To deconstruct these ideas isn’t always easy, partly because habits die hard, in this case deeply-rooted mental habits that shape our worldview. Even atheists, who by their lack of belief could perhaps be less influenced by pre-conceived notions of religion, insist on addressing the topic in the terms of the great monotheisms and assume their traits as universal. But though this is unfortunate, it is not surprising: whether we like it or not, we’re a product of our past History and present culture and Abrahamic traditions have been predominant in the west for hundreds of years, allowing them to shape our understanding of religion. And in order to break that, one has to jump over the fruits of that predominance and dive into a mindset from many miles away or from the distant past.
What follows is a bit of that. In order to revive Roman polytheism today and in a functional form that preserves fundamental features of its ancient version, one must first understand the past so as to uncover a different way of conceiving religion. This page dives into that older perspective and attempts to break with modern preconceived notions, allowing for the necessary conditions to understand and practice Roman polytheism today. As the title says, it’s an introduction, developing some topics that were already mentioned in the Common Questions and laying the foundations for more detailed texts.
1. Reviving, not outright inventing or re-enacting
2. It’s Roman, but not solely from Rome
3. It has no scriptures or doctrine
4. It requires no initiation ceremony
5. It’s not a faith
6. It’s orthopraxic
7. Many gods, greater and lesser
8. Altars and shrines
9. Domestic religion
12. Basic bibliography
1. Reviving, not outright inventing or re-enacting
Due to a variety of reasons, from social changes to the loss of political support and the intolerance that followed, ancient Roman polytheism died out in the 5th century. In some places, it persisted beyond that point, but it did not survive to the present time as a living and consistent tradition. As such, for modern Roman polytheists, the challenge consists of bringing back a religion that was last practiced openly 1500 years ago, when the world was very different from today’s, and having only fragmented sources of information.
There are different approaches to the matter. One possibility is to take the Roman gods and make them the focal point of a modern-like “Church”, modeled after Christianity, but that would be like adding French words to a conversation in English and then claim that you’re speaking French. If you want to revive an old religion, you need to understand it on its own terms, get a sense of its essential features and, whenever possible, apply them to the modern world in a way that’s both living and functional. Just as in order to actually know a language you need to learn its rules and vocabulary so that you’re able to use them fluently and correctly. To simply invent with little or no consideration for the historical basis is not the way to go. At least not for a revivalist, whose goal, as implied by the term, is to breathe new life into the old instead of creating something new altogether.
There is an obvious risk here, which is that of re-enacting or merely reproducing the past, perhaps out of fear that you’re not faithful enough to the historical model of the practices you wish to revive. But that too is not the right course of action, for if the goal is to have a living religion, as opposed to a dead one that’s merely imitated, then it cannot be a fossil, indifferent to the modern world. To claim that to be a proper Roman polytheist amounts to dressing, eating and speaking as in the 1st century, recreate a classical city-State or worship exactly as it was done two millennia ago is nothing short of ridiculous. It’s as out of touch as saying that a true Catholic must live and think as someone from the 11th century and follow a Church with medieval powers. By nature, living things evolve, change and adapt. But whereas Catholicism reached present day as an unbroken tradition and therefore evolved at its own pace, Roman polytheism died out in the 5th century, so in order to revive it you have to jump over more than a thousand years of History. And that carries the risk of two extremes: on one hand, a fossilized religion for fear that it’s not truly Roman; on the other, something entirely new and different from ancient polytheism due to our present prejudices. But being genuine is not the same as imitating and being modern doesn’t amount to forgetting the past just because it’s the past.
The challenge consists therefore of making an adaptation that works today without compromising fundamental features of ancient Roman polytheism. It isn’t easy, but it has to be done if the goal is neither to re-enact the past nor to invent outright just because it feels right or we live in the present.
