Common questions

The religious discourse of our time is dominated by monotheism and, to a lesser degree, by atheism – or the awareness that there are atheists, which in itself already shapes part of the conversation of those who aren’t. As such, it isn’t easy to be a polytheist today and, once you go public about it, it’s not uncommon to be confronted with surprise, curiosity or even laughter by virtue of the view that polytheism is primitive, irrational or outdated. Which is hardly surprising after one thousand years of Abrahamic dominance in European culture, which, coupled with a substantial dosage of positivism, turned polytheism into a de facto novelty in western societies, even if historically it isn’t. And because of that, because doubts, critiques and pre-conceived notions are usually abundant, what follows is a list of frequently asked questions I tried to answer to in a clear and brief fashion. It doesn’t address the matters fully – far from it! – and indeed some of the issues are analysed in greater detail in other sections of the top menu. But hopefully, this provides for an enlightening first approach.

CONTENT
General:

1. Do you really believe in those gods?
2. And do you think they really look like human beings?
3. Why polytheism?
4. But there are universal principles underlying diversity!
5. Aren’t different religions just various ways of worshipping God?
6. What’s the difference between monism, monolatrism and polytheism?
7. And what about pantheism?
8. Is polytheism the same as paganism?
9. But isn’t polytheism a thing of the past?

Roman polytheism:
10. Why did you pick Roman polytheism?
11. So it’s a nationalistic thing?
12. Do you worship Roman gods only?
13. Do you worship emperors?
14. A human being is not a god! How can you mistake the two?
15. I heard something about infernal gods. Is that the devil?
16. Do you speak Latin?
17. Do you sacrifice animals?
18. What’s your sacred book?
19. What are the differences between modern and ancient Roman polytheism?

Roman polytheism and other religions:
20. Do you believe in damnation for those who have a different religion?
21. But Romans fed Christians to the lions!
22. Are you anti-Christian?
23. What’s the difference between Roman polytheism and other polytheisms?
24. What’s the difference between Roman polytheism and Wicca?

Debate topics:
25. How do you explain evil?
26. What good are your gods if they can’t do everything?
27. Are you anti-science?
28. Are you anti-modern?
29. What does your religion teach about homosexuality or abortion?
30. What good is a religion without teachings?


General:
1. Do you really believe in those gods?

Yes! But it’s a religious belief, not a scientific fact. My reasons to believe are therefore entirely personal and based on things like dreams, coincidences, moments of luck or fateful decisions. One can choose to see in that just chemical processes and chance, but one can also explore the idea that there’s something more to it. And if you follow the latter approach, time may lead you to religious belief. It’s essentially a matter of epiphany, which is personal and subjective, so some people have it while others don’t. And at least initially, there’s nothing wrong in any of the two.


2. And do you think they really look like human beings?
No, but that’s how they’re traditionally depicted and therefore how I choose to do it. I have no knowledge of the real appearance of any deity, I do not pretend to have the answer and, quite honestly, it’s not something that bothers me. I also don’t know what a sound actually looks like, but I content myself with using the written representation of the Latin alphabet.


3. Why polytheism?
Because the universe is diverse and plural and so it’s only natural that the same should be true for the divine world. After all, there’s not just one animal species, one type of plant, one star, one planet, one river, one mountain, one human being, one language, one culture or one colour. Plurality is a constant part of life, even when there are universal laws. And this is something that’s often forgotten or overlooked in favour of more univocal views of things that allows no room for diversity or reduces it to mere manifestations of a single entity.


4. But there are universal principles underlying diversity!
And such principles don’t have to be seen as a single and supreme deity, but rather as forces to which the gods themselves are subject or in which they participate in a varied way. Which may seem odd to some monotheists, namely those who are prone to ask how can different deities create something unique, which assumes that a thing can only have one “creator”. But the world is a diverse place and it owes its present existence to a variety of processes, some opposite and others parallel or derived, leading us once more to the issue of plurality.


