Case by case
In the past, this has led me to conclude that Hephaestus is different from Volcanus, for while they are both fire gods, the former is that of the forge – and hence civilized fire – whereas the latter is that of the wild and inner earth, which translates into a much more primal and violent force. Just because several deities are tied to the flames, it doesn’t mean that they’re the same. Otherwise, you might have to conclude that Hephaestus and Hestia are identical, despite the gender difference, because they both deal with fire. It’s the nature of the flame that matters. On the opposite end of the topic, I’ve come to conclude that Hermes and Mercury are the same, since the latter was not a part of the earliest Roman pantheon – as suggested by the lack of a flamen – and the location of His temple outside the pomerium, while not an infallible proof, nonetheless also hints at an originally foreign cult. The Greek colonies of southern Italy may well be the point from where Hermes entered Roman religion. And between equation and distinction, I’m unsure about Jupiter, for while His name is an etymological match to that of Zeus, both Latin and Greek are Indo-European languages, so if you’re going to name a sky god, chances are that you’ll use something that’s linguistically identical to what’s being employed in another tongue of the same group. Simply put, it could be a mere case of different gods being identified by means of common words.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with believing differently, because 1) these are not orthodox or exclusivist religions and 2) it ends up being a bit indifferent. After all, if they’re the same, that just means you’ve been worshipping the same deity all along, whereas if they’re not, then you’ve been honouring the ones you name according to a chosen ritual praxis. And again, yes, simplistic and sometimes even contradictory equation was a very common thing in the ancient world. But when I look at pre-Christian authors claiming that the Egyptians worshipped Aphrodite (meaning Hathor) or that the Germans honoured Mercury (i.e. Wodan), I remind myself of what happened when Vasco da Gama reached India, in 1498, and the Portuguese mistook Hindu deities for Catholic saints. True, they found it odd that they had multiple arms, big teeth and weird heads, but that wasn’t an immediate disqualifier, in as much as Vasco da Gama is said to have prayed to a Hindu goddess thinking it was the Virgin Mary. Or at least that’s the account of Lopes de Castanheda, published in 1551, in his History of the Discovery and Conquest of India by the Portuguese (Book I, chapter 16). And the reason for the confusion is that, in the minds of Gama and his men, there were only three religions at the time: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. They were not particularly aware of any other. They may have heard about tribal African religions, though it’s unclear how they saw them exactly, but in any case, when confronted with the large stone buildings of Hinduism, with its many colours and statues, the only point of reference they had in living memory was Catholicism, since neither Jews nor Muslims worship images. And thus, the obvious conclusion was that the Indians were Christians.
This is how I often – though not always – look at classical equations: a simplistic reasoning born out of the fact that people had a limited knowledge of other religions and naturally assumed a sameness that filled in the blanks; or alternatively, an implicit statement of self-importance, in that you see yourself as superior or at the centre of things and so of course other people do the same as you. Much like modern, often ill-informed individuals may assume that what’s true for their country is true elsewhere in the world, because all they know is basically what they deal with daily or they see themselves as important enough for their specifics to be universal. And in the particular case of the ancient Romans, it was also an issue of the grass being more educated on the Greek side of the fence, so they claimed that it too was Roman.
Again, this doesn’t mean that there’s no merit in equation. It’s a valid theological perspective, one that I share in some instances, and, as said, this is not a matter of orthodoxy. But I cannot take it at face value, accept it simply because that’s what ancient authors did, no more than I can conclude that two or more gods are the same just because they share functions or looks. If human life is similar, of course you’re going to find different deities attached to similar spheres of influence. And iconography, like names and legendary elements, can move around and get tied to multiple things and entities that are nonetheless separate. Look at how the Japanese wind god Fujin is depicted with a bag or cloak similar to that of the Greek Boreas, not because they’re necessarily the same, but because the artistic convention was slowly carried over from Greece to Japan by way of conquest and trade. Consider also how the depiction of the Virgin Mary partially derives from that of pre-Christian goddesses like Isis, not because they’re the same entity, but because the iconography of the latter was used to depict the former. Or in a weirder, yet enlightening example, how peasants from 13th-century France transferred the name and martyr status of a human saint – Guinefort – to a greyhound they worshipped. They’re not the same character – one is a man, the other a dog – but the former’s name and title was used for a canine cult (Schmitt 2009: 91-105). And in a clearer case of imported elements being attached to a native figure, the words in hoc signo vinces, which were said to have appeared to Constantine before the battle of the Milvian bridge, in 312, are also part of a much later legend pertaining to the first Portuguese king and his victory at Ourique in 1139 (Pereira 1993: 436). Check Camões’ The Lusíadas III: 45 for an allusion to it. In short, parts of things can move and get attached to other, independent things. It’s a bit like clothing fashion, in that it too gets passed around between people, communities and cultures. But just because two or more individuals wear the same outfit, that doesn’t mean they’re the same person or of the same country.
