The dog-bearer’s day

Tell me the story of when Mercury found baby Quangeio abandoned by the road and the son of Maia took Him in, carrying Him in His arms to Olympus.

In June, I wrote this post on the general outline of a modern Iberian cult to Mercury as part of the revival of ancient Roman polytheism in the present world, its regionalization – a process that also existed in the past – and the necessary creation of new elements, be it due to the modern context or the absence of information that forces one to fill in the blanks. In short and to resume the analogy, a religion that’s like an old tree, simultaneously rooted in the distant past and thus tied to it, but whose branches stretch out into the present sky organically.

1. The ideas
At the time, I referred to Mercury, Maia and Quangeio as the central figures of that cult, together with the Lares Viales as divine host, and mentioned that each would have at least one annual festivity. Well then, that of the third member of the triad takes place tomorrow, August 24th, under the name of Caniferalia – the feast of the dog bearer.

As far as I know, the term is a neologism, made from the combination of the Latin words canis (dog) and fero (bring, bear), and it alludes to a myth that’s still in its early sketches, where Mercury adopts the Iberian dog god Quangeio after finding Him abandoned by the side of a road. Obviously, it’s not an historical event, but a narrative meant to codify the relationship between the two deities and, at the same time, convey an ethical component that’s specific to the cult (though not necessarily to the rest of Roman polytheism).

Simultaneously, the date also serves to celebrate Quangeio’s rise to the status of prince among the Lares Viales and thus a foremost member of the divine host, something that in time will also have a corresponding myth. And taken together, all of this adds multiple layers of meaning to the festivity: at the most basic level, it’s a celebration of a canine god and as such a sort of day of dogs; but because Quangeio is a member of the triad of the cult I’m constructing, the date also highlights His relationship with Mercury and the Lares Viales; and then both lines of meaning connect through the dog as a protector and companion of wayfarers and Mercury’s cynophilia as transmitted by the myth, linking back to Caniferalia’s basic sense of a day of dogs.

There’s still an additional meaning connected to the mercurial cycle of four annual festivities on the fourth day of January, April, July and October, but that’s a topic for another post somewhere down the road, once the notions I’m playing with are clearer.

2. The actions
So much for the ideas, but what about the practical dimension of the Caniferalia? What gestures and actions should mark the feast? The most obvious is a formal ceremony in Roman rite, to which one can add more informal offerings in small shrines, whether they’re in or outdoors, by the road or in more isolated locations. Things like libations of wine, wheat, wreaths or incense. And of course, in any one of those moments, small homages to Mercury, Maia and the Lares Viales are also appropriate.

The obvious acts of worship can be supplemented with more mundane gestures that still have a religious dimension in the context of the Caniferalia. Consider, for instance, offering gifts or exceptional treats to your dogs, taking them out for a walk to different or special places, giving them an afternoon of fun and games on a beach or field, making a donation in money or goods to an animal shelter, if possible adopting a dog or, preferably at the end of the day, visiting canine graves. The dog’s symbolic universe is vast and it includes the Underworld or the journey to it.

Finally, being a festivity of a cult centred on Mercury Viator and the Lares Viales, the simple gesture of leaving food or water on a street or by a road for stray dogs also has a strong religious charge, especially if it’s done next to cairns where on also pours offerings to Maia’s son and the Lares Viales. Just be careful with the distance from the road so as to avoid animals being run over while eating and don’t leave plastic containers or tin foil outdoors.

3. Just a final point
Of course, most of this – almost all of it, actually – is modern. But that’s inevitable when dealing with a god like Quangeio, on whom little is known, meaning that worshipping Him in the modern world requires one to innovate in order to produce something that’s living and functional in the present day. The same goes for the idea of a western Iberian cult of Mercury: in the past, Roman gods were not worshipped uniformly throughout Europe, but had local and regional variations and cults, which is what I’m attempting to give form to. Tradition here comes essentially in the form of ritual practices, gods and dynamics.


