There was a marvelous movie-event at the local cinema earlier this night—a documentary about Pompeii sponsored by the British Museum and in support of one of their current exhibits. Please ma’am, just take my money and hand me a ticket now, thank you! I want to see the sweeping silver screen present Roman history, artifacts, ancestors, deities, and polytheism.
Pompeii and Herculaneum were the two small Roman towns devastated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August of the year 79. The documentary had a team of experts covering different parts of Roman culture: a chef and scholar of Roman cuisine shared his knowledge of Roman diet and cooking while the viewers got a look at cookware and carbonized remains of food and artifacts. A botany and gardens expert led us through the flora and fauna of a lush fresco and what was available in Roman courtyards, and so on. For the most part, I enjoyed the documentary and I enjoyed listening to what the experts had to say. But there was one glaring part that soured the experience. One part that I found wounding to the core: disrespect for the deities.
One of the hosts of the documentary asked if the Romans “actually” believed in these many deities, or if the ancient Romans were “just superstitious.” At a different point in the documentary, they make reference to Bacchus being little more than an amusing “character.” They also showed a household shrine for just a few seconds, only to point out the painting of it and the flat area where offerings went, before swiftly moving on to an extensive discussion about sewage and drains.
They were more fascinated, respectful, and interested in the shit in the drains than they were about discussing and being respectful of the deities. I’m not exaggerating about the contents of the drains: I’m speaking of fecal matter, leftover food, and tossed out broken pots. Don’t get me wrong: the stuff found in sewage drains can yield a wealth of information about daily life, diet, plants, animals, what’s considered trash in a culture, and many, many other things—things that are useful and worthwhile to know, things that are indeed fascinating, and things that require studying. But there is also here evidence of a deep, deep wrong: sewage was met with more dignity than the gods themselves. The documentary didn’t bother to ask the irrational question “Did the Romans actually believe in a sewage system, or were they just germophobes?”
The question of whether the Romans “actually” believed in these many deities or if they were “just superstitious”—is a faulty question from the get-go. It’s a question designed to make you fail. It’s a question designed to force you into accepting and defending bad assumptions first before choosing an “answer” from only a few defective options. For instance, if someone asks you “Which spoiled milk do you like, whole milk or two percent?” This question assumes you can drink milk, and that you like spoiled milk to begin with. It leaves you only with the option of having spoiled milk of some sort: it doesn’t matter if the milk is whole or two percent because there’s the bigger problem of it being spoiled and you probably don’t want spoiled milk at all—the matter of it being whole or two percent isn’t even a factor. And if you are intolerant or have an allergy, then the question is even more nonsensical and inappropriate.
There are numerous unspoken assumptions permeating this question of either-“actual”-belief-or-superstition. The word “actual” in this context already sets the question in a biased way, as if polytheism were some kind of ancient foolishness, as if our ancestors were somehow of befuddled wits and overactive imaginations that could accept such a bizarre and faulty concept as having multiple deities. Using the word “actually” in this context already sets up the question to assume that polytheism is bizarre, exotic, faulty, and silly. The question presupposes that “the gods don’t exist” and “polytheism is wrong and foolish,” as well as “polytheism is irrational and unenlightened,” and “we are enlightened now that we ‘know better’ than to believe in many gods,” “we are smarter than our ancestors” and “our ancestors are foolish for honoring many gods.”
In answering the question with one of the two choices given—either “the Romans ‘actually’ believed,” or “the Romans were just superstitious”—the answerer has been led down a primrose path of putrescence. It doesn’t matter which way the answerer responds because the end result is still the same. Either way, the answerer ends up tacitly agreeing that the gods don’t exist, polytheism is wrong and foolish, polytheism is irrational, none of us modern people honor many gods, we modern people are rational and enlightened now that we don’t honor many gods, and our ancestors are idiots. One assumption, leads to another, and another, and another. The assumptions, the disrespect, and the filth just keep accumulating. Talk about a pipeline of sewage!
Disrespect for the deities is so pervasive in many of our modern surrounding majority cultures that the disrespect passes as normal and standard. We’ve heard it so many times that we’re often deaf to it. It’s like a foul stink we’ve become so accustomed to that we just don’t smell it anymore and our noses are burned out. Often times, we hear this sort of thing and it just washes past us unnoticed, although it washes past like filth in a sewage line. We need to take notice of when we’re wading in it, even though—especially though—it is not easy because we’ve been born in surrounded by a majority culture that has forgotten, ignored, and eschewed polytheistic ways. When all you know is sewage because you’re born in it, your parents and their parents were born in it, and everyone else around you is born in it, you grow up thinking this is “normal,” and it’s difficult to realize that there’s something wrong about wading in it. It’s even difficult to realize that you are wading in something gross. You can even have trouble distinguishing what is gross from what isn’t, or even knowing that not-being-gross is a state you could be in.
