Ilurbeda: a mountain goddess

Last September, I presented my first offerings to Arentius and Arentia, a god and goddess who may have been an Iberian equivalent of Mercury and a female counterpart. As I mentioned back then, the goal was to add a new mercurial path to my practices, but also to further connect with native gods from the Iberian Peninsula. Since they were worshipped in at least a partly Latinized fashion for a few centuries, I used my standard Roman rite for a formal ceremony at home. There were no obvious signs of approval, either immediately after or in the following days, but neither was there any show of disapproval. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, since they’re gods whose cults have remained dormant for a long period of time and their native land proper is in the centre of the peninsula, not its westernmost shores. At least judging by the sites where altars to them were found. So I’ll be persisting in the foreseeable future, making at least one yearly offering, should there be any ice to be broken before signs of any sort present themselves.

In an identical spirit of Iberian and mercurial polytheism, another native deity has come to my attention. Her name is Ilurbeda. She was on my short list when I tried to identity the gods of my homeland, which led me to focus instead on Nabia and especially Silvanus, since they hold a greater potential for connecting with the local environment and traditions. But after stumbling upon an academic article from 2005, I again considered Ilurbeda, though the reason has less to do with geography and more with Mercury.

First, the basics. As with several Iberian deities, the etymology of the goddess’ name is uncertain. According to Maria Hernando Sobrino, the notion that the elements ilur-/iltur are Iberian remains valid, with considerable indications of Basque influence with the sense of “city”, while the possibilities for -beda range from the southern Iberian for “mountain” to the Celtiberian for “silver mine” or “ditch” and again Basque for “path” (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 155-6). This uncertainty on the exact meaning of the name results in doubts on Ilurbeda’s nature and function, since there are no surviving myths or texts that can clarify the matter, making the location of Her altars and the few words they contain the sole additional clues. Fortunately, there is a pattern in that regard, since all of the known pieces were found in mining or mountainous areas: two in Góis (Portugal), three in Salamanca (Spain), two in Ávila (Spain) and one in Sintra (Portugal); there’s also the possibility of an additional one from Zamora (Spain) (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 162).

Sites where known altars to Ilurbeda were found (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 161)

Sites where known altars to Ilurbeda were found (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 161)

This information has led to basically two theories on Ilurbeda’s identity: 1) She was the protective deity of a specific settlement, given the reading of ilu- as “city”; 2) She’s a mountain/mining goddess, as indicated by the context of Her altars. The former would mean She’s a local deity, yet the dispersal of pieces dedicated to Her suggests that Ilurbeda was not attached to a specific urban area and had a supra-local nature. Or at least that appears to have been the case by the time the inscriptions were put to stone. The aforementioned possibility of Basque influence, as suggested by Her name, also reinforces the impression that She was not associated with a particular human group and may actually have at least a partial eastern Iberian origin (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 157; Encarnação 2008: 358). Even the possibility that Her cult was dispersed by migrants who worked in several Iberian mines suggests mobility and if monumentality is anything to go by, then the centre from where Her cult spread may have been the area around Salamanca, given that the altar from Segoyuela de Cornejos was particularly lavish (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 50).

So this leaves the possibility that She’s a mountain goddess. But does She preside solely over its riches and underground tunnels or is there something else? This is where the two altars from Ávila become especially relevant and drew my attention, because one of them contains the letters LV, which have been interpreted as (L)ares (V)iales. And while that reading is not beyond doubt – the same letters can have other meanings – the fact that the same site produced an additional altar where Ilurbeda is not mentioned, but the Lares Viales are and explicitly so, shows that the gods of pathways were honoured on that spot. Which makes a connection with Ilurbeda likely, leading to Maria Hernando Sobrino’s conclusion that Ilurbeda is more than a goddess of mountainous riches: She’s also a deity of mountainous paths (2005: 163).

Now how can a Portuguese polytheist who’s a Mercury devotee and worships the Lares Viales together with the Fleet-Footed resist a deity like Her? You can’t! It’s just too perfect! It resonates fully with what led me to honour Arentius and Arentia and so it is that I’ve decided that Ilurbeda too will be given a place in my practices. There’s actually potential in Her for a lady or queen of the Lares Viales and an Iberian consort of Mercury, which feeds into an idea that I’ve been mentally playing with: a cult of Mercury Viator and His host of Lares Viales, complete with its own symbols, celebrations, philosophy and mysteries. It’s something that’s still very much in an embryonic stage and may never move beyond that, but it is growing on me.