Outline of a trail

Reviving pre-Christian religions isn’t easy. It’s not enough to do things as they were in past and it’s not just due to the many gaps in our knowledge: even if we had all the information, we wouldn’t be able to fully implement it today given how much the world has changed throughout the centuries, culturally and socially. No use crying about that. Different times call for different religions – in one form or another – and a mere imitation of the past risks being anachronic, fossilized or, worst-case scenario, destructive because of its inability to be part of the present. History has plenty of examples of projects that advocated a return to a purer, often romanticized past as a solution for modern problems, but which ended up badly because trying to simply turn back the clock has costs. Material and human. Yet if the goal is to find a modern place for ancient religions, just as the Renaissance retrieved classical culture to give it a new place in a new time or the Enlightenment revived classical systems and laid the foundations for modern democracy, then the idea of different religions for a different time has to be nuanced. Specifically, it needs a significant continuity with the past, a substantial link that goes beyond the superficial sameness of names, aesthetic or gods so it can actually be a revival, even if a modern one.

The general fundamentals
This amounts to a balance between the old and the new. You have to study what information there is about the former, set aside or adapt that which is incompatible with the modern world, structure what remains as basic dynamics and then let the rest of the edifice grow organically entwined with the present, while still within the boundaries of traditional principles. Even if that growth leads to something new, which is only to be expected, since living things naturally evolve, multiply and diversify. So long as it remains within the basics inherited from the past that make up the fundamental features of today’s revived religion, that’s okay. The analogy I like to use is that of an old tree, its roots buried deep into the distant past, but branches rising and growing freely in the present. If roots alone are all there is – because all that matters is the old – then it’s just a dead stump; if there’s only branches – because the new is what truly matters – it’s not even a tree. You need both to revive ancient religions in the modern world and let them grow as a living part of today’s reality, not an imitation of yesterday’s.

This isn’t easy. It’s one thing to articulate it theoretically, but quite another to turn it into a practical reality. And there’s plenty of subjectivity in it, a lot of room for personal preferences to play a role, which means you can end up with something that, while being a blend of old and new within the traditional framework of a given pre-Christian religion, it may not be the kind of mixture others would have done. Yet generally speaking, that too is okay. If there are many gods with different agendas and if many of them are not monolithic, but possess rich and diverse characters they reveal variously to various people, then it stands to reason that there will be multiple cults within a single religion, not just to different gods, but also to different forms or perspectives of the same deity. When dealing with polytheistic religions, expect abundant diversity, even when there’s a well-studied and structured traditional basis.

If by now you’re wondering where I’m going with this, here’s the onion: when I reopened this blog back in April, I said I would post texts on an Iberian cult of Mercury. This is it! This is the first of those posts! I just laid out the general theory of something that I’m working on that will have to be modern – due to context and a severe scarcity of information – but also west-Iberian in nature and at the same time firmly within the revival of Roman polytheism. And even though it’s still in its very early sprouts, some of its basic outlines have been taking shape for sometime now and I feel comfortable enough to put them out there – at least in a preliminary fashion.

Roadside sign pointing the way to Santiago de Compostela, complete with a cairn. Source

A trail in the making
The most obvious feature of that new cult is its main god, which is Mercury, specifically Mercury the Wayfarer. He forms a triad with his mother Maia and the Iberian god Quangeio, leading the divine host of Lares Viales, of whom the former is queen and the latter a foremost member.

Since it’s intended to be a branch of modern Roman polytheism, rites are performed according to the orthopraxy, which includes the marking of the Calends, Nones and Ides, and so Janus, Juno and Jupiter are naturally part of the pantheon as well. Other deities of interest to the mercurial cult I’m constructing are Silvanus and Proserpina, the former being a supplier of shade and food for travellers, but potentially also a funerary god. That part is yet in its initial sketch and so the exact role of the Queen of the Underworld is still undefined, but I’m eyeing new forms of burial practices, like bio urns or the capsula mundi.

