Roman polytheism: an extended definition

There’s been a fair amount of talk on the polytheist and pagan corners of Twitter recently about ethnicity, identity, religion and gatekeeping, particularly regarding Hellenic polytheism, and part of it has spilled into the blogosphere, originating posts like this one. Now, I will not tell others how to define and structure their religions, though I may express my views on it, but the whole debate caused me to look closely at my own and where it converges or diverges from was being put forward on Twitter. And that eventually led me to a definition of modern Roman polytheism that is more extensive than the one I’ve been using so far and which goes like this:

Roman polytheism is the worship of many gods, Roman and others, according to Roman ritual tradition, without a prescribed orthodoxy, without a defined moral doctrine and within a romance cultural context.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s take it bit by bit:

1. Worship of many gods, Roman and others
It’s not a religion restricted to a single pantheon, but open to any deity from anywhere, though one may, if one so wishes, focus solely on traditionally Roman gods. And this trait means that it cannot be defined as the religion of those who worship, follow or work with the Roman gods, since that would be incomplete – it can equally be the worship of other deities – and also non-sensical, since those same gods can and are worshipped in other religions as well.

I keep insisting on this point, but clearly I need to: we’re not in a Abrahamic-like context where belief in one set of gods excludes belief in all others and therefore if you believe in them and/or worship them, then you’re necessarily of a specific religion. This is rather an open game, not a zero-sum one. Belief alone may not be sufficiently indicative – it may not even be enough to qualify you as a polytheist – and the same gods can be worshipped differently in different traditions. Therefore, belief in and worship of Roman gods doesn’t automatically make you a Roman polytheist. It can just as easily make you a wiccan, if you do it the wiccan way.

2. According Roman ritual tradition
What makes one a Roman polytheist is, simply put, how one worships the gods, i.e., what are the ritual rules that shape one’s religious practices. In other words, it’s an orthopraxic religion, but what exactly is meant by a modern Roman praxis is still somewhat fluid and my own views on some details have changed. This is, after all, something that’s being revived, not inherited from the past in an unbroken tradition, so there are gaps in our knowledge and changes in context – political, social and cultural – that are bound to have an impact. Still, if I had to list what makes a modern Roman orthopraxy, based on History and present practices among fellow cultores, I’d say the following:

a) Marking the Calends, Nones and Ides of each month, determined either through lunar phases or fixed solar dates, as per the Julian calendar or the Gregorian one. And honouring particular deities on each of those days: Janus and Juno on the Calends, Jupiter on the Ides, the Family Lares on all three. This is just the bare minimum and there’s nothing preventing one from adding other deities to those being worshipped on any or all of those dates or even from having other monthly sacrifices, according to one’s personal devotions, local or regional traditions, domestic or communal practices, culture or philosophical persuasion;

b) In every ceremony in Roman rite, even if only a semi-formal one, the head must be covered with a piece of cloth, Janus is one of the first deities being honoured and Vesta one of the last. Again, this is just the bare minimum and there’s nothing preventing one from adding other deities to the opening and closing sections of a ceremony, as per personal, local, regional, domestic or communal devotions or traditions, culture and philosophical persuasion;

c) Maintaining a distinction between celestial, terrestrial and domestic deities or divine aspects on one side, and infernal ones on the other: the main hand with which ritual gestures are performed for the former is the right, for the latter it’s the left hand; food given to the former can be consumed by the living after being deconsecrated, that given to the latter cannot; offerings to the former are burned either at home or on a raised altar or fire, those to the latter are burned or buried in a pit;

d) Ritual fire is preferred for burning offerings to most deities – watery ones may be an exception – and should be used whenever possible. If resorting to fire is truly impossible, consecrated offerings should be deposited in meaningful and appropriate places;

e) Before a ceremony is concluded, one must ascertain the gods’ (dis)satisfaction through divination or simply give an expiatory offering;

f) And at least in more formal ceremonies, the main offerings – i.e. those given to the deity to whom the sacrifice is dedicated – are consecrated by being sprinkled with wheat, wheat flour or salted wheat flour, together with a small prayer that is up to you, your family or community to construct;

g) Finally, ceremonies call for physical cleanliness, so at the very least you should previously wash your hands and face.

If you do all of these things – not just some, but all – and if they constitute at least the majority of your religious practices, than in my book at least you’re a Roman polytheist, even if the gods you worship are almost all of them non-Roman. Though, mind you, some of them will necessarily be, because, as listed above, the orthopraxy requires monthly sacrifices to Janus, Juno and Jupiter, as well as opening and closing offerings to Janus and Vesta, so even if all others are of different traditional pantheons, you’ll still be worshipping many gods, Roman and others.