For now, however, I have only to decide when to honour Ilurbeda. Since there’s no surviving reference to an ancient feast, I have to pick a date from scratch using the usual combination of symbolism and practicality, which led me to choose May 7th. It is the date of Rosalia, yes, which in the last couple of years I’ve been associating with the military dead in particular, given that I honour Freyja on May 1st and She’s said to take half the slain (Grímnismál 14). And since I already sacrifice to my ancestors three times per month, plus the early Parentalia, I’m going to transfer my limited Rosalia practices to Freyja’s feast and clear May 7th for Ilurbeda. It is, after all, Mercury’s month (or rather His mother’s), so that seems fitting considering the pairing potential. And while I don’t live in a particularly mountainous place – which is why I abandoned the idea of a local aspect of Ilurbeda – May is a time when large numbers of pilgrims walk through this area towards the Catholic shrine of Fátima. And if they follow the local paths, they’ll have to cross the nearby mountains to the east, which are the highest point in the region. In other words, they’ll have to go through Ilurbeda’s realm. I actually join the pilgrims every now and then, not because I have any interest in Our Lady of Fátima – I don’t – but because I genuinely enjoy doing the roughly 30 kilometres, either on foot or bike. Which is not at all surprising in a Mercury devotee and worshiper of the Lares Viales, I’d argue.

Workd cited
ENCARNAÇÃO, José d’. 2008. “Octávio Veiga Ferreira – Percursos em Cascais e pela arqueologia clássica” in Estudos Arqueológicos de Oeiras, n. 16. Oeiras: Câmara Municipal de Oeiras, pp. 351-362.
HERNANDO SOBRINO, Maria del Rosario. 2005. “A propósito del teónimo Ilurbeda. Hipótesis de trabajo” in Veleia, n. 22. Leioa: Universidad del Pais Vasco, pp. 153-164.
OLIVARES PEDREÑO, Juan Carlos. 2002. Los Dioses de la Hispania Céltica. Madrid: Real Academia de Historia; Universidad de Alicante.

A man died, a god was born

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Today, David Bowie died at the age 69. He was already a star when I was born and he impacted my life. Some of the songs I grew up with were his, some of tunes and lyrics that still resonate in my mind since my childhood and teens have Bowie’s voice. Not to mention his role in the 1986 movie Labyrinth . And I’m not alone in this. He was truly an artistic giant, multifaceted and multigenerational, a source of inspiration for bands, singers and fashions we all too often take for granted. He paved the way and rose to the stars. So by joining his ancestors, he becomes more than an awesome household god for his family. His influence vibrates far beyond the domestic walls and reaches millions – past, present and future. In many ways, we stand on his shoulders. And by his death, natural and inevitable, a god was born.

So hail, David Bowie! Hail, Artistic Lar! Thank for you your work, thank you for your magic! May you shine bright and bless us with inspiration for generations to come!

European polytheism: a personal look

Following recent discussions with other polytheists, which made obvious a divide in attitudes and perspectives between the two sides of the Atlantic, I’ve been considering the topic more extensively, taking into account the idiosyncrasies of the United States, western Europe in general and my country in particular. Things like History, politics, social dynamics and attitudes towards the State. And the more I thought about it, the more I kept going back to three points. So in order to clarify things, I wrote this post explaining where I stand as a European polytheist and in contrast with what comes across as a significant trend in US American polytheism. Keep in mind that I don’t claim to speak for all Europeans with an identical or similar religion, if nothing else because Europe, like the United States, is not monolithic. Furthermore, my views reflect mainly my experience as a native Portuguese living in his own country, though there’s a lot in common between western EU members States. And judging from what I’ve been reading elsewhere for some time now, I’m not the only one noticing the Atlantic divide.

1. Not a counter-culture
Let’s start by getting the obvious out of the way: I’m not into polytheism as a form of counter-culture. Why would I, if it’s a part of my country’s History and hence an extension of its heritage? My native language derives from Latin and Portugal’s modern-day territory was for centuries a part of the Roman empire, which left plenty of traces, both material and non-material, religious and non-religious. To a large extent, this also applies to Celts and Celtiberians and marginally to Phoenicians and Germanic tribes as well, all of which once called this land home and left various traces, though not in equall measure.

As such, I’m a cultor not just because I see polytheism as a valid religious option, but also as an expression of my native culture. It doesn’t mean that you have to be Portuguese (or Spanish or Italian or whatever) in order to be a Roman polytheist (see here); nor does it mean that you have to be a cultor if you’re Portuguese (far from it!). But in my individual case, that was a large part of the motivation.