Roman polytheism was not a uniform religion: public festivities were not necessarily the same as private celebrations, gods worshipped in a domestic context may not have had a State cult (e.g. Silvanus) and different cities or provinces had their own traditions, pantheon and holidays. So for instance, Juturna appears to have been connected to a specific fountain in Rome and was therefore a local goddess, much like the Di Cairieses, which are known from an inscription found in Portugal (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 54) and were probably worshipped only in some places in western Iberia. And as such, if in the past there was no uniform tradition with a universal pantheon, there’s no reason why it should be any different today.
In practical terms, this means that just because a given deity was honoured in Rome, that doesn’t necessarily amount to an obligation to do the same in modern Roman polytheism. Instead, maintain a few monthly sacrifices to a limited number of gods and, with that in place, feel free to build your ownn festive calendar and a domestic, local or regional pantheon that may or may not include a large number of deities who were worshipped in Rome.
But if that’s the case, then why call it Roman? Simply put, because a lot of the surviving information that serves as a model comes from the old republican and later imperial capital. In a way, that’s not unlike what happened in the past, when Rome’s territorial expansion was coupled by a dissemination of its costums, which in turn led to a Latinization of non-Italian cults, an adoption of ritual formulas and a modeling after Roman practices. Sometimes in a greater degree, sometimes in a lesser one, but in any case there was a widespread reproduction or Latinization of costums. And that, then as today, allows one to speak of romanitas.
Ancient Roman polytheism had no equivalent of the Christian Bible or the Islamic Quran. It had texts with religious importance because they were used for divination, in particular the Sibylline books, but they did not form an orthodoxy. It also had no moral doctrine or divine commandments, but merely reflected the values of ancient Roman society (Orlin 2011: 59). Philosophy could present people with sets of beliefs and ethical codes, but there were different schools of thought and while some were very popular, especially among the elites, none had the status of official doctrine. The closest Roman religion came from something along the lines of a sacred text were records of ritual formulas and ceremonies, but at best they regulated rites, not belief or everyday behaviour (Beard 1998: 284). And this hints at a religion that was not orthodox, but orthopraxic – i.e. its emphasis was not on belief, but correct ritual practice.
Just in case you’re wondering, Virgil’s Aeneid was not a kind of Roman bible and neither are any of Cicero’s or Ovid’s books. Rather, they were literary or philosophical works produced centuries after the founding of Rome, often saying more about the people who wrote them, their time and social background, and less about the past they sometimes claim to describe. They contain myths and legends, yes, but worked by human authors for artistic or political purposes. They may even have reprimands or idealized visions of society, but just as a modern person may write about social life. They’re not words, commandments or truths revealed by the Gods for all to follow; they may have the Gods as characters and even be inspired by them in some way, but they’re not sacred scriptures. Rather, they’re individual human opinions, artistic creations, scholarly works of the time, texts written to (de)legitimize political projects and tales used to preserve knowledge, memory, entertain or explain why a certain ceremony was conducted in a given manner. In that sense, some of them are valuable sources of information on Roman religious practices, but that makes them a basis for an orthopraxy, not an orthodoxy.
What was true in the past should remain so in the present whenever possible. Reviving ancient Roman religion means identifying its essential features and, within the modern limits, use or adapt them to today’s world. If it wasn’t a revealed religion with a sacred book and a regulated faith, then it shouldn’t be one now. Which is not only something easily adoptable to the present, but fully in tune with modern mentality: not having an orthodoxy amounts to freedom of consciousness, the right to freely build your own theology. Lack of orthodoxy doesn’t mean there’s no belief, just that there’s no regulated beliefs.
Also unlike Christianity and Islam, Roman polytheism had no baptism or declaration of faith whereby one became part of the religious community. Instead, you were basically born into it or were a Roman polytheist by virtue of being a citizen or member of a family. This doesn’t mean that on a personal level you couldn’t worship non-Roman gods or focus on particular members of the pantheon, but generally speaking, religious practices were an extension of one’s duties towards family, social group and country (Beard 1998: 42-3). Mystery cults were a different matter, for since they were of an esoteric nature – i.e. open only to the initiated – they naturally required an entry ceremony. Several of them also promised a good death or a rewarding afterlife, something that was equally missing from Roman polytheism at large. Again, it had no orthodoxy, so it could offer neither a unified declaration of faith nor an official view of the afterlife. Those things were as diverse as people’s or group’s beliefs. And whereas one was born or adopted into Roman polytheism by way of social or political status, one normally joined a mystery cult by individual choice (Beard 1998: 247, n. 3).