5. Aren’t different religions just various ways of worshipping God?
That’s definitely a popular idea these days, especially in the context of inter-religious relations, so much so that there are people who argue for the inexistence of truly polytheistic religions, claiming instead that they’re really just forms of monism. For instance, a few years ago, Anselmo Borges wrote that polytheism is merely the assignment of a divine force to deities who are no more than manifestations of that single entity (Religião e diálogo inter-religioso 2010: 49-50). But this is a gross simplification – or an outright lie, really – which has a double origin: on one hand, the difficulty that monotheists often find in dealing with religious diversity, thus opting for a reduction of plurality to a false common denominator that allows them to bypass the acknowledgement of different religions and gods; and on the other, the notion of tolerance as indifference or a “let it be” attitude, which people attempt to justify by claiming that it’s all really the same thing and so there’s no point in arguing about it. And that in turn is born out of a disinterest or fear of intellectual confrontation (check “safe spaces in universities” under that, too). But at the risk of stating the obvious, tolerance only makes sense when you’re confronted with what’s unlike you; to tolerate is what you do when you have to accept something that’s (radically) different. But that requires first and foremost the acknowledgement that there is in fact a difference! That it’s not all the same, it’s not indifferent, and therefore you cannot reduce or delete it by way of gross simplification or common denominators that don’t reflect the reality of religious diversity.


6. What’s the difference between monism, monolatrism and polytheism?
The difference resides in the parameters of plurality, i.e., it if applies solely to belief, practice or both. So while monolatrism, like henotheism, consists of the acknowledgment that there are many gods, but only one is honoured, monism can stand for the worship of many deities under the belief that they’re really just one. Polytheism emphasizes plurality in both belief and practice, recognizing the existence of many independent gods and honouring at least several of them. It may include a degree of monolatrism when one focuses on one deity while still worshipping others, just as it can have a level of monism in the belief that some gods are the same. But if one reduces either cult or belief to a unit, then one is beyond the definition of polytheism.


7. And what about pantheism?
Pantheism consist of the idea that everything that exists is part of an immanent god, which means that it’s closer to monism than polytheism. A somewhat similar polytheistic notion would be the one expressed by Thales of Miletus, who is believed to have said that everything is full of gods, but that implies that there are many gods in all things, which is different from the belief that everything is one universal deity.


8. Is polytheism the same as paganism?
Not necessarily. Pagan is everything that’s not Jewish, Christian or Muslim, which is a sufficiently vague definition to include not only polytheists, but also monists, monolatrists and duotheists (those who believe in only two deities). The modern confusion between paganism and polytheism owes a lot to the equation of the former with the notion of pre-Christian – which, for instance, is very common in Wicca – but things are far more complex.


9. But isn’t polytheism a thing of the past?
The belief that there’s an inexorable religious evolution from primitive to refined, namely from animism to polytheism and finally monotheism, is a theory that has little or no correspondence to reality. Not only because those categories intersect – e.g. the animist traits of polytheisms or the polytheistic elements of Catholicism – but also because the history of Humanity isn’t made of absolute leaps forward that simply drop the past. Quite the opposite, there’s often a look back and not in the sense of loss or going backwards: for instance, the Renaissance wasn’t made on the basis that classical culture was outdated and therefore pointless; just as the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, despite its modernizing agenda, drew ideas and models from ancient Greece and Rome; and industrial progress, which has many advantages, nonetheless created an environmental crisis that often requires a solution that includes reforestation, reintroduction of species, returning rivers to a natural state, etc. It’s not going back in time, but a rehabilitation of conditions and ideas, as well as their adaptation to the present, under the belief that it can be beneficial. And that’s also the case with ancient religions: there’s a modern revival of old polytheisms in the western world, because people see merit in it, a civilizational advantage, beginning with the emphasis on plurality and diversity.

And by the way, monotheists who use the argument of “religious evolution” as a weapon against polytheism should really think twice about it, since the obvious conclusion of that line of thinking is that the next step is atheism. Or as a friend of mine once put it, someone who believes in only one god is closer to believing in none than someone who believes in many.


Roman polytheism:
10. Why did you pick Roman polytheism?