This disrespect is the model which is expected, it is the model against which polytheism and polytheists are judged as being aberrations. We’re surrounded by a culture that belittles polytheism for fear of looking foolish otherwise, but it is this disrespect of the deities is profoundly both foolish and dirty. I could hang Roman penis wind chimes from my head, sing crusty tavern songs while my breath reeks of garlic, confess naughty brothel secrets and make helpful diagrams of those ‘secrets’, invent creative swear words, make obscene gestures, and prance barefoot in that so-fascinating sewage…and still be cleaner to the deities than this modern disrespect, these attitudes and assumptions, are. That this disrespect, these attitudes, and these assumptions often go past us unnoticed, ignored unremarked upon, excused, or even accepted, makes the problem more insidious, contagious, and self-propagating. When I say “excused” what I mean is “oh, it’s not really that bad,” or “that person didn’t mean to be disrespectful, so it’s ok,” and so on. These excuses are not helpful, not to humans, not to ancestors, and not to deities.
This culturally pervasive disrespect has me often in tears—sometimes tears of sorrow, sometimes tears of anger, often both—because this disrespect to the deities is rampant, mainstream, and expected. It has actually become expected and socially “appropriate” to treat the deities foully. Even as it would not have occurred to our ancestors to treat the deities so callously, it does not occur to most people today just to avoid disrespect. At this point, I’m not talking about respecting the deities—I’m talking about simply avoiding active disrespect. Even this remedial standard, this lowest standard possible, has not been reached yet. The bar has been lowered so far that the sewers are a step up. Treating the deities with honor and respect in modern life is deemed silly and superstitious in the majority cultures we find ourselves surrounded with. As polytheists, we have a Vesuvius of work ahead of us in doing what we can to remedy this situation within ourselves and in social situations that we find ourselves in.
This is where we are today. Sewage is more respected than our gods—even in documentaries sponsored by credible, respected folks such as those from The British Museum. We need to shift the paradigm and we need to do it with burning urgency—for the sake of our deities and our ancestors, for honoring them, for making up for past atrocities, for getting into right relations with them once again. It helps to make offerings to the deities and the ancestors to make amends for these many generations of compounded disrespect. Bringing awareness to this matter helps; talking about this matter with each other helps; talking with other people about this matter when they’ve knowingly or unknowingly crossed that boundary into disrespect helps.
It can help to remember, honestly assess, and talk with each other about past events where we didn’t respond as well as we could have—and we can consider ways in which we will do this better next time so that we can become more practiced and comfortable in confronting these matters.
It is also important to pay attention to our own thinking when these culturally-pervasive assumptions flit around in our own minds and wear the masks of respect, social awareness, intelligence, rational thought, or education when these assumptions are not respect, social awareness, intelligence, rational thought, or education. If ever these assumptions do come into the mind wearing these masks, refer back to the list of assumptions above that come with a question like “Did the Romans actually believe in all these gods or were they just superstitious?” Either way you attempt to answer that broken question, the result is the same.
Great article Tess !
I think this unfortunate behavior can be explained by two factors:
1) It’s not okay to be religious in many Academic circles. It’s even less okay to adhere to fringe beliefs.
2) People who say foul things about the Deities don’t think that there are numerous people out there who worship them. Or when they know, they tend to disregard them as foolish role-player. If Paganism as a whole had more of a foothold in society, it would become very unsensitive to treat Pagan deities this way.
Very good observations. People would think it was ludicrous if we started to apply the same logic to Christianity, so I’m not sure why so many people question that ancient societies believed in their religious practices: “Do Christians really believe in Jesus, or is he just an archetype that they use to process their sense of guilt?”
I share your grief. Where do I start? I am overwhelmed right now with swamping feelings, and I can’t see my way out.
I wholeheartedly agree.
A few years ago I wrote a blog which looked at the way in which Rome in the first few centuries CE was depicted in films, and came to very much the same conclusion.
I just graded one of my college student’s assignment today, in which they were to (as part of a multi-part answer) discuss “religion” during the reign of a particular set of Roman Emperors. The student didn’t address polytheism at all, but only how these two Emperors handled Christianity (and didn’t even get that quite right). It’s not to in any way excuse the nonsense that is pervasive in our culture that the only “real” religion is Christianity, but it just demonstrates how difficult it is to break people of that, even when they’re in a history course where the subject of polytheism is plain, on the table, and even emphasized to a greater degree than it would be with other professors, as is the case with my courses.
What also occurs to me: there are actually deities associated with the sewers in Rome–Cloacina (a form of Venus!) to be specific!