In keeping with the numerical symbolism of the mercurial universe, there are four main yearly festivals, all on a fourth day: one in January (Vialia), another in April (Mercury’s birthday), then July (Peregrinalia) and finally October (name yet uncertain, currently leaning towards Momentalia). There’s a symbolic charge and philosophical sense to all of them, but more on that in a future post, as that part too is yet in its very early infancy. And apart from the big four dates, there are other celebrations throughout the year, one for each of the members of the cult’s pantheon, which translate into monthly offerings in the case of Maia (the Ides) and Quangeio (the 24th day), adding to Mercury’s on the first Wednesday of every month.

The choice of focusing on the Swift One’s wayfaring side isn’t accidental, since that’s where He meets the Lares Viales, who were very popular in ancient Galicia. Making them his divine host is therefore a very solid way of constructing an Iberian cult of Mercury, even more so when northwest Iberia remains a land deeply tied to wayfaring, even if today’s practice is eminently Catholic and focused on the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. But rather than rejecting that religious continuum that ties the pre-Christian past with the Christian present, I’m going to drink from it by making the scallop one of the symbols of the mercurial cult I’m working on, though perhaps with a few changes to make a distinction from the Catholic use of the shell.

Another obvious Iberian element is Quangeio’s place in the triad. His relationship with Mercury is not entirely clear to me and it may go from deep friendship and devotion, in the likes perhaps of Hanuman’s to Rama, to an intimate companionship of a more erotic tone (or both!). It’s something that’s yet to be determined and requires a good deal of interaction with the two gods before settling things a bit more. What seems safer to say, at least at this point, is that Quangeio can be a foremost deity among the Lares Viales, like a second in command, and fulfill a role that includes much of the wide range of the canine symbolism: the guardian, the provider, the companion, the healer, the guide. All of them tied in some way to the road, but also to daily life – just like Mercury. Eventually, I should start writing stories that codify their relationship in a narrative fashion.

Maia too adds to the Iberian identity, though in a less obvious way. As Mercury’s mother, She’s a natural candidate for a position in the triad, but what adds an extra to her role in the cult I’m structuring is the old and strong presence of the divine feminine in western Iberian religiousness. Fatima’s is today’s most obvious manifestation of it, but before that it was Our Lady of Conception, who was crowned Queen of Portugal in 1646, and Our Lady of Nazareth, who was highly popular, and even earlier there were goddesses like Nabia and Ataécina. Therefore, adding Maia to the triad, highlighting her role as mother of the cult’s main god and queen of his host, brings together the mythological tradition from Antiquity and an easily assimilable Iberian overtone.

Finally, on the same territorial note, the preferred languages for ritual purposes are naturally Portuguese, Galician-Portuguese and Mirandese, with Latin and Spanish being closely related alternatives, though there’s nothing wrong in using others, including English. It’s just a preference that highlights the Iberian identity of the cult, but given that its main deity is the polyglot Mercury, any language can be used if needed.

This is just getting started
As said, these are still the very early stages in the formation of a new cult within the modern revival of Roman polytheism. I’m sort of making it a life-long work, to be honest, but life is short and unpredictable, so I’m putting this out there now and will be adding pieces as I construct or review them. Ultimately – and hopefully – I expect to gather it all in a single book, complete with ritual formulas, basic layout for sacred spaces, tales and lists of symbols, among other things. But that’s an end-goal and there’s a long road ahead before I reach that point. It has to be a deep-rooted tree with living branches that stretch out organically to the modern sky, but that takes time and the journey is as important as the destination, if not more.

A new beginning

So, as promised early this year, this blog has been restructured, reviewed and redefined. The About section has been changed and expanded, the pages on Roman polytheism have been tweaked and added to and there’s a whole new menu on Iberian gods. This is now a much more mercurial, much more western European site, oriented towards an Iberian cult of Mercury, as expressed in the addendum to the First Rites and explained in the first page of the About section. April has come, the Fleet-Footed’s birthday with it and it’s a good time for a new beginning! And also a new laptop, since mine called it quits on the eve of April’s Fool. Guess the joke was on me, but that sort of comes with the job when you’re a devotee of a trickster. A toast to the son of Maia and his divine Iberian host!

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.

