Of gods, rites, culture and sites

These last few months have been something of a period of reflexion aimed at a simplification and greater Romanization of my practices, both for pragmatic and cultural reasons. And at one point, an additional drive originated from a series of discussions on identity and religion that again made clear the fracture between American and European perspectives, universalism and culturalism, fossilization (or fetishization) and modern reintegration. The final push for a revision came at the start of this month and the result focuses on two points: rites to non-romance deities and the festive calendar. There’s also an extra development at the end.

From Norse to Roman
When I left wicca, roughly two decades ago, and stepped into neopagan reconstructionism, my choice fell upon Norse polytheism. And it brought me enriching experiences. But after about a year living in Sweden and having been in daily contact with a culture different from the one I grew up in, I started leaving that initial choice in favour of a convergence between native culture and religion. It was my departure from Norse towards Roman polytheism. Of the former, two things remained: an ongoing academic interest and the worship of Norse deities, initially a considerable number of them, but eventually narrowed down to a more limited group focused around Freyr.

Originally, that worship of northern gods kept the traits with which I had practised it for years and there was a period when my religious practice was, so to speak, bicephalous: part Norse, part Roman. But as the latter cemented itself and the convergence between culture and religion accentuated, I started Romanizing the way I paid tribute to Freyr and others. At first, by creating a separate, Roman-inspired rite, but more recently by simply using the standard Roman rite in full. From the initial Norse adaptation there remains an offering to Freyja at the opening and closing, a toasting section and, rarely, the use of a small hazel wand to consecrate offerings that are later ritually made profane.

That’s where I am at the moment. And it reflects a set of basic principles: 1) the definition of religion not by belief or faith, in the Abrahamic fashion, but by ritual praxis or orthopraxy, which is closer to the pre-Christian model; 2) the same gods can be worshipped in different ways or, to use another formulation of the same idea, the general principle according to which deities are universal and religious traditions ethnic; 3) approaching a revived ancient religion by way of a modern, historically-relevant identity (i.e. linked to the original cultural context of said religion) and thus the integration of the former into the latter; 4) and the resulting modern definition of Roman polytheism as the worship of many gods, Roman and others, according to Roman ritual tradition, in a romance cultural context. Hence why I, a Portuguese cultor deorum, worship Freyr, Freyja, Njord and Ullr using Roman rite, within a Latin culture, employing Portuguese as a ritual language.

More Ibero-romance
The same impulse that led me to switch from Norse to Roman polytheism also originated a new focus on pre-Roman Iberian deities. Which may seem like a contradiction – I go for something and then take a look at an older thing? – but it’s linked to the third of the four principles listed above, that of approaching a revived ancient religion – in this case, Roman – by way of a modern, historically-relevant identity – in my case, Portuguese – integrating the former into the latter. Now, the Portuguese cultural matrix is predominantly Latin (and hence romance), but it is not pure, as virtually no culture is. It also has Celtic, Germanic, Hebrew and Arab layers, no doubt that in different degrees, but they’re there. They’re part of the language, History, customs and land; on that note, the Germanic stratum adds another side to me worshipping Norse deities. Also, the cults of many of the Iberian gods were Latinized during the Roman period, and so, in the convergence between native culture and religion, my practices came to include deities of Celtic origin tied to the territory that is now that of my country, worshipped the Roman way and in a Latin context, just as they were for several centuries in the pre-Christian period.

The first I integrated was the goddess Nabia, followed by Quangeio, the pair Arentio and Arentia and finally Reue. And far from just worshipping Them, I placed Them at the heart of my religion: to Nabia I started making monthly offerings and gave Her a local epithet I later identified with my Family Lar; to Quangeio, which scholars believe to have been a canine god, I equally awarded a day for monthly offerings and associated Him with Mercury, which also plays into the Iberiazation of my cult to the Son of Maia; and Reue, apart from integrating my morning and night prayers (just like Nabia and Quangeio), also began receiving offerings on the Ides of every month. And I’m not setting aside the addition of further Iberian deities to my religious practice. The god Crouga, for instance, is a possibility under consideration.

The calendar
Unsurprisingly, the convergence between cultural identity and religion had an impact on my festive calendar, too. Actually, the correct verb tense is more present than past, since that impact wasn’t an isolated moment in time, but an ongoing process that recently contributed to new changes, motivated also by a desire for some simplification.

Thus, I’m removing from my calendar the separate tributes to Freyja and Njord and instead make them a part of my two annual sacrifices to Freyr around the time of the solstices, in accordance with evolution of who I worship among the Norse gods. The only other northern deity that retains a festive day of its own is Ullr, by virtue of being a god of yews, a tree for which I have a particular fascination; enough at least to consider a tattoo and go through the effort of resorting to friends and contacts to acquire two common yews from a tree nursery over 100 kilometres away and add them to a small grove I’m planting. But if Ullr’s annual sacrifice remains, its date changes from December 12th to November 21st, so as to be aligned with Freyr’s and close to Silvanus’, on the 23rd of November, which is also Portugal’s Native Forest Day. In that, too, there’s an element of integration of a cult to a Norse god into a romance cultural context.

Simultaneously, I’m adding a separate festive date to Reue, given His growing presence in my religious life, but in order to accommodate it I had to move the day of Nabia’s sacrifice, which is now on April 9th, also the exact date of a tribute paid to Her in ancient times, according to the inscription on the altar of Marecos. Reue is thus to be honoured individually on March 15th – He’s also already worshipped on October 15th as part of a rain-making triad – and the new festivity will be called Pastoralia, from Latin/Portuguese pastor, in reference to His (modern) role as Shepherd of Clouds. And also stressing the Ibero-romance side of my practices, Arentio and Arentia will receive offerings on the Nones of every month.

