So live long and prosper!
And have a safe journey on your new adventure, Leonard Nimoy. Thrusters on full!
So live long and prosper!
So live long and prosper!
And have a safe journey on your new adventure, Leonard Nimoy. Thrusters on full!
Many excellent points have already been made in this discussion, some of which I can relate to personally. Among modern Roman polytheists, there are some who harbour a deep suspicion, if not outright disgust, for anything that goes too much into personal religion and instead expect individuals to deal with the Gods in the same emotionally sanitized way as a public cult. They’d argue there can be no personal devotion or patronage, because that’s either monotheistic baggage or a form of superstition, i.e. the religious equivalent of paranoia and obsession. Or so those modern cultores claim, but their reasoning is flawed, because it is based on the assumption that we have all the information on ancient Roman experiences of religion. We don’t! We have a sample of what some in the elites thought, but not a full range of views and even less so when we consider the lower classes. And most of the information refers to public religion, which is naturally formal and emotionally neutral, because that’s how things are when one deals with an institution. What those modern cultores do is to assume that what was valid for the State should be equally valid for the individual. In other words, they take data on part of the ancient Roman religion and assume it for the whole, so if public cults were emotionally sanitized, that should also be the case with individuals in their daily dealings with the Gods. It’s what happens when you try to revive an ancient religion on which you have only partial and poorly diverse information and fail to consider the full range of human experiences: you mistake the part for the whole. And you screw it big time as a result. Especially when the sources still give you glimpses of personal religion and individual devotion towards specific gods: Augustus took Apollo as his patron, Domitian was a devotee of Minerva, Apuleius went everywhere with a figurine of Mercury.
Now, I’ve addressed this topic more extensively in another post, so I’m not going to expand on it today. Instead, I’d like to briefly address something else brought up recently when Galina shared this post in which Nicholas Haney claims that he’s not god-centric because he focuses on ancestors and landwights instead. And that, I’d argue, is misreading the notion of god in polytheism.
What is a god? The question is easily answered in monotheism: god is the all-knowing, all-powerful and all-seeing being who created and rules everything. And because there’s only one, everyone else is not a god, no matter how much they look and act like one. They’re called by other names: angels, demons, saints, prophets and so forth. But how does it work in polytheism, where there’s no divine monopoly nor a cap on the number of divine beings? Can godhood be restricted to a specific group of more-than-mere-human beings? No, it can’t. A landwight, just like an ancestor, is a deity. A nymph is a goddess, an elf is god, as is the spirit of a dead person. Whereas in monotheism the question of divinity is one of absolutes – one god and everyone else is not a god – in polytheism things normally work in multiple shades of grey: greater, lesser, local, universal, family, tribal, regional and national gods and demigods. Divinity is everywhere or, as Thales of Miletus would say, everything is full of gods. And this is so precisely because there is no monopoly or cap on the divine. There’s no limit to it and it can therefore be found in countless forms everywhere.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Check what ancient polytheists left us: Romans called the deceased Di Manes or Divine Dead; the god Silvanus is in one occasion called Lar Agrestis (CIL VI 646), even though the word Lar was also used for one’s ancestors (the Family Lares) and spirits of the roads (the Lares Viales); in England, one inscription addresses a Dea Nympha Brigantia or the Goddess Nymph Brigantia (CIL VII 875), while another mentions a Deus Genius Choguncis or God Genius Choguncio (RIB 119). Which shows that the divine status was not restricted to a specific group of higher beings. Simply put, what was a god, a nymph and a landwight was less of a matter of fixed or clear-cut categories and more an issue of function and scope where divinity was not a privilege of a limited few, but a trait of countless many. And in case you’re thinking these examples are too Roman and bear little meaning in other traditions, consider the Dísir in Norse polytheism: they’re divine women or mothers, tribal and family goddesses if not female ancestors, yet goddesses nonetheless; but the word dís is also used for the Valkyries, themselves minor deities of war and at one time called Odin’s or Herjans dísir (Guðrúnarkviða I, stanza 19); even Freyja is referred to as Vanadís or the Dís of the Vanir. Some find this messy, may even suggest it is the result of late sources and fragmented memories of a pre-Christian worldview, yet I disagree. You find the same fluidity and overlapping terminology in Roman polytheism, for which there are genuinely pagan sources.