The world of the Wayfarers

Of the many gods worshipped as Lares in the ancient Roman world – and there were many of Them, some of a strictly local nature – there were the Lares Viales, which I’m sure you’ve heard about before if you’ve been following this blog for some time now. They’re closely related and sometimes undistinguishable from the Lares Compitales, for the obvious reason that while the former preside over the viae or roads, the latter rule the compitia or crossroads. Hence in his De Lingua Latina – book 6, chapter 25 – Varro says the Compitalia is a celebration in honour of the Lares Viales. This, by the way, is one of the few written references to Them in Roman sources, the other being Plautus’ Mercator, line 865, though in that instance there appears to be no confusion with other Lares. But whereas the Compitales where the object of a public cult, both before and after the Augustan reform of 7 BCE, and thus were given multiple shrines in Rome (Beard et al. 2010: 184), no such attention appears to have been awarded to the Lares Viales, which probably explains why there’s only one known altar to Them in Rome (CIL VI 36812). Of course, this doesn’t mean that They had few worshippers – at least not necessarily – but simply that the structures and shrines dedicated to the Lares Viales may have been of a more common and hence less perennial nature. Think of plain cairns, for instance, which are a natural expression of a wayfaring cult with no official status or wealthy patrons. A similar scarcity of pieces is true for the rest of the old Roman world, with one notable exception.

Physical traces
In total, there are thirty six known altars dedicated to the Lares Viales. Apart from the aforementioned example from Rome, there’s a second piece from Italy (CIL XI 3079), one from Dacia (CIL III 1422), another from Morocco (CIL VIII 9755) and one from Gaul (CIL XII 4320). There’s also three from the eastern half of the Iberian Peninsula (AE 1903 185; CIL II 2987) and then a whopping twenty eight altars in the northwest corner of the region, mostly in modern-day Galicia (Franco Maside 2002: 218-9).

Places where altars to the Lares Viales were found.

Places where altars to the Lares Viales were found.

The exact reason for this disproportion is unclear, but it may be connected to the late Romanization of northern Iberia, for while the south was conquered by Rome by the start of the second century BCE, it was only two hundred years later that the Asturias and surrounding regions were subdued. And unsurprisingly, such a chronological discrepancy carries cultural consequences, in that the south was already well within the Roman world by the time the north was entering it. William van Andringa noted as much, pointing out that religious practices reflected more closely those of Rome in long-conquered provinces like Baetica (southern Spain): in Tucci, Hercules, Jupiter Optimus Maximus and Pietas Augusta were popular, as were Diana, Venus, Libertas Augusta, Mars Augustus and the Lares Augustorum in Singili Barba. But in Lugo, Galicia, during the Roman period, a myriad of native Iberian gods were worshipped alongside Jupiter (van Andringa 2011: 86). No surprise then that Portela Filgueiras suggested that, in northwest Iberia, the Lares Viales and the king of the gods fulfilled the same role as the imperial cult elsewhere, i.e. were a religious expression of loyalty towards the Roman State (1984: 157). On that note and despite the fact that her work is three decades old and may therefore be somewhat outdated, it is nonetheless worth mentioning that Portela Filgueiras found no archaeological traces of the Lares Augusti being worshipped in Galicia and only two for the Lares Romani (or four, if you consider the borders of Roman Galicia, which included northern Portugal). And that’s despite the fact that over two dozen pieces dedicated to those two divine groups have been found elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula (Portela Filgueiras 1989: 161).

