An Iberian Jupiter

One of the tragedies of ancient Iberian History is how little has survived of its oldest religious traditions. There is nothing in the likes of Greek, Norse or Celtic mythology, no extensive written account of Iberian myths or of religious practices. There are only brief references in outside sources – like Strabo – and archaeological traces, namely in the form of altars where theonyms and epithets have been inscribed. So essentially, we have the names of deities, rarely any iconography and no narratives. It’s a lost tradition.

Yet don’t blame Christianity for it, or at least not for the most part. The erasure and assimilation of the Iberian Peninsula’s older religious traditions was first and foremost a result of the Roman conquest of the territory. The pre-Christian Roman conquest. Because as the new rulers settled in, so did their ways and customs, from language to laws to, yes, religion. There’s a reason why almost every one of those altars that preserve the names and titles of older Iberian deities bear not inscriptions in a Celtic or an ancient native language, but in Latin and are shaped like traditional Roman altars. One word sums up the process in its various forms: Romanization! A reminder that not every cultural-religious erasure is the work of proselyte monotheism.

This is important, because before moving into the core of this post, I want to make two things crystal clear. The first is the extent of what was lost and hence how much needs to be created from scratch if one’s to give older Iberian deities a religious place in the modern world. For with generally nothing to go by other than names and titles, a simple reconstruction just isn’t an option. You have to create! And yet – and this is the second point I want to make clear – I bear no grudge towards ancient Rome for it. Honestly, it feels ridiculous just saying it, because of course I don’t! What would be the point of harbouring ill-feelings towards a long-gone civilization whose actions took place over two millennia ago? It’s no-brainer, but… don’t underestimate the ability of some polytheists to hold deep historical grudges. And additionally, I practise my polytheism as an extension of my native culture, and since Portuguese is a product of the Romanization of the Iberian Peninsula, it would be non-sensical for me to reject my country’s Latinity in favour of some anachronic re-enactment of a lost tribe or civilization that has long been subsumed into later, multiple layers of identity.

So having said that, what follows is focused on the pre-Roman Iberian god Reue, on whom I wrote a post a few years ago, when I refurnished this blog, summing up the surviving data, what scholars make of it and my own work hypothesis. I’ve had a few more ideas since then and have come to construct a more elaborate view of Reue, which is now a full part of my religious practices and the object of a growing attention of mine.

Celestial shepherd
A few known or proposed things about Reue serve as the starting point: archaeological findings suggest a link to mountainous areas and theological closeness to Jupiter, though the Iberian theonym is never employed as an epithet of the Roman one. Rather, Larauco (of the Larouco mountain in northernmost Portugal) is used as a title of Reue or as a stand-alone with the words deo Maximo (highest god), which also serve to describe Jupiter. So we’re dealing with a jovian god, but one who, by virtue of his name and according to several scholars, also has a watery connection, which is not incompatible with known roles of Jupiter or Jupiter-like deities throughout the old Roman world.

Another contextual point is the rural nature of ancient western Iberia, as there were virtually no civitates, just oppida or fortified hilltops. Granted, by some modern standards, even a lot of Roman cities would be villages, but in the ancient Latin world there was a legal and structural distinction to be made and which I took into account.

From this arose a concept: the Shepherd of Clouds! Part of the inspiration came from one of Zeus’ epithets in the Iliad – Gatherer of Clouds – and it holistically encapsulates what little is known of Reue – the Jovian nature, connection to water and rural context – while also serving as a fertile catalyst for a cascade of new ideas about him.

Think about it: clouds are his flock, which not only makes him a celestial god, but one who’s particularly connected to rain and thus water. In his beneficial role, he helps sustain rivers and springs, mountainous and others, but if you get torrential rain and sudden flooding, that can be envisioned as his flock running amuck. The sound of a rushing wall of water is not unlike that of a stampede. Also, if you hear thunder, that too can be translated as Reue’s cattle on the move, but because clouds advance with the wind, it too falls under the god’s influence. Think of the soft breeze as air coming out of Reue’s shepherd flute or of strong gusts as his dogs. Also, because water is fundamental for life and prosperity, he appears as a fertility god as well, a side of his reinforced by the connection to cattle. And if mountain tops are covered in clouds, yet no rain falls on lower lands and there’s even a partly blue sky in the surrounding area, take it as Reue’s flock grazing on the summit, with the god sitting among his cattle and walking on the mountainous ground.