3. Without a prescribed orthodoxy
If ancient Roman polytheism had an orthopraxy, it did not have an orthodoxy and the same should hold true for the modern version of the religion. It doesn’t mean there were and are no religious beliefs, no faith, but simply that they’re not regulated and can vary depending on individual or group experiences, traditions, culture and philosophical persuasion.

Are the gods mortal or immortal? Are they morally perfect or imperfect? Do they communicate with us humans, how so and to what end? Are there other gods of which we know nothing? Is deity A the same as deity B or are they distinct? How do you define a deity and what entities do you include in the definition? Is there a soul? If so, what is it and how does it operate? Is there an afterlife? If so, how does it work and what does it entail?

These and other questions are open to interpretation and different cultores will have different answers for them. And that’s okay! They’ll still be polytheists if they believe in and worship many gods, they’ll still be my coreligionists if they worship them the Roman way and that constitutes the majority of one’s religious practices. Simply put, Roman polytheism is a religion that can include many philosophies and theologies, not just one that’s elevated to the status of universal orthodoxy. Different individuals, groups, families and communities will have theirs.

Now, in case you’re wondering, doesn’t the necessary belief in many gods in order for one to be a polytheist constitute a regulated doxa? And the answer is that believing in many deities relates to the basic concept of the religious category that is polytheism. In other words, it precedes the definition of Roman polytheism, which is born out of that category and its defining criteria, so belief is already assumed. If you – freely and legitimately – do not fit those same criteria, then you’re not in the general category of polytheism; if you do, the next step is to determine which type of polytheism, which is where specific religions and their definitions come in.

4. Without a defined moral doctrine
This is perhaps the most contentious point, because we’re used to equating religion with morality. But ancient Roman polytheism had no sacred scriptures and so lacked a mechanism by which it could fix a moral doctrine – and hence an orthodoxy, by the way. Sure, there were plenty of people who would write texts praising or admonishing human behaviour and there were traditional customs and norms that determined what was (im)proper. Here’s the thing, though…

There’s a tendency to mistake the part for the whole. Often, we read someone like Cicero or Seneca and assume what they say about gods and morals to be a universal doxa of Roman polytheism, but that’s a fallacy. What Cicero and others wrote were their perspectives, those of members of the elite. They were certainly shared by others, but were not universal, not mandatory. They were not the official teachings of Roman polytheism.

In other words, those texts people wrote were not scripture, but individual opinions based either on the philosophical school the author adhered to or on the traditional norms and customs of his community. But different people had different philosophical persuasions, so just like in the matter of orthodoxy this would result in theological diversity, you could get different views on what was (im)proper. Or if views on morality were based on traditional norms, apart from the possibility of clashing with philosophical perspectives, they are naturally open to change as society itself changes.

So no crystallization, no universal source, no absolute views. Whatever values were upheld could of course be religiously expressed, as in the cult to specific virtues, but as mentalities and thus values evolve, so does its religious expression, either through a reinterpretation of old forms or a creation (or calling) of new ones.

Just as a lack of orthodoxy simply means that Roman polytheists have no regulated beliefs, so too the lack of a defined moral doctrine merely results in the absence of regulated, universal gods-given code of conduct for everyday behaviour. Rather, it varies along the same lines as belief. Divine inspiration is a factor, granted, but it’s inspiration, not decrees, and different deities inspire different things, together with inputs of a philosophical, cultural, communal or social nature. And if morality is not a matter of divine commandments, of what the gods (don’t) want us to do in our everyday lives, then it becomes an issue of human society, to be discussed and determined by its members in all their diversity. Simply put, morality is a social issue, not a religious one, not one that is determined by religion – though it can be expressed through it.

5. Within a romance cultural context
Here’s another thing about ancient Roman polytheism: it was indistinguishable from communal life and identity. It wasn’t a religion one picked and thus converted to, but one you were born into, inheriting the corresponding family and hence religious and civic duties. And by that measure, it was a culturally tied religion. Having it meant having specific social and political ties, but also, at least to some extent, a specific language and culture.

This poses challenges to the modern Roman polytheist. For one, the idea that it’s something inherent to one’s family, State and culture clashes with modern religious liberty, which is predicated on the individual’s right to chose a religion or none and on a separation between citizenship and religious affiliation. And then there’s the historical fact that Roman political and cultural unity no longer exists: what used to be the empire fragmented into multiple States and the Latin language and culture followed suit, fragmenting into regional dialects out of which were born the modern-day romance languages.

