More on narrowing

Almost a month ago, I wrote this post on why polytheists should think twice when narrowing what qualifies as a god. It generated a debate in the comments section, a conversation on Twitter and Sarenth has recently stepped into the debate with this post. So as a result, I’m returning to the subject in order to clarify my own position and, hopefully, where the crux of the matter is.

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.

The Lares Alcobacenses

Who’s the god of my homeland? There’s more than one god in one place. Who are the genii loci of my native land? The spirits of trees, rocks, hills and beaches, the nymphs of rivers, lakes and woods, those who dwell unseen yet not unfelt along the roads and in fields and orchards. The blood and bone of your ancestors, your blood and bones. What about the dead? The unclaimed wander, the claimed join their families. Many are forgotten, some remembered, but most cannot be severed from the place that embraced their bodies. Your body is a part of you, a trace of you. And when it melts away into the soil, it becomes one with the land, its trees, its rivers, its rocks. The genii loci know you, because a part of you is a part of them. This is a land of your forefathers: the soil has blood and bones of your ancestors, your blood and bone.

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.

Speaking of divine dead

Here’s someone who became one today and started a new journey.

LN - img

Leonard Nimoy passed away today, at 83 years old. He would have been 84 next month, on March 26th. Of course, you all know him as Mr. Spock from Star Trek and that is perhaps his most enduring legacy: a much loved character who’s become a part of popular culture. The Vulcan salute, the logical take on things and Spock’s famous greeting, all have been constantly emulated at some level by multiple generations and even if you’re not a trekky. For many, he was and still is an inspiration of sorts, from stargazers and astronomy lovers to students and researchers, including the folks on NASA, who acknowledged as much today on Twitter. Fellow polytheists have also been showing their feelings towards Leonard Nimoy and I reckon there are some who wouldn’t mind granting him an apotheosis. Which would be fitting, if you think about it, since some of the ancient heroes were given a constellation and the man who gave life to Mr. Spock is a fitting candidate for a place among the stars. In fact, feel free to suggest the International Astronomical Union to name a constellation or galaxy after Leonard Nimoy, either by email, Facebook message or tweet. And if you want to add him to your pantheon of heroes and divine dead, feel free to do so as well. From a polytheistic point of view, there’s nothing wrong with that, as explained before. This is not monotheism, where being a god is a monopoly of one entity or an issue of restrictive dogma. A landwight, one’s ancestors and even a deceased with whom you have no family ties are gods too. And as someone with an enduring legacy that touches millions in a positive way, he’s certainly a fitting candidate for divine honours outside his family.

So live long and prosper!
And have a safe journey on your new adventure, Leonard Nimoy. Thrusters on full!

If you narrow it, you miss it

There’s been some online discussion on multiple aspects of reconstructed or revived forms of ancient polytheism. It started with Galina Krasskova’s piece on modern Heathenry, which generated a debate in the comments section. Edward Butler added more thoughts on the matter on Twitter, followed by Galina’s own further considerations and Sarenth’s take on what it means to place the Gods first.

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.

Parentalia schedule

Parentalia, the ancient Roman festival in honour of the family dead, starts tomorrow, 13th of February, and lasts until the 21st, with an additional domestic feast on the 22nd called Caristia. When it comes to ancestor worship, this is the high point of the year for a cultor, but it can also be problematic in its length. What to do during those nine days between the 13th and the 21st? Go to a cemetery in every single one of them? Hit the road and visit multiple graveyards in the area? Or if you’re too busy, do it once on a day of your choosing? These and other questions have been brewing in my mind for some time, so this year, in an effort to make something different and meaningful every day, I decided to create a schedule focused on my ancestors and deities linked to the spirits of the dead. This is still at an experimental stage, but here’s what I’m considering for this year’s Parentalia:

    13th: Libations to Persephone and my ancestors;
    14th: Offerings of wine and wheat on the graves of my ancestors;
    15th: Libations to Mercury;
    16th: Offerings of wine and wheat to my ancestors who are buried far away
    17th: Libations to Hecate
    18th: Offerings of wine and wheat to drowned or lost ancestors
    19th: Libations to the Lares Alcobacenses or genii of my ancestral land
    20th: Offerings to the spirits of family pets and animals
    21st: Libations to Persephone and my ancestors

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.

Perhaps Silvanus

Almost two years ago, I wrote this post and started a quest for the local gods of my hometown. It’s not an easy endeavour, not because there’s no information on western Iberian gods – there are hundreds of archaeologically known theonyms – but because there are little or no traces in this particular part of Portugal. A few depictions with no text have showed up here and there and an inscription to Minerva was once uncovered in a nearby village, but that’s pretty much it. No local gods or native deities are known, at least not by name, and that’s despite the centuries of Roman and pre-Roman presence in this region, as evidenced by the multiple traces of fortresses, tools and villas. Yet there are gods everywhere – in the sky, rivers, trees, rocks, hills, mountains, fields, pathways and crossroads. It’s the known individual identity that’s missing here and, not being a spirit worker, I basically have two options: either worship local deities in a generic fashion (e.g. Lar Alcobacensis) or connect the local environment with a known god/dess. While the former is perfectly reasonable, I decided to keep it as a backup plan and try the latter, thus setting out in search of deities who can resonate with my hometown (or vice-versa).

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.

My religion has no moral doctrine

Every now and then, I’m asked where does my religion stand on topics like same-sex marriage, homosexuality or abortion. My answer is that it doesn’t, because to me those issues are not religious, but social. Some people look confused when I insist on it and I can understand why: in this as in other matters, over one thousand years of monotheistic dominance in western societies have shaped the notion of religion to the point where people generally cannot conceived it outside the Judeo-Christian definition.

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:

FRM

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.