Of course, Roman polytheism was last practiced openly 1500 years ago, so a reviving effort is in order. Yet the point is not to counter modern culture, but to adapt the religio to it! To make it a living part of today’s Portugal, much like Shinto is a part of modern Japan, not a Renaissance fair, a protest group or an ideological throwback into a romanticized past. It’s not that I don’t have causes. Animal rights, gay rights, wildlife preservation, fighting climate change and food waste – I’m involved in all of these issues. But I do it because I believe it’s right, not because my religion tells me to. At best, devotion to individual deities and a sense of community with the gods – which include my ancestors and landwights – reinforces my motivation and adds an additional layer of meaning to my actions. And while I think the cultus deorum has a positive contribution to make, both religiously and environmentally, by virtue of being a polytheism that recognizes divinity in natural places, I don’t see that as being at odds with modernity. Quite the opposite, in fact.

2. More upbeat
While discussing with polytheists from across the pond, I was confronted with the belief that modernity has been a sort of downward spiral into a worst world. At best, it brought a façade a greater freedom and equality, but no real change. “Modernity guarantees us nothing”, Sarenth wrote in a comment to my previous post. As a Portuguese man who’s well aware of his country’s past, I wholeheartedly disagree.

Go back 500 years in European History and you’ll find a very different continent. And I’m not talking about borders, but of religion, political system, social stratification, individual liberties and legal framework. Simply put, western Europe was generally ruled by more or less autocratic and confessional monarchies with very, very limited religious freedom. In some places, Jews managed to practice their faith, provided they paid a tax and confined to a ghetto. In the Iberian Peninsula, Muslims lived under similar conditions, though it all changed in the final years of the 15th century, when Spain and Portugal expelled Jews or forced them to convert. Even when they did, they were still persecuted under the suspicion that they remained secret Jews, especially after the Inquisition settled in both countries. That’s when you started having frequent autos de fé or acts of faith, which basically consisted of burning people alive in a public square after being paraded through the streets. If you were a (suspected) Protestant in a Catholic country or vice-versa, you’d suffer a similar fate. Even more so if you were a polytheist, which by the way were virtually non-existent in Europe at the time. And these were the more judicial procedures, since there were also plenty of ad hoc massacres: take Lisbon in 1506, when hundreds of Jewish men, women and children were tortured and killed in the streets; or Paris in 1572, when thousands of Protestants were slaughtered in what went down in History as the St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre. Simply put, either you practiced a legal religion – which was usually just one – or you had to flee for your life.

Following the wars of the 17th century, things started to change. Slowly, but surely. The Enlightenment questioned religious intolerance, even popular religion itself, proposing greater tolerance and rationality. In Portugal, in 1772, that produced changes in the Inquisition, which remained in existence, but diminished in its authority thanks to the chief minister of king Joseph I – an autocrat, but an enlightened one. Yet it was not until the French Revolution, Napoleon’s campaigns and the subsequent spreading of liberal ideas that Portugal saw its first constitution in 1822. It was far from perfect and it didn’t last long, but it was an initial stepping stone in a long and non-linear process of increasing liberties, rights and equality. One of its latest stages happened by the end of last year, when parliament awarded full adoption rights to gay and lesbian couples. But before that there were voting rights, press freedom, civil marriage for straight couples (back in the 1800s), the abolition of slavery and the death penalty, public education and healthcare and yes, religious freedom.

All of this is the product of modernity. It was because of it that my country moved from an autocracy to a constitutional democracy that awards political, civil and social rights and liberties. It is because of modernity that I can be an openly gay man without fearing for my life. That I went to a public school, then a public university and now have a PhD. That I can vote, that my mother and grandmother can vote, freely join a political party or create one. And that I’m writing this, have the liberty to pick my religion, practice it freely and be open about it. This is what modernity guarantees me. It’s not a façade, but actual change from what my country was at the start of the 19th century, before modernity kicked in. It is now a more democratic, egalitarian and tolerant place than it was.

Is it perfect? Far from it! There’s still plenty of racism, bigotry, discrimination and income inequality – of which I myself am a victim – the political system has a lot of room for improvement and there’s an abundance of environmental issues. But strange as it may sound to some, I don’t see modernity as part of the problem, but of the solution. Why? Because the freedom it awards allows me to speak publicly about my religion and change perceptions on polytheism. The democratization of the past two centuries grants the basic tools for further political change. The legal recognition of fundamental rights and of democracy as more than a dictatorship of the majority allows for a continuous struggle against racism and bigotry, which isn’t easy nor linear. And at least over here, technology is increasingly part of the solution to environmental problems: renewable energies, better and more extensive recycling, circular economy, energy efficiency, better waste management – these and other things are a growing focus of European policies, which also increasingly factor in climate change. So why would I see modernity as an enemy if it brought me hard-won fundamental rights and freedoms, greater security and a welfare State? Why would I see it as a problem if it changed things for the better, considering how they were in the early 1800s, and grants the basic tools for further change and improvements?