A complex case
My most recent dive into the brainstorm that are such matters concerns Minerva. I’ve been going back and forth with it, sometimes leaning towards distinction, others towards equation with Athena, and a few days ago I revisited the matter and went a bit deeper, down a rabbit hole of sorts, you might say, and came out with a more solid conviction on the identity of a goddess to whom I perform a monthly sacrifice on the 19th day.
I started with the simplest and most common belief, that They are the same deity given the similarity of roles and an identical iconography. She was known among the Etruscans as Menrva and what little is known of their religion suggests a strong Hellenic influence that could have included the plain appropriation (*gasp*) of Athena, whose name would have been replaced with a native one. After all, as in Greek myth, Menrva is the daughter of the sky god, from whose head She was born, pairs up with the hero Hercles (i.e. Herakles) and is depicted in much the same way as Athena, with an aegis, spear, helmet and shield. This would seem to suggest that They’re the same, but take a closer look and you’ll start spotting differences. Namely, that Menrva was seen as a wielder of lightening, appears to have had a connection with divination and perhaps also with children, though it is unclear to what extent. Maybe just as an educator, but it could also be something else, enough for some to question whether She was seen as virginal as Athena (Grummond 2006: 72-5). So They’re not exactly the same goddess. The crucial question is whether the differences came before or after the Hellenization of Etruscan religion.
If one opts for the latter, then the distinctions are simply a form of regionalization, i.e. the product of Athena’s integration into the Etruscan context. Old gods in new places are often reinterpreted, with roles being dropped, stressed or added according to the needs, customs or experiences of the host culture, which may not be common to those of others, and so the differences may be no more than Athena’s Etruscan flavour. Yet they could also be traces of an older Menrva, one that pre-dates much of the Hellenic influence and is therefore a separate deity, but on which layers of imported Greek elements were superimposed, attached to Her like a new outfit, leaving only a few distinctive features as remnants of a previous self.
This is where linguistics becomes of particular importance, because Menrva is a name of Indo-European stock. It comes from the Italic meneswo (intelligent, understanding), which is rooted in men- or “thought” (Cor de Vaan 2008: 380-1). This is unlike what happens in the case of Tinia, whose name may come from the Etruscan tin (day), or Turms, whose etymology is unknown (Grummond 2006: 53 and 122). But here’s the thing: the Etruscan language was not Indo-European and thus the name of the goddess, which is attested as early as the 6th century BCE, was imported from elsewhere. Where exactly is unclear, but the Latin, Faliscan and Umbrian areas of central Italy have been put forward as possibilities (Cor de Vaan 2008: 381). Which is curious, because the traditional or standard interpretation is that the Romans acquired Minerva from the Etruscans. But if etymology is anything to go by, the truth is perhaps the other way around. And there may be a circumstantial indication of that in the fact that Menrva seems to be absent from the Piacenza liver, which was found in what used to be northern Etruria, but there was a temple to Her at Veii, which was closer to Rome (Simmon 2006: 59.1). So we have a goddess whose name is an import and whose cult may not have been present in a uniform fashion. Thus, if the theonym has a southern origin and, perhaps, She was more popular in the Etruscan south, then maybe that’s where one needs to look in order to find Her origins: south! And in ancient Italy, the further you went in that direction, the closer you were from the Greek settlements of Magna Graecia, some of which were founded in the 8th century BCE.
So what to make of it?
Now, as said, the further back you go in History, the less certainties you get and that’s exactly the case here: I’m trying to make sense of fragments of information on the origins of a particular goddess, knowing that in the end I’ll only have a theory and not a certainty. But having said that, where do I stand?
I’m leaning strongly towards believing that Menrva/Minerva is the same as Athena, though not as a direct Etruscan appropriation of a Greek goddess – or at least not at first – but an indirect one via non-Greek communities in central Italy. That is to say, people like the Latins, Falisci or Umbri picked up the cult of Athena from their contacts with Magna Graecia, changed Her name along the way and then the Etruscans, thanks to their proximity to central Italians, themselves took Her in already renamed as Menerwa. Hence Her Indo-European name in a non-Indo-European culture and the apparent possibility that She was more popular in southern as opposed to northern Etruria. And this could also explain the differences between Minerva and Athena, in that the former would be a bit like a translation of a translation – twice interpreted and hence somewhat distinct from the original.
Since the transmission would have taken place sometime between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, it is fair to ask why then was Minerva absent from the traces of the older pantheon of ancient Rome? Specifically, why is there no flamen Minervalis? Perhaps because in the early period She was not popular enough for it. After all, just because the knowledge or even worship of a goddess gets passed around between people and communities, it doesn’t mean that it automatically becomes a State cult. That may have come later and in a reverse movement to how it started, i.e. from north to south, from Etruria to Latium and Rome.
