Politics and Polytheism

You can have politics, and you can have polytheism, and you can have them both together; but, it is folly to mistake politics as polytheism.

The term “politics”, to be very brief, has to do with the day-to-day governance of human activities and human-to-human relationships. The term “polytheism” has to do with the religious regard of many gods as individuals—which is more of the realm of deity-and-human relationships. Politics and polytheism are two different categories, different needs, and different focuses.

Were a person to claim that “geological polytheism” is the same as just plain polytheism and that geological polytheism is a part of the definition of polytheism itself, it is like mistaking a t-shirt—a type of clothing—as the definition of clothing, when the category of “clothing” includes much more than just t-shirts: kilts, saris, jeans, and hats decorated with cheese made out of foam. There are hierarchical arrangements in categories, moving from general categories into more specific ones. Moving from general to specific helps us to understand things and the relationships between things. Only by preserving an understanding these differences can a person then begin to understand how these things can work separately and how these things could also work together. A person can study geology all on its own, without even knowing anything about polytheism. A person can honor polytheism all on its own without ever knowing anything about geology. A person could also honor the individuality of the deities (i.e. polytheism) through the addition of religious respect for geological strata, and say that this is a type of polytheism. But, but a person cannot claim that geological polytheism is just plain polytheism and that anyone who wants to be a polytheist must also first be a geologist.

Large categories have within them various overlaps with other large categories, but large categories can also have different expressions within them. Those different expressions within them can be completely encompassed by the larger category (like a large bubble surrounding small bubbles inside of it), or not completely encompassed by the larger category (like a smaller bubble attached to and partially inside of the larger bubble, but not completely inside the larger bubble). But, in order to understand how the bubbles relate to one another and how they are attached or unattached, to understand how different things relate and interact with one another, you have to recognize from the beginning that you are indeed working with different bubbles. You cannot see the relationship, or the potential for relationship, between things if you don’t realize that they are different things and if you don’t recognize where those boundaries are.

Polytheism in and of itself has nothing to do with politics. Polytheism is not a theocracy. Polytheism is not a democracy. Polytheism is not anarchy. Polytheism is not socialism. Polytheism is not communism. (And…systems of government are not necessarily the same as economic systems, although they can support or not support any economic system.) You do not have to adhere to any particular politics or economic systems in order to be a “real” polytheist. All you have to do is religiously regard the deities as many and individual. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Polytheism isn’t focused on human-to-human relations or the governing of people.

Can polytheism be expressed through and with other things like politics? Sure it can, just as you can have tea straight up and black, or you can have tea with milk or tea with lemon. But polytheism, straight up as a category on its own, is not these things any more than the tea is the same as the lemon or the milk that goes into it. That would be “tea with lemon” or “tea with milk” even as you would have “polytheism with [insert political or economic philosophy here].” A person would also do well to remember that tea cannot support the addition of lemon and milk because the acidic properties of lemon and tea combined will cause milk to curdle, so it helps greatly to know the properties of different things and how they interact. All that these polytheistic religions have to have in common to be considered “polytheistic” is the religious regard for the individuality of many deities.

Although you can express polytheism and politics together, there is a breaking point where these two things will not work together. That breaking point arises when a person forcibly imposes human-centric models and modes of interacting in relationships, such as what is seen in politics, onto the deities and the deities’ interactions. Deities aren’t humans. Forcibly imposing human-centric expectations and modes of interactions on the deities is not only counterproductive in deity-and-human relations, it also runs the risk of curtailing the deities’ individuality and personal sovereignty. At the point when the individuality of the deities is ignored and overridden by a religion (or a person), that’s the point where the religion (or person) can no longer uphold the religious regard for the many deities, and cannot be described as polytheistic even if the religion (or person) still gives lip-service to the ideals of the deities’ individuality.

Some deities and some sets of deities may have opinions on the matters of human governance, and some ancestral ways may have some set traditions in this matter—but this is a matter for those people in those relationships and in those polytheistic religions. When this sort of thing happens, then the mode of governance (human-to-human) relations becomes also an expression of deity-to-human relations. This is a matter of deities operating within their executive functions and expressing their individuality and sovereignty, and, as such, it is a part of polytheism especially within the context of those deities, ancestors, and/or lineages, and/or religions. At that point it is a part of polytheism because we’re seeing the religious regard for the deities by acknowledging the deities’ guidance and their preferences in these matters; we’re seeing a demonstration of how this religious regard for deities’ individuality play out. It works this way because the gods and the ancestors have rank—they are greater and wiser than we are. They can pull this rank, especially when it is necessary; and, unlike humans they are less inclined to abuse these places of rank. It is noteworthy that the reverse cannot be said if a person chooses a mode of governance (in human-to-human relationships) and forcibly projects it up the hierarchy onto the deities themselves in human-to-deity relations: this is a violation of the deities’ own freedom, rank, sovereignty, and individuality. It is a disrespect of the deities’ status, and a disrespect and misunderstanding of our own places as human beings.

The matter is further gnarled when a person not only projects their preferred human political structure up the hierarchy onto the deities, but also along the same tier of the hierarchy onto all other human beings who would want to be polytheists, making a demand that other human beings also adhere to these structures before they can be called just plain polytheists, not “polytheists + [insert preferred economic or political philosophy here]”, but just plain polytheists. This is why a person must recognize that polytheism and politics are two different things, and why any particular politics should not be confused as an intrinsic part of a definition of polytheism.

Polytheism isn’t focused and centered on human needs, or human-to-human relationships like politics are. Polytheism is about the religious regard of many gods as individuals. When we start making polytheism less about the individuality of the deities, and make it more about us, our modes of government in politics, and how we relate to each other as human beings, we start losing sight of what the focus of polytheism is.

The Nemeton – The Sanctuary

Nemeton was the Gaulish term for a sacred place, a sanctuary.1 The term is probably derived from: Nemos: Heaven, Sky2, though even the earliest Nemetâ have pits and other elements suggestive of Underworld connections.

Elements of a Nemeton:

Nemetâ were built over the course of many centuries, and so have diverse designs. One of the more common designs is the Belgic type of sanctuary, typified by such Nemetâ as Roquepertuse, Gournay, and Ribemont.3 Some of the elements common in such Nemetâ include:

Randon: The Boundary, usually a ditch and bank4.