In practical terms, this dissolves whatever one-on-one link one might want to establish between religion, culture and nationality. Whereas the term Hellene is tied to a single country (Greece) or ethnicity (Greek), thus allowing for an overlap of different layers of identity – religious, cultural and national – no such simple correspondence exists in the case of Roman polytheism, because there is not just one, but many Latin languages and cultures: Portuguese, Asturleonese, Castilian, Aragonese, Catalan, Occitan, French, Romansh, Sardinian, Ligurian, Italian, Romanian – and several others, plus extra-European varieties brought about by Europe’s colonization of Africa, Asia and America. If one is to have modern Roman polytheism culturally tied, then it will be a much more universal religion than its ancient version thanks to the development and geographic expansion of multiple Latin languages and cultures.

But should it be culturally tied? My answer is yes. Unlike a political connection, which might clash with modern freedom of religion, a cultural link is both consistent with the past and entirely possible within the modern context, especially when one considers that culture isn’t genetic, but acquired, and so anyone who isn’t native to one can put the effort to adopt it.

Mind you, having a Latin culture alone won’t make you a Roman polytheist, otherwise every single Portuguese, Spanish, French or Italian person would inherently be one. The defining criterion is following the orthopraxy, not your nationality, ethnicity or even beliefs. But culture provides you with a context: a Latin language to use in religious ceremonies, a net of traditions and customs that blend with your practices and infuse them with an everyday quality by virtue of being part a living, everyday culture, not a recreation or re-enactment of a long-gone city-State and its social apparatus.

A note on colonialism
Whereas the cultural link may come naturally for Europeans, it may not be so for those elsewhere in the world, because there European languages and cultures are the product of colonialism and its violent erasure of native civilizations. For those in that situation, the options are multiple: not be a Roman polytheist, which is legitimate; be of dual tradition, practicing Roman polytheism along side, but separate from native religions; or go for a blending of the two at some level, where you resort to the orthopraxy, contextualize it in a Latin culture (e.g. Spanish) and worship Roman and non-Roman gods together.

As an example, that’s kind of what I do, though at a much longer chronological distance. You see, Latin wasn’t native to the Iberian peninsula, but was brought over by conquering Roman armies and settlers, who supplanted native identities, languages and cultures. Basques are probably all that remains of pre-Roman Iberia, and then there were later invasions and subsequent additional cultural layers being added. So by linking my Roman polytheist practice with my native Portuguese context, the result is naturally a blend: there are elements of Arab culture in it (namely in vocabulary and cooking), because the Portuguese are partly Arabized Latinos, and the pantheon is naturally mixed, with traditional Roman deities being worshipped alongside pre-Roman ones. Take Reue for instance, whom I see as a member of Jupiter’s retinue, or Quangeio, Mercury’s companion in my western Iberian cult to Maia’s son.

And just to add a picture

Roman polytheism

So to sum it up, belief in and worship of many gods makes you a polytheist as a general category, worshipping according to the Roman ritual praxis makes you a Roman polytheist and a Latin language and culture, either native or acquired, provides for a cultural context that ties your religious practice to a living, everyday culture derived from that of the ancient version of the religion. As expressed in a simplified form in the scheme above.

Will this result in a very diverse religion, with different theologies, different philosophies, different views on what’s moral and immoral and tied to different cultures and languages, since there so many options, and thus with national or regional specificities? Certainly! But why should that be a problem? And how does that break with a past that was also diverse, with different families, cities, provinces and communities having their specific practices? This is unity in diversity, unity through a common basic ritual practice, not unity in uniformity.

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Where I stand

Several recent conversations with fellow polytheists have made clear that there are those who are not aware of my ideological positioning regarding a set of issues, despite having several years of interaction with me on numerous occasions. Which can sometimes lead to unpleasant surprises to those expecting to find me on one side of a debate and instead find me expressing opinions that are to them unexpected.

For that reason, for future reference and so that there are no doubts on where I stand on the field of ideas, I’ve decided to write the essentials of some of my ideological positioning, though a lot of what I’m about to say is public knowledge, since it’s published and freely available to anyone in this blog’s menu. But it seems a clearer and more direct approach is needed.

1. I like philosophy, but…
I like philosophy. I read philosophy, western and eastern, ancient and more recent. I tutor philosophy to high school kids. And there are philosophical doctrines of which I’m fond of and have been integrating in my theological views and religious practices. Therefore, it’s not a subject that’s deprived of interest to me, but it’s also not one I’m particularly focused on.