So when a polytheist says he’s not god-centric because he focuses on ancestors and landwights instead of gods, he’s basically superimposing a monotheistic scheme on a polytheistic worldview. So just as in the former you have god at the top followed by strata of non-gods (angels, saints, prophets, etc.), in the latter you end up with multiple gods on the top followed by non-gods (landwights, nymphs, elves, dísir, ancestors, etc.). In other words, it amounts to organizing a polytheistic pantheon according to monotheistic standards. Yet polytheism is not monotheism with more gods. It has its own set of theological rules and dynamics, because divine diversity and multiplicity have theological consequences. Focusing on landwights and ancestors is being god-centric too, because landwights and ancestors are gods as well. Minor, local, family or tribal ones, but gods nonetheless. And I’m not the first person to say this: back in 2010, Cara Schulz addressed the same issue in a post called Regulating the Gods: A Hellenist on Hubris. Go and read it, people. Seriously! We live in a society where religious discourse is dominated by monotheistic assumptions, but if we want to understand and revive ancient religions in today’s world, we need to understand them on their own terms and, through that process, deeply review today’s conventional wisdom on religious issues. And that means confronting and ultimately dropping ideas like landwights not being gods or, for that matter, Heathenry or Roman polytheism being defined as a “faith”. I know it’s not always easy to do this sort of mental work. I’ve been through the experience multiple times and question my own assumptions often. But it needs to be done if we’re serious about reviving ancient religions in the modern world. Polytheism is not monotheism with more gods.
The point is to give each day a particular focus within the theme of ancestor worship and reach as many family dead as possible. There’s some logic to it, in that it starts and ends with libations to the Queen of the Underworld and my ancestors – like brackets, if you will – leaving the days in between to break it down into several groups: those buried far away, those lost at sea or elsewhere and family pets or animals, alternating with tributes to relevant gods. Depending on how it goes, I may review it completely or make a few minor changes.
Parentalia is immediately followed by Caristia on the 22nd, which is a feast of reconciliation and nurturing of family ties. For some time now, I’ve been looking at the whole season as a model for the overall structure of funeral rites: death (13th), mourning and burial or vice-versa (14-21st), celebration as the dead joins the Family Lares (22nd); death severs ties with a family member, but after the funeral and a period of transition, the ties are renewed as the deceased (or part of him/her) is welcomed by the ancestral Lar. Which is why I’m also thinking of placing a black cloth or ribbon above my Lararium between the 13th and the 21st and then replace it with a flower wreath on the 22nd. Again, all of this is still very experimental.
Now, as I wrote in the aforementioned post from 2013, my initial intuition was to focus on water and/or moon goddesses, given the local abundance of rivers and streams and what appears to be a centuries-old tradition of lunar cults. In that sense, Diana was certainly an option, but I also wanted to consider Iberian powers, which resulted in a list that at one point had around ten goddesses. Among them was Nabia, who ended up being my first choice. I already had an interest in Her and, as I wrote here, overall She seemed like the most consistent non-Roman option. So I added an annual festival to my calendar and started honouring Her, which had mixed results: while I noticed no negative response, even if the offerings were somewhat clumsy at times, I got no answer when I asked Nabia if She’s the goddess of my hometown and would therefore be willing to be honoured as a household deity. No bird flew near the river, no fish stirred the waters, no dream visited me at night. Maybe I failed to notice a sign, perhaps I should have asked a simpler question, maybe the answer is ‘no’. I decided to give it a rest for a few weeks and return to my list of options with an open mind.
