Roman polytheism: an extended definition

There’s been a fair amount of talk on the polytheist and pagan corners of Twitter recently about ethnicity, identity, religion and gatekeeping, particularly regarding Hellenic polytheism, and part of it has spilled into the blogosphere, originating posts like this one. Now, I will not tell others how to define and structure their religions, though I may express my views on it, but the whole debate caused me to look closely at my own and where it converges or diverges from what was being put forward on Twitter. And that eventually led me to a definition of modern Roman polytheism that is more extensive than the one I’ve been using so far and which goes like this:

Roman polytheism is the worship of many gods, Roman and others, according to Roman ritual tradition, without a prescribed orthodoxy, without a defined moral doctrine and within a romance cultural context.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s take it bit by bit:

1. Worship of many gods, Roman and others
It’s not a religion restricted to a single pantheon, but open to any deity from anywhere, though one may, if one so wishes, focus solely on traditionally Roman gods. And this trait means that it cannot be defined as the religion of those who worship, follow or work with the Roman gods, since that would be incomplete – it can equally be the worship of other deities – and also non-sensical, since those same gods can and are worshipped in other religions as well.

I keep insisting on this point, but clearly I need to: we’re not in a Abrahamic-like context where belief in one set of gods excludes belief in all others and therefore if you believe in them and/or worship them, then you’re necessarily of a specific religion. This is rather an open game, not a zero-sum one. Belief alone may not be sufficiently indicative – it may not even be enough to qualify you as a polytheist – and the same gods can be worshipped differently in different traditions. Therefore, belief in and worship of Roman gods doesn’t automatically make you a Roman polytheist. It can just as easily make you a wiccan, if you do it the wiccan way.

2. According Roman ritual tradition
What makes one a Roman polytheist is, simply put, how one worships the gods, i.e., what are the ritual rules that shape one’s religious practices. In other words, it’s an orthopraxic religion, but what exactly is meant by a modern Roman praxis is still somewhat fluid and my own views on some details have changed. This is, after all, something that’s being revived, not inherited from the past in an unbroken tradition, so there are gaps in our knowledge and changes in context – political, social and cultural – that are bound to have an impact. Still, if I had to list what makes a modern Roman orthopraxy, based on History and present practices among fellow cultores, I’d say the following:

a) Marking the Calends, Nones and Ides of each month, determined either through lunar phases or fixed solar dates, as per the Julian calendar or the Gregorian one. And honouring particular deities on each of those days: Janus and Juno on the Calends, Jupiter on the Ides, the Family Lares on all three. This is just the bare minimum and there’s nothing preventing one from adding other deities to those being worshipped on any or all of those dates or even from having other monthly sacrifices, according to one’s personal devotions, local or regional traditions, domestic or communal practices, culture or philosophical persuasion;

b) In every ceremony in Roman rite, even if only a semi-formal one, the head must be covered with a piece of cloth, Janus is one of the first deities being honoured and Vesta one of the last. Again, this is just the bare minimum and there’s nothing preventing one from adding other deities to the opening and closing sections of a ceremony, as per personal, local, regional, domestic or communal devotions or traditions, culture and philosophical persuasion;

c) Maintaining a distinction between celestial, terrestrial and domestic deities or divine aspects on one side, and infernal ones on the other: the main hand with which ritual gestures are performed for the former is the right, for the latter it’s the left hand; food given to the former can be consumed by the living after being deconsecrated, that given to the latter cannot; offerings to the former are burned either at home or on a raised altar or fire, those to the latter are burned or buried in a pit;

d) Ritual fire is preferred for burning offerings to most deities – watery ones may be an exception – and should be used whenever possible. If resorting to fire is truly impossible, consecrated offerings should be deposited in meaningful and appropriate places;

e) Before a ceremony is concluded, one must ascertain the gods’ (dis)satisfaction through divination or simply give an expiatory offering;

f) And at least in more formal ceremonies, the main offerings – i.e. those given to the deity to whom the sacrifice is dedicated – are consecrated by being sprinkled with wheat, wheat flour or salted wheat flour, together with a small prayer that is up to you, your family or community to construct;

g) Finally, ceremonies call for physical cleanliness, so at the very least you should previously wash your hands and face.

If you do all of these things – not just some, but all – and if they constitute at least the majority of your religious practices, then in my book at least you’re a Roman polytheist, even if the gods you worship are almost all of them non-Roman. Though, mind you, some of them will necessarily be, because, as listed above, the orthopraxy requires monthly sacrifices to Janus, Juno and Jupiter, as well as opening and closing offerings to Janus and Vesta, so even if all others are of different traditional pantheons, you’ll still be worshipping many gods, Roman and others.