What I mean by that is that, generally speaking, I don’t particularly care where other polytheists stand, philosophically. So long as they believe in and worship many gods – not many as masks of a One or honour exclusively one out of many – they’re polytheists in my book, regardless of how distant their choice of philosophy is from mine.

2. I’m not in search of the metaphysical truth
As a result, I generally also don’t engage in theological or philosophical debates on who’s right or wrong about the metaphysical truth of things. I see such matters as speculative and thus, ultimately, they’re up to each individual to decide, which is why I don’t particularly care if other polytheists are Platonists, Stoics, Epicureans or of any other philosophical persuasion, western or eastern, pre-Christian or later.

At best and generally speaking, I may join conversations on the subject so as to understand other people’s worldviews, the ideas they’re comprised of, perhaps exchange notes and test thoughts, but without the final goal of arriving at an ultimate metaphysical and spiritual truth. I don’t particularly care where others stand on the principle of do ut des, the gods’ immortality, the number and nature of human soul(s), the existence or not of fate, etc. I have my beliefs, others have theirs. So long as they believe in and worship many gods as individual entities, they’re polytheists as far as I’m concerned.

Whether or not I find other people’s philosophical position interesting, enlightening, optimistic, convincing or conducive to a relationship with the gods is generally irrelevant. They’re other people’s beliefs and philosophical conceptions, not mine. It’s up to them to decide where they stand and how they feel about it.

3. My exceptions
I’ve been saying “generally”, because there are exceptions. One of them concerns basic definitions and their meaning. I therefore have no problem, for instance, disputing and correcting those who claim to be polytheists, but believe in no gods, one god, worship only one or define polytheism in a skewed manner.

I also dispute and correct erroneous ideas on History or opinions on the past that lack support from the historical record. The same applies to other modern scientific topics, generally speaking, though I’m more comfortable with some than others.

And I oppose racist, xenophobic, homophobic or supremacist ideas, whether they’re blended with religious views or not. I draw a line at basic human decency and sanity, just as I do at basic definitions.

4. My definition of Roman polytheism
The ideas above are to me fundamental and are reflected on the value I place on ritual orthopraxy and my definition of Roman polytheism as worship of many gods, Roman and others, according to Roman ritual practice.

Notice that it says nothing about belief – outside the basic concept of polytheism (see above) – nor does it mention moral values, political ideology, social organization and philosophical persuasion. And that is so because those things are to me irrelevant for the basic definition of Roman polytheism.

In practical terms, this means, for instance, that I have no problem with Roman polytheists who subscribe to Platonism and would worship alongside them, even though I’m not a Platonist myself and the more I read about it, the less keen I am on it. And in another example, I believe the gods interfere in human affairs and that there is efficacy in ritual, but I have no problem with Roman polytheists who are sceptical about do ut des, but still worship the gods, for whatever reason, and I would worship alongside them.

5. I value orthopraxy more
For me, what makes one a Roman polytheist is how one worships, regardless of one’s theology and choice of philosophy, generally speaking. The gestures, the structure of both rite and month, the basic how-to. Everything else is entirely up to the individuals, families and groups.

And yes, this is based both on the historical example of ancient Roman polytheism, which was orthopraxic and non-orthodox, and the personal conviction that its modern version must detach itself from political, tribal and social realities of a bygone period.

My approach is that of identifying the fundamental traits of ancient Roman religion – like orthopraxy and non-orthodoxy – and then apply them as much as possible and desirable to the modern context, instead of trying to replicate or re-enact the specific product of that combination of traits and context that was in existence in the past. Fossilization is not my goal.

6. I’m a conventionalist
It is for that exact reason that when defining Roman polytheism I also say nothing about moral values. If there was no orthodoxy, then there was no doctrinal position regarding philosophy and everyday behaviour. Simply put, Roman polytheism had no moral principles, just ritual traditions. And what morality it presented, it was of social origin, though it could be expressed and codified in a religious manner.

There’s nothing historically new in this. A common feature in pre-Christian cultures of ancient Europe was a full merger of the social, political and religious aspects of life, with no real distinction between them, contrary to what´s common today. They were different sides of traditional customs. As a result, tribal and civic identity was one with religious identity and the performance of priestly roles often fell on political leaders and magistrates. And hence also why religiously expressed moral values were those prevalent in the society where the religion was practiced.

