The first words are yours, Janus, burnt on a virtual altar. This column is named in your honor, Mercury, and opened on this first Wednesday of the month. A golden blessing to everyone on this site, residents and visitors. And thank you!
I wanted these to be my first words as a contributor. An opening moment calls for a religious gesture, as do so many instances in life. So here’s to Janus, Mercury, the golden Vanir gods and to Theanos, who invited me to join the many excellent contributors on this site and for which I am grateful and truly honored.
For those of you who don’t know me – and I reckon there’s a lot of you – I am a cultor deorum or Roman polytheist, the kind whose practices are rooted in the past, but not limited to it. This means that while I worship traditional Roman deities in days and ways prescribed by historical tradition, I do not wear a toga, have not chosen a Latin name, don’t even use more than a couple of Latin words in religious ceremonies, my practices are not entirely focused on those of Rome proper and I’m not a member of any modern organization that seeks to reproduce ancient Roman life. And that’s because there’s more than one way to cover your head, your birth name is good enough, I’m native to a language that evolved directly from Latin, there’s more to Roman polytheism than what was done in just one city and you honestly don’t need to live in a replica of the ancient world in order to practice an ancient religion. Otherwise, you might as well claim that in order to be genuine Shintoists, the Japanese must live as their ancestors did in the 8th century, uphold the moral and social codes of the time and do away with modern institutions. Or that a person is only a true Catholic if he/she eats, speaks and dresses like a medieval European and is faithful to an equality medieval Holy See. I know religion, society and politics were deeply intertwined in the ancient world, but society and politics are not static. And neither is religion.
Then and now
It can certainly be traditional and one needs only to turn on the TV or read the newspapers to quickly realize how religious groups are commonly bulwarks of traditionalism. The same is true for Roman polytheism, but in a different way. Back in the old days, it had no moral doctrine, no sacred scriptures full of dos and donts of everyday life or revealed truths to be universally accepted. What values it transmitted were those of society at large, what rules it had referred generally to ritual actions or taboos applicable to the sacred. Philosophy did offer everyday codes of conduct and meanings of life, but while some schools were very popular and even had powerful proponents, none was actually official. Simply put, Roman polytheism lacked a doctrine or a regulated faith on things like the nature of the Gods or the afterlife. This doesn’t mean that it was a religion without belief: on the contrary, it was full of it! So full that there were different schools of thought, interpretations of ritual gestures and various cults to choose from. It was, quite simply, a religion where belief was unregulated and therefore freely agreed with or rejected. There were limits, yes, but generally concerned with civil authority and stability, not religious dogma. You could basically believe in whatever you wanted so as long as you didn’t upset the political and social status quo – which could indeed be highly problematic in some cases. And that’s because what brought this diversity together into one large community were basically two things: what we would call “nationality”, in that you were a Roman polytheist by virtue of being a member of a political, social or family group; and orthopraxy, correct ritual performance as prescribed by tradition. Or as the Romans would put it, as dictated by the mos maiorum, the way of the elders.
As a Roman polytheist, I try to revive this religious system in the modern world. It remains without an orthodoxy, moral doctrine or sacred scriptures, open to people of different philosophical schools or none. As its ancient version, it can acknowledge divine plurality, both within and outside the Roman pantheon, syncretically or not. It is non-exclusive and non-initiatory, an exoteric religion that can be practiced together with other traditions and esoteric cults. And it retains a basic orthopraxy: among other things, I mark the Calends, Nones and Ides of every month with prayers and offerings to deities traditionally assigned to those days; I cover my head when performing a ceremony in Roman rite, offering Janus the first tribute and one of the last to Vesta; celestial and terrestrial deities or divine aspects are generally worshipped during the day, infernal ones during the night; I present traditional offerings, such as salted flour, wine, milk and incense; altars to gods from above are square or rectangular, those to gods from around us are circular, the powers from below receive their offerings in pits.
Of course, today’s world is different from the ancient one, in many ways dramatically so, which produces changes in religious practices. For instance, modern urban housing is normally fire-free, so we have to find creative ways of lighting a properly vented ritual fire or dispose of offerings in a different manner. Animal sacrifice requires skills many of us don’t have and is often subject to modern regulations. Things that were morally acceptable in the past are rejected today and vice-versa, leading to mutations in issues like women’s role in religion, what animals can be sacrificed or the structure of family life and hence domestic worship. Also, there are types of food that weren’t available in the ancient world, but which are common today and may be offered to the Gods, if one can figure out which deity likes what. While tradition is conservative, it is not static and will change in a greater or lesser degree as everything else around it changes.
