Hopefully, French and Germans will show a greater maturity in their elections next year – or at least their electoral system will be enough of a safety valve. And the reason why I’m sharing this here, in a blog that’s not about politics, is because this week’s events have added to the feeling of alienation, of being unable to see myself in what’s said and done by an important part of US polytheists, as voiced here and elsewhere on multiple occasions since early January. Fair to say that 2016 has been a year of fracture. Which is why, in all honesty, I’m very happy about my decision to set up a blog in Portuguese, aimed first and foremost to the specifics of a Portuguese context, so as to mentally – and emotionally! – distance myself more effectively from the polarization of US society and focus instead on the idiosyncrasies of mine. I actually made up my mind about it two months ago and I won’t open the new blog until January 4th – not a randomly chosen date – but given the victory of Trumpism, I needed to get it out of my chest. There’s something of a “fuck it, I’m out of here” feeling to it (pardon my French), so there you have it. One more push in the drifting away of the stone raft. I’ll keep this site active – English does reach a bigger audience than Portuguese – but it won’t be the sole focus of my blogging attention. I really, really need a change of air.
Case by case
In the past, this has led me to conclude that Hephaestus is different from Volcanus, for while they are both fire gods, the former is that of the forge – and hence civilized fire – whereas the latter is that of the wild and inner earth, which translates into a much more primal and violent force. Just because several deities are tied to the flames, it doesn’t mean that they’re the same. Otherwise, you might have to conclude that Hephaestus and Hestia are identical, despite the gender difference, because they both deal with fire. It’s the nature of the flame that matters. On the opposite end of the topic, I’ve come to conclude that Hermes and Mercury are the same, since the latter was not a part of the earliest Roman pantheon – as suggested by the lack of a flamen – and the location of His temple outside the pomerium, while not an infallible proof, nonetheless also hints at an originally foreign cult. The Greek colonies of southern Italy may well be the point from where Hermes entered Roman religion. And between equation and distinction, I’m unsure about Jupiter, for while His name is an etymological match to that of Zeus, both Latin and Greek are Indo-European languages, so if you’re going to name a sky god, chances are that you’ll use something that’s linguistically identical to what’s being employed in another tongue of the same group. Simply put, it could be a mere case of different gods being identified by means of common words.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with believing differently, because 1) these are not orthodox or exclusivist religions and 2) it ends up being a bit indifferent. After all, if they’re the same, that just means you’ve been worshipping the same deity all along, whereas if they’re not, then you’ve been honouring the ones you name according to a chosen ritual praxis. And again, yes, simplistic and sometimes even contradictory equation was a very common thing in the ancient world. But when I look at pre-Christian authors claiming that the Egyptians worshipped Aphrodite (meaning Hathor) or that the Germans honoured Mercury (i.e. Wodan), I remind myself of what happened when Vasco da Gama reached India, in 1498, and the Portuguese mistook Hindu deities for Catholic saints. True, they found it odd that they had multiple arms, big teeth and weird heads, but that wasn’t an immediate disqualifier, in as much as Vasco da Gama is said to have prayed to a Hindu goddess thinking it was the Virgin Mary. Or at least that’s the account of Lopes de Castanheda, published in 1551, in his History of the Discovery and Conquest of India by the Portuguese (Book I, chapter 16). And the reason for the confusion is that, in the minds of Gama and his men, there were only three religions at the time: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. They were not particularly aware of any other. They may have heard about tribal African religions, though it’s unclear how they saw them exactly, but in any case, when confronted with the large stone buildings of Hinduism, with its many colours and statues, the only point of reference they had in living memory was Catholicism, since neither Jews nor Muslims worship images. And thus, the obvious conclusion was that the Indians were Christians.
This is how I often – though not always – look at classical equations: a simplistic reasoning born out of the fact that people had a limited knowledge of other religions and naturally assumed a sameness that filled in the blanks; or alternatively, an implicit statement of self-importance, in that you see yourself as superior or at the centre of things and so of course other people do the same as you. Much like modern, often ill-informed individuals may assume that what’s true for their country is true elsewhere in the world, because all they know is basically what they deal with daily or they see themselves as important enough for their specifics to be universal. And in the particular case of the ancient Romans, it was also an issue of the grass being more educated on the Greek side of the fence, so they claimed that it too was Roman.
Again, this doesn’t mean that there’s no merit in equation. It’s a valid theological perspective, one that I share in some instances, and, as said, this is not a matter of orthodoxy. But I cannot take it at face value, accept it simply because that’s what ancient authors did, no more than I can conclude that two or more gods are the same just because they share functions or looks. If human life is similar, of course you’re going to find different deities attached to similar spheres of influence. And iconography, like names and legendary elements, can move around and get tied to multiple things and entities that are nonetheless separate. Look at how the Japanese wind god Fujin is depicted with a bag or cloak similar to that of the Greek Boreas, not because they’re necessarily the same, but because the artistic convention was slowly carried over from Greece to Japan by way of conquest and trade. Consider also how the depiction of the Virgin Mary partially derives from that of pre-Christian goddesses like Isis, not because they’re the same entity, but because the iconography of the latter was used to depict the former. Or in a weirder, yet enlightening example, how peasants from 13th-century France transferred the name and martyr status of a human saint – Guinefort – to a greyhound they worshipped. They’re not the same character – one is a man, the other a dog – but the former’s name and title was used for a canine cult (Schmitt 2009: 91-105). And in a clearer case of imported elements being attached to a native figure, the words in hoc signo vinces, which were said to have appeared to Constantine before the battle of the Milvian bridge, in 312, are also part of a much later legend pertaining to the first Portuguese king and his victory at Ourique in 1139 (Pereira 1993: 436). Check Camões’ The Lusíadas III: 45 for an allusion to it. In short, parts of things can move and get attached to other, independent things. It’s a bit like clothing fashion, in that it too gets passed around between people, communities and cultures. But just because two or more individuals wear the same outfit, that doesn’t mean they’re the same person or of the same country.
A complex case
My most recent dive into the brainstorm that are such matters concerns Minerva. I’ve been going back and forth with it, sometimes leaning towards distinction, others towards equation with Athena, and a few days ago I revisited the matter and went a bit deeper, down a rabbit hole of sorts, you might say, and came out with a more solid conviction on the identity of a goddess to whom I perform a monthly sacrifice on the 19th day.
I started with the simplest and most common belief, that They are the same deity given the similarity of roles and an identical iconography. She was known among the Etruscans as Menrva and what little is known of their religion suggests a strong Hellenic influence that could have included the plain appropriation (*gasp*) of Athena, whose name would have been replaced with a native one. After all, as in Greek myth, Menrva is the daughter of the sky god, from whose head She was born, pairs up with the hero Hercles (i.e. Herakles) and is depicted in much the same way as Athena, with an aegis, spear, helmet and shield. This would seem to suggest that They’re the same, but take a closer look and you’ll start spotting differences. Namely, that Menrva was seen as a wielder of lightening, appears to have had a connection with divination and perhaps also with children, though it is unclear to what extent. Maybe just as an educator, but it could also be something else, enough for some to question whether She was seen as virginal as Athena (Grummond 2006: 72-5). So They’re not exactly the same goddess. The crucial question is whether the differences came before or after the Hellenization of Etruscan religion.
If one opts for the latter, then the distinctions are simply a form of regionalization, i.e. the product of Athena’s integration into the Etruscan context. Old gods in new places are often reinterpreted, with roles being dropped, stressed or added according to the needs, customs or experiences of the host culture, which may not be common to those of others, and so the differences may be no more than Athena’s Etruscan flavour. Yet they could also be traces of an older Menrva, one that pre-dates much of the Hellenic influence and is therefore a separate deity, but on which layers of imported Greek elements were superimposed, attached to Her like a new outfit, leaving only a few distinctive features as remnants of a previous self.
This is where linguistics becomes of particular importance, because Menrva is a name of Indo-European stock. It comes from the Italic meneswo (intelligent, understanding), which is rooted in men- or “thought” (Cor de Vaan 2008: 380-1). This is unlike what happens in the case of Tinia, whose name may come from the Etruscan tin (day), or Turms, whose etymology is unknown (Grummond 2006: 53 and 122). But here’s the thing: the Etruscan language was not Indo-European and thus the name of the goddess, which is attested as early as the 6th century BCE, was imported from elsewhere. Where exactly is unclear, but the Latin, Faliscan and Umbrian areas of central Italy have been put forward as possibilities (Cor de Vaan 2008: 381). Which is curious, because the traditional or standard interpretation is that the Romans acquired Minerva from the Etruscans. But if etymology is anything to go by, the truth is perhaps the other way around. And there may be a circumstantial indication of that in the fact that Menrva seems to be absent from the Piacenza liver, which was found in what used to be northern Etruria, but there was a temple to Her at Veii, which was closer to Rome (Simmon 2006: 59.1). So we have a goddess whose name is an import and whose cult may not have been present in a uniform fashion. Thus, if the theonym has a southern origin and, perhaps, She was more popular in the Etruscan south, then maybe that’s where one needs to look in order to find Her origins: south! And in ancient Italy, the further you went in that direction, the closer you were from the Greek settlements of Magna Graecia, some of which were founded in the 8th century BCE.
So what to make of it?
Now, as said, the further back you go in History, the less certainties you get and that’s exactly the case here: I’m trying to make sense of fragments of information on the origins of a particular goddess, knowing that in the end I’ll only have a theory and not a certainty. But having said that, where do I stand?
