Portuguese vantage point

This text is an abridged version of much longer posts on cultural differences between western Europeans and US Americans, relations with monotheism, revivalism and also how my views are shaped by my nationality, including an awareness of my country’s History and culture. To read the original posts, click here and here.

An individual is a product of the culture and place that surrounds him/her, even if one is not always aware of it. Often, it’s only when you’re confronted with someone from elsewhere, who grew up with different assumptions, that you come to realize who you are and what makes you different. This is true of various aspects of human life, including religion or at least in a polytheistic context. So, for instance, it’s not uncommon for people to have a more or less latent grudge towards Christianity, especially in countries whose identity goes back to the pre-Christian period, places where systematic conversion is a relatively recent process – if not ongoing – or parts of the world where evangelical fundamentalism has a strong presence in public life. Among pagans and polytheists one can also find a stressed anti-modern feeling rooted in the environmental crisis, the objectification of Nature and, outside Europe, the painful memory of colonization and the resulting destruction of native cultures in the name of faith and progress.

In this, there are honest and legitimate reasons for protest that must be acknowledge and addressed whenever possible, but there’s also a difference in attitude in the way those issues are dealt with. In particular, among the various sensitivities in modern western polytheism, there are two relevant groups here: those who opt for a form of perpetual revolt, a rejection of modernity, see themselves as part of a self-declared war on monotheism and propose a return to a romanticized past; and those who want to be a part of the modern world, who criticize and strive to improve it where needed, but without rejecting it as a whole and embrace its advantages. In this clash of ideas, I side with the latter group thanks to an awareness of being Portuguese, not in the sense of a nationalistic statement of identity, but an historical perspective that shapes my worldview.

Different time scales
The value attributed to the Enlightenment offers a good example of what I mean, for while that period of History has negative connotations among US American polytheists – not all, but several – for me and many western Europeans, it’s something that recalls the notions of liberty, equality, culture and critical thinking. And the cause of that difference is rooted in historical perspective, for while I can make a comparison between the before and after the Enlightenment in my country, that exercise is harder to do in the United States, because they were only created in 1776. It’s true that the Declaration of Independence is an enlightened document that upholds the values of freedom and equality, natural rights and the idea of human happiness, but the practical reality of the time and of the centuries after contrasts with the nobility of the written principles. After all, the declaration did not end slavery nor the death penalty in the United States; and after 1776, the country expanded westwards, wiping out or forcibly assimilating indigenous cultures and communities. Which is why for several US American polytheists, the Enlightenment can be equated with genocide and slavery.

While I can understand the reasons behind that association of ideas, it’s something that makes no sense in a Portuguese context. And that’s because Portugal, unlike the United States, goes back to the 12th century, which allows for a comparative look where the Enlightenment comes out in a positive light. Simply put, before that period of History, the overwhelming majority of the Portuguese population was illiterate, there was no public education or health system, religious freedom was limited or even inexistent, torture and the death penalty were legal and amply used, power was concentrated at the top and governments were not elected by way of free elections with universal suffrage. All of that began to change in the 18th century, not immediately – because History is not a series of instantaneous bursts – but incrementally, first as a result of the Enlightenment and later of the French Revolution, whose ideas were disseminated by way of the Napoleonic Wars. The first Portuguese constitution, that of 1822, is a product of those events and established a separation of powers, equality before the law, presumption of innocence, right to property, universal citizenship for all free men of Portuguese nationality and limited royal authority. It wasn’t a perfect text, since it didn’t abolish slavery or the death penalty and failed to establish universal suffrage and religious freedom, something that’s also largely true for subsequent constitutional texts. There’s a reason why Lisbon’s synagogue was built on an inner courtyard, without direct access to the streets. But the Constitution of 1822, like the Constitutional Charter of 1826, were nonetheless a clear rupture and improvement from a previous state of things. They were the first large, modern Portuguese steps towards the democracy, liberties and rights of today, which weren’t built immediately or exponentially, but slowly and in a non-linear fashion, with both advances and retreats. Or to again mention Lisbon’s synagogue, I can conclude that despite the limitations imposed by the legal framework of the 19th century constitutional monarchy, it was nonetheless the first Jewish temple in Portugal since the Jews were expelled or forcibly converted in the 1490s. In other words, there’s a wide time scale that allows me to see improvements and advances where a US American, by reason of having a younger country, may see only broken promises of liberty and equality.

