Dropping the moral criterion

How can it be a god if it’s not perfect? How can it be worshipped if it’s not good? These are questions that I’m occasionally confronted with and not just by Christians. They also come out of the mouth (or fingers) of atheists and, every now and then, even pagans and polytheists, in what is a good example of how the current religious speech, at least in the western world, is dominated by Abrahamic assumptions, even if you’re not a Jew, Christian, Muslim or religious at all.

1. One’s criteria…
At the root of those questions – and the astonishment that may accompany them – is the prevalence of a concept of divinity that’s based on a moral criterion, as, for instance, in the idea that “God is good”. Or just or merciful or perfect. If it has flaws, it’s not a god. If it has no sense of justice, if it lets bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them, if it lacks compassion or possesses a moral imperfection, then it’s not a god. Thus, if the devil steals, lies, seduces, hurts or destroys, those are symptoms of its non-divinity. He’s the anti-god and therefore the opposite of perfection and justice. And if there was a god, “this” – insert whatever tragedy you can think of – would never happen.

It wasn’t always like this and one can find a more unpleasant notion of the divine in the Old Testament. For instance, the death of Uzzah after he touched the Ark of the Covenant, in Samuel II 6:6-7, is ruthless and takes into consideration no good intentions whatsoever. But the moral criterion isn’t new as well and you can see it in places like chapter 7 of the Correctione Rusticorum, where Saint Martin of Dume denies that Jupiter, Mars or Mercury are gods based not just on a belief in a divine monopoly, but also from their behaviour: adultery, lies, theft, magic, instigation of discord, all of that is unbecoming of a deity and signs that something isn’t a god.

The moral criterion came to prevail and is presently a recurring part of Christian thought. It’s in speeches, sermons, manuals, everyday conversations. And because the European continent has a thousand or more years of Abrahamic predominance, that conception is the default perspective based on which most people discuss religion, whatever it may be or regardless of whether or not you have one.

2. …are not the criteria of others
It wasn’t like that in ancient Europe, where the divine was commonly defined as being numinous, wondrous or extraordinary, as having the power to awe, inspire, terrify, create or destroy, no matter if it was beneficial or damaging, pleasant or unpleasant. Gods in everything, as Thales of Miletus is believed to have said and Virgil wrote later on, regardless if it’s good or bad things.

To put it in practical terms, consider the case of Aphrodite. It’s true that ancient Greece wasn’t all misogynist, if nothing else because it’s hard to speak of uniformity in a territory that was divided into multiple city-States, which had traditions and cultural nuances of their own, and even more so in a polytheistic context, which by recognizing multiple gods also accepts multiple patterns, even if in a limited fashion. But it was still a place and time where there was a strong cultural current that saw female sexuality with some discomfort, if not fear.

There’s a trace of that in Euripides’ Bacchae, lines 217-25, where Pentheus accuses the women who honour Dionysus of leaving their homes and wander through the mountains, submitting to lasciviousness in isolated places. He also accuses them of placing the cult of Aphrodite ahead of that of Bacchus, using the latter as a pretext for lust. And the foreigner who introduces the Dionysian practices, who’s the god Himself and Pentheus accuses of moral corruption, is described as having “in his wine-coloured eyes the charms of Aphrodite”.

It is thus unsurprising that the great warrior goddess of the Greeks is Athena. After all, She had no mother who gave birth to Her, as said in lines 735-6 of the Eumenides, and, because She came out of the head of Zeus, She lends Herself to interpretations like coming from the elevated place of male reason instead of the lowers parts of female sexuality. And as if that wasn’t enough, She is staunchly chaste, which makes Her safe to have among men, since there’s no lust in Her. Simply put, She’s a masculinized goddess and therefore accepted in the bellic world. Aphrodite, on the other hand, as stated in Book 5 of the Iliad, is clearly out of Her depth in actual physical combat, in as much as, after being injured by Diomedes, She’s told to stick to Her realm, which is not that of war.

Artemis offers another symptom of a similar aversion to female sexuality. As goddess of the hunt, an activity that requires one to run through woods and fields, you’d expect Her to be seen as having minimalistic clothing that allows for a greater freedom of movement. Running and jumping in a long skirt isn’t easy. But that same minimalism results in a greater exposure of the body, which is not very modest, and so it is convenient that Artemis, like Athena, is staunchly chaste. In as much as, in some versions of the myth of Actaeon, he’s killed just for seeing the goddess naked. Which makes Her yet another safe female deity, because She makes no use of Her sexuality and can therefore run and wander through the mountains without fears of, in Pentheus’ words, giving way to lasciviousness in isolated places.

This serves to show that there was a clear misogynist line in ancient Greek culture, even if it wasn’t unanimous or uniform. But despite that, despite that discomfort or distrust of female sexuality and the “evils” it could bring, the Greeks nonetheless recognized Aphrodite as a goddess. She could be “dangerous”, at the very least potentially immoral, but still a deity, either because lust exerts an overwhelming power over humans and thus has extraordinary or numinous qualities, or because female sexuality has a reproductive use, preferably within the bounds of marriage, which is where the Iliad places Aphrodite.