I’m leaning strongly towards believing that Menrva/Minerva is the same as Athena, though not as a direct Etruscan appropriation of a Greek goddess – or at least not at first – but an indirect one via non-Greek communities in central Italy. That is to say, people like the Latins, Falisci or Umbri picked up the cult of Athena from their contacts with Magna Graecia, changed Her name along the way and then the Etruscans, thanks to their proximity to central Italians, themselves took Her in already renamed as Menerwa. Hence Her Indo-European name in a non-Indo-European culture and the apparent possibility that She was more popular in southern as opposed to northern Etruria. And this could also explain the differences between Minerva and Athena, in that the former would be a bit like a translation of a translation – twice interpreted and hence somewhat distinct from the original.
Since the transmission would have taken place sometime between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, it is fair to ask why then was Minerva absent from the traces of the older pantheon of ancient Rome? Specifically, why is there no flamen Minervalis? Perhaps because in the early period She was not popular enough for it. After all, just because the knowledge or even worship of a goddess gets passed around between people and communities, it doesn’t mean that it automatically becomes a State cult. That may have come later and in a reverse movement to how it started, i.e. from north to south, from Etruria to Latium and Rome.
Again, not a certainty, but it is a more solid basis than just feeling right that Minerva and Athena are the same. Because when things involve historical processes of some sort – like the origins and expansion of a cult – this is how I tend look at it. Through enquiry and critical thinking, not a mere acceptance of accounts or looks. Which come to think of it, is a very minerval thing to do, to make use of your ability to reason and construct ideas.
COR DE VAAN, Michiel Arnoud. 2008. Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages. Leiden, Boston: Brill.
GRUMMOND, Nancy Thompson de. 2006. Etruscan myth, sacred History, and legend. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
SIMON, Erika. 2006. “Gods in Harmony: the Etruscan pantheon”, in The religion of the Etruscans, eds. Nancy Thompson de Grummon and Erika Simon. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 45-65.
PEREIRA, Paulo. 1993. “A conjuntura artística e as mudanças de gosto”, in História de Portugal, volume III, dir. José Mattoso. Lisboa: Círculo de Leitores, pp. 423-467.
SCHMITT, Jean-Claude. 2009. The holy greyhound, trans. Martin Thom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The article can be found here. What follows in the rest of this post is a Portuguese version of it, produced after a Brazilian reader asked for a translation.
A sentir-me como um homem do Dorne
Por vezes, o passado é apenas o passado
Como historiador, eu estou obviamente interessado no passado e estudo-o num esforço de traçar e compreender a sua dinâmica, padrões e ecos. Como um politeísta romano, esse interesse geral é levado a outro nível, dado que, mais do que ler sobre ele, eu tento reavivar algum do passado. Não ao género de uma feira medieval ou tentativa de reverter a História, mas num esforço de fazer desses elementos passados uma parte viva do mundo moderno. Eu vou repetir para ter a certeza que todos leram: uma parte viva do mundo moderno. Este é um ponto ao qual eu voltarei várias vezes ao longo deste artigo e está, julgo, na raiz do meu distanciamento crescente de um número cada vez maior de politeístas e de mais do que uma forma.
Para começar, é o que me separa dos que querem ir além de um reavivar da antiga religião romana e desejam em vez disso uma recriação mais ampla da vida social e cívica da Roma antiga, incluindo a roupa, culinária, língua, atitudes morais e instituições políticas de então. O que não é reavivar uma religião para a tornar uma parte viva do mundo moderno, mas separá-la dele, encerrando o politeísmo romano numa concha fossilizada onde ele permanece largamente imune à passagem do tempo. Muito disto parte do facto de as pessoas terem uma predileção profunda e genuína por uma cultura ou civilização em particular, de tal modo que tentam trazê-la de volta de alguma forma. Eu percebo isso. Como historiador, eu tenho uma espécie de veia monárquica, porque eu passo tanto tempo a ler sobre reis, rainhas e príncipes, as suas vidas e cortes, que uma pequena parte de mim deseja secretamente que esses dias fossem correntes, de modo a que eu pudesse testemunha-los em vez de apenas ler sobre eles por via dos relatos de documentos com séculos de idade. Mas depois a realidade entra em cena e depressa eu lembro-me a mim mesmo que há uma diferença entre fantasiar sobre o passado e as verdadeiras necessidade e desafios de governo. E quando se trata de reavivar uma religião antiga, é preciso perceber que uma coisa é trazer de volta uma forma de politeísmo e outra bem diferente é ter um fetiche pela cultura ou período histórico que lhe deu origem.
Claro que há mais do que isso: algumas pessoas estão incertas sobre como reavivar uma religião que foi praticada abertamente pela última vez há mais de um milénio, quando o mundo era muito diferente do de hoje, e essa insegurança pode levá-las a procurar refúgio na certeza histórica. Para elas, o passado é o caminho a seguir – em quase tudo! – por medo de falhar no esforço de trazer de volta uma religião antiga de forma genuína. É, em essência, a imagem espelhada daqueles que optam pelo caminho oposto, onde tudo o que soa certo é correto porque estamos nos dias de hoje e não de ontem – uma posição também ela produto de insegurança, embora nalguns casos haja também um elemento de inconformismo. Na realidade, se o objetivo é dar nova vida a algo antigo, em vez de apenas encená-lo ou criar algo inteiramente novo, ambos os caminhos estão errados. E sim, estar errado é algo real. A formula correta encontra-se algures no meio, num misto equilibrado de tradição e modernidade que permita preservar um elo fundamental com o passado e ao mesmo tempo interligar com o presente, reavivando-se assim uma religião antiga como uma parte viva do mundo moderno.
Esta é uma linha divisória. Separa-me do que querem viver no presente com pouco ou nenhum respeito pelo passado para lá do seus motivos egoístas e prazenteiros e os que fazem o exato oposto, os que querem viver no passado com pouco interesse no presente. E depois há um terceiro grupo, mais tenebroso e potencialmente perigoso, que é o daqueles que, mais do que terem pouco interesse, desprezam o presente! São as pessoas para quem o mundo é corrupto, seguiu o caminho errado ou está a atacar-nos e que por isso mesmo é preciso salvá-lo, lutar contra ele ou resgatá-lo da podridão em que ele se encontra. E a forma como eles propõem fazê-lo é levando-nos de volta a um passado romantizado, até um tempo onde as mulheres não eram putas, os homens não eram maricas, as culturas não estavam misturadas, o cristianismo e o islão não existiam, todos eram politeístas e as pessoas organizavam-se em tribos em vez de Estados ou governos modernos. É basicamente a mesma viagem no tempo que a daqueles que querem uma recriação mais ampla do mundo antigo, só que neste caso é (também) motivada por uma profunda desconfiança ou mesmo nojo com o mundo moderno. Se ao menos pudéssemos voltar atrás no tempo, as coisas seriam melhores – dirão eles.
Já lá vamos à face feia disso, mas por agora digo apenas que eu não me reconheço nessa visão de um presente decadente ou de um passado romantizado. É verdade que o mundo moderno tem muito problemas – como qualquer época – mas também possui as ferramentas para resolvê-los e é bastante melhor em vários aspetos. Claro que eu estou a escrever como um europeu ocidental, mas conforme disse no início deste artigo, eu estou a falar por mim e do meu ponto de vista, que é naturalmente moldado pelo local de onde eu sou. E aqui, eu posso olhar para o passado e dizer, com toda a honestidade, que as coisas estão melhores: a escravatura foi proibida, a pena de morte abolida, a iliteracia está em mínimos históricos, as mulheres têm um papel muito maior na sociedade do que no passado, há uma maior liberdade de religião, expressão, movimento e participação política do que em qualquer outro período anterior (incluindo a Antiguidade Clássica), a esperança média de vida é maior, é-se livre de amar outro homem ou mulher e casar com ele/a, a sustentabilidade ambiental é um vetor político cada vez mais importante e, apesar das pressões a que está sujeito, ainda há um Estado de Providência que fornece uma rede de segurança mínima. Não é perfeito – longe disso! – mas é melhor e tem ferramentas com que melhorar.
Por isso, ao contrário de outros politeístas, eu não sou motivado por um desejo de voltar atrás do tempo. Não me sinto desfasado do mundo ocidental moderno, mesmo que ele tenha problemas em aceitar a ideia de se ser politeísta. É apenas natural que assim seja depois de séculos de domínio monoteísta, o qual, na prática, fez do culto de muitos deuses uma novidade no ocidente, mesmo que historicamente não o seja. Mas enquanto alguns propõem resolver isso levando-nos de volta, de algum modo, para uma sociedade pré-moderna onde o monoteísmo não existia, eu escolho fazê-lo abraçando e usando as liberdades de religião, expressão e associação que a modernidade me dá. Opto por falar e praticar livremente de modo a mudar perceções e encontrar um novo lugar para o politeísmo no mundo ocidental, como cidadão de um país moderno em vez de rejeitá-lo, isolando-me do meu contexto social ou recriando uma tribo pré-cristã. Porque eu não vejo a minha nacionalidade portuguesa como estando em oposição ao politeísmo romano, bem pelo contrário: o território do meu país foi em tempos governado por Roma, os seus deuses adorados aqui e eu sou nativo de uma língua e cultura latinas modernas. E se, como disse, o meu objetivo é reavivar uma religião antiga para que ela seja uma parte viva do mundo moderno, eu não tenho interesse em fingir ser um cidadão de um de Estado ou comunidade anacronicamente recriada. Em vez disso, eu cruzo a minha religião com a minha nacionalidade moderna e não vejo nisso qualquer contradição.