Duoricos: The entrance, a point of communication between the sacred and the profane. Usually takes the form of a bridge over a ditch, and often a monumental gate or portico. Normally in the East.5

Tenos: The Fire, usually a campfire, or a candle in much modern usage. Symbolizes the sacred center of the Nemeton, and represents the Goddess Brigantiâ, as well as a point of communication between the Upper Realm and this world.6

Andounnâ: The Well, also at the center of the sanctuary. Word can mean “water from below”, but here denotes a pit into which offerings are put, representing a point for communication with the Lower World.7

Liccâ: The Altar, a flat stone, often given to the sanctuary by way of dedication, onto which sacred objects may be placed, or offerings poured.8

Deluâ: The Image, a statue or post, representing deity. Usually at the center of the Nemeton, sometimes in the Andounnâ.9

Tegiâ: The House, usually just a building designed to provide shelter for sacred supplies, divine images, and the like.10

Platoi Noiboi Alioi/Other Sacred Places:

In addition to formal sanctuaries, a wide variety of places were, and are, recognized as sacred, either as inhabited by land spirits, or else due to their inherent connections to the other worlds. A few of them are listed below:

Andounnâ: A Sacred Well, in this case meaning a spring or water source. Often sacred to healing deities.11

Locus: A lake, usually the home of a spirit, or an entrance to the Underworld, or both.12

Abonâ: A river. As we have seen, often sacred to Toutodêwâs.13

Liccâ: Here meaning just “stone”. Prominent stones were occasionally the object of cult, and seen as the dwelling place of local divinities or spirits.14

Bilios: Here meaning “large (holy) tree”. Certain large and prominent trees were seen as the swelling place of spirits, and so more sacred than others.15

Brigantion: A high place, a mountain or hill. Usually sacred to Toutatis or Brigantiâ.16

Brogilos: A small, enclosed grove. May be sacred to any number of possible deities and spirits.17

Pettiâs Noibâs Aliâs/Other Sacred Things:

Here a few objects and/or symbols that might appear on altars or in people’s possession. –Citations are for the –Gaulish terms for these things:

Parios: Cauldron, useful for cooking sacred meals. Used by some as a substitute for the Andounnâ. Used by some as a symbol for the west (Wiccan-derived symbolism) or the east (Irish-derived symbolism).18

Gaisos: Spear. Used by some as symbol of the south (Wiccan-derived symbolism), or the west (Irish-derived symbolism), or as a symbol of Lugus.19

Slattâ: Staff, wand. Symbol of the office of welitâ. Some use as a symbol of the office of a druid.20

Cladios: Sword. Used by some as symbol of the east (Wiccan-derived symbolism) or the north (Irish-derived symbolism), or as a symbol of Toutatis and/or Nodens.21

Skênos: Knife. Used to cut things. Also, used by some a substitute for the Cladios.22

Kankâ: Branch. Used to sprinkle holy fluids as part of offerings or magic.23

Maniaces: Torc. A piece of Celtic jewelry of unclear symbolism. May symbolize binding, rank, or both.24

Rotos: Wheel. A common symbol of the power of Taranis and the heavens. Often used in protective jewelry.25

Loki’s “Roads”

It isn’t uncommon in polytheistic traditions for deities to possess many different aspects or epithets to describe different parts of their nature. Each individual deity can almost be thought of as possessing an entire pantheon within themselves, and in many traditions different aspects of that god or goddess is called upon for different things. In Santería, these different aspects of certain Orishas are called “caminos” or “roads”, and while all roads are understood as still being the Orisha in question, they can seem very different from one another. Though Yemaya is often thought of in Neopagan circles as being the quintessential “mother goddess”, in her road of Okuti she is Ogun’s partner who drinks rum, smokes cigars, and goes into battle with a machete. I have heard that Okuti embodies the cold, violent aspect of the ocean. Conversely, Asesu is a gentler road that embodies the sea foam. Both of these aspects are simultaneously true representations of Yemaya (and the ocean itself), even if they seem to be contradictory. The idea of different aspects of deity is also found in Hinduism, and mantras to different deities often include 108 different names/aspect of the deity being worshipped. For example, one may call upon Ganesh as Bala Ganapati (“the childlike”), Vira Ganapati (“the valiant warrior”) or Vaghana Ganapati (“Lord of Obstacles”), each name telling us something different about the complicated figure that is Ganesh.

In modern Heathenry, I have seen some people use the many heiti and kennings of our gods and goddesses in a very similar way. Though many of the names of the gods could be thought of as purely poetic in nature, designed to help the poet create alliteration in their work, I personally hold that they were most likely also used in the worship of the gods in ancient times. These names serve to tell us something about the nature of the gods, and could also invoke specific aspects of a god or goddess depending on the name being used. Calling on Óðinn in his aspect of Óski (“god of wishes”) is bound to show a very different face of Óðinn than Draugadróttinn (“lord of the undead”), even when they both refer to the same deity. Worshippers may also find that they resonate with one heiti of their deity more than others. Fellow columnist Galina Krasskova has mentioned that the “path” of Óðinn she feels closest to is Gangleri (“way-weary”), who may be thought of the embodiment of Óðinn as the eternal wanderer and seeker of wisdom.

The various kennings and heiti of the gods show us that the nature of the gods was imagined to be very complex by the ancestors. Óðinn, though usually only recognized and called upon for his beneficent aspects in modern Heathenry (such as his role as Sigðir the “victory-giver”) is also equally Bölverkr (“evil-worker”) and Skollvaldr (“ruler of treachery”). Rather than lumping Óðinn completely into all of his good traits or all of his negative traits, I think it’s more balanced to say that Óðinn is a deity that has some very extreme positive and negative aspects, and that one should be careful about which “Óðinn” they are calling upon.

It’s needless to say that Loki is a god who is looked at with a great deal of suspicion in modern Heathenry, and some people claim to have had some very negative experiences with Loki in their own lives. But this begs the question: if they were expecting Loki to be an evil force in their lives, could it be that they unintentionally attracted the attention of one of Loki’s darker paths? Perhaps their experience would have been different if they call called upon Loki in one of his gentler aspects. I have also met Lokeans whose understanding and experience of Loki was very different from my own; but I have also met Lokeans whose image of Loki was almost identical to mine. Could our mutual or dissimilar alignment with a certain heiti of Loki serve to explain this? While Loki has many more names than the ones I will be sharing (a complete list can be found in Playing With Fire: An Exploration of Loki Laufeyjarson), the 9 I will be sharing are those that I consider to be the primary “roads” of Loki one is likely to encounter. While I have attributed my own interpretation to these heiti, Loki worshippers may be interested to see which one they resonate with the strongest. When one is crowned with an Orisha in Santería, divination is performed to find out which “road” of the Orisha that person carries (trusting their crowning Orisha has more than one). Similar divination could be performed by a Loki-worshipper (or a devotee of any Norse god) to determine which aspect of the god/dess walks most closely with them if they weren’t already sure. I have outlined how to create such a “yes/no” system of divination in volume 2, number 1 of Walking the Worlds.