Like its ancient version, modern Roman polytheism remains non-initiatory. It can, however, include or be practiced together with mystery cults, which means it also remains non-exclusivist and thus claims no absolute truth that rejects the value or participation in other traditions. It can have ceremonies where one is introduced to ancestors and household gods, but as part of being welcomed into a family – as in the case of a birth or adoption – not to the religion per se.
However, unlike what happened in the past, it is no longer tied to one particular country or culture. What used to be the Roman empire now consists of multiple nations, Latin evolved into different European languages, Roman culture and hence romanitas was inherited by different countries in various fashions or morphed into a part of the wider western civilization. So with identities being much more fluid and mixed in the modern world, it’s impossible to link Roman polytheism to one particular place, language or national culture. And that makes it a more universal religion, open to virtually anyone in the west and beyond, more dependent on individual choice than on nationality or social status. There’s no turning back the clock or pretend things haven’t changed. On this point, one must bow to the modern world and evolve – for the best, I’d argue, as there’s added freedom. And since it’s non-initiatory, all you have to do to be a Roman polytheist is to practice the religion, with no need of a baptism of sorts.
It is common for the word “faith” to be used as a synonym of religion. Just turn on the TV or read a news website and you’ll come across references to the Christian, Muslim or Buddhist faiths; polytheists too can be found speaking of their own traditions as the Norse, Hellenic or Roman faith. This is so because the use of the words interchangeably is so common that many reproduce it by default, never realizing how the terminology derives from a monotheistic mindset and can therefore have little or nothing to do with polytheism.
The reason why Christianity or Islam are faiths is because they are faith-based religions. They’re defined by a regulated belief, an orthodoxy emanated from a sacred book seen as a reservoir of revealed truths, in as much as conversion to those religions requires a profession or statement of faith. The Apostles’ creed, the Islamic shahada – “I believe” as a defining feature. And because Christianity and Islam dominate much of the religious discourse in western societies, where monotheism has been prevalent for over one thousand years, their traits and terminology have been assumed as universal. Yet faith as a synonym of religion makes no sense in Roman polytheism at large, because in order for belief to be a defining feature of a group, it needs to be uniform so it can speak for all its members. This means that it has to be regulated so as to prevent every person or community from creating their own theologies. If not every Muslim believed that there is only one god whose prophet is Muhammad, that belief could never be a defining feature of Islam because it wouldn’t be common to all Muslims. The collective identity of a group is formed by its shared features. But if Roman polytheism has no regulated faith and each person or community is free to construct its own theology, then it cannot be defined by or as a faith. Because it’s a religion of many faiths, free and as diverse as its members.
But isn’t there a belief in the Roman gods? Yes, but it’s neither exclusivist nor exclusive, i.e. there are Hellenic, Germanic or Slavic polytheists who also believe in the Latin deities, even if they don’t worship them; just as Roman polytheists commonly accept the existence of Celtic, Norse, Egyptian or Japanese gods, even if they don’t honour them. This dynamic is absent from monotheism, where belief and practice can be synonyms since only one god is acknowledge and he ought to be worshipped. But from the moment one accepts divine plurality, especially limitless plurality, then mere belief is not enough to define a particular type of polytheism. If I acknowledge every deity, then the question of which gods I believe in is not enough to determine what kind of polytheist I am – if Roman, Celtic, Norse, Hellenic or other.
