Mercurial devotion

There’s a lot to write in this blog, a lot of planned texts yet to publish, so I’m ending the silence and resuming the habit of writing with a post on mercurial things, from the birthday to small offerings to Maia’s Son and others.

1. The fourth day of the fourth month
As said in other occasions, there’s no historical record of a Ludi Mercuriales or that at any time ancient Romans celebrated the anniversary of Mercury. But because I’m not talking about a fossilized religion, nor do I practice a re-enactment of the past, it is natural that time, devotions and religious experiences make way for new festivities. The 4th of April – the fourth day of the fourth month – is one such case: based on the historical link between Hermes/Mercury and the number four, I picked that day to celebrate the birth of that god. And I strengthened the symbolic charge by expanding it in order to include the first four days of April, a month that begins with April Fool’s, which is another appropriate date to honour a trickster.

Last year, April 4th was also a Wednesday, the old Dies Mercurii, and for that reason my offerings and tributes came in packs of four as much as possible: four sweet dishes, four toasts, four cairns on which I poured four offerings, four lottery tickets, four mourning offerings during four days, four floral tributes, etc. This year, the date fell on a Thursday and so the numerical emphasis was less stressed

NM 2019

This year, for Mercury’s anniversary, I made two sweet dishes – aletria and a crackers’ cake – along with several sugar-free pancakes so my dogs could eat them and thus have a seat at the god’s table. All consecrated to Mercury during the ceremony on the morning of April 4th, with the first portion of each being given to the deity and then rest was returned to the human sphere so my family and I could eat it. There were also libations of medronho strawberry and honey liquor and offerings of fennel, cinnamon, wine and honey, a wreath for the shrine, another to hang on the front door and a strawberry tree to plant in a family plot of land this month, it too consecrated to Mercury with portions of salted flour, honey and liquor. And to top it off, adding to small walk, cairns and offerings from the previous day, as well as the sacrifice to Maia on April 2nd, I also bought a lottery ticket.

In the end, there was the expected feeling: the sense of work done, duty fulfilled, devotion piously expressed and nurtured bonds. And joy.

2. The triad and the family
My devotion to Mercury doesn’t come alone. It’s part of a greater whole, of a modern cult still in construction and focused on the roads, trails and pathways, in the perpetual movement and interconnectedness of all things, linked to the Iberian west and, when it comes to philosophy, consciously influenced by the Buddhist school of Madhyamaka. At the heart of its pantheon is of course Mercury, together with his mother Maia and his companion Quangeio, the Iberian dog god, and together they form the central triad of said cult. Around them orbit other deities: Faunus, Silvanus, Proserpina and the Lares Viales, who are the divine host of Mercury Vialis – the Wayfaring Lord of Pathways. And because the cult is meant to be an Iberian branch of modern Roman polytheism, there’s also Janus, Jupiter, Juno and Vesta, the Family Lars and the Penates, fundamental deities of Latin orthopraxy.

As a way of deepening my mercurial devotion and with the possibility of enlarging the pantheon, I’ve been looking into Mercury’s maternal relatives, particularly Pleione and Atlas. The former, by being of the Oceanids, poses a dilemma, in that I must choose one of the versions of Okeanos, if the oldest, according to which he was understood as the titan of the great river that enveloped the world and origin of all its sources of fresh water, earthly and celestial, if the later version, according to which he’s the titan of the oceans and hence salt water.

Given that the theonym Pleione carries the many of increasing in number, particularly flocks, both senses have merit, at least in a Portuguese context, since clouds can be religiously understood as a celestial flock – in which case Mercury’s grandmother would be a multiplier of clouds and as such a deity of mist and rain – but in Portugal the foam on the top of sea waves is colloquially called “little rams”, and in that case Pleione would be a stirrer of maritime waters. But given that her daughter Maia is a mountain nymph, my preference goes for the former hypothesis.

Reinforcing it is the idea of Atlas as a god of astronomy, an interpretation that’s rich in possibilities, since it awards the titan the responsibility for the movement of the sky, which in a modern sense that takes into account the present knowledge about the planet and the solar system makes Atlas the god of the Earth’s axis. And that amounts to a celestial aspect that thus touches Pleione’s sphere as a goddess of heavenly flocks, and Maia, daughter of the two of them, is a mountain nymph, i. e. of the earthly extremities where mist and clouds settle – where Pleione’s flock grazes – and touch the sky that turns around Atlas.

These are still preliminary ideas, but at the moment it’s the mental course that I’m following.

3. One for all…
Finally, there’s a small ritual habit that I’ve been acquiring: that of, whenever I perform a monthly sacrifice to one of the elements of the aforementioned triad, adding an offering to the other two. In other words, when paying tribute to Mercury on the first Wednesday of every month, I offer to Maia a portion of honey and another to Quangeio. Whenever I honour the daughter of Pleione on the Ides, I pour an offering to Mercury and another to the Iberian dog god. And when, on the 24th of every month, I perform a small sacrifice to Quangeio, I offer a spoon of honey to Maia and another to her son.

