National and symbolic ancestors

When the topic of conversation focuses on ancestors, the first thing that comes to peoples’ minds are deceased relatives and maybe pets who, being part of the household in every possible way, join the host of family spirits when they cross over. But one element of ancestor worship that most of us seem to ignore, consciously or not, is that of national or communal figures, heroes whose cult also had a place in the ancient world. Men and women with whom you have no blood or adoption ties, but which were pivotal figures in the formation, defence, or sustaining of your community, your culture, and even your religion. People like kings, writers, thinkers, presidents, pioneers, priests, military leaders, and activists of causes with which you relate. To some extent, you are who you are because of them and what they did – the language you speak, the liberties you enjoy, the ideas you stand for, the country you live in, the community that nurtures you – and that, in a sense, makes them symbolic ancestors. Like your parents and grandparents, they came before you, helped forming who you are today, and they are role-models that sustain you or your community. Why shouldn’t they be revered?

This topic came up in the Cultus Deorum group in Facebook a while ago, when someone asked if any of the members worshiped Roman emperors. Personally I don’t, though I am planning to include Julian the Faithful (aka, the Apostate) in my personal pantheon. As the last ruler to stand up for polytheism, he is a natural focus of respect for modern cultores and worthy of reverence at a time when others have taken up his religious project in one way or another. Much like Eric the Red and Hakon Jarl are for Norse polytheists, but there is no reason why we should limit ourselves to ancient figures, at least not if you’re reconstructing as opposed to merely re-enacting a religion. Between then and now, there have been many people who lived great lives and left a mark in our world; people we admire, love to read about, who inspire the best in us, whom we celebrate with public monuments and holidays, and who are active role-models in our lives. The fact that they had a different religion shouldn’t be an issue: for one, because a person’s merit should never be “vetoed” by reason of his or her faith and secondly because, as a polytheist, the fact that I don’t worship a particular deity doesn’t mean I can’t admire His/Her worshipers and pay them my respects.

Some might have a problem with the idea of revering deceased men and women, as they might argue that that would be worshiping humans and not gods, which would constitute a form of hubris. And yet, ancient and modern polytheisms are full of cases of people who were and are revered as divine figures after their deaths. Consider, for intance, María Lionza in Venezuela, Sugawara no Michizane in Japan, and Hu Tianbao in Taiwan. As pointed out here, the thing with many forms of polytheism is that human and divine are not opposing categories like in the Abrahamic traditions. Divinity exists in many things, if not actually at least potentially, and that includes men and women who, once they cross over, may become gods in their own right by virtue of their deeds in life and their influence after death. Revered spirits who continue to be part of a family and community after death, still watching over, guiding, and nurturing.

As an example of that, my fascination for John I of Portugal has been turning into a form of national ancestor worship. Partially because he’s part of the local lore of my hometown, as I was born and raised just a few kilometres from his tomb and the spot of one of his greatest victories, hearing stories about him and his main general. He is also a central figure in the History of Lisbon, whose motto is credited to him and at one point he was even called the city’s messiah, namely when he led the resistance against a hard siege in 1384. He rose from bastard to king in the middle of a deep political and financial crisis, learning how to be a monarch along the way while preventing the country from disappearing under Castilian rule. He also started a new dynasty that presided over Portugal’s expansion and consolidated the Anglo-Portuguese alliance, which is the oldest in force today. It is hardly surprising that he became known as the King of Happy Memory and that is where his strength lies: in his ability to inspire through the recollection of his deeds and those of his closest friends during a dark period. The very memory that is deeply connected to my origins and which I have therefore chosen to honour.

So feel free to revere the spirits of people like George Washington, William Wilberforce, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, Rousseau, Martin Luther King, Henry Thoreau, Elizabeth I, Harvey Milk, Leonardo da Vinci, and others whom by their words and actions maintain a positive influence in today’s world or are meaningful to your life or that of your community, alongside figures like Julian, Hakon, or Leonidas. Honour their memory, their deeds, and their contribution to whom you are and your community. Don’t worry if they’re not “traditional”: every tradition has a starting point and a living religion naturally takes in new elements as time goes by. Hu Tianbao was not part of the Chinese pantheon until the Qing period (17th century onwards), so no reason why the Founding Fathers of the US, for instance, shouldn’t be part of an American’s host of ancestors, even if symbolic ones. Do you think Erichthonius or Theseus were actual blood relatives of every Athenian? Or that Romulus was the actual distant relative of every Roman?

5 thoughts on “National and symbolic ancestors

  1. It is not at all strange for people to venerate their ancestors and worship national Heroes (which such important figures as you mentioned would be) 😉

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