Unwanted preservation

Another still wanted to call himself Mercury, the inventor of all theft and all deceit, to whom greedy men offer sacrifices, as if he was the god of profit, forming heaps of rocks when passing through crossroads. (De Correctione Rusticorum, 7)

So wrote Saint Martin of Dume in the second half of the 6th century. Of course, he meant it as a condemnation of pre-Christian practices, though how far they were prevalent in northwest Iberia at the time is unclear. But as so often happens, when writing about what you think people shouldn’t do, you end up preserving the memory of it, thus offering the possibility of resumption of those practices later on. Which is exactly the case here: the text gives a clear account of road-side rock piles as a form of tribute to Mercury and so I do just that. As in the photo above, where you can see a cairn I erected yesterday next to a crossroad. Thank you, Saint Martin!

Also, if you’re a heathen and you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed how his description of Mercury resembles that of Loki in Snorri’s Edda, Gylfaginning 34, where Laufey’s son is called the “originator of deceits” (Faulkes’ translation). Pretty much in line with the character of the Greek Hermes, who’s described in his Homeric hymn as “very crafty” and “thief”, even “Prince of Thieves”, though that didn’t make Him any less godly or unworthy of worship. It did, however, make Him more prone to comparisons with the deceiver-in-chief of the Judeo-Christian tradition – aka, the devil – and you see some of that in Saint Martin’s words. I’m not saying that Hermes and Loki are the same god – it’s not something I believe in – but their resemblances, both in traits and the way they were treated by Christian authors, should be taken into consideration before arguing that Laufey’s son isn’t to be worshipped because He’s a liar.

Dropping the moral criterion

How can it be a god if it’s not perfect? How can it be worshipped if it’s not good? These are questions that I’m occasionally confronted with and not just by Christians. They also come out of the mouth (or fingers) of atheists and, every now and then, even pagans and polytheists, in what is a good example of how the current religious speech, at least in the western world, is dominated by Abrahamic assumptions, even if you’re not a Jew, Christian, Muslim or religious at all.

1. One’s criteria…
At the root of those questions – and the astonishment that may accompany them – is the prevalence of a concept of divinity that’s based on a moral criterion, as, for instance, in the idea that “God is good”. Or just or merciful or perfect. If it has flaws, it’s not a god. If it has no sense of justice, if it lets bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them, if it lacks compassion or possesses a moral imperfection, then it’s not a god. Thus, if the devil steals, lies, seduces, hurts or destroys, those are symptoms of its non-divinity. He’s the anti-god and therefore the opposite of perfection and justice. And if there was a god, “this” – insert whatever tragedy you can think of – would never happen.

It wasn’t always like this and one can find a more unpleasant notion of the divine in the Old Testament. For instance, the death of Uzzah after he touched the Ark of the Covenant, in Samuel II 6:6-7, is ruthless and takes into consideration no good intentions whatsoever. But the moral criterion isn’t new as well and you can see it in places like chapter 7 of the Correctione Rusticorum, where Saint Martin of Dume denies that Jupiter, Mars or Mercury are gods based not just on a belief in a divine monopoly, but also from their behaviour: adultery, lies, theft, magic, instigation of discord, all of that is unbecoming of a deity and signs that something isn’t a god.

The moral criterion came to prevail and is presently a recurring part of Christian thought. It’s in speeches, sermons, manuals, everyday conversations. And because the European continent has a thousand or more years of Abrahamic predominance, that conception is the default perspective based on which most people discuss religion, whatever it may be or regardless of whether or not you have one.

2. …are not the criteria of others
It wasn’t like that in ancient Europe, where the divine was commonly defined as being numinous, wondrous or extraordinary, as having the power to awe, inspire, terrify, create or destroy, no matter if it was beneficial or damaging, pleasant or unpleasant. Gods in everything, as Thales of Miletus is believed to have said and Virgil wrote later on, regardless if it’s good or bad things.

To put it in practical terms, consider the case of Aphrodite. It’s true that ancient Greece wasn’t all misogynist, if nothing else because it’s hard to speak of uniformity in a territory that was divided into multiple city-States, which had traditions and cultural nuances of their own, and even more so in a polytheistic context, which by recognizing multiple gods also accepts multiple patterns, even if in a limited fashion. But it was still a place and time where there was a strong cultural current that saw female sexuality with some discomfort, if not fear.

There’s a trace of that in Euripides’ Bacchae, lines 217-25, where Pentheus accuses the women who honour Dionysus of leaving their homes and wander through the mountains, submitting to lasciviousness in isolated places. He also accuses them of placing the cult of Aphrodite ahead of that of Bacchus, using the latter as a pretext for lust. And the foreigner who introduces the Dionysian practices, who’s the god Himself and Pentheus accuses of moral corruption, is described as having “in his wine-coloured eyes the charms of Aphrodite”.

