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.

Of such things is the world made

Though not necessarily a universal trait – because polytheism is a diverse category and what’s true for one part may not be for another – it is at least frequent among polytheists to see life as something that has a religious dimension in all of its aspects. Which may seem totalitarian and that would indeed be the case if not for the fundamental principle of plurality, present in the idea of poly- or “many”, implying that a person’s religiosity may not be another’s and without condemnation deriving from difference.

On that note of an everyday dimension, since today is my birthday, I planned a ceremony in Roman rite to sacrifice small slices of my anniversary cake to my ancestors, house genii and Mercury. It’s a gesture of sharing with deceased family members, which recalls the meal with living relatives, and the acknowledgement of a special bound with some deities, in the same manner as one highlights ties of friendship in a birthday. And in that same context, following a brief conversation with a friend, I decided to add this text to my tributes to Mercury, focusing on His less popular side and draw from it ideas on His identity and the type of blessings or punishments He offers.

Notice, however, that what I’m about to say is my perspective – that of a Portuguese man who associates the son of Maia with the Lares Viales, integrating Him in an Iberian context, and is a bit of a Buddhist, philosophically. The experiences and conclusions of other devotees of the Fleet-Footed may therefore be different from mine and there’s nothing wrong about that.

1. Got to move, got to fly
A few days ago, Aldrin asked me how do I feel when people say Mercury is not to be trusted because He’s a lying trickster. And my answer was that I laugh it off when I don’t try to explain that He’s a liminal and therefore fluid god, including when it comes to morality. Because one of the things that characterizes a trickster is being at ease in the ambiguous space that exists between the notions of right and wrong, moving freely from one side to the other. It’s not by chance that the son of Maia is a messenger, diplomat, interpreter, traveller – in short, a deity who crosses boundaries and bridges the two sides of a border.

But fluidity is movement, it’s constant change, which is uncomfortable for us. Human beings tend to prefer the comfort of certainty and predictability, which is hard to get when limits are no longer clear-cut. And as if that’s not enough, we’re equally and naturally averse to change, which we normally try to prevent, even when it’s inevitable. And it’s almost always inevitable. Health, beauty, a dream job or home, the perfect afternoon or dinner, the ideal marriage or the irreplaceable company of a partner – all of that is precious and worth striving for, but fleeting and subject to change, whether we like it or not. Refusing to accept that is like being a traveller who wants to perpetually stay under the shade of a tree, unworried and comfortable, rather than keep walking. Which goes against Mercury’s nature, who’s a god of movement and at best allows for pauses along the road. Actually, more than that, He offers and enriches them with blessings of success, luck, pleasure, happiness and prosperity. But sooner or later, you’re meant to get back on the road and resume the journey. Life is made of constant change and movement, however much we’d like things to last forever, and the son of Maia embodies that reality. It’s His world.

2. Perhaps a saint is not what they need
If despite being unpleasant change can nonetheless come to be accepted, the same cannot be said of theft, which is never pleasant for its victims. And it is true that Mercury is a god of lies and thieves, which doesn’t make Him more popular, though here too one must understand the root of that link. Because what makes the son of Maia a god of not just burglars, but also traders and profit, is the aforementioned nature of the trickster. He’s fluid, always on the move and thus hard to catch, is armed with a honeyed tongue and has the skills of a joker, making Him a constant bag of surprises. Illusion, the gift of rhetoric, swift moves, sharp eyes, inventive qualities, agility and ability – all of that comes naturally for a trickster. It characterizes a god who moves in the shadows or is at home in the ambiguity that exists between worlds, genders, right and wrong and can assume various roles or perform the function of diplomat, interpreter, spy or messenger. He’s versatile and adaptable, because He has that ability to integrate, camouflage, improvise, invent.

Of course, those are also the basic tools of thievery, which requires the use of cunning and skill, of going about unnoticed or swiftly. But I wouldn’t say that Mercury is a trickster because He’s a god of thieves. Quite the opposite! He’s a deity of thieves precisely because He is a trickster! That is to say, He has vital qualities for any burglar and may grant them, but not always and never exclusively, because the god is not the activity, in as much as you can outwit a thief if you make a better use of the mercurial tool set. The gifts are there, but their practical application… that’s another story.

As such, if theft and lies are a product of Mercury’s world, it is also true that what stands beneath them can be used for multiple goals and without compromising basic honesty. Be smart, be ingenious, be on the look out and get moving. If there are those who do it to hurt and steal, you can also use it to help and succeed. Far from being a monopoly of burglars, resourcefulness is often a necessity of life and many of those who made the world a better place were not saints.

