In any case, since the shrine has been Freyr’s for over a decade now, I naturally want to preserve his focal status. This means that his statue should be at the centre and on a higher level than all the others, but it also amounts to making a new and smaller image of Freyr, as the current one is too big for a shelf that may house as many as five. Currently, the other gods I’m considering are Freya and Njord, which shouldn’t be a problem, plus Thor and Ullr. The former has been under consideration for some time now, but the latter is an old soft-spot of mine who has so far remained outside my practices. That may change in the near future and I wonder if there’s an element of intra-divine relationships to it, for if my devotion to Freyr brought his father and sister into my domestic pantheon, it is perhaps unsurprising that worshiping Thor results in his stepson stepping in.
So, in order to know if I have his approval for all of this, for the past few days I’ve been asking Freyr if He is willing to share his shrine with the aforementioned deities and if a centre-stage position is agreeable to Him. And for the past two nights, I’ve been having dreams about clay statues of the gods breaking or falling apart, which could be my mind fabricating things out of current thoughts or it may have a meaning that I’m not yet sure about. Tonight’s however was an exceptionally intriguing dream, because it included a piece of information that’s not in the known lore: that Ullr is Freyr’s half-brother.
I did not see that one coming! Is there anyone out there with a similar UPG?
I called it the Postal Oracle, which is both a tribute to the god of messengers and a reference to the source of the material: Going Postal by Terry Pratchett (may he be honoured and feast with his ancestors!). The choice of book is not without mercurial significance, for a trickster is essentially a transgressor and there’s something subversive in sortes taken not from classical authors so often placed on a pedestal, but from modern satirical fiction about a con-man who escapes death and is placed in charge of a decrepit postal service he cunningly manages to revive. It’s witty, funny and a tribute to man’s resourcefulness and ability to act smart, even if not in an honest manner. And the postmaster wears a golden suit with a winged cap – an avatar of a god, one of the characters says. It’s all well within Mercury’s realm.
Of course, I wanted to make sure He was on board with this, so almost a year ago I offered Him incense, explained Him the whole idea and asked for a sign of approval, should He agree and be willing to guide me through the selection of the sentences. A few days later, things happened: I got a small prize out of a lottery ticket and my mother lost a two euro coin, which turned out to be at home, right next to Pratchett’s book, which I was keeping close to Mercury’s shrine. And it wasn’t just any coin: it was an Italian two Euro coin, which has Dante’s laurel-crowned head on it. An acclaimed writer, in other words, which I took as a sign of approval of the source material. Several days later, I also had dreams that involved coloured stars and dice.
Now, my initial thought was to use bibliomancy to pick the sentences, but that didn’t turn out well. I hesitate too much and after several dozen picks, creasing starts having a say on which pages you open. As I struggled with this, I had a dream that involved a Terry Pratchett title and book cover: the words were Carpe Jugulum, but the image was from Maskerade. I wondered if this meant I should take a look at those two books, but then it occurred to me that the mismatch between title and cover could mean that I shouldn’t combine the two. Rather, I thought, it may well mean that I should stay within Pratchett’s universe, but seize the throat, i.e. pick the words myself. Which is what I did and, several months later, when I finished going through Going Postal, I did the math and found out I had unintentionally written down 444 sentences. Message received!
Another issue I had to solve was the type and number of dice. Early on, I decided I wanted them to have different colours, for dice don’t normally come out in a straight line, so I need a way of knowing which one stands for the units, dozens and hundreds. My initial idea was to use four six-sided dice, which meant I would have to list 1296 sentences, but since I had only 444 when I finished going through the book, I knew I needed to rethink that. The solution presented itself shortly after: keep things as much as possible in multiples of 4. It was obvious, but I missed it in the middle of all the mind storming. So I’ll be using four eight-sided dices, three of which will have numbers from 1 to 8, allowing for a total of 512 answers (5+2+1=8). The fourth dice will be different and should have two symbols four times: one will mean that the god has nothing else to say and the other that I should draw again to add more sentences to the reply. That way I won’t have to rely on pure instinct to decide whether to throw the dice again and Mercury can talk all He wants (and rumour has it that He can be very chatty). The colours will be those I dreamed of: red for the units, blue for the dozens, green for the hundreds an white for the more/enough.
