Articles by Hélio


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.

Going native

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.

European what?

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.

A Philosophy of Movement

Today is the fourth day of the fourth month of the year, a combination that doesn’t go unnoticed for this particular mercurial devotee. It’s also my fourth piece on this site, so in light of that and as a tribute to the son of Maia, I’ve decided to write an article not about a fundamental topic that needs to be addressed or some obscure aspect of polytheism, but rather something more personal. It’s an expression of my devotion to Mercury, a written offering of sorts that may or may not (but hopefully will) feed into a collective sense of belief that’s part of the building blocks of a religious community. Even when belief is diverse and non-regulated. First, though, some clarifications are in order.

For some years now, I’ve been marking the first four days of April as the Ludi Mercuriales. It’s not an historical festival, even if in his Remus: a Roman myth, Timothy Wiseman does raise the possibility of a celebration under that name in ancient Rome, based on a reference to a collegium Mercurialium (1995: 213, n. 54). It’s a hypothesis and nothing more, but of little consequence in this case, because at the end of the day you don’t have to limit yourself to historical celebrations. At least not if you’re into reviving an ancient religion in the modern world as opposed to merely re-enacting it. If you have a living practice and not a fossilized one, you will freely celebrate dates that were unknown in the ancient world and even create new festivals to mark moments you find meaningful. Which is precisely the case of the first four days of the fourth month: not only does it relate to Mercury’s association with the number four, it also links to His role as a trickster by way of April Fools; even astrologically, if you’re into it (not my case, but I still find it curious), it falls on Aries or Ram, which happens to be one of the god’s animals. And that pretty much explains why I mark the fourth day of the fourth month as Mercury’s birthday.

Now, is He the same as Hermes? The answer is highly subjective, but if asked, I’d say yes and no. He lacked a flamen, which suggests He wasn’t part of the earliest Roman pantheon, and His temple was located outside the pomerium, which also hints at a foreign god. His origin may instead lie in Magna Graecia, which had trade relations with Rome, thus explaining the root of His name in the Latin merx (merchandise). In other words, He is Hermes imported by traders (perhaps grain merchants) and named after their own craft. Therefore, historically speaking, They are the same being. But an old god in a new context is, in a sense, also a new deity, because the host culture will reinterpret Him to a greater or lesser degree according to its parameters and needs, emphasizing certain features in detriment of others and perhaps even awarding new functions. Which results not in two separate entities – at least not necessarily – but different views of one. To use Tess Dawson’s analogy in her latest piece on this site, it’s the same tree seen by a squirrel and a human, which relate to it differently and thus name it in an accordingly different fashion. In other words, Mercury is Hermes’ Roman identity, complete with its own protocol and expectations, much like a man who works in Europe and Japan will act and present himself in a given way depending on the cultural circumstances. In a sense, a different god, though in reality the same.

I should also point out that what follows are not Mercury’s words or things He taught me in a conversation, because I don’t have that sort of interaction with Him. I get hints, subtle clues and signs, mostly in the form of coincidences or lucky finds, and occasionally a few dreams. But nothing along the lines of sitting down and hearing a sermon. What follows are ideas I revisited, wrote down or meditated on while being a devotee of His – things I’ve come to associate with Mercury while walking His path. Others might have different ideas and that’s okay, because I don’t expect the same god to be seen in an identical fashion by different people. So having clarified matters…

All roads are connected

Once, in my early days as a worshiper of Mercury, I asked myself what would be the best place to leave offerings to the Lares Viales. It’s not like I could pour a bit of wheat and wine on every single local pathway, but shortly after the obvious answer dawned on me: anywhere that’s a road, because they’re all connected. That is their purpose, isn’t it? They’re meant to link, communicate and transport, to move people and goods from one place to another, even if a distant one. And if that’s the case, why should it be any different with offerings to the gods of pathways? Just pour wheat or wine on one road and it will touch all who can be reached by it, because movement and connectedness are the realm of the Lares Viales.