3. Without a prescribed orthodoxy
If ancient Roman polytheism had an orthopraxy, it did not have an orthodoxy and the same should hold true for the modern version of the religion. It doesn’t mean there were and are no religious beliefs, no faith, but simply that they’re not regulated and can vary depending on individual or group experiences, traditions, culture and philosophical persuasion.

Are the gods mortal or immortal? Are they morally perfect or imperfect? Do they communicate with us humans, how so and to what end? Are there other gods of which we know nothing? Is deity A the same as deity B or are they distinct? How do you define a deity and what entities do you include in the definition? Is there a soul? If so, what is it and how does it operate? Is there an afterlife? If so, how does it work and what does it entail?

These and other questions are open to interpretation and different cultores will have different answers for them. And that’s okay! They’ll still be polytheists if they believe in and worship many gods, they’ll still be my coreligionists if they worship them the Roman way and that constitutes the majority of one’s religious practices. Simply put, Roman polytheism is a religion that can include many philosophies and theologies, not just one that’s elevated to the status of universal orthodoxy. Different individuals, groups, families and communities will have their own heterodoxies – rightly, legitimately so!

Now, in case you’re wondering, doesn’t the necessary belief in many gods in order for one to be a polytheist constitute a regulated doxa? And the answer is that believing in many deities relates to the basic concept of the religious category that is polytheism. In other words, it precedes the definition of Roman polytheism, which is born out of that category and its defining criteria, so belief is already assumed. If you – freely and legitimately – do not fit those same criteria, then you’re not in the general category of polytheism; if you do, the next step is to determine which type of polytheism is yours, which is where specific religions and their definitions come in.

4. Without a defined moral doctrine
This is perhaps the most contentious point, because we’re used to equating religion with morality. But ancient Roman polytheism had no sacred scriptures and so lacked a mechanism by which it could fix a moral doctrine – and hence an orthodoxy, by the way. Sure, there were plenty of people who would write texts praising or admonishing human behaviour and there were traditional customs and norms that determined what was (im)proper. Here’s the thing, though…

There’s a tendency to mistake the part for the whole. Often, we read someone like Cicero or Seneca and assume what they say about gods and morals to be a universal doxa of Roman polytheism, but that’s a fallacy. What Cicero and others wrote were their perspectives, those of members of the elite with a particular philosophical persuasion. They were certainly shared by others, but were not universal, not mandatory. They were not the official teachings of Roman polytheism.

In other words, those texts people wrote were not scripture, but individual opinions based either on the philosophical school the author adhered to or on the traditional norms and customs of his community. But different people had different philosophical persuasions, so just like in the matter of orthodoxy this would result in theological diversity; you could get different views on what was (im)proper. Or if views on morality were based on traditional norms, apart from the possibility of clashing with philosophical perspectives, they are naturally open to change as society itself changes.

So no crystallization, no universal source, no absolute views. Whatever values were upheld could of course be religiously expressed, as in the cult to specific virtues, but as mentalities and thus values evolve, so does its religious expression, either through a reinterpretation of old forms or a creation (or calling) of new ones.

Just as a lack of orthodoxy simply means that Roman polytheists have no regulated beliefs, so too the lack of a defined moral doctrine merely results in the absence of regulated, universal gods-given code of conduct for everyday behaviour. Rather, it varies along the same lines as belief. Divine inspiration is a factor, granted, but it’s inspiration, not decrees, and different deities inspire different things, together with inputs of a philosophical, cultural, communal or social nature. And if morality is not a matter of divine commandments, of what the gods (don’t) want us to do in our everyday lives, then it becomes an issue of human society, to be discussed and determined by its members in all their diversity. Simply put, morality is a social issue, not a religious one, not one that is determined by religion – though it can be expressed through it.

5. Within a romance cultural context
Here’s another thing about ancient Roman polytheism: it was indistinguishable from communal life and identity. It wasn’t a religion one picked and thus converted to, but one you were born into, inheriting the corresponding family and hence religious and civic duties. And by that measure, it was a culturally tied religion. Having it meant having specific social and political ties, but also, at least to some extent, a specific language and culture.

This poses challenges to the modern Roman polytheist. For one, the idea that it’s something inherent to one’s family, State and culture clashes with modern religious liberty, which is predicated on the individual’s right to choose a religion or none and on a separation between citizenship and religious affiliation. And then there’s the historical fact that Roman political and cultural unity no longer exists: what used to be the empire fragmented into multiple States and the Latin language and culture followed suit, fragmenting into regional dialects out of which were born the modern-day romance languages.

In practical, Roman terms, this dissolves whatever one-on-one link one might want to establish between religion, culture and nationality. Whereas the term Hellene is tied to a single country (Greece) or ethnicity (Greek), thus allowing for an overlap of different layers of identity – religious, cultural and national – no such simple correspondence exists in the case of Roman polytheism, because there is not just one, but many Latin languages and cultures: Portuguese, Asturleonese, Castilian, Aragonese, Catalan, Occitan, French, Romansh, Sardinian, Ligurian, Italian, Romanian – and several others, plus extra-European varieties brought about by Europe’s colonization of Africa, Asia and America. If one is to have modern Roman polytheism culturally tied, then it will be a much more universal religion than its ancient version thanks to the development and global expansion of multiple Latin languages and cultures.