If they fulfilled the role of the imperial cult, then the popularity of the Lares Viales in ancient Galicia was an early or at best intermediate stage in a process of cultural assimilation. Had it started earlier or lasted longer, beyond Christianization, and perhaps the Lares Augusti would have become more popular in the region and maybe even displace the Lares Viales. But to thus conclude that Their popularity was just a product of a political scheme is to barely scratch the surface, for syncretism or assimilation of religious practices can only work if there’s a commonality, something that’s shared by both the new and old and allows for a transition. Which is why some have suggested that the Lares Viales of ancient Galicia were essentially a Roman mask to much older cults (Santos Yanguas 2014: 254). In other words, there must have been pre-existing entities who were already popular in the region and whose worshippers found a suitable Latin expression to their devotion in the Lares Viales. Had it been merely a case of a religious phenomenon produced by the movements of Roman troops along north-Iberian roads, then one would expect to find a similar result elsewhere in Europe. Yet that’s not the case. The popularity of the Lares Viales in Galicia is exceptional, so it stands to reason that there must have been exceptionally popular wayfaring gods of some sort during the region’s pre-Roman period, which, combined with the late Romanization, produced the cluster of altars visible in the map above. Who were those deities is a question to which there is no answer, since also unlike what happens elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula and indeed in the Roman world, They were not syncretised by means of epithets. There’s nothing along the lines of Mars Nodens, Apollo Belenus or Silvanus Sinquas – there’s just Lares Viales.

A continuum
Perhaps even more enticing is the awareness that Galicia remains a land religiously defined by wayfaring. It is marked by scores of travellers on traditional courses signalled by shells and cairns, though their destination is not a polytheistic shrine, but rather a Catholic one in Santiago de Compostela. Now before anyone jumps to the conclusions, the Galician cult of Saint James is not a Christianized version of an older, pre-Christian cult. There are elements of it, yes, the cairns being a clear example, but you’ll find that pretty much anywhere in Europe where there are hiking trails or pilgrimage routes. The fact that the 6th century bishop Martin of Dume (Braga, Portugal), in chapter 16 of his De Correctione Rusticorum, mentions the lighting of candles at crossroads is hardly evidence of a persistent worship of the Lares Viales in ancient Galicia. And that’s because in those same lines he also mentions the worshipping of trees and boulders, performing auguries, celebrating the Volcanalia and Calends, stepping in with your right foot, throwing bread and wine into fountains and invoking Minerva when weaving. Which begs the question of how far the text reflects a local reality that was observed first-hand or merely employs a standardized list of pagan practices in use by any Christian missionary at the time.

Roadside sign pointing the way to Santiago de Compostela, complete with a cairn. Source

Roadside sign pointing the way to Santiago de Compostela, complete with a cairn. Source

The truth is that the history of the Galician shrine of Saint James is complex and does not fit into the simplistic model of a pre-Christian cult with a Christian guise – though that is no doubt a popular belief among modern pagans and polytheists, especially those affected by the way too common form of paranoia known as siege mentality. For starters, because organized Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula goes back to c. 180, but the presumed discovery of the body of Saint James took place in c. 813. It’s a gap of over six centuries and between those two dates there was the officialization of Christianity, the outlawing of pagan religions, Germanic invasions and settlement, renewed missionary activity by Martin of Dume and others, schisms and internal struggles between Christian sects (Arianism, Priscilianism, Donatism, etc.), the Muslim conquest of almost all of the Iberian Peninsula and finally the start of the Reconquista in c. 720. By the time the body of the apostle is said to have been discovered, religious strife in Iberia was not between Christians and traditional polytheists, but between different movements of the former and Islam. It is revealing that the presumed tomb of Saint James, who was killed in Palestine and not in Galicia (Acts of the Apostles, 12:2), may in fact have been that of Priscillian, a Galician bishop who was decapitated for heresy in 385 and had a strong following in the region. That a remnant or memory of a cult to his remains may have been picked up by the Catholic Church in the first century of war against the Muslim south, thus in time providing the northern Christian kingdoms with a reinforced religious banner, goes to show how detached the Galician shrine of Saint James is from any hypothetical pre-Christian version. Even more so if one considers that the Asturian chronicles of the late ninth and early tenth centuries – the Albeldense and both versions of the Alfonso III – say nothing about the “miraculous discovery” in Santiago de Compostela, thus placing the popularity of the Catholic cult at an even later date.