Largely, it was a matter of identity. I’m Portuguese, native to a Latin language and culture, and my family has been living in western Iberia for at least a few centuries, so the cultural aspect eventually imposed itself after several years as a pagan and then a polytheist.


11. So it’s a nationalistic thing?
No, because I don’t think being a Roman polytheist or even having a religion is mandatory, whether you’re Portuguese or not. First, due to the simple fact that the present-day territory that is Portugal was inhabited by different people with diverse cultures and religions, from Phoenician polytheism to Christianity and Islam, so that all of them can claim an historical connection to Portuguese land and identity, even if in various degrees. And also because religious freedom, which is a natural consequence of the acknowledgement of plurality, includes the liberty to choose, create or not have a religion.


12. Do you worship Roman gods only?
No. As a polytheist, I recognize no limit to the number of deities and generally do not deny the existence of any – including the Judeo-Christian god. And if I have reasons for it, even if just curiosity or fondness, I may include in my religious practices deities that are traditionally of a non-Roman pantheon. So for instance, I worship the Iberian goddess Nabia, largely because She’s native to what today is in part Portuguese territory, and I also honour the Egyptian gods Khnum and Anubis for purely personal reasons. I’ve also considered the Hindu goddess Saraswati, after I dreamt of Her a few years ago, and I know various polytheists – Romans and others – who participate in ceremonies honouring the elephant god Ganesh. This sort of openness is common in modern polytheism.


13. Do you worship emperors?
The obligation to worship political leaders vanished from the moment there was no longer a direct link between citizenship and religion. What’s left is merely a personal fondness or admiration for historical figures – our heroes – which is entirely dependent on individual will or, at best, family tradition. For example, I worship emperor Julian, known as “the Apostate”, since he was the last great polytheist from Classical Antiquity and he’s therefore a reference to me, though with no political connotations. And I also honour Portuguese historical figures, be they kings, writers, navigators, diplomats or politicians, to whom I give offerings and worship as small national gods. Again, it’s a consequence of my nationality and the intersection I make between it and my religion, but without believing that every Portuguese person has to do the same.


14. A human being is not a god! How can you mistake the two?
Because once there’s no monopoly of the divine, which is the case in a polytheism with no limits on the number and origin of gods, there’s a blurring of the line between deceased humans and large, small, universal or local deities. It’s not by accident that ancient Romans called the dead Di Manes – the good gods – which immediately tells us two things: that the Latin concept of deus had similarities to that of the Japanese kami, in that it was used not just for greater deities, but also the smaller gods of trees, rocks, mountains, rivers, wind, pathways and ancestral spirits; and that the latter include not only important figures who contributed to the well-being of the community or family, but included all the dead, from ancestors to anonymous departed. It’s that notion that everything is full of gods. Not in the sense of a single deity – which would be pantheism or monism, not polytheism – but with the meaning that there are individual gods in everything, including the dead.


15. I heard something about infernal gods. Is that the devil?
No! The word “infernal” comes from the Latin infra and refers to what’s bellow, in this case the underworld. The original concept was simply that of the realm of the dead, who naturally live beneath the surface by virtue of being buried, and doesn’t have to be a place of damnation as in the Christian concept of Hell. The infernal gods are therefore and quite simply the dead themselves or the deities who rule the underworld. Of course, they’re dark and scary, because death is a synonym of disease, decay and decomposition, erasing the physical presence of our loved ones, which leads to the infernal gods being surrounded by taboos meant to keep a “healthy” separation between the living and the dead. But that doesn’t preclude their worship, because another trait of many forms of polytheism – not all, but many – is the absence of a moral judgment when awarding the title of god and thus a cult. Meaning, it’s not something meant solely for what is good or pleasant, but it can apply equally to aggressive, destructive or scary forces. Basically, anything that’s numinous can be a deity and the purpose of a cult can be either to acquire blessings, as well as to appease or keep at bay a god who’s recognized and worshipped as such, but whom one wants to maintain at a safe distance. This is perhaps one of the hardest things to understand when our mental framework is that of monotheism, causing one to easily fall into opposing notions of good and evil and conclude that a god, in order to be one and deserve worship, has to be virtuous, good, perfect or luminous. Not so or at least not necessarily so in an open polytheistic system.


