Home, road and country

Having adjusted my fasti to make them more functional in the modern world and not only accepting, but actually embracing the fact that I’m moving away from a part of the wider community, thus focusing more on my actual heritage, identity and social surroundings, it’s now time to make another change. It has been brewing in my mind for some time, but I never went through with it because it would either substantially increase the number of yearly sacrifices or I just didn’t know how or even whether to do it. But the adjustments to my fasti started the process and the greater focus on my western Iberian standpoint set the tone, so as a result, I decided to review my cult to the Lares Patriae, the Lares of my Country, which is a modern divine category under which I placed national heroes – kings, leaders, scholars, travellers, artists – and worshiped the ones I was personally fond of.

Up until this point, I’ve been paying tribute to Them on an individual basis, marking the birthday of each with a small domestic sacrifice on the fireplace. Naturally, this meant I could only pick a handful of historical characters in order to keep my festive calendar workable with the modern life of someone who’s not a full-time paid priest. As such, I have only six in my fasti, but there’s twice as many national heroes I’m curious about or fond of. Honouring each on separate days would be impractical and worshiping all in a single sacrifice, while an appealing possibility, raised some questions that I lacked either the tools or will to address. Until now.

The Family Lar and the Watery Lady
It’s curious that I’ve reached this point by simply adding pieces that have been presenting themselves one by one in the last few years. In the past, one of the things that bugged me when I considered a single festive date for all of my national Lares was that I lacked a link to a greater deity that could function as a god/dess of Portugal. Since it’s a country that postdates the Christianization of the Iberian Peninsula by almost a millennium, there’s no ancient answer I can resort to and even the selection of a regional pre-Christian deity to fulfil the role is not without the risk of anachronism. There was always Persephone, to whom I could add a national epithet and thus link Her to my country’s heroic dead, but as I explained here, the word lar carries for me the notion of something closer, familial, even if just a celestial or domestic aspect of an otherwise infernal or terrifying entity. Which means that if I were to honour my favourite heroes as Lares, a queen of the underworld wasn’t quite it. Another possibility was my Family Lar, who in my personal theology leads and intermediates my deceased relatives and pets. But its focus is essentially domestic, so while that served the purpose of national heroes being honoured at home, it lacked a certain… something, a greater dimension that’s tied together in an organic fashion.

A Roman-period altar to Nabia found in northern Portugal

A Roman altar to Nabia found in northern Portugal

It was only recently – a few days ago, really – that I realized I had the answer, but just hadn’t connected the dots. When I started wondering about the local gods of my hometown, back in 2013, I eventually produced a multifaceted answer: a plethora of deities I came to call Lares Alcobacenses, all led by Silvanus with a corresponding epithet, and a nymph-like figure, perhaps a local Nabia, as my Family Lar, thus linking the region’s natural features, its history and that of my own family by means of a divine couple and a regional host. In essence, domestic and local cults tied together, which is appropriate considering my family from my father’s side has been in this part of Portugal for several centuries. And then in March this year, I noticed a few coincidences and though I will not go as far as saying that there’s something concrete to them, they nonetheless inspired an idea that now comes to fuller fruition.

The solution for the lack of a greater deity lies in the west-Iberian goddess Nabia with the epithet Portugalensis – the Portuguese Nabia – which is naturally a modern aspect and makes Her a presiding deity of the country and its people; just as my Family Lar, the local Nabia, presides over my household. In this, there’s something of a micro and macrocosm, a system where my home is my country and my country is my home and both are tied together by a goddess who has national and domestic aspects and can thus reflect the two. What’s more, because Nabia is a watery deity, She’s not without a connection to the other or underworld, which was traditionally seen as being accessible through caves, wells, lakes or underground springs, and in that She has that side of Persephone that made me consider Her. And this then is the little something I was looking for, that additional dimension that allows me to worship national heroes at home, as Lares, but with a connection to the greater scheme of things.

The Lares Portugalenses
Once I added these pieces, the rest presented itself rather quickly, starting with the structure of a ceremony. Apart from being in capite velato and having opening and closing tributes to Janus, Vesta and Jupiter, it should also have a twofold dynamic, with offerings being given in double portions, half burned in the ritual fire for my domestic Nabia or Family Lar and half collected in a circular bowl with water for Nabia Portugalensis (and later poured into a river). And then the same for each of the national heroes I chose to honour, one by one. It will result in a very long ceremony, but one that’s performed only once a year, reducing additional tributes to much simpler gestures like lighting a candle on my Lararium on the day of birth of at least some of those historical characters.

A statue of Portugal's first king, high on the roof top of my hometown's monastery.

A statue of Portugal’s first king, high on the roof top of my hometown’s monastery.

It also means that I’ll have to switch the title under which I worship Them, from Lares Patriae to Lares Portugalenses, thus matching Nabia’s epithet. And because I no longer have to worry about having too many sacrifices to Them on my fasti, I can enlarge the number of honoured heroes and finally include Portugal’s first king, who’s also a founding figure of my hometown, but whose exact date of birth is unknown. Which is no longer a problem! I can also add Bartolomeu Dias, another historical figure whose birthday is unrecorded, but who in 1488 sailed past the Cape of Good Hope, named thus precisely because of that feat. He later died there, while crossing the cape again in 1500, in what is a tragic event that has a certain mythic tone to it. And there’s also a medieval general and a chronicler, two travellers born in the 15th century, one from the 16th, a king from the 17th, one poet and one captain from the 20th century, adding to the three kings, one renaissance humanist, one politician and one diplomat I already worship.

There’s also the issue of when to perform the yearly sacrifice, something that isn’t necessarily easy when the current national day is the anniversary of the death of Camões, which occurred on the eve of the country becoming a Spanish territory, in 1580, and Portugal is roughly nine centuries old. There’s therefore plenty of alternative dates to chose from – some would say too many – but I’m leaning towards June 24th, the day of the Battle of Saint Mammes in 1128, which has been dubbed “the first Portuguese afternoon”. There’s something of a poetic simplification to those words, but poetry is often the art of saying with emotion otherwise plain information, so they nonetheless convey the seminal nature of the event.

