What triggered things was this post. In it, Galina talks about what she finds appealing in the Roman approach, starting with orthopraxy and moving on to values, namely a sense of collective heroics, modesty (especially sexual modesty), piety, virtus and civic engagement. On Twitter, I pointed out that generally speaking those were social values, not religious ones, and she replied by stating that ancient Romans did not really separate the two. Which isn’t wrong, in that religious life was an extent of social one. But that doesn’t mean social and religious values are one an the same, especially in a polytheistic non-orthodox religion with no revealed truth, scriptures or moral commandments.
See, the thing about a solely orthopraxic religion, with no regulated and exclusive faith, is that it works a bit like a liquid: it assumes the shape of its vessel. If its host society is conservative, the religion will reflect conservative values; if it’s more liberal, it will convey liberal views. And that in turn will have an effect on ritual practices, no matter how orthopraxic it is. There’s a good historical example of that in the reaction to the cult of Cybele when it was first introduced into Rome: confronted with ecstatic and sexually ambiguous practices, Roman authorities enforced a series of limitations meant to place the new cult more in tune with the city’s moral code. You might also want to consider Gallo-Roman religion, which is another case of liquid-like behaviour, in that native Gallic practices assumed forms of a Latinized society. This isn’t an exclusive trait of Roman or other forms of orthopraxic polytheism, since you can also find a certain degree of flexibility in other religions. That’s how Christianity has historically adapted to different cultural contexts or Buddhism has given birth to various schools and sects. But the lack of scriptures that create standardized beliefs and morality means that the cultus deorum is a lot more flexible. A lot more!
As such, what we would normally perceive as the values of Roman polytheism were actually those of society at large or of the predominant philosophical school. They were not the values of the religion per se, but the stances it reflected in a given time and place. Change the vessel and the liquid assumes another form; change the social and historical context and the religion takes on new shapes. It basically absorbs the values of its host society, but it is not one and the same with them. They’re entwined, but not inseparable. The reason being that it’s a religion without sacred scriptures that crystallize moral teachings in the likes of the Bible or the Quran.
Take an example from Christianity. Some of its followers claim that homosexuality is wrong because it says so in Leviticus 20:13. Regardless of its theological merit – and you will find different opinions on it – the argument is a textbook case of an ancient social norm that was inserted into a text deemed sacred, the word of God, and has thus become part of the moral discourse of the religion that’s based on that same text. Or to put it differently, it’s a social value from a given time and place that has been crystallized and thus seen as timeless by virtue of being given a sacred status.
No such thing exists in Roman polytheism or at least it shouldn’t, because it has no sacred scriptures that can regulate faith, let alone a moral doctrine. Yes, ancient Roman authors wrote abundantly about morality, their views on the Gods, correct religion and social behaviour. But neither are they apostles or prophets, nor are their writings divine word or scriptures. They’re the opinions of people from a given time, place and philosophical school. You can have different values and beliefs on the nature of the Gods, see society differently, and still be a genuine Roman polytheist so long as you retain a basic orthopraxy. Because in a non-orthodox religion, morally is socially based, even if it can be religiously reflected.
This can be a hard pill to swallow, especially for recon and recon-inspired polytheists, since unlike more eclectic and free-styled pagans, they strive to be culturally or historically focused. I get that. But there’s a point where that focus becomes fossilization or cultural fetishism. When it stops being about studying a past religion so it can be revived in a modern context and starts being about reproducing an ancient society. Be it its clothing, social structure, political institutions or values. But you don’t have to re-enact or reproduce attitudes and fashions in order to be a genuine Roman polytheist, no more than Japanese people need to go back to the time of the Shoguns to be genuine Shintoists. You can be modern and still practice an ancient religion, especially one that has no moral doctrine and thus awards you the freedom to take in the values of the host society, so long it is plural and free enough to allow for religious difference.
Now some would argue that unlike Rome, Japan has preserved its native identity, whereas modern cultores have to go back in time to retrieve a sense of Romanitas. Which is an ironic argument for History-minded folks, because Roman polytheism was never just about Rome, nor has the city’s language and culture simply vanished into thin air in the 5th century. It evolved, morphed into something wider that’s still present: Latin gave way to romance languages and Roman culture became a part of the identity of European countries or of the wider western culture. Romanitas is alive and well, thank you very much. It’s in modern institutions, legal traditions, religious practices, folklore, mindset, language. And here, I’d argue, lies the root of the problem with Galina Krasskova’s stance on religion and modernity.