So too is that of Mercury, the first among them. He is, after all, a god of messengers, communication and transportation, none of which would work without the ability to move and connect dots – geographically speaking, though there’s also a figurative sense to this, because He is equally a trickster. To be fooled is to miss the point, to be smart is to see it; the latter connects the dots, the former does not. On that note, Mercury isn’t just a god who facilitates movement and communication: He’s also One who blocks it! The lack of wits and cunning is the intellectual equivalent of a flat tire and you’re not going anywhere like that or at least not as fast as you could. And both outcomes can have His finger on.

Sometimes, even roads that at first glance seem to be entirely different or disconnected are actually entwined, if not altogether inside one another. That’s what I realized after joining Mercury’s fold. My previous primary devotion was Freyr, who is still one of the gods I cherish the most. I keep His old shrine, daily prayers to Him, a monthly offering, another on New Year and two annual celebrations, not to mention unscheduled libations, but I hesitated when making the shift, because it felt like a betrayal. Curiously enough, it all happened after spending four months in Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, a region where the Lares Viales were once highly popular. Funny how things seem to fall into place when you look back and take a wide view. Anyway, I ended up making the change, which meant going deeper into Roman polytheism, so in an effort to keep the old devotion alive while embracing the new one, I invested strongly in a modern Latin cult of Freyr and His family. And that turned out to be not just a rewarding (and still ongoing) experience, but also a very mercurial one, because being a messenger, a psychopomp and a trickster, Mercury is by nature a liminal god. He’s at home in the grey area that exists between one world and another, the inside and outside of a house, the moral and immoral, the male and female, and moves freely to-and-fro, adapting Himself to both sides. So when I had one devotional foot in Heathenry and another in Roman polytheism, I was between cultural worlds. When I Romanized the former, I was translating, bridging and bringing one set of gods from one context into another. By walking Freyr’s Latinized trail, I was “liminaling”, treading a path that’s not only connected, but is an actual part of the wider mercurial way. And on the very same night I realized this and wrote about it, I found a coin on a crossroads I don’t usually pass by on my late walks, but to which one of my dogs led me that time.

Of course, the notions of communication and movement lend themselves to many meanings, literal and figurative, one of which is manifested by this text. You have to write eloquently if you want to be convincing or at the very least communicate your ideas clearly. So cheers to He of Many Crafts, Giver of Good Things and Lord of the Golden Wand if you happen to enjoy these lines! He’s also a god of memory, if nothing else because sometimes you have to memorize whatever it is you need to tell others, and equally of god of learning. While being smart isn’t the same as being knowledgeable, the two form a brutal force when they go hand and hand. And what good is learning if you don’t pass on its fruits and every generation has to start from scratch because it learned nothing from those who came before it? Knowledge that moves through time, between people and places, is an enriching thing; knowledge that doesn’t, that stays hidden and untransmitted, is an impoverishing loss. No wonder one gets the impression that Mercury is a big fan of the internet.

Speaking of time and memory, here’s another way of connecting dots: History! You know that if you ever had the experience of sitting in front of a table full of editions of medieval documents, chronologies, dictionaries, academic studies and perhaps one or two maps in an effort to find references to particular moments, judge the value of the written information or follow a chain of events in both its linear development and the many repercussions. That was much of my daily routine during a lot of my time in Santiago de Compostela and that’s what you do when you’re an historian: you map the roads of time, the lines that link disputes, discoveries, debates, decisions, diseases and disasters, all connected in one complex web where no event takes place in isolation. There are always multiple causes and consequences that in turn are new causes, because it’s all connected dots. Cut a thread or two and there are things that would not have passed or maybe passed differently.

This, by the way, is also the case with you. Yes, you! The individual reading this. Think you’re a self-contained being with an inherent identity? Think again! You’re only who you are because you’re the product of many causes, a crossroads made unique because particular paths have met. Where you were born, who are your parents, how you were raised, your gender, your sexual orientation, the type of body you have – all of this and more makes you who you are. You, your individuality or identity are not an isolated dot or an inherent feature, but a mutable product. In as much as if you were to change the causes or paths that form the crossroads that is you, you’d be a different person. Would you be reading this had you been born in a country where there’s no religious freedom? Would you worship the same gods and have the same beliefs? Would you experience and see the world as you do had you been born a man instead of a woman? Or gay instead of straight, black instead of white, fat instead of slim? Or vice-versa? And how about those around you? How did they shape you, how did you shape them? And how would all have been shaped differently had you not met, not been close, not bumped into and maybe helped each other at some point? Nothing exists in isolation, everything exists connected. All roads are connected. And the change that makes you isn’t just a hypothetical, but a constant fact of life. It’s not like you’ll go on having a stable identity once you’ve been formed by many causes. How many people say they wouldn’t stand their younger selves? How many elderly admit they were pricks during their adult life?