Hopefully this list of Loki’s heiti may be found useful for worshippers, and hopefully will inspire other Heathens who work closely with a fulltrui to develop similar descriptions. Knowing the many different aspects of the deities is a way of fleshing out their worship for modern times, and coming to know them in a more complete way.

1. Lóðurr:

Symbol: Sirius
Colors: Blood red, gold, yellow

Völuspá 18
Þrymlur I-III 21

The identification of Loki as Loðúrr is one that has been highly debated, though in reality becomes perfectly blatant if one reads the Icelandic rímr, which are epic ballads from the 14th century. One of these ballads, Þrymlur (which was written roughly between CE 1300-1400) follows the same basic storyline as Þrymskviða. Both stories are an account of how Þórr’s hammer Mjöllnir was stolen by the giant Þrymr, who demands Freyja as his bride in exchange for it. Þórr is then persuaded to disguise himself as Freyja in order to reclaim his hammer, and Loki accompanies him disguised as his bridesmaid. In the Þrymlur account of the story, Loki is directly referred to by Þrymr as “Lóður” when he comes to visit him.

18. Gumnum þótti granda fæst
garpnum bragða-drjúga;
fjaðrham hafði Loptur læst,
Loki tók hátt að fljúga.
19. Flýgr hann út yfir Ásagarð
Einn veg láð sem geima;
kalli ilt í kryppu varð,
hann kemr í jötna heima.
20. Fjölnis þjón kom furðu-dæl
framm að landa baugi;
úti stóð fyr Óðins þræl
jötuninn Þrymr á haugi.
21. Ljótur talar í lyndi veill—
leiðaði orðum sléttum—
Lóður kom þú híngað heill,
hvað hefr kall í fréttum?1

18. To men it seemed fewest of guiles
To men [it seemed fewest] of lasting tricks
Lopt had closed the cloak of feathers
Loki began to fly high
19. He flies out over Ásgarðr
In the same way [over] land as sea
Called ill in the strong-ward, (?)
He comes into Jötunn home.
20. To a beach the servant came very easily
Ahead on a ring of land;
Out stood before Óðinn’s thrall
A giant Þrymr on a grave-mound
21. The ugly one speaks in a cunning way—
he inquired in smooth words—
Lóður come you hither in health,
What call do you have in inquiry?

Because they were written so late, some scholars have ignored the evidence within the rímr for the Lóðurr/Loki connection entirely. However, Haukur Þorgeirsson suggests this is largely due to an overall unfamiliarity with these poems, and makes a case for the theory that the poet of Þrymr knew that Lóðurr was an alternate name for Loki directly from oral tradition.2

This is Loki’s aspect as a creator god. In this aspect he is the brother and traveling companion of Óðinn and Hænir. Lóðurr grants Askr and Embla lá ok litu góða (“blood (?) and good color”),and therefor can be seen as the god of the fire of the blood and the metabolism. He is also connected to the creative fire of the sun and stars and is the owner of Sirius (Lokabrenna). This aspect of Loki is directly connected to the Hamr within the soul complex, which is the vehicle through which one can fare-forth and shape-shift.

2. Vé (“Holy Enclosure”):

Symbol: Heart
Colors: Orange, yellow, white

Gylfaginning 6
Ygnlinga saga 3
Lokasenna 26

Loki as the fire of exorcism and establishing sacred spaces. In Old Norse religion, a vé was a sacred space that was cleared with fire. I personally see Villi and Vé as alternate names for Lóðurr and Hænir, and therefore see Vé as yet another heiti of Loki. This is the aspect of Loki that consumed the heart of an unnamed witch in Völuspá hin skamma and gave birth to monsters as a result. Vé is also the embodiment of the fire of purification that consumed Gullveig (who I see as an aspect of Freyja) when the Æsir burned her three times, connecting him to the art of seiðr through this mutual initiation.

3. Loptr (“Lofty”):

Symbol: Serpent, lightning, shoes
Colors: Red, orange, green

Þórsdrápa 1
Haustlöng 8
Gylfaginning 33
Lokasenna 6, 19
Hyndluljóð 12, 41

Loki as the fire of the sky (lightning) and the bringer of divine knowledge. The companion of Þórr [Thunder} that travels with him through the sky in Þórr’s chariot and joined him on the journey to Þrymr’s hall. This is also the aspect of Loki that owns the “sky-shoes” described by Snorri in Gylfaginning and who borrows Frigg or Freyja’s falcon skin to deliver messages for the gods.

4. Gammleið (“Vulture’s Path”):

"Loki as Gammleið", copyright 2016 the author, used with permission

“Loki as Gammleið”, copyright 2016 the author, used with permission

Symbol: Vulture
Colors: Red, orange, yellow

Þórsdrápa 2

Loki in his aspect of the fire of cremation. This is the road of Loki that was in an eating contest with Logi (wild-fire) and who consumed Baldr’s funeral pyre. This is also the aspect of Loki who releases the soul when a body is cremated. As the feminine nature of this name suggests, in this aspect he is also the mother of Sleipnir (who can be imagined as a symbolic funeral bier).

5. Inn Bundi Áss (“The Bound God”):

Symbol: Salmon, fishnet
Colors: Black, green, orange

Skáldskaparmál 23

Loki as the god of the fire under the earth. In this aspect he is the god of earthquakes and hot springs. This is the aspect of Loki that was bound by the gods in Lokasenna and who acts as the revealer of hard truths. This is also the aspect of Loki that invented the fish net and was ensnared in it in the shape of a salmon.

6. Inn Slægi Áss (“The Cunning God”):

Symbol: Fox, gadfly, seal
Colors: Orange, black, white

Skáldskaparmál 23

Loki as the divine trickster. In this aspect he’s associated with the fire of the forge and is connected to the dwarves and craftsmen in general. This is the aspect that stole Sif’s hair and provided new hair for her and gifts for the other gods. He also stole the treasure from the dwarf Andvari.

7. Hveðrung (“Roarer”):

Symbol: Volcano
Colors: Black, dark red, blood red

Völuspá 54

Loki as the breaker of worlds and the vengeful god of destruction. This aspect rules wildfires and volcanoes and steers the ship Naglfari, leading the Muspilli into battle. In this aspect, Loki is the father of Fenris, Jörmungandr, and Hel and is the consort of Angrboða. He goes into battle with the sword Lævateinn (“destruction wand”).

8. Læva Lundr (“Tree of Deceits”):

Symbol: Spider, flea
Colors: Black, red, yellow

Haustlöng 11

This is Loki´s aspect as the god´s deciever and the instigator of conflict. This aspect of Loki deceived Iðunn into being captured, stole Freyja’s necklace, tricked Höðurr into firing a dart of mistletoe at Baldr, and Þórr into visiting Geirroðr’s hall without his weapons. This aspect of Loki can be likened to the “need-fire” of Nauthiz, as he creates the difficulties that the gods must overcome in order to grow in strength and perform great deeds. He is the spider who spins webs of fate that the gods find themselves tangled in.