An ocean apart
In the past, I ocasionally ran into blog posts that mentioned differences between US and European polytheism. I could see what they were getting at, but I was never really confronted with it nor has it become clearer to me as in yesterday’s discussion with Galina. And it reminded me of what she herself wrote in the opening pages of the second number of the Walking the Worlds journal. To quote Galina Krasskova, page 2:
There seems to be an insecurity and anxiety around restoring traditions on foreign soil that has created some very reactionary, almost xenophobic threads within American Heathenry. It has led to a certain romanticization of the Heathen past, including the development of fundamentalist traditions like Theodism, which seek to reconstruct not just the religion, but the feudal social structure as well (…). Most of all, there’s a deep antagonism toward change and evolution within the tradition. I lay the responsibility for many of these trends, and the general fundamentalism of American Heathenry at the feet of this: we’re in a Diaspora. There’s an anxiety over not being on the religion’s ancestral land. There’s an anxiety over whether or not we’re doing it right and with that, there’s a certain fear of external influences.
To be clear, I’m not saying Galina is xenophobic. I never read anything from her that can be understood that way. And while her words focus on Heathenry, they can be applied to any form of modern reconstructed polytheism and many other things – including her stance on Roman values. To be blunt, Galina wasn’t born and raised in a southern European country with a native Latin language and culture. She did not grow on a former Roman land, next to Roman ruins, living with traditions and folklore rooted in the Roman past. She’s a Diaspora polytheist. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you, and you can be a genuine Roman polytheist no matter where you’re born and live. But Galina seems to take it in the same direction as those heathens she criticizes: with an anxiety that leads her to emulate the Romanitas of yesterday since she has no sense of today’s. Or at least today’s doesn’t seem to be enough or she doesn’t see herself in it, so she takes refuge in a romanticization of the Roman past.
There’s more to it, though, for she could be a Diaspora polytheist, yet hold less radical views. But she’s also a US American and thus a product of US culture wars. Not to say that every American is – far from it! – but in her case, it’s true. You can see it in her vitriolic speeches on modernity, monotheism or the “slut” culture of today’s women; in her constant underlying or outspoken opinion that we’re at war and the modern world is our enemy. It’s a siege mentality that has more in common with Bible belt Christians then Galina probably cares to admit. Which is sadly ironic. I mean, we keep hearing Christian and Muslim fundamentalists claiming modern society is opposed to them, that it needs to be sanctified so they can truly practice their religion, and then we turn to our polytheistic community and end up finding an almost identical speech in some corners. Same radicalism, same anti-modernity, same war-mongering, but with more gods into it. You sort of wonder what happened to reason when people react to religious fundamentalism with a mirrored stance.
On this side of the pond
Now, I’m not claiming Europe or my country in particular are perfect. They’re not! I’m also not saying that the modern world is flawless and should be uncritically accepted. But neither do I see it as inherently evil or an enemy I’m at war with. Nor do I share the romanticized view that the past was better. It wasn’t. For all its shortcomings, the modern western world is more egalitarian, tolerant and democratic. But of course, that’s the view of a native Portuguese polytheist.
I don’t feel the need to retrieve a social code from two millennia ago in order to feel Roman. I’m already native to a Latin culture, language and land where remnants of old Roman traditions, mindset and practices are still alive. I don’t see monotheism as an enemy and have never experienced it as such. It’s true that public discourse on religion is dominated by monotheistic views, but the key to diversity is going public about your religion, taking part in open debates in a civil manner, not viewing the world as your enemy. Or at least that’s how it goes on this side of the pond, where things are less hostile. I can gladly recall several of my birthday dinner parties where I saved a seat for Freyr and sitting next to it was a Baptist friend of mine. I can be at a table with Catholics and atheists and have a civil conversation on religion without having to go into protest mode. Or even take a few minutes to make an offering by the sea or road while on the beach or riding my bike with non-polytheistic friends. Heck, even the evangelical ladies who go preaching door to door are nice and will be clear about respecting my religion when I tell them what it is.
I’m also not interested in counter-culture. I’m not a polytheist as a form of protest or reaction against a “degenerate” modern world. Do I think polytheism has a contribution to make? Yes! Does that mean modernity is my enemy? No! I don’t normally work in zero-sum games of either/or, good/bad, us/them. That’s the sort of view I’d expect in a fundamentalist, not an open-minded polytheist. I’m a cultor because it feels right for me. I cherish the natural diversity of the world, see divine multiplicity as an extension of it, and have come to embrace Roman polytheism because it is tied to my native land, culture and language. But I also remain open to other forms of polytheism because, again, I love diversity. And it is the freedom and plurality of a modern European society that allows to make that choice and practice it freely.
So I honestly don’t see myself in the hostility I read in Galina’s posts. It looks to me as something out of place and frankly more akin to monotheistic fundamentalism than polytheistic openness. The whole emphasis on absolute deities who are not to be confused with humans or landwights, the sometimes underlying hint of submission to divine will, the focus on values and fighting the modern world, all of that reminds me of an evangelical sermon in some forsaken rural community. It’s not how I view and live a modern polytheistic tradition, but maybe her views are a serious trend across the Atlantic.