Uma consequência desse cruzamento é que eu não olho para o cristianismo ou o islão como entidades externas ou estranhas. A sério! Talvez seja por o meu ponto de vista ser o de um historiador e na volta eu conhecer estas coisas melhor do que alguns – incluindo vários dos meus compatriotas – mas eu não posso honestamente dizer que essas duas religiões são estrangeiras. Elas não são novas aqui e não foram introduzidas numa identidade portuguesa pré-existente, mas chegaram a esta parte da Europa há mais um milénio: as primeiras comunidades cristãs organizadas no que é hoje território português datam de c. 180, muito antes da fundação do meu país, o que aconteceu apenas em 1143 ou não antes de c. 1096, quando uma terra de Portugal unificada foi criada a partir dos antigos condados do Porto (ou Portucale) e Coimbra. E quando isso aconteceu, o Islão já estava na península Ibérica há cerca de quatro séculos, desde 711, e ia deixando a sua marca nas línguas, terras e costumes da região.
Talvez se possa dizer que esta é uma parte curiosa do mundo. Não é única, mas curiosa, na medida em que é produto de uma mistura de etnias e culturas. Muito antes de nascer a ideia de se ser português, esta parte da Europa foi povoada por pré-celtas indo-europeus, celtas, fenícios, talvez alguns gregos, muitos romanos, germanos, árabes e berberes do norte de África. Todos eles vieram, fizeram deste local a sua casa – alguns de forma violenta, outra nem tanto – e eventualmente tornaram-se nativos. O que quer dizer que as suas línguas, costumes e tradições também se tornaram nativas. Claro que nem todas sobreviveram até aos nossos dias ou não deixaram vestígios igualmente vincados, porque para algumas já passou demasiado tempo, enquanto outras tiveram um maior impacto ou controlaram este território de um modo mais firme. Mas todos esses povos vieram a chamar “lar” a este local, motivo pelo qual as religiões que eles praticavam podem de algum modo reclamar uma ligação a esta terra. E isso inclui o cristianismo e o islão, que tornaram-se nativos tal como os politeísmos celta e romano. Todos eles vieram de outros locais antes de se fixarem aqui e darem a seu contributo.
Assim sendo e ao contrário da Irlanda, Noruega ou Islândia, o meu país não tem uma identidade pagã bem ou sequer basicamente definida. Ao contrário dessas nações, Portugal é uma construção política e cultural posterior em vários séculos à chegada do cristianismo e islão, fazendo dele um produto parcial dessas duas religiões e por isso mesmo não inteiramente separável delas. Quer isso dizer que eu devo rejeitar ou desmantelar a minha identidade portuguesa e substitui-la por uma pré-cristã – lusitano, túrdulo, romano ou suevo – de modo a poder ser um politeísta genuíno? A resposta já foi dada: não, porque eu estou interessado em reavivar uma religião antiga para ser uma parte viva do mundo moderno, não de uma recriação ou romantização de tempos idos. Como eu disse noutro texto, não se pode alterar o passado, apenas construir sobre ele. E além disso, aceitar o cristianismo ou islão como elementos do património do meu país não quer dizer que eles devam ter privilégios ou comandar a vida pública, que eu subscreva as suas doutrinas, que eu não tente mudar hábitos mentais monoteístas (como equivaler religião a uma fé padronizada) ou que o discurso público não deva ser religiosamente mais diverso. Quer apenas e só dizer que eu reconheço o cristianismo e o islão como parte da História do meu país, independentemente de concordar ou não com as suas crenças, e não os vejo como inimigos ou invasores estrangeiros. Tal como de resto eu também aceito que muitos dos meus antepassados foram cristãos, alguns muçulmanos, sem com isso rejeitá-los ou sentir qualquer obrigação de ter as mesmas crenças que eles. E eu estou verdadeiramente confortável com isso e com o facto de ser de um país que tem um conjunto rico de camadas culturais unidas por uma História, língua, símbolos e práticas comuns. Não foi construído de forma pacífica – eu sei que não foi! – mas isso não quer dizer que não possa ser atualmente vivido em paz. Reavivar uma religião antiga não é o mesmo que reavivar ódios, erros e atitudes antigas. Por vezes, o passado deve ser mesmo só isso: passado!
Claro que isto põe-me em oposição a politeístas que têm outra visão do assunto. Eles falam do cristianismo e islão como fés estrangeiras, invasivas e opressivas, recordando insistentemente o que aconteceu há mil anos ou mais, sugerindo – ou defendendo de forma aberta – que essas duas religiões deviam ser eliminadas e os seus locais de culto destruídos para serem substituídos por templos mais antigos e originais. Até certo ponto, essas posições são compreensíveis: em alguns locais, a cristianização é um processo mais recente, enquanto que aqui ela teve lugar há mais de 1500 anos, algo que pode fazer a diferença entre feridas antigas e por isso curadas e outras abertas, ainda por fechar; em países como a Grécia, a Igreja Ortodoxa ainda tem uma mentalidade medieval e age de forma correspondente, algo que não acontece normalmente nesta ponta da Europa; e conforme disse, locais como a Noruega ou a Islândia têm uma identidade pré-cristã, o que não é o caso aqui. Para mais, embora eu entenda a ligação com as noções de invasão, opressão e assimilação forçada – porque todas essas coisas já foram feitas em nome do cristianismo e islão – não é algo que eu veja como sendo um traço exclusivo delas, mas algo que é comum a civilizações e culturas que invadem outras, independentemente da religião. E eu não estou a falar em termos hipotéticos, mas com base em factos da minha terra natal: os romanos pré-cristãos tiveram um impacto semelhante na Ibéria antiga, eliminando comunidades nativas, forçando outras a abandonarem as suas casas tradicionais e a mudarem-se para cidades novas, substituindo as suas línguas pelo latim e assimilando a sua religião, em alguns casos substituindo cultos pré-existentes – ou apropriando-se deles! Há um motivo pelo qual subsistem apenas traços limitados de cultura celta no ocidente ibérico e em particular no norte montanhoso: foi o que sobreviveu à ação dos romanos pré-cristãos.
É trágico que assim seja? Sem dúvida! Mas o que é que podemos fazer quanto isso? A sério, o que é que podemos fazer? Não estamos a falar de algo que aconteceu na última década ou século, mas entre 218 a.C. e 19, há mais de dois mil anos atrás. Vamos compensar os descendentes dessas comunidades pré-romanas? Então mais vale compensar o país inteiro, porque qualquer pessoa cuja família esteja em Portugal há pelo menos algumas gerações tem fortes probabilidades de ter alguns antepassados celtas. E também romanos e germanos e árabes e norte-africanos. Após tanto tempo, as coisas estão de tal forma misturadas que enquanto as pessoas, anacronicamente, veem como um herói nacional um chefe nativo que lutou contra Roma no segundo século antes de Cristo, elas também celebram o seu passado romano (e árabe). Porque o tempo fundiu antigos inimigos e diferentes comunidades, transformando-as num todo nacional, pelo que se o meu objetivo é reavivar uma religião antiga para fazer dela uma parte viva do mundo moderno, eu faço-o com base na minha nacionalidade portuguesa e não uma encenação de uma província romana.
Alguns politeístas discordam e sugerem em vez disso o desmantelamento das identidades e países existentes de modo a regressar a um estado de coisas original, tribal. O que é uma ideia que requer o pressuposto de que o antigo é mais legítimo do que o que se seguiu, mesmo que o segundo já esteja a caminho de ter mil anos. Aliás, no que será talvez uma afirmação mais incisiva, alguns gostavam de poder parar o tempo, voltar atrás nele, e parecem acreditar que as coisas têm que existir num formato fixo ao qual se deve regressar quando a pureza original é conspurcada pela mudança. Mas volto a dizer que não se pode alterar o passado, apenas construir sobre ele. E quando o fazemos, aquilo que obtemos é sempre de algum modo diferente do que existia antes. Podemos aceitar isso e seguir em frente com as nossas vidas ou, em alternativa, podemos viver no passado e coçar a toda a hora as suas feridas, vomitando uma memória mal digerida e afogando-nos numa mentalidade de cerco belicista onde o mundo é nosso inimigo por não conseguirmos ver, quanto mais viver para lá de acontecimentos idos. O que, já agora, é uma mentalidade muito semelhante à dos ideólogos do Daesh. Tentar voltar atrás no tempo e apagar séculos de mudança em nome de um estado de coisas original ou puro é algo que nunca correu bem.
O quê europeu?
E eis que mergulhamos enfim numa mistura tóxica de rancor para com o monoteísmo e as ansiedades presentes, nomeadamente o terrorismo e as migrações, mistura essa que reforça ou dissemina paranoia, preconceito e ódio. Ao ponto de eu por vezes perguntar-me quando é que as pessoas vão começar a escrever que querem tornar o politeísmo grande outra vez. Um exemplo claro são as vozes (crescentes?) contra o acolhimento de refugiados ou os apelos para que a população e cultura indígenas da Europa sejam protegidas de migrantes muçulmanos. Houve uma altura, não há muito tempo atrás, em que esse tipo de retórica era a imagem de marcar de supremacistas brancos, mas agora, ao que parece, está a tornar-se numa faceta mais comum entre politeístas, com pequenos Trumps a aparecerem aqui e acolá. E em resultado disso, eu tenho que perguntar a mim mesmo onde é que eu quero estar.