What then is the defining feature? A better criterion might be which gods one worships, though that too is not sufficient, since the same deity can be honoured in different traditions. For instance, Apollo has a Roman and Greek cult, Silvanus is given tribute by Germanic and Roman polytheists, Hermes by Hellenics and new Japanese religious groups (seriously!), the Indian goddess Saraswati is worshipped by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. If the simple act of honouring a given deity was enough to determine what’s your religion, then a wiccan who invokes Jupiter in a magic circle would be a Roman polytheist despite the fact that wiccan practices have little or nothing of traditionally Roman. Just as honouring Ganesh would be enough to consider as Hindus all the Jains and Buddhists who worship the elephant god. Again, this is a plural and open dynamic that’s absent from monotheism and thus commonly removed from the general notion of religion these days.
So what’s the criterion? How do you define a religion if not through common regulated beliefs or faith, trust in particular gods or which ones you worship? The answer is how you do it. Which calendar governs your practices? What formulas and rules do you employ? In short, what’s your ritual praxis? That’s what defines a Roman polytheist! Not faith, which is naturally diverse by virtue of being unregulated, nor which gods you believe in, because the answer can easily be all. It’s not even enough to say which ones you worship, since the same deity can be the focus of different cults. What distinguishes a Roman polytheist is the way the gods are worshipped. In one word: orthopraxy!
Ancient Roman religion was an orthopraxic religion, meaning it emphasized ritual performance according to traditionally prescribed rules and formulas (Scheid 2003: 18). At least that was the case with public cults, but while there’s less information for domestic religion, it is not unreasonable to assume that just as city-wide communal practices were regulated by tradition, a similar pattern existed at household level. It fits into the Roman notion of mos maiorum – the ways of the elders or ancestors – which doesn’t mean ritual tradition was static, but that it was certainly conservative.
This may be uncomfortable today, for in a time when individual freedom is paramount, people are normally not keen on having others telling them what to do, in this case in a ritual context. But if modern Roman polytheism is to preserve fundamental features of its ancient version, thus maintaining a link to the past, then one must accept a level of orthopraxy. Otherwise, you’re not reviving a religion, just inventing outright or cherry-picking elements without coherent criteria. Furthermore, the modern world creates the necessity for a common ritual praxis: if two thousand years ago, religiously speaking, romanitas could be defined by one’s belonging to a family or State, today one is not a Roman polytheist by virtue of being Portuguese, French, Spanish, Italian or having a Latin culture. It can certainly be a factor, but there’s no longer a imperative link. And as said in the previous point, faith, like the gods you trust in and worship, are not sufficient criteria, which means that the only thing left that can work as a binding trait in today’s Roman polytheism is a common ritual practice. But that implies the existence of a basic orthopraxy that must be followed by all who claim to be Roman polytheists, regardless of native language or culture, nationality, ethnicity, moral stance, place of residence, philosophical preference or choice of theology. In short, it’s a matter of having a basic common denominator of a practical nature that allows for a form of unity in diversity.
What is the modern Roman orthopraxy? The exact elements are still being debated, as expected in a religion that’s currently being revived after over a millennium of dormancy and having only fragments of information to go by. But a set of basic rules has been taking shape and includes the honouring of at least Janus at the start of ceremonies and Vesta at the end, marking the Kalends, Nones and Ides of every month with offerings to deities traditionally assigned to those days, covering one’s head in Roman rite, maintaining a ritual distinction between celestial, terrestrial and infernal gods, and perform expiatory offerings or use divination at the end of ceremonies. A more detailed list can be found here.
Once the basic orthopraxy is in place, there’s a criterion by which you can know whether you’re a Roman polytheist or not. So for instance, if you maintain a regular cult solely to Latin gods according to Roman tradition, you’ll naturally be one; if you identify or syncretize Latin deities with others, but worship them according to Roman tradition, the religious identity stands; if you pay homage to other gods, as separate entities, but always use Roman rite or employ other ritual traditions in a minority, you’ll still be a Roman polytheist; and it’s 50-50, with half your practices being Latin and other half according to a different ritual praxis, then you’ll be of dual-tradition. There’s nothing wrong with that, no sin or threat of eternal damnation. It’s just an issue of knowing what defines a group and how far the criteria apply to you.