That’s also the reason why I can’t attribute a negative value to modernity. It’s not that it’s perfect – far from it! – but if I compare Portugal today to what it was before the Enlightenment, I can easily conclude that the present is far better than the past. I owe modernity many of the rights and freedoms I have today, including that of writing this text and go public about my religious option, which I wouldn’t have been able to in pre-19th century Portugal. And yes, modernity also brought severe environmental problems, but technological evolution towards a more sustainable model, in both the production of energy and the way we organize our lives, offers solutions that do not require an outright rejection of the modern world. Just as there’s still racism, phobias and social inequality, but we’ve been worst, we’ve improved in the last few centuries and have the tools to keep moving forward. It’s not a question of believing that the future will always be better and bring nothing but advantages – that would be naïve – but to realize that you get a positive net-result from a comparison between today and yesterday. Something that may not be as obvious or not at all in younger countries, like the United States, and especially if modern social, environmental and political conditions are more adverse.

Antiquity and origins
That same contrast is equally valid for the way I see Abrahamic monotheisms, namely Christianity and Islam, for while a Hellenic polytheist may look at those religions as an invading force or a US American as a genocidal movement, a Portuguese that’s aware of his country’s History and integrates it into his worldview will have a different take on the matter.

The difference is again rooted in the age of countries and cultures. Take Greece, for instance, which despite having been born as a unified State only in 1830, has nonetheless a language and sense of identity that goes back several centuries before Christianity. More than that, the golden age of Greek History is entirely in the pre-Christian period, be it in architecture, philosophy, science, literature or politics, and the transition to the new religion amounted to a rupture with that past, if not a destruction of part of it. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Greek Orthodox Church presently retains medieval privileges and attitudes, which, once you add all up, naturally results in Hellenic polytheists’ view of Christianity as an invading, enemy or oppressive religion. Just as among US American polytheists it is seen as genocidal by virtue of its role in the violent assimilation of indigenous tribes, a process that is relatively recent or still ongoing.

These issues can be seen differently in Portugal. Here, Christianization occurred over one thousand years ago, with the first organized Christian communities of western Iberian going back to the 2nd century, later followed by a period of Islamization after the Muslim conquest of the peninsula in 711-14. And all of this happened centuries before Portugal’s creation, which dates from 1143 or at best c. 1096, when a united Portuguese land was created out of the territories of the old counties of Coimbra and Porto (or rather Portucale). And that foundational moment took place under the egis of Christianity, which is why speaking of it as an invading religion is, in a Portuguese context, ridiculous at best.

Furthermore, not only is Portugal a political and cultural construct whose origin cannot be detached from the two great monotheisms – and therefore lacks a well-defined pre-Christian identity – what today is its territory was settled and inhabited by different people throughout the centuries. Here lived non-Celtic Indo-European tribes, Celts, Celtiberians, Phoenicians, some Greeks, a lot of Romans, Germanic tribes, Arabs and north-African Berbers. All of them settled in western Iberia and brought with them customs and religions that became part of the heritage and cultural fabric of the region. It’s true that not all of them left traces in equal measure, either because their presence took place too long ago or their control of the territory was tenuous or brief. But this land was a home to all of them, the place where they settled and to a greater or lesser extent went native, for which reason their religions can claim some form of connection to what today is Portuguese territory. And that includes the two great monotheisms, which were here long before the birth of Portugal and became a part of the regional culture, like Celtic and Roman polytheisms before them.

This doesn’t mean that Christianity and Islam should have privileges, dominate religious discourse, determine public life or veto secular legislation; just as it doesn’t mean that I agree with their theology, am forced to adhere to their doctrines or ignore the mistakes of the past. Being Portuguese doesn’t amount to a forced religion or an amnesia crisis. But by understanding that my country was born centuries after the Christianization of western Iberia and that its creation was preceded by different layers of cultural heritage, I have to not only acknowledge my nation’s multiethnic matrix, but also accept that Christianity and Islam are a part of its History from the get-go, not invading forces or enemies. It’s true that they were responsible for past atrocities and made polytheism a preferential target, but unless I suffer from an ill-digested historical memory, yesterday’s conflicts from over a millennium ago are no reason to prevent peaceful co-existence today.

