Hélio is a Portuguese Roman polytheist who's into the habit of piling rocks on the roadside and leaving coins in public spaces (but he won't tell you exactly where). He's a Mercury devotee, having joined the ranks of the fleet-footed through a series of suspicious coincidences involving internet glitches, lost money, mail delivery and a small lottery prize. He's also very fond of the Norse Vanir gods and thus he often finds himself "liminaling", i.e. exercising the very hermetic art of translating. Which is a fancy way of saying he's into Latinized cults of Scandinavian deities. He’s also a medieval historian, a Pratchett and Monty Python fan, dog-friend, cyclist for the fun of it and a completely amateur potter at least once a year. Occasionally, he bangs coconut shells in public, but that's another story.
Feeling like a Dornishman
Let me start by clarifying that this is not a piece on Game of Thrones or Song of Ice and Fire, though George Martin’s work provides a metaphor whose sense will become clear at one point. So if you don’t like the show or books and were feeling disappointed that this website can host a text on Westeros, relax and take a deep breath. This is also not a piece written by several people, but one individual speaking for himself and from his own viewpoint, which is naturally shaped by where he’s from. This should be obvious, but given how things currently are in the wider polytheistic community and the level of discourse we’ve reached, it’s probably a good idea to point that out. What this text is about is how I’m drifting away from a (significant?) part of said community, because I no longer identify myself with it. It’s something that’s been taking shape for some time, became obvious in January and has been stressed ever since. This doesn’t mean that I’m leaving polytheism: to again clarify, I am willingly and firmly a Roman polytheist and have no intention whatsoever of changing that. But the way I live my religion, see myself and interact with the world is obviously different from how others do it (or at least claim to do). And not necessarily in a good way! To some extent, it’s not the kind of difference you should acknowledge, respect and embrace, but rather question and distance yourself from, for the sake of sanity if nothing else.
Sometimes, the past is just the past
As an historian, I’m obviously interested in the past and study it in an effort to track and comprehend its dynamics, patterns and echoes. As a Roman polytheist, that general interest is taken to another level, since more than reading about it, I strive to revive some of the past. Not in the manner of a Renaissance fair or an attempt at changing the past, but as an effort to make it a living part of the modern world. I’ll say that again to make sure everyone gets it: a living part of the modern world. This is a point I’ll get back to several times throughout this piece and it is, I reckon, at the root of my growing distance from an increasing number of polytheists and in more ways than one.
For starters, it’s what separates me from those who want to go beyond a revival of ancient Roman religion and aim instead at a wider recreation of ancient Rome’s social and civic life, complete with clothing, cooking, language, moral attitudes and political institutions of the time. Which is not reviving a religion to make it a part of the modern world, but setting it apart from it, closing Roman polytheism in a fossilized shell where it remains largely indifferent to the passage of time. A lot of this stems from the fact that people genuinely like a particular culture or civilization, so much so that they try to bring it back somehow. I get that. As an historian, I have something of a monarchist vein, because I spend so much time reading about kings, queens and princes, their lives and courts, that a small part of me secretly wishes that those times were still present, so I could witness as opposed to merely read about them through the accounts of centuries-old documents. But then reality kicks in and you quickly remind yourself that there’s a difference between fantasising about the past and the actual needs and challenges of government. And when it comes to reviving an ancient religion, you need to realize that it’s one thing to bring back a form of polytheism and quite another to fetishize the culture or time-period that produced it.
There’s more to it, of course: some people are unsure about how to revive a religion that was last practiced openly more than a millennium ago, when the world was very different from today’s, and that insecurity can lead them to seek shelter in historical certainty. For them, the past is the way to go – in virtually everything! – for fear of failing to truthfully bring back an ancient religion. It’s essentially the mirror image of those who choose the opposite path, where anything that feels right is correct because we’re living in today and not yesterday – a stance also rooted in insecurity, though in some cases there’s an element of non-conformism as well. In reality, if your goal is to breathe new life into the old, as opposed to merely re-enact it or build something entirely new, both courses of action are wrong. And yes, there is such a thing as being wrong. The correct way is somewhere in the middle, in a balance of tradition and modernity that allows you to retain a fundamental link to the past while still entwining with the present, thereby reviving an ancient religion as a living part of the modern world.