Also by virtue of being an orthopraxic religion, the meaning of ritual gestures is open to interpretation. There are of course limits, in that for instance the ritual structure itself already conveys ideas regarding Janus’ connection to beginnings and Vesta’s to the flame. If you will, it’s a sort of gestural liturgy where one’s freedom to interpret it is naturally limited to the existing gestures; just as one’s liberty to interpret a text, drawing from it or awarding whatever meaning one sees in it, is framed by the words in it. There’s a very good historical example of this sort of dynamic in Plutarc’s Roman Questions, where the Greek author records multiple interpretations for ritual acts that were traditionally performed, but whose meaning was a topic of open debate.
Finally, basic orthopraxy should not be for communal use only, but must be a part of individual and domestic practices. Because if something is resorted to solely in large and exceptional moments or when different groups meet, then it becomes the equivalent of a Sunday suit: it’s taken out of the closet only occasionally and the rest of the time it’s pilling dust in a corner, without any connection to everyday life. If orthopraxy is to be a part of a living religion, it needs to be more than an every-now-and-then accessory. It has to be a full part of daily practices, much like a living language is used not only in large events, but also in one’s routine at home and on the streets.
If you’re a polytheist, that already implies that you believe in and worship many gods as individual entities. If not, then you’re something else – a monist, a duotheist, a monolatrist, a monotheist, an atheist – which isn’t a matter of dogma, but of basic definition. It’s what you believe in and do that defines you, so if you freely chose other beliefs and practices, then you’ll freely be something else as determined by the meaning of words. And it’s important to have this in mind, that there’s no obligation in being a polytheist, but merely the awareness of what you are when using a particular term.
Now in monotheism there’s a hierarchy of supernatural beings with a single god at the top, followed by sets of entities like angels and saints, which look or may act as deities and even have their own cults, but are not taken as gods. This stratification is sometimes used by polytheists who also reserve the term “god” for the topmost place of the hierarchy, the difference being that there are many beings in that upper strata, not just one. Which is a restrictive concept that would be strange to at least part of the ancient world, where the notion of deity, much like the Japanese kami, had a much wider sense. You get an idea of that in the ancient Roman use of the words deus (god), dea (goddess) and di (gods), which were employed not just for greater powers, but also smaller or even local ones: the dead (Di Manes), deceased relatives (Di Parentes), the gods of the underworld (Di Inferi), the big Olympian twelve (Di Consentes) and small everyday deities (Di Indigetes), like Cardea, goddess of door hinges. These were not even rigid or mutually exclusive groups, but fluid categories that could overlap: for instance, the Manes were also gods of the underworld, some of the Consentes could be listed as Indigetes and nymphs could be seen as full-fledged goddesses, as in the case of Brigantia, who’s called both things in British Latin inscriptions (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 81). Even the notion of Lar had a very wide usage, from Lares Viales to Lares Familiaris and including the title of Lar Agrestis, which is awarded to Silvanus in at least one inscription (Dorcey 1992: 24). Confusing? Considering the predominance of the monotheistic notion of god, confusion is not a surprise.
Simply put, whenever there’s no monopoly of the divine, the distinction between a deity and a non-deity becomes less rigid, more fluid, opening itself up to a much greater set of beings that can then be integrated in one or more groups according to functional criteria. That’s how the categories mentioned above should be seen: in a flexible and open fashion as opposed to fixed and closed, less oriented towards an exclusive nature (god or non-god) and more towards a common function, which is why there can be overlaps. So for instance, a nymph is always a female deity, often linked to water, and thus the term can be applied to water goddesses. A Lar can be an ancestor, in which case there’s an overlap with the Manes or spirits of the dead, but whereas the latter are normally confined to graves and graveyards, there’s something celestial or at least non-infernal in the notion of Lar. And all of them as di or gods. If greater or smaller, local or universal, with more or less influence or power, that’s a matter of sub-categorization and not of being in or out of the divine category.
