divine monopoly, but also from their behaviour: adultery, lies, theft, magic, instigation of discord, all of that is unbecoming of a deity and signs that something isn’t a god.

The moral criterion came to prevail and is presently a recurring part of Christian thought. It’s in speeches, sermons, manuals, everyday conversations. And because the European continent has a thousand or more years of Abrahamic predominance, that conception is the default perspective based on which most people discuss religion, whatever it may be or regardless of whether or not you have one.

2. …are not the criteria of others
It wasn’t like that in ancient Europe, where the divine was commonly defined as being numinous, wondrous or extraordinary, as having the power to awe, inspire, terrify, create or destroy, no matter if it was beneficial or damaging, pleasant or unpleasant. Gods in everything, as Thales of Miletus is believed to have said and Virgil wrote later on, regardless if it’s good or bad things.

To put it in practical terms, consider the case of Aphrodite. It’s true that ancient Greece wasn’t all misogynist, if nothing else because it’s hard to speak of uniformity in a territory that was divided into multiple city-States, which had traditions and cultural nuances of their own, and even more so in a polytheistic context, which by recognizing multiple gods also accepts multiple patterns, even if in a limited fashion. But it was still a place and time where there was a strong cultural current that saw female sexuality with some discomfort, if not fear.

There’s a trace of that in Euripides’ Bacchae, lines 217-25, where Pentheus accuses the women who honour Dionysus of leaving their homes and wander through the mountains, submitting to lasciviousness in isolated places. He also accuses them of placing the cult of Aphrodite ahead of that of Bacchus, using the latter as a pretext for lust. And the foreigner who introduces the Dionysian practices, who’s the god Himself and Pentheus accuses of moral corruption, is described as having “in his wine-coloured eyes the charms of Aphrodite”.

It is thus unsurprising that the great warrior goddess of the Greeks is Athena. After all, She had no mother who gave birth to Her, as said in lines 735-6 of the Eumenides, and, because She came out of the head of Zeus, She lends Herself to interpretations like coming from the elevated place of male reason instead of the lowers parts of female sexuality. And as if that wasn’t enough, She is staunchly chaste, which makes Her safe to have among men, since there’s no lust in Her. Simply put, She’s a masculinized goddess and therefore accepted in the bellic world. Aphrodite, on the other hand, as stated in Book 5 of the Iliad, is clearly out of Her depth in actual physical combat, in as much as, after being injured by Diomedes, She’s told to stick to Her realm, which is not that of war.

Artemis offers another symptom of a similar aversion to female sexuality. As goddess of the hunt, an activity that requires one to run through woods and fields, you’d expect Her to be seen as having minimalistic clothing that allows for a greater freedom of movement. Running and jumping in a long skirt isn’t easy. But that same minimalism results in a greater exposure of the body, which is not very modest, and so it is convenient that Artemis, like Athena, is staunchly chaste. In as much as, in some versions of the myth of Actaeon, he’s killed just for seeing the goddess naked. Which makes Her yet another safe female deity, because She makes no use of Her sexuality and can therefore run and wander through the mountains without fears of, in Pentheus’ words, giving way to lasciviousness in isolated places.

This serves to show that there was a clear misogynist line in ancient Greek culture, even if it wasn’t unanimous or uniform. But despite that, despite that discomfort or distrust of female sexuality and the “evils” it could bring, the Greeks nonetheless recognized Aphrodite as a goddess. She could be “dangerous”, at the very least potentially immoral, but still a deity, either because lust exerts an overwhelming power over humans and thus has extraordinary or numinous qualities, or because female sexuality has a reproductive use, preferably within the bounds of marriage, which is where the Iliad places Aphrodite.

3. Not every cult is an invitation
This open manner of seeing the divine is odd to many of us. We’re not used to consider deities without making judgements, without wondering if it’s good, beneficial or just and therefore a god or not. The Judeo-Christian principles are the common reference and thus people tend to project them on any religion, past or present, as if they were natural, obvious or universal traits. They’re not. The moral reasoning would have made no sense for many in ancient Europe, so much so that not every cult aimed at divine presence or closeness. Sometimes, the purpose was to obtain a safe distance – with respect, yes, but a distance nonetheless – which is not surprising, if you think about it.

