Words are tricky, yet precious

Word has come to me that my latest piece on Polytheist.com has generated a heated debate in several circles. This is not an unexpected result. The topic is sensitive, so addressing it would naturally be controversial in some way, and I wanted it to be thought-provoking, so it had to question popular notions and press a few hot buttons in modern polytheism – especially the most protest-oriented side of it. Of course, also unsurprisingly, while some have disagreed in a civil and well argued manner, others lashed out in ways that raise doubts over whether they understood the piece or even read it.

In reaction to that, Theanos, AKA the Anomalous Thracian, has written a brilliant blogpost where he addresses some of the most “curious” critiques (to put it mildly) and analyses the points where he disagrees with me. I highly recommend you read it. In fact, it’s so good that it had an unexpected impact on the way I perceive my own thought process and cultural background, making obvious things that I’ve been doing rather unconsciously.

The issues with words
His main critique to my article pertains to the equation of the Latin deus, dea and di with “god”, “goddess” and “gods”. Though that is the conventional translation found in a dictionary, he is right when he points out that the Germanic word may contain a diverse sense and hence be a poor equivalent to terms that were produced in a different cultural context. In this case, that of Roman polytheism, which historically had a more open, even somewhat egalitarian notion of deity. The problem may not be immediately obvious, but he makes an excellent analogy with the use of English, Spanish and Portuguese vocabulary to convey notions of deity in African-American religions, highlighting the issues around the use of terminology from one culture, which has baggage, to convey notions from another, which has its own specifics. Semantic mismatches are bound to happen.

One solution to the problem would be to use the word in its original form. Thus, when addressing ancient Roman notions of deity, the Latin term deus, rather than the Germanic “god”, would be a more suitable tool of communication, especially when discussing theological topics with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. Theanos mentions – and rightly so – the case of interfaith dialogue as opposed to intrafaith, where a given meaning is already established. It can save a lot of time and trouble, because it would have an immediate referential effect to a specific cultural and historical context instead of generating a debate on how different people view a particular word. It’s basically the same as using the term kami to discuss Shinto with a western audience. It’s more straightforward and avoids a lot of the effort needed in a translation, whose limitations can easily require an explanation of Japanese notions of deity to people to whom the word “god” carries a different meaning. But while I understand and can sympathize with that solution, it’s one that’s not entirely or at least not immediately available to me.

The reason is that the Portuguese word for god is exactly the same as in Latin: deus! The feminine is different and the plural more so, but that’s because their construction has become simpler by virtue of large grammatical changes. To give you an idea, case endings have largely disappeared in Portuguese, with a few traces remaining in things like pronouns, prepositions or patronymics. This makes the vocabulary more static than in Latin, something that is equally true for gender and number, with feminine and plural being commonly marked by an ending in -a and -s, respectively, often with little or no changes to the rest of the word. Hence “deus” (god), “deusa” (goddess), “deuses” (gods) and “deusas” (goddesses). Not entirely unlike what happens in English.

As a result, every time I consider the notion of god in my native language, every time I think about it on a daily basis, I’m using the exact same term that was employed by ancient Romans. So when confronted with their writings and inscriptions in trying to discern a pre-Christian sense of deity, it’s easy, almost natural, for the old and modern words to become one and the same, not just in spelling (which is already the case), but also in meaning. I don’t have the option of resorting to a different terminology to make a distinction between ancient and specific notions of divine on one side and current or general ones on the other. There are instances where such mechanism is available, a clear example being the difference between the pre-Christian pietas (duty) and modern “piedade” (mercy). In that case, a discernment is easy, both mentally and verbally, because I have two separate ideas, each with a corresponding word. Not so in the case of god: by virtue of identical spelling, the sense of the Latin deus – wide, inclusive, not restricted to supreme deities – can quickly become that of the Portuguese “deus” for a Portuguese Roman polytheist once the monotheistic layer has been peeled away.