Again, not a certainty, but it is a more solid basis than just feeling right that Minerva and Athena are the same. Because when things involve historical processes of some sort – like the origins and expansion of a cult – this is how I tend look at it. Through enquiry and critical thinking, not a mere acceptance of accounts or looks. Which come to think of it, is a very minerval thing to do, to make use of your ability to reason and construct ideas.
COR DE VAAN, Michiel Arnoud. 2008. Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages. Leiden, Boston: Brill.
GRUMMOND, Nancy Thompson de. 2006. Etruscan myth, sacred History, and legend. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
SIMON, Erika. 2006. “Gods in Harmony: the Etruscan pantheon”, in The religion of the Etruscans, eds. Nancy Thompson de Grummon and Erika Simon. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 45-65.
PEREIRA, Paulo. 1993. “A conjuntura artística e as mudanças de gosto”, in História de Portugal, volume III, dir. José Mattoso. Lisboa: Círculo de Leitores, pp. 423-467.
SCHMITT, Jean-Claude. 2009. The holy greyhound, trans. Martin Thom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
All of this because yesterday I listened to Madredeus’ Oxalá, a song that I haven’t heard in a long time. And yes, the title is that word that comes from the Arab insha’Allah or “God willing” and is all about hope, be it on smaller or greater things. I leave you with it and its lyrics while I ponder about the matter.
Oxalá o passo não me esmoreça
Oxalá o Carnaval aconteça, oxalá
Oxalá o povo nunca se esqueça
Oxalá eu não ande sem cuidado
Oxalá eu não passe um mau bocado
Oxalá eu não faça tudo à pressa
Oxalá meu Futuro aconteça
Oxalá que a vida me corra bem, oxalá
Oxalá que a tua vida também
Oxalá o Carnaval aconteça, oxalá
Oxalá o povo nunca se esqueça
Oxalá o tempo passe, hora a hora
Oxalá que ninguém se vá embora
Oxalá se aproxime o Carnaval
Oxalá tudo corra menos mal
I hope my step doesn’t falter
I hope Carnival happens, I hope
I hope the people never forgets
I hope I don’t walk carelessly
I hope I don’t go through a bad time
I hope I don’t do everything in a hurry
I hope my future happens
I hope my life goes well, I hope
I hope your life, too
I hope Carnival happens, I hope
I hope the people never forgets
I hope time goes by, hour by hour
I hope no one leaves
I hope Carnival draws closer
I hope everything goes less badly
Up until this point, I’ve been paying tribute to Them on an individual basis, marking the birthday of each with a small domestic sacrifice on the fireplace. Naturally, this meant I could only pick a handful of historical characters in order to keep my festive calendar workable with the modern life of someone who’s not a full-time paid priest. As such, I have only six in my fasti, but there’s twice as many national heroes I’m curious about or fond of. Honouring each on separate days would be impractical and worshiping all in a single sacrifice, while an appealing possibility, raised some questions that I lacked either the tools or will to address. Until now.
The Family Lar and the Watery Lady
It’s curious that I’ve reached this point by simply adding pieces that have been presenting themselves one by one in the last few years. In the past, one of the things that bugged me when I considered a single festive date for all of my national Lares was that I lacked a link to a greater deity that could function as a god/dess of Portugal. Since it’s a country that postdates the Christianization of the Iberian Peninsula by almost a millennium, there’s no ancient answer I can resort to and even the selection of a regional pre-Christian deity to fulfil the role is not without the risk of anachronism. There was always Persephone, to whom I could add a national epithet and thus link Her to my country’s heroic dead, but as I explained here, the word lar carries for me the notion of something closer, familial, even if just a celestial or domestic aspect of an otherwise infernal or terrifying entity. Which means that if I were to honour my favourite heroes as Lares, a queen of the underworld wasn’t quite it. Another possibility was my Family Lar, who in my personal theology leads and intermediates my deceased relatives and pets. But its focus is essentially domestic, so while that served the purpose of national heroes being honoured at home, it lacked a certain… something, a greater dimension that’s tied together in an organic fashion.
It was only recently – a few days ago, really – that I realized I had the answer, but just hadn’t connected the dots. When I started wondering about the local gods of my hometown, back in 2013, I eventually produced a multifaceted answer: a plethora of deities I came to call Lares Alcobacenses, all led by Silvanus with a corresponding epithet, and a nymph-like figure, perhaps a local Nabia, as my Family Lar, thus linking the region’s natural features, its history and that of my own family by means of a divine couple and a regional host. In essence, domestic and local cults tied together, which is appropriate considering my family from my father’s side has been in this part of Portugal for several centuries. And then in March this year, I noticed a few coincidences and though I will not go as far as saying that there’s something concrete to them, they nonetheless inspired an idea that now comes to fuller fruition.