On January 4th, in the spirit of Vialia, I joined a trekking group for a long morning walk. We entered some dense woodland, so dense that at one point there was no way two people could walk side by side, and it was there, surrounded by oak, pine and laurel trees, that my mind brought up a name I had so far failed to consider: Silvanus! I had been so focused on the idea of water goddesses, that I failed to consider woodland gods. And yet, it’s an option that makes perfect sense: a document from c. 1148 describes the site of my hometown as a silva or forest, which is what it was for a long time and still is in many places. The southern end of one of Europe’s largest pine forests is actually just a few kilometres away and even the aquatic element is not without a link to Silvanus, since He’s historically associated with nymphs. “Wood nymphs”, some might say, but if you’ve seen a small river or stream in a dense forest, you know that the water and the vegetation overlap considerably. Even the herding and fruit production that’s part of the local economy falls well within Silvanus’ realm. There’s a reason why He’s traditionally depicted with a batch of fruit and a pruning knife or why some ancient inscriptions refer to Him as Lar Agrestis (the Rustic Lar) and sanctissimus pastor (Most Holy Shepherd). Check Dorcey’s The Cult of Silvanus (1992: 21-4), if you’re wondering about it.
So after mentally connecting these dots and thinking about it, I decided to ask Silvanus directly. Two days ago, I walked up a hill just outside my hometown and entered a wooded area. After placing my right hand on the ground, I greeted the local genii and offered Them corn. I then touched a large pine tree and poured water over its roots, saluting its spirit and asking it to be my intermediary. And afterwards I gave Silvanus a libation of wine before posing the question, to which there was no obvious answer other than the wind blowing and the trees bending gently. At night, I had a dream about something or someone coming over from France, though I’m not sure if it has anything to do with Silvanus. If it does, it may hint at a Celtic connection (I have considered Sucellus) or have something to do with the god moving in, either in the past with Roman soldiers and settlers or in more recent days.
So now I’m meditating on the issue and juggling multiple ideas. My mind keeps reminding me that there are many gods of different types in one place, just as Rome itself had several local deities. Think of Juturna, Palatua and Tiberinus, to name just three examples. In that sense, this may come down to a matter of choice, of choosing which god/desses I want to honour and how. Which reminds me that I can use the backup plan I mentioned above and combine it with Silvanus, worshiping Him and a group of local genii I could call nymphae Alcobacenses, thus following the historical pattern. In fact, that may well be the most satisfying solution, since it includes both a named and multiple unnamed powers, the arboreal and aquatic elements, thereby resulting in a more comprehensive approach to the gods of this land. Heck! Even a local Diana and Nabia may be hinted at through a cult of the nymphs.
1. Pervasive influence
As I have pointed out multiple times, that is the case with the use of the words “religion” and “faith” as synonyms: if you believe there is only one god, faith easily amounts to worship; but if you believe in multiple gods, then faith is not the same as worship. Because believing in many – including those outside your (usual) pantheon – does not imply that you worship all of them and therefore to define yourself through faith – what you believe in – is nonsensical. It is who you honour and how that defines you, religiously; and yet Asatru means “faith in the Gods” or some speak of Roman polytheism as “our faith”. These are clear examples of how, despite being polytheists, many still think and speak of religion in monotheistic terms. It’s culturally pervasive and thus hard to get away from. The same is true of the assumption that a religion must have a moral code that determines what worshipers should and shouldn’t do in their daily life. Christianity has it, as does Judaism and Islam, so it must be inherent to the very definition of religion. And after all, as the modern motto of good PR and tolerance goes, all “faiths” believe in love, right? Wrong! Modern interfaith dialogue is more about unity in uniformity than diversity. That’s why it keeps producing declarations on how we’re all just worshiping the same god, that there are no real polytheists but only monists, that all religions are about love. And this happens because interfaith dialogue, just as the notion of “religious values”, is based on a monotheistic worldview. A single god, sin and salvation, a moral code, regulated belief, declaration of faith – these are traits of today’s dominant traditions, the same that virtually monopolize the public debate in western societies and create the false impression that those are the natural characteristics of a religion.
