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.


Adjusting my fasti

The inevitable entry of Quangeio into my religious life and the question of when to commemorate Him annually took me back to my festive calendar. There’s a balance I try to keep in it, avoiding celebrations in consecutive or close days as much as possible so as to make my practice easier to manage and harmonize with modern life. I’m not a priest, let alone a full-time paid priest, meaning my daily routine is made up of things other than religion and I have to make room for all of them. Plus, ideally, Roman ritual often calls for a fire, which in turn requires firewood. While in the past this would have been unproblematic, since it was an essential part of any household, today’s housing has turned firewood into an extra, something that has to be collected for very specific purposes, with the added difficulty that forested areas may not be next door in modern cities. An urban park is often the closest thing, but the amount and quality of the twigs it can yield may be limited. And while at the moment I live in a small city and have a large pine forest a short distance away, that may not be the case in years to come. So taking all of this into consideration, I decided to make several adjustments to my religious calendar so as to make things more practical with regard to both time and resources. In total, there were eleven changes, which resulted in the following festive calendar:


Moving festivals
In four instances, I moved annual feasts so as to overlap them with either the Nones or Ides of a given month. Since I ritually burn offerings on those occasions anyway, I reasoned that instead of duplicating ceremonies and ritual fires, it would be best to simply change the date of some celebrations by a few days. Thus, rather than marking Vestalia on June 9th, I pushed it to the Ides on June 13th and made a similar change to Apollo’s yearly sacrifice, moving it from July 13th to the 15th, Hercules’ from August 4th to the 5th and my commemoration of emperor Julian the Faithful from November 3rd to the 5th. In the first two cases, there’s actually a symbolic gain, since the Ides are the middle and hence a sort of focus or pinnacle of a month. So it is not without meaning that Vesta, goddess of the fireplace, should be celebrated on the focal point of June and Apollo on the summit of the seventh month. Emperor Julian’s day is a bit of an approximation, since he was made Caesar on 3 November 355 and became the sole Augustus on 6 November 361, so the Nones are somewhere in the middle.

However, whereas in all of these cases the ritual used is always Roman, and hence annual and monthly offerings may be burned during the same ceremony in a structured manner, the same cannot be said of instances where different rites are employed. That’s the case of the Dominalia and Tonitralia, dedicated to Freya and Thor and which up until now I’ve been marking on May 1st and November 13th, respectively. Since They’re Norse deities, I use the ritus aprinus, which means that I have to light up two ritual fires in the same day for consecutive ceremonies. Sometimes that may be possible, but others there may be time constrains. As such, in those two cases, I decided to separate yearly and monthly sacrifices, thus moving the Dominalia to May 25th and the Tonitralia to November 9th. These dates are still somewhat experimental, as they may be changed in the event of signs that manifest divine disapproval.

I also moved the date of the Arentalia, dedicated to the Iberian gods Arentius and Arentia. I honour Them in Roman rite, so the issue there is not one of ritual duplication, but rather of some dispersal. See, the Calends call for offerings to Janus, Juno and the Family Lares, which are then disposed of in a structured manner, ideally in a ritual fire. To do that in an annual ceremony honouring Arentius and Arentia may be somewhat counterproductive when you’re trying to connect with Them, so assuming that less recipients allows for a greater focus, I moved the Arentalia to September 5th. Here too there’s an element of added symbolism, for I assign the Nones to my Family Lares alone and since I see Them as my ancestors and my family has been in the Iberian Peninsula for at least 400 years, it is not without a happy meaning that the Nones of September are the date of my annual commemoration of an Iberian divine pair.

Njord’s festivity was also moved, though not by a need to manage raw materials. His celebration is normally done without a ritual fire, consisting of a sand boat on a beach on which offerings are placed and consecrated with sea water. For the past few years, I’ve been doing that on July 3rd, but I’m presently considering a new feast to Mercury on the 4th (more on that in a later post), so in order to avoid two events in consecutive days, I moved the Niordalia to July 9th, which is in line with the numerical symbolism of Norse mythology. I’m less concerned with proximity in the case of Anubis’ annual commemoration, which I’ve been marking on February 7th, but decided to move to the 11th. It’s closer to Parentalia, which is appropriate, and since my offerings to Him are not burned and can be done at home, it’s less time and wood-consuming.

Finally, I added two new annual celebrations. One is Laralia, which is dedicated to the Lares Alcobacenses or the gods of my homeland. Since they’re partially identical to my ancestors, I figured that a good time to honour Them would be after Caristia, which is a family feast. It does mean that I’ll have to perform ceremonies on consecutive days, something I try to avoid, but I’m willing to go the extra mile in this case, since there’s an additional symbolism on February 23rd: it’s in line with Silvanus’ annual celebration on October 23rd, which is important, given that I’ve come to place Him as a leading deity among the Lares Alcobacenses.

And last, but certainly not least, I picked August 24th for Quangeio’s yearly festival. The reasons are multiple: it’s practical, since it’s an empty part of my religious calendar; it’s symbolic, given that it’s during or shortly after the dog days (their exact date varies); it’s mercurial, since it’s a multiple of four and I feel tempted to explore the idea of Quangeio as an Iberian companion of Mercury, much like Rosmerta in Gaul or something along similar lines of Hanuman and Rama; and there’s a bit of a hunch to it, too.