The solution for the lack of a greater deity lies in the west-Iberian goddess Nabia with the epithet Portugalensis – the Portuguese Nabia – which is naturally a modern aspect and makes Her a presiding deity of the country and its people; just as my Family Lar, the local Nabia, presides over my household. In this, there’s something of a micro and macrocosm, a system where my home is my country and my country is my home and both are tied together by a goddess who has national and domestic aspects and can thus reflect the two. What’s more, because Nabia is a watery deity, She’s not without a connection to the other or underworld, which was traditionally seen as being accessible through caves, wells, lakes or underground springs, and in that She has that side of Persephone that made me consider Her. And this then is the little something I was looking for, that additional dimension that allows me to worship national heroes at home, as Lares, but with a connection to the greater scheme of things.
The Lares Portugalenses
Once I added these pieces, the rest presented itself rather quickly, starting with the structure of a ceremony. Apart from being in capite velato and having opening and closing tributes to Janus, Vesta and Jupiter, it should also have a twofold dynamic, with offerings being given in double portions, half burned in the ritual fire for my domestic Nabia or Family Lar and half collected in a circular bowl with water for Nabia Portugalensis (and later poured into a river). And then the same for each of the national heroes I chose to honour, one by one. It will result in a very long ceremony, but one that’s performed only once a year, reducing additional tributes to much simpler gestures like lighting a candle on my Lararium on the day of birth of at least some of those historical characters.
It also means that I’ll have to switch the title under which I worship Them, from Lares Patriae to Lares Portugalenses, thus matching Nabia’s epithet. And because I no longer have to worry about having too many sacrifices to Them on my fasti, I can enlarge the number of honoured heroes and finally include Portugal’s first king, who’s also a founding figure of my hometown, but whose exact date of birth is unknown. Which is no longer a problem! I can also add Bartolomeu Dias, another historical figure whose birthday is unrecorded, but who in 1488 sailed past the Cape of Good Hope, named thus precisely because of that feat. He later died there, while crossing the cape again in 1500, in what is a tragic event that has a certain mythic tone to it. And there’s also a medieval general and a chronicler, two travellers born in the 15th century, one from the 16th, a king from the 17th, one poet and one captain from the 20th century, adding to the three kings, one renaissance humanist, one politician and one diplomat I already worship.
There’s also the issue of when to perform the yearly sacrifice, something that isn’t necessarily easy when the current national day is the anniversary of the death of Camões, which occurred on the eve of the country becoming a Spanish territory, in 1580, and Portugal is roughly nine centuries old. There’s therefore plenty of alternative dates to chose from – some would say too many – but I’m leaning towards June 24th, the day of the Battle of Saint Mammes in 1128, which has been dubbed “the first Portuguese afternoon”. There’s something of a poetic simplification to those words, but poetry is often the art of saying with emotion otherwise plain information, so they nonetheless convey the seminal nature of the event.
The roads, as always
As all of this took shape in my mind, another idea stepped forward: that I could also worship some of those heroes as Lares Viales. The principle is basically the same as with the local gods of my hometown, i.e. resorting to a collective name for a divine host that can include deceased people and based on the pre-Christian practice of using the word lar for greater or smaller gods. Silvanus is an example I bring up every time and I’ve mentioned elsewhere the Iberian Lares Ceceaecis and Dii Ceceaigis, which may have been the same entities. The bottom line is that we’re talking about a title that can identify a deity, a divine host or an aspect of a deity that can also be a part of other groups. This overlap is also present in the modern Lares Alcobacenses, several of which may also be counted among my ancestors or Family Lares. And while I’m sure that this can be confusing at first, it’s easier to understand if you set aside notions of strictly defined and mutually exclusive categories. Things can be a lot more fluid in Roman polytheism, though the exact degree depends on one’s choice of theology.
So if Lar is a title and it can be applied to both smaller and greater gods, from a wandering spirit that looks after wayfarers to a Lord of Pathways like Mercury, then it’s not impossible that deceased travellers may be counted among the Lares Viales. In this case, Pêro da Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva. In 1487, both were sent on a scouting and spying mission to east Africa and India, in preparation for later sea voyages. They knew Arab, how to guide themselves in a foreign land and were not without the ability to blend into the local population. After reaching Cairo, they travelled through the Arabian Peninsula all the way to Aden and there went different ways, one to Persia and India and the other to Ethiopia. None of them returned to Portugal, having been prevented from doing so by disease – in the case of Afonso de Paiva – or Ethiopian kings. And there’s something mercurial in all of this, in the type of mission they had, their skills, the diplomatic nature of the later stages of Pêro’s voyage and the fact that they died on the road or abroad. And that to me suggests the potential to be small gods of wayfarers.