2. Faith, ritual and morality
As an orthopraxic polytheist, I’m at odds with what is normally said in interfaith gatherings, not to mention TV programmes, debates and interviews on religious topics. It’s actually painful to watch, because the entire conversation revolves around words like “god” (singular), “scripture” or “holy book”, “sin” and “love”. It’s like being a vegetarian watching a cooking show where every single episode is about meat. Part of that is because I’m a polytheist and divine plurality, as explained here, has theological consequences. But also because, simply put, it is my view that faith is personal, ritual is traditional and morality is social. They’re not one and the same, all part of a fully regulated religious system, but three separate things that, while overlapping in some degree, are nonetheless distinct. Schematically, it looks like this:
2.1. Personal faith
It is a common misconception that a purely orthopraxic religion has no belief and amounts to a sort of ritualistic atheism. In reality, it simply means that there is no regulated belief. People do have faith, but it’s a personal matter, because an individual’s consciousness is his/her own. Ergo, one is free to see the Gods in whatever way one sees fit: They can or cannot interfere in human affairs, They’re part of nature, distinct from it or a bit of both, They’re akin to platonic ideas or are individual entities with flaws, They have genders or none, two or more gods are the same or separate, etc. These beliefs may stem from an adherence to one or more philosophical schools, which is also a personal matter: you can be a Stoic, an Epicurean, a Platonist or a Sceptic; you don’t have to restrict yourself to ancient philosophy and can embrace the 17th-century Rationalism, 19th-century Transcendentalism or the ideas of any contractualist from the European Enlightenment; you can even go for eastern philosophy and adhere to Indian, Tibetan, Chinese or Japanese schools of thought. This was so in the ancient world, where people from different intellectual movements nonetheless kept similar forms of traditional worship. And it is irrelevant that Transcendentalism or Zen were never part of ancient Roman culture: Romans took and worked what was available to them at the time, so unless you’re interested in re-enacting as opposed to reviving their religion in the modern world, you can take and work what is available today, which includes but is not limited to classical philosophy. I myself, apart from being a pragmatist, I’m very fond of the Buddhist school of Madhyamaka, yet that doesn’t make me less of a Roman polytheist. Why? Because what defines me religiously is who I worship and especially how. As I said here, if Saraswati is as real to me as Minerva, why am I not a Hindu? If Inari is as real to me as Mercury, why am I not a Shintoist? If I worship Freyr, Jupiter and Anubis (and I do!), why am I not a Norse or Kemetic polytheist? The answer: because I adhere to Roman ritual and calendar, worship mostly Roman gods and generally honour non-Roman ones in a Latinized fashion. It is practice that defines me.
2.2. Traditional ritual
Of the three circles, this is the only one that’s regulated by religious tradition. Because of that, it is where the communal identity resides, especially today, when one’s religion is no longer simply that of one’s city-State. Context changes things, so while in the past being a Roman citizen amounted to being a Roman polytheist – because duties towards the family, social group and country were also of a religious nature – today’s world is different. It is much more mixed and diverse, identities are more fluid and western societies are not organized in the same way as those from two thousand years ago. And rather than trying to recreate an anachronic tribal community or micronation, pretend that we don’t live in a globalized planet or that most people’s ancestry is not ethnically mixed, one must learn to accept reality and find a new place in a new world. In which case my religious identity cannot be determined by nationality (though that can be a factor) or by faith (because it would be nonsensical), but by orthopraxy. This doesn’t mean that everyone must do exactly the same thing or that tradition must remain unchanged, yet if one aspires to revive and practice an ancient religion, one cannot simply start it anew as if there was no memory. An old house can only be restored and not newly built if the overall structure and lines are preserved, which in this case translates as bringing ancient Roman ritual into the modern world. Yes, it requires a fresh layer of paint, a new roof and a layout that’s fit for today’s life, because changes are needed: tradition is not static and a different social context will require adaptations. But it must be done in a way that preserves essential features of traditional Roman worship for it to be Roman polytheism and not something else. Similarly, in order for one to be a cultor/cultrix deorum, one must worship according to Roman tradition.