It is thus unsurprising that the great warrior goddess of the Greeks is Athena. After all, She had no mother who gave birth to Her, as said in lines 735-6 of the Eumenides, and, because She came out of the head of Zeus, She lends Herself to interpretations like coming from the elevated place of male reason instead of the lowers parts of female sexuality. And as if that wasn’t enough, She is staunchly chaste, which makes Her safe to have among men, since there’s no lust in Her. Simply put, She’s a masculinized goddess and therefore accepted in the bellic world. Aphrodite, on the other hand, as stated in Book 5 of the Iliad, is clearly out of Her depth in actual physical combat, in as much as, after being injured by Diomedes, She’s told to stick to Her realm, which is not that of war.

Artemis offers another symptom of a similar aversion to female sexuality. As goddess of the hunt, an activity that requires one to run through woods and fields, you’d expect Her to be seen as having minimalistic clothing that allows for a greater freedom of movement. Running and jumping in a long skirt isn’t easy. But that same minimalism results in a greater exposure of the body, which is not very modest, and so it is convenient that Artemis, like Athena, is staunchly chaste. In as much as, in some versions of the myth of Actaeon, he’s killed just for seeing the goddess naked. Which makes Her yet another safe female deity, because She makes no use of Her sexuality and can therefore run and wander through the mountains without fears of, in Pentheus’ words, giving way to lasciviousness in isolated places.

This serves to show that there was a clear misogynist line in ancient Greek culture, even if it wasn’t unanimous or uniform. But despite that, despite that discomfort or distrust of female sexuality and the “evils” it could bring, the Greeks nonetheless recognized Aphrodite as a goddess. She could be “dangerous”, at the very least potentially immoral, but still a deity, either because lust exerts an overwhelming power over humans and thus has extraordinary or numinous qualities, or because female sexuality has a reproductive use, preferably within the bounds of marriage, which is where the Iliad places Aphrodite.

3. Not every cult is an invitation
This open manner of seeing the divine is odd to many of us. We’re not used to consider deities without making judgements, without wondering if it’s good, beneficial or just and therefore a god or not. The Judeo-Christian principles are the common reference and thus people tend to project them on any religion, past or present, as if they were natural, obvious or universal traits. They’re not. The moral reasoning would have made no sense for many in ancient Europe, so much so that not every cult aimed at divine presence or closeness. Sometimes, the purpose was to obtain a safe distance – with respect, yes, but a distance nonetheless – which is not surprising, if you think about it.

If an entity is acknowledged as a god or goddess even if it has a damaging, terrifying or destructive nature, then not every religious gesture will aim at having said deity among us. “Let God enter you life”, Christians would say. Which at least to some polytheists makes sense only up to a point, because there are gods you may want to keep as far away as respectfully possible, even if you worship them. Gods of the Underworld, for instance, are often synonymous with terror, disease and death, though that doesn’t make Them less divine. It just means that the cult that is owed and given to Them serves less to attract Them and more to keep Them satisfied, though at a safe distance in order to avoid the presence of that which They bring. It’s not by chance that the cult of the dead could be wrapped up in taboos.

This, too, is odd to many of us. After all, how many people use or hang amulets against evil-eyes, misfortune or demons, without ever considering at the same time the option of offering something to that which is seen as bad in other to keep it at bay? Or how many people reject that possibility because, according to the Judeo-Christian principles, only god deserves to be honoured and god is that which is good, just, pure or perfect?

4. The past and the present
Unsurprisingly, even among those who try to revive ancient European polytheisms there are people who make use of the moral criterion, even if they’re not entirely aware of it. The refusal to honour Loki is a good example, since it’s often based on the argument that He’s a traitor or a liar, as described in a mythology preserved in late sources where the Norse trickster is already shaped in the image of the Christian devil. It’s interesting to note that people often neglect the resemblances with the Greek Hermes or the African-American Eshu, who are acknowledged as deities despite their mercurial personalities. Or that a god doesn’t have to be good, morally perfect or just in order to be a god. Or that a cult can also serve to keep at bay – the deity or its effects – and not to invite it to be present. To say that His moral conduct disqualifies Loki from the divine category is something that may owe more to Christian theology and less to the religious ideas of pre-Christian Europe.

The same may perhaps be said of those who honour infernal gods in domestic shrines, side by side with celestial deities. There’s certainly in that an element of poor knowledge of ancient practices, but somewhere in the middle there may also be a product of the moral criterion. Because if a god is that which is just or good, as is commonly believed in the present religious discourse, then Dis Pater and Jupiter are on a similar level, since they’re both gods, and can therefore be worshipped side by side. There is a degree of comfort in a morally-based theology, because it can assume divine goodness and purity as certain and universal.

5. Amoral is different from irrational
At this point, I must emphasize two things, starting with the fact that polytheism is a diverse religious category, even more so if one takes into account that several of its religions have no orthodoxy and therefore no uniform beliefs. What I said has thus a relative reach and it’s important to note that. But besides that, by defending an amoral concept of deity, I’m not saying that the gods are irrational beings who act randomly or sadistically. I don’t hold the idea that they are out to get you, waiting to find flaws they can punish, but instead believe there is reason in them. There are purposes and goals… though not necessarily our own. And that is where another part of the problem resides.