Of course, this flexible use of the term “god” can vary depending on the choice of theology of each Roman polytheist, though the absence of a divine monopoly will always result in a greater elasticity, which ultimately leads to the already mentioned belief in the existence of other gods besides the traditionally Latin ones. And that openness has a strong historical precedent, of which the cults of Isis and Epona in ancient Rome are two clear examples, as are Nabia’s in the Iberian Peninsula or Nehalennia in the Netherlands, who were worshipped as separate or syncretized goddess, by Romans and non-Romans. And there’s also the evocation, a ritual by which a deity from an enemy community was invited to switch sides in exchanged for being given tribute in Rome. Or at least ancient Romans saw their ancestors as having such a rite, which is symptomatic of a religious mentality that was inclusive instead of exclusive.
Again, the scope of this openness depends a lot on one’s choice of theology, since it’s not a dogma. It’s perfectly legitimate to have a more restrictive view of things, so long as it doesn’t result in forms of intolerance. And if you choose a more limited concept of deity, you’ll still be a Roman polytheist if you nonetheless believe in and worship many gods according to Latin ritual praxis. It’s one’s ideas and practices that determine which term best applies – polytheist, monolatrist or monist; Roman, Hellenic, Celtic – not the other way around.
The word “altar” is commonly used to identify a flat surface with a religious function, normally a table or table-like object where ritual items are placed and ceremonies carried out around it, be it a Christian mass or a wiccan circle. But as with the issue of faith as a synonym of religion, here too there’s a usage of terminology by default, with little or no considerations regarding its correctness.
When it comes to Roman polytheism, both ancient and modern, an altar is not the same as what could be called a shrine. And no, this isn’t just semantics, because the practical use of the things, and hence their location in religious spaces – is different: an altar is the surface on which the offerings are burned, which is why it was traditionally placed outside the temples, either because divination required it to be so or for the simple reason that you need to ventilate the smoke; a shrine is an area, compartment or surface where you keep the images or symbols of the Gods, which in the ancient world was commonly located inside the temples (Egelhaaf-Gaiser 2011: 206).
Simply put, you burn on an altar, you keep in a shrine. If you feel unsure about that, look at the etymology of the former, which probably derives from the Latin adolere (to sacrifice, to burn sacrifices), while the latter comes from scrinium, which means a box or chest.
There may be some overlap of the two, in that an altar can be decorated with images of gods or you can leave small offerings at a shrine. But the difference nonetheless remains, in as much as you can have one without the other, i.e. a simple rectangular altar solely with an inscription, with no image whatsoever, and a small niche in a wall that serves as a shrine, but without a surface on which to burn food or beverage. You can also have portable shrines to pray in front of, but an altar for usage during a journey would be something like a pile of rocks of wood on which you burn the offerings. Which is why in a domestic context, for all intents and purposes, your fireplace is your household altar.
One of the things that contributes the most to the confusion between altar and shrine is our modern notion of temple. Ask anyone for a definition of the term and the most likely answer is that of a house of worship akin to a church, mosque or synagogue, in as much as it’s actually used as a generic word for all of those three religious buildings. Yet that would make little sense in the ancient world, where a temple was seen as a deity’s house (Scheid 2003: 66-71). Literally! It wasn’t a structure in which people gathered for religious ceremonies – as in a church – but a god’s or goddess’ private space that could be visited by people in a controlled fashion, if at all. For instance, during the Parentalia, a festival in honour of the dead that took place in February, many temples were closed because they were dedicated to deities of a non-infernal nature (Turcan 2011: 32). And as a rule, religious ceremonies took place outside, normally in front of the building and around the altar, not next to the shrine located inside.
There’s a very similar spacial dynamic in Shinto, where the structure that houses the kami – the hoden – is closed to the general public and accessed solely by a limited number of priests, sometimes only in certain times of the year. The overwhelming majority of people prays, presents offerings and participates in religious ceremonies inside the haiden or worshipping hall, which is a separate building that’s usually located in front of the kami’s residence (Williams 2005: 84).