Para começar, porque eu tenho a certeza que quem contrapõe uma ideia de Europa indígena a migrantes vindos do Médio Oriente está, muito simplesmente, a demonstrar a sua ignorância, seja ela santa ou intencional. Caso contrário, essas pessoas saberiam que há pelo menos três mil anos que há deslocações de grupos humanos das costas sul e oriental do Mediterrâneo para a Europa. Basta pensar nos fenícios, que das suas cidades no que é hoje o Líbano e a Síria viajaram e fixaram-se no sul europeu por volta de 1100 a.C.. Ou nos cartagineses, que governaram o sul da península Ibérica durante cerca de três séculos. Ou na já mencionada invasão do mesmo território por árabes e berberes do norte de África, os quais fixaram-se e misturaram-se com a população pré-existente. E que eu saiba, a Ibéria ainda é parte da Europa. Claro que há quem responda que não é racista, que isto é uma questão de cultura e não de raça, e eu não vou duvidar dessas pessoas. Mas mesmo nesse caso, continua a ser ignorância.
Eu digo isto na qualidade de alguém que nasceu, cresceu e vive numa nação europeia que tem cerca de nove séculos, possui as fronteiras terrestres mais antigas do continente – desde 1297, altura em que a sua língua vernácula tornou-se oficial – e cuja família vive no ocidente ibérico há pelo menos quatrocentos anos. Tanto quanto eu saiba, eu sou um habitante nativo de uma antiga nação europeia, mas a cultura igualmente nativa do meu país deve muito à civilização islâmica que governou esta região durante séculos. O seu impacto pode ser encontrado na língua, arte, culinária, agricultura, povoações e topónimos portugueses. Por exemplo, o bairro histórico de Alfama, que tem alguns dos edifícios mais antigos de Lisboa, deve o seu nome ao árabe al-hamma (a fonte quente, nascente), tal como o do Algarve, onde os norte-europeus gostam de passar as suas férias, provém de al-Gharb ou “o ocidente”, porque era parte da província mais ocidental do califado omíada. O próprio nome da capital do país tem influência árabe, derivando de al-Ushbuna, que mais tarde tornou-se Lyxbona. Arroz e amêndoas são apenas dois dos produtos cujo cultivo tornou-se comum – ou mesmo tradicional – na península Ibérica graças à civilização islâmica. A arte de fazer e pintar azulejos, os quais decoram muitos dos edifícios históricos e casas modernas de Portugal, deve a sua popularidade a muçulmanos que disseminaram a prática, de tal modo que a palavra “azulejo” tem origem no árabe azuleij. O mesmo é verdade para “açorda”, de ath-thorda, que basicamente é uma sopa de pão tradicional que tem origem pelo menos parcial no período islâmico. Aliás, há mais de mil palavras de origem árabe na língua portuguesa: javali (jabali), alface (al-khas), almofada (al-mukhadda), azeite (az-zait), para dar apenas alguns exemplos. Se bem que o mais emblemático de todos será por ventura “oxalá”, que tem origem no árabe insha’Allah ou “Deus queira”. Motivo pelo qual um amigo meu em tempos disse-me que os portugueses, até certo ponto, são latinos arabizados – na aparência, costumes e língua. E, no entanto, é suposto eu acreditar que é preciso “salvar” a cultura e população indígenas da Europa de migrantes muçulmanos vindos do mundo árabe?
A sério, o que é que as pessoas querem dizer com isso? Estarão a falar de uma cultura e população nativa europeia que elas imaginam existir ou uma da qual elas têm conhecimento de facto? Se é a segunda, será do norte ou sul do continente, escandinava ou ibérica? Porque é que eu tenho a sensação que algumas das pessoas que mais falam sobre proteger a “Europa indígena” – algumas das quais nem sequer são europeias – são também aquelas que sabem menos sobre o assunto?
Atenção, isto não quer dizer que um movimento de pessoas tão grande não seja problemático. Muitos dos recém-chegados têm opiniões conservadores sobre as mulheres, sexualidade e religião, não conhecem as línguas dos seus países de acolhimento e, nessas condições, nenhum Estado sozinho consegue receber centenas de milhares de indivíduos de uma só vez. Vai ser preciso tempo, recursos, uma distribuição equilibrada de migrantes e vai ser precisa muita aprendizagem. E se não se é racista e as objeções são apenas sobre cultura, então há que lembrar que ela não é genética, mas sim aprendida, adquirida, pelo que se os europeus ocidentais conseguiram aprender e evoluir rumo ao atual estado de coisas tolerante que alguns dizem querer defender, então não há motivo pelo qual os migrantes não possam fazer o mesmo. Nós nem sempre fomos aquilo que somos hoje. O que não ajuda é ser preconceituoso, entrar em paranoia por causa de um vídeo ou texto na internet ou julgar um grupo inteiro de pessoas com base nas ações violentas de alguns. O que seria um pouco como dizer que todos os politeístas nórdicos deviam ser presos ou expulsos depois de uma notícia sobre supremacistas brancos que adoram Odin ou cometem violência racial em nome dele. Não tão boa ideia assim ser julgado pelas ações dos outros, pois não?
Por esta altura, é provável que alguns dos meus leitores estejam a pensar que o islão, ao contrário do Asatru, tem escrituras sagradas e que elas levam os muçulmanos a cometer atos violentos. O que não deixa de ser verdade, mas só até certo ponto. Sim, o Corão tem passagens agressivas e há várias que são usadas pelo Daesh para justificar as suas ações, mas também tem trechos de outra natureza, como o verso 2:256, que diz que não pode haver compulsão na religião. Eu sei que parece uma contradição tendo em conta a realidade no terreno, do terrorismo às punições por apostasia no mundo muçulmano, mas as escrituras sagradas são assim mesmo: complexas, contraditórias e a sua interpretação ou implementação é, em larga medida, uma questão de escolha seletiva por diferentes motivos. Veja-se como o Levítico é em boa parte ignorado por muitos cristãos, pelo exato motivo de que algum do seu conteúdo tornou-se socialmente inaceitável. Ou como alguns usam o mandamento “Não matarás” para justificar a sua oposição à pena de morte, enquanto outros optam por ignorá-lo. Ou até como alguns cristãos rejeitam Levítico 18:22 e 20:13, que versam sobre sexo homossexual, e preferem em vez disso focar-se por inteiro nas partes mais compassivas da Biblia.
Isto é algo que ainda está por fazer em muito do mundo muçulmano. Ainda está por fazer uma leitura seletiva e positiva do Corão, dando destaque a versos como o 2:256, reinterpretando outros e declarando alguns como nulos no mundo moderno. Alguns muçulmanos já o fazem – e há uma longa tradição disso, mesmo que minoritária – mas para outros lhe seguirem o exemplo, várias coisas têm que acontecer e uma delas é não julgar a parte como o tudo. O que equivale a dizer que se nós denegrimos uma religião no seu conjunto, sem olharmos para as suas nuances e complexidades, então estaremos a eliminar o espaço que ela tem para se reformar e evoluir, porque estaremos a transformar as coisas num jogo de soma-zero em que ou há um islão violento ou não há islão nenhum. E daí, esse talvez seja o objetivo exato de algumas pessoas, incluindo vários politeístas, porque desse modo ele podem odiar abertamente algo que gostariam de pura e simplesmente eliminar. Voltar atrás no tempo é para eles uma espécie de sonho molhado.
A jangada de pedra
Onde é que isto tudo me deixa? Bem, para usar o trabalho de George Martin, faz-me sentir como alguém do Dorne, o mais a sul dos sete reinos de Westeros. É um local diferente do resto do domínio do trono de ferro, não só por causa do clima, mas também pela cultura, na medida em que os habitantes do Dorne são em parte o resultado de uma migração massiva que não afetou o resto de Westeros. O que faz deles um povo misto e como tal peculiar, senão mesmo chocante, aos olhos do resto dos sete reinos. E isto não é uma metáfora acidental, porque o Dorne é para o mundo da Canção de Gelo e Fogo aquilo que a Ibéria islâmica era para a Europa medieval.
A ideia de que é precisar impedir a entrada de refugiados árabes de forma a preservar a cultura e população indígenas da Europa é algo que só pode ser dito por um preconceituoso ignorante ou por alguém que não está a par da História. Por exemplo, se se está fora da Europa e olha-se para ela com uma perspetiva escandinava – algo que não é inédito entre politeístas nórdicos dos Estados Unidos da América – então não é espantoso que se assuma para todo o continente aquilo que é válido para as nações nórdicas. Na realidade, na península Ibérica, indígena e nativo são em parte sinónimo de árabe e mouro. É verdade que alguns dos meus compatriotas recusam-se a reconhecê-lo – nós também temos os nossos preconceituosos – mas como historiador, é algo de que eu estou bem ciente. E alguém que diz ter uma opinião séria devia pelo menos fazer um pouco de pesquisa, embora não apenas sobre a Europa: não estou certo se todos os politeístas que vilipendiam o islão sabem que devemos a estudiosos muçulmanos a sobrevivência de clássicos como os de Aristóteles, que foram copiados e preservados em árabe sob a proteção do califado abássida. O que, no mínimo, permite questionar a noção de que o islão é uma religião inerentemente má com a qual não pode haver compromisso ou cultura.
Mas para além da ignorância, alguma da qual não é intencional e por isso mesmo é compreensível, dado que ninguém nasce ensinado, também há o discurso do ódio, a paranoia e um ressentimento profundo para com o mundo moderno ou o monoteísmo. E isso é algo mais complexo, que para mais está longe de ser inofensivo quando se lhe junta a pressão causada pelos acontecimentos dos nossos dias. Porque quando nós nos definimos como alguém que está contra, em guerra ou ressentido com alguma coisa, então não vamos ter a clareza mental necessária para enfrentarmos desafios violentos. Em vez disso, respondemos com ataques brutos, apelamos a uma espécie de guerra santa, dizemos estar cercados por todos aqueles de quem discordamos e julgamos grupos inteiros com base nas ações de alguns, autojustificando assim os nossos preconceitos, incapacidade de integração, falta de vontade para aprender e quaisquer rancores que tenhamos a respeito do passado ou do mundo moderno.
