The terms of the religio

Recently, Agricola posted a text on the Cultus Deorum Romanorum where he expresses his concern on the usage of the terms “worship” and “adore” when referring to the cults of the Roman Gods. While I agree with a lot of what he says, I draw different conclusions in some aspects.

His argument is sound when he claims that, in the ancient religions of Rome, excessive devotion intended to placate the gods was seen as superstition and not in accordance to proper religion. Actually, scratch that: his argument is sound in so far as it reflects the historical views of the Roman elite, which happens to be the only social strata that left extensive works on the topic. The plebs might have had a different opinion on the subject, as hinted by Seneca when he criticizes popular practices at the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome: telling the god the time and names of those who visited Him, bathing and anointing the deity or imitating the gestures of those actions, and even mime-acting. This means that, despite the fact that Agricola’s reasoning on the terms “worship” and “adore” is correct, in that they may express an excessive behaviour and devotion, it is also true that that view was probably not unanimous in ancient Rome. However, let us take the elite’s opinion as a reference, even if not as strictly, and return to it later.

Towards the end of his post, Agricola admits that there is no easy English equivalent to the Latin cultus or Romanorum Deos colere, apart from “worship” and “adore”. He proposes “following the Roman way”, “keep a lararium”, and “observe Roman traditions”, to which I’d add honouring or paying homage. The question is stressed by the weight of Judeo-Christian theology on religious vocabulary, leading to a modern understanding of Latin terms that is different from its original meaning. The word deus (god) is a good example of that, as said here, as is pietas (piety) which, as Agricola states, originally conveyed a much broader sense than just the fulfilment of one’s duties towards the Gods. Yet I can’t help thinking that maybe we’re just talking semantics, much like when people say something isn’t a religion, but a way of life, as if one necessarily excluded the other. It’s true that words have power and labels matter (like here), but there is such a thing as going over the top and reaching the point where you start tiptoeing through your vocabulary or constructing complex labels that require an explanation nonetheless.

Take the word “god”, which, just like “worship”, has been tainted by Judeo-Christian theology. Every time I use it, some people instantly think of omnipotent and entirely supernatural entities that prescribe moral commandments under penalty of eternal damnation, just as the term “religion” can quickly convey the notion of an exclusivist faith with dogmas and sacred scripture. Yet despite the fact that none of these commonly held definitions reflect my views, I don’t use the words “numen” instead of “god” and “way of life” instead of “religion”. If nothing else, because those alternative terms require explanation, much like the label “Pagan” does as opposed to the self-explanatory “Roman polytheist”; and if you have to explain to people what a few words mean, you might as well stick to the original ones and (re)shape what they stand for. Especially when “worship” has already acquired the modern meaning of honouring, as in the dictionary entry quoted by Agricola himself, and can therefore be used without the negative connotation that the old Roman elite might have attached to it.

If I had to define the basics of my religion as I practice and see it, I would point out its non-exclusivist and orthopraxic nature (like here or here), the distinction between personal faith, traditional ritual, and social morality (see here) and, most importantly for the topic at hand, what I consider to be my two “articles of faith”, if you will: freedom and piety (dealt with here). The former stands for my right to choose which gods to honour and Their right to accept (or not) my requests and offerings, thus rejecting forms of magic that force the deities into action and the excessive devotion that destroys my freedom. Piety stands for my duties, i.e., the fulfilment of my obligations towards the Gods, family, friends, and the community, be it local, national, or even international in the case of Human Rights and the environment. Which is basically something the ancient Roman elite might have agreed with.

If instead of using “worship”, “religion”, and “god” I were to use “honour”, “way”, and “numen”, I would still have to explain the meaning of those words with the aforementioned notions of freedom, piety, orthopraxy and so forth. As such, I might as well stick to the original terms and allow the (in any case) necessary explanation to establish that, at least for me, to worship or adore a god doesn’t stand for excessive devotion or the sole performance of religious ceremonies; just like I don’t equate religion with an exclusivist faith. One cannot expect every label to be self-explanatory, free of modern misconceptions, or to have only one sense, so sometimes you might as well draw a line and shape meanings. Calling myself a Roman polytheist instead of Pagan makes things a lot easier; rejecting “worship” in favour or “honour” or replacing religio with “way” doesn’t.


2 thoughts on “The terms of the religio

  1. Excellent points! I don’t really intend to try to talk people out of using “worship”. In fact, your post shows that I have succeeded in my real intent: to get us to think about and discuss these words (and the other words that you mention are also good targets for discussion).

    I do think that our Cultus still suffers from colonization, and I think that this kind of discussion is the best way for us to get past that and to strengthen our unique cultural identity.

    Optime vale!


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