As I see it, we’re not the centre of things and the world or universe do not exist for our benefit. We’re the cumulative product of multiple causes and the cosmos, like the Earth, has multiple gods, not all of them friendly towards civilization. Some are indifferent to it, others oppose it and some deities are not particularly preoccupied with us or our needs, individual or collective. Many, if not most, see things in a wider fashion than we do, for which reason some are willing to harm individuals for the sake of a greater good or long term. Think of gods like Volcanus, who presides over the subterranean heat and thus the tectonic dynamics that sustain life, but which work on a chronological horizon of thousands or millions of years, much more than any human generation, and can be destructive of individuals lives. The needs and worries of Volcanus are not ours – and keep in mind that I distinguish Him from Hephaestus, who to me comes across as a god of the fire of the forge, civilized and tempered, not that of the inner Earth, which is primordial and violent.

As such, speaking from my own view as a Roman polytheist, if a deity is harmful, if it presents itself as violent and immoral, it’s not because it’s irrational: it just means that it follows rules and an agenda different from ours. One may certainly try to negotiate, obtain a truce, time, benefits or limited help, but ultimately its goals may not be our own. A god of disease isn’t evil, it simply presides over something unpleasant or tragic, but which is a natural part of a world that does not exist for our benefit. A god of chaos too isn’t evil, but participates in a universe that’s in constant change and thus has a chaotic component. None of this disqualifies them as gods. It simply means that they’re different deities with which one must deal accordingly and without denying them the divine status.

I’m aware, of course, that these examples are based on a modern understanding of the cosmos, in contrast to the science of the ancient world, which saw things like the sun or the stars as being eternal or was unaware of the microscopic world behind diseases. But it’s one thing to let knowledge shape theology, offering fresh content to the general outline and religious practices of the past, which did see destructive and harmful powers as gods nonetheless. It’s quite another to distort that under the influence of ideas that are alien to a given religious system and are acquired or accepted as valid out of inertia.

Of such things is the world made

Though not necessarily a universal trait – because polytheism is a diverse category and what’s true for one part may not be for another – it is at least frequent among polytheists to see life as something that has a religious dimension in all of its aspects. Which may seem totalitarian and that would indeed be the case if not for the fundamental principle of plurality, present in the idea of poly- or “many”, implying that a person’s religiosity may not be another’s and without condemnation deriving from difference.

On that note of an everyday dimension, since today is my birthday, I planned a ceremony in Roman rite to sacrifice small slices of my anniversary cake to my ancestors, house genii and Mercury. It’s a gesture of sharing with deceased family members, which recalls the meal with living relatives, and the acknowledgement of a special bound with some deities, in the same manner as one highlights ties of friendship in a birthday. And in that same context, following a brief conversation with a friend, I decided to add this text to my tributes to Mercury, focusing on His less popular side and draw from it ideas on His identity and the type of blessings or punishments He offers.

Notice, however, that what I’m about to say is my perspective – that of a Portuguese man who associates the son of Maia with the Lares Viales, integrating Him in an Iberian context, and is a bit of a Buddhist, philosophically. The experiences and conclusions of other devotees of the Fleet-Footed may therefore be different from mine and there’s nothing wrong about that.

1. Got to move, got to fly
A few days ago, Aldrin asked me how do I feel when people say Mercury is not to be trusted because He’s a lying trickster. And my answer was that I laugh it off when I don’t try to explain that He’s a liminal and therefore fluid god, including when it comes to morality. Because one of the things that characterizes a trickster is being at ease in the ambiguous space that exists between the notions of right and wrong, moving freely from one side to the other. It’s not by chance that the son of Maia is a messenger, diplomat, interpreter, traveller – in short, a deity who crosses boundaries and bridges the two sides of a border.

But fluidity is movement, it’s constant change, which is uncomfortable for us. Human beings tend to prefer the comfort of certainty and predictability, which is hard to get when limits are no longer clear-cut. And as if that’s not enough, we’re equally and naturally averse to change, which we normally try to prevent, even when it’s inevitable. And it’s almost always inevitable. Health, beauty, a dream job or home, the perfect afternoon or dinner, the ideal marriage or the irreplaceable company of a partner – all of that is precious and worth striving for, but fleeting and subject to change, whether we like it or not. Refusing to accept that is like being a traveller who wants to perpetually stay under the shade of a tree, unworried and comfortable, rather than keep walking. Which goes against Mercury’s nature, who’s a god of movement and at best allows for pauses along the road. Actually, more than that, He offers and enriches them with blessings of success, luck, pleasure, happiness and prosperity. But sooner or later, you’re meant to get back on the road and resume the journey. Life is made of constant change and movement, however much we’d like things to last forever, and the son of Maia embodies that reality. It’s His world.

2. Perhaps a saint is not what they need
If despite being unpleasant change can nonetheless come to be accepted, the same cannot be said of theft, which is never pleasant for its victims. And it is true that Mercury is a god of lies and thieves, which doesn’t make Him more popular, though here too one must understand the root of that link. Because what makes the son of Maia a god of not just burglars, but also traders and profit, is the aforementioned nature of the trickster. He’s fluid, always on the move and thus hard to catch, is armed with a honeyed tongue and has the skills of a joker, making Him a constant bag of surprises. Illusion, the gift of rhetoric, swift moves, sharp eyes, inventive qualities, agility and ability – all of that comes naturally for a trickster. It characterizes a god who moves in the shadows or is at home in the ambiguity that exists between worlds, genders, right and wrong and can assume various roles or perform the function of diplomat, interpreter, spy or messenger. He’s versatile and adaptable, because He has that ability to integrate, camouflage, improvise, invent.