Some things don’t change
There are still instances where different sacrifices take place in consecutive days, but there’s no avoiding them without a symbolic loss. For instance, Vialia and Mercury’s birthday are just before the Nones of January and April, respectively, but if they were to take place on the 5th instead of the 4th day of those months, they’d lose their numerical significance. Ulleralia is another example, being just before the Ides of December, but it’s dedicated to the Norse god Ullr, who’s linked to winter and, in a way, circles (the ring, the shield, even the stretched bow). And the 12th day of the 12th month is a sort of chronological full circle on a wintery eve, which makes it an appropriate date. Then there’s Apotropalia and Agonalia, which are separated by just one day, but I hesitate about moving the latter to the Ides of January, given that I find it somewhat significant that there’s an equal amount of days between two sacrifices to Janus at the start of the year and during the Parentalia, which lasts from the 13th to the 21st of February. This is not to say that Janus has an infernal aspect, but there may be something to the number that’s connected to beginnings or transitions.

Sacrifice: the act of making sacred

The modern notion of sacrifice implies letting go of something precious, but the ancient meaning of the word has a more legal tone. To sacrifice was simply to make (facio) sacred (sacer), i.e. to make something property of the Gods. It is the religious equivalent of a transaction of goods – any goods, even those that are not particularly precious. And just as in everyday life there are formal and informal transactions, the same applies to our dealings with the Gods: just as you can offer a friend a drink or something in return for a symbolic price, you can pour beverage or wheat on the floor as an informal offering; just as in your everyday life you may sell or buy something in the presence of a lawyer, using official paperwork or a written contract that’s legally binding, you can make more formal offerings by means of a ceremony, due tributes to witnesses and a formally acknowledged agreement. And the latter can happen even when you’re dealing with friends or relatives, like when you sell a car, buy a house or acquire a plot of land. These things require a formal transfer of property rights, the religious equivalent of which is the formal sacrifice.

Several months ago, after a debate on the matter in the Roman Revivalist group on Facebook, I started reviewing the usual structure of my Roman and Greek rites and have been experimenting with it ever since. Of course, as follows from what I said in the previous paragraph, a formal rite is not something I use every day or every time I make an offering. There is room for informal acts of worship and devotion, but there are also occasions when formality is called for. That’s the case with yearly festivities, which are a bit like birthdays or weddings: they take place only once a year or less and are therefore special, deserving a greater attention. And on other, more common occasions, the fully formal rite still remains useful by supplying a model for more simplified acts of worship.

So after brainstorming for a few months, I came up with my reviewed version of the Roman and Greek rites. It’s comprised of three parts: praefatio, sacrificium and postfacio; simply put, before making, making sacred and after making. The second section is subdivided into several moments, since it is the focal and therefore more complex stage of a ceremony. The result is a ritual structure that I find to be more balanced and fluid than the previous version.

Ritus Romanus/Graecus
1. Praefatio
After covering my head with a hood, scarf or a small towel and depending on the level of formality, I offer prayers and one or two offerings – normally incense and/or wine – to Janus, the god of beginnings, Vesta, who presides over the ritual fire (and is offered milk instead of wine), and Jupiter, who is asked to testify the ceremony.

2. Sacrificium
At this point, if I’m using the Greek rite, I uncover my head. If not, it remains covered.

    a. The main deity of the ceremony is invited. A prayer is uttered or, if it’s in Greek rite, a hymn taken or based on the Homeric Hymns. The reasons for the ceremony are stated (e.g. on this Saturnalia) and a welcoming offering is made (e.g. libation, incense or a bay leaf);
    b. The main offerings are listed, followed by a request to the god/dess, even if only a general one for His/Her blessings;
    *c. This step is the old immolatio and it applies only if I consecrate food I then wish to partake of (e.g. a bread or cake). To that effect, I sprinkle it with salted flour and pass a knife or spoon over the offering, before cutting a slice to be given to the deity;
    d. The offerings are placed or poured into the ritual fire, bowl, ground or water one by one with a short prayer;
    e. After giving the offerings, it is necessary to know if they were accepted. Some form of divination is therefore required and, depending on the result, the ceremony may go back to point b. or an expiatory offering may be presented (e.g. a libation or a stick of incense). At least the latter needs to be done if no divination system is resorted to;
    f. Once the main deity has been honoured, I can make supplementary offerings, normally to my ancestors, house genii and Mercury, but occasionally to more gods and goddesses. For instance, in the case of the New Year ceremony, this is the point where I also pay tribute to ten other deities that are in some way related to my household (Juno for my mother, Hercules for my father, Diana for our dogs, Minerva for successful work, etc.). If it’s an annual ceremony that falls on the Calends, Nones or Ides, this is also when I dispose of the monthly offerings;
    *g. Another optional step. If I perform an immolatio (c.), I must then perform a profanation by which the rest of the consecrated offering is made available for human consumption. In other words, it must be ritually deconsecrated, which is achieved by touching it while uttering a prayer to the deity to whom the food was given. An offering of gratitude is placed in or poured into the ritual fire;
    h. Just in case, I make an extra expiatory offering at this stage before moving on to the closing section of the ceremony;

3. Postfatio
If the ceremony is conducted in Greek rite, at this point I once again cover my head. The closing section consists of offerings of gratitude to the same deities honoured in the opening, but in reversed order: first Jupiter, then Vesta and finally Janus, who presides over the end of the ceremony just as He presided over its beginning. Like a gatekeeper, He opens and closes a door.