Another historical character of mercurial interest is Fernão Mendes Pinto, a wandering Portuguese from the 16th century who went as far as Japan and was anything but a straightforward traveller, having been pushed out of his way several times, even captured, trapped behind enemy lines and sold off as a slave. At times, he also acted as an ambassador, pirate and even joined the Jesuit Order, before leaving it in 1557. A few years later, he began writing an account of his journeys – the Peregrinação or Pilgrimage – and the whole thing reminds of something Karl Kerényi wrote in his Hermes: Guide of Souls, where he distinguishes between traveller and journeyer, the former being someone who’s on solid ground and taking possession of a charted path with every step, whereas the latter is in a constant state of fluctuation (2008: 31-2). And he ascribes the traveller to Zeus, while the journeyer is more aptly placed in Hermes’ world. The wandering life of Fernão Mendes Pinto was just that: a constant flux, never knowing what might follow or where he might end up. In a way, there’s an element of lost fool to it.
The final decision on whether or not to include these deceased men among the Lares Viales will not be taken without consulting Mercury and resorting to divination. The potential is there, but the worshiper – in this case me – is only part of the equation. But if I get a positive answer or at least no negative signs, then the three will not only receive offerings on the annual sacrifice to the Lares Portugalenses, but will also be honoured in at least one of my yearly tributes to Mercury and the Lares Viales. I’m thinking of July 4th, but more on that in a later post, since I haven’t yet talked about it and marked it on my fasti.
Past, present and future
In the end, what I’m doing here is what I’ve been saying for some time now and wrote about in my beginners’ guide to Roman polytheism: I’m entwining my religion with my modern country, thereby making it a living part of who I am here and now, not who I’d like to be in a re-enactment of a bygone State of which I’m not an actual citizen. And the fact that I’ve been distancing myself from the anti-modern sectors of the wider polytheist community only reinforces my focus on my native identity, giving my practices an increasing Portuguese colour.
Of course, the inclusion in one’s pantheon of deceased people who had a different religion, moral standards and worldview is something that can only happen if you’ve made peace with the past and neither deny its mistakes and wrong-doings, nor do you constantly bring them up as a protest banner or a rallying cry for ulterior agendas. If you haven’t yet sorted things out – which may not be entirely up to you – and either live in denial or see past people as little more than bad folks who did terrible things, then you won’t be going far when it comes to worshipping your land or community’s heroes and founding figures.
In the afternoon, my plan is to perform a formal ceremony in Roman rite, i.e. covered head, ritual fire, opening offerings of incense and wine to Janus, Vesta and Jupiter and closing libations in reversed order (so that Janus closes just as He opened and Vesta is always at the center). I’m not yet sure what I’m going to offer Quangeio, but a cake and meat, together with wine, is at the top of my list of possibilities. When inviting Him to witness the sacrifice and received what I have to offer Him, I’ll utter another prayer, longer and with my first attempt at epithets of His, though again with the “if you are” lines for good measure. Since I’m not sure if He’s a celestial or terrestrial god, I’ll work on the assumption that He has both aspects, which is not impossible, and so while some offerings to Him will be burned, others will be poured into a circular bowl with fresh soil. I should also ask Him to bless several portions of dog food, one of which I’ll give to my own as both a present – think of it as a sort of canine Christmas day – and a tribute to Quangeio. The other portions will be left outdoors for stray dogs to feed on. Once back home, having also poured outside the offerings placed on the circular bowl, I’ll take my dogs for a walk, offer them a few more treats and then finally, before sunset, light another candle with a third prayer, which should include a request for signs from Quangeio.
And then, one plays the waiting game, hoping you got things right. If not, you persist and eventually go back to the drawing board.
In total, there are thirty six known altars dedicated to the Lares Viales. Apart from the aforementioned example from Rome, there’s a second piece from Italy (CIL XI 3079), one from Dacia (CIL III 1422), another from Morocco (CIL VIII 9755) and one from Gaul (CIL XII 4320). There’s also three from the eastern half of the Iberian Peninsula (AE 1903 185; CIL II 2987) and then a whopping twenty eight altars in the northwest corner of the region, mostly in modern-day Galicia (Franco Maside 2002: 218-9).