16. Do you speak Latin?
I know the basics and read a bit, but I don’t speak it. Though that has no impact on my religious practices, since I’m interested in reviving Roman polytheism not as a re-enactment of Classical Antiquity, but to be a part of the modern world – which includes present-day cultures and nations. And so, with Portuguese being a Latin language or a direct descendent of the ancient Roman’s, my native tongue is perfectly suitable for modern ritual purposes. Otherwise, it would be like saying that Catholics have to eat, speak, dress and live like 11th century Europeans in order to be a proper Catholics.


17. Do you sacrifice animals?
No, but I’m also not a vegetarian, so I have no quarrel with the notion of sacrificing an animal if its meat is used for consumption. As long as it’s made in a quick manner and as painless as possible, without turning it into a slow death, and also if it fulfils all the legal requirements and does not break social conventions on which animals are an acceptable sacrifice (e.g. cows yes, dogs no), I do not oppose the practice. Which doesn’t mean that it’s a mandatory thing for Roman polytheists. It’s perfectly legitimate for one to be a vegetarian and/or present only bloodless offerings.


18. What’s your sacred book?
None! As a whole, Roman polytheism is a religion without scriptures and as such has no orthodoxy. There are literary works, old texts on classical cults and philosophical reflexions from ancient authors, but none of that amounts to sacred, revealed or divine word. They can certainly inspire and guide, but their religious value is generally relative to one’s choice of focus or the philosophical preferences of different people, groups or communities.


19. What are the differences between modern and ancient Roman polytheism?
They’re multiple and are essentially the product of two things: on one hand, the gaps in the surviving information on pre-Christian practices; on the other, the modern context, which differs from the ancient one in many ways. Society has changed, national borders and identities are different, as is today’s political culture, and that has an impact on the way one practices, organizes and lives Roman polytheism. For instance, the absence of fire in most modern dwellings means that not everyone will be able to burn offerings at home, which forces one to come up with suitable alternatives. And there’s also a separation between churches and State, which is a good thing, but creates the need for adaptation to a modern context when it comes to a religion that was deeply entwined with political structures.


Roman polytheism and other religions:
20. Do you believe in damnation for those who have a different religion?

No! Being different is no offense or crime and I apply this principle to religious matters, in which case having a different religion amounts only to a diverse worldview, rites, rules and eschatology. I may disagree and certainly have my preferences, but that results only in me having a different religion. It doesn’t equal to one being superior to the other or people who disagree being damned. Again, it’s an issue of plurality and diversity.


21. But Romans fed Christians to the lions!
The execution of Christians during Classical Antiquity had multiple reasons, none of them connected to a supposed Roman orthodoxy. Instead, it had to do with the notion of orthopraxy, i.e. the well-being of the community was seen as dependent on the performance of traditional rites and hence there was a duty to participate in some way, regardless of one’s beliefs. Which was problematic for Christians, as they acknowledged only one god and refused to worship others, which prevented them from taking part in polytheistic ceremonies. Also, there was a political matter, namely a refusal to recognize the emperor’s authority, who was also a religious figure and thus could receive proof of loyalty by way of acts of worship. And there’s a third reason, which is the link people often made between nocturnal activities, hidden from general sight, and forms of magic or divination believed to be harmful, even deadly, thus creating the idea that Christianity, with its night gatherings, was a dangerous thing. None of these questions poses itself in modern times from the moment there’s a secular State, political loyalty is independent from religious choices and Roman polytheism exists in an open and modern format.


22. Are you anti-Christian?
No! I disagree with Christianity on many things – which is why I’m not a Christian – but following the answer to question 20, disagreeing is not the same as believing that whomever holds different beliefs should be eliminated or discriminated against. And furthermore, I have no problem accepting that Christianity, like Islam, are part of the historical heritage of my country, that various of my ancestors followed those religions, just as many of my current family members are Catholic. It doesn’t mean that I believe that Christianity or any other religion should have special privileges, dictate public life or veto secular legislation, but that doesn’t amount to a religion having to be suppressed just because it’s different from mine.