This is one dividing line. It separates me from those who want to be in the present with little or no regard for the past beyond their selfish, feel-good reasons and those who do the exact opposite, who want to be in the past with little interest in the present. And then there’s another group, darker and with the potential to be dangerous, which are those who not only have little interest in the present, but actually despise it! It’s the folks for whom the world is corrupt, gone terribly wrong or is out to get you and thus needs to be saved, fought against or brought back from its current rotten state. And the way they propose to do it is by taking us back to a romanticized past, to a time when women weren’t sluts, men weren’t pussies, cultures weren’t mixed, Christianity and Islam did not exist, everyone was a polytheist and tribes, not modern States or governments, was how people organized themselves. It’s basically the same throwback from those who want a wider recreation of the ancient world, only in this case it’s (also) motivated by a deep distrust or disgust for the modern world. If only we could turn back the clock, things would be better – they’d argue.
We’ll get to the ugly face of that, but for now, suffice to say that I do not share that vision of a decadent present or a romanticized past. It’s true that the modern world has many problems – as any other age – yet it also has the tools to solve them and is a lot better in several ways. Of course, I’m writing as a western European, but as I said at the start of this piece, I’m speaking for myself and from my own standpoint, which is naturally shaped by where I’m from. And over here, I can look back in time and honestly say that things are better: slavery has been outlawed, the death penalty abolished, illiteracy is down to historical levels, women have a much bigger role in society than they did in the past, there’s a greater freedom of religion, expression, movement and political participation than in previous centuries (including Classical Antiquity), life expectancy is longer, you’re free to love another man or woman and marry accordingly, environmental sustainability is a growing policy vector and, despite the strains being placed on it, there’s still a welfare State that provides for a basic safety net. It’s not perfect – far from it! – but it is better and has the tools for improvement.
So unlike other polytheists, I’m not motivated by a need to turn back the clock. I don’t feel out of place in the modern western world, even if it does have problems accepting the notion of someone being a polytheist. It is only natural that it does after centuries of monotheistic dominance, which made the worship of many gods a de facto novelty in the west, even if historically it isn’t. But whereas some would solve that by somehow taking us back to a pre-modern society where there’s no monotheism, I choose to do it by embracing and using the freedoms of religion, expression and association awarded by modernity. To freely speak and practice in order to change perceptions and find a new place for polytheism in the western world as a citizen of a modern country, not by rejecting it, isolating myself from my social surroundings or recreating a pre-Christian tribe. Because I don’t see my Portuguese nationality as being at odds with Roman polytheism, quite the opposite: the territory of my country was once ruled by Rome, its gods worshipped here, and I’m native to a modern Latin language and culture. And since, as said, my goal is to revive an ancient religion to be a living part of today’s world, I have no interest in pretending to be a citizen of an anachronically recreated State or community. Instead, I entwine my religion with my modern nationality and see no contradiction in that.
A consequence of that intersection is that I don’t look at Christianity or Islam as foreign entities. I truly don’t. Maybe it’s because my standpoint is that of an historian and I probably know these things a lot better than some – including several of my own countrymen – but I cannot honestly say that those two religions are outsiders. They’re not new here and weren’t introduced into a pre-existing Portuguese identity, but first stepped into this part of Europe well over a millennium ago: the first organized Christian communities in what is now Portuguese territory date back to c. 180, long before the founding of my nation, which happened only in 1143 or no earlier than c. 1096, when a unified land of Portugal was created, fusing what used to be the older counties of Porto (or Portucale) and Coimbra. And by the time that happened, Islam was already in the Iberian Peninsula for roughly four centuries, since 711, and was making a mark in the languages, land and customs of the region.
I guess you can say that this is a curious part of the world. Not unique, but curious, in that we’re the product of a mixture of ethnicities and cultures. Long before there was such a thing as a Portuguese person, this part of Europe was settled by pre-Celtic Indo-Europeans, Celts, Phoenicians, maybe some Greeks, a lot of Romans, Germanic tribes, Arabs and north-African Berbers. They all came, made themselves at home – some violently, others less so – and eventually went native. Which means their languages, customs and traditions went native, too. Of course, not all of them survived into the present day and didn’t leave traces in equal measure, because too much time has passed for some and a few caused a bigger impact or had a firmer grip on the territory. But every one of them came to call this place “home”, so for that reason, the religions they practiced can claim to be in some way connected to this land. And that includes Christianity and Islam, which went native just like Celtic or Roman polytheisms before them. All of them came from someplace else before settling and adding to the fabric of this place.