The exact reason for this disproportion is unclear, but it may be connected to the late Romanization of northern Iberia, for while the south was conquered by Rome by the start of the second century BCE, it was only two hundred years later that the Asturias and surrounding regions were subdued. And unsurprisingly, such a chronological discrepancy carries cultural consequences, in that the south was already well within the Roman world by the time the north was entering it. William van Andringa noted as much, pointing out that religious practices reflected more closely those of Rome in long-conquered provinces like Baetica (southern Spain): in Tucci, Hercules, Jupiter Optimus Maximus and Pietas Augusta were popular, as were Diana, Venus, Libertas Augusta, Mars Augustus and the Lares Augustorum in Singili Barba. But in Lugo, Galicia, during the Roman period, a myriad of native Iberian gods were worshipped alongside Jupiter (van Andringa 2011: 86). No surprise then that Portela Filgueiras suggested that, in northwest Iberia, the Lares Viales and the king of the gods fulfilled the same role as the imperial cult elsewhere, i.e. were a religious expression of loyalty towards the Roman State (1984: 157). On that note and despite the fact that her work is three decades old and may therefore be somewhat outdated, it is nonetheless worth mentioning that Portela Filgueiras found no archaeological traces of the Lares Augusti being worshipped in Galicia and only two for the Lares Romani (or four, if you consider the borders of Roman Galicia, which included northern Portugal). And that’s despite the fact that over two dozen pieces dedicated to those two divine groups have been found elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula (Portela Filgueiras 1989: 161).
If they fulfilled the role of the imperial cult, then the popularity of the Lares Viales in ancient Galicia was an early or at best intermediate stage in a process of cultural assimilation. Had it started earlier or lasted longer, beyond Christianization, and perhaps the Lares Augusti would have become more popular in the region and maybe even displace the Lares Viales. But to thus conclude that Their popularity was just a product of a political scheme is to barely scratch the surface, for syncretism or assimilation of religious practices can only work if there’s a commonality, something that’s shared by both the new and old and allows for a transition. Which is why some have suggested that the Lares Viales of ancient Galicia were essentially a Roman mask to much older cults (Santos Yanguas 2014: 254). In other words, there must have been pre-existing entities who were already popular in the region and whose worshippers found a suitable Latin expression to their devotion in the Lares Viales. Had it been merely a case of a religious phenomenon produced by the movements of Roman troops along north-Iberian roads, then one would expect to find a similar result elsewhere in Europe. Yet that’s not the case. The popularity of the Lares Viales in Galicia is exceptional, so it stands to reason that there must have been exceptionally popular wayfaring gods of some sort during the region’s pre-Roman period, which, combined with the late Romanization, produced the cluster of altars visible in the map above. Who were those deities is a question to which there is no answer, since also unlike what happens elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula and indeed in the Roman world, They were not syncretised by means of epithets. There’s nothing along the lines of Mars Nodens, Apollo Belenus or Silvanus Sinquas – there’s just Lares Viales.
Perhaps even more enticing is the awareness that Galicia remains a land religiously defined by wayfaring. It is marked by scores of travellers on traditional courses signalled by shells and cairns, though their destination is not a polytheistic shrine, but rather a Catholic one in Santiago de Compostela. Now before anyone jumps to the conclusions, the Galician cult of Saint James is not a Christianized version of an older, pre-Christian cult. There are elements of it, yes, the cairns being a clear example, but you’ll find that pretty much anywhere in Europe where there are hiking trails or pilgrimage routes. The fact that the 5th century bishop Martin of Dume (Braga, Portugal), in chapter 16 of his De Correctione Rusticorum, mentions the lighting of candles at crossroads is hardly evidence of a persistent worship of the Lares Viales in ancient Galicia. And that’s because in those same lines he also mentions the worshipping of trees and boulders, performing auguries, celebrating the Volcanalia and Calends, stepping in with your right foot, throwing bread and wine into fountains and invoking Minerva when weaving. Which begs the question of how far the text reflects a local reality that was observed first-hand or merely employs a standardized list of pagan practices in use by any Christian missionary at the time.
The truth is that the history of the Galician shrine of Saint James is complex and does not fit into the simplistic model of a pre-Christian cult with a Christian guise – though that is no doubt a popular belief among modern pagans and polytheists, especially those affected by the way too common form of paranoia known as siege mentality. For starters, because organized Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula goes back to c. 180, but the presumed discovery of the body of Saint James took place in c. 813. It’s a gap of over six centuries and between those two dates there was the officialization of Christianity, the outlawing of pagan religions, Germanic invasions and settlement, renewed missionary activity by Martin of Dume and others, schisms and internal struggles between Christian sects (Arianism, Priscilianism, Donatism, etc.), the Muslim conquest of almost all of the Iberian Peninsula and finally the start of the Reconquista in c. 720. By the time the body of the apostle is said to have been discovered, religious strife in Iberia was not between Christians and traditional polytheists, but between different movements of the former and Islam. It is revealing that the presumed tomb of Saint James, who was killed in Palestine and not in Galicia (Acts of the Apostles, 12:2), may in fact have been that of Priscillian, a Galician bishop who was decapitated for heresy in 385 and had a strong following in the region. That a remnant or memory of a cult to his remains may have been picked up by the Catholic Church in the first century of war against the Muslim south, thus in time providing the northern Christian kingdoms with a reinforced religious banner, goes to show how detached the Galician shrine of Saint James is from any hypothetical pre-Christian version. Even more so if one considers that the Asturian chronicles of the late ninth and early tenth centuries – the Albeldense and both versions of the Alfonso III – say nothing about the “miraculous discovery” in Santiago de Compostela, thus placing the popularity of the Catholic cult at an even later date.