3. More secular, less born-again
There is an irony that separates the two sides of the Atlantic: the US first constitutional amendment, which dates back to 1791, clearly establishes a separation of Church and State, yet the same country has a public discourse where religious and political speeches overlap extensively; by contrast, Europe still has countries with State religions (the UK, Denmark or Finland, for instance), but public discourse is much more secular than in the US. Also, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, the United States is unique among the wealthier countries in that it’s more religious than the rest of the pack. Which helps explaining another difference between western European and US polytheism.

If no one is an island, then to a greater or lesser degree people will naturally reflect their surroundings. Ergo, if you live in a place where religious discourse is framed as being on faith, values and utter devotion to a god, where there’s a prevalent born-again attitude, militant and all-encompassing, then it’s perhaps no surprise that it too can be found among polytheists. And in the case of the United States in particular, there’s also the backdrop of the culture wars, which add further fuel to an extremist fire. The vitriolic speech and siege mentality that I find in a good chunk of US American polytheists is, I think, a product of that. Consciously or not, it is a reflection of the religious fundamentalism they’re faced with, either personally or through the media. They reproduce it, make it their own, even if at the same time they claim to be against it.

By contrast, the prevailing secular mentality in western Europe contributes to a middle ground where people from different religions or none can discuss and co-exist in a less heated fashion. Or at least that’s how I experience it in my country. It’s not there’s no talk of values and faith or that we don’t have religious fundamentalists, but they’re a minority, fringe groups that get little attention, while most people have a pragmatic attitude. Religion is not generally worn as if it’s the sum or sole element of one’s identity, so it’s usually not something that gets in the way of living and talking with people who believe or practice differently. And even among Catholics, which according to the 2011 census constitute about 80% of the country’s population, a lot if not most focus more on what they do, religiously, and less on what the Church says about contraceptives, marriage, sex or even faith. I know a few who have no problem saying they believe in other gods and some even see themselves as Catholic simply because they go on a pilgrimage once a year.

This, I reckon, is why a Baptist can sit next to a chair set aside for a Norse god. Or why a Catholic, an atheist and a polytheist can share a table at a restaurant and talk about their beliefs without going vitriolic. There’s little in the way of in-your-face attitude when it comes to religion, because it’s not the sum of who I am and therefore it doesn’t prevent me from being civil with a religious other. I don’t see a Baptist, atheist or Catholic friend of mine as first and foremost a Baptist, atheist or Catholic. I see them as friends. It’s a secular attitude where religion is not at the forefront of who you are. And in my personal case, this is reinforced by the fact that I’m a Roman polytheist not because I had some born-again experience or hold a moral code that sets me apart from the modern world, but because it is an element of my national identity. It’s a portion of who I am in the here and now, not the past or an alternative anti-modern reality.

Moving on
Hopefully, these three points make it clear why I feel less and less connected to certain groups of US American polytheists. I don’t see myself in their constant protest or anti-modern stance because to me modernity means something else and my view of religion is not akin to that of born-again evangelicals. I’m not in this to be different, to hold up some axiomatic bible or to set myself apart from the society I live in. It’s not that I don’t think it needs to be improved, that the world should be better or that the prevalent religious discourse has to be diversified. But I see the needed changes as being a part of modernity, not in opposition to it. Because modernity is what gave me the liberties and rights I have today and which were once non-existent in my country and in Europe at large. To update and improve them is to update and improve modernity.

Granted, things may look a lot gloomier in the US. For one, because it’s a relatively young country that was born out of the Enlightenment, so it can’t compare itself with a more distant past where it had a different regime. But also because its presidential system narrows down political options, whereas European parliamentarism fosters a greater diversity of parties in both the legislative and executive branches of power. Plus, unlike many US Americans, most Europeans don’t see the State as inherently evil, but look to it as a necessary regulator and protector. And on this side of the Atlantic, “socialism” is not a dirty word, gun violence is much lower, eco-friendly policies are mainstream and public discourse is less dominated by religion.

Knowing this, however, doesn’t make the divide any smaller. It’s still there. And my awareness of it has been brewing for some time now. It makes me less interested in what some people write, because it’s so distant from the way I see and experience the world. Occasionally, it feels like I’m reading the words of a missionary who tells me to fight my neighbours or reject my past because it’s unholy. And I kind of think: but we get along fine and I have my past to thank for who I am. Best to just move on and ignore some folks, I guess.