Life is change

Change affects everything that exists, no matter how immutable things may seem. The sun rises everyday in the east and sets in the west, the stars are always up there, either fixed or on predictable paths, seasons follow in the same order every year, tides come and go like clockwork. You may think or say it has always been like this, but it hasn’t and it won’t.

The sun is actually a middle-aged star. If it were a person, it would be in its forties, still strong and healthy, but not as much as it used to. It’s an ageing sun, like many others you see in the night sky, parts of which may already be different. It was born and it will one day die, one catastrophically sunny day. So too will the Earth, which by then will have different continents and oceans and spin at a slower speed, if at all. Because a day hasn’t always had twenty-four hours and no, I’m not talking about cultural conventions. The moon, which is slowly drifting away, does more than just create the tides and regulate the planet’s tilt: it’s also slowing down its rotation. Which is why back in the time of the dinosaurs, had we been around to measure things as we do now, a day would be roughly twenty-two hours long. Even galaxies are subject to change and death, since they clash and cannibalize on each other. The Milky Way has done that and is on a collision course with Andromeda, which won’t end up well. The truth is that millions or billions of years isn’t forever: it’s just a longer life-span, still with a beginning, an inevitable end and plenty of change in-between. A centimetre per year, the rate at which some of the planet’s tectonic plates move, isn’t the same as immobility – it’s just a much slower rhythm of change. Mount Everest, which used to be ocean floor, grows at an average pace of just around four millimetres annually, but it moves nonetheless. Just because we don’t notice it or things seem to be in the same place every day doesn’t mean they really are. Immutability is by and large an illusion – even if a useful one.

Life is change, life is movement. It’s constant fluidity, no matter how slow. Actually, a lot of it is slow, because life needs time to prosper and hence cannot survive on permanently rapid change. But it happens all the same and you see it in yourself: your body ages, your ideas evolve, your personality mutates. You’re not the same person you were a decade or two ago, because you’ve been through things that shaped you into something that wasn’t you ten or twenty years ago. Maybe you’re more mature, maybe you’re less. Maybe you see the world in darker or lighter tones than you did. Maybe life has made you happier or more resentful, optimist or pessimist, indifferent or active, generous or stingy. Change doesn’t just affect people who suffer traumatic events, but touches everyone, even the Gods! Their mood, strategies, perspective on things, influence in the world, the way They relate to us and hence Their behaviour – all of that changes, even if not as fast as humans do. So forget the illusion that you have a self-contained and eternal identity, because you don’t. You’re movement, not stagnation! You are an ever-shifting product of ever-shifting causes. You’re recognizable as being the same throughout several decades because, well, it’s practical and needed for social life, but also because there are certain constants about you that change less or at a slower pace, allowing for sustained recognition to be maintained throughout the years. Much like a mountain is seen as being in the same place and having the same size, even though it is changing. Your body and memories are two such constants. But go away and come back after a few decades and your own friends and family may not recognize you because they haven’t kept up with the changes to your physical appearance. Or if you lose your memory, it will be a bit like a clean slate, even if you have the same body. You’re not immutable. And if that’s the case now, imagine what will it be like when death comes for you.

Embrace life by embracing movement. Learn to work with change, not against it. Be adaptable, not static. And no, this doesn’t mean you should simply forget about the past, move on or give up fighting for things you believe in. But do so with the full awareness that things change and that trying to simply turn back the clock has never worked out well. So while you may want to rebuild, restore or revive something, know that it will never be entirely what it was in the past, even when you seek to right a wrong or bring back the old, because life is movement. You can’t change what happened, only built on it, and in doing so you’ll create a today that will always be in some way different from yesterday. That’s why even tradition isn’t permanent. It may mutate slowly and carefully in order to remain traditional instead of turning into something altogether new, yet if it stops completely, it dies, because it fails to adapt, to embrace change. Get on board the always moving train that is life! Like Heraclitus, embrace the flowing waters, sailing down the ever-changing river of being, but with a caveat.