The roads, as always
As all of this took shape in my mind, another idea stepped forward: that I could also worship some of those heroes as Lares Viales. The principle is basically the same as with the local gods of my hometown, i.e. resorting to a collective name for a divine host that can include deceased people and based on the pre-Christian practice of using the word lar for greater or smaller gods. Silvanus is an example I bring up every time and I’ve mentioned elsewhere the Iberian Lares Ceceaecis and Dii Ceceaigis, which may have been the same entities. The bottom line is that we’re talking about a title that can identify a deity, a divine host or an aspect of a deity that can also be a part of other groups. This overlap is also present in the modern Lares Alcobacenses, several of which may also be counted among my ancestors or Family Lares. And while I’m sure that this can be confusing at first, it’s easier to understand if you set aside notions of strictly defined and mutually exclusive categories. Things can be a lot more fluid in Roman polytheism, though the exact degree depends on one’s choice of theology.

So if Lar is a title and it can be applied to both smaller and greater gods, from a wandering spirit that looks after wayfarers to a Lord of Pathways like Mercury, then it’s not impossible that deceased travellers may be counted among the Lares Viales. In this case, Pêro da Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva. In 1487, both were sent on a scouting and spying mission to east Africa and India, in preparation for later sea voyages. They knew Arab, how to guide themselves in a foreign land and were not without the ability to blend into the local population. After reaching Cairo, they travelled through the Arabian Peninsula all the way to Aden and there went different ways, one to Persia and India and the other to Ethiopia. None of them returned to Portugal, having been prevented from doing so by disease – in the case of Afonso de Paiva – or Ethiopian kings. And there’s something mercurial in all of this, in the type of mission they had, their skills, the diplomatic nature of the later stages of Pêro’s voyage and the fact that they died on the road or abroad. And that to me suggests the potential to be small gods of wayfarers.

Another historical character of mercurial interest is Fernão Mendes Pinto, a wandering Portuguese from the 16th century who went as far as Japan and was anything but a straightforward traveller, having been pushed out of his way several times, even captured, trapped behind enemy lines and sold off as a slave. At times, he also acted as an ambassador, pirate and even joined the Jesuit Order, before leaving it in 1557. A few years later, he began writing an account of his journeys – the Peregrinação or Pilgrimage – and the whole thing reminds of something Karl Kerényi wrote in his Hermes: Guide of Souls, where he distinguishes between traveller and journeyer, the former being someone who’s on solid ground and taking possession of a charted path with every step, whereas the latter is in a constant state of fluctuation (2008: 31-2). And he ascribes the traveller to Zeus, while the journeyer is more aptly placed in Hermes’ world. The wandering life of Fernão Mendes Pinto was just that: a constant flux, never knowing what might follow or where he might end up. In a way, there’s an element of lost fool to it.

The back and forth of Fernão Mendes Pinto

The back and forth of Fernão Mendes Pinto

The final decision on whether or not to include these deceased men among the Lares Viales will not be taken without consulting Mercury and resorting to divination. The potential is there, but the worshiper – in this case me – is only part of the equation. But if I get a positive answer or at least no negative signs, then the three will not only receive offerings on the annual sacrifice to the Lares Portugalenses, but will also be honoured in at least one of my yearly tributes to Mercury and the Lares Viales. I’m thinking of July 4th, but more on that in a later post, since I haven’t yet talked about it and marked it on my fasti.

Past, present and future
In the end, what I’m doing here is what I’ve been saying for some time now and wrote about in my beginners’ guide to Roman polytheism: I’m entwining my religion with my modern country, thereby making it a living part of who I am here and now, not who I’d like to be in a re-enactment of a bygone State of which I’m not an actual citizen. And the fact that I’ve been distancing myself from the anti-modern sectors of the wider polytheist community only reinforces my focus on my native identity, giving my practices an increasing Portuguese colour.

Of course, the inclusion in one’s pantheon of deceased people who had a different religion, moral standards and worldview is something that can only happen if you’ve made peace with the past and neither deny its mistakes and wrong-doings, nor do you constantly bring them up as a protest banner or a rallying cry for ulterior agendas. If you haven’t yet sorted things out – which may not be entirely up to you – and either live in denial or see past people as little more than bad folks who did terrible things, then you won’t be going far when it comes to worshipping your land or community’s heroes and founding figures.

The world of the Wayfarers

Of the many gods worshipped as Lares in the ancient Roman world – and there were many of Them, some of a strictly local nature – there were the Lares Viales, which I’m sure you’ve heard about before if you’ve been following this blog for some time now. They’re closely related and sometimes undistinguishable from the Lares Compitales, for the obvious reason that while the former preside over the viae or roads, the latter rule the compitia or crossroads. Hence in his De Lingua Latina – book 6, chapter 25 – Varro says the Compitalia is a celebration in honour of the Lares Viales. This, by the way, is one of the few written references to Them in Roman sources, the other being Plautus’ Mercator, line 865, though in that instance there appears to be no confusion with other Lares. But whereas the Compitales where the object of a public cult, both before and after the Augustan reform of 7 BCE, and thus were given multiple shrines in Rome (Beard et al. 2010: 184), no such attention appears to have been awarded to the Lares Viales, which probably explains why there’s only one known altar to Them in Rome (CIL VI 36812). Of course, this doesn’t mean that They had few worshippers – at least not necessarily – but simply that the structures and shrines dedicated to the Lares Viales may have been of a more common and hence less perennial nature. Think of plain cairns, for instance, which are a natural expression of a wayfaring cult with no official status or wealthy patrons. A similar scarcity of pieces is true for the rest of the old Roman world, with one notable exception.

Physical traces
In total, there are thirty six known altars dedicated to the Lares Viales. Apart from the aforementioned example from Rome, there’s a second piece from Italy (CIL XI 3079), one from Dacia (CIL III 1422), another from Morocco (CIL VIII 9755) and one from Gaul (CIL XII 4320). There’s also three from the eastern half of the Iberian Peninsula (AE 1903 185; CIL II 2987) and then a whopping twenty eight altars in the northwest corner of the region, mostly in modern-day Galicia (Franco Maside 2002: 218-9).