Of course, those are also the basic tools of thievery, which requires the use of cunning and skill, of going about unnoticed or swiftly. But I wouldn’t say that Mercury is a trickster because He’s a god of thieves. Quite the opposite! He’s a deity of thieves precisely because He is a trickster! That is to say, He has vital qualities for any burglar and may grant them, but not always and never exclusively, because the god is not the activity, in as much as you can outwit a thief if you make a better use of the mercurial tool set. The gifts are there, but their practical application… that’s another story.

As such, if theft and lies are a product of Mercury’s world, it is also true that what stands beneath them can be used for multiple goals and without compromising basic honesty. Be smart, be ingenious, be on the look out and get moving. If there are those who do it to hurt and steal, you can also use it to help and succeed. Far from being a monopoly of burglars, resourcefulness is often a necessity of life and many of those who made the world a better place were not saints.

3. Always move fast, you never know what’s catching you up
So far, I’ve been talking about Mercury’s identity as I see it and the blessings He offers, but I’m yet to say a word or two about the less pleasant part that are divine curses or punishments. And those can take different forms, the most obvious being becoming a victim of the mercurial arts in a brutal and systematic fashion or being deprived of them, turning a person into a naïve creature that never convinces and is always convinced or fooled.

Naturally, there are numerous nuances to this and no, I’m not saying that every robbery or swindle is a punishment from Mercury. For one, because divine plurality prevents one from attributing everything to a single god and also because there’s always the human element. Furthermore, wandering about without a destination, lost and in constant flux, may also be a mercurial experience and not necessarily as a punishment. The world is also made of such complexities.

There is, however, another form of divine curse that isn’t always considered, but which can be drawn from the title of this section: always move fast, you never know what’s catching you up. The sentence, by the way, is a quote from Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, as are all the subtitles and title of this post, and it can express the aforementioned idea of being smart, ingenious, sharp and get moving. But taken to the extreme it is also synonymous with paranoia and that is sometimes the way divine punishment works: not through a removal of blessings, but by giving them in a hyperbolic state, as if on steroids, putting one in a downward spiral into madness or disaster. In this case, by turning the advice of being on the look out and get moving into a constant fear of your surroundings until you’re completely isolated. This too is part of the world of the son of Maia, who, like other gods, is not without less pleasant aspects.

4. You know your walks
What then is this path of Mercury that I’m describing? In short, it’s the awareness that life is a constant journey. You may pause, have moments of rest and enjoyment, success and acquisition of desired things, but they’re subject to change and you’re meant to move on, to keep travelling. Accept that and cherish it. And be smart, be on the look out, be sharp and ingenious, though that doesn’t mean you won’t trip. Because that too is a part of life and Mercury sometimes likes to throw a curved ball. He’s also a god of games.

Saramago was right and Dorne is real

My newest piece on Polytheist.com is on and it’s based on comments, posts and articles I’ve been reading here and there for some time now in websites, social media and the blogosphere. One of those instances was recently on Facebook, where polytheists called for Muslim migrants to be barred, Europe’s indigenous population and culture to be protected and even suggested that Islam and Christianity should be somehow erased. I’ve seen these and other opinions being voiced by more than one polytheist on a number of occasions, so having reached my limit, I’ve come to consciously move away from what are essentially small Trumps, adding to the already growing distance due to the fact that the way I see my religion, myself and relate to the world around me is obviously different from how others do it.

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
Deixem-me começar por clarificar que este não é um texto sobre a Guerra de Tronos ou a Canção de Gelo e Fogo, embora o trabalho de George Martin forneça uma metáfora cujo sentido tornar-se-á claro a certo ponto. Por isso, se não gostas da série ou dos livros e estavas a sentir-se desapontado pelo facto de este sítio poder acolher um texto sobre Westeros, relaxa e respira fundo. Isto também não é um artigo escrito por várias pessoas, mas por um indivíduo que fala por ele mesmo e do seu ponto de vista, que é naturalmente moldado pelo local de onde ele é. Isto devia ser óbvio, mas dado o actual estado de coisas na comunidade politeísta em geral e o nível de discurso que se atingiu, talvez seja boa ideia referi-lo. Este texto é sobre o modo como eu me estou a afastar de uma parte (significativa?) dessa mesma comunidade, porque deixei de me identificar com ela. É algo que tem vindo a ganhar forma há já algum tempo, tornou-se óbvio em Janeiro e tem-se realçado desde então. Isto não quer dizer que eu estou a deixar o politeísmo: para uma vez mais clarificar, eu sou livre e firmemente um politeísta romano e não tenho qualquer intenção de mudar isso. Mas a forma como eu vivo a minha religião, vejo-me a mim e ao mundo e interajo com ele é obviamente diferente da forma como outros o fazem (ou dizem fazer). E não necessariamente no bom sentido! Em alguns casos, não é o tipo de diferença que se deva reconhecer, respeitar e abraçar, mas antes questionar e afastar, quanto mais não seja por uma questão de sanidade mental.