9. Ver Sigynjar (“Husband of Sigyn”):

Symbol: Cauldron (such as the meat of the god’s sacrifices were boiled in)
Colors: Orange, yellow, pale-blue

Skáldskaparmál 23

In this aspect Loki represents the fire of the hearth and home and the fire of the heart. He is the sacramental fire that Sigyn pours offerings to in order to carry strength to the gods. This aspect is the husband of Sigyn and the father of Váli and Narvi. This aspect of Loki is also the defender of children, as can be seen in the poem Loka Táttur.


I. Talamonodêwoi: This term is again my own coinage, from “talamon”, meaning “ground, earth, soil”, and “dêwos”, meaning “deity, spirit”. The Talamonodêwoi, then, are the “Earth Deities”, another word for the Land Spirits. There are few actual examples attested, though there must have been more. A couple examples we do have are listed below:

A. Dusioi: Destructive forest spirits rather similar to the Greco-Roman satyrs, the Dusioi caused damage to orchards and crops, and came to sleeping women at night, having sex with them in the manner of an incubus.1

B. Morâs: Female nightmare spirits. All we have is the name, reconstructed by linguists. There may or may not be some similarity to Greco-Roman ideas of lamiae, or the Germanic Nightmare.2

C. Bâdities: Here we have an example of why to be cautious of out of date sources. In several old sources, notably Stokes’ Urkeltischer Sprachschatz, this is listed as a word for “nymph”. More recent and better scholarship has disproved this, however. Delmarre lists it as the word for “water-lily”.3

II. Anderoi:
A term meaning “Those Below”, this is an attested term for the spirits of the Underworld. Exactly who they are is unclear. From the Chamaliers Inscription, we know that their magic was well known in some way. That they included the spirits of some of the dead is likely. My own experience with them suggests they are unpleasant, including a variety of other “faerie” like spirits, of mischievous or malevolent nature, dwelling in the Underworld. In modern Celtic folklore, the line between the spirits of the dead and the mound-dwelling “faeries” was often very blurred to say the least.4

Seeing the Trees for the Forest

Sometimes, even among us polytheists, there is still a tendency to reduce to a few that which numbers the stars. This tendency is an internal artifact of ingrained patterns, an unconscious bad habit from generations of living with the insistence that there are no deities, or that that there are only one or two deities. We know that there are more than none, one, or two. We know there are several. But sometimes, because of broken ancestral relations and generations of this now-unconscious behavior, we operate from acknowledging far fewer than the vast diversity that actually exists.

Let’s set aside this matter for a moment to consider trees. Near where I live, there is a row of three Black Maples. Each is a maple tree—not an elm, an oak, or a willow—furthermore each one of those trees is of a type of maple that grows in a tight geographical region, and each one of those is specifically a Black Maple—not a Redbud Maple, an Amur Maple, or a Sugar Maple. Each one of those three Black Maples is a separate individual tree: what happens to one tree doesn’t necessarily happen to the others; they grow separately, and they have different relationships. The Black Maples that grow by my home are not the same as the Black Maples that grow down the street or the Black Maples that grow in another state. The three Black Maples here exist in particular relationships with each other, other beings, with the land, and with the contexts that they’re growing in. They also exist and are defined by not just what they are, but in reference to what they are not—they are not Sugar Maples, not elms, not squirrels, and not postal workers. Each of these three Black Maples are different not just in relationship to other things like the land, the squirrels, and postal workers, but also in relationship to other Black Maples, other maples, and trees in general.

The many different relationships all help inform and support the individuality, the uniqueness, of each tree. These different relationships are sort of like the ridges on a key—the different ridges form different configurations making it so that your car key will not work for your deadbolt. Without these ridges, the key is an undifferentiated useless blank which won’t work for any task. An individual being ceases to be any kind of differentiated, useful, unique being if it were possible to extract it from all relationships whatsoever. Without relationships, and the context provided by relationships, there is nothing for the individual to function in connection to, in accord with, or in opposition to; thus there is nothing to help an individual being hold those boundaries and functions that are important in having shape as an individual being. Like a ridge-less key, it’s an undifferentiated useless blank with no identity, no individuality, no uniqueness, and no usefulness—it still has potential, but it is unrealized potential. Without the unique relationships each tree has, that tree ceases to be what it is and co-participate, coexist, in the world around it.

Each tree separately exists in multiple unique, individual relationships, different roles, with the unique individual other maples, other trees, animals, insects, lichen, mosses, people, and more. They are not defined by their relationships, but they are defined with their relationships and through those relationships, participating with or being acted upon by other beings and having other beings participate with them. These relationships are not exhibits of codependency, but of interdependence and interconnectedness, and it is this interdependence and interconnectedness that allows for the individuals in these relationships fully to come into their own unique places and individuality in the grander scheme of life on planet Earth.

Of the three Black Maples near me, the one to the north has often been the home of corvids (probably some type of crow). The one in the center tends to drop branches because of an insect infestation, and two breeds of local squirrels make this a tree a good home because of its sheltering nooks. The nostepinne I made for winding yarn comes from a dropped branch from that center tree. The one to the south, further away, is the one I like to stand by and watch the bats come out in summer twilight.

I could call the tree in the center the Black Maple Who Drops Branches. I could also call it Black Maple Nostepinne Tree, or Center Black Maple. The squirrels might acknowledge the same tree Black Maple Good Nesting Tree. These are different names but on this occasion the different names refer to different relationships for the one same tree. Those relationships are important to know in order to understand the identity of that one tree. I can’t nest in that tree, so I don’t know that tree as Black Maple Good Nesting Tree; I don’t have the same relationship with it as the squirrels do, nor does that tree have the same relationship with me that it does with the squirrels. The squirrels have no need for a nostepinne, so they would not know that tree as a Black Maple Nostepinne Tree. However, both squirrels and myself may understand that tree as Black Maple Who Drops Branches, although the branches affect me differently from the how they affect the squirrels.

The neighborhood crows know a Black Maple Good Nesting tree too, but they know a different tree—the tree that stands to the north of Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Squirrels. The Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Crows is a different tree. The name describes a different relationship, where the crows, not the squirrels, prefer to nest. Sometimes there’s overlap between the two, where a couple of squirrels one year might prefer Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Crows from what had been Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Squirrels, and thus Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Crows may end up with a new added name, a new relationship, a new function, and an added identity. But, just because of the overlap it doesn’t mean that the two different trees are the same tree.