Places where altars to the Lares Viales were found.

Places where altars to the Lares Viales were found.

The exact reason for this disproportion is unclear, but it may be connected to the late Romanization of northern Iberia, for while the south was conquered by Rome by the start of the second century BCE, it was only two hundred years later that the Asturias and surrounding regions were subdued. And unsurprisingly, such a chronological discrepancy carries cultural consequences, in that the south was already well within the Roman world by the time the north was entering it. William van Andringa noted as much, pointing out that religious practices reflected more closely those of Rome in long-conquered provinces like Baetica (southern Spain): in Tucci, Hercules, Jupiter Optimus Maximus and Pietas Augusta were popular, as were Diana, Venus, Libertas Augusta, Mars Augustus and the Lares Augustorum in Singili Barba. But in Lugo, Galicia, during the Roman period, a myriad of native Iberian gods were worshipped alongside Jupiter (van Andringa 2011: 86). No surprise then that Portela Filgueiras suggested that, in northwest Iberia, the Lares Viales and the king of the gods fulfilled the same role as the imperial cult elsewhere, i.e. were a religious expression of loyalty towards the Roman State (1984: 157). On that note and despite the fact that her work is three decades old and may therefore be somewhat outdated, it is nonetheless worth mentioning that Portela Filgueiras found no archaeological traces of the Lares Augusti being worshipped in Galicia and only two for the Lares Romani (or four, if you consider the borders of Roman Galicia, which included northern Portugal). And that’s despite the fact that over two dozen pieces dedicated to those two divine groups have been found elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula (Portela Filgueiras 1989: 161).

If they fulfilled the role of the imperial cult, then the popularity of the Lares Viales in ancient Galicia was an early or at best intermediate stage in a process of cultural assimilation. Had it started earlier or lasted longer, beyond Christianization, and perhaps the Lares Augusti would have become more popular in the region and maybe even displace the Lares Viales. But to thus conclude that Their popularity was just a product of a political scheme is to barely scratch the surface, for syncretism or assimilation of religious practices can only work if there’s a commonality, something that’s shared by both the new and old and allows for a transition. Which is why some have suggested that the Lares Viales of ancient Galicia were essentially a Roman mask to much older cults (Santos Yanguas 2014: 254). In other words, there must have been pre-existing entities who were already popular in the region and whose worshippers found a suitable Latin expression to their devotion in the Lares Viales. Had it been merely a case of a religious phenomenon produced by the movements of Roman troops along north-Iberian roads, then one would expect to find a similar result elsewhere in Europe. Yet that’s not the case. The popularity of the Lares Viales in Galicia is exceptional, so it stands to reason that there must have been exceptionally popular wayfaring gods of some sort during the region’s pre-Roman period, which, combined with the late Romanization, produced the cluster of altars visible in the map above. Who were those deities is a question to which there is no answer, since also unlike what happens elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula and indeed in the Roman world, They were not syncretised by means of epithets. There’s nothing along the lines of Mars Nodens, Apollo Belenus or Silvanus Sinquas – there’s just Lares Viales.

A continuum
Perhaps even more enticing is the awareness that Galicia remains a land religiously defined by wayfaring. It is marked by scores of travellers on traditional courses signalled by shells and cairns, though their destination is not a polytheistic shrine, but rather a Catholic one in Santiago de Compostela. Now before anyone jumps to the conclusions, the Galician cult of Saint James is not a Christianized version of an older, pre-Christian cult. There are elements of it, yes, the cairns being a clear example, but you’ll find that pretty much anywhere in Europe where there are hiking trails or pilgrimage routes. The fact that the 5th century bishop Martin of Dume (Braga, Portugal), in chapter 16 of his De Correctione Rusticorum, mentions the lighting of candles at crossroads is hardly evidence of a persistent worship of the Lares Viales in ancient Galicia. And that’s because in those same lines he also mentions the worshipping of trees and boulders, performing auguries, celebrating the Volcanalia and Calends, stepping in with your right foot, throwing bread and wine into fountains and invoking Minerva when weaving. Which begs the question of how far the text reflects a local reality that was observed first-hand or merely employs a standardized list of pagan practices in use by any Christian missionary at the time.

Roadside sign pointing the way to Santiago de Compostela, complete with a cairn. Source

Roadside sign pointing the way to Santiago de Compostela, complete with a cairn. Source

The truth is that the history of the Galician shrine of Saint James is complex and does not fit into the simplistic model of a pre-Christian cult with a Christian guise – though that is no doubt a popular belief among modern pagans and polytheists, especially those affected by the way too common form of paranoia known as siege mentality. For starters, because organized Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula goes back to c. 180, but the presumed discovery of the body of Saint James took place in c. 813. It’s a gap of over six centuries and between those two dates there was the officialization of Christianity, the outlawing of pagan religions, Germanic invasions and settlement, renewed missionary activity by Martin of Dume and others, schisms and internal struggles between Christian sects (Arianism, Priscilianism, Donatism, etc.), the Muslim conquest of almost all of the Iberian Peninsula and finally the start of the Reconquista in c. 720. By the time the body of the apostle is said to have been discovered, religious strife in Iberia was not between Christians and traditional polytheists, but between different movements of the former and Islam. It is revealing that the presumed tomb of Saint James, who was killed in Palestine and not in Galicia (Acts of the Apostles, 12:2), may in fact have been that of Priscillian, a Galician bishop who was decapitated for heresy in 385 and had a strong following in the region. That a remnant or memory of a cult to his remains may have been picked up by the Catholic Church in the first century of war against the Muslim south, thus in time providing the northern Christian kingdoms with a reinforced religious banner, goes to show how detached the Galician shrine of Saint James is from any hypothetical pre-Christian version. Even more so if one considers that the Asturian chronicles of the late ninth and early tenth centuries – the Albeldense and both versions of the Alfonso III – say nothing about the “miraculous discovery” in Santiago de Compostela, thus placing the popularity of the Catholic cult at an even later date.