As such and unlike Ireland, Norway or Iceland, my country didn’t have a well or even basically defined pagan identity. Unlike those nations, Portugal is a political and cultural construct that postdates the arrival of Christianity and Islam by several centuries, making it a partial product of those two religions and thus not entirely detachable from them. Should I therefore reject or dismantle my Portuguese identity and replace it with a pre-Christian one – Lusitanian, Turduli, Roman or Suebian – so as to be a more genuine polytheist? The answer has already been given: no, because I’m interested in reviving an ancient religion to be a living part of the modern world, not a recreation or romanticization of a bygone age. As I said in another piece, you cannot change the past, only built on it. And also, accepting Christianity and Islam as elements of my country’s heritage doesn’t mean they should have privileges or rule public life, that I adhere to their doctrines, that I don’t strive to personally change monotheistic mental habits (like equating religion with a standardized faith) or that public discourse doesn’t need to be more religiously diverse. It just means that I acknowledge them as part of my nation’s ancestry, regardless of whether or not I agree with their beliefs, and don’t see them as foreign invaders or enemies. Just as I accept that many of my forefathers were Christians, some Muslims, without shunning them or feeling any obligation to share their beliefs. And I’m honestly comfortable with that and the fact that I’m from a country that has a rich tapestry of multiple layers, all bound together by a common History, language, set of symbols and practices. It wasn’t built peacefully – I know it wasn’t! – but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be presently lived peacefully. Reviving an ancient religion isn’t the same as reviving old hates, mistakes and attitudes. Sometimes, the past should really be just that: past!
Of course, this puts me at odds with polytheists who seem to think otherwise. They constantly speak of Christianity and Islam as foreign faiths, invasive and oppressive, insistently reminding everyone of what happened a thousand years ago or more, even suggesting – if not outright defending – that those two religions should be wiped out or their houses of worship destroyed to be replaced with original, older temples. To some extent, those positions are understandable: in several places, Christianization is a more recent process, whereas here it took place over 1500 years ago, which can make the difference between old and thus healed wounds and fresh ones yet to be closed; in countries like Greece, the Orthodox Church still has a medieval mentality and acts accordingly, which doesn’t normally happen in this end of Europe; and as mentioned, places like Norway or Iceland have a basically defined pre-Christian identity, which is not the case here. Furthermore, while I get the link with the notions of invasion, oppressiveness and forced assimilation – because those things have all been done in the name of Christianity and Islam – it’s not something that I see as an exclusive trait of theirs, but one that’s common to civilizations or cultures that invade others, regardless of religion. And I’m not saying this as a hypothetical, but as a matter of fact of my native land: pre-Christian Romans had a similar impact on ancient Iberia, eliminating native communities, forcing others out of their traditional homes and into new cities, replacing their languages with Latin and assimilating their religion, in some cases displacing pre-existing cults – or appropriating them! There’s a reason why only limited traces of Celtic culture remain in western Iberia and mostly in the mountainous north: it’s what survived the actions of pre-Christian Romans.
Is it tragic? Definitely! But what are going to do about it? Seriously, what are you going to do about it? It didn’t happen in the last decade or century, but between 218 BCE and 19 CE, more than two thousand years ago. Are you going to compensate the descendants of those pre-Roman communities? Then you might as well compensate the entire country, since anyone whose family has been in Portugal for at least a few generations is highly likely to have some Celtic ancestors. And Roman, Germanic, Arab and north African, too. After so long, things have become so mixed that while people anachronically see as a national hero a native chief who fought against Rome in the second century BCE, they also celebrate their Roman (and Arab) heritage. Because time has fused old enemies and different layers into a national whole and since my goal is to revive an ancient religion to be a living part of the modern world, I do so on the basis of my Portuguese nationality, not a re-enactment of a Roman province.
