Of gods, rites, culture and sites

These last few months have been something of a period of reflexion aimed at a simplification and greater Romanization of my practices, both for pragmatic and cultural reasons. And at one point, an additional drive originated from a series of discussions on identity and religion that again made clear the fracture between American and European perspectives, universalism and culturalism, fossilization (or fetishization) and modern reintegration. The final push for a revision came at the start of this month and the result focuses on two points: rites to non-romance deities and the festive calendar. There’s also an extra development at the end.

From Norse to Roman
When I left wicca, roughly two decades ago, and stepped into neopagan reconstructionism, my choice fell upon Norse polytheism. And it brought me enriching experiences. But after about a year living in Sweden and having been in daily contact with a culture different from the one I grew up in, I started leaving that initial choice in favour of a convergence between native culture and religion. It was my departure from Norse towards Roman polytheism. Of the former, two things remained: an ongoing academic interest and the worship of Norse deities, initially a considerable number of them, but eventually narrowed down to a more limited group focused around Freyr.

Originally, that worship of northern gods kept the traits with which I had practised it for years and there was a period when my religious practice was, so to speak, bicephalous: part Norse, part Roman. But as the latter cemented itself and the convergence between culture and religion accentuated, I started Romanizing the way I paid tribute to Freyr and others. At first, by creating a separate, Roman-inspired rite, but more recently by simply using the standard Roman rite in full. From the initial Norse adaptation there remains an offering to Freyja at the opening and closing, a toasting section and, rarely, the use of a small hazel wand to consecrate offerings that are later ritually made profane.

That’s where I am at the moment. And it reflects a set of basic principles: 1) the definition of religion not by belief or faith, in the Abrahamic fashion, but by ritual praxis or orthopraxy, which is closer to the pre-Christian model; 2) the same gods can be worshipped in different ways or, to use another formulation of the same idea, the general principle according to which deities are universal and religious traditions ethnic; 3) approaching a revived ancient religion by way of a modern, historically-relevant identity (i.e. linked to the original cultural context of said religion) and thus the integration of the former into the latter; 4) and the resulting modern definition of Roman polytheism as the worship of many gods, Roman and others, according to Roman ritual tradition, in a romance cultural context. Hence why I, a Portuguese cultor deorum, worship Freyr, Freyja, Njord and Ullr using Roman rite, within a Latin culture, employing Portuguese as a ritual language.

More Ibero-romance
The same impulse that led me to switch from Norse to Roman polytheism also originated a new focus on pre-Roman Iberian deities. Which may seem like a contradiction – I go for something and then take a look at an older thing? – but it’s linked to the third of the four principles listed above, that of approaching a revived ancient religion – in this case, Roman – by way of a modern, historically-relevant identity – in my case, Portuguese – integrating the former into the latter. Now, the Portuguese cultural matrix is predominantly Latin (and hence romance), but it is not pure, as virtually no culture is. It also has Celtic, Germanic, Hebrew and Arab layers, no doubt that in different degrees, but they’re there. They’re part of the language, History, customs and land; on that note, the Germanic stratum adds another side to me worshipping Norse deities. Also, the cults of many of the Iberian gods were Latinized during the Roman period, and so, in the convergence between native culture and religion, my practices came to include deities of Celtic origin tied to the territory that is now that of my country, worshipped the Roman way and in a Latin context, just as they were for several centuries in the pre-Christian period.

The first I integrated was the goddess Nabia, followed by Quangeio, the pair Arentio and Arentia and finally Reue. And far from just worshipping Them, I placed Them at the heart of my religion: to Nabia I started making monthly offerings and gave Her a local epithet I later identified with my Family Lar; to Quangeio, which scholars believe to have been a canine god, I equally awarded a day for monthly offerings and associated Him with Mercury, which also plays into the Iberiazation of my cult to the Son of Maia; and Reue, apart from integrating my morning and night prayers (just like Nabia and Quangeio), also began receiving offerings on the Ides of every month. And I’m not setting aside the addition of further Iberian deities to my religious practice. The god Crouga, for instance, is a possibility under consideration.

The calendar
Unsurprisingly, the convergence between cultural identity and religion had an impact on my festive calendar, too. Actually, the correct verb tense is more present than past, since that impact wasn’t an isolated moment in time, but an ongoing process that recently contributed to new changes, motivated also by a desire for some simplification.