But should it be culturally tied? My answer is yes. Unlike a political connection, which might clash with modern freedom of religion, a cultural link is both consistent with the past and entirely possible within the modern context, especially when one considers that culture isn’t genetic, but acquired, and so anyone who isn’t native to one can put the effort to adopt it.

Mind you, having a Latin culture alone won’t make you a Roman polytheist, otherwise every single Portuguese, Spanish, French or Italian person would inherently be one. The defining criterion is the adoption of the orthopraxy, not your nationality, ethnicity or even beliefs. But culture provides you with a context: a Latin language to use in religious ceremonies; a net of traditions and customs to be blended with your practices and infuse them with an everyday quality by virtue of being part a living, everyday culture, not a recreation or re-enactment of a long-gone city-State and its social apparatus.

A note on colonialism
Whereas the cultural link may come naturally for Europeans, it may not be so for those elsewhere in the world, because there European languages and cultures are the product of colonialism and its violent erasure of native civilizations. For those in that situation, the options are multiple: not be a Roman polytheist, which is legitimate; be of dual tradition, practicing Roman polytheism along side, but separate from native religions; or go for a blending of the two at some level, where you resort to the orthopraxy, contextualize it in a Latin culture (e.g. Spanish) and worship Roman and non-Roman gods together.

As an example, that’s kind of what I do, though at a much greater chronological distance. You see, Latin wasn’t native to the Iberian peninsula, but was brought over by conquering Roman armies and settlers, who supplanted native identities, languages and cultures. Basques are probably all that remains of pre-Roman Iberia, and then there were later invasions and subsequent additional cultural layers being added. So by linking my Roman polytheist practice with my native Portuguese context, the result is naturally a blend: there are elements of Arab culture in it (namely in vocabulary and cooking), because the Portuguese are partly Arabized Latinos, and the pantheon is naturally mixed, with traditional Roman deities being worshipped alongside pre-Roman ones. Take Reue for instance, whom I see as a member of Jupiter’s retinue, or Quangeio, Mercury’s companion in my western Iberian cult to Maia’s son.

And just to add a picture

Roman polytheism

So to sum it up, belief in and worship of many gods makes you a polytheist as a general category, worshipping according to the Roman ritual praxis makes you a Roman polytheist and a Latin language and culture, either native or acquired, provides for a cultural context that ties your religious practice to a living, everyday culture derived from that of the ancient version of the religion. As expressed in a simplified form in the scheme above.

Will this result in a very diverse religion, with different theologies, different philosophies, different views on what’s moral and immoral and tied to different cultures and languages, since there so many options, and thus with national or regional specificities? Certainly! But why should that be a problem? And how does that break with a past that was also diverse, with different families, cities, provinces and communities having their own specific practices? This is unity in diversity, unity through a common basic ritual practice, not unity in uniformity.

New Year gestures

Stepping in with the right foot is one of those small modern superstitions with ancient roots that expresses a timeless valuation of the idea of a good start. And faithful to that notion, the first days of the new year are to me a time for multiple ritual gestures that, taken together, aim at a kind of entry with the right foot in the new twelve months’ cycle. Starting, of course, with the January 1st ceremony, which is one of the longest in my practices.

A long list
In normal conditions, when I mark a date of monthly relevance – like the Nones or Ides – the corresponding ceremony takes about 10 to 15 minutes, as it’s a simplification of my Roman rite, which I reserve for annual festivities and usually extends the ceremony up to 30 minutes. I repeat: in normal conditions. When it’s an exceptional occasion, it can last one hour or more

That was the case with this year’s New Year ceremony. Not because something different happened, though 2017 was fortunate in various aspects, as with the publication of my first book and the conclusion of another. Rather, the length of January 1st ceremony has to do with the number of deities it honours, which has been growing in the last few years and this time reached sixteen, plus the Family Lares and Penates. Almost all of them are recipients of specific prayers and offerings, which naturally takes times – and firewood, while we’re it, since the fire needs to keep on burning regardless of the amount of beverage it’s poured on it.

Structurally, the ceremony is identical to those of other annual festivities, with a beginning and end with tributes to Janus, Vesta and Jupiter and, in between, an invitation, prayer and giving of consecrated offerings to the main deity – in this case, Janus. As with other annual celebrations that occur in days of monthly relevance, there’s also a moment when I burn the Calends’ offerings that were given to Janus, Juno, the Family Lares and Penates during the morning prayers. And then, where in normal conditions the closing gestures would follow, there was yet a list of fourteen individual deities who were honoured with two offerings each, the first as a general tribute and the second with a specific request for the new year.

