Peregrinalia – hitting the road

This blog has been quiet, I know, but not dead and, in the spirit of Summer holidays, in the near future I’ll try to compensate for the prolonged silence of the last several months. And since, apart from my daily practices and rites, the sole religious topic that’s been taking my time in a significant fashion has been an Iberian cult to Mercury, it is thus with it that I return to the blogosphere.

Connected dates
There are two modern celebrations of mine to Mercury that I’ve mentioned several times before and both have been incorporated by other polytheists into their festive calendars. They are Vialia on January 4th and the anniversary of Maia’s Son on April 4th, the former focused on Mercury’s divine host and the latter on his birth.

Both have an individual sense, with Vialia addressing the opening of ways at the start of a new year, while the birthday of the god evokes his connection to the number four and thus takes place on the fourth day of the fourth month. But there’s also a continuum between them and it connects to two other modern festivities, the third of which is Peregrinalia on July 4th.

Essentially, it flows as follows: in January, the opening of the ways amounts also to a preparation for the birth of Mercury, who’s destined to become Lord of Pathways and hence of the Lares Viales. Trails and roads are thus cleared and made ready and, after the coming of the god, the next stage in the festive cycle are the journeys in which he encounters other deities and acquires an awareness of the world. Following that is the perception of the constant flux and finite nature of things, which then links up with the end of the year and the Lares Viales again, though that’s a subject for another time. In short: the ways, the Lord of Ways, the use of pathways and the perpetual destination.

Trilho - Sintra

A forest trail in Sintra, Portugal (credit)

Under the sign of each of the four great annual festivities there are other associated dates. Thus, during the three months opened by Vialia there’s the Parentalia in honour of the dead, which in the primitive Roman calendar was a time for purification before Spring and the start of the year. Under the sign of the birth of Mercury there’s the old Mercuralia on May 15th, which I’ve been turning into a festivity dedicated to Maia. And on August 24th, a date within the three months that follow Peregrinalia, there’s the annual sacrifice to Quangeio, the Iberian dog god who’s found, taken in and gifted by Mercury.

Of course, a lot of this are modern dates and conceptions, but I never said I was reconstructing an historical cult. My goal is rather the construction of a regional and mercurial branch of today’s Roman polytheism, but because no such branch is known from the historical records, its creation must necessarily be a new thing – even if it integrates ancient gods and practices. It’s the difference between a fossilized religion because it is restricted to what is known to have existed until the 5th century and a polytheism that, while rooted in the past, is nonetheless alive and thus able to produce new forms.

Ways, journeys, wayfarers and beyond
Peregrinalia is thus the festivity of journeys and travellers, of those known at the start and those who present themselves to us along the way, of pathways and what they connect and so, literally or figuratively, of the awareness of the connectivity of all things, even those that look independent or self-contained.

In this, there’s a link to the Buddhist concepts of interdependence and emptiness and that’s intentional, in both its use and the festivity they’re associated with: resorting to an oriental philosophy to give ideological content to a cult is within the historical dynamics of Roman polytheism (see here); and the name Peregrinalia comes from the Latin peregrinus, which is where the word “pilgrim” comes from – i.e., a traveller – but originally it also meant “foreigner” and, as an adjective, “exotic” and “imported”. Hence why, in describing above the reasoning behind the sequence of festive dates, I said that, after his birth, Mercury travels and acquires an awareness of the world.

There’s also a weather-related motive for the festivity of travelling and travellers to be in July, meaning in the Summer, which is when many hit the road on vacations. There’s a northern hemisphere bias in that, no doubt, but if it’s a regional cult, it will naturally reflect the seasonal cycle and climate of the region it emanates from.

The ritual translation
From here follow the ritual practices and commemorative actions. The rite used for a formal ceremony during Peregrinalia is obviously the Roman one and if, in the celebration of Mercury’s birth the offerings were almost all food that required the use of dishes and cutlery, on July 4th the preference goes to things that can be carried in a backpack and eaten by hand. In other words, traveller’s food, even if sweet by reason of being festive.

Peregrinalia 2018

Table set before the formal ceremony on the morning of July 4th.

To that end, in this year’s Peregrinalia and because the day was also the first Wednesday of the month, I did the same as in Mercury’s birthday and highlighted the number four. To the god I therefore gave four merendas (puffed pastry baked with cheese and ham), four Portuguese custard tarts, four sweet potato cakes and four arrufadas (sweat bread with egg and coconut), all ritually consecrated, small portions burned and the rest returned to the human sphere to be eaten by me and my family. During the ceremony I also offered small portions of butter, ham and two types of cheese – i.e., things you can make sandwiches with – and four libations of medronho strawberry and honey liquor. And in the end I burned the morning offerings of the first Wednesday of the month, to which I added an additional portion of honey to maintain the pattern of four, and made yet more libations, but to Maia, Quangeio and the Lares Viales. In the afternoon, in the spirit of Peregrinalia, I then went on a small bike ride during which I made additional offerings to the Lares Viales and took as a snack some of the food consecrated to and received from Mercury, thus figuratively eating at the god’s itinerating table.

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Duped by translation (& finding a Lar?)

As a devotee of Mercury, I’m naturally interested in what is traditionally associated with Him. And because I believe Him to be the same as Hermes, one of the best online places to look for historical information in a nutshell is Theoi.com – which, to be clear, is an excellent website I highly recommend. This post is not a critique of it, just a personal admission of having been duped by double translation.