Another thing that sets today’s world apart from the ancient one is the absence of a direct link between one “national identity” and Roman polytheism. It is no longer tied to a political authority, what was once the Roman empire are now several European, African and Middle Eastern countries, Latin evolved into multiple romance languages and Roman culture morphed into a part of several national cultures as well as the wider western one. There’s no point in pretending this isn’t so or try to turn back the clock. Instead, I embrace those changes and accept that they make Roman polytheism more open, universal, more about free choice and less prone to speeches on racial or ethnic purity (though not entirely free from them). And rather than trying to recreate an anachronic city-State, I simply acknowledge that I’m already native to a land, language and culture that was once a part of the Roman world or descends from it. As do so many others in Europe and beyond. Why should I seek to relive the past if the present is its direct heir and religion is not static? Must Hindus restore ancient Indian kingdoms and societies in order to be actual Hindus? Must the emperor of Japan wield absolute power, the country be ruled by a shogun, Shinto be once more a State religion or samurais regain feudal rights if today’s Shintoists are to be real and genuine? Because if not, then why on earth should you need to use Latin names, elect consuls or organize people according to social strata and tribes of old in order to be a proper Roman polytheist? And how far that’s more of an exercise in re-enactment than actually practicing an old religion in the modern world with all the natural changes that entails?
Mind you, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with dabbling in a bit of historical re-enactment once in a while. It’s good entertainment, a way to reconnect with your distant roots and even an important work tool – for artists, scholars and experimental archaeologists. But anything beyond that is verging on anachronism, to say the least. You’re not less of an American if you don’t wear 18th century clothing or less of an Icelander if you don’t hold parliament on the rocky grounds of Thingvellir. Similarly, you’re not less of a cultor deorum if you don’t pretend to live in the ancient world. Things change and that includes religion, so rather than trying to be a Roman polytheist in the past, be one in the present! Work with the fact that multiple languages descend directly from Latin, that many countries are predominantly western in culture and that the Roman Republic is one of the distant historical roots of modern democracy. It’s not as if today is totally unrelated with yesterday. And while the world is definitely not the same as it was in past, neither is Japan or India in particular. If Shintoists and Hindus are able to deal with that, why should Roman polytheists need to live in a time capsule?
The many changes that occurred since the 4th century CE, namely the loss of a direct connection with one political institution and national identity, do however have a notorious consequence: they leave orthopraxy as the sole thing that binds cultores deorum together. Which is one of the reasons why I say Roman polytheism is not a “faith”. Allow me to explain.
The issue of faith
I know the word is commonly used as a synonym of religion in the modern English language – e.g. people of all faiths, interfaith, the Christian or Muslim or Buddhist faith – but as I wrote elsewhere several times, that´s the result of over a millennium of monotheistic predominance in religious discourse. It’s something we normally use by default, because everyone else does it and we hear it all the time. And often we don’t realize how nonsensical it is when applied to an orthopraxic, non-orthodox and non-exclusivist polytheistic religion. To the point, Oxford Dictionary, of which I admissibly have an old edition from the 90s but will assume it’s not entirely outdated, defines faith as follows:
1) trust, complete confidence;
2) strong religious belief;
3) a religion.
Regarding the second meaning, understand that I’m not saying that Roman polytheism is an atheistic religion. The fact that it’s no longer tied to a political identity means that its practice is not a mandatory extension of your nationality and therefore, if you’re a cultor or cultrix deorum, it presupposes you have some form of belief in multiple gods. As such, when I say Roman polytheism is not a faith, it isn’t because I don’t have a strong religious belief: I do! But how I see the afterlife and the Gods, what I believe their nature and roles to be, isn’t necessarily shared by fellow Roman polytheists. Again, it’s a religion without orthodoxy, which means faith is unregulated, freely constructed by the individual and therefore diverse. A Platonist, a Stoic, an Epicurean, a Rationalist, a Transcendentalist and a Madhyamika walk into a bar and are asked about the Gods, their nature, identities and how they influence our lives. Their answers won’t be identical and in some cases they’ll even be radically different, yet all of them can be Roman polytheists. Yes, even those who follow eastern or post-classical philosophies. I’m talking about a revived and thus living religion, not a fossilized one. You don’t have to limit yourself to what was available around the Mediterranean up until the 4th century CE.