They are Mercury, Maia, Quangeio, Juno, Hercules, Minerva, Diana, Apollo, Silvanus, Nabia, Jupiter, Fortuna, Spes and Freyr, adding, I repeat, to the Family Lares and Penates, who also get a wreath that’s hanged over the fireplace. In the case of Maia and Silvanus, the offerings are not cast into the ritual fire, but poured into small circular bowls with soil, in harmony with the terrestrial identity of those two deities. Though, truth be told, I’m increasingly seeing Mercury’s mother as a goddess who has a celestial side as well, largely due to Her mythological link to one of the starts of the Pleiades. And speaking of liminality, note the inclusion of Freyr, who normally is worshipped according to an independent rite that fuses Norse and Latin elements, but exceptionally receives offerings according to Roman praxis on New Year. For practical reasons, if nothing else.

The feats of pathways
Then on the fourth day of January, there’s Vialia, which is not an ancient celebration, but rather a modern creation of my doing that’s focused on Mercury and the Lares Viales. Its sense is clear: to honour the god of pathways and His divine host and ask Them, in a more literal fashion, for safety on the road during the year and, in a more metaphoric way, help clearing the paths to success. Of course, with me being a Mercury devotee, the date also has a personal relevance.

Ready for the Vialia ceremony, 2018.

Thus, on the morning of the 4th, as in the morning of the day before, which was the first Wednesday of the month, I offered a candle, anise, cinnamon, wine and flowers to the son of Maia. Then I performed a formal ceremony where I paid tribute first to Mercury and then the Lares Viales with identical offerings: small crackers, raisins, walnut, honey, cinnamon and wine. Both also got flowers, though in different formats, since to Mercury I gave a wreath that now stands in His domestic shrine, whereas the Lares Viales were given a mixture of petals, leafs and wheat which, after the ceremony was over, were cast onto the roads in small portions during a walk. Ideally, I would have done it during a bike ride, so I could cover a greater distance and erect a few cairns along the way, but because it was raining, I ended up adjusting to a tour on foot around the edges of the city and with a few stops at crossroads and intersections.

Apollo and Janus again
There are two more formal ceremonies before concluding the celebrations of the New Year: Apotropalia on the 7th of January and Agonalia on the 9th.

The former is yet another modern festivity of my doing and it’s focused on Apollo, here as a protector and provider of health whose blessings are requested for the new year. The ceremony in His honour follows Greek rite and includes a wreath that’s offered to the god and then hanged over the house door. As for Agonalia, that’s an ancient festivity, in this case dedicated to Janus, who is thus, appropriately, the one who opens and closes the New Year celebrations. The offerings that were made to Him on January 1st, as well as the requests, are repeated in the Agonalia ceremony.

Atlas’ daughter
Of course, adding to this are the monthly offerings that are given in a regular fashion, in this case to Nabia on the 9th and Jupiter, as well as the Family Lares and Penates, on the 13th.

On the latter day, I’ll start honouring Mercury’s mother also, since in the Iberian cult that I’m constructing She’s the only member of the triad that’s yet without regular offerings. And the Ides seem to me like the most appropriate day for it, partly because She’s a mountain nymph and thus with a symbolic link to the peak of the month, just like Jupiter, and also as a reference to the May 15th Mercuralia, which to me is increasingly a festivity in honour of Maia. There’s also an allusion to Mercury’s parents, though I’m unsure about the relation between Zeus and Jupiter. And because, as said before, Atlas’ daughter has for me a certain liminality, having both a terrestrial and a celestial side – which, by the way, is appropriate for a mountain nymph – maybe I’ll alternate in the way I give Her monthly offerings, using the ritual fire in one month and a bowl with soil on the next one. Something that is also appropriate considering the overlap with the Roman Maia.

What’s the use of it all?
Okay, so all of this is lovely, long and probably complex. But what’s it good for, anyway? Am I hoping to have a 2018 without bumps on the road, bad luck, bad news, illnesses or problems, just because I performed a string of ceremonies with plenty of offerings in the first days of January?

The answer is no, I’m not. I mean, it would be good if I could have that rosy scenario and I’ll gladly take it if it’s available, thank you. But as said here and here, a polytheistic system tends to be decentralized, without a single god in control of everything, but with multiple deities with interests and goals that are different, if not contradictory. Therefore, I’m not expecting that those I pay tribute to in the New Year can or will do everything, but I hope – or at least ask – that they’ll lend their hand, even if only as a reaction to something they cannot prevent, but can at least help to overcome. A bit like friends and family, from whom I don’t expect assistance or solutions for everything, but do hope they’ll be present when it matters the most, even if only to help reacting to unfortunate events that neither I nor they can avoid.