I describe the trees in terms of what the trees are but also in terms of what the trees are not, as well as in terms of their location, their relationships. To understand that center Black Maple tree in its totality better, as well as to differentiate center Black Maple tree from the north Black Maple tree, I would be wise to keep in mind all of these relationships that I know about. This knowledge has the added benefit of my learning not just who that center tree is, but who it is not, and it helps me understand the individuality of all three trees and their unique contexts.

How in the world does this relate to deities?

I propose that when in doubt, we should consider that two deities going by the same or similar names but acting differently in different locales, different circumstances, and different relationships, might just be different deities. It’s a complete 180-degree-turn from how most of us are conditioned to think; we’re conditioned to think unconsciously of “fewer” and to assume that if there are some basic similarities, then we are looking at the same thing. This would be as if we assume that there is no differentiation between Black Maples and other kinds of maples, or the specific differentiation of my three Black Maples from other Black Maples doesn’t matter. We don’t realize that though we know there are several deities, we might be assuming there are far fewer than what there actually are. This mindset of “assuming different and separate until otherwise known,” allows the space for us to explore whether or not we’re seeing the same deity with different relationships in progress, or a different deity altogether, or some other unique situation. This mindset allows space for these matters to be considered without the danger of the crushing erasure that reductionism leads to. Figuratively speaking, without this mindset, we keep jamming a car key into a deadbolt and becoming upset when we don’t get the results we expected, and furthermore we are in danger of balding off all of the ridges on keys and turning them into undifferentiated useless blanks.

I want to make it clear here that these matters are context-specific. Just because the contexts shift and change or just because our understanding of these shifts might be unclear, it doesn’t mean that “Anything goes!” Just because our understanding of the standards is imperfect or missing, it doesn’t mean that there are no standards. This applies to our own situations as well as our own viewing of other people’s situations in relationships to deities. Standards, rules, customs, norms: all of these apply in relationships, and all of these apply differently in different relationships, in different locales, and for different Beings and beings. It is best to assume, until we assess otherwise, that there are perhaps different deities and perhaps different standards, rules, norms, and customs in play.

On occasion, we may find out that standards aren’t there, but this matter must be assessed carefully on a case-by-case basis. For instance if someone comes to me claiming they’ve seen the Anunnaki and that the Anunnaki are space aliens from the “planet Nibiru” just like how they’re portrayed in some sham of a “documentary,” I know that any standards of interacting with an actual ancient class of deities known as the Anunnaki from Mesopotamia are absent. This person might be interacting with some beings or Beings, but it is unlikely that the beings they’re interacting with are actually Anunnaki known in ancient Mesopotamia. Even if they are interacting with some Anunnaki, they’re not doing it in the clearest way possible when they force those experiences into a broken mold of expectation based on fantasy pawned off as fact-set, as seen on TV. But again, this must be assessed carefully and conscientiously.

This knowledge—knowledge of relationships with the deities, of our roles in these relationships, of these standards, rules, customs, and norms—is at least some of what we lost when those lines of transmission from the ancient ancestors to ourselves were broken and when the brokenness extended unchecked and unattended for generations. In losing our knowledge of these relationships and our roles in these relationships as set up by our ancestors, we’re also missing that knowledge of ourselves, as we are defined with these relationships and our participation in them—we, too, are missing some of our differentiated “key ridges.” (Please note: when I speak of “ancestry” I speak of something far broader than strict biological relationships, and of something which has nothing to do with nationalistic concerns.) We lost an understanding of those relationships. We lost an understanding of how different deities fulfill those roles to different people at different times in different situations and different locales. Reciprocally, we also lost our knowledge of our individual roles and how to fulfill these roles in wholly restored relations to our deities and ancestors. An understanding of these things is what we seek to heal when we engage in the labor-of-love of repairing and restoring these relationships with deities and ancestors, and to rebuild these relations and roles anew where needed , warranted, and guided.

Because of our broken traditions and lines-of-transmission for knowledge of these relationships, we’ve often relied on scholars in part to tell us who our deities are and to describe ancient peoples’ relationships to these deities. From that problematic information we often then extrapolate what these various relationships and contexts were in ancient times. Afterwards, we may try to project this human-constructed model into our locales, our era, our relationships, and our contexts. This serves a good, solid, necessary purpose in human social matters as we struggle to come together in honor of our deities because it helps us form organized structures into which we can gather and participate, so I don’t at all propose eradicating these things. But I do propose understanding these human-made structures and their clear limitations in having deeper relations and understandings of our relationships with the deities.

When we have experiences sometimes we try to shove these experiences into those broken molds created from tenuous extrapolations based on incomplete or faulty information about other peoples, with other relationships, living in other times, and in other regions. Our relationships and our contexts are not the same things that different ancient peoples had in different places. Furthermore the relationships which scholars try to understand and describe that ancient peoples had, is going to be different from our relationships and contexts here and now. There’s also an important difference there between relationships ancient people actually had (something we may never entirely know), and what scholars best think that the ancients had, based on the evidence available and the interpretation of that evidence: the two are never going to be an exact match.

Scholars do their best and generally they do a solid job, so I’m not dismissing what they do. I just ask for an awareness of the limitations and applications of their work. Their work doesn’t function as well as one may hope it would for understanding these relationships amidst deities and humans, past or present, local and distant. There are biases and limits to what scholars know, limits to the information that they have access to, and limits to what they can describe fully, cleanly, and clearly. An arborist who has never seen a tree is not an arborist and certainly cannot describe well a maple tree, a Black Maple tree, and especially not Black Maple Nostepinne Tree, despite any protests to the contrary. A scholar who has never met a deity is in a poor situation to describe a deity, or to understand polytheism in an ancient context, let alone a deity or polytheism in any modern context. So, for instance, it’s time to question when a scholar assumes two names/titles of Zeus refer to the same Being.

It’s easy to assume that all trees are basically alike especially if you don’t know trees well, and it’s even easier to assume that if you’ve seen one maple tree the differences don’t matter much. But, instead of assuming that all trees are just trees, or that all maples are so similar as not to merit further consideration, let’s instead assume each is unique and different. Let’s further acknowledge that each Black Maple, even two growing very closely together, is different unless we discover otherwise in due course of time, effort, knowledge, restored connections, and restored relationships. For instance sometimes what appear to be two separate Black Maples might actually be one tree that happened to grow two main trunks, or a tree with an entirely different plant growing on or through it, or something has been misidentified as a Black Maple when really it’s a different tree. But, it is useful to assume at first that they are two different trees even if they are growing close together until an expert arborist is able to share with you otherwise.