Again, this is not for daily acts of worship, but for annual or special festivities only. I use a more simplified version when I dispose of the offerings made on the Calends, Nones, Ides and other monthly occasions and, in certain circumstances, further adaptations may be required. For instance, if I am unable to use a ritual fire, the offerings to Vesta are dropped; if I perform a ceremony to infernal gods, I replace Janus with Mercury. Last but not least, I’m also using this structure to build a Latinized rite to Norse deities. That, however, is still being worked out and is a topic for another blogpost.

My religion has no moral doctrine

Every now and then, I’m asked where does my religion stand on topics like same-sex marriage, homosexuality or abortion. My answer is that it doesn’t, because to me those issues are not religious, but social. Some people look confused when I insist on it and I can understand why: in this as in other matters, over one thousand years of monotheistic dominance in western societies have shaped the notion of religion to the point where people generally cannot conceived it outside the Judeo-Christian definition.

1. Pervasive influence
As I have pointed out multiple times, that is the case with the use of the words “religion” and “faith” as synonyms: if you believe there is only one god, faith easily amounts to worship; but if you believe in multiple gods, then faith is not the same as worship. Because believing in many – including those outside your (usual) pantheon – does not imply that you worship all of them and therefore to define yourself through faith – what you believe in – is nonsensical. It is who you honour and how that defines you, religiously; and yet Asatru means “faith in the Gods” or some speak of Roman polytheism as “our faith”. These are clear examples of how, despite being polytheists, many still think and speak of religion in monotheistic terms. It’s culturally pervasive and thus hard to get away from. The same is true of the assumption that a religion must have a moral code that determines what worshipers should and shouldn’t do in their daily life. Christianity has it, as does Judaism and Islam, so it must be inherent to the very definition of religion. And after all, as the modern motto of good PR and tolerance goes, all “faiths” believe in love, right? Wrong! Modern interfaith dialogue is more about unity in uniformity than diversity. That’s why it keeps producing declarations on how we’re all just worshiping the same god, that there are no real polytheists but only monists, that all religions are about love. And this happens because interfaith dialogue, just as the notion of “religious values”, is based on a monotheistic worldview. A single god, sin and salvation, a moral code, regulated belief, declaration of faith – these are traits of today’s dominant traditions, the same that virtually monopolize the public debate in western societies and create the false impression that those are the natural characteristics of a religion.

2. Faith, ritual and morality
As an orthopraxic polytheist, I’m at odds with what is normally said in interfaith gatherings, not to mention TV programmes, debates and interviews on religious topics. It’s actually painful to watch, because the entire conversation revolves around words like “god” (singular), “scripture” or “holy book”, “sin” and “love”. It’s like being a vegetarian watching a cooking show where every single episode is about meat. Part of that is because I’m a polytheist and divine plurality, as explained here, has theological consequences. But also because, simply put, it is my view that faith is personal, ritual is traditional and morality is social. They’re not one and the same, all part of a fully regulated religious system, but three separate things that, while overlapping in some degree, are nonetheless distinct. Schematically, it looks like this:


2.1. Personal faith
It is a common misconception that a purely orthopraxic religion has no belief and amounts to a sort of ritualistic atheism. In reality, it simply means that there is no regulated belief. People do have faith, but it’s a personal matter, because an individual’s consciousness is his/her own. Ergo, one is free to see the Gods in whatever way one sees fit: They can or cannot interfere in human affairs, They’re part of nature, distinct from it or a bit of both, They’re akin to platonic ideas or are individual entities with flaws, They have genders or none, two or more gods are the same or separate, etc. These beliefs may stem from an adherence to one or more philosophical schools, which is also a personal matter: you can be a Stoic, an Epicurean, a Platonist or a Sceptic; you don’t have to restrict yourself to ancient philosophy and can embrace the 17th-century Rationalism, 19th-century Transcendentalism or the ideas of any contractualist from the European Enlightenment; you can even go for eastern philosophy and adhere to Indian, Tibetan, Chinese or Japanese schools of thought. This was so in the ancient world, where people from different intellectual movements nonetheless kept similar forms of traditional worship. And it is irrelevant that Transcendentalism or Zen were never part of ancient Roman culture: Romans took and worked what was available to them at the time, so unless you’re interested in re-enacting as opposed to reviving their religion in the modern world, you can take and work what is available today, which includes but is not limited to classical philosophy. I myself, apart from being a pragmatist, I’m very fond of the Buddhist school of Madhyamaka, yet that doesn’t make me less of a Roman polytheist. Why? Because what defines me religiously is who I worship and especially how. As I said here, if Saraswati is as real to me as Minerva, why am I not a Hindu? If Inari is as real to me as Mercury, why am I not a Shintoist? If I worship Freyr, Jupiter and Anubis (and I do!), why am I not a Norse or Kemetic polytheist? The answer: because I adhere to Roman ritual and calendar, worship mostly Roman gods and generally honour non-Roman ones in a Latinized fashion. It is practice that defines me.