So it’s not that we, cultores deorum, don’t have a faith – we have many faiths or beliefs inside Roman polytheism. But a group can only be defined as such by those things that are common to all its members. What defines a US citizen? It is not the place of birth or residence, political ideology, religious affiliation or lack of it, native language, ethnicity, clothing or even diet. Those things will characterize different Americans differently, so the only thing that’s common to all and thus defines US nationality is the very status of citizenship. It’s what speaks for the entire group, not just a part of it, and the same applies to religion: Christians have a common credo, a shared faith, as do Muslims; Roman polytheists do not since they have no orthodoxy and therefore no common set of beliefs that can speak for the entire religion. Even do ut des, despite being highly popular, was not and is not a dogma. Epicureans, for instance, would have rejected it while still practicing traditional religion. And yes, Romans believed in Lares, Penates, genii and gods beyond count. But what or who are, for instance, the Lares? Are they local gods, ancestors, spirits of the land, a celestial part of the dead, elevated dead after several reincarnations, the dead intermediate by a celestial Lar? Why is Janus a god of beginnings? Why is Vesta a goddess of the ritual fire? Religious tradition prescribes practices involving certain divine beings, but why and what is the meaning of ritual functions and gestures is up to you. Build your doxa using a philosophy of your choosing, personal experience, UPG or a combination of all three. And because of that freedom, one cultor’s beliefs won’t be identical to another’s.
Now, some of you might ask why can’t Roman polytheism be defined as the faith in the Roman gods, much like Asatru means “faith in the Æsir”? The answer is simple: this is not a zero-sum game! Yes, we believe in the Roman gods and that would do if Roman polytheism, as well as every religious group in the world, was an exclusivist faith with a dogmatic claim to a divine monopoly. A case where only our gods would be true and every other religion rejected their existence, thereby defining us by our exclusive and unique belief in the Roman gods. But, again, Roman polytheism is non-dogmatic, it has no mandatory belief in the sole existence of Latin gods in the likes of the Islamic Shahada. Quite on the contrary, it is a polytheist religion and therefore accepts divine plurality. It also has a very strong tradition of acknowledging the existence of gods from other pantheons, which doesn’t mean every cultor accepts that – unregulated faith has that caveat – but it does mean that a lot of us are universal believers: we believe in all gods, even if only passively so. Furthermore, that’s something we have in common with other polytheists from other traditions: many Hellenic, Celtic, Kemetic, Canaanite or Norse polytheists also believe in each other’s gods or at least do not reject their existence outright. It doesn’t mean they worship all of them, but unlike Christians and Muslims, they make no claim to a divine monopoly. So we’re not alone in our belief in Jupiter or Mars, which means that it fails to be an exclusive and therefore defining feature of the religion.
‘How’ is the answer
Worship provides a better criterion, for despite being universal believers, Roman polytheists are naturally more focused on Roman gods. But while this is a necessary condition, it is not sufficient, because the same deities can be worshipped in different traditions. Consider the following: are wiccans whose practices focus on the Roman gods cultores deorum? Or heathens or Asatruars if their practices focus on Norse gods? No, they’re not. They’re wiccans because they do it the wiccan way. And just to be clear, I’m not saying that’s wrong! The same gods can be worshipped in different fashions and there are plenty of historical examples of that: for instance, Canaanite deities were honored in ancient Egypt, while Epona was given a Roman cult. We’re not all the same and that’s okay. But practice nonetheless distinguishes us, just as it helps distinguishing a Buddhist, a Jain and a Hindu who worship Saraswati – and yes, She has worshippers in all three of those religions. So a wiccan who focuses on Diana and Mars or Freyr and Freya is not a Roman or Norse polytheist. He or she is a wiccan!