Sometimes we come across a deity’s epithet…but it doesn’t occur to us that this “epithet” may not be an epithet, but a specific name of a specific deity in a specific set of relationships in a specific locale and that these layered contexts are vital to knowing, understanding, and interacting with that individual deity. The “epithet” might actually be the deity’s personal name. Even if the deity-name-in-question is just an alternate name for one particular deity, the name still reflects the deity in a very specific context and it is necessary to take note of the differences. Sometimes names with epithets reflect separate deities (Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of Squirrels versus Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of Crows), but sometimes they reflect a single deity expressing different relationships (Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of Squirrels, Black Maple Who Drops Its Branches, and Black Maple Nostepinne Tree). Assume different unless otherwise known.

I invite you to consider that deities with full names which include epithets may be entirely different deities, until finding out and learning otherwise. This is very different from how we’ve been conditioned to think; we’ve been conditioned at one point to think all of the gods were just one thing (or nonexistent). We are overcoming this…and we still have room to grow.

The collapsing, conflation, and reductionism runs deep and even though we realize that there are Many, we sometimes have trouble wrapping our heads around the idea of Many, Many because of our broken connections, countless generations of calcified bad patterns, and missing knowledge. As a result, we may acknowledge many deities, but we do not begin to understand the countless number of them and the vastness of diversity reflected within their sacred ranks, let alone how they relate to other beings including ourselves, and how we relate to them. I invite you that any time you see a divine name, unless it is followed by an epithet or a locale or some other identifying descriptors, that you put an indefinite article before it: a baʽal, an Astarte, a Zeus, a Freya (like a maple tree, or a Black Maple tree, until you know which specific tree like Black Maple Nostepinne Tree). Instead of assuming that all deities of a particular name or title, or connected names, are the same no matter which locale or era or relationships they have, let’s reverse it and start instead with the assumption that they’re not the same until we know otherwise. If we know of particulars, specific names (what look like mere epithets), or of a specific locales, or relationships, or eras, let’s use these particulars and let’s assume these things might be different, separate, and individual until we know, through restored relationships, otherwise. Furthermore, let’s be more consistent in acknowledging these different relationships, locales, and contexts by remembering to add them when we converse about the deities, unless it is clear in private conversation exactly Who we are speaking of, or unless we make it clear that we are speaking in broad general terms as we work towards the specific.

The dead are gods, too

To the modern eye, one of the most controversial features of ancient Roman polytheism – if not the most controversial – is the imperial cult. For one, because in an age of individual freedom many of us are uncomfortable with authority figures, let alone deified ones, and especially when they’re not particularly sane or their moral compass differs from ours. But also because of our modern attitude towards divinity, in that we tend to see it as the exclusive trait or monopoly of a particular group of entities. Thus, when a dead or living ruler is given a divine status, a common reaction is to look at it as a form of hubris and power grab.

When reviving ancient Roman polytheism in the modern age, these are not unfounded issues and should not be dismissed outright as something that gets in the way of a “true” cultus. Yet neither should they be accepted uncritically as no-brainers. To some extent, they’re born out of a concern for real problems that need to be addressed, but there’s also a lot of bias in them, ancient and modern. So when declaring the divine value of the dead, be it in general or heroes and rulers in particular, we must also deconstruct the notion and the fears it holds.

Strange women lying in ponds

I’ve addressed this point before, elsewhere and on multiple occasions, yet it is one I keep going back to, no doubt because the question of what constitutes a god strikes a focal cord in any theological discussion. And as a polytheist, when considering the issue, I avoid using the monotheistic approach by default and instead go directly to ancient views on the matter, especially those preserved in more straightforward inscriptions and formulas, and compare them with the perspective of living polytheistic religions. A case in point is Shinto, which is similar to Roman polytheism in several ways. And what I find is a notion of god that is very different from the standard one in modern western culture.

The commonly held view today is one of radical separation between the divine and non-divine. God is something great and above everything else, clearly distinct from humans and animals, but also from other supernatural entities such as angels, demons and saints. Those in the latter group may look and act like a god, but they’re not one, because divinity is an ontological monopoly of the most high. It is not something you can acquire or attain, but an inherent and exclusive quality of a single entity who goes to great length to make it crystal clear. Many polytheists see things in a very similar fashion, though with a more crowded top spot that’s also followed by groups of supernatural, yet non-divine beings like elves, nymphs, giants and ancestors.

This is why Japanese authors and religious scholars sometimes avoid translating the word kami as “god”, since it will likely be interpreted by westerners as something similar to the Judeo-Christian notion of deity. Hence the term “spirit” is preferred. But this is so only because we have internalized a certain notion of god to the point of it now being obvious, virtually self-explanatory. We are unable to conceive it differently without putting our brains to work and mentally deconstruct things we take for granted. So when asked to define a god, most of us will instinctively say that it’s a most supreme entity. Of course it is! What else could it be?

Enter Latin inscriptions from pre-Christian Europe. Instead of simply assuming that our modern no-brainers were just as obvious in the past, we should look at what people back then carved or wrote when addressing the entities they worshipped. And what we find is that the Latin words deus (god), dea (goddess) and di (gods) were not used exclusively for what we now commonly see as gods. It wasn’t a monopoly of the highest, of the likes of Jupiter and Juno, but a title common to a plethora of greater and smaller entities from above, bellow and between: Di Manes (the Divine Dead), Di Parentes (the Divine Relatives), Di Inferi (the Gods of the Underworld), Di Consentes (the Greater Twelve Gods), Di Conserentes (the Gods of Procreation), Di Conservatores (the Saviour Gods) and the Di Indigetes, many of which were small deities from common everyday things. These were not even mutually exclusive categories, but overlapping ones: for instance, Jupiter was simultaneously one of the Di Consentes and, under the epithet Conservator, one of the saviour gods; the Di Inferi include Proserpina, Queen of the Underworld, but also the Dead or Manes who dwell in it. And they’re all di or gods. Some greater, some smaller, some able to influence multiple things in a large area, others limited to a localized object. But gods nonetheless.

This is odd to many of us. Indeed, some will even say it´s hubris. And yet, it was a commonly held view in at least part of the ancient world, where there was clearly a notion of god that clashes with our most-high and exclusive view of it. Simply put, a deity was anything that was numinous or otherworldly, no matter how small and even if “just” a deceased human, a house wight or a nymph. You don’t have to call them spirits as if that’s the only proper word: you can follow the example of pre-Christian Europeans and can call them gods without fear of being struck by lightning. Hubris, I’d argue, would be to claim that an ancestral Lar is as great as Jupiter, not because you’re placing both in the divine category, but because they belong to different strata of the hierarchy of gods. They’re both part of the multifaceted sense of the word di, just as the term kami is applied to multiple entities, from the great sun goddess Amaterasu to the lamenting dead. Or to quote Sokyo Ono’s Shinto: the Kami Way (1999: 7):

Among the objects or phenomena designated from ancient times as kami are the qualities of growth, fertility, and production; natural phenomena, such as wind and thunder; natural objects, such as the sun, mountains, rivers, trees and rocks; some animals; and ancestral spirits. In the last-named category are the spirits of the Imperial ancestors, the ancestors of noble families, and in a sense all ancestral spirits. Also regarded as kami are the guardian spirits of the land, occupations, and skills; the spirits of national heroes, men of outstanding deeds or virtues, and those who have contributed to civilization, culture and human welfare; those who have died for the state and community; and the pitiable dead. Not only spirits superior to man, but even some regarded as pitiable and weak have nonetheless been considered to be kami.