Still, there is a coincidence, an accidental continuum, if you will: the land where the Lares Viales appear to have been more popular is still a country of travellers, defined for centuries by wayfaring. That’s actually the reason why this blog’s header image is a photo of a golden scallop on cobblestones: shells have become a symbol of the way of Saint James – the exact motive is unknown – and you’ll see them being used by just about any pilgrim, decorating Galician churches and signs along roads and hiking trails and find dozens of them in golden metal on the medieval streets of Santiago de Compostela, marking old pilgrimage routes.

Old ways made new
In using the scallop, I’m drinking from the continuum and using it to express my west-Iberian roots, mercurial devotion and worship of the Lares Viales, employing what has essentially become a recognizable symbol of travellers and movement in the land where the gods of the roads were popular. I’m not integrating Saint James into my practices or pantheon, just as the shrine at Santiago de Compostela didn’t replace a pre-Christian cult site, but I am picking up elements, similarly to Catholic pilgrims and non-religious hikers who have taken up the older practice of erecting cairns. It’s a continuous use and reuse of gestures and symbols in an ever-present Galician background of wayfaring that stretches back over two millennia. And incidentally, when I was midway through writing this post and left the computer to join a few friends at a party, I found two clamshells down the street and saw two roosters walking by a busy road in a nearby village. Which is interesting at the very least.

Perhaps it’s time I add the pieces and start something cohesive and concrete. I’m already a devotee of Mercury and honour the Lares Viales alongside Him on January 4th, the first days of April and am considering two additional annual celebrations (thus reaching a total of four). The gods of roads are also in my daily prayers and, every time I pour wheat on a wayside or cairn to Mercury, I pour an extra for Them. There are Iberian gods full of mercurial potential, like Ilurbeda, for whom there are archaeological links to the Lares Viales, or Quangeio, hypothetically a god’s companion just as dogs are humans’. A basic philosophy has been worked out and there’s plenty of symbols to choose from, be it scallops, wheels, travellers’ staffs, winged boots or hats, cairns or canines. There’s even fertile ground for an initiatory element with the goal of becoming a Lar Viale upon death and thus join Mercury’s divine entourage of travelling gods.

Perhaps I should take the clamshells and roosters as a hint, add the pieces I already have and lay the foundations of something new, something that may become a tradition if it survives the test of time. An Iberian branch of Roman polytheism, complete with its own coherent set of ideas and practices and focusing on the Lares Viales and Mercury as foremost among Them. Of course, it would have to be done in full awareness that human existence is brief, no more than a few decades long, so if such a religious construct is to become a tradition, grow and be successful, I will not see it in my lifetime. But I can still sow the fields, I can lay the first stone. Every journey starts with a single step, even if you do not reach the intended destination and others have to continue for you. You do your part, no matter how small, and then let others do theirs.

Perhaps it’s time for a Way of the Wayfarers to be born.

Cairns on the road to Finisterra - Galicia's Land's End. My own photo from 2010.

Cairns on the road to Finisterra – Galicia’s Land’s End. My own photo from 2010.

Works cited
BEARD, Mary; NORTH, John; PRICE, Simon. 2010. Religions of Rome, volume I: a History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
FRANCO MASIDE, Rosa María. 2002. “Lares Viales na provincia de A Coruña. In Gallaecia n. 21, Santiago de Compostela: Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, pp. 215-222.
PORTELA FILGUEIRAS, Maria Isabel. 1984. “Los dioses Lares en la Hispania romana”. In Lucentum, n. 3, Alicante: Universidad de Alicante, pp. 153-180.
SANTOS YANGUAS, Narciso. 2014. “El culto a los Lares Viales en Asturias”. In Ilu: Revista de Ciencias de las Religiones, n. 25. Madrid: Universidad Complutense de Madrid, pp. 251-263.
VAN ANDRINGA, William. 2011. “Religions and the integration of cities in the Empire in the second century AD: the creation of a common religious language”. In A Companion to Roman Religion, ed. Jörg Rüpke. Blackwell: Oxford, pp. 83-95.

