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.

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.