Starting tomorrow and then on the first Wednesday of every month, I’ll be using the Postal Oracle to seek advice or divine what will happen during the month. I’ll be writing everything down and analyse it as an experiment for at least a year, so as to see if the system works as it is, if it needs a few changes and if Mercury’s approves the final version. Putting it all together has led me to conclude that divination is a matter of shared language: you give the Gods enough vocabulary they can work with and they’ll use it to the best of its ability and according to their will. And just as with any language, both sides need to understand it and know how to use it, which requires practice. So I’ll be practising and I’ll be open to suggestions from Mercury. I reckon this is going to be an interesting ride.
This year’s preparations started on the end of March. I cleaned his domestic shrine, made four small wreaths, printed wanted posters as part of a prank and glued them on different streets late at night, so as to give people a laugh on the morning of April 1st. When I woke up, as is usual on the Calends, I offered incense and wine to Janus, Juno and my Family Lares, plus salted flour for the latter and the house genii, as well as water with a dog biscuit for my deceased pets. Since this year’s April 1st was also the first Wednesday of the month, Mercury was honoured with a candle, incense and wine. These are all normal monthly offerings at my place and it was only later in the morning that the Ludi Mercuriales were ritually opened.
I placed the image of the Winged One in a temporary shrine by the fireplace – the de facto altar – and surrounded it with the four wreaths I made the night before. Then I performed a fully formal ceremony in Roman rite and offered Him almonds, walnuts and jam, plus some more incense and a teaspoon of cinnamon. I also burned the morning offerings before closing the ceremony. Then in the afternoon I bought a lottery ticket and rode my bike to a sea-side town around 30 kilometres or 18 miles from here, stopping four times along the way to erect small herms. On each of them I poured wheat, wine and placed a wreath. Then I rode back home, offered Him a flower on arrival and a few hours later I did some volunteer work at a food bank. All of this while wearing on my wrist a coin I keep in Mercury’s domestic shrine and which signals that what I’m doing is a tribute to Him.
This morning, after waking up, I again offered a candle, incense and wine to the son of Maia and later burned them. Today’s activities will be mostly indoors, consisting of writing and baking. Tomorrow, I’ll be presenting Him with a final draft of a divination method I’ve been working on for almost a year now (more on that later) and go for another bike ride. Saturday will be the big day: for all intents and purposes, I see April 4th as Mercury’s birthday, much like March 19th is Minerva’s. It’s the fourth day of the fourth month, so it seems fitting. As a result, I’ll be offering Him a cheesecake topped with strawberry jam, burn a slice in a formal ceremony and then ritually profane the rest so it can be consumed by me and my family. It’s like a birthday cake and Mercury, being the birthday boy, gets the first portion before his guests are served. His shrine will also be decorated with a wreath I’ll be giving Him and in the afternoon I should be jogging in his honour. This, of course, coupled with morning offerings, some divination and informal libations throughout the day.
Yes, I’m pampering Mercury. But it’s a special occasion and He is very dear to me, so He deserves all the extra effort that the first four days of the fourth month call for. It’s once every year and it stands like a crown jewel amongst the countless other gestures of devotion and gratitude towards Him. May his blessings be many and his laughs abundant! May He be glad and share his joy with us! Be honoured, Mercury!
Categorization is useful and there’s no doubt about that. It allows us to work in a precise fashion, avoid the dangers of generalization and specify the goals, limits and means of our actions. So, for instance, when communicating with the Gods, one should always keep in mind the exact type of deity being addressed so as to avoid breaking taboos, mismanaging offerings or use the wrong set of tools. I don’t refute any of this and indeed embrace it! Roman polytheism has a rich tradition of making a ritual distinction between celestial, terrestrial, infernal and domestic deities (even aspects of the same deity) and how that determines the type of altar being used, the way offerings are disposed of, the time of day when ceremonies are performed, etc. But here’s another thing ancient Roman polytheism had: an open or wide use of the terms deus/dea (god/goddess) and di (gods). They weren’t applied to just a limited group of beings on the topmost places of the hierarchy, but to pretty much any entity that was numinous, otherworldly or more-than-mere-human. Much like the kami of Shinto. I listed it before, but for the sake of clarity, here goes again: Romans referred to the dead as Di Manes, their deceased relatives as Di Parentes, their household gods as Di Penates, the underworld powers as Di Inferi, smaller ones like Cardea, goddess of door hinges, as Di Indigetes, and the big twelve or Olympians as Di Consentes. See the pattern? They’re all called di or gods. The same goes for nymphs and Lares, two other types of entities that are also referred to in the same manner.