23. What’s the difference between Roman polytheism and other polytheisms?
Mostly it’s a practical difference, though it can vary. So for instance, the distinction between Roman and Gaulish polytheisms can be rooted in mythological and cosmological traditions, but given that they’re both non-orthodox religions of Indo-European origin, the major difference ends up being essentially ritual formulas and structures – when and how the gods are worshipped. However, in the case of Kemetic or Egyptian polytheism, which is of Afro-Asiatic stock, the issue is made more complex by the existence of text with at least a semi-sacred value that may contain rules for everyday behaviour.


24. What’s the difference between Roman polytheism and wicca?
Ritually, the use of magic circles and the celebration of eight particular yearly festivals that are absent from Roman polytheism, which has a different ritual structure and more diverse festivities. There’s also a distinction with regard to ritual tools, beginning with the concept of altar, which in Wicca consists of a general work surface, whereas in Roman polytheism, strictly speaking, an altar is where one burns the offerings and is different from the space where the images of the gods are kept. And then there’s also theological concepts, in that Wiccan tends to be duotheistic or monist, with different deities being subsumed into a divine couple – the god and goddess – or a single universal force. Which, as explained in the answers to questions 6 and 7, is not polytheism.


Debate topics:
25. How do you explain evil?

If by evil you mean the human capacity to cause suffering, the answer is in free will, one’s personality, the context that helped shape it or the conditions that contributed to particular actions. No one is inherently good or bad, but one is made or acts in a good or bad way. And that wording in itself is already a form of judgement that may depend on one’s perspective.

Something of the sort is also true for the notion of evil as suffering without human intervention or intention. Because at the risk of stating the obvious, we are not the centre of the universe and the cosmos is not ordained so that we may have success and happiness. It’s true that we live on a planet conducive to life, but that’s the result of various processes and episodes that could have gone the other way – as they did with Mars. It’s also true that we can be happy and successful, but that depends on conditions that are not guaranteed just because we exist. And what’s destructive for human beings may be beneficial for the planet as a whole and in the long run. Example: earthquakes can wipe out cities and kill or mutilate scores of lives, thousands of loved ones, causing suffering to those who survive. But earthquakes are also a consequence of the fact that the planet’s subsurface is made up of molten rock and metals, which is part of the carbon dioxide cycle that helps sustain our atmosphere and generates the magnetic field that shields us from the solar wind. The only worlds where there is no geological activity – no volcanoes, no earthquakes, no active interior – are those whose core has cooled and solidified. But those are also places without life.

This means that reality is far more complex than a simple opposition of good against evil. There are multiple processes at play, of short, medium and long run, opposing, parallel or derived, beneficial or destructive depending on the moment or one’s perspective, with humans being just one wheel in a universal machine where different deities participate in a diverse fashion. In a polytheistic worldview, it’s harder for one to ask why the gods allow for suffering to exist. That’s a question for the monotheists who believe in a single omnipotent deity and thus need to explain why doesn’t he use his absolute powers to prevent certain things or reorganize natural processes. When one’s perspective is that of plurality, a divine entity lacks full control since, so to speak, he or she is not the only player in the game. There are multiple gods and goddesses on the stage, some small and others large, some neutral and others close to Humanity, some with more power than others, with reduced, large, distinct or overlaping areas of influence. And they don’t agree on everything, not all of them have the same agenda, will or capacity to intervene, a complexity to which one must also add human actions and free will.

So you want a particular god to put an end to your suffering? Then you need to take into account it may not be entirely up to him. There are other deities with whom he may have to negotiate, some of which may care little or nothing for your particular needs or interests, or the god you asked for help may not be able to change on-going processes, only adjust them. He may have to confront deities that are opposed to you or what you want and all of that assuming he’s even willing to assist you. Because there is such a thing as divine freedom, which means that a god isn’t obliged to do what you ask of him. He’s not a vending machine on which you insert a coin, press a button and get your favourite drink, so there’s always the possibility that you’ll get a “no” for an answer. But unlike what happens in monotheistic religions, you also have the chance of trying to ask for help from another god.