Um bom exemplo disso mesmo é a forma como alguns politeístas defendem a discriminação ativa dos monoteístas. Ou pior, sugerem – nalguns casos dizem abertamente – que o islão e cristianismo deviam ser erradicado por causa do que eles fizeram, estão a fazer ou porque são religiões más. O que em essência é pintar uma imagem complexa com um pincel grosso e odioso – muito à maneira de Donald Trump – e equivale ao mesmo tipo de dizimação cultural que essas mesmas pessoas dizem ser contra. Tal como o Daesh está a eliminar comunidades, edifícios e monumentos históricos que não coincidem com a sua visão limitada das coisas, alguns politeístas parecem querer a sua própria versão de uma limpeza, eliminando grupos que eles odeiam ou substituindo igrejas e mesquitas antigas por novos templos – na Índia, Grécia e Roma – não por elas terem sido livremente abandonadas, vendidas ou trocadas, mas porque esses locais devem ser templos por direito. Claro que alguns politeístas esclarecem que não advogam a violência física e eu acredito neles. A sério que acredito! Mas no final, não há diferença prática entre eliminar algo pela força ou lentamente por meio de um plano. No final de contas, dizimou-se porque se quis. E ninguém é melhor, mais civilizado ou moralmente superior só por ser politeísta. Se se acredita que sim, então não se é diferente de um monoteísta que condena atrocidades e critica a discriminação, mas depois faz ou propõe fazer essas mesmas coisas com a desculpa de que é em nome de uma religião boa, uma causa justa ou ideologia verdadeira. E quando isso acontece, tornamo-nos na coisa contra a qual dizemos estar a lutar, porque, de algum modo, assumimos ser inerentemente bons, acima de culpa ou imunes ao erro só por termos crenças diferentes.
Eu estou a dizer isto na qualidade de nativo de um país da Europa ocidental cuja História e identidade não podem ser desligadas do cristianismo e islão, motivo pelo qual eu não vejo essas duas religiões como inimigas. Tal como, de resto, eu não tenho rancores para com elas nem acredito que devam ser eliminadas para que o politeísmo possa prosperar. Mas a isso deve-se também o facto de o fundamentalismo religioso em Portugal ser um fenómeno marginal e a Igreja Católica daqui ser cada vez mais moderna, menos apegada a atitudes medievais. Até o imã da mesquita de Lisboa já disse em público que os muçulmanos que não se sentem confortáveis numa sociedade liberal devem mudar-se para outro sítio, pelo que a minha forma de ver as coisas é naturalmente moldada por isso e embora eu reconheça que possa não ser assim noutros sítios. Que a mundividência de outras pessoas possa ser outra, precisamente por elas terem histórias e quotidianos diferentes e enfrentarem situações que não estão presentes neste canto do mundo. Reconheço isso. Mas eu não posso viver a vida de outra pessoa, tal como não posso pedir a outros que vivam a minha. Eu não posso interagir no meu quotidiano comportando-me e olhando para as coisas de um modo que, em larga medida ou na sua totalidade, não tem qualquer ligação com a realidade social que me rodeia. Fazê-lo seria como ter uma existência esquizofrénica ou viver num mundo de sonhos. E portanto, a bem da sanidade mental ou porque eu não estar associado a preconceituosos paranoicos que parecem estar a surgir no movimento politeísta, eu não posso ficar indiferente ou ser outra pessoa que não eu mesmo.
Num livro chamado A Jangada de Pedra, José Saramago conta a história de como a península Ibérica separa-se lenta e fisicamente do resto do continente europeu. Claro que é um romance de ficção e a metáfora é em larga medida política e económica, mas também tem um aspecto cultural e eu estou a descobrir nela um lado religioso. Porque quanto mais eu discordo da retórica anti-moderna, anti-monoteísta e xenófoba de alguns – bem à imagem e semelhança de Donald Trump – mais eu me apercebo e valorizo a minha herança cultural ibérica. Por outras palavras, eu estou a tornar-me cada vez mais nativo, redescobrindo e abraçando de bom grado o ponto de vista do meu país em vez de assumir o de outros por via da internet e agindo de uma forma que está desligada do meu contexto social. E ao fazê-lo, ao tornar-me mais nativo, eu identifico-me ainda menos com as opiniões de outros politeístas de outras partes da Europa ou do mundo. De certo modo, está a ser um processo exponencial e portanto eu deixo-me ir, afastando-me de partes da comunidades politeísta em geral, enraizado numa jangada de pedra ibérica.
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.
A few weeks ago, Fareed Zakaria interviewed Jonathan Weiler, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina. He asked him about the root of the support for Donald Trump in the current US political cycle, which Jonathan Weiler placed not on social-economic hardships, as is so often argued, but on differences in the personality of the voters. Simply put, some people are drawn to authoritarian figures because, and I quote, “they believe very strongly in a need for social order as traditionally defined and (…) feel very fearful and resentful towards groups and social norms that challenge that traditional order”. This is an issue related to upbringing and, because of those personal traits, some people prefer “leaders who speak in clear, simple, direct terms about imposing order in the world around them”. They have “a strong need for order”, “want to ensure that people who are not like them are sort of put in their place and want clear, simple solutions for complicated problems”. You can watch the video here, which includes a brief look at survey results on parenting and personality types.
While the interview was about the whys of Trump supporters, its content can be applied to other groups of people, such as polytheists who are on either end of the ideological spectrum. Because often, they’re the ones who are uncomfortable with diversity, mixture, nuance and social modernity. They tend to see difference, change and grey areas as chaos and anarchy, an unnecessary complication of what should be straightforward, preferring instead well defined groups and categories where people can be organized in a simple manner, with everyone and everything in their proper place. On one end of the spectrum are the radical leftists who are unable to separate religion from politics, even if just thematically, and see anyone who is not as “progressive” as no more than fascists or minions of the new right. For them, there’s little or no room for nuance, middle ground or large differences of opinion, but only a simplistic view of us versus them, a zero-sum game where a brave new order stands against a capitalist chaos that can be found across the dividing line. They long for uniformity, a time and place where everyone can think and do as they do, because that’s how it should be. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the more folkish polytheists, who have a deep suspicion or outright disdain, if not disgust, for ethnic or cultural mixture and also for the modern values of equality and inclusion. They long for traditional order, sometimes (or often?) to the point of wanting to go back in time, to an ancient society where people weren’t pacifist sissies, equal rights campaigners, sluts or perverts and everyone knew their proper place. For them, anything that resembles ideological, sexual or racial ambiguity is an invitation to chaos. I’ve come across both types of people, one of them quite recently in an online discussion on orthodoxy, the lack of which a certain person equated with anarchy.
Here’s the thing, though: because its basic definition implies the religious regard for many gods, polytheism is inherently diverse. There are differences within the category – since that’s what polytheism is, a category and not a single religion – but if you let divine plurality run its course, instead of trying to curb it through politics, monism or henotheism, you’ll find that it will naturally generate an outrageously diverse theological dynamic. And it can be summed up thus: different gods have different agendas and hence equally different goals and sets of values. You think sexual promiscuity is wrong? Vesta, Minerva and Hera may no doubt agree with you, but the same can’t be said of Aphrodite, Pan or Apollo. There’s value in war and physical violence? Ares or Odin are likely to wholeheartedly agree, but don’t be so sure with Pax, Concordia or even Freyr, who has a bellic side, but not as a primary function. Ma’at, Heimdall or Terminus might say that you should always be honest and stay within accepted boundaries, but you’ll hear a different story coming from Hermes or Loki. This is how it goes in a polytheistic system. There are many voices, many worldviews, many directions, precisely because there are many gods. The only common thread you can take from all of it is the need for co-existence, for some form of unity in diversity, not uniformity. This is not so in monotheism, where there’s only one divine player in the game and hence what he says is law. There are no opposite voices, no counter-opinions, no competition, just a let it be written above and a let it be done bellow. Which is fundamentally different from the ocean of plurality that can be found in polytheistic religions. As I said before, diversity has theological consequences.
Perhaps it’s not by chance that Odinism and Odinist are popular labels among folkish bigots in Heathenry. It is, after all, a choice of terms that expresses a focus in a supreme god, almost like a heathen Jehovah, and hence a figure of authority in a “confusingly” diverse pantheon. In other words, it simplifies the complexity and hence perceived chaos of divine plurality, as if a more general name that better reflects a polytheistic religion would imply the existence of multiple sources of authority and hence anarchy. And thus it matches the taste for traditional order that Odinists often have with regard to other areas of life, like race and gender.
These polytheists are our equivalent of the Trump supporters. They may not vote for the man nor have the exact same ideas as he does, but their thought process and motivations are very much the same. It’s a similar dynamic, an equal fondness or desire for simple, straightforward order where differences can create a mess and should therefore be quickly sanitized. To be clear, I’m not saying that there are no limits: words carry meaning and they should be used accordingly, so for instance, if you don’t believe in gods or in more than one god, then you really shouldn’t be calling yourself a polytheist. Clarify your ideas first and then pick the corresponding label, not the other way around. But there are different types of limits or rather a spectrum, where on one end you have a narrowness that allows only for what’s fully identical and on the other you have wide limits that permit unity in a large diversity. A good example is the issue around orthodoxy and orthopraxy, for whereas some like me accept as fellow Roman polytheists people whose exact practices, beliefs and choice of philosophy are different from mine, so long as they retain a basic orthopraxy, others desire an orthodoxy that narrows down that diversity and sends people off in different directions depending on what they believe in. Because while I’m perfectly comfortable with seeing coreligionists in people who don’t share all of my beliefs, but just a basic set of practices and mutual respect, others see in that a form of chaos.
