Peregrinalia – hitting the road

This blog has been quiet, I know, but not dead and, in the spirit of Summer holidays, in the near future I’ll try to compensate for the prolonged silence of the last several months. And since, apart from my daily practices and rites, the sole religious topic that’s been taking my time in a significant fashion has been an Iberian cult to Mercury, it is thus with it that I return to the blogosphere.

Connected dates
There are two modern celebrations of mine to Mercury that I’ve mentioned several times before and both have been incorporated by other polytheists into their festive calendars. They are Vialia on January 4th and the anniversary of Maia’s Son on April 4th, the former focused on Mercury’s divine host and the latter on his birth.

Both have an individual sense, with Vialia addressing the opening of ways at the start of a new year, while the birthday of the god evokes his connection to the number four and thus takes place on the fourth day of the fourth month. But there’s also a continuum between them and it connects to two other modern festivities, the third of which is Peregrinalia on July 4th.

Essentially, it flows as follows: in January, the opening of the ways amounts also to a preparation for the birth of Mercury, who’s destined to become Lord of Pathways and hence of the Lares Viales. Trails and roads are thus cleared and made ready and, after the coming of the god, the next stage in the festive cycle are the journeys in which he encounters other deities and acquires an awareness of the world. Following that is the perception of the constant flux and finite nature of things, which then links up with the end of the year and the Lares Viales again, though that’s a subject for another time. In short: the ways, the Lord of Ways, the use of pathways and the perpetual destination.

Trilho - Sintra

A forest trail in Sintra, Portugal (credit)

Under the sign of each of the four great annual festivities there are other associated dates. Thus, during the three months opened by Vialia there’s the Parentalia in honour of the dead, which in the primitive Roman calendar was a time for purification before Spring and the start of the year. Under the sign of the birth of Mercury there’s the old Mercuralia on May 15th, which I’ve been turning into a festivity dedicated to Maia. And on August 24th, a date within the three months that follow Peregrinalia, there’s the annual sacrifice to Quangeio, the Iberian dog god who’s found, taken in and gifted by Mercury.

Of course, a lot of this are modern dates and conceptions, but I never said I was reconstructing an historical cult. My goal is rather the construction of a regional and mercurial branch of today’s Roman polytheism, but because no such branch is known from the historical records, its creation must necessarily be a new thing – even if it integrates ancient gods and practices. It’s the difference between a fossilized religion because it is restricted to what is known to have existed until the 5th century and a polytheism that, while rooted in the past, is nonetheless alive and thus able to produce new forms.

Ways, journeys, wayfarers and beyond
Peregrinalia is thus the festivity of journeys and travellers, of those known at the start and those who present themselves to us along the way, of pathways and what they connect and so, literally or figuratively, of the awareness of the connectivity of all things, even those that look independent or self-contained.

In this, there’s a link to the Buddhist concepts of interdependence and emptiness and that’s intentional, in both its use and the festivity they’re associated with: resorting to an oriental philosophy to give ideological content to a cult is within the historical dynamics of Roman polytheism (see here); and the name Peregrinalia comes from the Latin peregrinus, which is where the word “pilgrim” comes from – i.e., a traveller – but originally it also meant “foreigner” and, as an adjective, “exotic” and “imported”. Hence why, in describing above the reasoning behind the sequence of festive dates, I said that, after his birth, Mercury travels and acquires an awareness of the world.

There’s also a weather-related motive for the festivity of travelling and travellers to be in July, meaning in the Summer, which is when many hit the road on vacations. There’s a northern hemisphere bias in that, no doubt, but if it’s a regional cult, it will naturally reflect the seasonal cycle and climate of the region it emanates from.

The ritual translation
From here follow the ritual practices and commemorative actions. The rite used for a formal ceremony during Peregrinalia is obviously the Roman one and if, in the celebration of Mercury’s birth the offerings were almost all food that required the use of dishes and cutlery, on July 4th the preference goes to things that can be carried in a backpack and eaten by hand. In other words, traveller’s food, even if sweet by reason of being festive.

Peregrinalia 2018

Table set before the formal ceremony on the morning of July 4th.

To that end, in this year’s Peregrinalia and because the day was also the first Wednesday of the month, I did the same as in Mercury’s birthday and highlighted the number four. To the god I therefore gave four merendas (puffed pastry baked with cheese and ham), four Portuguese custard tarts, four sweet potato cakes and four arrufadas (sweat bread with egg and coconut), all ritually consecrated, small portions burned and the rest returned to the human sphere to be eaten by me and my family. During the ceremony I also offered small portions of butter, ham and two types of cheese – i.e., things you can make sandwiches with – and four libations of medronho strawberry and honey liquor. And in the end I burned the morning offerings of the first Wednesday of the month, to which I added an additional portion of honey to maintain the pattern of four, and made yet more libations, but to Maia, Quangeio and the Lares Viales. In the afternoon, in the spirit of Peregrinalia, I then went on a small bike ride during which I made additional offerings to the Lares Viales and took as a snack some of the food consecrated to and received from Mercury, thus figuratively eating at the god’s itinerating table.


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.