Finally, I’m also removing the annual sacrifice to Hercules, which will still happen this year, since He was given tribute in the New Year ceremony, but it probably won’t be repeated next year; the monthly libations to Thor will likewise be discontinued, since they’re a trace of when I wore a hammer and had a half-Norse practice, but may remain as ad hoc; offerings to the Portuguese Lares, seen as communal ancestors or heroes, will be added to those to the Family Lares during Caristia; the end-of-year ceremony will be dropped, too, with only the cleaning of shrines on the 31st of December remaining; and I’ll also remove my annual sacrifice to the Egyptian god Khnum, which started at a time when I did clay figures with some regularity, though that hasn’t been the case at all for several years now. As with Thor, offerings to Khnum will become ad hoc, whenever I take up home pottery. The result, already published in the calendar section in the top menu, is the following:

Calendário

The Egyptian exception
The only deity to whom my practices remain non-Roman is Anubis. At first, it was because I didn’t know enough about ancient Egyptian religious customs in order to adapt them; then, because the simple format that I had improvised ended up sticking. A candle, some incense and water (part of which I then pour on the graves of some of my ancestors), bows with bent knees so that the forehead touches the floor, em hotep as a salute, food offerings later consumed in full – by me and my dogs. So it was and so it remains. The only element of Romanization in it is the date of the annual sacrifice, on February 12th, on the eve of Parentalia. Not that that changes who I am, a Roman polytheist, because, again, it is not faith, creed, belief or simply which gods one worships that determines my religion. It is ritual praxis! And given that out of roughly thirty yearly sacrifices, plus over eighty sets of monthly offerings, only one is performed in a non-Roman way, there’s no doubt about what I am, religiously.

Why Anubis? For nothing more than being a canine god; and dogs are a significant part of what I practise. For instance, the addition of an annual sacrifice to Diana to my festive calendar was born out of a vow I made to Her about a decade ago, when one of my dogs underwent surgery. She survived and recovered and, as such, I fulfilled my vow and Diana later became a part of my religious practices. Quangeio is another canine element and, in the yearly sacrifice to Him, I include dog food I then consecrate, ritually make profane and then give to my dogs. My Family Lares include deceased pets – like the one behind my vow to Diana – including photos of them on my Lararium and offerings three times per month. Silvanus, too, has a connection to dogs, judging at least from the traditional iconography, and I’m not above lighting a candle to Saint Roch if I happen to find a chapel or church dedicated to Him.

Little wonder then that Anubis ended up becoming part of my religious practice. It doesn’t mean that He will remain so for the next ten or twenty years, but it wasn’t by chance and, presently, my annual sacrifice to Him is already a special religious moment I share with my dogs.

And then there are the southern waves
Will I ever use Roman rite to worship an Egyptian deity? Likely not in Anubis’ case, but it may happen with another and the reason is one: the climate! See, droughts and heatwaves in southern Europe can be caused by hot air coming in from north Africa (even sand blown from the Sahara desert hasn’t been rare) and the phenomenon is expected to become increasingly common as climate change rages on. Also, changing weather conditions mean that diseases that have thus far been largely confined to Africa may start moving north and I’ve wondered about the religious ramifications of all of this as I reflected on my practices these past few months. As a result, I started looking into heat and desert deities, which are virtually absent from traditional European pantheons, but can be found in north-African and Middle-eastern ones. Gods one could, perhaps, petition for a short or light presence so that cooler weather may return or remain, in a type of apotropaic cult where the source of affliction is addressed and placated directly, not driven out by an antagonist or adversary.

To that effect, one of the deities that’s at the top of my list of possibilities is Sekhmet. Because She’s the goddess of the fiery breath and of the sun’s aggressive aspects, maker of deserts, and She’s also connected to diseases, both as a bringer and as a healer. And in the surviving myths about Her, She’s placated out of a rampage, which strikes a very similar tone to the apotropaic cult that I have in mind. She’s thus a strong possibility, but I’m facing it with caution, because She is an old and powerful goddess and I don’t want to make a decision lightly. Especially since I could include Her in my practices in a Romanized fashion, as Dea Leonina, and worship Her using Roman rite. The next several months will tell.

If I do end up worshipping Sekhmet, would that contradict the convergence of native culture and religion mentioned at the start of this blogpost? Happily, no; and I say it’s a happy thing, since the fact that it makes sense is yet another reason that pushes me towards Her. Because the Mediterranean has been a cultural melting pot for millennia and, while western Iberia is technically located beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, it nonetheless has a long History of being part of that mixing dynamic: Phoenicians sailed along what today is the Portuguese coast and founded or developed several settlements, Lisbon among them; the Iberian Peninsula was not foreign to north-Africans, even before many of them entered and settled in following the Islamic invasion of 711; and Jewish presence in Iberia is old, like really old, perhaps even pre-Roman! That, too, is part of the mix of peoples and cultures on which Portugal was later formed. In short, the Iberian Peninsula is so close to the north of Africa that it is impossible to radically separate the two places, not only regarding people and cultures, but also the climate. Which is why taking an Egyptian deity in order to religiously translate an Iberian reality that originates in the deserts of the southern half of the Mediterranean is not just in line with a millennia-old dynamic of mixing and interchanging. It is also a natural option.

Whoever claims that Europe is white or that it stands radically apart from the north of Africa and the Middle East – culturally, genetically, religiously – is either focusing on a very particular (real or imagined) part of the European continent or doesn’t know the History of Europe. No matter how much he or she pays lip-service to “European pride” and identity.

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.