26. What good are your gods if they can’t do everything?
What good is a doctor if he can’t cure every illness and save every life? What good is a friend if she can’t help you in everything? What good is a relative if he can’t always support you and solve all of your problems? Omnipotence is not a criterion of usefulness, just as it isn’t of divinity. At least not for me. A god or a goddess is something I define as numinous, wise or powerful, but that’s not the same as absolute, all-knowing or all-powerful. There’s a hugely diverse and complex world between the opposite extremes of nothing and everything.


27. Are you anti-science?
No! I don’t take my religious beliefs as scientific facts or theories and though science may influence them (see the answer to question 25), the opposite does not or at least should not happen. Because science and religion are different things, each with their own language and dynamics and hence with different criteria and forms of proof.


28. Are you anti-modern?
No! On the contrary, I’m very much an appreciator of the virtues of modernity and recognize that the present is much better in many ways. There’s greater freedom, more justice, more rights and knowledge and better living conditions than in the past. In fact, I wouldn’t be writing this, would not have the opportunity to choose my religion and practice it freely without the means and liberties awarded by modernity. Not that it doesn’t have its problems or downsides, because it does, from the environmental crisis to the challenges posed by new technologies; but it also possesses the means to come up with solutions, from new energy sources to greater transparency. And no, there’s no contradiction between being modern and a polytheist: as said in the answer to question 9, some of the fundamental moments in the dawn of modernity – the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution – were partly made by drawing ideas and models from Classical Antiquity. To bring elements of the past isn’t the same as going back in time: sometimes it’s actually a way forward.


29. What does your religion teach about homosexuality or abortion?
It doesn’t. As a whole, Roman polytheism has no scriptures or orthodoxy and therefore lacks a moral doctrine. Which doesn’t mean that I and others like me are amoral, rather that we get our principles from a variety of sources.

For instance, one may draw inspiration or guidance from one or more gods, though different deities will transmit different and sometimes even contradictory ideas: Silvanus emphasizes the value of forest preservation, Minerva the tools and products of civilization, Hercules coveys strength, Mercury cunning, Vesta inspires virginity and Venus lust, to give just a few examples. Again, it’s the issue of divine plurality and the resulting diversity that calls for co-existence. Something that’s harder to find in monotheisms, where the acknowledgement of only one god means that his ideas are absolute by lack of opposing or contradictory divine views. And that too contributes to Roman polytheism’s lack of moral commandments, since it’s a religion of many gods. Diversity retracts uniformity.

Another option to build moral principles consists of drawing teachings from one or more philosophical schools, though here too the absence of scriptures and overall orthodoxy creates diversity, since different people will pick different philosophies. Which in the end emphasizes the orthopraxic nature of Roman polytheism, putting its focus on rites as opposed to beliefs or morality. This doesn’t mean that it’s an atheist religion, but one without regulated or uniform beliefs. And that’s something that I find enormously satisfying, because it awards me the liberty to think openly, to construct my theology and debate topics like homosexuality, abortion or suicide without being tied to texts that were written centuries ago and, essentially, crystallize as dogmas the values and rules of a different time and place.


30. What good is a religion without teachings?
Apart from inspiration, motivation, and solace, which are there even when there’s no orthodoxy, the answer may perhaps be summed up in two words: continuity and connection. The former because it makes my family’s, city’s or country’s past more than just memory, elevating it to a living part of my life much more clearly than the simple awareness that the present is a product of the past. Or as I once told someone, family is still family even after death. And in that sense there’s a connection, a be and feel entwined with the world around you, human and natural, visible and invisible, present and past and in all its diversity. It doesn’t mean that you can only get that through religion, but it is one of the ways for those who choose to see more than just chance and chemical processes and explore the idea that there’s more to life.