Still, there is a coincidence, an accidental continuum, if you will: the land where the Lares Viales appear to have been more popular is still a country of travellers, defined for centuries by wayfaring. That’s actually the reason why this blog’s header image is a photo of a golden scallop on cobblestones: shells have become a symbol of the way of Saint James – the exact motive is unknown – and you’ll see them being used by just about any pilgrim, decorating Galician churches and signs along roads and hiking trails and find dozens of them in golden metal on the medieval streets of Santiago de Compostela, marking old pilgrimage routes.

Old ways made new
In using the scallop, I’m drinking from the continuum and using it to express my west-Iberian roots, mercurial devotion and worship of the Lares Viales, employing what has essentially become a recognizable symbol of travellers and movement in the land where the gods of the roads were popular. I’m not integrating Saint James into my practices or pantheon, just as the shrine at Santiago de Compostela didn’t replace a pre-Christian cult site, but I am picking up elements, similarly to Catholic pilgrims and non-religious hikers who have taken up the older practice of erecting cairns. It’s a continuous use and reuse of gestures and symbols in an ever-present Galician background of wayfaring that stretches back over two millennia. And incidentally, when I was midway through writing this post and left the computer to join a few friends at a party, I found two clamshells down the street and saw two roosters walking by a busy road in a nearby village. Which is interesting at the very least.

Perhaps it’s time I add the pieces and start something cohesive and concrete. I’m already a devotee of Mercury and honour the Lares Viales alongside Him on January 4th, the first days of April and am considering two additional annual celebrations (thus reaching a total of four). The gods of roads are also in my daily prayers and, every time I pour wheat on a wayside or cairn to Mercury, I pour an extra for Them. There are Iberian gods full of mercurial potential, like Ilurbeda, for whom there are archaeological links to the Lares Viales, or Quangeio, hypothetically a god’s companion just as dogs are humans’. A basic philosophy has been worked out and there’s plenty of symbols to choose from, be it scallops, wheels, travellers’ staffs, winged boots or hats, cairns or canines. There’s even fertile ground for an initiatory element with the goal of becoming a Lar Viale upon death and thus join Mercury’s divine entourage of travelling gods.

Perhaps I should take the clamshells and roosters as a hint, add the pieces I already have and lay the foundations of something new, something that may become a tradition if it survives the test of time. An Iberian branch of Roman polytheism, complete with its own coherent set of ideas and practices and focusing on the Lares Viales and Mercury as foremost among Them. Of course, it would have to be done in full awareness that human existence is brief, no more than a few decades long, so if such a religious construct is to become a tradition, grow and be successful, I will not see it in my lifetime. But I can still sow the fields, I can lay the first stone. Every journey starts with a single step, even if you do not reach the intended destination and others have to continue for you. You do your part, no matter how small, and then let others do theirs.

Perhaps it’s time for a Way of the Wayfarers to be born.

Cairns on the road to Finisterra - Galicia's Land's End. My own photo from 2010.

Cairns on the road to Finisterra – Galicia’s Land’s End. My own photo from 2010.

Works cited
BEARD, Mary; NORTH, John; PRICE, Simon. 2010. Religions of Rome, volume I: a History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
FRANCO MASIDE, Rosa María. 2002. “Lares Viales na provincia de A Coruña. In Gallaecia n. 21, Santiago de Compostela: Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, pp. 215-222.
PORTELA FILGUEIRAS, Maria Isabel. 1984. “Los dioses Lares en la Hispania romana”. In Lucentum, n. 3, Alicante: Universidad de Alicante, pp. 153-180.
SANTOS YANGUAS, Narciso. 2014. “El culto a los Lares Viales en Asturias”. In Ilu: Revista de Ciencias de las Religiones, n. 25. Madrid: Universidad Complutense de Madrid, pp. 251-263.
VAN ANDRINGA, William. 2011. “Religions and the integration of cities in the Empire in the second century AD: the creation of a common religious language”. In A Companion to Roman Religion, ed. Jörg Rüpke. Blackwell: Oxford, pp. 83-95.

Adjusting my fasti

The inevitable entry of Quangeio into my religious life and the question of when to commemorate Him annually took me back to my festive calendar. There’s a balance I try to keep in it, avoiding celebrations in consecutive or close days as much as possible so as to make my practice easier to manage and harmonize with modern life. I’m not a priest, let alone a full-time paid priest, meaning my daily routine is made up of things other than religion and I have to make room for all of them. Plus, ideally, Roman ritual often calls for a fire, which in turn requires firewood. While in the past this would have been unproblematic, since it was an essential part of any household, today’s housing has turned firewood into an extra, something that has to be collected for very specific purposes, with the added difficulty that forested areas may not be next door in modern cities. An urban park is often the closest thing, but the amount and quality of the twigs it can yield may be limited. And while at the moment I live in a small city and have a large pine forest a short distance away, that may not be the case in years to come. So taking all of this into consideration, I decided to make several adjustments to my religious calendar so as to make things more practical with regard to both time and resources. In total, there were eleven changes, which resulted in the following festive calendar:


Moving festivals
In four instances, I moved annual feasts so as to overlap them with either the Nones or Ides of a given month. Since I ritually burn offerings on those occasions anyway, I reasoned that instead of duplicating ceremonies and ritual fires, it would be best to simply change the date of some celebrations by a few days. Thus, rather than marking Vestalia on June 9th, I pushed it to the Ides on June 13th and made a similar change to Apollo’s yearly sacrifice, moving it from July 13th to the 15th, Hercules’ from August 4th to the 5th and my commemoration of emperor Julian the Faithful from November 3rd to the 5th. In the first two cases, there’s actually a symbolic gain, since the Ides are the middle and hence a sort of focus or pinnacle of a month. So it is not without meaning that Vesta, goddess of the fireplace, should be celebrated on the focal point of June and Apollo on the summit of the seventh month. Emperor Julian’s day is a bit of an approximation, since he was made Caesar on 3 November 355 and became the sole Augustus on 6 November 361, so the Nones are somewhere in the middle.