This is something I’ve been doing naturally and somewhat unconsciously. It was Theanos’ blogpost that drew my attention to it and made evident that I was acting like any English translator of my native language. The ancient-specific and modern-general words have become undistinguishable to me, so when addressing an Anglophone audience, the former is instinctively translated in the same way as latter: “god”! If it were an article about pietas, we’d be having a different conversation, since mentally I have a firm distinction between the old concept, written in Latin, and the new one, spelled in current fashion. And as such, when putting my thoughts in English, there would be no risk of equating pietas with “mercy”, because the two are clearly identified by different words. To achieve the same effect with the term in question, I’d have to separate the Portuguese “deus”, which means “god” and is conventionally translated as such, and the Latin deus, which may be better left untouched. Which is a challenge, because it requires me to mentally and verbally slipt something my mind has fused into a timeless whole. I guess it’s a bit like asking a Japanese person to make a distinction between “kami” and kami, depending on whether it’s a new word or an old one, a general modern meaning or that of a specific context, even though in the Japanese mind they may be one and the same.

The value of words
There was another unexpected consequence to all of this, in that it highlighted the value of being familiar with a romance language when reviving Roman polytheism in today’s world. It’s not that you need to be Portuguese, Italian, Spanish or French in order to be a cultor or cultrix (far from it!), but knowing a modern Latin language and culture can help you ground and enrich your religious life as a Roman polytheist, connecting you with the Romanitas of today. And the more you do that, the less you feel the need to take refuge in a romanticization of the past or join an anachronistic micronation out of a feeling of not being Roman enough.

To give you a clearer example that adds to the revival of the ancient sense of deity, take the word “lar”. It’s still used in my native tongue, where it carries the meaning of “home”. Hence the well-known sentence “home sweet home” translates as “lar doce lar”. So when dealing with the concept of Lares, as in Family Lares or Lares Viales, I instinctively think of something on a domestic or familial level. Not a revered entity on a high place, a patron with whom you have a professional relationship or an infernal power wrapped up in religious taboos, but something closer, more personal, akin to a relative or family friend. Even if just a side or aspect of a deity that is normally more distant or terrible. And there’s also an impact on ritual, for instead of pouring a libation to Vesta after placing the main offerings in the ritual fire, I pour it to my Lares, because the Portuguese word for fireplace is “lareira” – the “eira” (place or ground) of the Lar. In fact, there’s a connection or at least similarity between “lareira” and Lararium.

Of course, this holds the danger of semantic anachronism, in that an identical spelling may wrongly suggest an equally identical meaning. Caution, study and careful thinking are therefore advised. But if you find no contradiction and it actually enriches your practices, then by all means, go for it! This is reviving a religion through language, creating a living meaning and connection to your everyday life by means of everyday words. There will naturally be differences depending on whether you’re seeing things through Spanish, French or Portuguese lens, because those languages don’t have an identical vocabulary. Yet Roman polytheism was never uniform. It was a diverse religion with regional and local variations, so different practices and perspectives are not only natural, but well within the historical precedent. And again, once you connect with the Romanitas of today, in this case by means of a language, which is a doorway to culture and History, it’s easier to breathe modern life into an old religion and harder to feel the need to go back in time to get a sense of being Roman.

Many dead, many gods

Parentalia has come and gone, March is here and the Ludi Mercuriales are just one month away. The latter may be the topic of my next piece on Polytheist.com – or at least something related to Mercury in honour of His birthday – but for now, I’ll just post a link to the most recent one:

Some of what is said in it isn’t new. I have addressed the issue of what is a god in previous occasions and also pointed out how History works in a manner that is not akin to Athena’s birth, which rose fully-formed from Her father’s head. But I combine both on the topic of the imperial cult and the divine status of the dead, with a bit of Shinto and a critique of religious re-enactment for good measure. Whether you agree with it or not, enjoy!

The Lares Alcobacenses

Who’s the god of my homeland? There’s more than one god in one place. Who are the genii loci of my native land? The spirits of trees, rocks, hills and beaches, the nymphs of rivers, lakes and woods, those who dwell unseen yet not unfelt along the roads and in fields and orchards. The blood and bone of your ancestors, your blood and bones. What about the dead? The unclaimed wander, the claimed join their families. Many are forgotten, some remembered, but most cannot be severed from the place that embraced their bodies. Your body is a part of you, a trace of you. And when it melts away into the soil, it becomes one with the land, its trees, its rivers, its rocks. The genii loci know you, because a part of you is a part of them. This is a land of your forefathers: the soil has blood and bones of your ancestors, your blood and bone.