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.

Tornar-se nativo
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.

Maybe you should reconsider

Not everyone is the same and some things aren’t made for everyone. This should be a no-brainer, but it normally proves to be too complicated for people who insist on one of several things: 1) that they have a solution that fits all, no matter what; 2) that everything would be fine if everyone was like them or fell in line; and 3) that they want to be something, even if it’s not really their thing. Christian fundamentalists are a good example of the first type of people and those who insist on being polytheists even though they don’t believe in gods are a case of the third group. As for the second type… bear with me as I attempt to put some thoughts together.

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.

An eastern birthday

For those of you who know me or at least have been reading this blog for some time now, it’s no secret that I lean very much towards Buddhist philosophy, especially the Madhyamaka school. If that surprises you or you’re not sure what to make of it, see here. In fact, my April piece on Polytheist.com owes a lot to the notions of impermanence and emptiness, so far from being a mere object of intellectual curiosity, Buddhist philosophy is something I’ve come to integrate into my religious life. It just makes tremendous sense on both a personal and devotional level.

Buda - Gandara

The road towards it
It took me time to get there, though, and it wasn’t a linear process. At sixteen, when I left Christianity and felt atheism didn’t quite cut it, Buddhism was my first option. I still have about a dozen books from that time, including written material from a retreat I took in a Tibetan centre in the late 1990s. I was a different person back then, way younger and definitely not keen on gods or similar entities, so either because I failed to grasp the philosophical concepts or wasn’t entirely sure about the religious part, I ended up moving away from Buddhism and stepped into archetypal paganism. Several years later, while already a heathen and when considering the issue of fate, the notion of interconnectedness became evident. I’m sure I was told about it a gazillion times before, but there’s more to learning than just reading and listening. There’s also an intuitive side to it, epiphanies where your brain clicks and you suddenly make sense of something you were probably aware of, theoretically or intellectually, but was yet to grow roots in your mind. Transferring knowledge successfully can be a bit like transferring plants in that it’s not enough to just move ideas into fresh soil.

There was thus a moment when I became intuitively aware that nothing exists in isolation, that everything is connected and whatever free will one has is limited by causes that are beyond an individual’s control. That’s fate, the total sum of factors that preceded, surround and shape you. You’re not an island, but a knot in a web that links everyone and everything, where every single action has extended consequences and no thread is entirely free because it is tied to other threads. I retained this awareness ever since, revisiting and refining it over the years, even making it a part of my daily life. My education in History and subsequent work in the same field played a large role in that, because when your professional activity (and hobby) is to study the intricate pattern of past events, how they impacted on each other and shaped things, you get a persistent sense that nothing exists in isolation. In as much as there’s virtually not a single day I don’t reflect at least once on how human actions – past or present, individual or collective, mine or someone else’s – ripple through the pond of existence and in turn create or shape new actions.

Then a few years ago, I became a devotee of Mercury, after whom came the Lares Viales, and my interest in Buddhism was rekindled at some point. Can’t remember exactly how or why, but there was Stephen Prothero’s God is not one, talks on philosophical schools, a few discussions around the Greco-Buddhist culture of Gandhara, a bit of reading on the topic and I guess eventually I just grabbed some of the books I bought back in the 1990s. Which then led me to go through lists of Buddhist masters and schools, including Nagarjuna and Madhyamaka, whose view on sunyata or emptiness came across as brutality meaningful. Partly because the basic notion behind it – that of dependent origination – is easy to grasp once you realize that nothing exists in isolation, so in a way Buddhist thought gave a philosophical depth and solidity to ideas that were already rooted in my mind. And from that point on, it didn’t take long for everything to come together, for two things that initially seem unrelated – Madhyamaka and Mercury – to intersect via the notions of impermanence and emptiness, movement and connectedness. In a way, it feels like coming full circle.

To be clear, I’m not saying that I’m religiously a Buddhist. Modern westerners may commonly see philosophy and religion as being indistinguishable, in that if you follow one you must also follow the other, but that’s not how it went in the ancient world. Back then, you could be a Stoic, an Epicurean, a Platonist or even a Sceptic and still be a Roman polytheist regardless of your choice of philosophy, if any. Part of that was because religious identity was an extension of social and political status, but it’s also because religion was defined in orthopraxic terms, through traditional ritual practice, with beliefs being generally left up to the individual to speculate on. And that’s pretty much what I’m doing here: keeping a basic orthopraxy that makes me a Roman polytheist, while filling in the philosophical content with something that’s up the individual to choose. That I lean towards Madhyamaka, which wasn’t available as a school of thought in ancient Europe, means only that I’m a not fossilized cultor: I don’t limit myself to what was in existence in Rome up until the 5th century CE, but am interested in reviving Roman polytheism in the modern day and age, not re-enact it as it was 1500 years ago. Simply put, I take the basic dynamics – orthopraxy, no initiation, unregulated belief, etc. – detach them from the social specifics of a given time and age – e.g. morals, which run the risk of being grossly anachronic – and then apply them to the present, not a perpetual renaissance fair. And today, you have a lot more philosophical schools to chose from. Again, see here and also here.