However, whereas in all of these cases the ritual used is always Roman, and hence annual and monthly offerings may be burned during the same ceremony in a structured manner, the same cannot be said of instances where different rites are employed. That’s the case of the Dominalia and Tonitralia, dedicated to Freya and Thor and which up until now I’ve been marking on May 1st and November 13th, respectively. Since They’re Norse deities, I use the ritus aprinus, which means that I have to light up two ritual fires in the same day for consecutive ceremonies. Sometimes that may be possible, but others there may be time constrains. As such, in those two cases, I decided to separate yearly and monthly sacrifices, thus moving the Dominalia to May 25th and the Tonitralia to November 9th. These dates are still somewhat experimental, as they may be changed in the event of signs that manifest divine disapproval.

I also moved the date of the Arentalia, dedicated to the Iberian gods Arentius and Arentia. I honour Them in Roman rite, so the issue there is not one of ritual duplication, but rather of some dispersal. See, the Calends call for offerings to Janus, Juno and the Family Lares, which are then disposed of in a structured manner, ideally in a ritual fire. To do that in an annual ceremony honouring Arentius and Arentia may be somewhat counterproductive when you’re trying to connect with Them, so assuming that less recipients allows for a greater focus, I moved the Arentalia to September 5th. Here too there’s an element of added symbolism, for I assign the Nones to my Family Lares alone and since I see Them as my ancestors and my family has been in the Iberian Peninsula for at least 400 years, it is not without a happy meaning that the Nones of September are the date of my annual commemoration of an Iberian divine pair.

Njord’s festivity was also moved, though not by a need to manage raw materials. His celebration is normally done without a ritual fire, consisting of a sand boat on a beach on which offerings are placed and consecrated with sea water. For the past few years, I’ve been doing that on July 3rd, but I’m presently considering a new feast to Mercury on the 4th (more on that in a later post), so in order to avoid two events in consecutive days, I moved the Niordalia to July 9th, which is in line with the numerical symbolism of Norse mythology. I’m less concerned with proximity in the case of Anubis’ annual commemoration, which I’ve been marking on February 7th, but decided to move to the 11th. It’s closer to Parentalia, which is appropriate, and since my offerings to Him are not burned and can be done at home, it’s less time and wood-consuming.

Finally, I added two new annual celebrations. One is Laralia, which is dedicated to the Lares Alcobacenses or the gods of my homeland. Since they’re partially identical to my ancestors, I figured that a good time to honour Them would be after Caristia, which is a family feast. It does mean that I’ll have to perform ceremonies on consecutive days, something I try to avoid, but I’m willing to go the extra mile in this case, since there’s an additional symbolism on February 23rd: it’s in line with Silvanus’ annual celebration on October 23rd, which is important, given that I’ve come to place Him as a leading deity among the Lares Alcobacenses.

And last, but certainly not least, I picked August 24th for Quangeio’s yearly festival. The reasons are multiple: it’s practical, since it’s an empty part of my religious calendar; it’s symbolic, given that it’s during or shortly after the dog days (their exact date varies); it’s mercurial, since it’s a multiple of four and I feel tempted to explore the idea of Quangeio as an Iberian companion of Mercury, much like Rosmerta in Gaul or something along similar lines of Hanuman and Rama; and there’s a bit of a hunch to it, too.

Some things don’t change
There are still instances where different sacrifices take place in consecutive days, but there’s no avoiding them without a symbolic loss. For instance, Vialia and Mercury’s birthday are just before the Nones of January and April, respectively, but if they were to take place on the 5th instead of the 4th day of those months, they’d lose their numerical significance. Ulleralia is another example, being just before the Ides of December, but it’s dedicated to the Norse god Ullr, who’s linked to winter and, in a way, circles (the ring, the shield, even the stretched bow). And the 12th day of the 12th month is a sort of chronological full circle on a wintery eve, which makes it an appropriate date. Then there’s Apotropalia and Agonalia, which are separated by just one day, but I hesitate about moving the latter to the Ides of January, given that I find it somewhat significant that there’s an equal amount of days between two sacrifices to Janus at the start of the year and during the Parentalia, which lasts from the 13th to the 21st of February. This is not to say that Janus has an infernal aspect, but there may be something to the number that’s connected to beginnings or transitions.

The Lares Alcobacenses

Who’s the god of my homeland? There’s more than one god in one place. Who are the genii loci of my native land? The spirits of trees, rocks, hills and beaches, the nymphs of rivers, lakes and woods, those who dwell unseen yet not unfelt along the roads and in fields and orchards. The blood and bone of your ancestors, your blood and bones. What about the dead? The unclaimed wander, the claimed join their families. Many are forgotten, some remembered, but most cannot be severed from the place that embraced their bodies. Your body is a part of you, a trace of you. And when it melts away into the soil, it becomes one with the land, its trees, its rivers, its rocks. The genii loci know you, because a part of you is a part of them. This is a land of your forefathers: the soil has blood and bones of your ancestors, your blood and bone.

Let me be clear and state that the lines above are not from a conversation with a god. I have not been endowed with such an ability. They are simply the sum of my mental notes on the issue of the local gods of my homeland. And after experimenting and considering the matter for two years, I believe I have found the answer I was looking for.

