Essentially what? (1)

At the Cultus Deorum Romanorum blog, Lucretius Agricola posted the following set of small sentences that express basic religious notions common to many practitioners of Roman polytheism:

The Gods exist and are essentially benevolent. A natural relationship unites people with the Gods. Human relationship with the gods requires human action. The Gods can communicate Their will. We promote religio and pietas and we avoid superstitio.

Religio is the attitude that the Gods are the benevolent partners of mortals in the management of the world, and that the prescribed rituals are the proper return for the help that is provided by the Gods.

Pietas is sincere diligence in fulfilling the requirements of the partnership with the Gods and in honoring all obligations. In contrast, Superstitio is any excessive and slavish behavior that is intended to placate the anger of the Gods, or the desire to extract knowledge or power from the Gods.

While I generally agree, I find some reflexion to be necessary in order to prevent misunderstandings, namely on one word: benevolent!

In which sense are the Gods “essentially benevolent”? Are They non-aggressive in a Buddhist sort of way? Do They lack darker or less pleasant sides? Are They infinitely generous and incapable of unprovoked harm? Or is it something else? What follows are my personal beliefs and should not be taken as a sort of “gospel” of the religio, as other cultores may have different thoughts on the subject.

Index: Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 4

14 thoughts on “Essentially what? (1)

  1. I am very happy to see my post provoking discussion.

    Keep in mind that “essentially benevolent” does not mean “exclusively benevolent”. It simply means that benevolence, as a general position, is the normal baseline for their behavior. This in no way restricts their freedom of action. This goes hand in hand with “pietas”, the fulfilling of our obligations to the gods.

    I’ll illustrate my point this way. I feel that my landlord is benevolent, and as long as I pay my rent I will have a good relationship with her. If I fail to pay my rent I expect to be evicted, regardless of how benevolent she is in essence.

    M. Terentius Varro expressed his view on the gods this way; “The religious man reveres the gods as he would his parents, for they are good, more apt to spare than to punish.” This is the attitude that I was trying to capture.

    • Thank you for you comment, Lucretius. My plan is to start by addressing what the Gods being essentially benevolent doesn’t mean, then move on to the principles of freedom and pietas and finally how they resolve the question of the Gods’ benevolence 😉

    • Matt! Will stop at the Polytheism page, ASAP. I actually have a few things I’d like to photograph, but the bad weather from these last few days has made it harder to get good shots.

  2. I think the benevolence depends entirely on the Gods you work with. The Gods I work with you could say have a benevolent nature, or at least a cooperative one, but I like to say we have a Gebo, gift-for-a-gift, relationship. I give my time and energy, and so do They, and together we make something of our work together. They ask for things from me and I from Them. I may be a Priest but that does not mean our relationships lack reciprocity, it just may not seem reciprocal to outside observers given the amount of running and doing I do for Them and Their requests of me.

    So…in short I guess that my view/experience jives with Lucretious Agricola’s, but I use different terminology whose nuances I think speak to what I do/We do more.

  3. Greetings Sarenth!

    I see from your blog that you mainly follow a Northern tradition, and that gives me two thoughts. First, that in spite of our difference in tradition (I am Roman) you can see the profound similarities. Second, I wonder if the difference in nuance is due to the difference in traditions more than anything else.

    It is far from my mind to set up barriers, but I was talking about a strictly Roman point of view. It is part of our idea of pietas to recognize and attempt to fulfill all obligations; those we owe to people as well as those we owe the gods, and not just the specific gods with whom we feel closest, but to all of them.

    The gods give us fresh water, the fish, the fruits of the earth, civilized life, everything. In these things we can see their benevolence as well as our obligation to them and the obligation to be reverent custodians of their gifts.

    I really enjoyed reading your blog.

    Be well!

    M. Lucretius

    • As a cultor who has a deep personal devotion towards a Norse god and Those closest to Him, I can confirm that the same notion of fulfilling all obligations is present in Germanic and Norse traditions. At least judging from the importance of oaths, both among humans and between humans and the Gods.

    • My apologies for the time it took to respond to this.

      I think the differences may be in tradition, but I wonder if it is also in how my Gods relate to me vs. how they relate to you? I will admit I do not follow much of lore, seeing as how for my path there isn’t much of it. I do read a lot of it though. Much of my personal communication with my Gods takes as much place in me doing mundane things as in spiritual space, so perhaps in this we differ too?

      Your pietas sounds a lot like Gebo, for me. I mean, if I dishonor the water by polluting it, I am offending the Gods and spirits of that water, as well as those Gods who would vouch for my Name. The default position for my attitude towards most things in life is ‘respect’, and that includes honoring the gifts given, even if the Gods are not those with whom I work regularly.

      I enjoy reading your works; I hope to read more from you. Please, feel free to comment on my blog; I’m always happy for discussion!

  4. I wonder if the Roman gods are a bit more benevolent than the Norse gods because the Mediterranian climate is so mild. The Earth gives up her gifts so easily in that climate, although drought could play a part. And the sea, field and stream of the North was at least as bountiful in ancient times.

    Did the ancient Romans think the Gods were as benevolent as modern pagans do?

    • I wouldn’t say the Norse gods are less benevolent, but perhaps more ready to strike a blow given the more aggressive adversaries. In any case, it varies depending on the godly tribe: the Vanir are more benevolent, but Their native world is also a more warm and welcoming place. Harsher gods are actually among the Aesir, but then again, generally They have a much more active role in warfare. And even They seem to be able to strike a deal with someone from the other side of the barricade: Skadi is a good example of it, as is Mimir or even Loki… I might have to do some more thinking on this :p

      As for the Gods as seen by ancient and modern Roman pagans, the idea of Them as benevolent is based on ancient perceptions of the divine and the general, at least official stance that They could be haggled and dealt with through reason in order to reach agreements as opposed to utter submission. To some extent, the idea is not detached from the political structure of Mediterranean human communities, with their assemblies, elected officials, and laws consigning fredoom, rights and duties. And Gods were, in a way, part of the social fabric of the city.

    • “Did the ancient Romans think the Gods were as benevolent as modern pagans do?”

      I can only repeat the quote from Varro: “The religious man reveres the gods as he would his parents, for they are good, more apt to spare than to punish.” I can’t say that all of us have this outlook, but it is quite common and it is based on good scholarship.

      I did know one fellow who was obsessed with making atonements, but he disappeared a few years ago. Personally I would go as far as saying that living a life of pietas keeps one clear of trouble. It is the Roman tradition, well attested, that any unintentional lapse of pietas is expiable, so even if things go wrong it is within our power to put things right again.

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