3. Always move fast, you never know what’s catching you up
So far, I’ve been talking about Mercury’s identity as I see it and the blessings He offers, but I’m yet to say a word or two about the less pleasant part that are divine curses or punishments. And those can take different forms, the most obvious being becoming a victim of the mercurial arts in a brutal and systematic fashion or being deprived of them, turning a person into a naïve creature that never convinces and is always convinced or fooled.

Naturally, there are numerous nuances to this and no, I’m not saying that every robbery or swindle is a punishment from Mercury. For one, because divine plurality prevents one from attributing everything to a single god and also because there’s always the human element. Furthermore, wandering about without a destination, lost and in constant flux, may also be a mercurial experience and not necessarily as a punishment. The world is also made of such complexities.

There is, however, another form of divine curse that isn’t always considered, but which can be drawn from the title of this section: always move fast, you never know what’s catching you up. The sentence, by the way, is a quote from Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, as are all the subtitles and title of this post, and it can express the aforementioned idea of being smart, ingenious, sharp and get moving. But taken to the extreme it is also synonymous with paranoia and that is sometimes the way divine punishment works: not through a removal of blessings, but by giving them in a hyperbolic state, as if on steroids, putting one in a downward spiral into madness or disaster. In this case, by turning the advice of being on the look out and get moving into a constant fear of your surroundings until you’re completely isolated. This too is part of the world of the son of Maia, who, like other gods, is not without less pleasant aspects.

4. You know your walks
What then is this path of Mercury that I’m describing? In short, it’s the awareness that life is a constant journey. You may pause, have moments of rest and enjoyment, success and acquisition of desired things, but they’re subject to change and you’re meant to move on, to keep travelling. Accept that and cherish it. And be smart, be on the look out, be sharp and ingenious, though that doesn’t mean you won’t trip. Because that too is a part of life and Mercury sometimes likes to throw a curved ball. He’s also a god of games.

The brainstorm of divine origins

For those of you who are unaware of it, I’m not a fan of immediate equations of gods. That is to say, that I’m not into the simplistic argument that similar iconography or overlap in functions is enough to conclude that two or more deities are the same. I know it was a common thing in the ancient world and a lot of modern polytheists do it, but I tend to dig deeper and look into various specifics – etymology, cult history, nature or functions – instead of jumping to the conclusions based on a very broad and – dare I say? – shallow stroke. Why? Mostly because I like to know the gods I worship as best as I can and preferably based on more than just a “feels right” kind of argument. And also because, whenever History is concerned, I prefer to put things under a critical eye as opposed to merely accepting what is given to me by ancient sources or appearances. In this case, whether a god is originally native or imported and hence distinct or identical to another. It may not provide for a decisive conclusion – and the further back you go in History, the less certainties you have – but it does award a more solid basis on which to build my beliefs.

Case by case
In the past, this has led me to conclude that Hephaestus is different from Volcanus, for while they are both fire gods, the former is that of the forge – and hence civilized fire – whereas the latter is that of the wild and inner earth, which translates into a much more primal and violent force. Just because several deities are tied to the flames, it doesn’t mean that they’re the same. Otherwise, you might have to conclude that Hephaestus and Hestia are identical, despite the gender difference, because they both deal with fire. It’s the nature of the flame that matters. On the opposite end of the topic, I’ve come to conclude that Hermes and Mercury are the same, since the latter was not a part of the earliest Roman pantheon – as suggested by the lack of a flamen – and the location of His temple outside the pomerium, while not an infallible proof, nonetheless also hints at an originally foreign cult. The Greek colonies of southern Italy may well be the point from where Hermes entered Roman religion. And between equation and distinction, I’m unsure about Jupiter, for while His name is an etymological match to that of Zeus, both Latin and Greek are Indo-European languages, so if you’re going to name a sky god, chances are that you’ll use something that’s linguistically identical to what’s being employed in another tongue of the same group. Simply put, it could be a mere case of different gods being identified by means of common words.

General notions
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with believing differently, because 1) these are not orthodox or exclusivist religions and 2) it ends up being a bit indifferent. After all, if they’re the same, that just means you’ve been worshipping the same deity all along, whereas if they’re not, then you’ve been honouring the ones you name according to a chosen ritual praxis. And again, yes, simplistic and sometimes even contradictory equation was a very common thing in the ancient world. But when I look at pre-Christian authors claiming that the Egyptians worshipped Aphrodite (meaning Hathor) or that the Germans honoured Mercury (i.e. Wodan), I remind myself of what happened when Vasco da Gama reached India, in 1498, and the Portuguese mistook Hindu deities for Catholic saints. True, they found it odd that they had multiple arms, big teeth and weird heads, but that wasn’t an immediate disqualifier, in as much as Vasco da Gama is said to have prayed to a Hindu goddess thinking it was the Virgin Mary. Or at least that’s the account of Lopes de Castanheda, published in 1551, in his History of the Discovery and Conquest of India by the Portuguese (Book I, chapter 16). And the reason for the confusion is that, in the minds of Gama and his men, there were only three religions at the time: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. They were not particularly aware of any other. They may have heard about tribal African religions, though it’s unclear how they saw them exactly, but in any case, when confronted with the large stone buildings of Hinduism, with its many colours and statues, the only point of reference they had in living memory was Catholicism, since neither Jews nor Muslims worship images. And thus, the obvious conclusion was that the Indians were Christians.