Thus, I’m removing from my calendar the separate tributes to Freyja and Njord and instead make them a part of my two annual sacrifices to Freyr around the time of the solstices, in accordance with evolution of who I worship among the Norse gods. The only other northern deity that retains a festive day of its own is Ullr, by virtue of being a god of yews, a tree for which I have a particular fascination; enough at least to consider a tattoo and go through the effort of resorting to friends and contacts to acquire two common yews from a tree nursery over 100 kilometres away and add them to a small grove I’m planting. But if Ullr’s annual sacrifice remains, its date changes from December 12th to November 21st, so as to be aligned with Freyr’s and close to Silvanus’, on the 23rd of November, which is also Portugal’s Native Forest Day. In that, too, there’s an element of integration of a cult to a Norse god into a romance cultural context.

Simultaneously, I’m adding a separate festive date to Reue, given His growing presence in my religious life, but in order to accommodate it I had to move the day of Nabia’s sacrifice, which is now on April 9th, also the exact date of a tribute paid to Her in ancient times, according to the inscription on the altar of Marecos. Reue is thus to be honoured individually on March 15th – He’s also already worshipped on October 15th as part of a rain-making triad – and the new festivity will be called Pastoralia, from Latin/Portuguese pastor, in reference to His (modern) role as Shepherd of Clouds. And also stressing the Ibero-romance side of my practices, Arentio and Arentia will receive offerings on the Nones of every month.

Finally, I’m also removing the annual sacrifice to Hercules, which will still happen this year, since He was given tribute in the New Year ceremony, but it probably won’t be repeated next year; the monthly libations to Thor will likewise be discontinued, since they’re a trace of when I wore a hammer and had a half-Norse practice, but may remain as ad hoc; offerings to the Portuguese Lares, seen as communal ancestors or heroes, will be added to those to the Family Lares during Caristia; the end-of-year ceremony will be dropped, too, with only the cleaning of shrines on the 31st of December remaining; and I’ll also remove my annual sacrifice to the Egyptian god Khnum, which started at a time when I did clay figures with some regularity, though that hasn’t been the case at all for several years now. As with Thor, offerings to Khnum will become ad hoc, whenever I take up home pottery. The result, already published in the calendar section in the top menu, is the following:

Calendário

The Egyptian exception
The only deity to whom my practices remain non-Roman is Anubis. At first, it was because I didn’t know enough about ancient Egyptian religious customs in order to adapt them; then, because the simple format that I had improvised ended up sticking. A candle, some incense and water (part of which I then pour on the graves of some of my ancestors), bows with bent knees so that the forehead touches the floor, em hotep as a salute, food offerings later consumed in full – by me and my dogs. So it was and so it remains. The only element of Romanization in it is the date of the annual sacrifice, on February 12th, on the eve of Parentalia. Not that that changes who I am, a Roman polytheist, because, again, it is not faith, creed, belief or simply which gods one worships that determines my religion. It is ritual praxis! And given that out of roughly thirty yearly sacrifices, plus over eighty sets of monthly offerings, only one is performed in a non-Roman way, there’s no doubt about what I am, religiously.

Why Anubis? For nothing more than being a canine god; and dogs are a significant part of what I practise. For instance, the addition of an annual sacrifice to Diana to my festive calendar was born out of a vow I made to Her about a decade ago, when one of my dogs underwent surgery. She survived and recovered and, as such, I fulfilled my vow and Diana later became a part of my religious practices. Quangeio is another canine element and, in the yearly sacrifice to Him, I include dog food I then consecrate, ritually make profane and then give to my dogs. My Family Lares include deceased pets – like the one behind my vow to Diana – including photos of them on my Lararium and offerings three times per month. Silvanus, too, has a connection to dogs, judging at least from the traditional iconography, and I’m not above lighting a candle to Saint Roch if I happen to find a chapel or church dedicated to Him.

Little wonder then that Anubis ended up becoming part of my religious practice. It doesn’t mean that He will remain so for the next ten or twenty years, but it wasn’t by chance and, presently, my annual sacrifice to Him is already a special religious moment I share with my dogs.

And then there are the southern waves
Will I ever use Roman rite to worship an Egyptian deity? Likely not in Anubis’ case, but it may happen with another and the reason is one: the climate! See, droughts and heatwaves in southern Europe can be caused by hot air coming in from north Africa (even sand blown from the Sahara desert hasn’t been rare) and the phenomenon is expected to become increasingly common as climate change rages on. Also, changing weather conditions mean that diseases that have thus far been largely confined to Africa may start moving north and I’ve wondered about the religious ramifications of all of this as I reflected on my practices these past few months. As a result, I started looking into heat and desert deities, which are virtually absent from traditional European pantheons, but can be found in north-African and Middle-eastern ones. Gods one could, perhaps, petition for a short or light presence so that cooler weather may return or remain, in a type of apotropaic cult where the source of affliction is addressed and placated directly, not driven out by an antagonist or adversary.