In the western part of the Iberian Peninsula, there are several Roman-period inscriptions and altars dedicated to Lares. Not the horn-raising gods from Roman lararia, but something else, less domestic and even if it can have a link with households. This takes us back to the issue of religious terminology, since the term lar overlaps with genius and deus: there are genii loci or local spirits of both the natural and man-made landscape, but also an individual’s genius and community’s; the Lares can be one’s ancestors, spirits of a place (e.g. crossroads) or maybe both. For instance, the Lares Viales may be genii of pathways, of trees and rocks that stand along them or the spirits of the people who were buried by the roads just outside ancient cities. The word Lar could even be used as a title for a greater god, as in the case of Silvanus (CIL VI 646). I know clear-cut categories are much more comfortable and easier to work with, but that’s not how these things work. God, lar, genius, nymph and so forth are not mutually exclusive terms. They serve practical purposes, yes, and in that sense they’re not mere synonyms of each other, but neither do they stand for entirely or even largely different groups. Genius is a generic word that can be used for all kinds of spirits, including those of living people. God or deus (plural di) is also generic, but refers to non-human and deceased numinous entites: Di Manes (the Divine Dead), Di Parentes (the Divine Relatives), Di Penates (the Household Gods), Di Consentes (the greater or Olympian Gods), Di Inferi (the Infernal or Underworld Gods), Di Conservatores (the Gods who Save or Preserve) and Di Indigetes, which could include small gods like Cardea, who presides over door hinges, or Prema, who supervises sexual embrace. “Good fairies” is how Robert Turcan described some of the Indigetes (Gods of Ancient Rome 2002: 18), but though minor, they, like the dead, are gods or di nonetheless. And the groups can also overlap, since the Infernal may include the Manes and some of the Consentes are also Conservatores. As for nymph, it always refers to a female deity, often associated with water. The goddesses Juturna, Carmenta and Egeria are all at one time described as nymphs and hence also why Brigantia is referred to as one. And She’s not alone in that: the equally British Coventina is referred to as a goddess (Dea Conuentina) and nymph (Nimpha Couentina) (RIB 1526-7). But when in doubt on the specific identity of local gods one wished to address, the generic genii loci was useful, as was the expression sive deus sive dea (whether god or goddess). Mane has an underworld quality to it, whereas Lar appears to be more benign, so while both terms can refer to the spirits of the dead (though not exclusively), the latter seems to summon a non-infernal side or part of the deceased, in as much as they can be worshipped domestically (Family Lares), while the Manes are normally confined to graveyards. As I said before, the terminology is less about clear-cut categories and more about scope and function where divinity is not a privilege of a limited few up on the hierarchy, but a trait of the countless many, both great and minor. As evidenced by the common use of deus/di.

You get a sense of all of this once you start going through the ancient altars dedicated to Lares in the Iberian Peninsula: in the area of Castelo Branco (Portugal), inscriptions have been found to both Di and Lares Cairieses, which were presumably local deities; a similar pattern can be found elsewhere, like in an inscription to the Lares Tarmucenbaecis Cecaecis, found in the region of Chaves (Portugal), which are perhaps the gods or Dii Ceceaigis mentioned further north in the area of Ourense (Galicia, Spain); from Coimbra (Portugal) comes a small altar to the Genius Conimbricae or the geni of the city; the same site also produced pieces to the Lares Aquites, which may have been aquatic gods or nymphs, and the Lares Lubanci, believed to have been tribal gods of a specific local clan; an altar dedicated to the Lares Buricis was found in the district of Braga (Portugal) and they were probably genii loci or local gods, since the area where the piece comes from is known as Bouro; and another example is an altar found in Lugo (Galicia, Spain), which was dedicated to the Lares Gallaeciarum or the Galician Lares.*

So in light of this and after meditating on a few ideas, I have started to address the gods of my ancestral land as Lares Alcobacenses. It is a wide category, vague enough to include countless entities of different sorts, while simultaneously expressing their local nature. They are the genii of the trees, rocks and hills, the nymphs of woods and rivers, the gods of fields and roads. Some may step forward individually and be named accordingly, most may remain an anonymous part of the host; some may be strictly local gods, attached to particular elements of the landscape, while others may be localized aspects of greater gods. I may address them collectively or highlight a specific subgroup, such as the Nymphae Alcobacenses. They are nature and animal spirits, both wild and domesticated, but some may also be human, namely the unclaimed dead and even the deceased who were claimed, yet retain a link to the land they were buried in. A body is a part and trace of someone. Perhaps the three kings, two queens and multiple princes whose remains rest in the local monastery are part of the Lares Alcobacenses. Perhaps the host includes spirits of soldiers who fell in nearby battles or people who died in this area while travelling, making them part of the local Lares Viales – yet another subgroup of the Lares Alcobacenses. And perhaps some of them are ancestors of mine, since my family has been in this region for at least 300 years. Their bodies and those of their animals have melted into the local soil, making it part of my blood and bones. This land is ancestral to me, its earth is tied to my family line in a very physical manner. Of course, this means my Family Lares overlap with the Lares Alcobacenses, but how is that surprising given what was said before? If successive generations stay long enough in a particular area, they become a part of it on a deep level; and a deceased person can be a mane, a family or household god and a genius loci, just as a nymph can be called the latter as well as a goddess. Again, don’t think of it as clear-cut or mutually exclusive categories. Rather accept the terminology as fluid, prone to overlaps, and realize the existing continuum between human and divine in its multiple forms, both greater and lesser. A beautiful expression of that is Camilla’s recent post on a Lar of Iowa City.

This leaves me wondering on where to take the idea of a local cult of Silvanus. I still think He makes perfect sense given the natural and even cultural background of the area. The woods, the rivers and its nymphs, the farming and herding, the nearby large pine forest and the fruit production that’s part of the city’s trademark, all of this resonates with Silvanus’ nature and functions. So instead of taking Him as the local god, perhaps it’s best to enshrine Silvanus as a local deity with a corresponding aspect or epithet. Call Him Lar, something that has historical precedent, maybe even foremost among the Lares Alcobacenses. In that sense, He could work as a representative of strictly local deities, allowing me to honour the gods of my homeland through Him when I’m not in situ and therefore cannot reach the local rivers, trees and hills. It would also give me a date for monthly offerings to the Lares Alcobacenses, which would be on the same day of the month as my annual feast to Silvanus, which, by the way, is something that I’m also reviewing. Obviously, I still have some thinking to do, but things are falling into place.

* All examples from the Iberian Peninsula were taken from Los Dioses de la Hispania Céltica by Juan Pedreño (2002), pages 54, 56-7, 74, 81-2 and 93.

If you narrow it, you miss it

There’s been some online discussion on multiple aspects of reconstructed or revived forms of ancient polytheism. It started with Galina Krasskova’s piece on modern Heathenry, which generated a debate in the comments section. Edward Butler added more thoughts on the matter on Twitter, followed by Galina’s own further considerations and Sarenth’s take on what it means to place the Gods first.

