Perhaps Silvanus

Almost two years ago, I wrote this post and started a quest for the local gods of my hometown. It’s not an easy endeavour, not because there’s no information on western Iberian gods – there are hundreds of archaeologically known theonyms – but because there are little or no traces in this particular part of Portugal. A few depictions with no text have showed up here and there and an inscription to Minerva was once uncovered in a nearby village, but that’s pretty much it. No local gods or native deities are known, at least not by name, and that’s despite the centuries of Roman and pre-Roman presence in this region, as evidenced by the multiple traces of fortresses, tools and villas. Yet there are gods everywhere – in the sky, rivers, trees, rocks, hills, mountains, fields, pathways and crossroads. It’s the known individual identity that’s missing here and, not being a spirit worker, I basically have two options: either worship local deities in a generic fashion (e.g. Lar Alcobacensis) or connect the local environment with a known god/dess. While the former is perfectly reasonable, I decided to keep it as a backup plan and try the latter, thus setting out in search of deities who can resonate with my hometown (or vice-versa).

Now, as I wrote in the aforementioned post from 2013, my initial intuition was to focus on water and/or moon goddesses, given the local abundance of rivers and streams and what appears to be a centuries-old tradition of lunar cults. In that sense, Diana was certainly an option, but I also wanted to consider Iberian powers, which resulted in a list that at one point had around ten goddesses. Among them was Nabia, who ended up being my first choice. I already had an interest in Her and, as I wrote here, overall She seemed like the most consistent non-Roman option. So I added an annual festival to my calendar and started honouring Her, which had mixed results: while I noticed no negative response, even if the offerings were somewhat clumsy at times, I got no answer when I asked Nabia if She’s the goddess of my hometown and would therefore be willing to be honoured as a household deity. No bird flew near the river, no fish stirred the waters, no dream visited me at night. Maybe I failed to notice a sign, perhaps I should have asked a simpler question, maybe the answer is ‘no’. I decided to give it a rest for a few weeks and return to my list of options with an open mind.

On January 4th, in the spirit of Vialia, I joined a trekking group for a long morning walk. We entered some dense woodland, so dense that at one point there was no way two people could walk side by side, and it was there, surrounded by oak, pine and laurel trees, that my mind brought up a name I had so far failed to consider: Silvanus! I had been so focused on the idea of water goddesses, that I failed to consider woodland gods. And yet, it’s an option that makes perfect sense: a document from c. 1148 describes the site of my hometown as a silva or forest, which is what it was for a long time and still is in many places. The southern end of one of Europe’s largest pine forests is actually just a few kilometres away and even the aquatic element is not without a link to Silvanus, since He’s historically associated with nymphs. “Wood nymphs”, some might say, but if you’ve seen a small river or stream in a dense forest, you know that the water and the vegetation overlap considerably. Even the herding and fruit production that’s part of the local economy falls well within Silvanus’ realm. There’s a reason why He’s traditionally depicted with a batch of fruit and a pruning knife or why some ancient inscriptions refer to Him as Lar Agrestis (the Rustic Lar) and sanctissimus pastor (Most Holy Shepherd). Check Dorcey’s The Cult of Silvanus (1992: 21-4), if you’re wondering about it.

So after mentally connecting these dots and thinking about it, I decided to ask Silvanus directly. Two days ago, I walked up a hill just outside my hometown and entered a wooded area. After placing my right hand on the ground, I greeted the local genii and offered Them corn. I then touched a large pine tree and poured water over its roots, saluting its spirit and asking it to be my intermediary. And afterwards I gave Silvanus a libation of wine before posing the question, to which there was no obvious answer other than the wind blowing and the trees bending gently. At night, I had a dream about something or someone coming over from France, though I’m not sure if it has anything to do with Silvanus. If it does, it may hint at a Celtic connection (I have considered Sucellus) or have something to do with the god moving in, either in the past with Roman soldiers and settlers or in more recent days.

So now I’m meditating on the issue and juggling multiple ideas. My mind keeps reminding me that there are many gods of different types in one place, just as Rome itself had several local deities. Think of Juturna, Palatua and Tiberinus, to name just three examples. In that sense, this may come down to a matter of choice, of choosing which god/desses I want to honour and how. Which reminds me that I can use the backup plan I mentioned above and combine it with Silvanus, worshiping Him and a group of local genii I could call nymphae Alcobacenses, thus following the historical pattern. In fact, that may well be the most satisfying solution, since it includes both a named and multiple unnamed powers, the arboreal and aquatic elements, thereby resulting in a more comprehensive approach to the gods of this land. Heck! Even a local Diana and Nabia may be hinted at through a cult of the nymphs.


8 thoughts on “Perhaps Silvanus

  1. Interesting. I really enjoy reading your ‘stuff’ as you always seem to be figuring stuff out, developing your practice. Very insightful! Blessings.

    • Thank you. Hopefully, I should be able to use this to reshape my lararium and household practice and place it more in line with my ancestral land.

  2. I like what you wrote about the libation offer to Silvanus and the not so obvious answer you received. It might very well be projection on my part but in my surroundings I feel the Gods of the land are not used to people seeking them out directly anymore. They might have become “shy” and it takes a while to build a relationship with them again. Good luck on finding the path and your local Gods.

  3. It must be fascinating reconstructing the local cults like that. I was really surprised to see a post about Silvanus, because I’ve just been researching the British god Coccidius, who was sometimes assimilated to Silvanus. Coincidences are strange things, especially since there are at least two important water-and-healing goddesses in northen England as well (Coventina and Verbia). Good luck with your practice.

    • Well, in this case it’s not exactly reconstructing, since there’s no known trace of Silvanus being worshipped in this particular area. It’s more constructing within the framework of both the old practices and the local ecosystem. Still, it can be just as fascinating. And good luck with your own efforts!

  4. I’m so glad I found this blog! I am an enthusiast about the ancient cultures of Iberia, especially their music, weapons and mythology.
    I’m from Braga, a city where the cult of Nabia was very present, and she is my favourite goddess. I thought the fact her worship was so connected with the Gallaecia justified the apparent lack of reply when you asked her if she was your hometown goddess, and therefore, the right one to worship as a household deity.
    But then again, what creates the connection between a deity and a place, the geographical place or its people? If you worshipped Nabia, wouldn’t she be more connected to your hometown through you? I would like to know your thoughts on that subject.

    • I’d say both can create a connection between a deity and a place. There are multiple historical examples of gods and goddesses being worshipped outside their native lands, either because they were taken by their traditional worshipers or because foreigners saw in them a valuable option.

      There was a Canaanite deity being honoured in Egypt, Celtic and Egyptian goddesses being worshiped in Rome, Hellenic gods were paid tribute in what today is Afghanistan, and a Hindu goddess is still worshiped in Japan in a Japanese form. Gods move and go native abroad, just as we do, especially when they find something to connect with, be it the people, the land or human activities. Of course, in some cases it might take longer and require a step-by-step process, while in other it may happen fairly quickly. And I reckon that some deities are less prone to move than others. In a way, just as some people are less willing to travel and move elsewhere, some gods too may be less open to it. Whether that’s the case with Nabia I cannot say. Maybe I should have taken more time or maybe a non-answer is what was meant to be. After all, the fact that She didn’t reply made me look further and in doing so I realized I needed to rethink the way I was seeing the matter.

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