The (somewhat) mercurial figure
Another thing Romans did – and weren’t alone in that – was worshiping or at least acknowledging non-Roman gods and even syncretizing deities from different pantheons. Again, you don’t have to limit yourself to what was available in the Roman empire up until the 5th century and can honour gods that were unheard of in ancient Europe. That’s what happens when you practice a living religion in today’s world instead of pretending to live in a bygone age. And you’ll still be a modern Roman polytheist if you worship Them according to Roman ritual or at least if it makes up the majority of your practices (see here).

For my part, I generally don’t syncretise and never assume that a Roman god is identical to a non-Roman one simply because they’re similar. I need to research, take some time to think about it and maybe resort to divination before reaching a conclusion that may not be definite. However, there is one thing I do a lot and that’s Latinization, i.e., worshipping non-Roman gods in a Roman or at least Romanized fashion (like this). It’s something for which there is ample historical precedent and allows for deities from other pantheons to be integrated into the realm of the cultus deorum. I worship four Iberian gods and five Norse ones in that manner, some of which already had (partly) Romanized cults in ancient Europe, and also historical figures from the 13th century on as a type of Lares. The only exceptions in my practices are two Egyptian deities – Khnum and Anubis – whom I honour according to Kemetic tradition (and I have a lot to learn on that regard). And now there’s something else, someone who’s been on the horizon due to my interest in Madhyamaka and who now comes as neither entirely religious nor entirely philosophical: Manjushri.

Manjushri 02

He’s the bodhisattva of wisdom, particularly the type known as prajna, which entails the awareness of emptiness. His historical origins are unclear, as are those of His cult, but He is commonly associated with Buddhist masters and teachers and is thus a central figure in the world of Buddhist thought. So it’s probably no surprise that I should end up “bumping” into Him, since I’ve been freely drinking from His philosophical well and major proponents of Madhyamaka, namely Nagarjuna and Je Tsongkhapa, are described as having been taught or inspired by Manjushri. In that sense, to honour Him would be akin to honouring ancient European philosophers (like Epicurus) or gods associated with philosophical schools (like Apollo). Again, this is taking pre-Christian dynamics and applying them to the options of the modern world instead of merely re-enacting the past. But Manjushri comes across as more than the divine keeper of a philosophical well that’s rich in mercurial potential: He Himself is a somewhat mercurial figure.

He’s not just associated with a particular form of wisdom, but also with speech, music and memory, in as much as He’s sometimes paired with the Hindu goddess Saraswati. His weapon is the blade and He’s linked to mantic dice, thus fusing fortune and divination, which are two aspects of the hermetic realm. And He also shares a connection with number four, since His birthday is traditionally celebrated on the fourth day of the fourth Chinese lunar month. Yeah. So I guess that makes Him a sort of distant cousin of Mercury, thus adding a religious dimension to the use of Buddhist stone to construct the philosophical building of my mercurial devotion.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Manjushri has such a liminal status for me, somewhere between philosophy and religion. He stands at a source of ideas, of a river that runs through several parts of my life, providing intellectual sustenance, though He’s not the sacred fields, groves and temples. He’s not Mercury and I have no intention of syncretizing Them, because that’s not something I generally do. I don’t even know if I’ll ever award Him a Latin or Latinized cult, which honestly seems like a step too far at this point. But maybe it’s time I acknowledge Him in some way and mark His birthday, even if just by meditating, reading and offering a candle. Of course, one could ask why not honour the Buddha instead, which would also be in line with the practice of paying tribute to the founders of one’s philosophical school. But there are two answers to that: one thing does not exclude the other and I can indeed mark the Buddha’s birthday as well; though the thing about Manjushri is that He has the aforementioned mercurial traits, which gives Him a religious dimension and hence a greater significance for a Mercury devotee. And that in turn could lead to a festive blend where I honour the Buddha, as well as masters like Nagarjuna and Je Tsongkhapa, on Manjushri’s birthday, which this year falls on May 10th. It’s not what Buddhists do, I know, but like I said, religiously speaking I’m not a Buddhist.

European polytheism: a personal look

Following recent discussions with other polytheists, which made obvious a divide in attitudes and perspectives between the two sides of the Atlantic, I’ve been considering the topic more extensively, taking into account the idiosyncrasies of the United States, western Europe in general and my country in particular. Things like History, politics, social dynamics and attitudes towards the State. And the more I thought about it, the more I kept going back to three points. So in order to clarify things, I wrote this post explaining where I stand as a European polytheist and in contrast with what comes across as a significant trend in US American polytheism. Keep in mind that I don’t claim to speak for all Europeans with an identical or similar religion, if nothing else because Europe, like the United States, is not monolithic. Furthermore, my views reflect mainly my experience as a native Portuguese living in his own country, though there’s a lot in common between western EU members States. And judging from what I’ve been reading elsewhere for some time now, I’m not the only one noticing the Atlantic divide.

