Every day, people use words on religion and religious practices that have a modern meaning, mostly influenced by Christianity, but which ultimately derive from a Latin and hence pre-Christian origin. And if you’re a Roman polytheist, you try to use those words in a way that’s at least close to their original sense. It’s part of the effort of having a living religion rooted in the past, but it’s not always easy. In some instances, you can go back to the old sense of the word, like in the case of “rite” being different from “ceremony”, since the former meant a method of performing the latter (e.g. Roman rite, Greek rite). Or in the case of the word “sacred”, which referred to a status of ownership and not an innate nature. These things are relatively easy to return to their ancient meaning, even if it’s just among Roman polytheists. But the case of “devotion” is different: a devotio was the vowing of life to the gods of the underworld, namely the lifes of one’s enemies. To use a Norse comparison, it’s something along the lines of throwing a spear over the battlefield, presumably as a form of giving the troops to Odin. In other words, it amounts to dying, i.e. those consecrated join the deities of the underworld or Odin. A devotio could even take the extreme form of self-sacrifice in which a military leader dedicated himself and then sought death in battle, hoping to take with him as many enemies as possible. So you can see why a Roman polytheist can think twice before using the term “devotional”: if we care about the ancient meaning of Latin religious terminology, we care about the meaning of devotio.
This is, however, a case where a Latin equivalent of modern “devotee” is hard, if not impossible to come by. It’s just one of those cases where one has to concede to modern usage and employ the Latin form to signal that you’re referring to the original sense (so “devotion” becomes different from devotio). Besides, language is a matter of shared meaning and given that there is a growing community of devotional polytheists that spans across different traditions, to have cultores detaching themselves from the term “devotional” could end up detaching ourselves from the wider polytheistic community. For better or for worst, a modern meaning has become well established. Yet the matter did have an unexpected consequence, for when I asked fellow cultores about a Latin word that could express today’s sense of “devotee”, the replies I got made me realize that several modern Roman polytheists don’t do personal religion: they do State religion as individuals. Allow me to explain.
Ancient Roman religion is known mostly from sources that pertain to public cults and, in some instances, to the private practices of the elites, whose views on religion dominate our perception of the past. It is, in other words, a partial view of the matter, largely focused on State religion from the late Republican period on. And one of the ideas that comes out of the sources is that of superstition. To put it simply, superstitio is the religious equivalent of paranoia and obsession and Roman authors used the term to coin a deep fear of the Gods and the resulting extreme behaviours. In other words, it refers to the excesses of religion, which were frowned upon, because Roman religion was supposed to be based on moderation and the belief that the Gods are good and reasonable. This is something I can agree on, but what I don’t agree with is the idea that devotional polytheism amounts to superstition because it is excessive worship. Or that to claim a special link to a god is a Christian notion. Or that a cultor is a worshiper of the Gods and not Their fiancé. These are all things I was told when I explained what a devotee is and the ensuing discussion gave me the aforementioned impression: that several Roman polytheists don’t do personal religion, just State religion individually.
See, a State is naturally a formal thing because it is an institution. It’s made out of people, yes, but it works as a collective of large and diverse numbers, not an individual. It’s not your buddy or neighbour and so dealings with the State are marked by a degree of formality and emotional sanitation. Every time you resort to a government agency or department, things have to follow a certain protocol and bureaucracy (and if they don’t, it usually hints at corruption). The matter is of course different when it comes to your friends, family and partners. You don’t normally ask them to be emotionally sanitized or neutral with you and to fill in forms if they want something from you. When it comes to a one on one relation between individuals, it’s a naturally close, emotional and informal thing.
In the same fashion, State religion was naturally formal and emotionally sanitized. A priest or a magistrate in a public ceremony sacrificed in the name of the entire community, not separate individuals with their devotions or feelings. The only way that could happen is if you were an individual of public importance, like the emperor. Augustus is a case in point, since he had a personal devotion for Apollo and that propelled the god’s cult to the top places of the State religion. This is also one of those instances where you get a glimpse of personal devotion in ancient Rome. But otherwise, personal connections with specific deities were not expected to break through the fairly neutral, formal wall of public cults. Because they were public, not personal. Yet individual relations with the Gods are a different matter, since it’s a one on one thing, non-institutional. And as it happens between individual people, it’s naturally something close and emotional. To argue that to be a devotional polytheist is to be superstitious, is like saying that to like someone, to have a best friend or a partner, is to be obsessed about other people. It’s putting things in terms of extremes, which is a very Christian thing to do and also very ironic, since it’s claiming to stand for moderation by being immoderate: it’s either black or white; either a formal and emotionally sanitized cult or superstition. It’s the equivalent of saying that food is either a matter of cold chemistry or morbid obesity. But between the extremes of distant formality and emotional obsession, there is a vast middle ground where personal and healthy relationships with the Gods can be built. So long as you keep it balanced, so long as you maintain a sense of moderation, just like normal people do in their everyday dealings with other people. Close friends or partners are not obsessed or paranoid individuals: they’re just regular people who have close and healthy relationships with each other.
This is something that several Roman polytheists don’t get. For them, you’re a cultor if you worship a god on a yearly, perhaps monthly basis, and that’s it. More than that is considered by them as excessive. At some point, it feels like you’re in the movie Equilibrium. And the reason for that is that they don’t do personal religion: they do State religion individually. In other words, they take what we know of ancient Roman religion, which pertains largely to public cults, and apply it to the individuals, resulting in each cultor dealing with the Gods as a State would: formally, in an emotionally sanitized way. If you go beyond that, if you become a devotional polytheist, you’re being superstitious, just as you would be crossing the line if you became too intimate with a State official you’re working with.
There’s a sense of re-enactor’s mentality in all of this, in that people don’t go beyond what the sources present. If the texts focus mainly on public religion, that’s what you’ll get in your personal dealings with the Gods. I agree that it is important to be rooted in the past, since that is what distinguishes a recon or a revivalist from a wiccanish neopagan. It is essential to know how things were done and seen in the ancient world, but keep in mind the limitations of the surviving sources (stress on the word “surviving”) and, above all, never forget that only the roots are supposed to be buried, not the entire tree. If you don’t grow past them, you’ll never be a tree at all. Living things naturally change, evolve, diversify. That’s why they’re living and not dead. We can certainly question the quality of the evolution, which is why it’s important to be rooted in the past so we can keep things true to their origins. But that doesn’t mean that we should limit ourselves to what was done in the past or the views given to us by surviving sources. The difference between a revivalist and a re-enactor is that the former breathes new life and hence new forms into the old, while the latter never leaves the old. You may even be sincere in your practice, but if you don’t grow past the old, if you don’t go beyond the sources, you’ll still be in a re-enactor’s mental frame.