Thus a simple rural concept, which may not have seem much at first, breathes new, rich life into an old god who initially appeared so distant, so abstract, by virtue of there being so little about him in the historical record.

Trees and animals
Of course, if he’s a Jupiter-like deity, then Reue’s tree will naturally be the oak. But because he’s a west-Iberian god, one can get specific and link him not with the more famous Quercus robur, but with the Quercus faginea or Portuguese oak. Alternatively, there’s also the Quercus suber or cork oak, which is Portugal’s national tree.

And as for animals, the white bull or ox is an obvious choice, but so is the sheep and ram, plus the dog, which are all part of the shepherd’s realm. Birds are still an unclear point to me, though naturally there’s the eagle, both the Aquila chrysaetos and the Buteo buteo, and I’m also considering the black kite (Milvus migrans) and even the black stork (Ciconia nigra).

Now, there’s some divergence here from traditional animal associations of Jupiter, but that’s okay. For one, I expect the rural emphasis of Reue to result in differences and, secondly, I don’t see them as the same deity, so again, distinctions are to be expected.

King and court
Which leads to the next point, for if Reue and Jupiter are to be understood as different gods, albeit similar in several ways, how does one integrate them pantheon-like? And the answer is hierarchically and functionally. That is to say, picture Jupiter as a celestial king with an entourage or heavenly court, of which other, similar gods are members to a varying degree. This is not unlike how Greeks and Romans saw the relationship between various deities, and so one only has to insert Reue into the fold as a sort of princely figure with a more rural, even rustic identity in the celestial realm. Hence the similarities and even overlap with Jupiter, but also the distinctions, with the end-result of fully integrating into a modern Roman polytheism of a present-day Latin country and culture a native pre-Roman god from that country’s territory.

The lady by the spring
There’s also the native goddess Nabia, with whom one can make a connection with Reue both on the basis of realms of influence and the view of him as a shepherd. She’s not without a Jovian link herself, since she’s mentioned together with Jupiter in one altar found in northern Portugal. But because she’s often associated with springs and rivers, the stage sort of sets itself up for a meeting with Reue: they both exert influence on the sources and availability of water, even complementing each other; and following on the idea of him as a shepherd, picture the bucolic scene where a keeper of flocks meets a fair lady by the well or spring and they become enamored, thus forging a link between the two.

This is not without historical basis and I don’t mean Nabia’s Jovian association. In one inscription from Cabeço das Fráguas, in the Portuguese northern interior, a sacrifice of livestock is listed, together with the gods to whom it was given, and among them is Reve Tre…. One possibility being that the final letters are part of an epithet that linked Reue with the native goddess Trebaruna, who’s also mentioned in the inscription and, judging from the theonym, may have been a deity of the village well or spring. If the two were paired, it would make sense, but given that their names don’t appear together anywhere else in the archaeological record, it could have been a geographically limited pairing. In any case, the hypothesis supplies something of a precedent for a link between Reue and Nabia.

Like a letter and a sound
Before I finish, and just so we’re clear, I don’t actually believe that clouds are flocks, thunder is the sound of moving cattle and a god is walking it around somewhere in the sky. The notion of Shepherd of Clouds is a means to understand and codify.

If you want a very simple analogy, I don’t believe the sound /a/ actually looks like the letter a, yet I’m content with the traditional Latin grapheme and engage with the sound through it. It’s a way to grasp, depict and make use of something that we can hear, but not see or touch. And the fact that the letter is a human-made representation of a phoneme doesn’t make it false – its everyday usefulness and shared understanding makes it true.

Something similar applies to Reue: I believe him to be a real entity with agency, able to exert influence on certain phenomena and activities, and his depiction as a Shepherd of Clouds is a way of engaging with him. Of making sense and thus interact. Just as grapheme is a way of reaching out to a phoneme, of giving it form it and using it, without it meaning that the former actually is the latter or truly looks like it.

So salve to Reue,
the Rustic Jupiter, Iberian Jove,
the Shepherd of Clouds and Thundering Flocks,
He of Breezes and Gusts,
of the Flute and Hounds,
Nabia’s Divine Friend!

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 what 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, then 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 their own heterodoxies – rightly, legitimately so!

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 is yours, 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 with a particular philosophical persuasion. 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 choose 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, Roman 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 global 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 the adoption of 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 to be blended 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 greater 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 own specific practices? This is unity in diversity, unity through a common basic ritual practice, not unity in uniformity.