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.

Outline of a trail

Reviving pre-Christian religions isn’t easy. It’s not enough to do things as they were in past and it’s not just due to the many gaps in our knowledge: even if we had all the information, we wouldn’t be able to fully implement it today given how much the world has changed throughout the centuries, culturally and socially. No use crying about that. Different times call for different religions – in one form or another – and a mere imitation of the past risks being anachronic, fossilized or, worst-case scenario, destructive because of its inability to be part of the present. History has plenty of examples of projects that advocated a return to a purer, often romanticized past as a solution for modern problems, but which ended up badly because trying to simply turn back the clock has costs. Material and human. Yet if the goal is to find a modern place for ancient religions, just as the Renaissance retrieved classical culture to give it a new place in a new time or the Enlightenment revived classical systems and laid the foundations for modern democracy, then the idea of different religions for a different time has to be nuanced. Specifically, it needs a significant continuity with the past, a substantial link that goes beyond the superficial sameness of names, aesthetic or gods so it can actually be a revival, even if a modern one.

The general fundamentals
This amounts to a balance between the old and the new. You have to study what information there is about the former, set aside or adapt that which is incompatible with the modern world, structure what remains as basic dynamics and then let the rest of the edifice grow organically entwined with the present, while still within the boundaries of traditional principles. Even if that growth leads to something new, which is only to be expected, since living things naturally evolve, multiply and diversify. So long as it remains within the basics inherited from the past that make up the fundamental features of today’s revived religion, that’s okay. The analogy I like to use is that of an old tree, its roots buried deep into the distant past, but branches rising and growing freely in the present. If roots alone are all there is – because all that matters is the old – then it’s just a dead stump; if there’s only branches – because the new is what truly matters – it’s not even a tree. You need both to revive ancient religions in the modern world and let them grow as a living part of today’s reality, not an imitation of yesterday’s.

This isn’t easy. It’s one thing to articulate it theoretically, but quite another to turn it into a practical reality. And there’s plenty of subjectivity in it, a lot of room for personal preferences to play a role, which means you can end up with something that, while being a blend of old and new within the traditional framework of a given pre-Christian religion, it may not be the kind of mixture others would have done. Yet generally speaking, that too is okay. If there are many gods with different agendas and if many of them are not monolithic, but possess rich and diverse characters they reveal variously to various people, then it stands to reason that there will be multiple cults within a single religion, not just to different gods, but also to different forms or perspectives of the same deity. When dealing with polytheistic religions, expect abundant diversity, even when there’s a well-studied and structured traditional basis.

If by now you’re wondering where I’m going with this, here’s the onion: when I reopened this blog back in April, I said I would post texts on an Iberian cult of Mercury. This is it! This is the first of those posts! I just laid out the general theory of something that I’m working on that will have to be modern – due to context and a severe scarcity of information – but also west-Iberian in nature and at the same time firmly within the revival of Roman polytheism. And even though it’s still in its very early sprouts, some of its basic outlines have been taking shape for sometime now and I feel comfortable enough to put them out there – at least in a preliminary fashion.

Roadside sign pointing the way to Santiago de Compostela, complete with a cairn. Source

A trail in the making
The most obvious feature of that new cult is its main god, which is Mercury, specifically Mercury the Wayfarer. He forms a triad with his mother Maia and the Iberian god Quangeio, leading the divine host of Lares Viales, of whom the former is queen and the latter a foremost member.

Since it’s intended to be a branch of modern Roman polytheism, rites are performed according to the orthopraxy, which includes the marking of the Calends, Nones and Ides, and so Janus, Juno and Jupiter are naturally part of the pantheon as well. Other deities of interest to the mercurial cult I’m constructing are Silvanus and Proserpina, the former being a supplier of shade and food for travellers, but potentially also a funerary god. That part is yet in its initial sketch and so the exact role of the Queen of the Underworld is still undefined, but I’m eyeing new forms of burial practices, like bio urns or the capsula mundi.

In keeping with the numerical symbolism of the mercurial universe, there are four main yearly festivals, all on a fourth day: one in January (Vialia), another in April (Mercury’s birthday), then July (Peregrinalia) and finally October (name yet uncertain, currently leaning towards Momentalia). There’s a symbolic charge and philosophical sense to all of them, but more on that in a future post, as that part too is yet in its very early infancy. And apart from the big four dates, there are other celebrations throughout the year, one for each of the members of the cult’s pantheon, which translate into monthly offerings in the case of Maia (the Ides) and Quangeio (the 24th day), adding to Mercury’s on the first Wednesday of every month.

The choice of focusing on the Swift One’s wayfaring side isn’t accidental, since that’s where He meets the Lares Viales, who were very popular in ancient Galicia. Making them his divine host is therefore a very solid way of constructing an Iberian cult of Mercury, even more so when northwest Iberia remains a land deeply tied to wayfaring, even if today’s practice is eminently Catholic and focused on the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. But rather than rejecting that religious continuum that ties the pre-Christian past with the Christian present, I’m going to drink from it by making the scallop one of the symbols of the mercurial cult I’m working on, though perhaps with a few changes to make a distinction from the Catholic use of the shell.

Another obvious Iberian element is Quangeio’s place in the triad. His relationship with Mercury is not entirely clear to me and it may go from deep friendship and devotion, in the likes perhaps of Hanuman’s to Rama, to an intimate companionship of a more erotic tone (or both!). It’s something that’s yet to be determined and requires a good deal of interaction with the two gods before settling things a bit more. What seems safer to say, at least at this point, is that Quangeio can be a foremost deity among the Lares Viales, like a second in command, and fulfill a role that includes much of the wide range of the canine symbolism: the guardian, the provider, the companion, the healer, the guide. All of them tied in some way to the road, but also to daily life – just like Mercury. Eventually, I should start writing stories that codify their relationship in a narrative fashion.