2.2. Traditional ritual
Of the three circles, this is the only one that’s regulated by religious tradition. Because of that, it is where the communal identity resides, especially today, when one’s religion is no longer simply that of one’s city-State. Context changes things, so while in the past being a Roman citizen amounted to being a Roman polytheist – because duties towards the family, social group and country were also of a religious nature – today’s world is different. It is much more mixed and diverse, identities are more fluid and western societies are not organized in the same way as those from two thousand years ago. And rather than trying to recreate an anachronic tribal community or micronation, pretend that we don’t live in a globalized planet or that most people’s ancestry is not ethnically mixed, one must learn to accept reality and find a new place in a new world. In which case my religious identity cannot be determined by nationality (though that can be a factor) or by faith (because it would be nonsensical), but by orthopraxy. This doesn’t mean that everyone must do exactly the same thing or that tradition must remain unchanged, yet if one aspires to revive and practice an ancient religion, one cannot simply start it anew as if there was no memory. An old house can only be restored and not newly built if the overall structure and lines are preserved, which in this case translates as bringing ancient Roman ritual into the modern world. Yes, it requires a fresh layer of paint, a new roof and a layout that’s fit for today’s life, because changes are needed: tradition is not static and a different social context will require adaptations. But it must be done in a way that preserves essential features of traditional Roman worship for it to be Roman polytheism and not something else. Similarly, in order for one to be a cultor/cultrix deorum, one must worship according to Roman tradition.

2.3. Social morality
Gods inspire people to act, they motivate us to do things, but which god inspires what? In a monotheistic system, the answer is simple, since only one deity is acknowledged and therefore what He/She says is law. There is no opposition, no checks and balances, only one unopposed voice that rules supreme. But in a polytheistic system, there are multiple divine voices with diverse agendas: some inspire reason, others ecstasy; some call of sexual moderation, others for sexual enjoyment; some inspire peace and diplomacy, others the arts of war; some call for strict order, others for creative chaos. The only principle I can draw from this is perhaps that diversity is natural, that it should be cherished and divine co-existence emulated. Granted, each god’s individual cult can be more uniform and have an ethical code, but a polytheistic religion as a whole is a sum of cults to various deities and, as a result, a polytheistic version of the Ten Commandments is virtually impossible. And if the only principle is that diversity should be embraced, the question is how?

That is the central issue of any moral doctrine: how to act, how to behave. It’s a practical matter that ends up addressing the topic of how should various humans co-exist in a functional manner. When or whether to kill, enslave, steal, wear a skirt, show your hair, show your face, have sex with someone, tolerate this, prohibit that, what’s a crime, what isn’t, etc. And being practical, it is therefore an issue that is best served from an equally practical basis. Which means that whatever moral code is in force among humans, it should come not from above, but from humans themselves. It can be inspired by the Gods, in that They too are a diverse community with rules of co-existence, but ultimately, the needs and rules of human socialization should be discussed and decided by humans. If there’s any imposition from the Gods’ part, I’d argue that it exists only when it refers to Their property – those who serve Them, Their sacred ground – but that, so to speak, are house rules. It’s the religious equivalent of someone telling what others can and cannot do in his/her property, which is different from what people are allowed to do in their home, public and everyday life. For instance, a person may not want to have a pet, but that doesn’t mean everyone shouldn’t have one. In the same fashion, a god may not want a particular object inside His temple, a goddess may prohibit people from doing something in Hers, a priest may be required to act in a certain way. Cross the boundaries of the sacred, however, and it’s a different matter.

At this stage, some of you may be asking about moderation. Isn’t it a religious virtue in Roman polytheism, a governing rule that prevents one’s relationship with the Gods from becoming superstitio? My answer to that is another question: isn’t moderation a basic rule of social life? That you can love your partner, friends and family, but not to the point of suicidal or homicidal actions? That you should respect your elders, directors and leaders, but not to the point of acritical submission? To quote John Scheid’s Introduction to Roman religion, “relations with the gods were conducted under the sign of reason, not that of the irrational, in the same way as they were conducted between one citizen and another, or rather between clients and their patrons” (2003: 28). And this was so because one’s relationship with the Gods was an extension of one’s social life: just as you have duties towards your relatives, you have duties towards your ancestors and household deities; just as you co-exist with your neighbours, you co-exist with local gods and genii; just as you deal with fellow citizens – formally, semi-formally or informally – you deal with the Gods. They’re the divine elements of the community, which is why, and again I quote Scheid’s work, Roman polytheism “was a religion with no moral code. The ethical code by which it was ruled was the same as that which ruled other ‘non-religious’ social relations” (2003: 19).

Morality is therefore first and foremost a social matter, an issue of interaction, of laws of functional co-existence in the face of multiplicity and diversity – human and divine. And if social rules are not the result of a divine decree, but a need and product of social life, then they are also naturally subject to social changes. They can evolve, adapt or be dropped. As such, the “Roman virtues” people sometimes speak of are not religious, but were either the dominant values of ancient Roman society or those upheld by popular philosophical schools at the time. They’re not the moral doctrine of Roman religion – because it had none apart from social rules – and some may not even be valid in today’s world or be particularly relevant for cultores of a different intellectual persuasion.

