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.

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New Year, all year (and ritual forms)

This year’s New Year ceremony was similar to that of 2018: long, with main offerings of food and beverage to Janus, together with a small wreath to crown His image, followed by the monthly tributes for the calends to Janus, Juno and the Lares and Penates, and finally additional offerings to a considerable number of other deities. But there was also a difference that stretched the length of the ceremony and will, in all likelihood, produce a review of the rite I use to worship Norse gods.

All in the first step
In late December, while preparing things for the end of the month, I realized that my New Year ceremony, which follows the same structure for sometime now, includes almost all of the deities I honour yearly. It wasn’t intentional, but something that was built throughout the years, as I’ve added gods and goddess who, besides Janus, are auspicious or relevant to me and my parents, like Minerva, Jupiter, Diana, Mercury, Maia, Fortuna and Spes.

And then I thought: what if I took that accidental reality to its full intentional consequences, honouring, after the sacrifice to Janus and calends’ tributes, all the deities to whom I dedicate an annual ceremony? If, for instance, on September 5th I pay tribute to Arentio and Arentia, why not add them to the list of supplementary New Year offerings? It makes sense, it’s meaningful and so I did it. And the result was the following sequence of individual and collective deities:

Family Lares, Penates, Vesta, Nabia, Silvanus, Mercury, Maia, Quangeio, Juno, Hercules, Minerva, Diana, Apollo, Arentio e Arentia, Faunus, Reue, Jupiter, Fortuna, Spes and Ingui-Freyr.

There’s a logic to the sequence, which starts with the domestic realm, that naturally includes one’s ancestors, housewights, the goddess of the domestic hearth and then, via my personal theology, Nabia and Silvanus, the former because my Family Lar is a local aspect of Her and the latter because He presides over of the local Lares of my home city and ancestral land. Then one leaves the home and at that stage come offerings to the god of roads, Mercury, as well as to His mother and companion, Maia and Quangeio, with specific requests for me and my dogs. Then follows Juno, with prayers in my mother’s name, and Hercules, with prayers in my father’s name. And then, with more general requests for blessings, luck, health and protection, come tributes to the remaining deities on the list, with a Norse guest at the end.

Multiplication
There are however two deities on the sequence to whom I have no annual ceremony – Fortuna and Spes. The most obvious solution would then be to add two dates to my festive calendar, but it occurred to me that there’s an alternative with symbolic value as well: that of, in each sacrifice in the first nine days of the year, pouring an offering of honey to Fortuna and another to Spes.

Note that to me New Year isn’t just a day, but a whole festive season that extends from day 1 to the Agonalia of January 9th, which I dedicate to Janus, who thus presides over the beginning and end of the celebrations at the start of a new cycle of twelve months. In between, there’s Vialia, dedicated to Mercury and the Lares Viales for the opening of ways, literal and figurative, in the starting year, and Apotropalia, dedicated to Apollo with requests for protection and health. Note that all of these gods are linked in some way to door and entryways, for which reason they mark my celebrations at the doorways of a new year.

A growing list
But the number of deities honoured in the New Year ceremony will grow past the list above. The idea of paying tribute to all the gods and goddesses I worship throughout the twelve months had the unintended consequence of making me reconsider the rite I use for Norse deities, which is a mixture of Scandinavia and Roman elements, but not to the point of allowing a jump from one ritual praxis to another. They require separate openings and foci, so it wouldn’t be easy to annex a Norse section to the New Year ceremony.

The solution, in all likelihood, will be the construction of a new rite that must be essentially identical to the Roman, though with some particulars, just like the ritus graecus

Changes to the calendar
There’s another unintended consequence of the decision to add to the New Year ceremony all the gods I worship annually: by changing the type of rite used for Norse deities so as to include them fully in a Roman ceremony, I can honour them on the Calends or Nones without having to light an additional ritual fire and thus with the freedom to perform Freyja’s annual sacrifice on May 1st and Njord’s on July 7th.

Which adds to a review I already had in mind, namely changing the name of the festivity of December 31st so as to use Transitalia for the October 4th sacrifice to Mercury and the Lares Viales (a topic for another post), shifting Anubis’ offering day to February 12th so as to be on the very eve of Parentalia and adding Hephaestus to my religious practices, with a sacrifice on January 19th. But more on that in a few days.

In the meantime, happy New Year!