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.

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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.