3. The grey areas
As with anything, the distinction between personal faith, traditional ritual and social morality is not clear-cut and there are grey areas where the three circles overlap. Where faith and ritual meet (a.), the former may shape the latter. For instance, at the start of a ceremony, you may pay tribute not only to Janus, as is traditional, but also to a host of deities in accordance with the philosophical school you adhere to. Consider this example from a Platonic cultor.

Where ritual and morality overlap (b.), the latter influences the former, as what is socially unacceptable is either removed or toned down in religious ceremonies. For instance, the sacrificial killing of dogs has no chance of being accepted today given the status of that animal in modern western societies. And in my opinion, rightly so! As a result, anyone wishing to perform a traditional ceremony to Robigus would either drop the canine offering or replace it with an effigy of a dog. Another example is the role of the pater and mater familias in domestic religion: the egalitarian nature of today’s societies, as well as the legal recognition of same-sex couples, means that women can assume the leading role and the sacra privata can have a female-female or male-male dynamics that would normally not be part of ancient society. And this sort of overlap between traditional ritual and social morality, where the latter shapes the former, is not unheard of: in the past, when a foreign cult was introduced and it wasn’t in accordance with Rome’s moral customs, the new cult was toned down or adapted in some way. Consider, for instance, what happened to the rites of Magna Mater when they were first taken to Rome.

Finally, personal faith can play a role in the shaping of social morality (c.), in that a devotee of a particular deity may work to forward His/Her agenda in the world. For instance, someone who’s close to Ceres may fight for more organic agricultural practices or a devotee of Silvanus may campaign for forest protection. But this is influencing or participating, not dictating: one person or one god does not rule supreme and unopposed over all others, especially not in today’s democratic societies.

At the centre (d. ) stands the individual cultor, which is the sum of all three circles with all its overlapping parts: someone with a personal faith, practitioner of traditional rites and member of a society with a set of laws. It can also be the religious community as a whole, either at a domestic or global level: the sum of all cultores, each with their individual faith, all following a common basic ritual structure that is also diverse in its details, all part of a social context that influences their religious practices.

4. Resulting freedom
I sometimes say that freedom is my sole article of faith. Mostly I mean it as provocation to those who expect me to have a declaration of faith of some sort, but it nonetheless expresses my basic view on religion: I’m free to choose which gods to worship, They’re free to say no and decided whether or not to accept my offerings. Of course, from the moment you co-exist with someone else, you must make room for others and one’s duties towards them, so socially, one is never absolutely free. That being said, however, the separation of faith, ritual and morality ensures a wide freedom in a traditional religion.

I’m free to see the Gods in whatever way I see fit and adhere to whatever school of thought I prefer. I’m free to adapt my ceremonies according to my individual devotions, domestic or local traditions or the philosophical current I’m part of. And I’m free to discuss the dos and don’ts of society as a whole not from a dogmatic perspective (i.e. people can’t do A in their everyday life because god X says so), but by freely resorting to science and philosophy with a more open mind, since I don’t have to accommodate divinely dictated moral norms. In other words, I can think of same-sex marriage or abortion in modern terms and not necessarily those of a text written one thousand years ago or more. Because again, to me, those issues are not religious. It’s true that being a devotee of a trickster and a worshiper of the Vanir creates or reinforces a liberal perspective. But that’s my individual stance, linked to my individual faith or philosophy of choice. It’s not a doctrinal position of my religion, because it has none. And that, in my view, is a liberating thing.

The only point where I’m not free is in the basic structure of my religious practices. But a community requires something that’s communis or common, something that’s shared with others. And if it’s shared, it’s not something I can change at will because it is not mine alone. I can adjust or adapt, even create a variation, but ultimately, it requires an essential commonality that links me with fellow cultores, both living and deceased. In an orthopraxic religion, especially in today’s globalized and fluid world, that common element is basic ritual practice, which must be replicated. And I find that to be a perfectly good deal, because it preserves the freedom to think for myself when it comes to faith, philosophy and the rules of society while still being part of a religious community. It’s unity in diversity.

Intercultural issues

It’s been almost two weeks since I published a post on orthopraxic identity and already my own ritual practices are undergoing several changes. The reason is that after that post came out, people at the Roman Revivalist group on Facebook started discussing orthopraxy, whether it’s needed or not and what should be the basics. It’s a sensitive topic, but the conversation was civil. People discussed what they do at home, the significance of different gods, traditional background, cross-cultural references and comparisons and all without getting defensive, offensive or on each other’s nerves. It was a mature, highly productive debate, but one that ultimately made me question the balance of the ritual structure I employ and described in the aforementioned post from almost two weeks ago. As a result, I’ve been restructuring my religious ceremonies, rethinking which gods I should pay tribute to during the opening and closing sections, reorganizing the moments when the main offerings are presented and given, clarifying the elements specific to ritus Graecus and considering the creation of a simple and straightforward system to divine the Gods’ (dis)satisfaction. It also prompted me to review the ceremonies I use to honour the Vanir, a move reinforced by the possibility of Latinizing Thor and therefore crafting a more general ritual structure for the Roman worship of Norse deities. I’ll post about all of that in due course, but at the moment, my mind is juggling multiple ideas and my creative juices are flowing.