Number four is coming

This year’s Ludi Mercuriales or Games of Mercury are just around the corner and I’ve been getting ready for four days of food, fun and flowers in honour of the Fleet-Footed, His mother and His divine host of Lares Viales. The pantry’s been stocked with needed ingredients, the raw materials for the wreaths are in, there’s wine, incense and small candles in sufficient amount, enough wood for the ritual fires and I’m keeping an eye on the weather forecast, which at the moment isn’t good, so I may not have the chance to go out and erect piles of rocks while on long bike rides. As it stands, however, the plan is as follows:

    April 1st
    The celebrations start with an opening prayer and morning offerings comprised of a candle and portions of incense, fennel and wine, all placed on Mercury’s domestic shrine. Since it’s also the start of the month, Janus, Juno and the Family Lares are honoured as well and all of the morning offerings will be burned before lunch in a ceremony dedicated to Maia. It seems fitting that if I mark April 4th as Mercury’s birthday, His mother should be worshiped at the start of the Ludi, which is also why She’s given a portion of cheese, cinnamon and coconut milk – i.e., some of the main ingredients of a cake I’ll be giving Him down the road. In the afternoon, as I take Her offerings to a nearby hill, I’ll leave a coin in a public place to be found by whomever the Lord of Fortune desires. And after returning home, I’ll start working on the wreaths and cake. There’s no point in making those things in March, due to the obvious reason that one honours the Gods not just by giving Them a finished product, but also by making it, so the work of preparing the offerings is a tribute in itself and hence a part of the festivity.

    April 2nd
    In the morning, a new candle is given to Mercury on His domestic shrine, though no further offerings are made. The second day is dedicated mostly to indoor activities: the wreaths are finished, as is the cake for April 4th, and I take some time to study divination and other mercurial topics. The only major outdoor exception is leaving another coin in a public place and, should the weather allow, maybe some jogging.

    April 3rd
    Again, the day starts with a candle being offered to the Fleet-Footed, followed by a prayer to the Lares Viales. They’re presented with wine, wheat and four small wreaths, all of which will be placed in small containers and taken outside in the afternoon. If it doesn’t rain, I’ll use my bike to go on a long ride of no less than forty kilometres, stopping four times to erect small herms by the road and placing on top of each one of the wreaths, as well as portions of the wine and wheat that were offered in the morning. As on the other days, I’ll also leave a coin in a public place.

    Last year's four herms and wreaths.

    Last year’s four herms and wreaths.

    April 4th
    The big day, the fourth of the fourth month of the year! In the morning, a candle and portions of wine, incense and fennel are given to Mercury on His domestic shrine. Before lunch, there’s a formal ceremony for Him, where most of the morning offerings will be burned and a cake consecrated, a slice of which will be given to the Fleet-Footed and the rest made ritually profane so it can be consumed by me and members of my family. He’s also offered a wreath that will then be placed on His shrine and should remain there until the end of the year (I use statice flowers for that purpose). In the afternoon, a new bike ride follows (if the weather allows), with libations being made along the way and, yet again, a coin left somewhere public. Also, I’ll be buying a lottery ticket and, once I’m back home, perform some divination before wrapping up at sundown with a prayer and lighting a final candle on Mercury’s shrine.

Apart from a desire to please the mercurial deities in question, there’s a somewhat narrative dynamic to all of this, in that you start by honouring the mother (foreshadowing later offerings), study the arts of Her soon-to-be-commemorated son, worship the Lares Viales as They make way for Their Lord and, when His anniversary finally comes, you lavish Him with presents. Naturally, there are other things that can be done in His honour, like watching a comedy and creating pranks (namely on April Fools). In some of those occasions, as indeed every time I go out as part of the Ludi, I wear on my wrist a leather bracelet with a coin tied to it. It normally rests in a small bowl on Mercury’s shrine and it serves the purpose of marking outdoor activities like biking and trekking on specific days as tributes to Him. And of course, if it’s raining, small walks instead of a forty-kilometres ride will have to do the trick. If that’s the case, I’m not sure if I’ll find the necessary rocks to erect a herm, but at the very least the offerings will be left or poured next to crossroads.

No matter the weather, come rain or shine, let April start under the sign of the god who was born on a fourth day, the ram-bearing son of Maia!