So listen up, radical/folkish kids: you should probably reconsider whether polytheism is really your thing. There’s nothing wrong in being different, mind you, and you know it, since many of you regularly tell others that they should be elsewhere. It’s just while you do it because people don’t fit a very particular square, I’m okay with sharing my religious label and space with people who fit in different shapes and colours within a basic framework. But that framework has limits, even if wide ones, and they include the very diversity that’s inherent to polytheism. Simply put, if you’re uncomfortable with plurality, if you think a lack of orthodoxy amounts to chaos and anarchy and if you’re unease about different gods having different agendas and values, then perhaps you’re better off in monotheism, where only one voice gets to call the shots and that can make things a lot simpler, orderly and authoritarian, thus better reflecting your preferences. And if your answer is that you have a right to practice the religion of your ancestors, then go deeper on why you’re a polytheist: does it have anything to do with a love for diversity or is it born out of a disgust for ethnic and cultural mixture, leading you to prefer a native religion that feels less prone to what you perceive as chaos? Because if it’s the latter, then 1) you probably have the wrong motivation, as wrong as the leftist radicals who are unable to distinguish their religion from their politics, and 2) you may be in for a surprise when you realize that native isn’t an exclusivist category nor the same as closed, pure and uniform. Like I said, not everyone is the same and some things aren’t made for everyone. And if you prefer uniformity or simplistic order, you may be better off in a less diverse system.
In light of that, I’ve come up with a list of four terms that have been at the heart of the disputes, implicitly or explicitly, and try to explain what they may stand for on the two sides of the Atlantic, adding to what was already written here. In doing so, I have no intention of unifying opinions, because I get the sense that there are deeply rooted differences that go back at least three centuries and therefore can’t be cleared away with one stroke. But hopefully it can clarify the whys, even if it doesn’t change their outcome, so we at least know where we’re coming from and agree to disagree.
Keep in mind, though: as with the previous posts on the divide between US American and western European polytheists, this is written primarily from the perspective of someone of was born and raised in Portugal. A lot of what I say may be true in other parts of the continent, but Europe is not monolithic and there are some differences between north and south and especially east and west. The same is true about the United States, as there are certainly many US polytheists who do not see themselves in the opinions of several of their fellow countrymen/women. Ultimately, this is about specific and contrasting trends, not unanimous views on either side of the Atlantic. Also, this is a very long post.
The Age of Enlightenment was a complex and multifaceted period that extended from the mid 17th century to the late 18th and had a deep impact on Europe’s political, religious and scientific culture. It basically marked the beginning of the end of the old system, which broadly consisted of autocratic monarchies with little or no tolerance towards political and religious dissent, ruling over societies where the Church retained an overwhelming influence over knowledge and learning and the social fabric was still by and large feudal. The major exceptions were England and the Netherlands, where power was less centralized and there was a degree of religious tolerance, especially in the latter of those two countries.
As an alternative to the old order, thinkers like John Locke (1632-1704), Montesquieu (1689-1755), Voltaire (1694-1778) and Rousseau (1712-1778) defended the notions of social contract, of government by the consent of those governed, of natural and unalienable rights such as life and liberty, of separated powers to create checks and balances, of knowledge through experimentation and critical analysis, of education as a way of raising well-informed and able citizens, of greater religious tolerance and also separation of Church and State. Of course, none of this had universal support among the European elites, let alone the common folk, because people are generally afraid or unsure of change, especially if they have a vested interest in the status quo, and it takes time for new ideas to become well-known, mainstream and fully implemented. Thus, while the proposals of the Enlightenment were debated and discussed, few became a reality. Their most immediate product was a form of despotism where absolute monarchs cultivated the new intellectual culture, presenting themselves as enlightened and enacting some reforms, though ultimately to strengthen or expand royal authority. Three examples are Frederick II of Prussia (1740-1786), Joseph II of Austria (1764-1790) and Joseph I of Portugal (1750-1777) – or rather his chief minister, because the king had a deep interest in recreational affairs.
Two revolutions changed that: the American in 1776 and the French in 1789. Having removed existing powers by force – colonial rule in one case, that of an absolute monarch in the other – the way was open for the ideals of the Enlightenment to be more fully implemented. Hence the US Declaration of Independence expresses the belief in natural rights, common equality and government by the consent of the governed, the US Constitution established a separation of powers, while the Bill of Rights legally consecrated that of Church and State and offered a series of individual rights. In France, the old medieval parliament became the National Assembly, which abolished the country’s feudal system, approved a declaration of rights and duties of citizens and, in 1791, a constitution that limited the authority of the Crown and Church. Two years later, after a failed attempt to flee the country, the king was executed and a republic proclaimed. It was a crucial moment: in the world of the enlightened despots, the monarch was sacrosanct, so for one to be put on trial and beheaded was a shock. It was a radical expression of the notion that the law and will of the governed are above dynastic claims and royal authority, something that could not be tolerated by other monarchs. As a result, neighbouring powers declared war on France, with the ensuing conflict and instability eventually leading to the rise of Napoleon in 1800. While he was an autocrat, the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1814, during which much of Europe came under French occupation, were nonetheless the vehicle through which the revolutionary ideas of 1789 were disseminated, producing a series of liberal uprisings and regimes within a few years. In essence, the birth of modern European democracy. And the rest, as they say, is History.
What does all of this have to do with recent discussions among polytheists? One word: perspective! See, it all comes down to the starting point, because while the United States were a product of the intellectual culture of the 18th century, many European countries are much older than that and go back to the Middle Ages. This allows its modern citizens to make a comparison between the status quo before and after the late 1700s and honestly conclude that the Enlightenment lived up to its promise of liberty and equality. Not instantly, but slowly, because ideas take time to develop, to go from novelty to mainstream, and generally not without opposition and shortcomings.
Here’s a practical example. The first Portuguese constitution, which was rectified on 23 September 1822, was a short-lived text that remained in force for less than a year, because it was considered too liberal, too revolutionary. It enshrined freedom of press and speech, the inviolability of one’s home, the right to a fair trial, abolished torture, limited royal authority and separated the executive, legislative and judicial powers. Things that seem obvious to us, but which were a novelty at the time, when the prevailing mentality was different from today’s and the ideals of the Enlightenment were only just starting to be turned into law. If you’re not sure about that, hear me out: the 1822 Constitution contained no provision that ensured freedom of religion except for foreigners, who could retain their own faith and practices in private. See what it meant to be too liberal back then? The constitutional charter of 1826 was slightly better and allowed for non-Catholic temples to be built, so long as they had no public visibility as such. In other words, it created a sort of closet where you could be whatever you wanted, religiously, but in private and as an individual person in order to “protect” the beliefs and morals of the majority. Gay men will certainly recognize the strategy. Which is why Lisbon’s synagogue, built at the start of the 20th century, was erected on an inner courtyard and looks like a regular building from the outside. Now, based on that, you could point fingers at the Enlightenment and claim that it either produced restrictions to religious liberty or failed to enshrine it. But that makes little sense to someone like me, because the aforementioned synagogue was the first to be built in Portugal since 1496, when Jews were expelled or forcibly converted. Which means the timid religious liberty of the 1820s was actually an improvement and time showed it to be the initial step towards today’s wide freedom of worship.
This comparative exercise takes on a different shape for a US American, since the United States were only created in the late 1700s. It’s harder to look at freedom and equality in the 18th century – which did not include slaves and natives – and claim that it was nonetheless a positive shift from a previous state of things, because there was no country named United States of America before 1776. Instead, there were colonies and native communities who were destroyed afterwards, which produces a negative outcome when comparing the before and after the Enlightenment, since it heralded the start of a genocidal expansion westward. Contrary to the ideals proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, which as a result can come across as fake. For US Americans, it can even feel like they’re fighting against the Enlightenment, precisely because of what came after. Or because abolition and civil rights had to be hard won after the 18th century, despite the noble principles declared by the country’s founding fathers. So when looking back in time, which is common when you’re trying to make today better than yesterday, US Americans may find a grim view: either they can’t make a comparison with an older version of their country, leading to the impression that the Enlightenment failed and people had to win their rights and liberties no thanks to the lofty goals of 1776; or they look further back, beyond that date, and find native cultures that were destroyed afterwards, producing an association between genocide and the Enlightenment.
The view is much more positive on this side of the pond, since most of western Europe’s nations date back to the Middle Ages and went through a feudal age, despotism and centuries of religious wars and intolerance before reaching the 19th century. So when comparing the before and after the late 1700s, we can honestly say that there was an improvement. Because religious liberty, public education, separation of Church and State, the abolition of slavery and the death penalty, healthcare, voting rights, the presumption of innocence – all of this are things that did not exist in our countries before the Enlightenment. They came after it, precisely because they are the product of its ideals. In as much as modern Europeans can look at things like gay marriage, which wasn’t even conceivable for men like Locke or Voltaire, and still see it as a product of the Enlightenment, the latest development of a natural right to life, liberty and happiness.