Maia too adds to the Iberian identity, though in a less obvious way. As Mercury’s mother, She’s a natural candidate for a position in the triad, but what adds an extra to her role in the cult I’m structuring is the old and strong presence of the divine feminine in western Iberian religiousness. Fatima’s is today’s most obvious manifestation of it, but before that it was Our Lady of Conception, who was crowned Queen of Portugal in 1646, and Our Lady of Nazareth, who was highly popular, and even earlier there were goddesses like Nabia and Ataécina. Therefore, adding Maia to the triad, highlighting her role as mother of the cult’s main god and queen of his host, brings together the mythological tradition from Antiquity and an easily assimilable Iberian overtone.

Finally, on the same territorial note, the preferred languages for ritual purposes are naturally Portuguese, Galician-Portuguese and Mirandese, with Latin and Spanish being closely related alternatives, though there’s nothing wrong in using others, including English. It’s just a preference that highlights the Iberian identity of the cult, but given that its main deity is the polyglot Mercury, any language can be used if needed.

This is just getting started
As said, these are still the very early stages in the formation of a new cult within the modern revival of Roman polytheism. I’m sort of making it a life-long work, to be honest, but life is short and unpredictable, so I’m putting this out there now and will be adding pieces as I construct or review them. Ultimately – and hopefully – I expect to gather it all in a single book, complete with ritual formulas, basic layout for sacred spaces, tales and lists of symbols, among other things. But that’s an end-goal and there’s a long road ahead before I reach that point. It has to be a deep-rooted tree with living branches that stretch out organically to the modern sky, but that takes time and the journey is as important as the destination, if not more.

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.

A new beginning

So, as promised early this year, this blog has been restructured, reviewed and redefined. The About section has been changed and expanded, the pages on Roman polytheism have been tweaked and added to and there’s a whole new menu on Iberian gods. This is now a much more mercurial, much more western European site, oriented towards an Iberian cult of Mercury, as expressed in the addendum to the First Rites and explained in the first page of the About section. April has come, the Fleet-Footed’s birthday with it and it’s a good time for a new beginning! And also a new laptop, since mine called it quits on the eve of April’s Fool. Guess the joke was on me, but that sort of comes with the job when you’re a devotee of a trickster. A toast to the son of Maia and his divine Iberian host!

The brainstorm of divine origins

For those of you who are unaware of it, I’m not a fan of immediate equations of gods. That is to say, that I’m not into the simplistic argument that similar iconography or overlap in functions is enough to conclude that two or more deities are the same. I know it was a common thing in the ancient world and a lot of modern polytheists do it, but I tend to dig deeper and look into various specifics – etymology, cult history, nature or functions – instead of jumping to the conclusions based on a very broad and – dare I say? – shallow stroke. Why? Mostly because I like to know the gods I worship as best as I can and preferably based on more than just a “feels right” kind of argument. And also because, whenever History is concerned, I prefer to put things under a critical eye as opposed to merely accepting what is given to me by ancient sources or appearances. In this case, whether a god is originally native or imported and hence distinct or identical to another. It may not provide for a decisive conclusion – and the further back you go in History, the less certainties you have – but it does award a more solid basis on which to build my beliefs.

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.

General notions
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.

Works cited
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.


In his Going Postal, Terry Pratchett calls hope “the greatest of all treasures”, words that are in my Postal Oracle, which I’m still fine-tuning. And in the spirit of review and adjustment of my fasti, I’m thinking of adding an annual feast to Spes, perhaps even using the sacrifice I have at the end of the year. I’ve been dedicating it to Bonus Eventus, but given that His role overlaps with that of Mercury, I may subsume the former into the latter and have yet another day of tribute to Maia’s son, perhaps coupled with a sacrifice to Spes. After all, the date is appropriate: it’s the darkest time of the year, but already it contains the seed of summer, so one hopes the sun and warmth will return; it’s the last day of December, so hopefully the New Year will be a good one; there’s even a Portuguese link to it, since Bartolomeu Dias arrived back in Lisbon from the Cape of Good Hope in December. And speaking of travellers, why not a cult of Spes Mercurialis, the Hope of Wayfarers? I hope your journey goes well, I hope nothing bad happens, I hope you come back safe. Though having two feasts to Spes isn’t a bad idea either, one for Her mercurial side on the final day of the year and another for Her alone, maybe in October, when winter is approaching, sunlight is retreating and one hopes things will turn out well, that we’ll get through the dark days and see each other on the other side of it.

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 me passe a dor de cabeça, oxalá
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 the headache goes away, I hope
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

Home, road and country

Having adjusted my fasti to make them more functional in the modern world and not only accepting, but actually embracing the fact that I’m moving away from a part of the wider community, thus focusing more on my actual heritage, identity and social surroundings, it’s now time to make another change. It has been brewing in my mind for some time, but I never went through with it because it would either substantially increase the number of yearly sacrifices or I just didn’t know how or even whether to do it. But the adjustments to my fasti started the process and the greater focus on my western Iberian standpoint set the tone, so as a result, I decided to review my cult to the Lares Patriae, the Lares of my Country, which is a modern divine category under which I placed national heroes – kings, leaders, scholars, travellers, artists – and worshiped the ones I was personally fond of.

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.

A Roman-period altar to Nabia found in northern Portugal

A Roman altar to Nabia found in northern Portugal

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.

A statue of Portugal's first king, high on the roof top of my hometown's monastery.

A statue of Portugal’s first king, high on the roof top of my hometown’s monastery.

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 back and forth of Fernão Mendes Pinto

The back and forth of Fernão Mendes Pinto

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.