2.3. Social morality
Gods inspire people to act, they motivate us to do things, but which god inspires what? In a monotheistic system, the answer is simple, since only one deity is acknowledged and therefore what He/She says is law. There is no opposition, no checks and balances, only one unopposed voice that rules supreme. But in a polytheistic system, there are multiple divine voices with diverse agendas: some inspire reason, others ecstasy; some call of sexual moderation, others for sexual enjoyment; some inspire peace and diplomacy, others the arts of war; some call for strict order, others for creative chaos. The only principle I can draw from this is perhaps that diversity is natural, that it should be cherished and divine co-existence emulated. Granted, each god’s individual cult can be more uniform and have an ethical code, but a polytheistic religion as a whole is a sum of cults to various deities and, as a result, a polytheistic version of the Ten Commandments is virtually impossible. And if the only principle is that diversity should be embraced, the question is how?
That is the central issue of any moral doctrine: how to act, how to behave. It’s a practical matter that ends up addressing the topic of how should various humans co-exist in a functional manner. When or whether to kill, enslave, steal, wear a skirt, show your hair, show your face, have sex with someone, tolerate this, prohibit that, what’s a crime, what isn’t, etc. And being practical, it is therefore an issue that is best served from an equally practical basis. Which means that whatever moral code is in force among humans, it should come not from above, but from humans themselves. It can be inspired by the Gods, in that They too are a diverse community with rules of co-existence, but ultimately, the needs and rules of human socialization should be discussed and decided by humans. If there’s any imposition from the Gods’ part, I’d argue that it exists only when it refers to Their property – those who serve Them, Their sacred ground – but that, so to speak, are house rules. It’s the religious equivalent of someone telling what others can and cannot do in his/her property, which is different from what people are allowed to do in their home, public and everyday life. For instance, a person may not want to have a pet, but that doesn’t mean everyone shouldn’t have one. In the same fashion, a god may not want a particular object inside His temple, a goddess may prohibit people from doing something in Hers, a priest may be required to act in a certain way. Cross the boundaries of the sacred, however, and it’s a different matter.
At this stage, some of you may be asking about moderation. Isn’t it a religious virtue in Roman polytheism, a governing rule that prevents one’s relationship with the Gods from becoming superstitio? My answer to that is another question: isn’t moderation a basic rule of social life? That you can love your partner, friends and family, but not to the point of suicidal or homicidal actions? That you should respect your elders, directors and leaders, but not to the point of acritical submission? To quote John Scheid’s Introduction to Roman religion, “relations with the gods were conducted under the sign of reason, not that of the irrational, in the same way as they were conducted between one citizen and another, or rather between clients and their patrons” (2003: 28). And this was so because one’s relationship with the Gods was an extension of one’s social life: just as you have duties towards your relatives, you have duties towards your ancestors and household deities; just as you co-exist with your neighbours, you co-exist with local gods and genii; just as you deal with fellow citizens – formally, semi-formally or informally – you deal with the Gods. They’re the divine elements of the community, which is why, and again I quote Scheid’s work, Roman polytheism “was a religion with no moral code. The ethical code by which it was ruled was the same as that which ruled other ‘non-religious’ social relations” (2003: 19).
Morality is therefore first and foremost a social matter, an issue of interaction, of laws of functional co-existence in the face of multiplicity and diversity – human and divine. And if social rules are not the result of a divine decree, but a need and product of social life, then they are also naturally subject to social changes. They can evolve, adapt or be dropped. As such, the “Roman virtues” people sometimes speak of are not religious, but were either the dominant values of ancient Roman society or those upheld by popular philosophical schools at the time. They’re not the moral doctrine of Roman religion – because it had none apart from social rules – and some may not even be valid in today’s world or be particularly relevant for cultores of a different intellectual persuasion.
3. The grey areas
As with anything, the distinction between personal faith, traditional ritual and social morality is not clear-cut and there are grey areas where the three circles overlap. Where faith and ritual meet (a.), the former may shape the latter. For instance, at the start of a ceremony, you may pay tribute not only to Janus, as is traditional, but also to a host of deities in accordance with the philosophical school you adhere to. Consider this example from a Platonic cultor.