American and European polytheisms

So I’ve been away from the blogosphere for a very long time, for no reason other than work and rest. Between papers and a book on Norse mythology I finished in late December (265 pages long… phew!), plus some time to ride my bike, workout and clear my mind, it left very little space for blogging. Now that things are a little less hectic, it’s time to resume it. My initial plan was to write something about this year’s Vialia, which is going to be a lot less outdoorsy since it’s raining, but then Galina Krasskova wrote something in her blog and it led to a heated discussion on Twitter, so that turned out to be the topic at hand.

Liquid-like
What triggered things was this post. In it, Galina talks about what she finds appealing in the Roman approach, starting with orthopraxy and moving on to values, namely a sense of collective heroics, modesty (especially sexual modesty), piety, virtus and civic engagement. On Twitter, I pointed out that generally speaking those were social values, not religious ones, and she replied by stating that ancient Romans did not really separate the two. Which isn’t wrong, in that religious life was an extent of social one. But that doesn’t mean social and religious values are one an the same, especially in a polytheistic non-orthodox religion with no revealed truth, scriptures or moral commandments.

See, the thing about a solely orthopraxic religion, with no regulated and exclusive faith, is that it works a bit like a liquid: it assumes the shape of its vessel. If its host society is conservative, the religion will reflect conservative values; if it’s more liberal, it will convey liberal views. And that in turn will have an effect on ritual practices, no matter how orthopraxic it is. There’s a good historical example of that in the reaction to the cult of Cybele when it was first introduced into Rome: confronted with ecstatic and sexually ambiguous practices, Roman authorities enforced a series of limitations meant to place the new cult more in tune with the city’s moral code. You might also want to consider Gallo-Roman religion, which is another case of liquid-like behaviour, in that native Gallic practices assumed forms of a Latinized society. This isn’t an exclusive trait of Roman or other forms of orthopraxic polytheism, since you can also find a certain degree of flexibility in other religions. That’s how Christianity has historically adapted to different cultural contexts or Buddhism has given birth to various schools and sects. But the lack of scriptures that create standardized beliefs and morality means that the cultus deorum is a lot more flexible. A lot more!

As such, what we would normally perceive as the values of Roman polytheism were actually those of society at large or of the predominant philosophical school. They were not the values of the religion per se, but the stances it reflected in a given time and place. Change the vessel and the liquid assumes another form; change the social and historical context and the religion takes on new shapes. It basically absorbs the values of its host society, but it is not one and the same with them. They’re entwined, but not inseparable. The reason being that it’s a religion without sacred scriptures that crystallize moral teachings in the likes of the Bible or the Quran.

Take an example from Christianity. Some of its followers claim that homosexuality is wrong because it says so in Leviticus 20:13. Regardless of its theological merit – and you will find different opinions on it – the argument is a textbook case of an ancient social norm that was inserted into a text deemed sacred, the word of God, and has thus become part of the moral discourse of the religion that’s based on that same text. Or to put it differently, it’s a social value from a given time and place that has been crystallized and thus seen as timeless by virtue of being given a sacred status.

No such thing exists in Roman polytheism or at least it shouldn’t, because it has no sacred scriptures that can regulate faith, let alone a moral doctrine. Yes, ancient Roman authors wrote abundantly about morality, their views on the Gods, correct religion and social behaviour. But neither are they apostles or prophets, nor are their writings divine word or scriptures. They’re the opinions of people from a given time, place and philosophical school. You can have different values and beliefs on the nature of the Gods, see society differently, and still be a genuine Roman polytheist so long as you retain a basic orthopraxy. Because in a non-orthodox religion, morally is socially based, even if it can be religiously reflected.

This can be a hard pill to swallow, especially for recon and recon-inspired polytheists, since unlike more eclectic and free-styled pagans, they strive to be culturally or historically focused. I get that. But there’s a point where that focus becomes fossilization or cultural fetishism. When it stops being about studying a past religion so it can be revived in a modern context and starts being about reproducing an ancient society. Be it its clothing, social structure, political institutions or values. But you don’t have to re-enact or reproduce attitudes and fashions in order to be a genuine Roman polytheist, no more than Japanese people need to go back to the time of the Shoguns to be genuine Shintoists. You can be modern and still practice an ancient religion, especially one that has no moral doctrine and thus awards you the freedom to take in the values of the host society, so long it is plural and free enough to allow for religious difference.