This is how I often – though not always – look at classical equations: a simplistic reasoning born out of the fact that people had a limited knowledge of other religions and naturally assumed a sameness that filled in the blanks; or alternatively, an implicit statement of self-importance, in that you see yourself as superior or at the centre of things and so of course other people do the same as you. Much like modern, often ill-informed individuals may assume that what’s true for their country is true elsewhere in the world, because all they know is basically what they deal with daily or they see themselves as important enough for their specifics to be universal. And in the particular case of the ancient Romans, it was also an issue of the grass being more educated on the Greek side of the fence, so they claimed that it too was Roman.

Again, this doesn’t mean that there’s no merit in equation. It’s a valid theological perspective, one that I share in some instances, and, as said, this is not a matter of orthodoxy. But I cannot take it at face value, accept it simply because that’s what ancient authors did, no more than I can conclude that two or more gods are the same just because they share functions or looks. If human life is similar, of course you’re going to find different deities attached to similar spheres of influence. And iconography, like names and legendary elements, can move around and get tied to multiple things and entities that are nonetheless separate. Look at how the Japanese wind god Fujin is depicted with a bag or cloak similar to that of the Greek Boreas, not because they’re necessarily the same, but because the artistic convention was slowly carried over from Greece to Japan by way of conquest and trade. Consider also how the depiction of the Virgin Mary partially derives from that of pre-Christian goddesses like Isis, not because they’re the same entity, but because the iconography of the latter was used to depict the former. Or in a weirder, yet enlightening example, how peasants from 13th-century France transferred the name and martyr status of a human saint – Guinefort – to a greyhound they worshipped. They’re not the same character – one is a man, the other a dog – but the former’s name and title was used for a canine cult (Schmitt 2009: 91-105). And in a clearer case of imported elements being attached to a native figure, the words in hoc signo vinces, which were said to have appeared to Constantine before the battle of the Milvian bridge, in 312, are also part of a much later legend pertaining to the first Portuguese king and his victory at Ourique in 1139 (Pereira 1993: 436). Check Camões’ The Lusíadas III: 45 for an allusion to it. In short, parts of things can move and get attached to other, independent things. It’s a bit like clothing fashion, in that it too gets passed around between people, communities and cultures. But just because two or more individuals wear the same outfit, that doesn’t mean they’re the same person or of the same country.

A complex case
My most recent dive into the brainstorm that are such matters concerns Minerva. I’ve been going back and forth with it, sometimes leaning towards distinction, others towards equation with Athena, and a few days ago I revisited the matter and went a bit deeper, down a rabbit hole of sorts, you might say, and came out with a more solid conviction on the identity of a goddess to whom I perform a monthly sacrifice on the 19th day.

I started with the simplest and most common belief, that They are the same deity given the similarity of roles and an identical iconography. She was known among the Etruscans as Menrva and what little is known of their religion suggests a strong Hellenic influence that could have included the plain appropriation (*gasp*) of Athena, whose name would have been replaced with a native one. After all, as in Greek myth, Menrva is the daughter of the sky god, from whose head She was born, pairs up with the hero Hercles (i.e. Herakles) and is depicted in much the same way as Athena, with an aegis, spear, helmet and shield. This would seem to suggest that They’re the same, but take a closer look and you’ll start spotting differences. Namely, that Menrva was seen as a wielder of lightening, appears to have had a connection with divination and perhaps also with children, though it is unclear to what extent. Maybe just as an educator, but it could also be something else, enough for some to question whether She was seen as virginal as Athena (Grummond 2006: 72-5). So They’re not exactly the same goddess. The crucial question is whether the differences came before or after the Hellenization of Etruscan religion.

If one opts for the latter, then the distinctions are simply a form of regionalization, i.e. the product of Athena’s integration into the Etruscan context. Old gods in new places are often reinterpreted, with roles being dropped, stressed or added according to the needs, customs or experiences of the host culture, which may not be common to those of others, and so the differences may be no more than Athena’s Etruscan flavour. Yet they could also be traces of an older Menrva, one that pre-dates much of the Hellenic influence and is therefore a separate deity, but on which layers of imported Greek elements were superimposed, attached to Her like a new outfit, leaving only a few distinctive features as remnants of a previous self.