So the story goes like this…
In the section on Hermes’ sacred plants, you find krokos and andrakhnos, the latter of which translates into English as strawberry-tree. The translation is correct, but my interpretation of it was not, because when I hear strawberries – or in this case read it – I immediately think of a roughly conic red fruit, when in fact the Greek andrakhnos refers to something else. Something that may be translated as strawberry in English, yes, but which in Portuguese has a different meaning. To put it in pictures:

On the left are regular strawberries or morangos in Portuguese, but on the right are the “strawberries” meant by the Greek andrakhnos, which translates into Portuguese as medronhos, the fruit of the medronheiro or “strawberry-tree”. You see where this is going, right? By neglecting the original word, I assumed Hermes was associated with the plant on the left based on the common Portuguese translation of the English term, thus failing to realize that it can mean different plants. Had I looked further on Theoi.com, I’d have found a list of plants of various myths and gods with additional information, including the scientific nomenclature (and photos!): the andrakhnos is also called in Greek komaros and it stands for the arbutus andrachne or arbutus unedo species, i.e. the Portuguese medronheiro.

So what, then?
Ok, so this is interesting and may even be conceived as a religious experience, since mistakes, translations and hence lapsus linguae are well within the universe of Hermes or Mercury. If He’s a god who likes to play tricks, I’ve obviously been at the receiving end of one or at least walked myself into an error with a mercurial value. But so what?

Well, there are practical consequences, in particular when it comes to offerings. Not so much in the sense of having used regular strawberries for sacrificial purposes all these years, since there’s nothing wrong in offering things for which there is no historical basis, provided that they’re well received by the gods. It’s more of a matter of the world of possibilities that opens up, in particular for a Portuguese individual like me, who’s trying to formulate a regional cult to Mercury and the Lares Viales, something that grants the use of equally regional products a special meaning. Things like the Portuguese aguardente or brandy made from medronho, which can be employed for libations or in baked cakes to be given to Mercury and his host. Or a similar liquor with honey that’s traditional from Monchique, in the Algarve, or medronho bread, not to mention groves of strawberry-trees as native sacred spaces. There are multiple possibilities that can make a perfect bridge between the ancient history of the god and His modern regionalization.

Speaking of which…
And since we’re on the topic, I realized my interpretational mistake while researching the heraldic symbolism and decorative elements on the tombs of Portuguese princes in the Chapel of the Founder, at the Batalha monastery, at some point googling part of the information in English so as to look for additional sources.

Now, for the purpose of context, my interest in a religious structure from the 15th century is due to me being 1) a historian and 2) born and raised in the small city of Alcobaça, located relatively close to Batalha and even closer to the village of Aljubarrota, which gave its name to the nationally quintessential battle that led to the construction of the monastery. If you’re familiar with English history, think of it as a Portuguese equivalent of Agincourt. Its history and the people involved in it are therefore part of the national and local lore, which is why I occasionally dive into the subject, more out of personal interest than professional need. And one of tombs in the Batalha monastery is that of prince John (1400-1442), where you’ll find a depiction of his chosen personal heraldic symbols as carved at the time of his death: a pouch with three scallops and a plant whose identity is not entirely certain, though it’s commonly believed to be a strawberry-tree – and hence why, when looking for the information in English, I realized my mistake. It’s all well within the world of hermits and pilgrims, matching the prince’s status as general administrator of the Portuguese branch of the military Order of Santiago and his presumed devotion to Saint John the Baptist, to whom there was once a shrine within the chapel, in a corresponding position to the tomb. Hypothetically, according to the reading of the funerary set that several scholars have argued for, the heraldic elements chosen by the prince may also express his view of life as a journey.

The pilgrim pouch with the three scallops and the presumed “strawberries” on the tomb of prince John in the monastery of Batalha.

To be clear, prince John was a devout Christian, pretty much aligned with the prevalent anti-Semitism of the time, though also critical of the Church, in particular the idea of holy wars, all of which can be read in a letter he wrote to the his brother king Duarte. He was not in any way or form a polytheist. Which is okay for me, because I don’t expect him – or my family ancestors, for that matter – to be anything other than someone from his own time, with all the differences in mentality and religion that that entails. Yet with that in mind, I nonetheless have to consider that…

If I’m formulating a regional cult to Mercury as leader of the Lares Viales, who were very popular in Roman Galicia, a popularity that finds a curious (and coincidental) continuity in the camino to Santiago, so much so that I’ve decided to drink from that continuum and adopt the scallop as a modern symbol for a polytheist cult.

If I practice Roman polytheism as part of the modern world and hence entwined with a modern culture, language and country, instead of practicing it as part of an anachronic re-enactment of a long-gone empire or republic of which I’m not an actual citizen, and if as a result the heroes I worship are largely those of my country, not those of a Roman state that ceased to exist over a millennium ago.

And if you view the Lares Viales as a category of wayfarer deities that may include not just greater gods like Mercury or Quangeio, but also smaller ones, including deceased humans, and if, in line with what I said above about hero worship, I’m considering the inclusion of Portuguese travelling heroes among the Lares Viales

… then I should take note of the fact that a Portuguese prince’s choice of personal symbols were the pilgrim’s pouch with scallops and the strawberry-tree, perhaps expressing a view of life as a journey. Not to claim that he was a polytheist – he wasn’t! – or that his worldview was identical to mine – it too wasn’t – but to stress the coincidence of symbols, those of the prince and those of the modern cult I’m working on, emphasized by the fact that the former’s nationality and the regional focus of the latter are also coincidental. Perhaps, who knows, I found another historical figure to count among the Lares Viales of modern western Iberia.