The spectrum of nationalism
One can conclude from I’ve been saying that I do not separate my religion from my nationality. It’s not that they’re one and the same, but they intersect in a way that’s somewhat organic: the local gods of my hometown, where my family has been for a few centuries, overlap with my ancestors; being Portuguese and as such native to a Latin language and culture acquires a religious sense when one is a Roman polytheist; the heroes I worship are almost entirely people from Portugal’s History; and I honour deities who are native to what today is Portuguese territory and award them corresponding modern epithets, as in the case of Nabia Portugalensis, a goddess I then tie to my ancestors.

Of course, there is in this a risk of religious nationalism. It’s an evil that touches various polytheistic groups, especially in countries whose creation or identity are older than Christianity, leading some to argue, for instance, that a proper Greek practices Hellenic polytheism, for only it is truly national, while Christianity is universal. And it’s not always easy to deconstruct those ideas without throwing away traditional religions, though in the case of Portugal, it’s made easier by what was said above.

To the point, Portugal has no pre-Christian identity. It wasn’t founded in remote antiquity or even in the 4th century, but one thousand years after the first Christian communities in western Iberia and several centuries following the Islamization of the peninsula. And thus, to speak of Portuguese polytheism as if it were a traditional religion tied to the creation of the country is no more than manifest ignorance or an absurd appropriation of pre-Portuguese practices and beliefs for political, racist or xenophobic purposes. The only religions that can claim a link to the birth of Portugal are Christianity and, up to a point, Sunni Islam. Apart from that, there’s only a connection to the territory, but not the present identity. No Lusitanian, Turduli, Calician, Roman, Suebian or Visigoth would have seen him/herself as Portuguese, because that’s something that did not exist until centuries after the disappearance or assimilation of those peoples.

As such, one cannot apply to Portugal the same line of reasoning that some use for Greece, of equating nationality with a given pre-Christian religion. You can’t even use the ethnocentric argument that indigenous Europeans and their culture are different from that of the Middle East or north Africa, because both places contributed to Portugal’s cultural and ethnic matrix. One only has to think of Phoenicians, Arabs and Berbers. It’s ironic that the Portuguese far-right enjoys speaking of a national identity that excludes Muslims, forgetting, for instance, the Arab root of placenames like “Alcântara” ( al-qantara, the bridge) or “Algarve” (al-Garbh, the west) and even the Arabized “Lisbon”, which was al-Ushbuna after it was Olisipo, a name that suggests eastern or Semitic influences. Cultural purity is a fantasy that has even less of a firm ground to stand on in southern Europe, since that part of the continent has been subject to migrations and influences from north Africa and the Middle East for at least three thousand years.

Yesterday and today
Bottom line, what is the Portuguese standpoint that shapes my worldview and experience of polytheism? Above all, it’s rooted in an awareness of the origins and History of my country, which was born in the 12th century, is one of the heirs of ancient Latin culture and language and has a territory that was settled and inhabited by different people with various customs and religions. Which offers a time scale where modernity comes out in a positive light, allows me to make a natural connection between my nationality and Roman polytheism, while at the same time leading me to recognize that there are multiple traditions that can claim an historical link to Portuguese territory or culture. And that awareness of one’s origins and identity shapes my religious experience, which is not anti-modern, does not seek to replace present citizenship with a re-enactment of tribes of old, doesn’t see monotheism as an enemy to be eliminated and doesn’t take refuge in the romanitas of the past, because it already is a part of present Latinity.

Simply put, I practice an ancient religion in a way that’s adapted to the modern world, aiming to be a living part of it and thus in connection with present-day values, identities and perspectives. Which in my case includes my Portuguese nationality – who I am now and not who I’d imagine myself to be in a re-enactment of the past or a romanticized fantasy of bygone days. It’s not the same religious experience as that of other polytheists in other parts of the world, because their History and everyday life may be different, but it is who I am. I was born, grew up and currently live in Portugal, where my family has been for several centuries. I cannot be anything other than myself.