This is where linguistics becomes of particular importance, because Menrva is a name of Indo-European stock. It comes from the Italic meneswo (intelligent, understanding), which is rooted in men- or “thought” (Cor de Vaan 2008: 380-1). This is unlike what happens in the case of Tinia, whose name may come from the Etruscan tin (day), or Turms, whose etymology is unknown (Grummond 2006: 53 and 122). But here’s the thing: the Etruscan language was not Indo-European and thus the name of the goddess, which is attested as early as the 6th century BCE, was imported from elsewhere. Where exactly is unclear, but the Latin, Faliscan and Umbrian areas of central Italy have been put forward as possibilities (Cor de Vaan 2008: 381). Which is curious, because the traditional or standard interpretation is that the Romans acquired Minerva from the Etruscans. But if etymology is anything to go by, the truth is perhaps the other way around. And there may be a circumstantial indication of that in the fact that Menrva seems to be absent from the Piacenza liver, which was found in what used to be northern Etruria, but there was a temple to Her at Veii, which was closer to Rome (Simmon 2006: 59.1). So we have a goddess whose name is an import and whose cult may not have been present in a uniform fashion. Thus, if the theonym has a southern origin and, perhaps, She was more popular in the Etruscan south, then maybe that’s where one needs to look in order to find Her origins: south! And in ancient Italy, the further you went in that direction, the closer you were from the Greek settlements of Magna Graecia, some of which were founded in the 8th century BCE.

So what to make of it?
Now, as said, the further back you go in History, the less certainties you get and that’s exactly the case here: I’m trying to make sense of fragments of information on the origins of a particular goddess, knowing that in the end I’ll only have a theory and not a certainty. But having said that, where do I stand?

I’m leaning strongly towards believing that Menrva/Minerva is the same as Athena, though not as a direct Etruscan appropriation of a Greek goddess – or at least not at first – but an indirect one via non-Greek communities in central Italy. That is to say, people like the Latins, Falisci or Umbri picked up the cult of Athena from their contacts with Magna Graecia, changed Her name along the way and then the Etruscans, thanks to their proximity to central Italians, themselves took Her in already renamed as Menerwa. Hence Her Indo-European name in a non-Indo-European culture and the apparent possibility that She was more popular in southern as opposed to northern Etruria. And this could also explain the differences between Minerva and Athena, in that the former would be a bit like a translation of a translation – twice interpreted and hence somewhat distinct from the original.

Since the transmission would have taken place sometime between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, it is fair to ask why then was Minerva absent from the traces of the older pantheon of ancient Rome? Specifically, why is there no flamen Minervalis? Perhaps because in the early period She was not popular enough for it. After all, just because the knowledge or even worship of a goddess gets passed around between people and communities, it doesn’t mean that it automatically becomes a State cult. That may have come later and in a reverse movement to how it started, i.e. from north to south, from Etruria to Latium and Rome.

Again, not a certainty, but it is a more solid basis than just feeling right that Minerva and Athena are the same. Because when things involve historical processes of some sort – like the origins and expansion of a cult – this is how I tend look at it. Through enquiry and critical thinking, not a mere acceptance of accounts or looks. Which come to think of it, is a very minerval thing to do, to make use of your ability to reason and construct ideas.

Works cited
COR DE VAAN, Michiel Arnoud. 2008. Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages. Leiden, Boston: Brill.

GRUMMOND, Nancy Thompson de. 2006. Etruscan myth, sacred History, and legend. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

SIMON, Erika. 2006. “Gods in Harmony: the Etruscan pantheon”, in The religion of the Etruscans, eds. Nancy Thompson de Grummon and Erika Simon. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 45-65.

PEREIRA, Paulo. 1993. “A conjuntura artística e as mudanças de gosto”, in História de Portugal, volume III, dir. José Mattoso. Lisboa: Círculo de Leitores, pp. 423-467.

SCHMITT, Jean-Claude. 2009. The holy greyhound, trans. Martin Thom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Many dead, many gods

Parentalia has come and gone, March is here and the Ludi Mercuriales are just one month away. The latter may be the topic of my next piece on Polytheist.com – or at least something related to Mercury in honour of His birthday – but for now, I’ll just post a link to the most recent one:

Some of what is said in it isn’t new. I have addressed the issue of what is a god in previous occasions and also pointed out how History works in a manner that is not akin to Athena’s birth, which rose fully-formed from Her father’s head. But I combine both on the topic of the imperial cult and the divine status of the dead, with a bit of Shinto and a critique of religious re-enactment for good measure. Whether you agree with it or not, enjoy!