To that effect, one of the deities that’s at the top of my list of possibilities is Sekhmet. Because She’s the goddess of the fiery breath and of the sun’s aggressive aspects, maker of deserts, and She’s also connected to diseases, both as a bringer and as a healer. And in the surviving myths about Her, She’s placated out of a rampage, which strikes a very similar tone to the apotropaic cult that I have in mind. She’s thus a strong possibility, but I’m facing it with caution, because She is an old and powerful goddess and I don’t want to make a decision lightly. Especially since I could include Her in my practices in a Romanized fashion, as Dea Leonina, and worship Her using Roman rite. The next several months will tell.

If I do end up worshipping Sekhmet, would that contradict the convergence of native culture and religion mentioned at the start of this blogpost? Happily, no; and I say it’s a happy thing, since the fact that it makes sense is yet another reason that pushes me towards Her. Because the Mediterranean has been a cultural melting pot for millennia and, while western Iberia is technically located beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, it nonetheless has a long History of being part of that mixing dynamic: Phoenicians sailed along what today is the Portuguese coast and founded or developed several settlements, Lisbon among them; the Iberian Peninsula was not foreign to north-Africans, even before many of them entered and settled in following the Islamic invasion of 711; and Jewish presence in Iberia is old, like really old, perhaps even pre-Roman! That, too, is part of the mix of peoples and cultures on which Portugal was later formed. In short, the Iberian Peninsula is so close to the north of Africa that it is impossible to radically separate the two places, not only regarding people and cultures, but also the climate. Which is why taking an Egyptian deity in order to religiously translate an Iberian reality that originates in the deserts of the southern half of the Mediterranean is not just in line with a millennia-old dynamic of mixing and interchanging. It is also a natural option.

Whoever claims that Europe is white or that it stands radically apart from the north of Africa and the Middle East – culturally, genetically, religiously – is either focusing on a very particular (real or imagined) part of the European continent or doesn’t know the History of Europe. No matter how much he or she pays lip-service to “European pride” and identity.

New Year gestures

Stepping in with the right foot is one of those small modern superstitions with ancient roots that expresses a timeless valuation of the idea of a good start. And faithful to that notion, the first days of the new year are to me a time for multiple ritual gestures that, taken together, aim at a kind of entry with the right foot in the new twelve months’ cycle. Starting, of course, with the January 1st ceremony, which is one of the longest in my practices.

A long list
In normal conditions, when I mark a date of monthly relevance – like the Nones or Ides – the corresponding ceremony takes about 10 to 15 minutes, as it’s a simplification of my Roman rite, which I reserve for annual festivities and usually extends the ceremony up to 30 minutes. I repeat: in normal conditions. When it’s an exceptional occasion, it can last one hour or more

That was the case with this year’s New Year ceremony. Not because something different happened, though 2017 was fortunate in various aspects, as with the publication of my first book and the conclusion of another. Rather, the length of January 1st ceremony has to do with the number of deities it honours, which has been growing in the last few years and this time reached sixteen, plus the Family Lares and Penates. Almost all of them are recipients of specific prayers and offerings, which naturally takes times – and firewood, while we’re it, since the fire needs to keep on burning regardless of the amount of beverage it’s poured on it.

Structurally, the ceremony is identical to those of other annual festivities, with a beginning and end with tributes to Janus, Vesta and Jupiter and, in between, an invitation, prayer and giving of consecrated offerings to the main deity – in this case, Janus. As with other annual celebrations that occur in days of monthly relevance, there’s also a moment when I burn the Calends’ offerings that were given to Janus, Juno, the Family Lares and Penates during the morning prayers. And then, where in normal conditions the closing gestures would follow, there was yet a list of fourteen individual deities who were honoured with two offerings each, the first as a general tribute and the second with a specific request for the new year.