This takes us to another misconception: that temples are essential to practice Roman polytheism. They’re certainly important and enrich one’s religious life, especially at a communal level, not to mention that setting aside a building or small grove is an excellent way of expressing devotion or gratitude and lend greater visibility to the Gods. But those spaces are not strictly necessary to practice Roman polytheism at the most basic level. There’s often an idea of grand temples and elaborate celebrations, but that is above all a product of romanticism and cinematic clichés. In reality, it is one’s home, the human dwelling, that is the most fundamental house of worship, making those who live in it its chief priests, especially the elders. Because Roman polytheism is first and foremost a religion of the house, the place where you have your household shrines to your ancestors and any deity that’s relevant to you. Unlike Christians who go to church every Sunday or Muslim who attend a mosque every Friday, a Roman polytheist doesn’t need to go to a temple every day, week or month. The essential tools and spaces are already at home.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that a normal human dwelling is the same as a temple! A home is certainly a space with religious value, but its use is much less constrained by virtue of being a human residence. A temple is something sacred, i.e. property of the Gods, and is therefore subject to limitations and taboos that restrict what can be done in it, while a domestic shrine is at best holy, inviolable, and hence has no large impact on how a home must function. And while it is certainly possible to set aside a whole room to act as a dully consecrated temple, you must then also consider where to place the altar and how will the smoke be vented.
The modern notion of sacrifice is that of something that’s hard or painful, but the old sense of the word was much more formal: to sacrifice was to make (facio) sacred (sacer), i.e. to turn something into property of the Gods, which is basically the religious equivalent of a transaction of goods (Scheid 2003: 23-4).
Is it mandatory to sacrifice animals? The answer is no. You can if the necessary conditions are met, namely the legal requirements, the means and the skill to do within the law and in the swiftest and painless way possible so as to prevent the animal’s death from becoming a slow spectacle. But there’s a whole world of bloodless alternatives, be it fruit, beverages, cereals, candies, olive oil, flowers, salted flour, among other possibilities. All of them legitimate, some even traditional, and you can also offer things that were unheard of in the ancient Europe, like chocolate or vodka. There’s nothing wrong with that, although it might require several trials and errors until you figure out which deity prefers or rejects what. And whatever the option, never forget the basic ritual rules: offerings to celestial and terrestrial gods may be consumed by humans (after being ritually profanated ), but those that are given to infernal powers are theirs and theirs alone; square or rectangular altars are used to burn offerings to celestial deities, circular to terrestrial ones and pits are used to honour underworld gods; the most common hand to worship the former two categories is the right, while the left is used for the latter.
Is a ritual fire needed? Ideally, yes, but the almost complete prevalence of electricity in modern housing means that one may have to seek alternatives. If you don’t have a fireplace, you can use the balcony or terrace and employ a metal bowl with the appropriate shape and dully insolated to light up a small fire. Or you can do it in the kitchen, which is normally equipped with a chimney or a smoke extractor. If none of these alternatives are available, then you can use small containers with the required shapes and use them to simply collect the offerings before pouring them outdoors after the ceremony and in symbolic places. For instance, a rectangular tupperware in which you place wine and wheat for celestial deities and then poor on a hill or other high place that reaches towards the sky. Or a circular container to collect offerings for terrestrial gods and later emptied in a respectful manner next to a tree, on a field, river or beach. As for infernal deities, they’re not traditionally worshipped at home, so you’ll have to dig a small pit for sacrificial purposes.
If you opt for the fire-free model, remember two things: 1)offer only biodegradable things (no plastics, people!) and 2) avoid food that may be harmful to the local wildlife (sugar is normally not a good idea!). And if you decide to light up a fire outdoors, avoid areas with dense vegetation, make sure it’s not too windy, clean the surrounding space, preferably surround the fire with stones and do not leave the place without making sure the flames are out. I know this may sound basic, but I’d be surprised by how many people can forget about it.
There is yet no universal symbol of modern Roman polytheism. I say yet, because it’s only a matter of time before one arises. A pattern is already taking shape and it involves the god Janus in one form or another.