Many excellent points have already been made in this discussion, some of which I can relate to personally. Among modern Roman polytheists, there are some who harbour a deep suspicion, if not outright disgust, for anything that goes too much into personal religion and instead expect individuals to deal with the Gods in the same emotionally sanitized way as a public cult. They’d argue there can be no personal devotion or patronage, because that’s either monotheistic baggage or a form of superstition, i.e. the religious equivalent of paranoia and obsession. Or so those modern cultores claim, but their reasoning is flawed, because it is based on the assumption that we have all the information on ancient Roman experiences of religion. We don’t! We have a sample of what some in the elites thought, but not a full range of views and even less so when we consider the lower classes. And most of the information refers to public religion, which is naturally formal and emotionally neutral, because that’s how things are when one deals with an institution. What those modern cultores do is to assume that what was valid for the State should be equally valid for the individual. In other words, they take data on part of the ancient Roman religion and assume it for the whole, so if public cults were emotionally sanitized, that should also be the case with individuals in their daily dealings with the Gods. It’s what happens when you try to revive an ancient religion on which you have only partial and poorly diverse information and fail to consider the full range of human experiences: you mistake the part for the whole. And you screw it big time as a result. Especially when the sources still give you glimpses of personal religion and individual devotion towards specific gods: Augustus took Apollo as his patron, Domitian was a devotee of Minerva, Apuleius went everywhere with a figurine of Mercury.

Now, I’ve addressed this topic more extensively in another post, so I’m not going to expand on it today. Instead, I’d like to briefly address something else brought up recently when Galina shared this post in which Nicholas Haney claims that he’s not god-centric because he focuses on ancestors and landwights instead. And that, I’d argue, is misreading the notion of god in polytheism.

What is a god? The question is easily answered in monotheism: god is the all-knowing, all-powerful and all-seeing being who created and rules everything. And because there’s only one, everyone else is not a god, no matter how much they look and act like one. They’re called by other names: angels, demons, saints, prophets and so forth. But how does it work in polytheism, where there’s no divine monopoly nor a cap on the number of divine beings? Can godhood be restricted to a specific group of more-than-mere-human beings? No, it can’t. A landwight, just like an ancestor, is a deity. A nymph is a goddess, an elf is god, as is the spirit of a dead person. Whereas in monotheism the question of divinity is one of absolutes – one god and everyone else is not a god – in polytheism things normally work in multiple shades of grey: greater, lesser, local, universal, family, tribal, regional and national gods and demigods. Divinity is everywhere or, as Thales of Miletus would say, everything is full of gods. And this is so precisely because there is no monopoly or cap on the divine. There’s no limit to it and it can therefore be found in countless forms everywhere.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Check what ancient polytheists left us: Romans called the deceased Di Manes or Divine Dead; the god Silvanus is in one occasion called Lar Agrestis (CIL VI 646), even though the word Lar was also used for one’s ancestors (the Family Lares) and spirits of the roads (the Lares Viales); in England, one inscription addresses a Dea Nympha Brigantia or the Goddess Nymph Brigantia (CIL VII 875), while another mentions a Deus Genius Choguncis or God Genius Choguncio (RIB 119). Which shows that the divine status was not restricted to a specific group of higher beings. Simply put, what was a god, a nymph and a landwight was less of a matter of fixed or clear-cut categories and more an issue of function and scope where divinity was not a privilege of a limited few, but a trait of countless many. And in case you’re thinking these examples are too Roman and bear little meaning in other traditions, consider the Dísir in Norse polytheism: they’re divine women or mothers, tribal and family goddesses if not female ancestors, yet goddesses nonetheless; but the word dís is also used for the Valkyries, themselves minor deities of war and at one time called Odin’s or Herjans dísir (Guðrúnarkviða I, stanza 19); even Freyja is referred to as Vanadís or the Dís of the Vanir. Some find this messy, may even suggest it is the result of late sources and fragmented memories of a pre-Christian worldview, yet I disagree. You find the same fluidity and overlapping terminology in Roman polytheism, for which there are genuinely pagan sources.

So when a polytheist says he’s not god-centric because he focuses on ancestors and landwights instead of gods, he’s basically superimposing a monotheistic scheme on a polytheistic worldview. So just as in the former you have god at the top followed by strata of non-gods (angels, saints, prophets, etc.), in the latter you end up with multiple gods on the top followed by non-gods (landwights, nymphs, elves, dísir, ancestors, etc.). In other words, it amounts to organizing a polytheistic pantheon according to monotheistic standards. Yet polytheism is not monotheism with more gods. It has its own set of theological rules and dynamics, because divine diversity and multiplicity have theological consequences. Focusing on landwights and ancestors is being god-centric too, because landwights and ancestors are gods as well. Minor, local, family or tribal ones, but gods nonetheless. And I’m not the first person to say this: back in 2010, Cara Schulz addressed the same issue in a post called Regulating the Gods: A Hellenist on Hubris. Go and read it, people. Seriously! We live in a society where religious discourse is dominated by monotheistic assumptions, but if we want to understand and revive ancient religions in today’s world, we need to understand them on their own terms and, through that process, deeply review today’s conventional wisdom on religious issues. And that means confronting and ultimately dropping ideas like landwights not being gods or, for that matter, Heathenry or Roman polytheism being defined as a “faith”. I know it’s not always easy to do this sort of mental work. I’ve been through the experience multiple times and question my own assumptions often. But it needs to be done if we’re serious about reviving ancient religions in the modern world. Polytheism is not monotheism with more gods.