1. Not a counter-culture
Let’s start by getting the obvious out of the way: I’m not into polytheism as a form of counter-culture. Why would I, if it’s a part of my country’s History and hence an extension of its heritage? My native language derives from Latin and Portugal’s modern-day territory was for centuries a part of the Roman empire, which left plenty of traces, both material and non-material, religious and non-religious. To a large extent, this also applies to Celts and Celtiberians and marginally to Phoenicians and Germanic tribes as well, all of which once called this land home and left various traces, though not in equall measure.

As such, I’m a cultor not just because I see polytheism as a valid religious option, but also as an expression of my native culture. It doesn’t mean that you have to be Portuguese (or Spanish or Italian or whatever) in order to be a Roman polytheist (see here); nor does it mean that you have to be a cultor if you’re Portuguese (far from it!). But in my individual case, that was a large part of the motivation.

Of course, Roman polytheism was last practiced openly 1500 years ago, so a reviving effort is in order. Yet the point is not to counter modern culture, but to adapt the religio to it! To make it a living part of today’s Portugal, much like Shinto is a part of modern Japan, not a Renaissance fair, a protest group or an ideological throwback into a romanticized past. It’s not that I don’t have causes. Animal rights, gay rights, wildlife preservation, fighting climate change and food waste – I’m involved in all of these issues. But I do it because I believe it’s right, not because my religion tells me to. At best, devotion to individual deities and a sense of community with the gods – which include my ancestors and landwights – reinforces my motivation and adds an additional layer of meaning to my actions. And while I think the cultus deorum has a positive contribution to make, both religiously and environmentally, by virtue of being a polytheism that recognizes divinity in natural places, I don’t see that as being at odds with modernity. Quite the opposite, in fact.

2. More upbeat
While discussing with polytheists from across the pond, I was confronted with the belief that modernity has been a sort of downward spiral into a worst world. At best, it brought a façade a greater freedom and equality, but no real change. “Modernity guarantees us nothing”, Sarenth wrote in a comment to my previous post. As a Portuguese man who’s well aware of his country’s past, I wholeheartedly disagree.

Go back 500 years in European History and you’ll find a very different continent. And I’m not talking about borders, but of religion, political system, social stratification, individual liberties and legal framework. Simply put, western Europe was generally ruled by more or less autocratic and confessional monarchies with very, very limited religious freedom. In some places, Jews managed to practice their faith, provided they paid a tax and confined to a ghetto. In the Iberian Peninsula, Muslims lived under similar conditions, though it all changed in the final years of the 15th century, when Spain and Portugal expelled Jews or forced them to convert. Even when they did, they were still persecuted under the suspicion that they remained secret Jews, especially after the Inquisition settled in both countries. That’s when you started having frequent autos de fé or acts of faith, which basically consisted of burning people alive in a public square after being paraded through the streets. If you were a (suspected) Protestant in a Catholic country or vice-versa, you’d suffer a similar fate. Even more so if you were a polytheist, which by the way were virtually non-existent in Europe at the time. And these were the more judicial procedures, since there were also plenty of ad hoc massacres: take Lisbon in 1506, when hundreds of Jewish men, women and children were tortured and killed in the streets; or Paris in 1572, when thousands of Protestants were slaughtered in what went down in History as the St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre. Simply put, either you practiced a legal religion – which was usually just one – or you had to flee for your life.

Following the wars of the 17th century, things started to change. Slowly, but surely. The Enlightenment questioned religious intolerance, even popular religion itself, proposing greater tolerance and rationality. In Portugal, in 1772, that produced changes in the Inquisition, which remained in existence, but diminished in its authority thanks to the chief minister of king Joseph I – an autocrat, but an enlightened one. Yet it was not until the French Revolution, Napoleon’s campaigns and the subsequent spreading of liberal ideas that Portugal saw its first constitution in 1822. It was far from perfect and it didn’t last long, but it was an initial stepping stone in a long and non-linear process of increasing liberties, rights and equality. One of its latest stages happened by the end of last year, when parliament awarded full adoption rights to gay and lesbian couples. But before that there were voting rights, press freedom, civil marriage for straight couples (back in the 1800s), the abolition of slavery and the death penalty, public education and healthcare and yes, religious freedom.

All of this is the product of modernity. It was because of it that my country moved from an autocracy to a constitutional democracy that awards political, civil and social rights and liberties. It is because of modernity that I can be an openly gay man without fearing for my life. That I went to a public school, then a public university and now have a PhD. That I can vote, that my mother and grandmother can vote, freely join a political party or create one. And that I’m writing this, have the liberty to pick my religion, practice it freely and be open about it. This is what modernity guarantees me. It’s not a façade, but actual change from what my country was at the start of the 19th century, before modernity kicked in. It is now a more democratic, egalitarian and tolerant place than it was.