More on narrowing

Almost a month ago, I wrote this post on why polytheists should think twice when narrowing what qualifies as a god. It generated a debate in the comments section, a conversation on Twitter and Sarenth has recently stepped into the debate with this post. So as a result, I’m returning to the subject in order to clarify my own position and, hopefully, where the crux of the matter is.

Categorization is useful and there’s no doubt about that. It allows us to work in a precise fashion, avoid the dangers of generalization and specify the goals, limits and means of our actions. So, for instance, when communicating with the Gods, one should always keep in mind the exact type of deity being addressed so as to avoid breaking taboos, mismanaging offerings or use the wrong set of tools. I don’t refute any of this and indeed embrace it! Roman polytheism has a rich tradition of making a ritual distinction between celestial, terrestrial, infernal and domestic deities (even aspects of the same deity) and how that determines the type of altar being used, the way offerings are disposed of, the time of day when ceremonies are performed, etc. But here’s another thing ancient Roman polytheism had: an open or wide use of the terms deus/dea (god/goddess) and di (gods). They weren’t applied to just a limited group of beings on the topmost places of the hierarchy, but to pretty much any entity that was numinous, otherworldly or more-than-mere-human. Much like the kami of Shinto. I listed it before, but for the sake of clarity, here goes again: Romans referred to the dead as Di Manes, their deceased relatives as Di Parentes, their household gods as Di Penates, the underworld powers as Di Inferi, smaller ones like Cardea, goddess of door hinges, as Di Indigetes, and the big twelve or Olympians as Di Consentes. See the pattern? They’re all called di or gods. The same goes for nymphs and Lares, two other types of entities that are also referred to in the same manner.

How can a tradition that is meticulous to the point of distinguishing between different types of altars, gestures and procedures for different types of entities be so lax in the way it uses the word “god”? Or to employ Sarenth’s terms, how could ancient Romans not narrow the use of the word and allowed it to homogenise as gods so many different types of entities? Isn’t that a contradiction? No, it isn’t!

When I said narrowing it was missing it, I wasn’t stating that narrowing is useless. I was pointing out that having a minimalistic view of what is a god amounts to missing the full range of what it can mean in a polytheist context. To put it differently, I was saying that “god” is a wide category and not a narrow one. It can include greater, smaller, local, supralocal, regional, universal, celestial, terrestrial, infernal, family and non-family gods. And if you narrow it, you’re missing the full potential of the word. You’re organizing the pantheon according to the tenants of monotheism, which calls god to only one being at the topmost seat and everything else below him are non-gods, no matter how much they look and act like one. But polytheism recognizes multiple entities with different natures or degrees of power and, more often than not, it doesn’t shy away from calling them gods despite those differences. Precisely because polytheism is normally without a dogma that puts a cap on divinity. This doesn’t mean that categories are useless: it just means that we recognize them as subgroups within the wider notion of god. Hence, while there’s a difference between the Inferi and Consentes that is indeed of substance and important as a working tool, it does not contradict the fact that both are groups of gods. To use a political analogy, the distinction between people from the states of New York and Georgia is useful when making considerations on public opinion, voters’ preferences, social fabric and so forth and indeed there is a difference of substance between the two groups. But they’re both Americans and can be referred to as such, just as people from different European countries, each with their specific national or regional identities, are all European. And my point a month ago was that the word “god” should be understood in an manner as wide as American and European, in that it can include different subcategories that are both overlapping and with substantial differences. The Di Manes are not the Di Consentes, but they’re still di or gods.

Now, this isn’t something that’s necessarily known from literary sources. Most of it comes from short inscriptions, which tend to be a more direct window into people’s beliefs than the often embellished, systematized or even biased pieces of literature or philosophy. And here lies the problem when it comes to ancient Scandinavia: unlike the case in the Roman world, there’s very little information from a purely pre-Christian perspective. What we have are generally late sources and even those dated from the pagan period are not from a time when Christianity was unknown or non-existent. Plus, they’re mostly literary sources, which is already a biased form of transmission: consider, for instance, how Thor’s role as a bringer of rain and granter of bountiful crops is virtually absent from Old Norse prose and poetry, despite the fact that that side of Him may have been highly relevant in the everyday life of ancient Scandinavians. Simply put, battles, duels and adventures into distant lands make a much more exciting story – either in poetry or prose – than everyday’s weather, fishing and farming. And whereas daily religion can be more practical, literature is often ideologically or artistically driven. So when all we have for pre-Christian Scandinavia are generally literary sources and, what’s more, late and/or biased towards Odin and his kin, it’s hard to have an idea of how ordinary people of different strata conceptualized a god before Christianity made an impact and with regard to the entire pantheon. This falls within what Edward Butler said on Twitter about the problems of attempting to understand the full extent of people’s religious experience based on a limited amount of sources.

