Mercury’s anniversary

Mercury’s number is four. This is not a declaration of an esoteric principle or a personal revelation, but a fact of history of religions: the Latin name for the fourth day of the week was dies mercurii, from which come the days’ names in modern romance languages that preserved the theonymic nomenclature. Thus, Wednesday is miércoles in Spanish, mercredi in French, mercoledi in Italian. At the source is the Homeric hymn to Hermes – which may contain older beliefs, as suggested by Karl Kerényi – where it‘s said He was born on a fourth day of the month. That idea is reflected on the calendars of ancient Greece and then found its way into Roman culture, where the number was tied to Mercury. Expressing that link, for instance, is a 3rd century mosaic found at Orbe-Bozceáz, in Switzerland, where the fourth day of the week is represented by the god.

The spark
In the context of Mercury’s cult, the fourth day of the fourth month thus has a particular symbolic relevance. There’s no word of it being noticed in ancient Rome, though there are references to a collegium Mercurialium, which could have been responsible for its own celebrations, and we have very little information on the festive calendars of other cities. As our knowledge stands, the ancient Roman feast to Mercury was on the 15th of May, perhaps out of a connection with Maia, His mother. But none of this prevents the creation of festivities today, just as each community in the ancient world was entitled to institute new or expand existing ones, a freedom equally true – if not more so – in the domestic context.

As such, wanting to make use of the date’s symbolic charge, for several years now I’ve been marking the fourth day of the fourth month as Mercury’s birthday, a practice whose meaning is reinforced by the traditional April Fools, since Mercury is also a trickster. And because of that, instead of a single day, the festivity lasts four, from the first to the fourth of the fourth month, thereby stressing the numerical link even further.

Tell me a story
It’s one thing, however, to have a general concept; it’s quite another to give meaning and especially bind everything together in a coherent fashion. That’s where tales can come in, stories that create a narrative frame and award an overarching significance to a series of practices that could otherwise be just disjoint gestures with a common date. And so, in the manner of traditional tales…

Once upon a time, there was a confusing first day of April, full of laughter. Nothing seemed safe, because everything could be a prank, and there were many who laughed for no apparent reason. Alarmed or just curious, the following day people consulted oracles, cast dices, drew cards and observed auguries. And Maia, the mountain nymph, declared herself pregnant and about to give birth. One day after, processions of Lares Viales were seen along the roads, singing about how they were waiting for Maia’s son, the lord of pathways, and invited those who heard them to join in. So people saluted the gods of roads and erected cairns, pouring offerings on them, and readied themselves to celebrate the birth of the god. They prepared food, cleaned the doorways of their homes and made wreaths. And on the fourth day of the fourth month, Maia gave birth to a son, the crafty Mercury of many gifts, acclaimed by the Lares Viales, who spread the word. On the streets, people took part in games, theatre and pranks, while at home they hanged wreaths on their doors and set the tables with abundant food. There were sacrifices in the morning and afternoon, parades and long walks and people visited each other, going into their neighbours’ homes as if arriving from a journey, sharing food with them.

To be clear, this is not an account of historical events, the product of a personal revelation or a parable, allegory or any other kind of story with a metaphorical purpose. It’s simply a fictitious tale I created to give a narrative codification to religious practices and ideas, so that they have a story that inspires and gives meaning, rather than just being a simple list of things to do in a given time. Specifically, the pranks and humour of the first day of April, the worshiping of Maia on the second, the veneration of the Lares Viales on the third and, on the fourth day of the fourth month, the celebration of Mercury’s birthday with sacrifices, wreaths, food and activities connected to Him, at home and on the streets and roads.

So it went like this…
In line with that structure, the first day went normally with a bit of humour – a prank would have been ideal, but the surprise effect gets lost if there’s one every year. On the second day of April, I performed a formal ceremony to Maia, in both her celestial and terrestrial aspects, offerings portions of the ingredients used to produce the food I prepared for Mercury’s birthday. On the third day, I went for a walk – small, due to the stormy weather – raised cairns by roads and poured offerings on them. And on April 4th, I performed two ceremonies to Maia’s son, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, offering him flowers, food and beverage. A walk or a bike ride would have been a good activity in tribute, but the weather was far from encouraging. Still, I bought a few lottery tickets and left coins by crossroads.