Parentalia schedule

Parentalia, the ancient Roman festival in honour of the family dead, starts tomorrow, 13th of February, and lasts until the 21st, with an additional domestic feast on the 22nd called Caristia. When it comes to ancestor worship, this is the high point of the year for a cultor, but it can also be problematic in its length. What to do during those nine days between the 13th and the 21st? Go to a cemetery in every single one of them? Hit the road and visit multiple graveyards in the area? Or if you’re too busy, do it once on a day of your choosing? These and other questions have been brewing in my mind for some time, so this year, in an effort to make something different and meaningful every day, I decided to create a schedule focused on my ancestors and deities linked to the spirits of the dead. This is still at an experimental stage, but here’s what I’m considering for this year’s Parentalia:

    13th: Libations to Persephone and my ancestors;
    14th: Offerings of wine and wheat on the graves of my ancestors;
    15th: Libations to Mercury;
    16th: Offerings of wine and wheat to my ancestors who are buried far away
    17th: Libations to Hecate
    18th: Offerings of wine and wheat to drowned or lost ancestors
    19th: Libations to the Lares Alcobacenses or genii of my ancestral land
    20th: Offerings to the spirits of family pets and animals
    21st: Libations to Persephone and my ancestors

The point is to give each day a particular focus within the theme of ancestor worship and reach as many family dead as possible. There’s some logic to it, in that it starts and ends with libations to the Queen of the Underworld and my ancestors – like brackets, if you will – leaving the days in between to break it down into several groups: those buried far away, those lost at sea or elsewhere and family pets or animals, alternating with tributes to relevant gods. Depending on how it goes, I may review it completely or make a few minor changes.

Parentalia is immediately followed by Caristia on the 22nd, which is a feast of reconciliation and nurturing of family ties. For some time now, I’ve been looking at the whole season as a model for the overall structure of funeral rites: death (13th), mourning and burial or vice-versa (14-21st), celebration as the dead joins the Family Lares (22nd); death severs ties with a family member, but after the funeral and a period of transition, the ties are renewed as the deceased (or part of him/her) is welcomed by the ancestral Lar. Which is why I’m also thinking of placing a black cloth or ribbon above my Lararium between the 13th and the 21st and then replace it with a flower wreath on the 22nd. Again, all of this is still very experimental.

Perhaps Silvanus

Almost two years ago, I wrote this post and started a quest for the local gods of my hometown. It’s not an easy endeavour, not because there’s no information on western Iberian gods – there are hundreds of archaeologically known theonyms – but because there are little or no traces in this particular part of Portugal. A few depictions with no text have showed up here and there and an inscription to Minerva was once uncovered in a nearby village, but that’s pretty much it. No local gods or native deities are known, at least not by name, and that’s despite the centuries of Roman and pre-Roman presence in this region, as evidenced by the multiple traces of fortresses, tools and villas. Yet there are gods everywhere – in the sky, rivers, trees, rocks, hills, mountains, fields, pathways and crossroads. It’s the known individual identity that’s missing here and, not being a spirit worker, I basically have two options: either worship local deities in a generic fashion (e.g. Lar Alcobacensis) or connect the local environment with a known god/dess. While the former is perfectly reasonable, I decided to keep it as a backup plan and try the latter, thus setting out in search of deities who can resonate with my hometown (or vice-versa).

Now, as I wrote in the aforementioned post from 2013, my initial intuition was to focus on water and/or moon goddesses, given the local abundance of rivers and streams and what appears to be a centuries-old tradition of lunar cults. In that sense, Diana was certainly an option, but I also wanted to consider Iberian powers, which resulted in a list that at one point had around ten goddesses. Among them was Nabia, who ended up being my first choice. I already had an interest in Her and, as I wrote here, overall She seemed like the most consistent non-Roman option. So I added an annual festival to my calendar and started honouring Her, which had mixed results: while I noticed no negative response, even if the offerings were somewhat clumsy at times, I got no answer when I asked Nabia if She’s the goddess of my hometown and would therefore be willing to be honoured as a household deity. No bird flew near the river, no fish stirred the waters, no dream visited me at night. Maybe I failed to notice a sign, perhaps I should have asked a simpler question, maybe the answer is ‘no’. I decided to give it a rest for a few weeks and return to my list of options with an open mind.

On January 4th, in the spirit of Vialia, I joined a trekking group for a long morning walk. We entered some dense woodland, so dense that at one point there was no way two people could walk side by side, and it was there, surrounded by oak, pine and laurel trees, that my mind brought up a name I had so far failed to consider: Silvanus! I had been so focused on the idea of water goddesses, that I failed to consider woodland gods. And yet, it’s an option that makes perfect sense: a document from c. 1148 describes the site of my hometown as a silva or forest, which is what it was for a long time and still is in many places. The southern end of one of Europe’s largest pine forests is actually just a few kilometres away and even the aquatic element is not without a link to Silvanus, since He’s historically associated with nymphs. “Wood nymphs”, some might say, but if you’ve seen a small river or stream in a dense forest, you know that the water and the vegetation overlap considerably. Even the herding and fruit production that’s part of the local economy falls well within Silvanus’ realm. There’s a reason why He’s traditionally depicted with a batch of fruit and a pruning knife or why some ancient inscriptions refer to Him as Lar Agrestis (the Rustic Lar) and sanctissimus pastor (Most Holy Shepherd). Check Dorcey’s The Cult of Silvanus (1992: 21-4), if you’re wondering about it.

So after mentally connecting these dots and thinking about it, I decided to ask Silvanus directly. Two days ago, I walked up a hill just outside my hometown and entered a wooded area. After placing my right hand on the ground, I greeted the local genii and offered Them corn. I then touched a large pine tree and poured water over its roots, saluting its spirit and asking it to be my intermediary. And afterwards I gave Silvanus a libation of wine before posing the question, to which there was no obvious answer other than the wind blowing and the trees bending gently. At night, I had a dream about something or someone coming over from France, though I’m not sure if it has anything to do with Silvanus. If it does, it may hint at a Celtic connection (I have considered Sucellus) or have something to do with the god moving in, either in the past with Roman soldiers and settlers or in more recent days.

So now I’m meditating on the issue and juggling multiple ideas. My mind keeps reminding me that there are many gods of different types in one place, just as Rome itself had several local deities. Think of Juturna, Palatua and Tiberinus, to name just three examples. In that sense, this may come down to a matter of choice, of choosing which god/desses I want to honour and how. Which reminds me that I can use the backup plan I mentioned above and combine it with Silvanus, worshiping Him and a group of local genii I could call nymphae Alcobacenses, thus following the historical pattern. In fact, that may well be the most satisfying solution, since it includes both a named and multiple unnamed powers, the arboreal and aquatic elements, thereby resulting in a more comprehensive approach to the gods of this land. Heck! Even a local Diana and Nabia may be hinted at through a cult of the nymphs.