If an entity is acknowledged as a god or goddess even if it has a damaging, terrifying or destructive nature, then not every religious gesture will aim at having said deity among us. “Let God enter you life”, Christians would say. Which at least to some polytheists makes sense only up to a point, because there are gods you may want to keep as far away as respectfully possible, even if you worship them. Gods of the Underworld, for instance, are often synonymous with terror, disease and death, though that doesn’t make Them less divine. It just means that the cult that is owed and given to Them serves less to attract Them and more to keep Them satisfied, though at a safe distance in order to avoid the presence of that which They bring. It’s not by chance that the cult of the dead could be wrapped up in taboos.

This, too, is odd to many of us. After all, how many people use or hang amulets against evil-eyes, misfortune or demons, without ever considering at the same time the option of offering something to that which is seen as bad in other to keep it at bay? Or how many people reject that possibility because, according to the Judeo-Christian principles, only god deserves to be honoured and god is that which is good, just, pure or perfect?

4. The past and the present
Unsurprisingly, even among those who try to revive ancient European polytheisms there are people who make use of the moral criterion, even if they’re not entirely aware of it. The refusal to honour Loki is a good example, since it’s often based on the argument that He’s a traitor or a liar, as described in a mythology preserved in late sources where the Norse trickster is already shaped in the image of the Christian devil. It’s interesting to note that people often neglect the resemblances with the Greek Hermes or the African-American Eshu, who are acknowledged as deities despite their mercurial personalities. Or that a god doesn’t have to be good, morally perfect or just in order to be a god. Or that a cult can also serve to keep at bay – the deity or its effects – and not to invite it to be present. To say that His moral conduct disqualifies Loki from the divine category is something that may owe more to Christian theology and less to the religious ideas of pre-Christian Europe.

The same may perhaps be said of those who honour infernal gods in domestic shrines, side by side with celestial deities. There’s certainly in that an element of poor knowledge of ancient practices, but somewhere in the middle there may also be a product of the moral criterion. Because if a god is that which is just or good, as is commonly believed in the present religious discourse, then Dis Pater and Jupiter are on a similar level, since they’re both gods, and can therefore be worshipped side by side. There is a degree of comfort in a morally-based theology, because it can assume divine goodness and purity as certain and universal.

5. Amoral is different from irrational
At this point, I must emphasize two things, starting with the fact that polytheism is a diverse religious category, even more so if one takes into account that several of its religions have no orthodoxy and therefore no uniform beliefs. What I said has thus a relative reach and it’s important to note that. But besides that, by defending an amoral concept of deity, I’m not saying that the gods are irrational beings who act randomly or sadistically. I don’t hold the idea that they are out to get you, waiting to find flaws they can punish, but instead believe there is reason in them. There are purposes and goals… though not necessarily our own. And that is where another part of the problem resides.

As I see it, we’re not the centre of things and the world or universe do not exist for our benefit. We’re the cumulative product of multiple causes and the cosmos, like the Earth, has multiple gods, not all of them friendly towards civilization. Some are indifferent to it, others oppose it and some deities are not particularly preoccupied with us or our needs, individual or collective. Many, if not most, see things in a wider fashion than we do, for which reason some are willing to harm individuals for the sake of a greater good or long term. Think of gods like Volcanus, who presides over the subterranean heat and thus the tectonic dynamics that sustain life, but which work on a chronological horizon of thousands or millions of years, much more than any human generation, and can be destructive of individuals lives. The needs and worries of Volcanus are not ours – and keep in mind that I distinguish Him from Hephaestus, who to me comes across as a god of the fire of the forge, civilized and tempered, not that of the inner Earth, which is primordial and violent.

As such, speaking from my own view as a Roman polytheist, if a deity is harmful, if it presents itself as violent and immoral, it’s not because it’s irrational: it just means that it follows rules and an agenda different from ours. One may certainly try to negotiate, obtain a truce, time, benefits or limited help, but ultimately its goals may not be our own. A god of disease isn’t evil, it simply presides over something unpleasant or tragic, but which is a natural part of a world that does not exist for our benefit. A god of chaos too isn’t evil, but participates in a universe that’s in constant change and thus has a chaotic component. None of this disqualifies them as gods. It simply means that they’re different deities with which one must deal accordingly and without denying them the divine status.

I’m aware, of course, that these examples are based on a modern understanding of the cosmos, in contrast to the science of the ancient world, which saw things like the sun or the stars as being eternal or was unaware of the microscopic world behind diseases. But it’s one thing to let knowledge shape theology, offering fresh content to the general outline and religious practices of the past, which did see destructive and harmful powers as gods nonetheless. It’s quite another to distort that under the influence of ideas that are alien to a given religious system and are acquired or accepted as valid out of inertia.