Let me be clear and state that the lines above are not from a conversation with a god. I have not been endowed with such an ability. They are simply the sum of my mental notes on the issue of the local gods of my homeland. And after experimenting and considering the matter for two years, I believe I have found the answer I was looking for.

In the western part of the Iberian Peninsula, there are several Roman-period inscriptions and altars dedicated to Lares. Not the horn-raising gods from Roman lararia, but something else, less domestic and even if it can have a link with households. This takes us back to the issue of religious terminology, since the term lar overlaps with genius and deus: there are genii loci or local spirits of both the natural and man-made landscape, but also an individual’s genius and community’s; the Lares can be one’s ancestors, spirits of a place (e.g. crossroads) or maybe both. For instance, the Lares Viales may be genii of pathways, of trees and rocks that stand along them or the spirits of the people who were buried by the roads just outside ancient cities. The word Lar could even be used as a title for a greater god, as in the case of Silvanus (CIL VI 646). I know clear-cut categories are much more comfortable and easier to work with, but that’s not how these things work. God, lar, genius, nymph and so forth are not mutually exclusive terms. They serve practical purposes, yes, and in that sense they’re not mere synonyms of each other, but neither do they stand for entirely or even largely different groups. Genius is a generic word that can be used for all kinds of spirits, including those of living people. God or deus (plural di) is also generic, but refers to non-human and deceased numinous entites: Di Manes (the Divine Dead), Di Parentes (the Divine Relatives), Di Penates (the Household Gods), Di Consentes (the greater or Olympian Gods), Di Inferi (the Infernal or Underworld Gods), Di Conservatores (the Gods who Save or Preserve) and Di Indigetes, which could include small gods like Cardea, who presides over door hinges, or Prema, who supervises sexual embrace. “Good fairies” is how Robert Turcan described some of the Indigetes (Gods of Ancient Rome 2002: 18), but though minor, they, like the dead, are gods or di nonetheless. And the groups can also overlap, since the Infernal may include the Manes and some of the Consentes are also Conservatores. As for nymph, it always refers to a female deity, often associated with water. The goddesses Juturna, Carmenta and Egeria are all at one time described as nymphs and hence also why Brigantia is referred to as one. And She’s not alone in that: the equally British Coventina is referred to as a goddess (Dea Conuentina) and nymph (Nimpha Couentina) (RIB 1526-7). But when in doubt on the specific identity of local gods one wished to address, the generic genii loci was useful, as was the expression sive deus sive dea (whether god or goddess). Mane has an underworld quality to it, whereas Lar appears to be more benign, so while both terms can refer to the spirits of the dead (though not exclusively), the latter seems to summon a non-infernal side or part of the deceased, in as much as they can be worshipped domestically (Family Lares), while the Manes are normally confined to graveyards. As I said before, the terminology is less about clear-cut categories and more about scope and function where divinity is not a privilege of a limited few up on the hierarchy, but a trait of the countless many, both great and minor. As evidenced by the common use of deus/di.

You get a sense of all of this once you start going through the ancient altars dedicated to Lares in the Iberian Peninsula: in the area of Castelo Branco (Portugal), inscriptions have been found to both Di and Lares Cairieses, which were presumably local deities; a similar pattern can be found elsewhere, like in an inscription to the Lares Tarmucenbaecis Cecaecis, found in the region of Chaves (Portugal), which are perhaps the gods or Dii Ceceaigis mentioned further north in the area of Ourense (Galicia, Spain); from Coimbra (Portugal) comes a small altar to the Genius Conimbricae or the geni of the city; the same site also produced pieces to the Lares Aquites, which may have been aquatic gods or nymphs, and the Lares Lubanci, believed to have been tribal gods of a specific local clan; an altar dedicated to the Lares Buricis was found in the district of Braga (Portugal) and they were probably genii loci or local gods, since the area where the piece comes from is known as Bouro; and another example is an altar found in Lugo (Galicia, Spain), which was dedicated to the Lares Gallaeciarum or the Galician Lares.*