Still, a few glimpses can perhaps be found in Old Norse poetry. One of them pertains to the use of the term týr. The word is best known as the name of the one-handed god, but in Old Norse it was also a common noun that meant “god”. Hence in Grímnismál 48, Odin is called Farmatýr or god of cargoes, in stanza 5 of the same poem it is said that the tívar or gods gave Alfheim to Freyr and in stanza 19 of the skaldic poem Þórsdrápa Thor is called karms týr or god of the chariot. Etymologically, the word is linked to the Proto-Indo-European *dyeus, which makes it a direct Germanic equivalent of the Latin deus. And in the Haustlöng, a piece of poetry that is usually dated from the 10th century, the word is used in a manner that is far from narrow. The poem survives in Snorri’s Edda, where it is quoted several times in Skáldskaparmál, and in the extant stanzas, it tells the story of how the giant Thiazi kidnapped Idun with Loki’s help, how she was rescued and Skadi’s father killed in the process. It also speaks of Thor’s duel with Hrungnir. In stanza 1, the gods Odin, Loki and Thor as referred to as tívar; in stanza 2, the kenning byrgi-týr is used for Thiazi and in stanza 6 hirði-týr refers to Loki. You can find this and more in a Master’s dissertation presented at the University of Oslo in 2013 and which can be downloaded here. And yes, it’s in English.

Of course, the example from the Haustlöng may mean nothing. Skaldic poetry is known for using normally unrelated terms to construct kennings and there are cases of warriors being poetically called Odin of something. Also, it has strict metrical rules, so the use of the term for a giant and Loki may be an isolated case of poetic license. But it can also be something else and hint at a wide use of the words týr/tivar. They may not have been employed for just the higher strata of beings living in Asgard, but for a variety of entities that were in some way otherworldly, powerful, numinous, more-than-human – giants included! And given what we know from genuinely pre-Christian sources from elsewhere in Europe, it is a real possibility.

So my point is simple: don’t be quick to narrow the notion of god into a privilege of an uppermost stratum of beings. Polytheism is not monotheism with more gods. We don’t have a dogma that forces us to call other entities by any other names because there can be only one deity. We have no cap on divinity and therefore a minor spirit of a particular hill or mountain can be a god, just as the higher power of thunder is one too. Different in power and scope, perhaps even belonging to different categories, but gods nonetheless. The Aesir and Vanir are both gods, despite also being different groups. Subcategorize them in any way you wish, traditional or modern, but don’t automatically assume that something isn’t a god just because it’s not a big one or has more limited abilities, even if still numinous or otherworldly. That form of regulating the divine wasn’t or at least may not have been how ancient polytheists saw it.

If you narrow it, you miss it

There’s been some online discussion on multiple aspects of reconstructed or revived forms of ancient polytheism. It started with Galina Krasskova’s piece on modern Heathenry, which generated a debate in the comments section. Edward Butler added more thoughts on the matter on Twitter, followed by Galina’s own further considerations and Sarenth’s take on what it means to place the Gods first.

Many excellent points have already been made in this discussion, some of which I can relate to personally. Among modern Roman polytheists, there are some who harbour a deep suspicion, if not outright disgust, for anything that goes too much into personal religion and instead expect individuals to deal with the Gods in the same emotionally sanitized way as a public cult. They’d argue there can be no personal devotion or patronage, because that’s either monotheistic baggage or a form of superstition, i.e. the religious equivalent of paranoia and obsession. Or so those modern cultores claim, but their reasoning is flawed, because it is based on the assumption that we have all the information on ancient Roman experiences of religion. We don’t! We have a sample of what some in the elites thought, but not a full range of views and even less so when we consider the lower classes. And most of the information refers to public religion, which is naturally formal and emotionally neutral, because that’s how things are when one deals with an institution. What those modern cultores do is to assume that what was valid for the State should be equally valid for the individual. In other words, they take data on part of the ancient Roman religion and assume it for the whole, so if public cults were emotionally sanitized, that should also be the case with individuals in their daily dealings with the Gods. It’s what happens when you try to revive an ancient religion on which you have only partial and poorly diverse information and fail to consider the full range of human experiences: you mistake the part for the whole. And you screw it big time as a result. Especially when the sources still give you glimpses of personal religion and individual devotion towards specific gods: Augustus took Apollo as his patron, Domitian was a devotee of Minerva, Apuleius went everywhere with a figurine of Mercury.

