A matter of roots

Recently, Camilla explained why she avoids calling herself a devotional polytheist, not because she’s not a practitioner, but due to the origin of the word in the Latin devotio (see here). It’s a good point that is significant for a Roman polytheist, but it poses a challenge. And warning: this is a long post!

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.


13 thoughts on “A matter of roots

  1. Very well written. Thank you. This goes into several issues that I think go across polytheist communities, namely here in solely clinging to the source material and never seeking or growing beyond it.

  2. I saw some of the argument that prompted this post. Some. It spiraled pretty quickly. One of the reasons why I call myself a “bad cultor” is because I have more inclinations towards “superstitio” than is reasonably acceptable by many in the religio. I think that’s a differentiation between “low” religion and “high” religion, that is, religions of lesser-centralized peoples and greater.

    However, I don’t think there are necessarily right or wrong ways to approach this, because it borders on linguistic interpretation. Different Latin dictionaries, for instance, will give a wide array of definitions for the word “devotio”, other than the necessary linguistic building blocks (Devotio, Devotion-is 3f). What I think people focus on is a very narrow interpretation of the source material, either because that’s what we have surviving, or they inadvertently read into the context that the authors themselves wrote into it (personal philosophies).

    But who am I to talk? I’m just a heathen Germanic that has a special affinity for Minerva.

    • Ignore what many in the religio think about your practices. I’ve been around long enough to realize that a large number of cultores are very much re-enactor oriented, even when they are genuine and sincere about what they do. It’s an issue of mentality and since there aren’t that many cultores, it’s a prevailing thing.

      But this is not the Catholic Church. You don’t need other people’s approval for your personal peactices. And like I said, there is a vast middle ground between sober formality and emotional obsession. If you’re devoted to Minerva or have a strong, personal afinity for Her, that does not make you superstitious. No more than loving someone makes you obsessed, at least. Never mind what narrow minded people say about it.

      • Haha, no, I call MYSELF a bad cultor. No one has actually called me such, thankfully.

        I have been called a bad heathen though. So that’s probably a reason why I like hanging around with the CDR folk better.

  3. This was very insightful, thank you for sharing your views!
    A problem the CR community has had over the years is the apparent difficulty in accepting evolution; not THE evolution, as in Darwin’s theory (as far as I know), but evolution in terms of methodology and new points of view, even the ones that have a historical basis. I don’t know if you understand what I’m trying to explain, but a good majority are not at all inclined to accept the ‘re-‘ prefix in Reconstructionism, not willing to go beyond the work of the ones they call the Elders: mostly those who wrote the CR FAQ. I had a chance to see that for myself on multiple occasions.

    And so, since some are not willing to think outside of the box, I’d like to ask you if you’d mind if I share this on my facebook page [Celtocrābii̭on] so those who indeed are willing to change can have a boost of confidence. 🙂

  4. I also followed this whole discussion on Facebook, Didn’t realize you were the same person until I saw this post.

    I think there are two possible reasons why they couldn’t give you the answer you were looking for..

    A) There was a term for this, but we just don’t know.
    B) There is no direct translation because Romans didn’t conceptualize this sort of relationship the way we do today. (which I think is the more likely explanation).

    To try and explain what I mean, lets take it outside of religion for a moment. There is no latin word that means “homosexual.” We know for a fact that there was same-sex sexual activity going on in ancient Rome. And there are words that describe this activity. But the concept of homosexuality and homosexual identity as we understand it today just didn’t exist back then. Hell, it didn’t exist in English until a few decades ago. Until then, homosexuals were “sodomites” which is a term that refers to an activity, rather than an identity, or “Inverts,” which also doesn’t really accurately describe the way we conceptualize homosexuality today. I think it’s likely that there is a similar situation going on with a personal devotional relationship with a particular diety.

    I agree (given what information that I have) that the best candidate is probably something like “Cultor Mercurialis.” I know that you are having trouble with the idea of using the word “cultor” because it is a sort of generic term. But consider the origins of the word.

    The noun cultus originates from the past participle of the verb colo, colere, colui, cultus, “to tend, take care of, cultivate,” originally meaning “to dwell in, inhabit” and thus “to tend, cultivate land (ager); to practice agriculture,” (This paragraph was taken from wikipedia)

    If you think of the word in terms of the meaning “to tend, take care of, cultivate” Then a Cultor Deorum would be “one who tends the gods/one who takes care of the gods/one who cultivates a relationship with the gods. That would make Cultor Mercurialis “one who cultivates a relationship with Mercury.” To me, cultivating a relationship, or to tend, or to take care of; indicates a higher level of devotional work with a diety than making the requisite offerings on the appropriate feast days. I grant you it’s not a perfect 1-to-1 match, but I think it’s likely as close as we are going to get.

    I wouldn’t have an issue with being referred to as a “Cultor Volcanalis,” But to be honest, I live in 2014, and I live in an English-speaking country, so I generally just refer to myself as a devotee of Vulcan, or say that Vulcan is my patron.

    The word “Patron” in modern usage also causes some of these sorts of difficulties. I see a lot of people calling every diety they’ve ever prayed to or made an offering to their “Patron,” And I think we lose a lot by doing that. I have two dieties that I consider my Patron, each with very different types of relationships. Vulcan is my patron in the “Pater” sense. I see him as sort of my spiritual father. Minerva is my other patron/matron, but that relationship is much more like the client/patron relationship. It’s actually more like a professor/student relationship, but the term patron still feels right for her. I also have established relationships with both Hekate and Dionysos, though I don’t consider them my patrons.

    • I too have established relationships with gods I don’t consider to be my patrons and of whom I don’t see myself as a devotee. Jupiter, for instance, is a god I worship: I greet Him twice a day, make offerings on monthly and yearly occasions and if there’s a thunderstorm, I burn Him incense and pour libations. Because I just love thunderstorms, so it’s a moment for me to connect with Jupiter on a personal level. So you could say that I cultivate a relationship with Him, yet I don’t see myself as His devotee. The same holds true for Apollo and the Norse god Njord.

      As I said in the original discussion, the difference is one of the degree: every devotee is a cultor, but not every cultor is a devotee. To use a human analogy, I cultivate a relationship with my friends, but not all of them are best friends, brothers in feelings or partners. They’re all friends, yes, but it’s an issue of degree. In the same fashion, devotees and non-devotees are all cultores. As are also those who cultivate bonds for purely pactical reasons: a work relationship, though merely functional, it is still a relationship that needs to be cultivated. The word cultor is general enough to include many forms of bonds.

      Now I accept that Romans may not have had a word for the modern sense of devotee. That’s fine. What surprised me in a negative sense was people’s unwillingness to go beyond the historical. To use your analogy, it’s like saying that if the Romans didn’t have a word for homosexuality, then homosexuality has no place in the religio. If they had no term for modern devotion, then it has no role in Roman polytheism. It’s superstitio or a Christian thing. And that’s a re-enactor’s mentality. To immitate the past, instead of living it in the modern world, which naturally implies the developmemt of new ideas. Because living things evolve, they’re not static.

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