Where ritual and morality overlap (b.), the latter influences the former, as what is socially unacceptable is either removed or toned down in religious ceremonies. For instance, the sacrificial killing of dogs has no chance of being accepted today given the status of that animal in modern western societies. And in my opinion, rightly so! As a result, anyone wishing to perform a traditional ceremony to Robigus would either drop the canine offering or replace it with an effigy of a dog. Another example is the role of the pater and mater familias in domestic religion: the egalitarian nature of today’s societies, as well as the legal recognition of same-sex couples, means that women can assume the leading role and the sacra privata can have a female-female or male-male dynamics that would normally not be part of ancient society. And this sort of overlap between traditional ritual and social morality, where the latter shapes the former, is not unheard of: in the past, when a foreign cult was introduced and it wasn’t in accordance with Rome’s moral customs, the new cult was toned down or adapted in some way. Consider, for instance, what happened to the rites of Magna Mater when they were first taken to Rome.
Finally, personal faith can play a role in the shaping of social morality (c.), in that a devotee of a particular deity may work to forward His/Her agenda in the world. For instance, someone who’s close to Ceres may fight for more organic agricultural practices or a devotee of Silvanus may campaign for forest protection. But this is influencing or participating, not dictating: one person or one god does not rule supreme and unopposed over all others, especially not in today’s democratic societies.
At the centre (d. ) stands the individual cultor, which is the sum of all three circles with all its overlapping parts: someone with a personal faith, practitioner of traditional rites and member of a society with a set of laws. It can also be the religious community as a whole, either at a domestic or global level: the sum of all cultores, each with their individual faith, all following a common basic ritual structure that is also diverse in its details, all part of a social context that influences their religious practices.
4. Resulting freedom
I sometimes say that freedom is my sole article of faith. Mostly I mean it as provocation to those who expect me to have a declaration of faith of some sort, but it nonetheless expresses my basic view on religion: I’m free to choose which gods to worship, They’re free to say no and decided whether or not to accept my offerings. Of course, from the moment you co-exist with someone else, you must make room for others and one’s duties towards them, so socially, one is never absolutely free. That being said, however, the separation of faith, ritual and morality ensures a wide freedom in a traditional religion.
I’m free to see the Gods in whatever way I see fit and adhere to whatever school of thought I prefer. I’m free to adapt my ceremonies according to my individual devotions, domestic or local traditions or the philosophical current I’m part of. And I’m free to discuss the dos and don’ts of society as a whole not from a dogmatic perspective (i.e. people can’t do A in their everyday life because god X says so), but by freely resorting to science and philosophy with a more open mind, since I don’t have to accommodate divinely dictated moral norms. In other words, I can think of same-sex marriage or abortion in modern terms and not necessarily those of a text written one thousand years ago or more. Because again, to me, those issues are not religious. It’s true that being a devotee of a trickster and a worshiper of the Vanir creates or reinforces a liberal perspective. But that’s my individual stance, linked to my individual faith or philosophy of choice. It’s not a doctrinal position of my religion, because it has none. And that, in my view, is a liberating thing.
The only point where I’m not free is in the basic structure of my religious practices. But a community requires something that’s communis or common, something that’s shared with others. And if it’s shared, it’s not something I can change at will because it is not mine alone. I can adjust or adapt, even create a variation, but ultimately, it requires an essential commonality that links me with fellow cultores, both living and deceased. In an orthopraxic religion, especially in today’s globalized and fluid world, that common element is basic ritual practice, which must be replicated. And I find that to be a perfectly good deal, because it preserves the freedom to think for myself when it comes to faith, philosophy and the rules of society while still being part of a religious community. It’s unity in diversity.
Some cultores celebrate the start of the new year on March 1st, adhering to practices based on the oldest Roman calendar and which has its most significant trace in the period of purification in February. Others regulate their religious life employing the Julian calendar, which is several days behind its Gregorian version commonly used in modern western societies. In this, there is no uniformity among cultores; personally, however, I never felt the need for anything but today’s civil calendar. I can understand why Hellenic or Kemetic polytheists keep other forms of reckoning time, as both traditions are based on cultures that did it in ways that were (very) different from today’s common system. But as a cultor, I feel right at home with the Gregorian calendar, because it is practically identical to the one used in ancient Rome since the final decades before the Common Era. The only major change were the corrections made by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, which refined the system introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE. But other than that, the Gregorian calendar is virtually the same as the Julian: same twelve solar months with the same names and length. Why on earth would I resort to a second calendar for my religious practices when the one commonly used today is practically identical to that of the culture that’s the basis of my religion?