If you’re not entirely convinced, you’re probably not alone. We’re used to the idea of religious identity being defined by which gods are believed in or worshipped, because that’s how it goes in monotheistic traditions. It’s a zero-sum game where believing in one deity amounts to rejecting of all others, thus making worship a statement of faith and vice-versa. And because monotheism has been dominant in western religious landscape for over a millennium, it naturally shaped the terminology. But polytheism isn’t monotheism with more gods and divine plurality generates different dynamics. The fact that you worship god Y doesn’t mean you can’t worship goddess X or reject her existence; the fact that one or both of them are honored in a given way doesn’t mean they can’t be worshipped differently by others. So if Roman polytheism isn’t defined by a common and regulated faith, nor solely by which gods are believed in and worshipped, what does make a cultor deorum?
The answer is basic orthopraxy. It’s not just who you worship, but how! What calendar governs your religious practices? What are your monthly and yearly festivities or at least most of them? What ritual frameworks and rules do you use? This is the sort of questions that define a Roman and, I reckon, other types of polytheist. Not faith, which is diverse and non-exclusivist, nor solely which gods make at least most of your usual pantheon. It’s how you do it, it’s practice that defines you. Because in a religion with no zero-sum orthodoxy, no moral doctrine and no longer tied to one state, language or national culture, the only thing that can be common and uniquely characteristic is basic ritual practice as prescribed by historical tradition. Which is why I say Roman polytheism is not “a faith”. Not because it has none, but because it has many! Unregulated, diverse, freely chosen or rejected. And because it is orthopraxy, ritual practice and not belief, that has the potential to speak for the entire religion and thus be a synonym of it.
Now, there are two objections to this, one of which pertains to the first meaning listed above, that of faith as trust and complete confidence. You could argue that while you believe in all the gods, you do not trust, i.e. do not hold bonds of faith with all. But even then, the issue is defined by practice, for if the same gods can be honored in different traditions – as noted above – then the mere existence of confidence is not enough to distinguish a cultor deorum from a wiccan who focuses on Roman deities. Faith as trust is possible in both, yet they’re not the same (and that’s okay!). Again, it is how you do it that distinguishes the two: one marks the Calends, Nones and Ides, honors Janus at the start and Vesta at the end of a ceremony, head covered; the other casts a circle, calls the quarters and celebrates eight yearly festivals. A wiccan, like a cultrix, can trust Diana. It doesn’t mean they follow the same religion.
Finally, some may argue that while orthodoxy was not a part of ancient Roman religion, it should be so today. If “nationality” is no longer a defining feature, it should be replaced by basic common beliefs, thereby reinforcing the bond of orthopraxy. And while there’s some sense in that, it’s an opinion I cannot agree with for one simple reason: a person’s consciousnesses is his/her own and no one else’s! This is a lesson Humanity has learned the hard way, as testified by how often history books mention words like “heretic” or “schism” and tell of conflicts that sprang from competing views on matters of faith. Even today, we witness them through the daily news coming out of places like the Middle East. And rather than going down the thorny path of regulating people’s minds and beliefs, I’d argue that we should limit ourselves to regulating a more palpable, physical, visual thing that can work as a low common denominator. Because whatever your religious beliefs are, they’re not hard facts! They’re personal and subjective views, UPG that becomes collective gnosis only when freely experienced, shared or believed in by other individuals. And by the same token, they can also be freely rejected or abandoned. Ultimately, faith relies on one form or another of theological speculation and speculative matters are best left for the individual to decide.
Let me be clear: this doesn’t make yours or anyone else’s beliefs are any less worthy. They’re yours, truly and honestly held by virtue of experiences whose importance in your life I do not reject. But rid yourself of the notion that your ideas are only valid if everyone else agrees with them. Be able to coexist and freely debate theology while resisting the temptation to turn your doxa into an orthodoxy. Be free to build your own beliefs, but award others that same freedom. And let there be union not on speculative matters, but on a set of palpable, physical gestures that are simultaneously common to all members of a given tradition and unique to it.
And no, this doesn’t mean every Roman polytheist worships in the exact same way the exact same gods. Basic orthopraxy is really just that: basic! It’s the shared foundations on which we build our individual, family, local or regional traditions, which can be focused on the city of Rome or on other areas where the pantheon is comprised of other gods besides the ones we normally think of as Roman. And it’s the universal pillars on which we build our communities, groups and cults, which can be more oriented towards this group of deities, that particular philosophical school or those specific traditions. It’s basic ritual unity in multifaceted diversity. And that’s a good thing – rich and inclusive. It emulates and honors to the Gods’ own diversity.