Is it perfect? Far from it! There’s still plenty of racism, bigotry, discrimination and income inequality – of which I myself am a victim – the political system has a lot of room for improvement and there’s an abundance of environmental issues. But strange as it may sound to some, I don’t see modernity as part of the problem, but of the solution. Why? Because the freedom it awards allows me to speak publicly about my religion and change perceptions on polytheism. The democratization of the past two centuries grants the basic tools for further political change. The legal recognition of fundamental rights and of democracy as more than a dictatorship of the majority allows for a continuous struggle against racism and bigotry, which isn’t easy nor linear. And at least over here, technology is increasingly part of the solution to environmental problems: renewable energies, better and more extensive recycling, circular economy, energy efficiency, better waste management – these and other things are a growing focus of European policies, which also increasingly factor in climate change. So why would I see modernity as an enemy if it brought me hard-won fundamental rights and freedoms, greater security and a welfare State? Why would I see it as a problem if it changed things for the better, considering how they were in the early 1800s, and grants the basic tools for further change and improvements?

3. More secular, less born-again
There is an irony that separates the two sides of the Atlantic: the US first constitutional amendment, which dates back to 1791, clearly establishes a separation of Church and State, yet the same country has a public discourse where religious and political speeches overlap extensively; by contrast, Europe still has countries with State religions (the UK, Denmark or Finland, for instance), but public discourse is much more secular than in the US. Also, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, the United States is unique among the wealthier countries in that it’s more religious than the rest of the pack. Which helps explaining another difference between western European and US polytheism.

If no one is an island, then to a greater or lesser degree people will naturally reflect their surroundings. Ergo, if you live in a place where religious discourse is framed as being on faith, values and utter devotion to a god, where there’s a prevalent born-again attitude, militant and all-encompassing, then it’s perhaps no surprise that it too can be found among polytheists. And in the case of the United States in particular, there’s also the backdrop of the culture wars, which add further fuel to an extremist fire. The vitriolic speech and siege mentality that I find in a good chunk of US American polytheists is, I think, a product of that. Consciously or not, it is a reflection of the religious fundamentalism they’re faced with, either personally or through the media. They reproduce it, make it their own, even if at the same time they claim to be against it.

By contrast, the prevailing secular mentality in western Europe contributes to a middle ground where people from different religions or none can discuss and co-exist in a less heated fashion. Or at least that’s how I experience it in my country. It’s not there’s no talk of values and faith or that we don’t have religious fundamentalists, but they’re a minority, fringe groups that get little attention, while most people have a pragmatic attitude. Religion is not generally worn as if it’s the sum or sole element of one’s identity, so it’s usually not something that gets in the way of living and talking with people who believe or practice differently. And even among Catholics, which according to the 2011 census constitute about 80% of the country’s population, a lot if not most focus more on what they do, religiously, and less on what the Church says about contraceptives, marriage, sex or even faith. I know a few who have no problem saying they believe in other gods and some even see themselves as Catholic simply because they go on a pilgrimage once a year.

This, I reckon, is why a Baptist can sit next to a chair set aside for a Norse god. Or why a Catholic, an atheist and a polytheist can share a table at a restaurant and talk about their beliefs without going vitriolic. There’s little in the way of in-your-face attitude when it comes to religion, because it’s not the sum of who I am and therefore it doesn’t prevent me from being civil with a religious other. I don’t see a Baptist, atheist or Catholic friend of mine as first and foremost a Baptist, atheist or Catholic. I see them as friends. It’s a secular attitude where religion is not at the forefront of who you are. And in my personal case, this is reinforced by the fact that I’m a Roman polytheist not because I had some born-again experience or hold a moral code that sets me apart from the modern world, but because it is an element of my national identity. It’s a portion of who I am in the here and now, not the past or an alternative anti-modern reality.

Moving on
Hopefully, these three points make it clear why I feel less and less connected to certain groups of US American polytheists. I don’t see myself in their constant protest or anti-modern stance because to me modernity means something else and my view of religion is not akin to that of born-again evangelicals. I’m not in this to be different, to hold up some axiomatic bible or to set myself apart from the society I live in. It’s not that I don’t think it needs to be improved, that the world should be better or that the prevalent religious discourse has to be diversified. But I see the needed changes as being a part of modernity, not in opposition to it. Because modernity is what gave me the liberties and rights I have today and which were once non-existent in my country and in Europe at large. To update and improve them is to update and improve modernity.

Granted, things may look a lot gloomier in the US. For one, because it’s a relatively young country that was born out of the Enlightenment, so it can’t compare itself with a more distant past where it had a different regime. But also because its presidential system narrows down political options, whereas European parliamentarism fosters a greater diversity of parties in both the legislative and executive branches of power. Plus, unlike many US Americans, most Europeans don’t see the State as inherently evil, but look to it as a necessary regulator and protector. And on this side of the Atlantic, “socialism” is not a dirty word, gun violence is much lower, eco-friendly policies are mainstream and public discourse is less dominated by religion.

Knowing this, however, doesn’t make the divide any smaller. It’s still there. And my awareness of it has been brewing for some time now. It makes me less interested in what some people write, because it’s so distant from the way I see and experience the world. Occasionally, it feels like I’m reading the words of a missionary who tells me to fight my neighbours or reject my past because it’s unholy. And I kind of think: but we get along fine and I have my past to thank for who I am. Best to just move on and ignore some folks, I guess.