It’s something that adds to the inclusion of Mercury’s mother and companion in my prayers to him every morning and every night and to the portions of wheat that I sometimes dedicate to the two of them whenever I paying tribute to the Fleet-Footed God on a cairn or by a road. Ritual expression of a connection between them and of a devotion that does not exist alone, but as part of a greater whole.


Where I stand

Several recent conversations with fellow polytheists have made clear that there are those who are not aware of my ideological positioning regarding a set of issues, despite having several years of interaction with me on numerous occasions. Which can sometimes lead to unpleasant surprises to those expecting to find me on one side of a debate and instead find me expressing opinions that are to them unexpected.

For that reason, for future reference and so that there are no doubts on where I stand on the field of ideas, I’ve decided to write the essentials of some of my ideological positioning, though a lot of what I’m about to say is public knowledge, since it’s published and freely available to anyone in this blog’s menu. But it seems a clearer and more direct approach is needed.

1. I like philosophy, but…
I like philosophy. I read philosophy, western and eastern, ancient and more recent. I tutor philosophy to high school kids. And there are philosophical doctrines of which I’m fond of and have been integrating in my theological views and religious practices. Therefore, it’s not a subject that’s deprived of interest to me, but it’s also not one I’m particularly focused on.

What I mean by that is that, generally speaking, I don’t particularly care where other polytheists stand, philosophically. So long as they believe in and worship many gods – not many as masks of a One or honour exclusively one out of many – they’re polytheists in my book, regardless of how distant their choice of philosophy is from mine.

2. I’m not in search of the metaphysical truth
As a result, I generally also don’t engage in theological or philosophical debates on who’s right or wrong about the metaphysical truth of things. I see such matters as speculative and thus, ultimately, they’re up to each individual to decide, which is why I don’t particularly care if other polytheists are Platonists, Stoics, Epicureans or of any other philosophical persuasion, western or eastern, pre-Christian or later.

At best and generally speaking, I may join conversations on the subject so as to understand other people’s worldviews, the ideas they’re comprised of, perhaps exchange notes and test thoughts, but without the final goal of arriving at an ultimate metaphysical and spiritual truth. I don’t particularly care where others stand on the principle of do ut des, the gods’ immortality, the number and nature of human soul(s), the existence or not of fate, etc. I have my beliefs, others have theirs. So long as they believe in and worship many gods as individual entities, they’re polytheists as far as I’m concerned.

Whether or not I find other people’s philosophical position interesting, enlightening, optimistic, convincing or conducive to a relationship with the gods is generally irrelevant. They’re other people’s beliefs and philosophical conceptions, not mine. It’s up to them to decide where they stand and how they feel about it.

3. My exceptions
I’ve been saying “generally”, because there are exceptions. One of them concerns basic definitions and their meaning. I therefore have no problem, for instance, disputing and correcting those who claim to be polytheists, but believe in no gods, one god, worship only one or define polytheism in a skewed manner.

I also dispute and correct erroneous ideas on History or opinions on the past that lack support from the historical record. The same applies to other modern scientific topics, generally speaking, though I’m more comfortable with some than others.

And I oppose racist, xenophobic, homophobic or supremacist ideas, whether they’re blended with religious views or not. I draw a line at basic human decency and sanity, just as I do at basic definitions.

4. My definition of Roman polytheism
The ideas above are to me fundamental and are reflected on the value I place on ritual orthopraxy and my definition of Roman polytheism as worship of many gods, Roman and others, according to Roman ritual practice.

Notice that it says nothing about belief – outside the basic concept of polytheism (see above) – nor does it mention moral values, political ideology, social organization and philosophical persuasion. And that is so because those things are to me irrelevant for the basic definition of Roman polytheism.

In practical terms, this means, for instance, that I have no problem with Roman polytheists who subscribe to Platonism and would worship alongside them, even though I’m not a Platonist myself and the more I read about it, the less keen I am on it. And in another example, I believe the gods interfere in human affairs and that there is efficacy in ritual, but I have no problem with Roman polytheists who are sceptical about do ut des, but still worship the gods, for whatever reason, and I would worship alongside them.

5. I value orthopraxy more
For me, what makes one a Roman polytheist is how one worships, regardless of one’s theology and choice of philosophy, generally speaking. The gestures, the structure of both rite and month, the basic how-to. Everything else is entirely up to the individuals, families and groups.

And yes, this is based both on the historical example of ancient Roman polytheism, which was orthopraxic and non-orthodox, and the personal conviction that its modern version must detach itself from political, tribal and social realities of a bygone period.

My approach is that of identifying the fundamental traits of ancient Roman religion – like orthopraxy and non-orthodoxy – and then apply them as much as possible and desirable to the modern context, instead of trying to replicate or re-enact the specific product of that combination of traits and context that was in existence in the past. Fossilization is not my goal.

6. I’m a conventionalist
It is for that exact reason that when defining Roman polytheism I also say nothing about moral values. If there was no orthodoxy, then there was no doctrinal position regarding philosophy and everyday behaviour. Simply put, Roman polytheism had no moral principles, just ritual traditions. And what morality it presented, it was of social origin, though it could be expressed and codified in a religious manner.