This doesn’t mean that I believe that the revival of Roman polytheism should imply a reconstruction of past social, tribal and political structures, because that would be a form of fossilization. As already mentioned, my position is that one should identify fundamental traits and then apply them to the modern context. In this case, if ancient Roman polytheism had no orthodoxy nor moral codes of a religious nature, just reflections of the socially prevalent values, then the correct course of action is to maintain the non-doctrinal dynamic and let it mix with the modern world, including on moral values, instead of, I say again, replicating or re-enacting the past product of that mix of traits and context.

You may therefore call me a conventionalist: morality is the product of mutable social ideas and conventions, not of divine decrees handed down from above. It can certainly be expressed in a religious fashion – through myths, proverbs or manifestations of belief – but as convention changes, so does its religious reflection. Otherwise, either the gods were amiss in the past regarding things like the value of human life or being a Roman polytheist today means having a set of fossilized values. Since I subscribe to neither of those two views, I attach no moral commandments to the gods.

Some see in it a recipe for chaos, but I see it as something liberating and an opportunity to discuss norms, laws and values in a free and rational manner without being limited by dogmatisms or fossilized sacred scriptures. And that’s a good thing! It’s a recognition that things change, including the values by which a society is governed, and it’s taking part in that change in an open manner. It’s not about submitting to modern morals in an acritical fashion, but looking at it freely and critically, preserving it where it must be preserved, treasuring it where it must be treasured, criticizing and demanding changes where it must be changed. Without the goal of freezing it, of simply turning back the clock, of changing it for the sake of change or because the gods say so or a sacred book commands it. You won’t see me using arguments like X should be unlawful because deity A forbids it.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t think that gods inspire human action and behaviour, but different deities inspire different things (e.g. virginity or lust, war or peace, order or trickery) and that inspiration comes on a personal level, not by means of a universal decree. It is my belief that divine communities operate with their own rules, humans with theirs, and though there may be an exchange of ideas, the two work autonomously.

The only area where I admit the possibility of divine instructions are rites, the management of sacred spaces and human conduct within them, here too with elements that may be diverse depending on the deity. And even on that note…

7. How conventionalist am I?
I’m such a conventionalist, that I even propose that orthopraxy should take into account social morals and adapt itself in cases where ritual tradition clashes significantly with laws and social conventions. In other words, a renegotiation with the gods when that which traditional in their cult goes substantially against what is acceptable in the society where the religion is practiced. One can certainly try to change laws and social conventions, if there are motives, support and a real need for it, but one can also adapt religious practices.

For instance, if it’s traditional to sacrifice dogs to a given deity, I hope – indeed, emphatically defend – that there’s an adaptation of the ritual practice considering the value and protection awarded to canines in western societies, replacing the animal offering with a figure of a dog.

And also as an example, if Roman ritual tradition awards the paterfamilias a leading role in domestic ritual practices, I hope – indeed, emphatically defend – there’s a transition to a modern dynamic that’s more equalitarian and not only awards an equally important role to the materfamilias, but also goes beyond a relationship between male and female and includes same-sex couples.

8. I’m a Roman polytheist because…
In the end, it’s fair to ask why am I a Roman polytheist, even more so if, as is my case, one believes that the same gods can be worshipped in different ways and so there’s nothing compelling me to follow Roman tradition in order to honour Mercury or Minerva. I’m not interested in rebuilding ancient Rome and its civic institutions, in reproducing the values that were prevalent there two thousand years ago, not even in restricting myself to the schools of philosophy there were current among ancient Roman elites. So why am I a Roman polytheist?

The answer is threefold, starting with a theological reason, in that I genuinely believe there are many individual deities and want to worship several of them. That makes me a polytheist, but what type or of what tradition?

That’s where the second reason kicks in: culture! I’m Portuguese, born, raised and living in Portugal, and since my native language derives directly from Latin, just like my country’s culture is predominantly of the same matrix, I decided to take that to the next level and go for a religion that’s equally Latin. Ergo, Roman polytheism!

But then one needs to ask: am I comfortable with it? Do I feel at home or is it kind of a mismatch? Just because you’re a European Latino doesn’t mean you have to go for a Latin religion. After all, a lot of Portuguese pick other traditions, including monotheisms, or none, freely and legitimately, so it’s not in any way compulsory. And yet, a decade after making my choice, I can honestly say that yes, I feel at home. More than comfortable, I’m happy in a religion that embraces diversity, is non-exclusivist, has no orthodoxy and no moral doctrine, thus awarding me the freedom to worship many gods, be they traditionally Roman or not, adhere to a philosophical school of my choosing and face the challenges of the society I’m part of without dogmatic constrains of religious nature.

Other people may of course have different reasons, but these are mine. And this is who I am, religiously, ideologically. How you choose to react to it is up to you.