One popular option, especially in Italy, where it is the logo of the Movimento Tradizionale Romano, involves a double R with one of them reversed (image 1). This naturally stands for Religion Romana, but the position of the letters also hints at Janus’ two faces. A more explicit use of the god of beginnings has been suggested for some time (image 2), but as for mortuary symbols – those that would be carved on tombstones – there’s a preference for a laurel wreath with the letters D. M. (Dis Manibus, [to the] Good Gods or Divine Dead), which is a traditional inscription that was used on ancient tombstones (Adkins 2000: 140).
There are three reasons why Janus is the best option for a symbol of modern Roman polytheism. The first is the fact that it’s something unique and distinctively religious, whereas the eagle, the laurel wreath on its own, an altar or flames have either political connotations or are too similar to Greek motifs. And the purpose of a symbol to clearly identify something, in this case a religion, which means that ideally the distinction cannot rely on minutia like the type of altar, shape of the flame or details of the eagle. Thus, it makes sense to use Janus, which is uniquely Roman and does not run the risk of being mistaken with a Hellenic deity or symbol. Additionally, he’s a god of beginnings, the one who opens the year (hence “January”), just as he opens the months and ceremonies in Roman rite, meaning he’s the ideal choice for a religion that’s defined by orthopraxy and is trying to start anew.
But why not the she-wolf with the twins Romulus and Remus? Because that refers to the founding of Rome and as such is the specific symbol of a particular city. And as said in point 2, Roman polytheism – both ancient and modern – is more than the religion of a single settlement. And yes, Janus is not the King of the Gods, but this polytheism, not monolatrism or monotheism with more deities, so if people in the ancient world had no problem awarding Janus an important position, giving him the first prayers and offerings, I see no reason why that and using as a symbol today should, for instance, be an offense to Jupiter.
Among traditionalists, reconstructionists and like-minded polytheists, reading lists commonly have primary sources at the top and there’s a good reason for that: if the purpose is to revive as opposed to outright invent, then you have to know the past, study it using the traces and accounts of the period and, through them, grasp what was done, how and why, so as to construct something today that fundamentally faithful to past practices and dynamics.
However, because our modern notion of religion is profoundly different from what was predominant in Europe two thousand years ago and we tend to think from an Abrahamic standpoint, if people start by diving into the primary sources, the most likely outcome is that they’ll read them through pre-conceived lens. Which is why I advise people to start with solid introductions to ancient Roman religion and only after, once they understand the old view of religion, should they study the primary sources. Otherwise, there’s the risk of seeing scriptures, dogmas, exclusive thinking or divine commandments where there are none because, unlike Christianity or Islam, ancient Roman polytheism was not defined by those things. The following three books offer an academically sound starting point:
- Robert Turcan 2001. The Gods of Ancient Rome, trans. Antonia Nevill. New York: Routledge.
- John Scheid 2003. An Introduction to Roman Religion, trans. Janet Lloyd. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
- James B. Rives 2006. Religion in the Roman Empire. Oxford: Blackwell.
As for primary sources, just follow the references in any of these books and that should be enough to get you started.
ADKINS, Lesley e Roy. 2000. Dictionary of Roman Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
BEARD, Mary, et al. 1998. Religions of Rome I: a History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
DORCEY, Peter. 1992. The culf of Silvanus. Leiden: Brill.
EGELHAAF-GAISER, Ulrike. 2011. “Roman Cult Sites: a Pragmatic Approach”, in A Companion to Roman Religion, ed. Jörg Rüpke. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pages 205-221.
OLIVARES PEDREÑO, Juan Carlos. 2002. Los Dioses de la Hispania Céltica. Madrid: Real Academia de Historia; Universidad de Alicante.
ORLIN, Eric. 2011. “Urban religion in the Middle and Late Republic”, in A Companion to Roman Religion, ed. in Jörg Rüpke. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pages 58-70.
SCHEID, John. 2003. An Introduction to Roman Religion, trans. Janet Lloyd. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
TURCAN, Robert. 2001. The Gods of Ancient Rome, trans. Antonia Nevill. New York: Routledge.
WILLIAMS, George. 2005. Shinto. Philadelphia: Chelsea House.