As such, I celebrate New Year at the same time as most people around me: on January 1st. Yet to me it is not a one-day commemoration, but a period that lasts nine days in total, between the first Calends and the Agonalia of January 9th. In other words, in my house, the celebrations that mark the beginning of a new year take place between two feasts dedicated to Janus, the god of beginnings. It’s the time during which His image remains crowned and there’s a wreath hanging above the statues and photos of my Lares and house genii.
Floral offerings were actually what lead me to adopt a nine-days celebration. At one point in the past, I asked myself when was the best time to remove the wreaths, since they obviously don’t last forever. “When the flowers wither” would be the most immediate answer, but what if I could do that in a manner that was not only practical, but also symbolic? What if there was a ritual timetable that determined when to offer the wreaths and when to remove them, thus adding religious significance to the gesture? The answer was in the Agonalia, which is a festivity that was marked several times throughout the year in ancient Rome and whose historical meaning is not entirely clear. But it provided me with the necessary timetable, thus resulting in a new year season that is appropriately opened and closed by Janus and after which the wreaths can be removed in a meaningful manner. Of course, this then created a new question: what to do during those nine days? Over the years, I’ve wondered about that and ideas have been taking shape.
In 2012, I marked for the first time a modern celebration of my own creation I named Vialia. It is dedicated to Mercury and the Lares Viales and it takes place on January 4th. The choice of date was naturally motivated by the connection between the god and the number four and the significance of the festivity is tied to Mercury’s role as a god of roads and a gatekeeper of sorts. Therefore, as I stand before a chronological threshold, I honour Him and the genii of the pathways, asking for their blessing and protection as the roads of the new year open before me and another twelve months of travelling and moving about begins. I perform a ceremony to Mercury, decorate His shrine with a wreath and make at least a smaller, additional one to be left on a roadside along with a portion of wheat and wine. If I have free time and the weather allows, I may honour the movement Mercury stands for, as well as the Lares Viales, by actually making a small journey on my bike and leave offerings along the way. Or I can go for some trekking and pile rocks next to a pathway somewhere.
Another celebration, one that I’ll be adding this year, is dedicated to Apollo and will take place on Janury 7th. Again, the choice of day was motivated by the connection between the god and the number and the significance of the festivity is similar to that of the Vialia: Apollo too is a gatekeeper, so again, as I stand before a chronological doorway, I honour Him, asking for His protection and blessing of good health at the start of a new year. I’ll perform a ceremony in Greek rite and offer Him a wreath – I always buy a full batch of flowers on December 31st – but I’m still working further details (name of the festivity included). As with anything, practice makes perfect and this is still a fresh celebration in my religious calendar.
Then there’s something I’ve been considering since last year and I may go forward with it this time. See, January 2014 was a rainy month (very rainy!) and at some point, as I looked at the water on the balcony, I wondered if I should collect some of it in a bowl and use it to wash all the statues that stand in my domestic shrines. Sort of a New Year purification, if you will, resorting to the water Nature naturally provides at the time. I never went through with it, but mentally filed the idea. This year, there’s no rain in sight, so if I go through with it, I’ll have to go to a nearby stream and fill a small bowl with fresh water. I’m still processing the idea, but I may do it on the 5th of January (i.e. the Nones) or three days later, on the 8th.
Finally, it all closes with a second ceremony to Janus on January 9th. Offerings will be made to Him, praises and requests reinforced, several other deities will be honoured and, at sundown, the wreaths will be removed and deposited in a park or wild place, where Nature can consume them.