Now, I’ve addressed this topic more extensively in another post, so I’m not going to expand on it today. Instead, I’d like to briefly address something else brought up recently when Galina shared this post in which Nicholas Haney claims that he’s not god-centric because he focuses on ancestors and landwights instead. And that, I’d argue, is misreading the notion of god in polytheism.

What is a god? The question is easily answered in monotheism: god is the all-knowing, all-powerful and all-seeing being who created and rules everything. And because there’s only one, everyone else is not a god, no matter how much they look and act like one. They’re called by other names: angels, demons, saints, prophets and so forth. But how does it work in polytheism, where there’s no divine monopoly nor a cap on the number of divine beings? Can godhood be restricted to a specific group of more-than-mere-human beings? No, it can’t. A landwight, just like an ancestor, is a deity. A nymph is a goddess, an elf is god, as is the spirit of a dead person. Whereas in monotheism the question of divinity is one of absolutes – one god and everyone else is not a god – in polytheism things normally work in multiple shades of grey: greater, lesser, local, universal, family, tribal, regional and national gods and demigods. Divinity is everywhere or, as Thales of Miletus would say, everything is full of gods. And this is so precisely because there is no monopoly or cap on the divine. There’s no limit to it and it can therefore be found in countless forms everywhere.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Check what ancient polytheists left us: Romans called the deceased Di Manes or Divine Dead; the god Silvanus is in one occasion called Lar Agrestis (CIL VI 646), even though the word Lar was also used for one’s ancestors (the Family Lares) and spirits of the roads (the Lares Viales); in England, one inscription addresses a Dea Nympha Brigantia or the Goddess Nymph Brigantia (CIL VII 875), while another mentions a Deus Genius Choguncis or God Genius Choguncio (RIB 119). Which shows that the divine status was not restricted to a specific group of higher beings. Simply put, what was a god, a nymph and a landwight was less of a matter of fixed or clear-cut categories and more an issue of function and scope where divinity was not a privilege of a limited few, but a trait of countless many. And in case you’re thinking these examples are too Roman and bear little meaning in other traditions, consider the Dísir in Norse polytheism: they’re divine women or mothers, tribal and family goddesses if not female ancestors, yet goddesses nonetheless; but the word dís is also used for the Valkyries, themselves minor deities of war and at one time called Odin’s or Herjans dísir (Guðrúnarkviða I, stanza 19); even Freyja is referred to as Vanadís or the Dís of the Vanir. Some find this messy, may even suggest it is the result of late sources and fragmented memories of a pre-Christian worldview, yet I disagree. You find the same fluidity and overlapping terminology in Roman polytheism, for which there are genuinely pagan sources.

So when a polytheist says he’s not god-centric because he focuses on ancestors and landwights instead of gods, he’s basically superimposing a monotheistic scheme on a polytheistic worldview. So just as in the former you have god at the top followed by strata of non-gods (angels, saints, prophets, etc.), in the latter you end up with multiple gods on the top followed by non-gods (landwights, nymphs, elves, dísir, ancestors, etc.). In other words, it amounts to organizing a polytheistic pantheon according to monotheistic standards. Yet polytheism is not monotheism with more gods. It has its own set of theological rules and dynamics, because divine diversity and multiplicity have theological consequences. Focusing on landwights and ancestors is being god-centric too, because landwights and ancestors are gods as well. Minor, local, family or tribal ones, but gods nonetheless. And I’m not the first person to say this: back in 2010, Cara Schulz addressed the same issue in a post called Regulating the Gods: A Hellenist on Hubris. Go and read it, people. Seriously! We live in a society where religious discourse is dominated by monotheistic assumptions, but if we want to understand and revive ancient religions in today’s world, we need to understand them on their own terms and, through that process, deeply review today’s conventional wisdom on religious issues. And that means confronting and ultimately dropping ideas like landwights not being gods or, for that matter, Heathenry or Roman polytheism being defined as a “faith”. I know it’s not always easy to do this sort of mental work. I’ve been through the experience multiple times and question my own assumptions often. But it needs to be done if we’re serious about reviving ancient religions in the modern world. Polytheism is not monotheism with more gods.

In America as in Scandinavia

Long story short, when the Europeans navigated along and settled in the African continent, they came across native religions, which were then taken to America via the slave trade. Ògún, Osun or Yémojá, these are African gods worshipped throughout today’s American continent under variations of their names. Another one of those deities is Eshu, whom the Europeans saw as the devil. Well, they considered any non-Christian god the devil, but Eshu was so in a particular fashion. Why? Because He’s a trickster, a prankster, indecent, playful, astute, sly, provocative and sensual. He basically ticks almost all of the satanic boxes. Yet Eshu is an African god of crossroads, movement and communication, which is why He’s often given the first offerings in African-Brazilian ceremonies, so that all other offerings flow and reach the other Gods. And this is no surprise if you think that He’s… well, a trickster.