This then ties with the notion of modernity, which in western Europe normally has a good connotation. Because when we look back in time, we see a positive progress between what our countries looked like before the 1700s and the social, political and civil rights and liberties we acquired between then and now. Not in a linear fashion, but overall. Even decolonization can be seen by a European as a product of modernity and not something that happened in spite of. Because what is the end of colonial rule if not a more recent upholding of a natural right to liberty and of the governed to decide who governs? Surprising as it may seem to some US Americans, because their country’s History might suggest otherwise, Europeans can see the right to self-determination as a modern development of the ideals of the Enlightenment. That they were produced in Europe and later came back to bite it is no contradiction or at least no more than the ideas of a British philosopher being used in 1776 against British colonial rule. Yes, I’m talking about John Locke.
Is modernity unproblematic? Certainly not! It brought its own share of horrors and challenges, from the human catastrophe that were both world wars to the environmental issues of our time. And yet, here too lies a difference in experience and perspective, for whereas on this side of the pond I find an optimism about modernity’s ability to solve those problems, among US polytheists I am often confronted with the opposite view in the form of an anti-modern attitude.
This is not entirely surprising. For one, because the starting point is different: as said, whereas Europe’s History has provided its western citizens with a positive view of modernity and progress, the same cannot be necessarily said of US Americans. Which is why some will say “no” if asked whether today’s problems can be solved by modernity, since some (or many?) US polytheists feel like they’ve got little or nothing from it so far. And this then couples with current politics, where there’s a gap between the two sides of the Atlantic with regard to environmental policies and the role of religion in public life. While in Europe, fighting climate change is mainstream and an increasingly important policy vector, in the US, one of the two main parties commonly denies that climate change is real; while there’s a growing investment on renewable energies on this side of the pond, things may look somewhat grimmer on the other side. And there are other matters where a similar difference can perhaps be found: circular economy, food waste and quality, environmental law, public transportation, etc. Furthermore, whereas Christian fundamentalism plays little role in western European politics and is normally confined to fringe groups, it is a considerable part of the electoral base of one of the two main American political parties. And as a result, the pressure of the religious right on lawmakers is much smaller on this side of the Atlantic. The Catholic Church is normally the main opposition to modernizing policies and historically it has been pushed back progressively (noticed the words I used in this sentence?). This is different in eastern Europe, which missed much of the secularization of the 19th and 20th centuries and suffered under the official atheism of the Soviet period, resulting in a religious backlash starting in the 1990s and a much stronger influence of the Catholic and Orthodox churches than elsewhere in the continent.
So when you take all of this together, there is a trend that may be summed up as follows: whereas European polytheists can feel that they’re polytheists thanks to modernity, because they enjoy a religious freedom that did not exist in their countries before the 1700s, some of their US coreligionists might feel that they’re polytheists in spite of modernity, because the Enlightenment did not bring the secularization that it did in Europe and they have no way of making a positive comparison with what existed before 1776. And while Europeans may look at the comforts and advantages of the modern age and feel that its downsides may be solved through better, more efficient and cleaner progress, a darker view of modernity may be found among US polytheists, given their country’s History and the current political climate.
There’s something I’ve been saying throughout this post which may seem problematic to some: that the religious freedom enjoyed by western Europeans today has never existed in their countries. Which is true, though I have no doubt that there are those who will quickly point out that pre-Christian Europe was equally tolerant or even more so. But that, I’m afraid, is false and for two reasons.
The first is that religious liberty in the ancient world was limited by political authority, in that what you believed in and above all practiced was essential to determine your loyalty and hence legal status. If you happened to live in the Roman empire and didn’t want to worship the emperor or at least pray for him, chances are that you’d find yourself facing the sharp end of a sword. And if you found certain traditional practices reproachable and refused to take part in them, there was a strong possibility that you’d be dragged out of your home, expelled or even killed, especially in the case of something like a plague, draught or military defeat, which you’d be blamed for. This was true even in a polytheistic society, where you had the freedom to worship whomever or whatever you wanted, so long as you stayed within certain limits. Also, there could be restrictions if your practices were deemed immoral or linked to an enemy country. Check under Magna Mater and Egyptian cults in ancient Rome.
Today’s religious freedom, while not perfect, is nonetheless much less restricted and hence better then what was the case in ancient Europe. You’re free to worship whomever or whatever you want without being legally labelled as a traitor or sentenced to death by virtue of your choice of religion. Conservative or nationalistic groups may no doubt disagree, but there’s a difference between a person’s views and the law of the land. Otherwise, we’d have the death penalty simply because some are in favour of it. The same is true for accusations of bringing down natural disasters or being legally discriminated against because you happen to follow a religion that’s predominant in an enemy country. Or at least that’s how it normally goes in western Europe, though it may not feel that way in the US, namely in the deep south and Midwest, where the religious right has a stronger influence on lawmakers.
But a more crucial element here is that I’ve been talking about religious freedom in our countries and the fact is that many western European nations did not exist in the pre-Christian period. It’s true that their territories were not uninhabited, but those who lived in them did not see themselves as part of a political entity named Portugal, Spain, France, England, Italy or Netherlands until the Middle Ages or much later. Which is why I find it amusing when fellow polytheists from across the pond tell me about “what the Church did to my country” as if it was already in existence in the centuries BCE. It wasn’t! Portugal only became a kingdom in 1147 and at best its origins can be traced back to c. 868, when the county of Porto or Portucale was founded. And by then, there wasn’t much in the way of pre-Christian religions in the region other than folklore, rural traditions and elements that had been absorbed by Christianity in the preceding centuries. The same can be said of Spain, a name derived from the Latin Hispania – i.e. the Iberian Peninsula – but which became a political entity only in 1469; at best, the notion of Iberia as a unified State can be traced back to the Visigoth kingdom, though it too was Christian. France is trickier, because you can always point to the Franks, but keep in mind that they were only unified under a single realm in the late 5th century under Clovis I and by then many of them were Aryan Christians.
So unlike Iceland, Ireland, Denmark or Norway, my country doesn’t have a well defined pre-Christian identity since it was born after the Christianization of its land, which before the 9th century was inhabited by pre-Celts, Celts, maybe Phoenicians and some Greeks, Romans, Germanic tribes, Arabs and north-Africans, all of which brought their beliefs and customs, but were assimilated and subsumed centuries ago. That’s also why this is a country where different traditions can claim to be native in some way, because the cultures that produced them once called this land “home”. And that includes Christianity, which has been in western Iberian for roughly 1500 years. To call it invading, colonial or genocidal when referring to its impact on Portugal is ridiculous at best.
This has multiple consequences. For one, I’m not a Lusitanian, Suebian or Visigoth, because those are identities that vanished over a thousand years ago. People who saw themselves as such are no doubt counted among my distant ancestors, but that doesn’t mean that I inherited their tribal or national identity. This is unlike what happens in the US, but that’s because many Amerindian cultures were only wiped out or forcibly integrated into the United States of America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Simply put, it’s a fresh wound, whereas over here it’s something that happened a millennium or more ago. European tribes were conquered and assimilated by Romans and medieval kingdoms and have long been integrated into current national identities – sometimes in a contradicting fashion. Go to London and near Westminster Pier you’ll find a statue of queen Boudicca; go to the Tower Hill, still in London, and you’ll find a statue of emperor Trajan. Two historical figures from opposing sides – the colonized and the colonizers – both being honoured as part of the historical heritage of a modern nation. Time has healed, integrated and reshaped identities, fusing old enemies into a national whole, and it would make no sense for modern Britons to protest against Roman imperialism, atrocities and occupation of British lands. Not so in the US, where colonization is a much more recent process.
The same logic applies to views on Christianity, for whereas missionaries were active destroying native American religions and cultures as late as the 20th century, that same process took place in western Europe over a thousand years ago and generally before our modern countries were born. And because of that, because I’m not a member of an anachronistic Lusitanian tribe or Roman city-State, but of an existing nation that was founded after waves of Christianization, I honestly don’t see Christianity as an enemy or a foreign element. It’s been here for 1500 years and it’s a part of my country’s History and culture. Simply put, it’s gone native, like Celtic and Roman polytheisms before it. It doesn’t mean that I should be Catholic just because I’m Portuguese, that the atrocities of the past should be forgotten or that Catholicism should have privileges. But neither does it mean that I should have a belligerent attitude of “us versus them” out of an ill-digested historical memory. Even more so when you consider social life in western Europe.
One thing I found curious in previous discussions with American polytheists was how quickly the notion of being secular was interpreted as meaning an absence of religious beliefs. Which is probably a good example of how polarized things have become in the US, with an alarming decrease of the middle ground.
When I say European polytheism can be more secular, I’m not referring to the performance of rites without belief or of labels out of mere cultural significance. I’m talking about a secular attitude, not ideology, in that you can be devout and deeply religious, but without being “in your face” about it. This means you can have sincere and strongly held beliefs, but still be able to relate, talk and discuss with other people about a myriad of subjects without bringing your religion into it all the time. You can debate climate change, abortion, the economy, education or civil rights on their own terms and without turning every single one of them into a matter of theological principles or freedom. It doesn’t mean that there’s no room for religion outside the private sphere or that every mundane action doesn’t have a religious equivalent, but there’s a difference between being a part of public life and being the total sum of it, between having an equivalent and being one and the same.