Sokyo Ono also points out that the term kami is honorific and is thus applied to things that are in some way revered. Hence common individuals are not part of the category, though they are potential kami (1999: 6-7). Which makes sense, if nothing else because death makes one a focus or part of a religious cult, either domestically as an ancestor or supra-domestically as a god of the community. In other words, when you die, you become a revered spirit and hence worthy of the title of kami. Or in the Latin equivalent, a deus/dea. Which gives theological backing to the notion of imperial worship, for if the Manes are di or gods, then why wouldn’t a dead ruler (or a general or a senator, for that matter) be seen as a god, too?

Well I didn’t vote for you!

There were of course plenty of political advantages to it. If a deceased emperor becomes the focus of a public cult, as opposed to a strictly domestic or private one, and some of that divine aura extends to a living ruler – namely if he’s a descendant of his predecessor – then it helps creating a form of totalitarianism, where the political focus in one man is matched or even reinforced by a religious equivalent of that concentration of authority. Which is pretty much what you had at one point in the imperial period. To some extent, it is understandable: if one considers the territorial range of the empire and the cultural, ethnic and religious diversity it housed, the imperial cult presented itself as instrumental for political unity and management. It doesn’t mean that it had to be that way, but it was obviously a preferred solution.

The fact that it was used for political gains doesn’t erase its basic theological sense. The broad notion of deus produced a particular religious apparatus in a given time and place, but it can create others in different conditions. This is especially important when reviving ancient Roman polytheism, as opposed to merely re-enacting it, because we need to separate the religious from the social so as to place the former in the current context and allow for an updated connection of the two. And we live in a very different time, where power is expected to be separated instead of concentrated and leaders are to be questioned and freely criticized, not placed above reproach or given a divine status. Above all, the rise of individual freedom and autonomy as a focal value of modern western societies has made us less tolerant towards authority figures and deeply suspicious of duties, namely when they call for unquestioned submission. And because our world is more democratic and egalitarian, many of us frown at the idea of honouring rulers as gods, especially when they were undemocratic. At least by modern standards. Just as some oppose forms of public tribute to revolutionary leaders from the 18th century who were slave owners. Thomas Jefferson is a case in point.

The problem with that attitude, though, is that it fails to grasp how History works: not in instantaneous bursts where things like freedom are suddenly born fully-formed, but as a series of complex, long-term, non-linear and overlapping processes where change occurs step by step, often along multiple generations. You basically don’t go from oppression to fully recognized and implemented rights and liberties overnight or in a space of a few years. You add one brick to another and, as they pile up (and sometimes as they fall and are stacked again), you build the desired structure. It can take decades, it can take centuries. And in each stage of that slow process, things don’t look like the finished product, even if they are an essential step towards it. You don’t go from pieces of raw materials to a fully built and functional car in one stroke. There are multiple stages in-between and in many of them what you have is far from looking like, let alone being a functional car. And yet you cannot build one without going through those steps.

Now apply this to historical characters. Yes, Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, as was common at the time, but the ideals he worked for – individual rights, liberties and democracy – as limited in scope as they may seem to us today, nonetheless cleared the path for the next stage, which one of greater emancipation. In other words, Jefferson was a necessary step towards something else. He wasn’t perfect – just as a car in the initial stages of an assembly line isn’t a finished vehicle – but he helped laying the ground for what followed, which in turn contributed to the freedom of today. You could say that History is a cumulative process where one brick stands on another. And if you remove a lower one because it doesn’t look like those on top, the latter may collapse by lack of the former. It’s kind of like Jenga.

By the same token, a person’s values and ideas are limited by those of one’s time. You may see further ahead – some exceptionally so – or fight for steps in this or that direction, but generally speaking, people conceive what their time allows them to. We stand on the past’s shoulders and we can only reach as high as its height. Take same-sex marriage, for instance: it would have been socially unacceptable as a first option in ancient Rome, because marriage as a legal contract was tied to procreation and the forwarding one’s family. It was only when it became detached from notions of property that marriage out of nothing but love gained a greater acceptance. And when the ideas of liberty, equality and an individual right to happiness were stacked on that romanticism, together with the secularization of the 19th century and the sexual revolution of the 1960s, then yes we were able to reach as high as the shelf of same-sex marriage. Not instantly and certainly not without a fight, but it became conceivable and possible to attain.

This is why one should always be careful when judging past men and women according to current values. They saw and did things we consider shocking, from slavery to war, misogyny to homophobia and religious intolerance. But they lived in another time and stood on the shoulders of a past whose height was different from ours. And this is something one must always take into account when considering which deceased men and women to worship. It doesn’t mean that every past action is excusable, but historical context cannot be simply ignored.

None shall pass

Some will point out that revering human beings as divine figures is not only hubris, but also a road to a personality cult that can lead to abuses of power. While I’ve already addressed the first critique in the initial part of this text, the second one is a legitimate concern. We’ve all seen people being idolized to the point of being placed above reproach, even when their actions are criminal. The cases around sexual abuses committed by community leaders are a good example of that. And if we’re to grant them divine honours, because the border between humans and gods is blurred, then we risk strengthening those people’s hold on power. This is a valid point, even more so when reviving an ancient religion that went down the thorny path of a personality cult on steroids. But it is also an issue that can be easily solved and the mistakes of the past prevented by establishing two basic principles.

The first is that death is the necessary threshold. You do not become a god without going through it on a permanent basis. A near-death experience isn’t enough to qualify you as a deus or dea, nor is being an exceptional, yet still living human being. Because at the risk of stating the obvious, you only become an otherworldly entity once you cross into the otherworld and settle there. Of course, one can still argue that some are a greater bridge to the numinous than others. People like shamans or priests, who can ritually embody the divine and hence be, even if just figuratively and for a limited amount of time, a living god or goddess. And it is tempting to place them on a pedestal and see them as more than mere humans, with an aura that awards them reverence and a certain immunity from things we would normally criticize on others.