There’s nothing historically new in this. A common feature in pre-Christian cultures of ancient Europe was a full merger of the social, political and religious aspects of life, with no real distinction between them, contrary to what´s common today. They were different sides of traditional customs. As a result, tribal and civic identity was one with religious identity and the performance of priestly roles often fell on political leaders and magistrates. And hence also why religiously expressed moral values were those prevalent in the society where the religion was practiced.

This doesn’t mean that I believe that the revival of Roman polytheism should imply a reconstruction of past social, tribal and political structures, because that would be a form of fossilization. As already mentioned, my position is that one should identify fundamental traits and then apply them to the modern context. In this case, if ancient Roman polytheism had no orthodoxy nor moral codes of a religious nature, just reflections of the socially prevalent values, then the correct course of action is to maintain the non-doctrinal dynamic and let it mix with the modern world, including on moral values, instead of, I say again, replicating or re-enacting the past product of that mix of traits and context.

You may therefore call me a conventionalist: morality is the product of mutable social ideas and conventions, not of divine decrees handed down from above. It can certainly be expressed in a religious fashion – through myths, proverbs or manifestations of belief – but as convention changes, so does its religious reflection. Otherwise, either the gods were amiss in the past regarding things like the value of human life or being a Roman polytheist today means having a set of fossilized values. Since I subscribe to neither of those two views, I attach no moral commandments to the gods.

Some see in it a recipe for chaos, but I see it as something liberating and an opportunity to discuss norms, laws and values in a free and rational manner without being limited by dogmatisms or fossilized sacred scriptures. And that’s a good thing! It’s a recognition that things change, including the values by which a society is governed, and it’s taking part in that change in an open manner. It’s not about submitting to modern morals in an acritical fashion, but looking at it freely and critically, preserving it where it must be preserved, treasuring it where it must be treasured, criticizing and demanding changes where it must be changed. Without the goal of freezing it, of simply turning back the clock, of changing it for the sake of change or because the gods say so or a sacred book commands it. You won’t see me using arguments like X should be unlawful because deity A forbids it.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t think that gods inspire human action and behaviour, but different deities inspire different things (e.g. virginity or lust, war or peace, order or trickery) and that inspiration comes on a personal level, not by means of a universal decree. It is my belief that divine communities operate with their own rules, humans with theirs, and though there may be an exchange of ideas, the two work autonomously.

The only area where I admit the possibility of divine instructions are rites, the management of sacred spaces and human conduct within them, here too with elements that may be diverse depending on the deity. And even on that note…

7. How conventionalist am I?
I’m such a conventionalist, that I even propose that orthopraxy should take into account social morals and adapt itself in cases where ritual tradition clashes significantly with laws and social conventions. In other words, a renegotiation with the gods when that which traditional in their cult goes substantially against what is acceptable in the society where the religion is practiced. One can certainly try to change laws and social conventions, if there are motives, support and a real need for it, but one can also adapt religious practices.

For instance, if it’s traditional to sacrifice dogs to a given deity, I hope – indeed, emphatically defend – that there’s an adaptation of the ritual practice considering the value and protection awarded to canines in western societies, replacing the animal offering with a figure of a dog.

And also as an example, if Roman ritual tradition awards the paterfamilias a leading role in domestic ritual practices, I hope – indeed, emphatically defend – there’s a transition to a modern dynamic that’s more equalitarian and not only awards an equally important role to the materfamilias, but also goes beyond a relationship between male and female and includes same-sex couples.

8. I’m a Roman polytheist because…
In the end, it’s fair to ask why am I a Roman polytheist, even more so if, as is my case, one believes that the same gods can be worshipped in different ways and so there’s nothing compelling me to follow Roman tradition in order to honour Mercury or Minerva. I’m not interested in rebuilding ancient Rome and its civic institutions, in reproducing the values that were prevalent there two thousand years ago, not even in restricting myself to the schools of philosophy there were current among ancient Roman elites. So why am I a Roman polytheist?

The answer is threefold, starting with a theological reason, in that I genuinely believe there are many individual deities and want to worship several of them. That makes me a polytheist, but what type or of what tradition?

That’s where the second reason kicks in: culture! I’m Portuguese, born, raised and living in Portugal, and since my native language derives directly from Latin, just like my country’s culture is predominantly of the same matrix, I decided to take that to the next level and go for a religion that’s equally Latin. Ergo, Roman polytheism!

But then one needs to ask: am I comfortable with it? Do I feel at home or is it kind of a mismatch? Just because you’re a European Latino doesn’t mean you have to go for a Latin religion. After all, a lot of Portuguese pick other traditions, including monotheisms, or none, freely and legitimately, so it’s not in any way compulsory. And yet, a decade after making my choice, I can honestly say that yes, I feel at home. More than comfortable, I’m happy in a religion that embraces diversity, is non-exclusivist, has no orthodoxy and no moral doctrine, thus awarding me the freedom to worship many gods, be they traditionally Roman or not, adhere to a philosophical school of my choosing and face the challenges of the society I’m part of without dogmatic constrains of religious nature.

Other people may of course have different reasons, but these are mine. And this is who I am, religiously, ideologically. How you choose to react to it is up to you.