Now some would argue that unlike Rome, Japan has preserved its native identity, whereas modern cultores have to go back in time to retrieve a sense of Romanitas. Which is an ironic argument for History-minded folks, because Roman polytheism was never just about Rome, nor has the city’s language and culture simply vanished into thin air in the 5th century. It evolved, morphed into something wider that’s still present: Latin gave way to romance languages and Roman culture became a part of the identity of European countries or of the wider western culture. Romanitas is alive and well, thank you very much. It’s in modern institutions, legal traditions, religious practices, folklore, mindset, language. And here, I’d argue, lies the root of the problem with Galina Krasskova’s stance on religion and modernity.

An ocean apart
In the past, I ocasionally ran into blog posts that mentioned differences between US and European polytheism. I could see what they were getting at, but I was never really confronted with it nor has it become clearer to me as in yesterday’s discussion with Galina. And it reminded me of what she herself wrote in the opening pages of the second number of the Walking the Worlds journal. To quote Galina Krasskova, page 2:

There seems to be an insecurity and anxiety around restoring traditions on foreign soil that has created some very reactionary, almost xenophobic threads within American Heathenry. It has led to a certain romanticization of the Heathen past, including the development of fundamentalist traditions like Theodism, which seek to reconstruct not just the religion, but the feudal social structure as well (…). Most of all, there’s a deep antagonism toward change and evolution within the tradition. I lay the responsibility for many of these trends, and the general fundamentalism of American Heathenry at the feet of this: we’re in a Diaspora. There’s an anxiety over not being on the religion’s ancestral land. There’s an anxiety over whether or not we’re doing it right and with that, there’s a certain fear of external influences.

To be clear, I’m not saying Galina is xenophobic. I never read anything from her that can be understood that way. And while her words focus on Heathenry, they can be applied to any form of modern reconstructed polytheism and many other things – including her stance on Roman values. To be blunt, Galina wasn’t born and raised in a southern European country with a native Latin language and culture. She did not grow on a former Roman land, next to Roman ruins, living with traditions and folklore rooted in the Roman past. She’s a Diaspora polytheist. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you, and you can be a genuine Roman polytheist no matter where you’re born and live. But Galina seems to take it in the same direction as those heathens she criticizes: with an anxiety that leads her to emulate the Romanitas of yesterday since she has no sense of today’s. Or at least today’s doesn’t seem to be enough or she doesn’t see herself in it, so she takes refuge in a romanticization of the Roman past.

There’s more to it, though, for she could be a Diaspora polytheist, yet hold less radical views. But she’s also a US American and thus a product of US culture wars. Not to say that every American is – far from it! – but in her case, it’s true. You can see it in her vitriolic speeches on modernity, monotheism or the “slut” culture of today’s women; in her constant underlying or outspoken opinion that we’re at war and the modern world is our enemy. It’s a siege mentality that has more in common with Bible belt Christians then Galina probably cares to admit. Which is sadly ironic. I mean, we keep hearing Christian and Muslim fundamentalists claiming modern society is opposed to them, that it needs to be sanctified so they can truly practice their religion, and then we turn to our polytheistic community and end up finding an almost identical speech in some corners. Same radicalism, same anti-modernity, same war-mongering, but with more gods into it. You sort of wonder what happened to reason when people react to religious fundamentalism with a mirrored stance.

On this side of the pond
Now, I’m not claiming Europe or my country in particular are perfect. They’re not! I’m also not saying that the modern world is flawless and should be uncritically accepted. But neither do I see it as inherently evil or an enemy I’m at war with. Nor do I share the romanticized view that the past was better. It wasn’t. For all its shortcomings, the modern western world is more egalitarian, tolerant and democratic. But of course, that’s the view of a native Portuguese polytheist.

I don’t feel the need to retrieve a social code from two millennia ago in order to feel Roman. I’m already native to a Latin culture, language and land where remnants of old Roman traditions, mindset and practices are still alive. I don’t see monotheism as an enemy and have never experienced it as such. It’s true that public discourse on religion is dominated by monotheistic views, but the key to diversity is going public about your religion, taking part in open debates in a civil manner, not viewing the world as your enemy. Or at least that’s how it goes on this side of the pond, where things are less hostile. I can gladly recall several of my birthday dinner parties where I saved a seat for Freyr and sitting next to it was a Baptist friend of mine. I can be at a table with Catholics and atheists and have a civil conversation on religion without having to go into protest mode. Or even take a few minutes to make an offering by the sea or road while on the beach or riding my bike with non-polytheistic friends. Heck, even the evangelical ladies who go preaching door to door are nice and will be clear about respecting my religion when I tell them what it is.