There are historical reasons for this. Europe had multiple wars of religion, both before and after the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, and that affected European politics and society deeply, because after centuries of bloodshed over which religion was right or better, we created mechanisms that allow us to agree to disagree and still get on with our lives as communities. One of them was the secular State, whose origins can be traced back to John Locke’s Letter concerning toleration, clearing the way for a neutral government that can serve and protect all regardless of religion or lack of it. And a concurring notion is that of having a national identity before a religious one. This wasn’t instantaneous! The fact that the aforementioned Portuguese constitution of 1822 did not recognize freedom of worship and that subsequent texts did little to advance it goes to show how hard it was to disconnect nationality from religion. It took its time and it’s not a done job yet. But by and large, we’ve reached a point where we can have a polytheist, an atheist, a Baptist and a Catholic in the same room discussing a variety of issues without going religious on each other. And even when we do pull out faith-based arguments, we can still get along and work in the same volunteer centre because we’re humans and citizens before we’re of that or this religion. This is very much a modern thing. It would have been unthinkable in the ancient world, where religious identity was an extension of social and political ones. But I’m okay with that difference. If anything, I much prefer what we have today, because it makes things more open, less limited by the aforementioned restrictions to freedom of worship in the ancient world. It doesn’t limit your religious choices through nationality.
Of course, there are national nuances to European secularism: in France, there’s a much stronger stress on national identity, to the point that an individual’s public life is expected to be almost as neutral as the State; this is not the case in the United Kingdom, which is unsurprising, since it still has a national Church and clerical representation in the upper house of parliament. Over here, things are somewhere in the middle, with a secular State, but a public life that can and does have religious participation. Overall, it’s a climate where people can genuinely get along and discuss things without constantly putting religion on the table or going vitriolic about it all the time.
This may not be the case in at least part of the United States, where faith is a common part of the political debate and that’s despite the First Amendment. In as much as you sometimes get the impression that just about anything you say or do across the pond can be seen as having a religious motivation or consequence. But if you don’t have a secular skin or identity, if you wear your religion all the time as if it’s the sole thing that characterizes you or the sum of your being, then everything you say and do will be religious, from your political views to your fashion options and eating habits, with little or no room for a thematic distinction. Which then results in a dynamic where there’s a good chance that disagreements on just about anything will be religious, too. Maybe we should put that under the category of “recent events where groups use polytheism to forward political agendas” or “having a hard time separating the two”. Just saying.
Where does this lead us? Hopefully, to a better understanding of national idiosyncrasies and hence the whys of each other’s views, though that doesn’t mean we’ll agree or be on the same side on everything. Don’t ask me to condemn the Enlightenment, reject the notions of modernity or progress or fight Christianity because that’s far from my country’s History, its culture and how I experience the world. And don’t ask me to make other people’s perspective my own either, as that would be as ridiculous as telling a native American to honour Christopher Columbus or an Italian-American not to. You are who you are, a product of past causes, and different people have been shaped differently by History. We have to learn to deal with it instead of freely throwing around accusations of “privilege” or “ingratitude”.
Hopefully, time and a greater awareness will also produce a more diverse polytheism where you don’t have to be militant, overly devout, left wing, non-secular, anti-modern, anti-something-else or protest-oriented in order to be seen as a true, legitimate, consequential or genuine polytheist. You can just be a polytheist regardless of where you stand on a number of issues.
In reaction to that, Theanos, AKA the Anomalous Thracian, has written a brilliant blogpost where he addresses some of the most “curious” critiques (to put it mildly) and analyses the points where he disagrees with me. I highly recommend you read it. In fact, it’s so good that it had an unexpected impact on the way I perceive my own thought process and cultural background, making obvious things that I’ve been doing rather unconsciously.
The issues with words
His main critique to my article pertains to the equation of the Latin deus, dea and di with “god”, “goddess” and “gods”. Though that is the conventional translation found in a dictionary, he is right when he points out that the Germanic word may contain a diverse sense and hence be a poor equivalent to terms that were produced in a different cultural context. In this case, that of Roman polytheism, which historically had a more open, even somewhat egalitarian notion of deity. The problem may not be immediately obvious, but he makes an excellent analogy with the use of English, Spanish and Portuguese vocabulary to convey notions of deity in African-American religions, highlighting the issues around the use of terminology from one culture, which has baggage, to convey notions from another, which has its own specifics. Semantic mismatches are bound to happen.
One solution to the problem would be to use the word in its original form. Thus, when addressing ancient Roman notions of deity, the Latin term deus, rather than the Germanic “god”, would be a more suitable tool of communication, especially when discussing theological topics with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. Theanos mentions – and rightly so – the case of interfaith dialogue as opposed to intrafaith, where a given meaning is already established. It can save a lot of time and trouble, because it would have an immediate referential effect to a specific cultural and historical context instead of generating a debate on how different people view a particular word. It’s basically the same as using the term kami to discuss Shinto with a western audience. It’s more straightforward and avoids a lot of the effort needed in a translation, whose limitations can easily require an explanation of Japanese notions of deity to people to whom the word “god” carries a different meaning. But while I understand and can sympathize with that solution, it’s one that’s not entirely or at least not immediately available to me.
The reason is that the Portuguese word for god is exactly the same as in Latin: deus! The feminine is different and the plural more so, but that’s because their construction has become simpler by virtue of large grammatical changes. To give you an idea, case endings have largely disappeared in Portuguese, with a few traces remaining in things like pronouns, prepositions or patronymics. This makes the vocabulary more static than in Latin, something that is equally true for gender and number, with feminine and plural being commonly marked by an ending in -a and -s, respectively, often with little or no changes to the rest of the word. Hence “deus” (god), “deusa” (goddess), “deuses” (gods) and “deusas” (goddesses). Not entirely unlike what happens in English.
As a result, every time I consider the notion of god in my native language, every time I think about it on a daily basis, I’m using the exact same term that was employed by ancient Romans. So when confronted with their writings and inscriptions in trying to discern a pre-Christian sense of deity, it’s easy, almost natural, for the old and modern words to become one and the same, not just in spelling (which is already the case), but also in meaning. I don’t have the option of resorting to a different terminology to make a distinction between ancient and specific notions of divine on one side and current or general ones on the other. There are instances where such mechanism is available, a clear example being the difference between the pre-Christian pietas (duty) and modern “piedade” (mercy). In that case, a discernment is easy, both mentally and verbally, because I have two separate ideas, each with a corresponding word. Not so in the case of god: by virtue of identical spelling, the sense of the Latin deus – wide, inclusive, not restricted to supreme deities – can quickly become that of the Portuguese “deus” for a Portuguese Roman polytheist once the monotheistic layer has been peeled away.
This is something I’ve been doing naturally and somewhat unconsciously. It was Theanos’ blogpost that drew my attention to it and made evident that I was acting like any English translator of my native language. The ancient-specific and modern-general words have become undistinguishable to me, so when addressing an Anglophone audience, the former is instinctively translated in the same way as latter: “god”! If it were an article about pietas, we’d be having a different conversation, since mentally I have a firm distinction between the old concept, written in Latin, and the new one, spelled in current fashion. And as such, when putting my thoughts in English, there would be no risk of equating pietas with “mercy”, because the two are clearly identified by different words. To achieve the same effect with the term in question, I’d have to separate the Portuguese “deus”, which means “god” and is conventionally translated as such, and the Latin deus, which may be better left untouched. Which is a challenge, because it requires me to mentally and verbally slipt something my mind has fused into a timeless whole. I guess it’s a bit like asking a Japanese person to make a distinction between “kami” and kami, depending on whether it’s a new word or an old one, a general modern meaning or that of a specific context, even though in the Japanese mind they may be one and the same.
The value of words
There was another unexpected consequence to all of this, in that it highlighted the value of being familiar with a romance language when reviving Roman polytheism in today’s world. It’s not that you need to be Portuguese, Italian, Spanish or French in order to be a cultor or cultrix (far from it!), but knowing a modern Latin language and culture can help you ground and enrich your religious life as a Roman polytheist, connecting you with the Romanitas of today. And the more you do that, the less you feel the need to take refuge in a romanticization of the past or join an anachronistic micronation out of a feeling of not being Roman enough.
To give you a clearer example that adds to the revival of the ancient sense of deity, take the word “lar”. It’s still used in my native tongue, where it carries the meaning of “home”. Hence the well-known sentence “home sweet home” translates as “lar doce lar”. So when dealing with the concept of Lares, as in Family Lares or Lares Viales, I instinctively think of something on a domestic or familial level. Not a revered entity on a high place, a patron with whom you have a professional relationship or an infernal power wrapped up in religious taboos, but something closer, more personal, akin to a relative or family friend. Even if just a side or aspect of a deity that is normally more distant or terrible. And there’s also an impact on ritual, for instead of pouring a libation to Vesta after placing the main offerings in the ritual fire, I pour it to my Lares, because the Portuguese word for fireplace is “lareira” – the “eira” (place or ground) of the Lar. In fact, there’s a connection or at least similarity between “lareira” and Lararium.
Of course, this holds the danger of semantic anachronism, in that an identical spelling may wrongly suggest an equally identical meaning. Caution, study and careful thinking are therefore advised. But if you find no contradiction and it actually enriches your practices, then by all means, go for it! This is reviving a religion through language, creating a living meaning and connection to your everyday life by means of everyday words. There will naturally be differences depending on whether you’re seeing things through Spanish, French or Portuguese lens, because those languages don’t have an identical vocabulary. Yet Roman polytheism was never uniform. It was a diverse religion with regional and local variations, so different practices and perspectives are not only natural, but well within the historical precedent. And again, once you connect with the Romanitas of today, in this case by means of a language, which is a doorway to culture and History, it’s easier to breathe modern life into an old religion and harder to feel the need to go back in time to get a sense of being Roman.