How can a tradition that is meticulous to the point of distinguishing between different types of altars, gestures and procedures for different types of entities be so lax in the way it uses the word “god”? Or to employ Sarenth’s terms, how could ancient Romans not narrow the use of the word and allowed it to homogenise as gods so many different types of entities? Isn’t that a contradiction? No, it isn’t!
When I said narrowing it was missing it, I wasn’t stating that narrowing is useless. I was pointing out that having a minimalistic view of what is a god amounts to missing the full range of what it can mean in a polytheist context. To put it differently, I was saying that “god” is a wide category and not a narrow one. It can include greater, smaller, local, supralocal, regional, universal, celestial, terrestrial, infernal, family and non-family gods. And if you narrow it, you’re missing the full potential of the word. You’re organizing the pantheon according to the tenants of monotheism, which calls god to only one being at the topmost seat and everything else below him are non-gods, no matter how much they look and act like one. But polytheism recognizes multiple entities with different natures or degrees of power and, more often than not, it doesn’t shy away from calling them gods despite those differences. Precisely because polytheism is normally without a dogma that puts a cap on divinity. This doesn’t mean that categories are useless: it just means that we recognize them as subgroups within the wider notion of god. Hence, while there’s a difference between the Inferi and Consentes that is indeed of substance and important as a working tool, it does not contradict the fact that both are groups of gods. To use a political analogy, the distinction between people from the states of New York and Georgia is useful when making considerations on public opinion, voters’ preferences, social fabric and so forth and indeed there is a difference of substance between the two groups. But they’re both Americans and can be referred to as such, just as people from different European countries, each with their specific national or regional identities, are all European. And my point a month ago was that the word “god” should be understood in an manner as wide as American and European, in that it can include different subcategories that are both overlapping and with substantial differences. The Di Manes are not the Di Consentes, but they’re still di or gods.
Now, this isn’t something that’s necessarily known from literary sources. Most of it comes from short inscriptions, which tend to be a more direct window into people’s beliefs than the often embellished, systematized or even biased pieces of literature or philosophy. And here lies the problem when it comes to ancient Scandinavia: unlike the case in the Roman world, there’s very little information from a purely pre-Christian perspective. What we have are generally late sources and even those dated from the pagan period are not from a time when Christianity was unknown or non-existent. Plus, they’re mostly literary sources, which is already a biased form of transmission: consider, for instance, how Thor’s role as a bringer of rain and granter of bountiful crops is virtually absent from Old Norse prose and poetry, despite the fact that that side of Him may have been highly relevant in the everyday life of ancient Scandinavians. Simply put, battles, duels and adventures into distant lands make a much more exciting story – either in poetry or prose – than everyday’s weather, fishing and farming. And whereas daily religion can be more practical, literature is often ideologically or artistically driven. So when all we have for pre-Christian Scandinavia are generally literary sources and, what’s more, late and/or biased towards Odin and his kin, it’s hard to have an idea of how ordinary people of different strata conceptualized a god before Christianity made an impact and with regard to the entire pantheon. This falls within what Edward Butler said on Twitter about the problems of attempting to understand the full extent of people’s religious experience based on a limited amount of sources.
Still, a few glimpses can perhaps be found in Old Norse poetry. One of them pertains to the use of the term týr. The word is best known as the name of the one-handed god, but in Old Norse it was also a common noun that meant “god”. Hence in Grímnismál 48, Odin is called Farmatýr or god of cargoes, in stanza 5 of the same poem it is said that the tívar or gods gave Alfheim to Freyr and in stanza 19 of the skaldic poem Þórsdrápa Thor is called karms týr or god of the chariot. Etymologically, the word is linked to the Proto-Indo-European *dyeus, which makes it a direct Germanic equivalent of the Latin deus. And in the Haustlöng, a piece of poetry that is usually dated from the 10th century, the word is used in a manner that is far from narrow. The poem survives in Snorri’s Edda, where it is quoted several times in Skáldskaparmál, and in the extant stanzas, it tells the story of how the giant Thiazi kidnapped Idun with Loki’s help, how she was rescued and Skadi’s father killed in the process. It also speaks of Thor’s duel with Hrungnir. In stanza 1, the gods Odin, Loki and Thor as referred to as tívar; in stanza 2, the kenning byrgi-týr is used for Thiazi and in stanza 6 hirði-týr refers to Loki. You can find this and more in a Master’s dissertation presented at the University of Oslo in 2013 and which can be downloaded here. And yes, it’s in English.