I’m also not interested in counter-culture. I’m not a polytheist as a form of protest or reaction against a “degenerate” modern world. Do I think polytheism has a contribution to make? Yes! Does that mean modernity is my enemy? No! I don’t normally work in zero-sum games of either/or, good/bad, us/them. That’s the sort of view I’d expect in a fundamentalist, not an open-minded polytheist. I’m a cultor because it feels right for me. I cherish the natural diversity of the world, see divine multiplicity as an extension of it, and have come to embrace Roman polytheism because it is tied to my native land, culture and language. But I also remain open to other forms of polytheism because, again, I love diversity. And it is the freedom and plurality of a modern European society that allows to make that choice and practice it freely.

So I honestly don’t see myself in the hostility I read in Galina’s posts. It looks to me as something out of place and frankly more akin to monotheistic fundamentalism than polytheistic openness. The whole emphasis on absolute deities who are not to be confused with humans or landwights, the sometimes underlying hint of submission to divine will, the focus on values and fighting the modern world, all of that reminds me of an evangelical sermon in some forsaken rural community. It’s not how I view and live a modern polytheistic tradition, but maybe her views are a serious trend across the Atlantic.

Take a deep breath!

On the matter of Daesh (aka, the so-called “Islamic State”) and the destruction of Palmyra, there are many things that could be said, but a call to arms is not one of them. Nor is believing in Daesh’s boasts or judging the west as weak for not intervening in full force. For multiple reasons, as I explain in my latest piece at Polytheism.com (my first article is here, by the way).

Be mindful, be practical, be optimistic. Rise above the media frenzy and pierce through the screen. Don’t play into Daesh’s game. Instead, breathe deep, take a long-term view and pour a little something for Lady Spes.

In the meantime, in the spirit of honouring deities whose physical memory is being erased by Islamic extremists, there’s a small empty shelf in my room that I might turn into a domestic shrine to the Middle Eastern god Nabu or Nebo. More on that in due time, though. Still wondering if it will house Him alone, more deities or be a second domestic shrine to Mercury to host “hermetic guests”. An epithet linked to hospitality would go well with that, now that I think about it. And I would have to make new cult images, which, adding to the plan to reorganize my Vanic shrine, means I have a lot of clay work or Minerva and Khnum moments ahead of me. Polytheism – I love having so many gods!

An Iberian Mercury

When you have a particular focus on a particular deity, when you’re a devotee of a god, there’s this drive to read, learn about and get to know His “cousins”, i.e. similar gods from other cultures. If it’s Dionysos, you turn a curious eye to other Powers of beverage and ecstatic fury; if it’s Apollo, you take a look at similar enlightened deities. Sometimes, they even share a common origin, namely if they’re of Indo-European stock. And in some cases, you add them to your religious practices or syncretise them with gods you already worship.

A similar thing happened to me when I started researching and reading about Hermes-like deities and tricksters. Having been a heathen and due to the fact that I do research on Viking Studies, I already knew about Loki, though I gained a renewed understanding of Odin’s table companion since I joined Mercury’s ranks. Bor’s son too is not a total stranger and there’s been an increasing awareness of His ways. Manannán mac Lir is an enticing god, not least because He has similarities with Njord, and that naturally draws the attention of someone who’s also close to Freyr. Lugh is another Celtic deity I’ve been curious about, on His own merit, but also due to His equation with Mercury. There’s Inari, the Japanese fox god or goddess, a gender duplicity that probably owes more to historical incidents than anything else, but is nonetheless fitting for a trickster. Susanoo too is a prankster and I may pour Him libations of sake whenever I happen to get my hands on a bottle of it. And since we’re talking about Asian deities, the bodhisattva Manjushri is sometimes said to be a trickster, as if there weren’t enough hermetic traits in Him – the blade, the wisdom, the mantic dice. Which adds to His appeal for someone like me, who’s fond of the Buddhist school of Madhyamaka. There’s Anubis, whom I added to my regular pantheon a few years ago, and Thoth, who’s been on the periphery of my religious life for some time now. The sacrilegious destruction of statues and shrines carried out recently by Daesh in the Middle East turned my attention to the Syrian and Mesopotamian pantheons, namely Nabu and Enki. The Slavic Veles is a wildly interesting god and then, of course, there are animals – the raven, the fox, the raccoon (childhood favourite!), even the squirrel.

For the most part, however, this was just curiosity, a research topic that allows for a cross-cultural perspective and hence deeper understanding of the individual trickster I’m devoted to. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to worship all of them in some way, it’s just that’s easier said than done. You need time, resources and mental space to properly honour gods on a regular basis and there is such a thing as dispersal, especially if you include in your domestic pantheon several great Powers from different backgrounds, like Loki and Lugh. Occasional offerings are certainly possible, but regular and dully scheduled honours with full formal ceremonies is a different matter.

