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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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 5th 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
In an identical spirit of Iberian and mercurial polytheism, another native deity has come to my attention. Her name is Ilurbeda. She was on my short list when I tried to identity the gods of my homeland, which led me to focus instead on Nabia and especially Silvanus, since they hold a greater potential for connecting with the local environment and traditions. But after stumbling upon an academic article from 2005, I again considered Ilurbeda, though the reason has less to do with geography and more with Mercury.
What we know
First, the basics. As with several Iberian deities, the etymology of the goddess’ name is uncertain. According to Maria Hernando Sobrino, the notion that the elements ilur-/iltur are Iberian remains valid, with considerable indications of Basque influence with the sense of “city”, while the possibilities for -beda range from the southern Iberian for “mountain” to the Celtiberian for “silver mine” or “ditch” and again Basque for “path” (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 155-6). This uncertainty on the exact meaning of the name results in doubts on Ilurbeda’s nature and function, since there are no surviving myths or texts that can clarify the matter, making the location of Her altars and the few words they contain the sole additional clues. Fortunately, there is a pattern in that regard, since all of the known pieces were found in mining or mountainous areas: two in Góis (Portugal), three in Salamanca (Spain), two in Ávila (Spain) and one in Sintra (Portugal); there’s also the possibility of an additional one from Zamora (Spain) (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 162).
What to make of it
This information has led to basically two theories on Ilurbeda’s identity: 1) She was the protective deity of a specific settlement, given the reading of ilu- as “city”; 2) She’s a mountain/mining goddess, as indicated by the context of Her altars. The former would mean She’s a local deity, yet the dispersal of pieces dedicated to Her suggests that Ilurbeda was not attached to a specific urban area and had a supra-local nature. Or at least that appears to have been the case by the time the inscriptions were put to stone. The aforementioned possibility of Basque influence, as suggested by Her name, also reinforces the impression that She was not associated with a particular human group and may actually have at least a partial eastern Iberian origin (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 157; Encarnação 2008: 358). Even the possibility that Her cult was dispersed by migrants who worked in several Iberian mines suggests mobility and if monumentality is anything to go by, then the centre from where Her cult spread may have been the area around Salamanca, given that the altar from Segoyuela de Cornejos was particularly lavish (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 50).
So this leaves the possibility that She’s a mountain goddess. But does She preside solely over its riches and underground tunnels or is there something else? This is where the two altars from Ávila become especially relevant and drew my attention, because one of them contains the letters LV, which have been interpreted as (L)ares (V)iales. And while that reading is not beyond doubt – the same letters can have other meanings – the fact that the same site produced an additional altar where Ilurbeda is not mentioned, but the Lares Viales are and explicitly so, shows that the gods of pathways were honoured on that spot. Which makes a connection with Ilurbeda likely, leading to Maria Hernando Sobrino’s conclusion that Ilurbeda is more than a goddess of mountainous riches: She’s also a deity of mountainous paths (2005: 163).
A modern connection with Mercury Viator?
Now how can a Portuguese polytheist who’s a Mercury devotee and worships the Lares Viales together with the Fleet-Footed resist a deity like Her? You can’t! It’s just too perfect! It resonates fully with what led me to honour Arentius and Arentia and so it is that I’ve decided that Ilurbeda too will be given a place in my practices. There’s actually potential in Her for a lady or queen of the Lares Viales and an Iberian consort of Mercury, which feeds into an idea that I’ve been mentally playing with: a cult of Mercury Viator and His host of Lares Viales, complete with its own symbols, celebrations, philosophy and mysteries. It’s something that’s still very much in an embryonic stage and may never move beyond that, but it is growing on me.
For now, however, I have only to decide when to honour Ilurbeda. Since there’s no surviving reference to an ancient feast, I have to pick a date from scratch using the usual combination of symbolism and practicality, which led me to choose May 7th. It is the date of Rosalia, yes, which in the last couple of years I’ve been associating with the military dead in particular, given that I honour Freyja on May 1st and She’s said to take half the slain (Grímnismál 14). And since I already sacrifice to my ancestors three times per month, plus the early Parentalia, I’m going to transfer my limited Rosalia practices to Freyja’s feast and clear May 7th for Ilurbeda. It is, after all, Mercury’s month (or rather His mother’s), so that seems fitting considering the pairing potential. And while I don’t live in a particularly mountainous place – which is why I abandoned the idea of a local aspect of Ilurbeda – May is a time when large numbers of pilgrims walk through this area towards the Catholic shrine of Fátima. And if they follow the local paths, they’ll have to cross the nearby mountains to the east, which are the highest point in the region. In other words, they’ll have to go through Ilurbeda’s realm. I actually join the pilgrims every now and then, not because I have any interest in Our Lady of Fátima – I don’t – but because I genuinely enjoy doing the roughly 30 kilometres, either on foot or bike. Which is not at all surprising in a Mercury devotee and worshiper of the Lares Viales, I’d argue.
ENCARNAÇÃO, José d’. 2008. “Octávio Veiga Ferreira – Percursos em Cascais e pela arqueologia clássica” in Estudos Arqueológicos de Oeiras, n. 16. Oeiras: Câmara Municipal de Oeiras, pp. 351-362.
HERNANDO SOBRINO, Maria del Rosario. 2005. “A propósito del teónimo Ilurbeda. Hipótesis de trabajo” in Veleia, n. 22. Leioa: Universidad del Pais Vasco, pp. 153-164.
OLIVARES PEDREÑO, Juan Carlos. 2002. Los Dioses de la Hispania Céltica. Madrid: Real Academia de Historia; Universidad de Alicante.