Of course, creating things – in this case rites – can be tricky, especially when you’re faced with intercultural issues. Which is exactly where I’m kind of stuck. To the point, one of my doubts is whether or not to (semi) formally honour Norse gods with Roman opening and closing sections. So, for instance, when performing a yearly ceremony to Freya, should I start and end with offerings to Janus, Vesta and Jupiter, giving the central moments in-between a Scandinavian flavour? Or should I use a more Norse ritual structure, whereby instead of three Roman gods, I call on two or three northern deities to open and close the ceremony?

Both options have advantages and disadvantages. By Romanizing the first and last parts, basically the brackets that enclose the focal moments, I could also worship Roman gods at the same time, which is practical when, for instance, a yearly celebration to a Norse deity falls on the Calends or Ides. As an example, on May 1st I could burn offerings to Freya and, at a final stage of the ceremony, use the same ritual fire to pour my monthly libations to Janus and Juno. The use of a Roman opening and closing would also follow the historical precedent of the ritus Graecus, which is basically a Latin rite with a few Greek elements for the sake of a sense of foreignness. However, this raises a cultural issue: it’s one thing to worship Hellenic deities in an almost entirely Roman ceremony, since Rome itself was a (partly) Hellenized civilization, but quite another to do the same with Scandinavian gods. Keep in mind that even in conquered Gaul, the acculturation of religious practices went only as far as being Gallo-Roman instead of fully Roman. The fact that temples were built using a different model in order to accommodate native traditions goes to show the persistence of non-Latin practices. Of course, that was then, this is now and things can be different with today’s cultural borders. But even if I were to accept that argument, that still leaves an important question unanswered: is it respectful to simply move Norse gods into an almost completely Roman ritual framework?

The option of honouring Scandinavian deities at the start and end of the ceremony would naturally solve that problem, by creating… let’s call it a “Nordo-Roman” synthesis or balance. But it also has its problems. For one and to use the same example on May 1st, it means I’d pour the offerings to Janus and Juno without paying tribute to the former, plus Vesta and Jupiter, which is something I’m uncomfortable with. Of course, that could be solved by simply lighting two fires, which is less practical, as well as more time and wood-consuming, but nonetheless doable. And finally, here’s my biggest doubt: which Norse gods should be honoured on both the opening and closing sections of a Latinized Norse rite? Freyr can establish peace and holy inviolability, Njord has the qualities of an intermediary (being a hostage and all), Freya is the Dís of the Vanir, Ullr is linked to binding words and gestures, Thor’s hammer hallows, Frigg, like Freya, can perhaps be connected to the hearth, as can Loki, who may well be the Norse equivalent of the Hindu god Agni. There are multiple possibilities and, should I choose a deity that’s not yet part of my pantheon, chances are that I would Latinized Him/Her too. Oh, don’t even get me started on the idea of Latinizing Loki: it both fascinates and scares me! It’s an option, no doubt about that, but I’m simultaneously in love and hesitant about it.

Worst case scenario, I’ll use the old and reverent tradition of sortes: write the names of all possible Norse deities in individual stones, include at least a blank one, pour offerings, ask who – if anyone – is up for it and draw two or three out of a bag. But even though asking the Gods should be part of the process – this is, after all, meant to honour them – I believe it needs to be worked by the human side as well. At least to me, it comes across as lazy if I just sit and wait for the Gods to teach me how to do things without me contributing to it with some of my effort. And right now, this is how it’s going: mentally stormy!

A set of words and gestures

As a way of breaking my blogging fast, which had no reason other than the fact that I’ve been having too many things to do and on my mind during these last few months, I thought of addressing the touchy business of orthopraxy. Because if what defines a polytheist is not so much which gods he/she worships, but how, then it follows that a given polytheistic community is comprised of people who share religious practices. And that in turn implies the existence of a shared ritual framework for both formal and semi-formal ceremonies. This does not exclude variations, be they locally, domestically or individually motivated, but it does mean that there is a basic structure, a common denominator that runs across the ceremonial diversity. A community is more than people who happen to live in the same place or worship the same gods: it’s also a matter of shared words and gestures. Which leads to the obvious question: what are the essentials of Roman worship?

1. Modern dynamics
Because there is no central authority to establish an orthopraxy – which is a good thing! – the answer is the combined result of three elements. One of them is historical tradition or the practices inherited from one’s ancestors. It’s part of what ancient Romans called mos maiorum, the way or customs of the elders, which is at the core of an orthopraxic religion and is all the more relevant today, given the effort to breathe new life into old religions as opposed to simply creating something based on what feels right. Another element at play is the social context, for things have changed dramatically in over one thousand years. Public life is no longer built around Roman religion, the political institutions that sustained it are gone, fire has been virtually removed from modern housing, social values and practices are in several ways radically different. This has an impact on religious practices: for instance, the role of the pater familias can be taken over by the mater, burning offerings may no longer be possible, the male-female basis of family life and hence domestic religion can now assume a male-male or female-female form, multi-religious households call for compromise and sometimes large adaptations. And finally, there’s also the interaction and exchange of ideas between different cultores, thus shaping each other’s practices. The overall dynamics can be compared to a web where each knot is an individual polytheist – alive or dead – each adding to a structure that must adapt and strive in the surrounding social environment. In that sense, this post is intended as a contribution to that process.