The journey matters, more so than the destination

Humans are creature of desire. It is one of our fundamental traits that we always strive for something, even if that something is to want nothing. When we don’t, when we have no goals, we grow bored, feel useless and linger. We need quests, destinations, a purpose to strive for, a maze whose centre we must reach. This, too, is part of the movement of life: we’re always going somewhere, because we always need to.

However, as important as a destination is, it must never be the sole thing on your mind. It must be coupled with an enjoyment of the journey, a sowing of the harvest it brings not just at the end, but throughout. Especially throughout! You must live the present moment even as you strive towards a future or else run the risk of losing one, if not both. Imagine someone who spends his days preparing for a death in peace, with a clean conscience and without fear of what follows. If that person fails to enjoy every day, because he’s always thinking of a distant tomorrow, there’s a good chance that when his last hour finally comes, he’ll look back and realize he missed out on what life had to offer since he never took the time to pay attention, let alone enjoy it. And in doing so, he may well find himself crying and regretting, thus causing the goal of a peaceful death to go down the drain.

Don’t be the traveller who spends the entire journey thinking about the next destination without ever looking out the window. Don’t be the pilgrim who’s so eager to reach the shrine on the other side of the mountains that he neglects the sounds, the smells, the view, the warmth, the cold, the colours, the breeze, the animals, the trees, the snacks, the companionship. So much so that when he finally gets there, the only thing on his mind is “that’s it?” and “now what?”. There’s no joy in that, no value, because it mistakes the finishing line for the journey and thus misses out on everything it has to offer. And everything you could learn from it.

Life is constant movement, which means every end is a new beginning. Every time you achieve something, you need a new goal; every time you get somewhere, you’ll have to go someplace else; every time it’s over, it’s just getting started. If you think things will always be in a given way once you achieve something, and therefore all you want is to get there so you can enjoy and be happy, you might want to reconsider. Change is always creeping in and it will leave no stone unturned, no matter how long it takes, so whatever happiness or success you have or strive for, it won’t last forever. There will always be something else to achieve, someplace else to go next, some new challenge to overcome. This is the never ending journey that is life, where no final goal is really final and every end is a new beginning. So if the destination is all you care about, if there’s nothing else on your mind, you’ll end up with a collection of empty shells, of goals you achieved, but which were never filled with the experiences of travelling towards them, leaving you unsatisfied at the end. Because there’s always something afterwards and you failed to take the time to enjoy what was in-between the never-ending succession of goals. You missed out on life, even though you ticked all the boxes in your to-do list.
The point of travelling is to travel. It’s the journey that matters, that makes you grow, makes you wealthier. The finishing line will come on its own if you keep on walking. If you act as if you want to reach the latter instantly, you’ll get nothing out of the former and end up poor at the end. You may get where you wanted to go, but without having been filled and transformed by the travelling experience. Take note, people: “Beam me up, Scotty” is not a good life motto! Instead, you must take time and savour every moment, capture its beauty, its value, its vibrancy, and let the finishing line be an enriching sum of every step, not something you reach as if jumping into it directly.

Never forget to laugh!

And do everything with a smile, even in the darkest hour. Or at least try to, since it’s not always easy and sometimes it’s hard to find a reason to laugh. Maybe the wound is too deep, the pain too strong, the injury too serious, the problems too big. But laughter isn’t a mere accessory with which you decorate life when things are well. It’s not a sort of trendy t-shirt that looks great when you’re out for a walk on a sunny day, but less so if you’re going to a funeral. It is so much more than that!