This year, however, was special, given that April 4th was also the month’s first Wednesday, which is when I make my monthly offerings to Mercury. Something exceptional was therefore in order.

And the solution was to multiply the offerings and tributes, emphasizing the number four whenever possible. As a result, in each of the first four days of April, I made four morning offerings to Mercury – a portion of grinded anis, one of cinnamon, one of wine and a tea-light candle – left four coins by crossroads and, on the third day of the month, erected four cairns, pouring four offerings on each – wine, wheat, honey and cinnamon.

Ludi Mercuriales

A celebratory table: the domestic shrine, already with flowers and a wreath, and four dishes before it. The strawberry-tree is on the right and the liquor is peeping from behind the biscuit cake.

For the god’s anniversary, instead of preparing one dish to share with Him, I prepared four, three of them home-made: a pineapple semifreddo, aletria, a biscuit cake and four custard tarts. With the exception of the semifreddo, they’re all common, traditional even in Portuguese cooking, so there’s an element of cult regionalization there. Take aletria, for instance, a thin pasta partly baked in milk, then added sugar and egg yolks and sprinkled with cinnamon: it’s Arab in origin, at least by name – from al-itria – thus expressing the Islamic layer of Portuguese culture. And since it’s typical of Christmas celebrations, if it’s good enough for the birth of one god, it’s good enough for the birth of another. In this case, I accentuated the mercurial purpose by choosing to sprinkle cinnamon in a pattern of squares and crossroads.

On April 4th, during the first ceremony, I burned the morning offerings – a gesture I had done every morning since the start of the month – and made four floral tributes to Mercury: flowers and a wreath for his domestic shrine, an additional wreath to hang on the front door and a strawberry-tree to be planted in family land. In the afternoon sacrífice, the four dishes were consecrated, a small portion of each placed on the sacrificial fire, and then ritually deconsacrated, a process accompanied with libations of medronho strawberry and honey liquor. And then, once the ceremony was over, that same beverage was used for four toasts to Mercury, followed by a brief urban walk during which I bought four lottery tickets.

It was, in short, a “fourgasm”. Because Maia’s son deserves the effort – and may enjoy the pun.


Duped by translation (& finding a Lar?)

As a devotee of Mercury, I’m naturally interested in what is traditionally associated with Him. And because I believe Him to be the same as Hermes, one of the best online places to look for historical information in a nutshell is – which, to be clear, is an excellent website I highly recommend. This post is not a critique of it, just a personal admission of having been duped by double translation.

So the story goes like this…
In the section on Hermes’ sacred plants, you find krokos and andrakhnos, the latter of which translates into English as strawberry-tree. The translation is correct, but my interpretation of it was not, because when I hear strawberries – or in this case read it – I immediately think of a roughly conic red fruit, when in fact the Greek andrakhnos refers to something else. Something that may be translated as strawberry in English, yes, but which in Portuguese has a different meaning. To put it in pictures:

On the left are regular strawberries or morangos in Portuguese, but on the right are the “strawberries” meant by the Greek andrakhnos, which translates into Portuguese as medronhos, the fruit of the medronheiro or “strawberry-tree”. You see where this is going, right? By neglecting the original word, I assumed Hermes was associated with the plant on the left based on the common Portuguese translation of the English term, thus failing to realize that it can mean different plants. Had I looked further on, I’d have found a list of plants of various myths and gods with additional information, including the scientific nomenclature (and photos!): the andrakhnos is also called in Greek komaros and it stands for the arbutus andrachne or arbutus unedo species, i.e. the Portuguese medronheiro.

So what, then?
Ok, so this is interesting and may even be conceived as a religious experience, since mistakes, translations and hence lapsus linguae are well within the universe of Hermes or Mercury. If He’s a god who likes to play tricks, I’ve obviously been at the receiving end of one or at least walked myself into an error with a mercurial value. But so what?