Some polytheists disagree and instead suggest that one should dismantle existing identities and States and return to an original, tribal state of things. Which is an idea that requires the assumption that the older is somehow more legitimate than what came after, even if by now the latter is on course to be one thousand years old. Actually, perhaps more incisively, there are those who wish they could stop time or reverse it and seem to believe that things are meant to be in a fixed form that must be retrieved when its purity is sullied by change. But again I say: you cannot alter the past, only built on it. And when you do, what you get will always be in some way different from what existed before. You can either accept that and get on with your life or you can dwell in the past, constantly scratching its wounds, vomiting an ill-digested memory and drown yourself in a warring siege mentality where the world is your enemy because you cannot see, let alone live beyond past events. Which, by the way, is a very similar mindset to that of the ideologues from Daesh. Trying to turn back the clock and wipe out centuries of change in the name of some original or purer state of things has never worked out well.
And thus we finally dive into a toxic blend of resentment towards monotheism and present anxieties, vis-à-vis, terrorism and migration, which reinforces or disseminates paranoia, prejudice and hate. To the extent that I sometimes wonder when will people start writing on how they want to make polytheism great again. A clear example are the (growing?) calls for refugees to be barred or Europe’s indigenous population and culture to be protected from Muslim migrants. Because they have different habits, a different or evil religion or simply because they look different. There was a time, not that long ago, when this sort of rhetoric was a hallmark of white supremacists, but now, it seems, it’s becoming a more common feature among polytheists, with little Trumps popping up here and there. And as a result, I have to ask myself where do I want to be.
For starters, because I’m pretty sure that those who talk about indigenous European population when speaking against migration from the Middle East are, simply put, manifesting their ignorance, either blissful or intentional. Otherwise, they would know that there have been movements of people from the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean and into Europe for at least three thousand years. Think of the Phoenicians, who from their cities in modern-day Lebanon and Syria travelled to and settled in southern Europe around 1100 BCE. Or the Carthaginians, who ruled over southern Iberia for about three centuries. Or the already mentioned invasion of Arabs and north African Berbers into the region, where they settled and mixed with the pre-existing population. And last I checked, Iberia is still a part of Europe. Now, some will no doubt claim that they’re not racists, that this is about culture, not race, and I’ll take their word for it. But even then, it’s still ignorance.
I’m saying this as someone who was born, raised and lives in a European nation that’s roughly nine centuries old, has the continent’s oldest land borders – going back to 1297, about the same time its vernacular tongue was made official – and whose family has been in western Iberia for at least four hundred years. As far as I can tell, I’m a native inhabitant from an old European nation, yet my equally native culture owes a lot to the Islamic civilization that ruled this region for centuries. Its impact can be found in Portuguese language and art, cooking and agriculture, settlements and placenames. For instance, the historic neighbourhood of Alfama, which has some of the oldest buildings in Lisbon, owes its name to the Arab al-hamma (the hot spring, fountain), just as the Algarve, where northern Europeans like to spend their vacations, derives its from al-Gharb or “the west”, because it was part of the westernmost province of the Umayyad Caliphate. Even the name of the country’s capital has Arabic influence, coming from al-Ushbuna, which later became Lyxbona. Rice and almonds are just two of the products whose cultivation in the Iberian Peninsula became common – indeed traditional – thanks to the Islamic civilization. The art of making and painting tiles, which decorate so many of Portugal’s historical buildings and modern houses, owes its popularity to Muslims who disseminated the practice, in as much as the word “azulejo” (tile) comes from the Arab azuleij. So does the name “açorda”, from ath-thorda, which is essentially a traditional bread soup whose existence is at least partially rooted in the Islamic period. In fact, there are over one thousand words of Arab origin in the Portuguese language: “javali” (jabali, boar), “alface” (al-khas, lettuce), “almofada” (al-mukhadda, pillow), “azeite” (az-zait, olive oil), to name just a few examples. Though the most emblematic of all is perhaps “oxalá” (hopefully, I hope), which comes from the Arab insha’Allah or “God willing”. Which is why a friend of mine once told me that the Portuguese, to an extent, are Arabized Latinos – in looks, customs and language. And yet, I’m to believe that we need to “save” Europe’s indigenous culture and population from Muslim migrants coming in from the Arab world?