I’m still working a lot of this and I may add more things in the future, perhaps even to the point of having something for every day between January 1st and 9th. And I can honestly say that I enjoy the idea: more than being an annual occasion, new year is the first festivity and a new beginning! And just as, in the Roman fashion, people say you should step into something with the right foot, I like to step into a fresh cycle of twelve months in a religiously meaningful and rich manner, with due tribute to gods that are simultaneously appropriate for the season and with Whom I can connect. And yes, I am a big “fan” of Janus, so to speak. He was a strong interest of mine when I stepped into Roman polytheist.
When you translate the Old Norse freyja to Latin, you get domina, the lady of the domus or house. Another possibility is matrona, especially if one takes into account that Freya is said to be a mother, that she’s called Vanadís – the dís (lady, woman) of the Vanir – and that the Disir may have something in common with the Germanic Matronae. And once you put the translated freyja in a Latin domestic context, you get the female ruler of the house or the mater familias. Precisely the person in charge of overseeing domestic affairs in the ancient household, which presumably included the hearth. Could this mean that Freya can act as a Norse equivalent of Vesta? She’s certainly not a virgin – so far from it! – and we know very little on domestic religion in ancient Scandinavia, but the role of intermediary between humans and gods is not entirely out of place when it comes to Freya.In Old Norse lore, besides being a warrior goddess, She is also a cup-bearer. In Snorri’s Edda, when the giant Hrungnir visits Asgard, She’s the only deity brave enough to serve him drinks (Skáldskaparmál 17), a job that in the ancient world would not be bellow Her status; indeed, even a queen might do it, as suggested in Beowulf, where Wealththeow, Hrothgar’s wife, serves the hero his drink (610-625). In that sense, Freya resembles a valkyrie: fighter, cup-bearer and choser of the slain – though She chooses half for Herself and not Odin (Grímnismál 14). There’s certainly more to Her than that, but there’s also that! Another side of Her is that of Mistress of Seiðr, a form of Old Norse magic that has shamanic elements, namely spirit-work, possession and journey, all of which imply direct communication or interaction with different plains of reality. A trait that is reinforced by Her cloak of falcon feathers that allows its bearer to travel in the form of that bird. And once you combine all of this, you get a goddess that is no stranger to bridging worlds. She connects the host and the guest, the human and the divine, this realm and the other(s). Even Her role as a Lady of Love implies the ability to join two sides.
This is not the same as saying that She’s the goddess of the ritual fire – though She may be connected to that element through Seiðr – but that would be more of a problem if I was trying to construct a heathen rite. Since my goal is a Latinized one, the placing of Freya in a Latin context solves the issue. Every time a deity is imported, He/She is adapted to the host culture, losing or gaining features: Apollo in Rome did not have all of the functions He had in Greece, Hercules in Greco-Buddhism is a much more philosophical character than the classical warrior of the Twelve Labours. And another example, one from Catholic practices that was once explained to me by a History professor, is that of Saint Augustine, who is believed to alleviate sore eyes, because in Nordic countries his name recalls the word auga or “eye”. Context changes things, it adapts them. And if freyja in Latin translates as a divine domina, then She can preside over those things that a leading female figure would be in charge of in an ancient household. Which includes the domestic and hence ritual hearth. And with this I may have stumbled upon the answer I was looking for.
There are of course other deities that could open and close a Latinized Norse rite. Loki, Odin, Thor, Ullr, Njord, Heimdall, Frigg, Forseti, all of them are legitimate options. But the thing with Freya is that if you start the ceremony with Freyr as a provider of peace and holy inviolability, you get a brother-sister dynamics that feels fluid: He opens and closes, She makes it flow in-between; He’s the sergeant-at-arms that leads a parliament’s opening procession and guards the assembly against violence, She’s the presiding figure that moderates the exchange of words and gestures; He guards, She makes it work. Freyr and Freya, Dominus and Domina: twins, lovers and ritual partners. It feels natural!
The only question left is does She accept the role? If the Gods are not archetypes, I cannot simply use Them as ritual tools. I need Them to say They’re willing to do something, though the sense of connectedness I got for several hours after the midwinter ceremony suggests that I may be on right track. Divination is therefore required, which will be the next step.