Well, there are practical consequences, in particular when it comes to offerings. Not so much in the sense of having used regular strawberries for sacrificial purposes all these years, since there’s nothing wrong in offering things for which there is no historical basis, provided that they’re well received by the gods. It’s more of a matter of the world of possibilities that opens up, in particular for a Portuguese individual like me, who’s trying to formulate a regional cult to Mercury and the Lares Viales, something that grants the use of equally regional products a special meaning. Things like the Portuguese aguardente or brandy made from medronho, which can be employed for libations or in baked cakes to be given to Mercury and his host. Or a similar liquor with honey that’s traditional from Monchique, in the Algarve, or medronho bread, not to mention groves of strawberry-trees as native sacred spaces. There are multiple possibilities that can make a perfect bridge between the ancient history of the god and His modern regionalization.

Speaking of which…
And since we’re on the topic, I realized my interpretational mistake while researching the heraldic symbolism and decorative elements on the tombs of Portuguese princes in the Chapel of the Founder, at the Batalha monastery, at some point googling part of the information in English so as to look for additional sources.

Now, for the purpose of context, my interest in a religious structure from the 15th century is due to me being 1) a historian and 2) born and raised in the small city of Alcobaça, located relatively close to Batalha and even closer to the village of Aljubarrota, which gave its name to the nationally quintessential battle that led to the construction of the monastery. If you’re familiar with English history, think of it as a Portuguese equivalent of Agincourt. Its history and the people involved in it are therefore part of the national and local lore, which is why I occasionally dive into the subject, more out of personal interest than professional need. And one of tombs in the Batalha monastery is that of prince John (1400-1442), where you’ll find a depiction of his chosen personal heraldic symbols as carved at the time of his death: a pouch with three scallops and a plant whose identity is not entirely certain, though it’s commonly believed to be a strawberry-tree – and hence why, when looking for the information in English, I realized my mistake. It’s all well within the world of hermits and pilgrims, matching the prince’s status as general administrator of the Portuguese branch of the military Order of Santiago and his presumed devotion to Saint John the Baptist, to whom there was once a shrine within the chapel, in a corresponding position to the tomb. Hypothetically, according to the reading of the funerary set that several scholars have argued for, the heraldic elements chosen by the prince may also express his view of life as a journey.

The pilgrim pouch with the three scallops and the presumed “strawberries” on the tomb of prince John in the monastery of Batalha.

To be clear, prince John was a devout Christian, pretty much aligned with the prevalent anti-Semitism of the time, though also critical of the Church, in particular the idea of holy wars, all of which can be read in a letter he wrote to the his brother king Duarte. He was not in any way or form a polytheist. Which is okay for me, because I don’t expect him – or my family ancestors, for that matter – to be anything other than someone from his own time, with all the differences in mentality and religion that that entails. Yet with that in mind, I nonetheless have to consider that…

If I’m formulating a regional cult to Mercury as leader of the Lares Viales, who were very popular in Roman Galicia, a popularity that finds a curious (and coincidental) continuity in the camino to Santiago, so much so that I’ve decided to drink from that continuum and adopt the scallop as a modern symbol for a polytheist cult.

If I practice Roman polytheism as part of the modern world and hence entwined with a modern culture, language and country, instead of practicing it as part of an anachronic re-enactment of a long-gone empire or republic of which I’m not an actual citizen, and if as a result the heroes I worship are largely those of my country, not those of a Roman state that ceased to exist over a millennium ago.

And if you view the Lares Viales as a category of wayfarer deities that may include not just greater gods like Mercury or Quangeio, but also smaller ones, including deceased humans, and if, in line with what I said above about hero worship, I’m considering the inclusion of Portuguese travelling heroes among the Lares Viales

… then I should take note of the fact that a Portuguese prince’s choice of personal symbols were the pilgrim’s pouch with scallops and the strawberry-tree, perhaps expressing a view of life as a journey. Not to claim that he was a polytheist – he wasn’t! – or that his worldview was identical to mine – it too wasn’t – but to stress the coincidence of symbols, those of the prince and those of the modern cult I’m working on, emphasized by the fact that the former’s nationality and the regional focus of the latter are also coincidental. Perhaps, who knows, I found another historical figure to count among the Lares Viales of modern western Iberia.

New Year gestures

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready for the Vialia ceremony, 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.