3. Not every cult is an invitation
This open manner of seeing the divine is odd to many of us. We’re not used to consider deities without making judgements, without wondering if it’s good, beneficial or just and therefore a god or not. The Judeo-Christian principles are the common reference and thus people tend to project them on any religion, past or present, as if they were natural, obvious or universal traits. They’re not. The moral reasoning would have made no sense for many in ancient Europe, so much so that not every cult aimed at divine presence or closeness. Sometimes, the purpose was to obtain a safe distance – with respect, yes, but a distance nonetheless – which is not surprising, if you think about it.

If an entity is acknowledged as a god or goddess even if it has a damaging, terrifying or destructive nature, then not every religious gesture will aim at having said deity among us. “Let God enter you life”, Christians would say. Which at least to some polytheists makes sense only up to a point, because there are gods you may want to keep as far away as respectfully possible, even if you worship them. Gods of the Underworld, for instance, are often synonymous with terror, disease and death, though that doesn’t make Them less divine. It just means that the cult that is owed and given to Them serves less to attract Them and more to keep Them satisfied, though at a safe distance in order to avoid the presence of that which They bring. It’s not by chance that the cult of the dead could be wrapped up in taboos.

This, too, is odd to many of us. After all, how many people use or hang amulets against evil-eyes, misfortune or demons, without ever considering at the same time the option of offering something to that which is seen as bad in other to keep it at bay? Or how many people reject that possibility because, according to the Judeo-Christian principles, only god deserves to be honoured and god is that which is good, just, pure or perfect?

4. The past and the present
Unsurprisingly, even among those who try to revive ancient European polytheisms there are people who make use of the moral criterion, even if they’re not entirely aware of it. The refusal to honour Loki is a good example, since it’s often based on the argument that He’s a traitor or a liar, as described in a mythology preserved in late sources where the Norse trickster is already shaped in the image of the Christian devil. It’s interesting to note that people often neglect the resemblances with the Greek Hermes or the African-American Eshu, who are acknowledged as deities despite their mercurial personalities. Or that a god doesn’t have to be good, morally perfect or just in order to be a god. Or that a cult can also serve to keep at bay – the deity or its effects – and not to invite it to be present. To say that His moral conduct disqualifies Loki from the divine category is something that may owe more to Christian theology and less to the religious ideas of pre-Christian Europe.

The same may perhaps be said of those who honour infernal gods in domestic shrines, side by side with celestial deities. There’s certainly in that an element of poor knowledge of ancient practices, but somewhere in the middle there may also be a product of the moral criterion. Because if a god is that which is just or good, as is commonly believed in the present religious discourse, then Dis Pater and Jupiter are on a similar level, since they’re both gods, and can therefore be worshipped side by side. There is a degree of comfort in a morally-based theology, because it can assume divine goodness and purity as certain and universal.

5. Amoral is different from irrational
At this point, I must emphasize two things, starting with the fact that polytheism is a diverse religious category, even more so if one takes into account that several of its religions have no orthodoxy and therefore no uniform beliefs. What I said has thus a relative reach and it’s important to note that. But besides that, by defending an amoral concept of deity, I’m not saying that the gods are irrational beings who act randomly or sadistically. I don’t hold the idea that they are out to get you, waiting to find flaws they can punish, but instead believe there is reason in them. There are purposes and goals… though not necessarily our own. And that is where another part of the problem resides.

As I see it, we’re not the centre of things and the world or universe do not exist for our benefit. We’re the cumulative product of multiple causes and the cosmos, like the Earth, has multiple gods, not all of them friendly towards civilization. Some are indifferent to it, others oppose it and some deities are not particularly preoccupied with us or our needs, individual or collective. Many, if not most, see things in a wider fashion than we do, for which reason some are willing to harm individuals for the sake of a greater good or long term. Think of gods like Volcanus, who presides over the subterranean heat and thus the tectonic dynamics that sustain life, but which work on a chronological horizon of thousands or millions of years, much more than any human generation, and can be destructive of individuals lives. The needs and worries of Volcanus are not ours – and keep in mind that I distinguish Him from Hephaestus, who to me comes across as a god of the fire of the forge, civilized and tempered, not that of the inner Earth, which is primordial and violent.

As such, speaking from my own view as a Roman polytheist, if a deity is harmful, if it presents itself as violent and immoral, it’s not because it’s irrational: it just means that it follows rules and an agenda different from ours. One may certainly try to negotiate, obtain a truce, time, benefits or limited help, but ultimately its goals may not be our own. A god of disease isn’t evil, it simply presides over something unpleasant or tragic, but which is a natural part of a world that does not exist for our benefit. A god of chaos too isn’t evil, but participates in a universe that’s in constant change and thus has a chaotic component. None of this disqualifies them as gods. It simply means that they’re different deities with which one must deal accordingly and without denying them the divine status.

I’m aware, of course, that these examples are based on a modern understanding of the cosmos, in contrast to the science of the ancient world, which saw things like the sun or the stars as being eternal or was unaware of the microscopic world behind diseases. But it’s one thing to let knowledge shape theology, offering fresh content to the general outline and religious practices of the past, which did see destructive and harmful powers as gods nonetheless. It’s quite another to distort that under the influence of ideas that are alien to a given religious system and are acquired or accepted as valid out of inertia.

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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.