At some point, however, it dawned on me that I was looking into “hermetic cousins” from nearly everywhere expect my own native land. There’s an obvious reason for that: we know very little about Iberian deities. There are no surviving myths, almost no accounts of their cults, which makes Latin inscriptions virtually the only source of information on Them. What little is known about the Iberian pantheon(s) is squeezed out of surviving names, epitephs, the details of the sites where altars were found, comparative analysis with other pantheons and, in a few rare cases, depictions of animals, plants and the god/desses Themselves. So following my quest for the gods of my homeland, I considered extending that search into something that worked both as a revival of regional cults and, at the same time, a contribution to the world of the Fleet-Footed. To put it differently, just as I’ve come to realize that a Latinized cult of the Vanir is a path within the wider hermetic realm, because it involves a form of “liminaling” and translation, I thought of adding another path, that of Iberian Mercuries, thus reviving both a regional form of Roman polytheism and enriching my increasingly Mercury-focused practice.

Enter Arentius and Arentia. As is generally the case with Iberian deities, information on Them is scarce. Which means there are divergent theories on their natures: They’ve been seen as war deities, river gods and even domestic Powers specific to a small group of people. There are in total nine known altars to Them, four our which dedicated to both Arentius and Arentia, other four to just the former and one solely to the latter. They all come from the Spanish Extremadura and Portuguese Beiras, in the western interior of the Iberian Peninsula. Incidentally, that’s also a region where several other deities are well attested, which allowed Juan Pedreño to propose a new theory on the identity of Arentius and Arentia. Assuming that the gods and goddesses known from the area constitute a regional pantheon, he concludes they could not have been war or water deities, because those roles were already taken. Instead, Arentius and Arentia may have played a role similar to that of Lugus and Rosmerta, something equally suggested by an analysis of divine couples in the Gallo-Roman world. It is Apollo and Mercury who are most commonly coupled with a native goddess or identified with a pair of deities whose names are almost identical. Think of Bormanus and Bormana, for instance, or Visucius and Visucia. In other words, Arentius may have been an Iberian god identifiable with Mercury and Arentia a regional goddess who supplemented the prosperity He’s associated with. It’s only a theory, yes, but a good one nonetheless. If you’re interested, you can read more in this article where Pedreño discusses his ideas in some detail and in English.

Taking that into account, I’ve decided to give Arentius and Arentia a try. To present Them with offerings on an experimental basis and in Roman rite, since their cults were at least partly Latinized in the old days. There’s an historical precedent and an element of tradition there, so that solves the question of how to do it. ‘When’ is a different matter, but given the possibility of a connection with Lugh, something around August 1st seems appropriate for a first contact. However, since a southern climate can result in a later harvest and I already have a feast on August 4th, I decided to go for September 1st. Part of making things work when you worship dozens of gods is having a balanced calendar without too many festivities crammed together. Though this is just an experimental stage and whether it will lead to the inclusion of Arentius and Arentia in my domestic pantheon and regular religious practices is yet to be seen. It depends on how it goes, on how They react – if at all!

Protest and Remembrance

Today’s the Polytheistic Day of Protest and Remembrance, a date set by fellow polytheists in the aftermath of the destruction of sites and statues in the Middle East by Daesh, aka the so-called “Islamic State”. There was a post on the event, published just over a month ago at the Polytheist.com website, as well as a fair share of publicity on Facebook, so today I took a few minutes to write a small prayer on a piece of paper, read it out load, sprinkle it with wine, flour and incense and burn it together with dry pine twigs. It was a gesture of acknowledgement and respect towards the gods of the Middle East, so that temples of words may rise and echo. Translated from Portuguese, it went something like this:


To the gods of Syria and Mesopotamia
I make this offering;
as homage to the deities
of Palmyra, Nineveh, Babylon, Eridu
and elsewhere in the Levant
I burn this paper offering,
this written prayer,
sprinkled with wine, flour and incense.

May it please you,
may it pay you homage,
may it pay you tribute,
may it honour and fortify you.
And may you be remembered and praised,
today and forever,
in your land and beyond it.

May your names echo
in the sands, mountains and rivers;
may your sacred sites
persist and be risen and multiplied.
And against those who today move against you,
unholy and destructive,
denying you and denying life to your own,
against Daesh may you rise
and make their efforts fruitless.

Be honoured,
gods of Syria and Mesopotamia!
Be praised,
gods of the Levant!

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