Still, there is a coincidence, an accidental continuum, if you will: the land where the Lares Viales appear to have been more popular is still a country of travellers, defined for centuries by wayfaring. That’s actually the reason why this blog’s header image is a photo of a golden scallop on cobblestones: shells have become a symbol of the way of Saint James – the exact motive is unknown – and you’ll see them being used by just about any pilgrim, decorating Galician churches and signs along roads and hiking trails and find dozens of them in golden metal on the medieval streets of Santiago de Compostela, marking old pilgrimage routes.
Old ways made new
In using the scallop, I’m drinking from the continuum and using it to express my west-Iberian roots, mercurial devotion and worship of the Lares Viales, employing what has essentially become a recognizable symbol of travellers and movement in the land where the gods of the roads were popular. I’m not integrating Saint James into my practices or pantheon, just as the shrine at Santiago de Compostela didn’t replace a pre-Christian cult site, but I am picking up elements, similarly to Catholic pilgrims and non-religious hikers who have taken up the older practice of erecting cairns. It’s a continuous use and reuse of gestures and symbols in an ever-present Galician background of wayfaring that stretches back over two millennia. And incidentally, when I was midway through writing this post and left the computer to join a few friends at a party, I found two clamshells down the street and saw two roosters walking by a busy road in a nearby village. Which is interesting at the very least.
Perhaps it’s time I add the pieces and start something cohesive and concrete. I’m already a devotee of Mercury and honour the Lares Viales alongside Him on January 4th, the first days of April and am considering two additional annual celebrations (thus reaching a total of four). The gods of roads are also in my daily prayers and, every time I pour wheat on a wayside or cairn to Mercury, I pour an extra for Them. There are Iberian gods full of mercurial potential, like Ilurbeda, for whom there are archaeological links to the Lares Viales, or Quangeio, hypothetically a god’s companion just as dogs are humans’. A basic philosophy has been worked out and there’s plenty of symbols to choose from, be it scallops, wheels, travellers’ staffs, winged boots or hats, cairns or canines. There’s even fertile ground for an initiatory element with the goal of becoming a Lar Viale upon death and thus join Mercury’s divine entourage of travelling gods.
Perhaps I should take the clamshells and roosters as a hint, add the pieces I already have and lay the foundations of something new, something that may become a tradition if it survives the test of time. An Iberian branch of Roman polytheism, complete with its own coherent set of ideas and practices and focusing on the Lares Viales and Mercury as foremost among Them. Of course, it would have to be done in full awareness that human existence is brief, no more than a few decades long, so if such a religious construct is to become a tradition, grow and be successful, I will not see it in my lifetime. But I can still sow the fields, I can lay the first stone. Every journey starts with a single step, even if you do not reach the intended destination and others have to continue for you. You do your part, no matter how small, and then let others do theirs.
Perhaps it’s time for a Way of the Wayfarers to be born.
BEARD, Mary; NORTH, John; PRICE, Simon. 2010. Religions of Rome, volume I: a History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
FRANCO MASIDE, Rosa María. 2002. “Lares Viales na provincia de A Coruña. In Gallaecia n. 21, Santiago de Compostela: Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, pp. 215-222.
PORTELA FILGUEIRAS, Maria Isabel. 1984. “Los dioses Lares en la Hispania romana”. In Lucentum, n. 3, Alicante: Universidad de Alicante, pp. 153-180.
SANTOS YANGUAS, Narciso. 2014. “El culto a los Lares Viales en Asturias”. In Ilu: Revista de Ciencias de las Religiones, n. 25. Madrid: Universidad Complutense de Madrid, pp. 251-263.
VAN ANDRINGA, William. 2011. “Religions and the integration of cities in the Empire in the second century AD: the creation of a common religious language”. In A Companion to Roman Religion, ed. Jörg Rüpke. Blackwell: Oxford, pp. 83-95.