Seriously, what do people actually mean by that? Are they talking about a native European culture and population they imagine exists or a real one they have actual knowledge of? If it’s the latter, do they mean northern or southern, Scandinavian or Iberian? Why do I get the feeling that some of those who talk the most about defending “indigenous Europe” – some of which are not even Europeans – are also the ones who know the least about the subject?
Mind you, this is not to say that such a large movement of people is unproblematic, because it isn’t. Many of the newcomers hold very conservative views on women, sexuality and religion, they don’t know the languages of their host nations and, in those conditions, no country on its own can take in hundreds of thousands of individuals in one go. It will take time, it will take resources, a balanced distribution of migrants and it will take a lot of learning. And really, if you’re not a racist and your objections are solely about culture, then you should remind yourself that culture isn’t genetic, but taught, acquired, so if western Europeans were able to learn and evolve towards the tolerant state of things that people claim to want to defend, then there’s no reason why migrants can’t do the same. We weren’t always what we are now. What doesn’t help is being a bigot or going paranoid because you watched a video, read something online or judge an entire group of people based on the violent actions of a few. That’s a bit like claiming that heathens should be arrested or expelled after a news report showed white supremacists worshipping Odin or committing racial violence in His name. Not such a good idea to be judged by what others do, is it?
By now, there’s a good chance that some of my readers are already thinking that Islam, unlike Heathenry, has sacred scriptures and that they drive Muslims into committing violent acts. Which is not without truth, but only up to a point. Yes, the Quran has violent passages and you can find several that are used by Daesh to justify its actions, but it also has others of a different nature, like verse 2:256, which says that there can be no compulsion in religion. I know, it sounds like a contradiction given the reality on the ground, from terrorism to the penalties for apostasy in the Muslim world, but that’s the thing with scriptures: they’re complex, contradictory and its interpretation or implementation is, by and large, a matter of cherry picking motivated by multiple factors. Just look at how Leviticus is largely ignored by most Christians, precisely because some of its content has become socially unacceptable. Or how some focus on the “Thou shall not kill” commandment to justify their opposition to the death penalty, while others ignore it. Or even how some Christians reject Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which are about gay sex, and have chosen instead to focus entirely on the more compassionate portions of the Bible.
This is something that’s yet to be done in much of the Islamic world. It’s yet to cherry pick in a positive fashion, upholding verses like 2:256, reinterpreting some and declaring others as null and void in the modern world. Some Muslims already do it – and there’s a long tradition of that, even if a minority one – but for more to follow suit, several things need to happen and one of them is not throwing away the baby with the bathwater. Which is to say that if we denigrate a religion as a whole, without looking at its nuances and complexities, we’ll be eliminating what room it has to reform and evolve, because we’ll be turning things into a zero-sum game where it’s either a violent Islam or no Islam at all. Then again, that might be the exact goal of some people, including a number of polytheists, because that way they’ll have an excuse to openly hate something they wish they could simply get rid of. Turning back the clock is sort of their wet dream.
The stone raft
Where does all of this leave me? Well, to use George Martin’s work, it makes me feel like someone from Dorne, the southernmost of the seven kingdoms of Westeros. It’s a different place from the rest of the realm, not just due to the climate, but also because of the culture, in that Dornishmen are the partial product of a mass migration that did not affect the rest of Westeros. That makes them a mixed people and hence peculiar, if not shocking in the eyes of the rest of the seven kingdoms. And this is not an accidental metaphor, because Dorne is to the world of the Song of Ice and Fire what Muslim Iberia was to medieval Europe.
The idea that you need to stop Arab refugees from entering the continent so as to preserve European indigenous culture and population is something that can only come from an ignorant bigot or someone who’s simply not aware of the history of other countries. For instance, if you’re from outside Europe and look at it from a Scandinavian perspective – and that’s not unheard of among heathens from across the Atlantic – then it’s no surprise that you’ll assume that what’s true for the Nordic nations is equally true for the rest of the continent. In reality, in the Iberian Peninsula, indigenous and native are partly synonymous with Arabic and Moorish. Not that all of my countrymen acknowledge that – we have our bigots, too – but as an historian, it’s something that I’m well aware of. And anyone who claims to have a serious opinion should at the very least do some basic research, though not just on Europe: I‘m not entirely sure if every polytheist who derides Islam is aware of the fact that we have Muslim scholars to thank for the survival of classical works, like Aristotle’s, which were copied and preserved in Arab under the patronage of the Abbasid Caliphate. And at the very least, that should make them question the notion that Islam is an inherently evil religion with which there can be no compromise or culture.