So in light of this and after meditating on a few ideas, I have started to address the gods of my ancestral land as Lares Alcobacenses. It is a wide category, vague enough to include countless entities of different sorts, while simultaneously expressing their local nature. They are the genii of the trees, rocks and hills, the nymphs of woods and rivers, the gods of fields and roads. Some may step forward individually and be named accordingly, most may remain an anonymous part of the host; some may be strictly local gods, attached to particular elements of the landscape, while others may be localized aspects of greater gods. I may address them collectively or highlight a specific subgroup, such as the Nymphae Alcobacenses. They are nature and animal spirits, both wild and domesticated, but some may also be human, namely the unclaimed dead and even the deceased who were claimed, yet retain a link to the land they were buried in. A body is a part and trace of someone. Perhaps the three kings, two queens and multiple princes whose remains rest in the local monastery are part of the Lares Alcobacenses. Perhaps the host includes spirits of soldiers who fell in nearby battles or people who died in this area while travelling, making them part of the local Lares Viales – yet another subgroup of the Lares Alcobacenses. And perhaps some of them are ancestors of mine, since my family has been in this region for at least 300 years. Their bodies and those of their animals have melted into the local soil, making it part of my blood and bones. This land is ancestral to me, its earth is tied to my family line in a very physical manner. Of course, this means my Family Lares overlap with the Lares Alcobacenses, but how is that surprising given what was said before? If successive generations stay long enough in a particular area, they become a part of it on a deep level; and a deceased person can be a mane, a family or household god and a genius loci, just as a nymph can be called the latter as well as a goddess. Again, don’t think of it as clear-cut or mutually exclusive categories. Rather accept the terminology as fluid, prone to overlaps, and realize the existing continuum between human and divine in its multiple forms, both greater and lesser. A beautiful expression of that is Camilla’s recent post on a Lar of Iowa City.

This leaves me wondering on where to take the idea of a local cult of Silvanus. I still think He makes perfect sense given the natural and even cultural background of the area. The woods, the rivers and its nymphs, the farming and herding, the nearby large pine forest and the fruit production that’s part of the city’s trademark, all of this resonates with Silvanus’ nature and functions. So instead of taking Him as the local god, perhaps it’s best to enshrine Silvanus as a local deity with a corresponding aspect or epithet. Call Him Lar, something that has historical precedent, maybe even foremost among the Lares Alcobacenses. In that sense, He could work as a representative of strictly local deities, allowing me to honour the gods of my homeland through Him when I’m not in situ and therefore cannot reach the local rivers, trees and hills. It would also give me a date for monthly offerings to the Lares Alcobacenses, which would be on the same day of the month as my annual feast to Silvanus, which, by the way, is something that I’m also reviewing. Obviously, I still have some thinking to do, but things are falling into place.

* All examples from the Iberian Peninsula were taken from Los Dioses de la Hispania Céltica by Juan Pedreño (2002), pages 54, 56-7, 74, 81-2 and 93.

Parentalia schedule

Parentalia, the ancient Roman festival in honour of the family dead, starts tomorrow, 13th of February, and lasts until the 21st, with an additional domestic feast on the 22nd called Caristia. When it comes to ancestor worship, this is the high point of the year for a cultor, but it can also be problematic in its length. What to do during those nine days between the 13th and the 21st? Go to a cemetery in every single one of them? Hit the road and visit multiple graveyards in the area? Or if you’re too busy, do it once on a day of your choosing? These and other questions have been brewing in my mind for some time, so this year, in an effort to make something different and meaningful every day, I decided to create a schedule focused on my ancestors and deities linked to the spirits of the dead. This is still at an experimental stage, but here’s what I’m considering for this year’s Parentalia:

    13th: Libations to Persephone and my ancestors;
    14th: Offerings of wine and wheat on the graves of my ancestors;
    15th: Libations to Mercury;
    16th: Offerings of wine and wheat to my ancestors who are buried far away
    17th: Libations to Hecate
    18th: Offerings of wine and wheat to drowned or lost ancestors
    19th: Libations to the Lares Alcobacenses or genii of my ancestral land
    20th: Offerings to the spirits of family pets and animals
    21st: Libations to Persephone and my ancestors

The point is to give each day a particular focus within the theme of ancestor worship and reach as many family dead as possible. There’s some logic to it, in that it starts and ends with libations to the Queen of the Underworld and my ancestors – like brackets, if you will – leaving the days in between to break it down into several groups: those buried far away, those lost at sea or elsewhere and family pets or animals, alternating with tributes to relevant gods. Depending on how it goes, I may review it completely or make a few minor changes.

Parentalia is immediately followed by Caristia on the 22nd, which is a feast of reconciliation and nurturing of family ties. For some time now, I’ve been looking at the whole season as a model for the overall structure of funeral rites: death (13th), mourning and burial or vice-versa (14-21st), celebration as the dead joins the Family Lares (22nd); death severs ties with a family member, but after the funeral and a period of transition, the ties are renewed as the deceased (or part of him/her) is welcomed by the ancestral Lar. Which is why I’m also thinking of placing a black cloth or ribbon above my Lararium between the 13th and the 21st and then replace it with a flower wreath on the 22nd. Again, all of this is still very experimental.

What I’ve been up to

I’ve been under posting severely, but I haven’t had enough free time to properly write posts. Still, when I reach a certain number followers, I feel an obligation to post regularly, so as a way of breaking my blogging fast and keeping things going, here’s some catching up.

These last few weeks have been very busy with seemingly endless writing about Vikings, medieval texts and Norse mythology, though for work reasons and not related to practicing polytheism. But I’ve going so deep into Scandinavian topics and sources that I started wearing my old Thor’s hammer again. To be honest, I’ve been keeping it in my pocket since last October and when I couldn’t find a good replacement for my broken caduceus pendant, I went back to the little hammer I bought in Sweden almost ten years ago. Surprisingly, I feel perfectly comfortable with it. I expected a sense of displacement, as if I was wearing something that no longer reflected who I am, but no. It feels fine; at some points, it even feels right. Perhaps because religiously I’m still half Norse and professionally I’m focused on medieval Scandinavia, so I guess a Thor’s hammer bought when I made my Masters in Uppsala is appropriate. And also I love a good thunderstorm. Yet I acknowledge that it’s the symbol of the Red Bearded Thunderer, so I’ll be adding libations to Thor on the Ides of every month, when I also honour Jupiter. No intent of syncretising Them, though: as with Frey and His family, I’m Latinizing, in this case by allowing Roman praxis to determine when I honour a Norse god.

I’ve also been working on a long poem dedicated to Ingui, which should be partly devotional, partly ritual and bit narrative too. Basically, I want it to be a poetic summary of His Latin cult, but there’s still a lot of stanzas waiting to be written and I need to perform divination in order to get Frey’s approval on several things. To that end, I brought back something I haven’t used since my long gone days as a Wiccan: a tarot deck! Back then, I bought the Sacred Circle Tarot, which I haven’t used in over a decade, but since I’m not particularly in tune with runes and I need a tool that allows me to contact Frey when there’s need of it, I decided to try using something I already have at home. Ergo, enter the fourth suit of the minor arcana, which works with earth symbolism. It seems appropriate to Him, especially given that the King of Discs sits on a throne with boar heads. Time will tell if it works or not. If it doesn’t, I’ll just have to create a divination system from scratch, which I’m also doing anyway, but for use at the end large ceremonies. This follows the common practice in the ancient world, when lots were drawn or signs looked for in order to determine if the sacrifices had been well received by the Gods. Which is why I want a simpler system than tarot cards for that end, so I’ll be using chest or hazelnuts and enjoy the pun of consulting Ingui’s nuts to know if He enjoyed it. Enjoyed the sacrifice, that is.