Of course, the example from the Haustlöng may mean nothing. Skaldic poetry is known for using normally unrelated terms to construct kennings and there are cases of warriors being poetically called Odin of something. Also, it has strict metrical rules, so the use of the term for a giant and Loki may be an isolated case of poetic license. But it can also be something else and hint at a wide use of the words týr/tivar. They may not have been employed for just the higher strata of beings living in Asgard, but for a variety of entities that were in some way otherworldly, powerful, numinous, more-than-human – giants included! And given what we know from genuinely pre-Christian sources from elsewhere in Europe, it is a real possibility.
So my point is simple: don’t be quick to narrow the notion of god into a privilege of an uppermost stratum of beings. Polytheism is not monotheism with more gods. We don’t have a dogma that forces us to call other entities by any other names because there can be only one deity. We have no cap on divinity and therefore a minor spirit of a particular hill or mountain can be a god, just as the higher power of thunder is one too. Different in power and scope, perhaps even belonging to different categories, but gods nonetheless. The Aesir and Vanir are both gods, despite also being different groups. Subcategorize them in any way you wish, traditional or modern, but don’t automatically assume that something isn’t a god just because it’s not a big one or has more limited abilities, even if still numinous or otherworldly. That form of regulating the divine wasn’t or at least may not have been how ancient polytheists saw it.
Let me be clear and state that the lines above are not from a conversation with a god. I have not been endowed with such an ability. They are simply the sum of my mental notes on the issue of the local gods of my homeland. And after experimenting and considering the matter for two years, I believe I have found the answer I was looking for.
In the western part of the Iberian Peninsula, there are several Roman-period inscriptions and altars dedicated to Lares. Not the horn-raising gods from Roman lararia, but something else, less domestic and even if it can have a link with households. This takes us back to the issue of religious terminology, since the term lar overlaps with genius and deus: there are genii loci or local spirits of both the natural and man-made landscape, but also an individual’s genius and community’s; the Lares can be one’s ancestors, spirits of a place (e.g. crossroads) or maybe both. For instance, the Lares Viales may be genii of pathways, of trees and rocks that stand along them or the spirits of the people who were buried by the roads just outside ancient cities. The word Lar could even be used as a title for a greater god, as in the case of Silvanus (CIL VI 646). I know clear-cut categories are much more comfortable and easier to work with, but that’s not how these things work. God, lar, genius, nymph and so forth are not mutually exclusive terms. They serve practical purposes, yes, and in that sense they’re not mere synonyms of each other, but neither do they stand for entirely or even largely different groups. Genius is a generic word that can be used for all kinds of spirits, including those of living people. God or deus (plural di) is also generic, but refers to non-human and deceased numinous entites: Di Manes (the Divine Dead), Di Parentes (the Divine Relatives), Di Penates (the Household Gods), Di Consentes (the greater or Olympian Gods), Di Inferi (the Infernal or Underworld Gods), Di Conservatores (the Gods who Save or Preserve) and Di Indigetes, which could include small gods like Cardea, who presides over door hinges, or Prema, who supervises sexual embrace. “Good fairies” is how Robert Turcan described some of the Indigetes (Gods of Ancient Rome 2002: 18), but though minor, they, like the dead, are gods or di nonetheless. And the groups can also overlap, since the Infernal may include the Manes and some of the Consentes are also Conservatores. As for nymph, it always refers to a female deity, often associated with water. The goddesses Juturna, Carmenta and Egeria are all at one time described as nymphs and hence also why Brigantia is referred to as one. And She’s not alone in that: the equally British Coventina is referred to as a goddess (Dea Conuentina) and nymph (Nimpha Couentina) (RIB 1526-7). But when in doubt on the specific identity of local gods one wished to address, the generic genii loci was useful, as was the expression sive deus sive dea (whether god or goddess). Mane has an underworld quality to it, whereas Lar appears to be more benign, so while both terms can refer to the spirits of the dead (though not exclusively), the latter seems to summon a non-infernal side or part of the deceased, in as much as they can be worshipped domestically (Family Lares), while the Manes are normally confined to graveyards. As I said before, the terminology is less about clear-cut categories and more about scope and function where divinity is not a privilege of a limited few up on the hierarchy, but a trait of the countless many, both great and minor. As evidenced by the common use of deus/di.