But besides ignorance, a part of which is unintentional and therefore understandable, because no one is born educated, there’s also the vitriol, the paranoia, the deep-rooted resentment towards the modern world or monotheism. And that’s a more complex thing that’s hardly harmless when we’re placed under pressure by the events of our time. Because when we define ourselves by what we’re against, at war with or resentful about, we will not have the necessary clarity of mind to discern the best way forward when confronted with violent challenges. Instead, we’ll lash out, call for a holy war, declare ourselves under siege by virtually everyone we disagree with and judge an entire group of people based on the actions of a few, thus self-justifying our pre-existing prejudices, inability to fit in, unwillingness to learn or grudges against the past or the modern world.
A good example of that is how some polytheists call for the active discrimination of monotheists. Or worst, how some suggest – sometimes openly say – that Islam and Christianity should be erased, because of what they did, are doing or because they’re evil religions. Which is essentially painting a complex reality with one broad, hateful brush – much in the fashion of a Trump view of the world – and amounts to the very sort of cultural decimation those same people often claim to be against. Just like Daesh is wiping out communities, buildings and historical monuments that do not conform to its narrow view of things, some polytheists appear to want a cleansing of their own, eliminating groups they hate or are afraid of and replacing old churches and mosques with new temples – in India, Greece or Rome – not because the former were freely abandoned, exchanged or sold, but because they should rightfully be temples. Now, those same polytheists will claim that they do not advocate physical violence and I believe in them. I truly do. But in the end, there’s no practical difference between erasing something by force and doing it slowly through a devised plan. At the end of the day, you decimated because you wanted to. And you’re not better, more civilized or morally superior just because you’re a polytheist. If you believe you are, then you’re no different from a monotheist who condemns atrocities or complains about discrimination, but then does or proposes to do those very same things with the excuse that it’s in the name of a good religion, just cause or true ideology. And when that happens, you become the thing you claimed to be fighting against, because you somehow assumed that you were inherently good, above blame or immune to error simply because you have different beliefs.
Of course, I’m writing as someone who’s native to a western European country whose history and identity cannot be detached from Christianity and Islam and hence do not see them as enemies. Nor do I harbour a strong resentment towards those two religions or believe that they have to be eliminated for polytheism to prosper. But that’s also because we have very little in the way of Christian fundamentalism over here and the Catholic Church in Portugal is increasingly modern, less attached to medieval mindsets. Even the imam of Lisbon’s mosque has publicly said that Muslims who do not feel comfortable living in a liberal society should leave. So my views are naturally shaped by that, though I recognize that things may be otherwise elsewhere. That other people’s views may be different, because they’re moulded by different histories, daily lives and issues that are not present in this corner of the world. I acknowledge that. But I cannot live someone else’s life, no more than I can ask others to live mine. I cannot go about my everyday existence behaving or looking at things in a way that’s largely, if not entirely unrelated and out of place with my social surroundings. That would be no different from living like a schizophrenic or in a dream world. So because of that, for the sake of sanity, or because I do not wish to be associated with paranoid bigots who seem to be popping up in the polytheistic movement, I cannot remain indifferent nor be someone other than myself.
In a book called A Jangada de Pedra, translated into English as The Stone Raft, José Saramago tells the story of how the Iberian Peninsula slowly and physically separates itself from the rest of the European continent. It’s a fictional novel, of course, and the metaphor is largely political and economic. But there’s also a cultural aspect and I’m finding a religious side to it, too. Because the more I disagree with the anti-modern, anti-monotheism, xenophobic and Trump-like rhetoric of some, the more I realize my Iberian heritage. In other words, I’m going increasingly native, rediscovering and gladly embracing my country’s standpoint as opposed to taking in that of others via the internet and then acting in a way that’s disconnected from my surroundings. And in doing so, in going native, I identify myself even less with the opinions of other polytheists from elsewhere in Europe or the world. To some extent, it has become a sort of exponential process and so I drift away, distancing myself from parts of the wider polytheistic community, rooted in an Iberian stone raft.