In four instances, I moved annual feasts so as to overlap them with either the Nones or Ides of a given month. Since I ritually burn offerings on those occasions anyway, I reasoned that instead of duplicating ceremonies and ritual fires, it would be best to simply change the date of some celebrations by a few days. Thus, rather than marking Vestalia on June 9th, I pushed it to the Ides on June 13th and made a similar change to Apollo’s yearly sacrifice, moving it from July 13th to the 15th, Hercules’ from August 4th to the 5th and my commemoration of emperor Julian the Faithful from November 3rd to the 5th. In the first two cases, there’s actually a symbolic gain, since the Ides are the middle and hence a sort of focus or pinnacle of a month. So it is not without meaning that Vesta, goddess of the fireplace, should be celebrated on the focal point of June and Apollo on the summit of the seventh month. Emperor Julian’s day is a bit of an approximation, since he was made Caesar on 3 November 355 and became the sole Augustus on 6 November 361, so the Nones are somewhere in the middle.
However, whereas in all of these cases the ritual used is always Roman, and hence annual and monthly offerings may be burned during the same ceremony in a structured manner, the same cannot be said of instances where different rites are employed. That’s the case of the Dominalia and Tonitralia, dedicated to Freya and Thor and which up until now I’ve been marking on May 1st and November 13th, respectively. Since They’re Norse deities, I use the ritus aprinus, which means that I have to light up two ritual fires in the same day for consecutive ceremonies. Sometimes that may be possible, but others there may be time constrains. As such, in those two cases, I decided to separate yearly and monthly sacrifices, thus moving the Dominalia to May 25th and the Tonitralia to November 9th. These dates are still somewhat experimental, as they may be changed in the event of signs that manifest divine disapproval.
I also moved the date of the Arentalia, dedicated to the Iberian gods Arentius and Arentia. I honour Them in Roman rite, so the issue there is not one of ritual duplication, but rather of some dispersal. See, the Calends call for offerings to Janus, Juno and the Family Lares, which are then disposed of in a structured manner, ideally in a ritual fire. To do that in an annual ceremony honouring Arentius and Arentia may be somewhat counterproductive when you’re trying to connect with Them, so assuming that less recipients allows for a greater focus, I moved the Arentalia to September 5th. Here too there’s an element of added symbolism, for I assign the Nones to my Family Lares alone and since I see Them as my ancestors and my family has been in the Iberian Peninsula for at least 400 years, it is not without a happy meaning that the Nones of September are the date of my annual commemoration of an Iberian divine pair.
Njord’s festivity was also moved, though not by a need to manage raw materials. His celebration is normally done without a ritual fire, consisting of a sand boat on a beach on which offerings are placed and consecrated with sea water. For the past few years, I’ve been doing that on July 3rd, but I’m presently considering a new feast to Mercury on the 4th (more on that in a later post), so in order to avoid two events in consecutive days, I moved the Niordalia to July 9th, which is in line with the numerical symbolism of Norse mythology. I’m less concerned with proximity in the case of Anubis’ annual commemoration, which I’ve been marking on February 7th, but decided to move to the 11th. It’s closer to Parentalia, which is appropriate, and since my offerings to Him are not burned and can be done at home, it’s less time and wood-consuming.
Finally, I added two new annual celebrations. One is Laralia, which is dedicated to the Lares Alcobacenses or the gods of my homeland. Since they’re partially identical to my ancestors, I figured that a good time to honour Them would be after Caristia, which is a family feast. It does mean that I’ll have to perform ceremonies on consecutive days, something I try to avoid, but I’m willing to go the extra mile in this case, since there’s an additional symbolism on February 23rd: it’s in line with Silvanus’ annual celebration on October 23rd, which is important, given that I’ve come to place Him as a leading deity among the Lares Alcobacenses.
And last, but certainly not least, I picked August 24th for Quangeio’s yearly festival. The reasons are multiple: it’s practical, since it’s an empty part of my religious calendar; it’s symbolic, given that it’s during or shortly after the dog days (their exact date varies); it’s mercurial, since it’s a multiple of four and I feel tempted to explore the idea of Quangeio as an Iberian companion of Mercury, much like Rosmerta in Gaul or something along similar lines of Hanuman and Rama; and there’s a bit of a hunch to it, too.
Some things don’t change
There are still instances where different sacrifices take place in consecutive days, but there’s no avoiding them without a symbolic loss. For instance, Vialia and Mercury’s birthday are just before the Nones of January and April, respectively, but if they were to take place on the 5th instead of the 4th day of those months, they’d lose their numerical significance. Ulleralia is another example, being just before the Ides of December, but it’s dedicated to the Norse god Ullr, who’s linked to winter and, in a way, circles (the ring, the shield, even the stretched bow). And the 12th day of the 12th month is a sort of chronological full circle on a wintery eve, which makes it an appropriate date. Then there’s Apotropalia and Agonalia, which are separated by just one day, but I hesitate about moving the latter to the Ides of January, given that I find it somewhat significant that there’s an equal amount of days between two sacrifices to Janus at the start of the year and during the Parentalia, which lasts from the 13th to the 21st of February. This is not to say that Janus has an infernal aspect, but there may be something to the number that’s connected to beginnings or transitions.