You get a sense of all of this once you start going through the ancient altars dedicated to Lares in the Iberian Peninsula: in the area of Castelo Branco (Portugal), inscriptions have been found to both Di and Lares Cairieses, which were presumably local deities; a similar pattern can be found elsewhere, like in an inscription to the Lares Tarmucenbaecis Cecaecis, found in the region of Chaves (Portugal), which are perhaps the gods or Dii Ceceaigis mentioned further north in the area of Ourense (Galicia, Spain); from Coimbra (Portugal) comes a small altar to the Genius Conimbricae or the geni of the city; the same site also produced pieces to the Lares Aquites, which may have been aquatic gods or nymphs, and the Lares Lubanci, believed to have been tribal gods of a specific local clan; an altar dedicated to the Lares Buricis was found in the district of Braga (Portugal) and they were probably genii loci or local gods, since the area where the piece comes from is known as Bouro; and another example is an altar found in Lugo (Galicia, Spain), which was dedicated to the Lares Gallaeciarum or the Galician Lares.*
So in light of this and after meditating on a few ideas, I have started to address the gods of my ancestral land as Lares Alcobacenses. It is a wide category, vague enough to include countless entities of different sorts, while simultaneously expressing their local nature. They are the genii of the trees, rocks and hills, the nymphs of woods and rivers, the gods of fields and roads. Some may step forward individually and be named accordingly, most may remain an anonymous part of the host; some may be strictly local gods, attached to particular elements of the landscape, while others may be localized aspects of greater gods. I may address them collectively or highlight a specific subgroup, such as the Nymphae Alcobacenses. They are nature and animal spirits, both wild and domesticated, but some may also be human, namely the unclaimed dead and even the deceased who were claimed, yet retain a link to the land they were buried in. A body is a part and trace of someone. Perhaps the three kings, two queens and multiple princes whose remains rest in the local monastery are part of the Lares Alcobacenses. Perhaps the host includes spirits of soldiers who fell in nearby battles or people who died in this area while travelling, making them part of the local Lares Viales – yet another subgroup of the Lares Alcobacenses. And perhaps some of them are ancestors of mine, since my family has been in this region for at least 300 years. Their bodies and those of their animals have melted into the local soil, making it part of my blood and bones. This land is ancestral to me, its earth is tied to my family line in a very physical manner. Of course, this means my Family Lares overlap with the Lares Alcobacenses, but how is that surprising given what was said before? If successive generations stay long enough in a particular area, they become a part of it on a deep level; and a deceased person can be a mane, a family or household god and a genius loci, just as a nymph can be called the latter as well as a goddess. Again, don’t think of it as clear-cut or mutually exclusive categories. Rather accept the terminology as fluid, prone to overlaps, and realize the existing continuum between human and divine in its multiple forms, both greater and lesser. A beautiful expression of that is Camilla’s recent post on a Lar of Iowa City.
This leaves me wondering on where to take the idea of a local cult of Silvanus. I still think He makes perfect sense given the natural and even cultural background of the area. The woods, the rivers and its nymphs, the farming and herding, the nearby large pine forest and the fruit production that’s part of the city’s trademark, all of this resonates with Silvanus’ nature and functions. So instead of taking Him as the local god, perhaps it’s best to enshrine Silvanus as a local deity with a corresponding aspect or epithet. Call Him Lar, something that has historical precedent, maybe even foremost among the Lares Alcobacenses. In that sense, He could work as a representative of strictly local deities, allowing me to honour the gods of my homeland through Him when I’m not in situ and therefore cannot reach the local rivers, trees and hills. It would also give me a date for monthly offerings to the Lares Alcobacenses, which would be on the same day of the month as my annual feast to Silvanus, which, by the way, is something that I’m also reviewing. Obviously, I still have some thinking to do, but things are falling into place.
* All examples from the Iberian Peninsula were taken from Los Dioses de la Hispania Céltica by Juan Pedreño (2002), pages 54, 56-7, 74, 81-2 and 93.
So live long and prosper!
And have a safe journey on your new adventure, Leonard Nimoy. Thrusters on full!