A set of words and gestures

As a way of breaking my blogging fast, which had no reason other than the fact that I’ve been having too many things to do and on my mind during these last few months, I thought of addressing the touchy business of orthopraxy. Because if what defines a polytheist is not so much which gods he/she worships, but how, then it follows that a given polytheistic community is comprised of people who share religious practices. And that in turn implies the existence of a shared ritual framework for both formal and semi-formal ceremonies. This does not exclude variations, be they locally, domestically or individually motivated, but it does mean that there is a basic structure, a common denominator that runs across the ceremonial diversity. A community is more than people who happen to live in the same place or worship the same gods: it’s also a matter of shared words and gestures. Which leads to the obvious question: what are the essentials of Roman worship?

1. Modern dynamics
Because there is no central authority to establish an orthopraxy – which is a good thing! – the answer is the combined result of three elements. One of them is historical tradition or the practices inherited from one’s ancestors. It’s part of what ancient Romans called mos maiorum, the way or customs of the elders, which is at the core of an orthopraxic religion and is all the more relevant today, given the effort to breathe new life into old religions as opposed to simply creating something based on what feels right. Another element at play is the social context, for things have changed dramatically in over one thousand years. Public life is no longer built around Roman religion, the political institutions that sustained it are gone, fire has been virtually removed from modern housing, social values and practices are in several ways radically different. This has an impact on religious practices: for instance, the role of the pater familias can be taken over by the mater, burning offerings may no longer be possible, the male-female basis of family life and hence domestic religion can now assume a male-male or female-female form, multi-religious households call for compromise and sometimes large adaptations. And finally, there’s also the interaction and exchange of ideas between different cultores, thus shaping each other’s practices. The overall dynamics can be compared to a web where each knot is an individual polytheist – alive or dead – each adding to a structure that must adapt and strive in the surrounding social environment. In that sense, this post is intended as a contribution to that process.

2. Modern orthopraxy
When defining what makes a Roman polytheist, different people may list different things and indeed some will include the belief in the Roman gods. Yet the religio is not an orthodox faith, but a religion based on a praxis. If belief were to define me, I’d simply be a polytheist, no denomination included, since I believe in all the gods, Roman and non-Roman. If Saraswati is as real to me as Minerva, why am I not a Hindu? If Inari is as real to me as Mercury, why am I not a Shintoist? If I worship Freyr, Jupiter and Anubis (and I do!), why am I not a Norse or Kemetic polytheist? The answer: because my religious practice is overwhelmingly Roman. It is how and when I do things that defines me religiously, which brings me back to the original question of what are the essentials of Roman worship. And I’d say the following:

  • Celebrate the Calends, Nones and Ides. Whether you use the Julian or Gregorian calendar, what matters is that you mark the traditional parts of the Roman month, honouring Janus and Juno on the Calends, Jupiter on the Ides and your Lares on all three dates. What gods should be honoured on the Nones is something I’d leave entirely to each individual or family, as the historical data is unclear.
  • Capite velato. The standard Roman ritual is done with one’s head covered, regardless of gender. And no, you don’t have to wear a toga, at least not in your private practices, as a hood or a white towel will have the exact same effect. Ceremonies in Greek rite or modern rituals for non-Roman gods are another matter and in those cases the capite velato may not be required.
  • Honour Janus first. Because He is the god of beginnings, it makes sense that He should be given the first prayer(s) and offering(s) in every formal and semi-formal ceremony; at least those that are not meant for gods of the underworld. This is a distinguishing feature of Roman ritual, since Janus is unique, with little or no obvious counterparts in other religious traditions. Whether or not you should pay tribute to other deities during the opening section of a ceremony depends on your preferences and what you do. If you’re using a ritual fire, Vesta can be honoured after Janus, since She presides over the flame that consumes the offerings. You may also want to consider Jupiter, since He’s a leading Roman god and may therefore be called to witness the ceremony, regardless of whether or not you use a ritual fire.
  • Upper, middle and underworld. A word of clarification: a shrine is an area where you keep images of the gods, whereas an altar is the surface on which you dispose of offerings. For instance, the former can be a shelf or a piece of furniture with statues, flowers and candles, while the latter a heap of stones where you burn or simply pour the offerings, thus permanently giving them to the Gods. The two can overlap to a degree and be easily confused, especially when the word altar is tossed around liberally, if not randomly in neopaganism. And because words, symbols and gestures matter, since they’re the language through which we communicate with the Gods, it is important to do things in a meaningful fashion. In that sense, offerings to celestial deities are to be disposed of above ground level, terrestrial powers receive theirs closer to the soil or in it and what is given to infernal gods is entirely deposited in pits. Upper, middle and underworld. However, height may not always be a practical option, especially indoors, in which case meaning may be conveyed through shape: square altars for celestial deities, circular ones for terrestrial powers. You can also combine shape and height and no, you don’t need marble altars. Heaped stones, dirt, sand or wood will do just fine, as will metal bowls for indoor use.
  • At the end, divine or expiate. Because ceremonies are a way of sharing something with the Gods, it is important to know how They feel once it’s over. Have They accepted the offerings, rejected them or want something else? Of course, this requires divinatory instruments and the ability to use them properly, something not everyone has, which is why, at the very least, an expiatory offering should be made at the end of every formal and semi-formal ceremony, in case one or more deities disliked it or were offended by it. It’s in line with historical traditions and necessary for things to be closed in peace.