2. Modern orthopraxy
When defining what makes a Roman polytheist, different people may list different things and indeed some will include the belief in the Roman gods. Yet the religio is not an orthodox faith, but a religion based on a praxis. If belief were to define me, I’d simply be a polytheist, no denomination included, since I believe in all the gods, Roman and non-Roman. If Saraswati is as real to me as Minerva, why am I not a Hindu? If Inari is as real to me as Mercury, why am I not a Shintoist? If I worship Freyr, Jupiter and Anubis (and I do!), why am I not a Norse or Kemetic polytheist? The answer: because my religious practice is overwhelmingly Roman. It is how and when I do things that defines me religiously, which brings me back to the original question of what are the essentials of Roman worship. And I’d say the following:

  • Celebrate the Calends, Nones and Ides. Whether you use the Julian or Gregorian calendar, what matters is that you mark the traditional parts of the Roman month, honouring Janus and Juno on the Calends, Jupiter on the Ides and your Lares on all three dates. What gods should be honoured on the Nones is something I’d leave entirely to each individual or family, as the historical data is unclear.
  • Capite velato. The standard Roman ritual is done with one’s head covered, regardless of gender. And no, you don’t have to wear a toga, at least not in your private practices, as a hood or a white towel will have the exact same effect. Ceremonies in Greek rite or modern rituals for non-Roman gods are another matter and in those cases the capite velato may not be required.
  • Honour Janus first. Because He is the god of beginnings, it makes sense that He should be given the first prayer(s) and offering(s) in every formal and semi-formal ceremony; at least those that are not meant for gods of the underworld. This is a distinguishing feature of Roman ritual, since Janus is unique, with little or no obvious counterparts in other religious traditions. Whether or not you should pay tribute to other deities during the opening section of a ceremony depends on your preferences and what you do. If you’re using a ritual fire, Vesta can be honoured after Janus, since She presides over the flame that consumes the offerings. You may also want to consider Jupiter, since He’s a leading Roman god and may therefore be called to witness the ceremony, regardless of whether or not you use a ritual fire.
  • Upper, middle and underworld. A word of clarification: a shrine is an area where you keep images of the gods, whereas an altar is the surface on which you dispose of offerings. For instance, the former can be a shelf or a piece of furniture with statues, flowers and candles, while the latter a heap of stones where you burn or simply pour the offerings, thus permanently giving them to the Gods. The two can overlap to a degree and be easily confused, especially when the word altar is tossed around liberally, if not randomly in neopaganism. And because words, symbols and gestures matter, since they’re the language through which we communicate with the Gods, it is important to do things in a meaningful fashion. In that sense, offerings to celestial deities are to be disposed of above ground level, terrestrial powers receive theirs closer to the soil or in it and what is given to infernal gods is entirely deposited in pits. Upper, middle and underworld. However, height may not always be a practical option, especially indoors, in which case meaning may be conveyed through shape: square altars for celestial deities, circular ones for terrestrial powers. You can also combine shape and height and no, you don’t need marble altars. Heaped stones, dirt, sand or wood will do just fine, as will metal bowls for indoor use.
  • At the end, divine or expiate. Because ceremonies are a way of sharing something with the Gods, it is important to know how They feel once it’s over. Have They accepted the offerings, rejected them or want something else? Of course, this requires divinatory instruments and the ability to use them properly, something not everyone has, which is why, at the very least, an expiatory offering should be made at the end of every formal and semi-formal ceremony, in case one or more deities disliked it or were offended by it. It’s in line with historical traditions and necessary for things to be closed in peace.

Now, I know it may take time to absorb these things and apply them fully in one’s religious praxis. I myself am still in the process of doing it. As with anything, practice makes perfect and that takes time and patience. But this is part of the work of reviving an ancient religion in the modern world and make it a group thing, even if most of us don’t live next to each other. Actually, especially because we don’t live in the same city! When a shared physical space is inexistent, shared practices are one those things that sustain a dispersed community. As an example of the principles I just enumerated, what follows is the basic layout of my usual ceremonies. Note that this is not a finished product or something I started doing outright, but the result of a few years of attempts, trials and errors. Practice makes perfect!

3. A practical example
First, I choose the site and materials for the ceremony depending on its purpose. If it’s for celestial deities, I perform the ceremony at home, pilling wood in my fireplace so as to form a square. If it’s for a terrestrial deity, I still pile the wood in the same fashion and use it for the opening and closing sections, but collect the main offerings in a circular bowl with fresh soil and later pour it outside in a park, beach, riverside or woodland. If it’s for an underworld god/dess, the ceremony is entirely conducted outside, either by pouring or burning the offerings in a pit, depending on the weather. Also, I make sure I have something to cover my head with, usually a small towel.