Other than that, it’s been mostly regular offerings and ceremonies. On my birthday, I performed a long one with an extensive opening where I honoured ten deities, plus my ancestors, all before the main focus of the ceremony, which was my genius and my penates. Having been born at home, I feel like my house wights are a sort of personal spirits too, so I placed a wreath around Their images. I also ran 10 kilometres in 39 minutes on May 18th as a tribute to Mercury, taking advantage of a local race so close to Mercuralia. And I’m getting into the habit of making small sand ships by the ocean and then pour wheat in them as an offering to Njord. It just feels great after a good sunny afternoon on the beach, coupled with an offering of honey to Ingui-Frey every Sunday morning. That and throwing a coin into the air and let it fall wherever it may as a tribute to Mercury before I head back home on my bike. And as I pedal, as I go through fields and pass next to wooded hills, I may see kingfishers, hawks, crows or herons flying next or over me.

Honouring the Gods through our everyday pleasures and smiles feels great!

A bird from the west

Today, the last day of Parentalia, I once again visited the grave of some of my ancestors. I left flowers and a burning candle, offered them wheat and poured wine on the stone slab. I then went to the outskirts of the city to make further offerings, this time to the spirits of family pets and animals. Dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, birds – all of those whose lives were shared with those of my ancestors and were, in one way or another, part of the household and family.

On the top of a slope overlooking a river, I saluted the Earth by kissing the tips of my fingers and touching the soil. I offered Her a handful of wheat and then gave Mercury Psychopomp a libation of wine, asking both the Earth Herself and the God of the Golden Staff to be my intermediaries. On the ground, as I uttered a prayer, I then poured fresh water, as well as dog and cat biscuits, as an offering to the animal spirits. I finished with two handfuls of wheat, one to the Earth and another to Mercury. It was a simple tribute, no more than a few minutes long, though I may come to make it more elaborate in the future.

As I left, I looked back and saw a large bird flying. It wasn’t around when I made the offerings and neither did it stop on the site. It just came flying from the west and turned around when it flew over the place where I had honoured the spirits of my family pets and animals. And then it went westwards, back to where it came from. It flapped its wings too many times to be a bird of prey and both the neck and beak resembled that of a duck. Considering that and its dark colour, it may have been a great cormorant, though the fact that the sea is ten kilometres away makes me unsure about it. But whatever the species, the timing and pattern of the flight made me wonder: did it have anything to do with the tribute to the animal spirits or was it a coincidence? An omen or just a bird flying? Maybe tonight’s dreams will have an answer.

Honouring the Dead

Parentalia started yesterday and, after the usual morning offerings to my Lares, Penates and Jupiter on the Ides, I also went to a local graveyard and attended the needs of some otherworldly family members. I cleaned the stone slab and flower pot, preparing it for fresh greenery in the weekend, when the almost daily torrential rains are expected to stop and a warm sun to shine. I then poured fresh water over the grave, water I asked Anubis to bless a few days ago during this year’s Cynocephalia, and finally made an offering of wheat and wine, which flowed all over the stone slab and dripped along the edges.

In the next few days, I’ll be repeating the gesture, adding flowers, honey and possibly some music, but I also want to honour my family members who are buried elsewhere, in places that I cannot visit before the 22nd of February. To that end, today I’ll be going to an open field on the edge of the city and pour wine and wheat on the soil. For the earth has taken the bodies of my ancestors, in one way of another, so I ask Her to be my intermediate. I’ll also be pouring offerings on one of the local rivers, in honour of drowned family members, ’cause chances are that, at some point in the past, at least one of my ancestors probably died at sea or on water (sailing, riverside battles, accidents, etc.). Parentalia is also a good time to pay homage to Mercury Psychopomp; actually, I’d say He’s a god to turn to when honouring ancestors who are buried elsewhere or in an unknown location.

I’m also considering doing something connected to Ingui-Frey as Lord of Elves, namely honouring house elves or Byggvir and Beyla on the 21st in preparation for the Caristia. Sort of cleaning the house and getting food ready for the feast on the 22nd, but this is me attempting to integrate a Norse-inspired celebration into a Roman festive calendar, so it’s still work in progress.