Now, I know it may take time to absorb these things and apply them fully in one’s religious praxis. I myself am still in the process of doing it. As with anything, practice makes perfect and that takes time and patience. But this is part of the work of reviving an ancient religion in the modern world and make it a group thing, even if most of us don’t live next to each other. Actually, especially because we don’t live in the same city! When a shared physical space is inexistent, shared practices are one those things that sustain a dispersed community. As an example of the principles I just enumerated, what follows is the basic layout of my usual ceremonies. Note that this is not a finished product or something I started doing outright, but the result of a few years of attempts, trials and errors. Practice makes perfect!

3. A practical example
First, I choose the site and materials for the ceremony depending on its purpose. If it’s for celestial deities, I perform the ceremony at home, pilling wood in my fireplace so as to form a square. If it’s for a terrestrial deity, I still pile the wood in the same fashion and use it for the opening and closing sections, but collect the main offerings in a circular bowl with fresh soil and later pour it outside in a park, beach, riverside or woodland. If it’s for an underworld god/dess, the ceremony is entirely conducted outside, either by pouring or burning the offerings in a pit, depending on the weather. Also, I make sure I have something to cover my head with, usually a small towel.

  • I. Opening: a prayer to Janus opens my ceremonies, followed by one or two offerings to Him, depending on the date. If it’s a fully formal ceremony on a yearly occasion (e.g. Saturnalia or Mercuralia), I usually give Him incense and a portion of wine, the former to welcome Him and the latter to ask Him to bless the start of the ceremony. If the purpose is to dispose of monthly offerings (e.g. on the Calends or Ides), things are simpler and I give Janus just one offering. Then I honour Vesta for the ritual fire, Jupiter to testify the ceremony and finally my Lares, since they’re at the root of the Portuguese word for hearth or fireplace (lareira). Again, if it’s a fully formal ceremony, each get two offerings, but only one if it’s a semi-formal monthly occasion. However, if the purpose is to worship a deity of the underworld, I tend not to invite celestial gods, in which case I drop the tributes to Janus and Jupiter, honouring Mercury instead and retaining Vesta if the weather allows me to light a fire. The offerings to the Lares are also dropped, since I don’t use my fireplace or any part of my house to worship infernal gods.
  • II. Offering: if it’s a fully formal ceremony, the deity it focuses on is invited with an initial prayer and offering. Then I list what I intend to give Him/Her and what I want in return, even if it’s only a general request for blessings. The main offerings are placed one by one in the ritual fire, poured on the ground or collected in a circular bowl with fresh soil, depending on the deity the ceremony is addressed to, followed by a final prayer. If it’s a semi-formal ceremony on the Ides, for instance, the offerings are briefly presented and disposed of, since they have already been listed and blessings asked for when they were given to the Gods earlier in the day.
  • III. Closing: at this stage and if there’s a ritual fire, a final offering to Vesta may be made, though recently I started honouring Mercury at the closing of the ceremony. It’s mostly out of devotion, since He’s become my main deity and having made room for ritual protocol in the other sections, I felt like I was free to add a more personal note at the end. Plus, it makes sense functionally, since He’s a god of communication and movement. But what’s absolutely essential at this stage is the expiatory offering, given just in case someone was offended by the ceremony or disliked it.

Again, this is how I perform formal or semi-formal occasions. You don’t have to do it exactly as I do and none of this excludes fully informal offerings like sprinkling wheat on a rock or pouring wine on the floor or a grave. Those things call for little more than a prayer and no, you don’t have to use Latin. If you want to, you can add a few Latin words for a sense of connection with the past, but I’d say that’s unnecessary if you employ a romance language. This is one of those things that result from the changes in social context: Romans used their native tongue and you should use yours, especially if it derives directly from Latin.

4. The issue of fire
Most people don’t have a fireplace and even cooking appliances are increasingly electric. However, modern kitchens normally have chimneys or smoke extractors above the stove, so you have two options with regard to the disposal of offerings: burn them in a metal bowl placed on the stove, so that the smoke can be extracted, or simply collect them in several small containers and later pour them outside. In both cases, I’d suggest you use bowls with meaningful shapes: square ones for offerings for celestial deities, circular ones with fresh soil for terrestrial gods. If you do light a fire inside the former, make sure there’s something under the bowl so the heat won’t damage the surface it’s on. And finally, adjust the type and quantity of offerings if you’re going to burn them, as small fires have a naturally smaller capacity to consume food.

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2 thoughts on “A set of words and gestures

  1. This is a fantastic layout, and I love your suggestion about using square and circular shapes to denote which sort of deity the sacrifice is for. My suggestion for underworld deities, should it not be easy to get to an outside space right away, would be to make the offerings in a pot, thus mimicking the act of putting it into a pit in the ground. I’ve just started to set up a new shrine to Hecate for the coming year, and this is what I’m doing for Her.

    • That’s a good idea! And since I only worship underworld deities a very limited amount of times – like two or three times a year – I could even make a basic pot out of clay and bury it later.

      You just started a flood of ideas 😉

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