See, tricksters are usually subversive figures. They’re transgressors who have the ability to move freely through geographical, social, moral and even sexual boundaries. That’s why sometimes they’re also deities of creativity, because they excel at thinking outside the box and breaking with the routine. It’s creative chaos, baby. They make things move, make things flow. Idleness is not their thing, movement is! Fluidity, an offshoot of which is slyness, is the cornerstone of the trickster. Because what is fluid is not fixed and can therefore assume whatever shape is necessary to get things done, to get things going. And that’s what Eshu is: movement, fluidity, creative chaos. That’s also the case with Hermes, the divine messenger, god of trade and thievery, inventor, prankster, father of Hermaphroditus, the one who can enter and leave the Underworld freely. And that’s also the case with Loki, the trickster who often travels from one world to another, the bringer of gifts via chaotic pranks, father and also mother.

Why am I writing this? Because too many modern heathens do to Loki what Europeans did to Eshu: they equate Him with the devil! Which is ironic, since one would expect polytheists to be a lot more open-minded and avoid the simplistic view of good against evil that is so common in monotheism. But though ironic, this is not unexpected. For one, because many modern heathens had a Christian upbringing or live in a society where Christian philosophy is pervasive. And secondly, because too many Norse polytheists take the Eddas at face value; even worst, some will read them like a Bible. And that’s just wrong! Plain and simply wrong! As wrong as saying Loki is evil and should not be worshiped.

Loki by Hellanim

Loki by Hellanim

The thing about knowing how Europeans saw Eshu is that it gives you a clue as to how Norse Christians saw Loki. How could a sly prankster who does not conform to social norms on morality and sexuality be anything but a Satan-like figure? How could He not be confused, identified or influenced by tales about the Christian devil? And as such, how could He be anything but the devilish enemy of the Gods in the eddic poems or Snorri’s work? Ever wondered why his binding until the end of the world resembles that of Satan?

If by now you’re thinking that the Eddas contain genuine pagan myths and therefore what they say are pagan views on Loki, think again! What we know as the Poetic Edda and Snorra Edda were written roughly two hundred years after Scandinavia became officially Christian. The tales they contain are certainly rooted in pagan traditions, but the form those narratives have today were fixed no earlier than the 1200s. This means that what we have are stories that were transmitted during two hundred years of Christian dominance. They were told at a time when monotheistic theology was preached at every mass, people prayed to the Christian god on a daily basis and organized their lives around Christian thinking and practice. By the time the Eddas we have today were written down, this would have been going on for two hundred years or more. And every time a story is told, it is adapted by its narrator. Not sure about that? Then go ahead and open your copy of the Poetic Edda: the two poems on Helgi Hundingsbani are essentially two versions of the same tale; the lays on Sigurd’s adventures do not match entirely with the narrative of the slightly later Völsunga saga (and Carolyne Larrigton’s notes make that abundantly clear); Grimnismál speaks simultaneously of one hart eating from Yggdrasill’s branches (stanza 35) and four such animals (stanza 33), suggesting that either there were different traditions or that someone added an innovating stanza without eliminating the older version. These things happen because tales are fluid. They’re fluid when committed to writing and even more so when committed to memory by word of mouth. Every time they’re told, two things happen: one is conservation, in that the narrator is not creating a brand new story, but passing down an old one; but the other is innovation, in that by telling the story, one opens it to influences and changes by the narrator or his audience. And after two hundred years of that process in a Christian context, don’t expect the myths to be accurate renderings of pre-Christian tales. The Eddas are not an Old Norse Bible! They are fragments of pagan traditions that were last transmitted and adapted by Christian authors roughly two centuries after Scandinavia’s official conversion. They contain multiple pagan elements, yes, because conservation is one of the dynamics in the passing down of traditional stories. But there’s also innovation in them, a lot of it derived from Christian thinking and classical traditions. They’re not accurate accounts of the Gods’ deeds and most certainly not Their word!

So to claim that Loki is a devil or evil being unworthy of worship because of what the Eddas say is as ridiculous as claiming that Eshu should not be worshipped because Christians saw Him as the devil. Both gods were reinterpreted from a Christian perspective, which naturally painted them in very dark tones. Know your sources, people! And by that I’m not saying you should memorize them so you can quote them like Evangelicals often quote the Bible (though that is a useful tool). When I say you should know your sources, I mean you should keep in mind when, where and who wrote them. Time, place and the author’s beliefs are not indifferent: they shape what is written. Imagine what two hundred years or more of that in a Christian society must have done to the Norse pagan trickster.