They are Mercury, Maia, Quangeio, Juno, Hercules, Minerva, Diana, Apollo, Silvanus, Nabia, Jupiter, Fortuna, Spes and Freyr, adding, I repeat, to the Family Lares and Penates, who also get a wreath that’s hanged over the fireplace. In the case of Maia and Silvanus, the offerings are not cast into the ritual fire, but poured into small circular bowls with soil, in harmony with the terrestrial identity of those two deities. Though, truth be told, I’m increasingly seeing Mercury’s mother as a goddess who has a celestial side as well, largely due to Her mythological link to one of the starts of the Pleiades. And speaking of liminality, note the inclusion of Freyr, who normally is worshipped according to an independent rite that fuses Norse and Latin elements, but exceptionally receives offerings according to Roman praxis on New Year. For practical reasons, if nothing else.

The feats of pathways
Then on the fourth day of January, there’s Vialia, which is not an ancient celebration, but rather a modern creation of my doing that’s focused on Mercury and the Lares Viales. Its sense is clear: to honour the god of pathways and His divine host and ask Them, in a more literal fashion, for safety on the road during the year and, in a more metaphoric way, help clearing the paths to success. Of course, with me being a Mercury devotee, the date also has a personal relevance.

Ready for the Vialia ceremony, 2018.

Thus, on the morning of the 4th, as in the morning of the day before, which was the first Wednesday of the month, I offered a candle, anise, cinnamon, wine and flowers to the son of Maia. Then I performed a formal ceremony where I paid tribute first to Mercury and then the Lares Viales with identical offerings: small crackers, raisins, walnut, honey, cinnamon and wine. Both also got flowers, though in different formats, since to Mercury I gave a wreath that now stands in His domestic shrine, whereas the Lares Viales were given a mixture of petals, leafs and wheat which, after the ceremony was over, were cast onto the roads in small portions during a walk. Ideally, I would have done it during a bike ride, so I could cover a greater distance and erect a few cairns along the way, but because it was raining, I ended up adjusting to a tour on foot around the edges of the city and with a few stops at crossroads and intersections.

Apollo and Janus again
There are two more formal ceremonies before concluding the celebrations of the New Year: Apotropalia on the 7th of January and Agonalia on the 9th.

The former is yet another modern festivity of my doing and it’s focused on Apollo, here as a protector and provider of health whose blessings are requested for the new year. The ceremony in His honour follows Greek rite and includes a wreath that’s offered to the god and then hanged over the house door. As for Agonalia, that’s an ancient festivity, in this case dedicated to Janus, who is thus, appropriately, the one who opens and closes the New Year celebrations. The offerings that were made to Him on January 1st, as well as the requests, are repeated in the Agonalia ceremony.

Atlas’ daughter
Of course, adding to this are the monthly offerings that are given in a regular fashion, in this case to Nabia on the 9th and Jupiter, as well as the Family Lares and Penates, on the 13th.

On the latter day, I’ll start honouring Mercury’s mother also, since in the Iberian cult that I’m constructing She’s the only member of the triad that’s yet without regular offerings. And the Ides seem to me like the most appropriate day for it, partly because She’s a mountain nymph and thus with a symbolic link to the peak of the month, just like Jupiter, and also as a reference to the May 15th Mercuralia, which to me is increasingly a festivity in honour of Maia. There’s also an allusion to Mercury’s parents, though I’m unsure about the relation between Zeus and Jupiter. And because, as said before, Atlas’ daughter has for me a certain liminality, having both a terrestrial and a celestial side – which, by the way, is appropriate for a mountain nymph – maybe I’ll alternate in the way I give Her monthly offerings, using the ritual fire in one month and a bowl with soil on the next one. Something that is also appropriate considering the overlap with the Roman Maia.

What’s the use of it all?
Okay, so all of this is lovely, long and probably complex. But what’s it good for, anyway? Am I hoping to have a 2018 without bumps on the road, bad luck, bad news, illnesses or problems, just because I performed a string of ceremonies with plenty of offerings in the first days of January?

The answer is no, I’m not. I mean, it would be good if I could have that rosy scenario and I’ll gladly take it if it’s available, thank you. But as said here and here, a polytheistic system tends to be decentralized, without a single god in control of everything, but with multiple deities with interests and goals that are different, if not contradictory. Therefore, I’m not expecting that those I pay tribute to in the New Year can or will do everything, but I hope – or at least ask – that they’ll lend their hand, even if only as a reaction to something they cannot prevent, but can at least help to overcome. A bit like friends and family, from whom I don’t expect assistance or solutions for everything, but do hope they’ll be present when it matters the most, even if only to help reacting to unfortunate events that neither I nor they can avoid.