This is where you bring in egalitarianism, which is the second principle. Think about it: if the Manes are the dead in general and they’re given the title of di or gods, then all of us are a deity in waiting. Some greater and others smaller, depending on the impact one makes in the world and whether one is revered in a strictly domestic context or has worshipers outside the walls of a specific household. But gods nonetheless. Far from being something reserved for an elite, spirit workers, leaders or people whose deeds are timeless, every single one of us becomes one of the Di Manes or Divine Dead once we move into the otherworld.

So if someone says that he or she deserves to be revered as a deity on account of his/her outstanding abilities, contributions or status as a leader, one has only to point out two things: 1) you’re not dead yet and 2) we’re all deities after death. It’s a trait of the many, not a privilege of the few; it belongs to all, not just rulers and heroes.

Get on with it!

But if every deceased is a divinity and you want to worship some of them, which ones should you pick? The answer is simple: the ones you’re related to. By blood, bonds, place of birth, ideals, art, causes, traditions. Your ancestors, first and foremost, but also the founding fathers of your community or country. Your departed friends, your personal heroes, the people who produced the philosophy you’re fond of, the men and women who inspire you, your teachers. There’s even room for deceased pets and farm animals and you can worship them individually or collectively.

Yes, many of them did things that we find reproachable, even criminal, but remember: History isn’t a series of instantaneous burst where things are born fully formed. It’s a slow process where you can only reach as high as the past you’re standing on. People from one or more centuries ago, including your own blood ancestors, had a very different opinion on things we see as obvious and good. And if I honour deceased relatives who would have shunned or even killed me for being gay – because that was the prevalent mentality in their day and age – why should I expect that others from a different time would uphold the values I do?

By now, I assume some are already thinking that this holds a dangerous relativism. A few may even pull out the argument that I’m washing away the consequences of Columbus’ voyage or rehabilitating Hitler (honest story: been there, heard that!). Yet if you’ve been paying attention, you’d know that’s not the case. Again, not every past action is excusable, but historical context cannot be simply ignored. It’s true that Columbus made way for the European colonization of America, which brought the demise of native cultures and civilizations. But how was that any different from what was common practice at the time and before? Pre-Christian Romans conquered, assimilated and in some cases annihilated entire communities. The ancient Norse settled in northern Scotland and wiped out the Picts, either violently, peacefully or a bit of both. The medieval Iberian “Reconquista” forced entire populations to move or subdue and the Aztecs expanded by conquering, expelling and assimilating other groups of people. In those days, there was very little in the way of universal freedom and dignity or a bill of rights, so Columbus couldn’t stand on the shoulders of those things, because they were yet to be formulated as we have them today. Hitler, on the other hand, could have and chose not to. He lived in the 20th century, not the 16th or earlier. The west had already known the Enlightenment, the French and American revolutions, the subsequent liberal movements. In many ways, Hitler was the anti-modern, a man bent on turning back the clock to an earlier and largely romanticized age he saw as purer – no matter the cost! But Columbus was a man of his time, a product of the Renaissance: curious, adventurous and certain that the world wasn’t flat. He didn’t have many of our modern values, but neither did virtually anyone else in his time, since the current notions of universal rights, liberties and equality were yet to be stacked.

Because of that, whether or not to worship Columbus comes down to perspective. Often, a culture or country’s hero is another’s villain. How many Celtic polytheists honour Boudica, but not the Roman leaders who conquered Britain, some of which may be worshiped by modern cultores? For many French, Napoleon or Joan of Arc are national heroes, an opinion which is certainly not shared by many Britons. Or vice-versa in the case of Henry V and admiral Nelson. Some Portuguese find themselves in the curious position of honouring Viriato, a Lusitanian chief who fought against Rome, but also Roman men who came after his death. And how many American heathens honour Leif Eiríksson, even though he would have certainly brought down the same as Columbus had he managed to create a permanent Norse settlement in north America? Context is paramount! So while there’s nothing wrong in refusing to pay tribute to navigators from the 15th and 16th centuries – and native Americans certainly have plenty of reasons not to – some may also have legitimate reasons to do the exact opposite.

Ultimately, it’s about taking into account the specifics of a given age and at the same time detect the long-term trends. Or to put it differently, despite the moral mismatch, what did those people do that resonates in a positive fashion today? That’s the sort of question you should be asking, not whether or not someone from the 18th century or the Middle Ages owned slaves or was religiously intolerant. Yes, there are exceptional people whose deeds are seen as virtuous even beyond their own day and age. But generally speaking, the merit of someone’s actions cannot be detached from their time and place.

Personally, I worship three kings, one humanist and a revolutionary, all of which lived no later than the 19th century and would certainly condemn my sexual orientation and choice of religion. Yet that doesn’t eliminate their merit. Take Denis I, for instance, who was likely Portugal’s first literate ruler, author of over one hundred poems and accompanying music, founding figure of the first Portuguese university in 1290, the man who made the nation’s vernacular its official language and established the country’s boundaries by a treaty in 1297 (they’re not called Europe’s oldest political borders for nothing); or Manuel Fernandes Tomás, who was a leading figure in Portugal’s first democratic revolution in 1820 and one of the makers of its first constitution. And these are just two of the five I worship individually: hidden behind the collective title of Lares are more deceased humans and even animals I honour as local or household gods. With every single letter of the word and no scare quotes.

Is it odd for a Roman polytheist to be worshipping people who didn’t live in ancient Rome? No! I’m interested in reviving a religion, not practicing a fossilized version of it where only what was available up until the 5th century is legitimate. In that regard, it makes more sense to be honouring deceased heroes and rulers of my country instead of (just) those of a long-gone civilization or city-State I wasn’t born in. I inherited its language and culture, yes, but not its political identity. So unless I have a specific reason to worship leaders of a bygone empire – Julian the Faithful being a good example – why should my religious practices include rulers and heroes of a political entity that isn’t mine and ignore those who made the country of which I am an actual citizen? How is focusing on Roman emperors while neglecting kings, princes, generals, thinkers or presidents who came after anything but fossilization and re-enactment? Move on! Get on with it! The world didn’t end after the fall of Rome and neither should the religion it produced, which was much more than that of just one city in central Italy. Honour the makers of your current country, its founding fathers, its heroes, its best sons and daughters, the ones whose lives captivate your imagination, nurture your ideals and cement your identity. If you want to revive an ancient religion, one that was last practiced openly in a very different world, detach it from the social specifics of a given time and place and apply it to your current context. So it can entwine with today’s idiosyncrasies and values, not those of a long-lost past or a long-lost country.

Is this a case of too many gods? Again, no! Why should that even be a problem? This is polytheism, not monotheism with more deities on the top floor. It’s open, fluid, diverse and undogmatic. Apart from your ancestors, you don’t have to worship any or all of the Di Manes (at least not individually), but they’re out there and you can pick a few of them to be gods in your home or community. Even if they were once living humans.