  • I. Opening: a prayer to Janus opens my ceremonies, followed by one or two offerings to Him, depending on the date. If it’s a fully formal ceremony on a yearly occasion (e.g. Saturnalia or Mercuralia), I usually give Him incense and a portion of wine, the former to welcome Him and the latter to ask Him to bless the start of the ceremony. If the purpose is to dispose of monthly offerings (e.g. on the Calends or Ides), things are simpler and I give Janus just one offering. Then I honour Vesta for the ritual fire, Jupiter to testify the ceremony and finally my Lares, since they’re at the root of the Portuguese word for hearth or fireplace (lareira). Again, if it’s a fully formal ceremony, each get two offerings, but only one if it’s a semi-formal monthly occasion. However, if the purpose is to worship a deity of the underworld, I tend not to invite celestial gods, in which case I drop the tributes to Janus and Jupiter, honouring Mercury instead and retaining Vesta if the weather allows me to light a fire. The offerings to the Lares are also dropped, since I don’t use my fireplace or any part of my house to worship infernal gods.
  • II. Offering: if it’s a fully formal ceremony, the deity it focuses on is invited with an initial prayer and offering. Then I list what I intend to give Him/Her and what I want in return, even if it’s only a general request for blessings. The main offerings are placed one by one in the ritual fire, poured on the ground or collected in a circular bowl with fresh soil, depending on the deity the ceremony is addressed to, followed by a final prayer. If it’s a semi-formal ceremony on the Ides, for instance, the offerings are briefly presented and disposed of, since they have already been listed and blessings asked for when they were given to the Gods earlier in the day.
  • III. Closing: at this stage and if there’s a ritual fire, a final offering to Vesta may be made, though recently I started honouring Mercury at the closing of the ceremony. It’s mostly out of devotion, since He’s become my main deity and having made room for ritual protocol in the other sections, I felt like I was free to add a more personal note at the end. Plus, it makes sense functionally, since He’s a god of communication and movement. But what’s absolutely essential at this stage is the expiatory offering, given just in case someone was offended by the ceremony or disliked it.

Again, this is how I perform formal or semi-formal occasions. You don’t have to do it exactly as I do and none of this excludes fully informal offerings like sprinkling wheat on a rock or pouring wine on the floor or a grave. Those things call for little more than a prayer and no, you don’t have to use Latin. If you want to, you can add a few Latin words for a sense of connection with the past, but I’d say that’s unnecessary if you employ a romance language. This is one of those things that result from the changes in social context: Romans used their native tongue and you should use yours, especially if it derives directly from Latin.

4. The issue of fire
Most people don’t have a fireplace and even cooking appliances are increasingly electric. However, modern kitchens normally have chimneys or smoke extractors above the stove, so you have two options with regard to the disposal of offerings: burn them in a metal bowl placed on the stove, so that the smoke can be extracted, or simply collect them in several small containers and later pour them outside. In both cases, I’d suggest you use bowls with meaningful shapes: square ones for offerings for celestial deities, circular ones with fresh soil for terrestrial gods. If you do light a fire inside the former, make sure there’s something under the bowl so the heat won’t damage the surface it’s on. And finally, adjust the type and quantity of offerings if you’re going to burn them, as small fires have a naturally smaller capacity to consume food.

Let it burn (and sink)

Disgusting as it was for the most part, the debate on offerings and piety that ragged through the internet last year did have one positive effect for me: it made me wonder about how can I improve my personal devotion to the Gods. For several years, I’ve been offering mostly incense and basic prayers in my monthly tributes to Janus, Juno, Jupiter, Minerva, Mercury, Ingui-Frey, my Ancestors and my Penates. It’s not that I didn’t want to offer more, namely libations, wheat and cakes, it’s just that I was always confronted with the problem of what to do with food offerings. For the most part, burning them isn’t a practical option in a modern house, where electrical appliances virtually fill in all of the heating, cooking and lighting needs, leaving fire with a residual presence at best. And in order to burn food, especially several portions of it – ’cause libations to Janus and Vesta are always needed – you need more than a candle flame. Potted plants have their limits – it’s not a one-time thing – and while city parks are a solution, it’s also more of a last resort than an ideal solution for more frequent offerings.

However, recently I’ve been spending most of my time at the family house, which has a fireplace, so I made the New Year decision of upgrading my monthly offerings since, at least for the time being, it’s easier for me to burn food. It’s just a question of being organized enough to always have enough wood for at least five times a month. This will naturally be easier during Spring and Summer, since I can use my bike rides to frequently stop in a local woodland and pick up what I need; during the rainy season, I’ll have to make do with stored extras from Summer and twigs picked up in city parks. Then it’s just a matter of lighting up a small fire, make a wine libation to Janus and a milk one to Vesta and burn whatever food offerings I make to the god of the day.

Minerva - oferendas

Today’s is Minerva, so in the morning, as part of my early daily salutations and prayers, I decorated Her image and offered incense and olive oil, which I later burned in the fireplace. I did the same last January 1st to Janus, Juno and Mercury (since it was also the first Wednesday of the month), to Jupiter on the 13th and to my Ancestors and housewights on both occasions, as well as on the 5th. As for Ingui-Frey, I think I’ll be using the potted plants in our balcony to pour His libation and portion of honey. This is a temporary solution until I get Him a vase of His own with flowers, a small offering stone and two miniature god poles I’ll have to carve. That too is a plan born out of my desire to improve my monthly tributes.

What do you know! It turns out the flame war did have some use after all…