Laugher is a quieter of storms, a subduer of fears and opener of ways. It is one of the sharpest blades in the arsenal of the trickster, who wields it to collapse pedestals, break chains and cut through the veils of utter seriousness to let in the light of perspective. Or maybe these words are too elaborate and instead I should simply point out that a boggart isn’t just a magical creature in Harry Potter’s books, but a very good metaphor for the power of laughter over fear. Because when confronted with a shape-shifter who takes on the form of what scares you the most, the young wizards are told that the best way to counter it is by turning the boggart into whatever makes you laugh the most. Not because what terrorizes you isn’t serious, but because it shouldn’t be so to the point of taking away your ability to think and react properly. Not lashing out blindly or with brute force, since that too is no more than a product of fear, but reacting with clear focus and perspective. Laughter does that, because when what scares you the most is turned into an object of ridicule, of witty and incisive jokes, it loses the mantle of absolute seriousness with which it seeks to make itself unquestionable. And when that happens, a blow is given to fear’s full control, to its monopoly over speech and mind, because it is faced with a foe that does not recognize its total authority: comedy!

This is subversive, but so is the trickster. He is not the one who moves freely between borders, crossing the line that separates one world from another, the moral from the immoral, the male from the female? He’s a transgressor, a fluid entity, and fluidity is the antidote to whatever presents itself as immovable. Dogma is one such thing and it cannot stand laughter, because it implies the existence of flaws and hence doubts and questions, which are the death of unwavering solidity. It means that something escapes dogmatic control. Terrorism too has an enemy in laughter, for the purpose of terror is to terrify, to paralyze you into submission or drive you into reckless and self-defeating reactions, a goal that cannot be achieved if the seriousness that terrorism seeks to project isn’t serious enough to quell your ability to look at things differently. Because terror thrives on one’s inability to think straight, but laughter, by making it less than completely scary, offers the potential for perspective and clear thinking.

This is equally true for that which haunts us in life, our everyday fears of failure, poverty, disease, rejection, pain and death. It is only natural that we dread those things, none of which we are immune to, because life is change. No matter how healthy you are now, that won’t always be the case. No matter how handsome you look, it won’t last forever. No matter how rich or successful you are, you won’t always be able to bribe away death. She’ll always beat you at chess, no matter how long it takes and sometimes in a way that’s so unexpected, it actually looks like cheating. And if your happiness depends on those things, on being healthy, attractive or wealthy, then buckle up, because you’re in for a rough ride. Time takes it all away, makes present glories past memories, and if you have no other reason to smile, nothing else apart from health, beauty and money, then there’s a strong possibility that you’ll have a very miserable end.

The solution is to first and foremost embrace change. Accept it and enjoy the ride in all its present moments and without being overly focused on the destination. And then add to that the ability to smile and laugh no matter how dark things are. Strive to be ever happy in an ever changing life. It’s not easy, I know it’s far from being easy and at times you will fail, yet neither is it entirely impossible. In all likelihood, it will require work, rethinking habits and change the way your mind words, but it can be rewarding and provide you with a basic joy that is not dependent on a desire to hold on to things that won’t last. Seek out the smallest speck of light amidst the dark and you may come to a point where you’re not happy because you’re successful, but successful because you’re happy. So laugh, exorcize your fears and win a smile every day. I meant it! Nothing is so serious that it can’t be laughed at. Not even death, not even the Gods.

What comes after this life ends? Having been alive all the time since I was born, I’m unsure about it, but this much I know: you won’t be the same after it! Forget about the idea that you’ll be a mirrored, ghostly image of your current self. If your identity mutates so much now, you’ll change no less once you find yourself without a body. Or in a different one, if you believe in reincarnation. Whatever survives, it won’t be you as you know it, because life is change, life is movement. And so is death. The travelling psychopomp know it.

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.

And yet we persist

In 23 May 1618, in the European city of Prague, a group of Christian Protestants literally threw out the window two representatives of a Catholic prince. This act of defenestration, which could have been no more than a local uprising, triggered a thirty years war in Europe, eventually involving most of its great powers – Spain, France, Denmark, Sweden, England – plus a myriad of States that made up the German empire of the time, which was also the central battleground.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about Christianity. Nor is the purpose of this text to analyze the why, how and when of European wars in the seventeenth century. But History has lessons for us and I often find a degree of comfort in looking at things from a long-term perspective. Not just regarding the future, but also the past and the present it brought us. To realize the slow machinations of History that take place above the immediate moments of panic or joy, the snail-like rippling on the ponds of time. And when you do that, there’s a serenity and confidence that pierces through the daily storm, no matter how much it feels like it’s about to swallow us.

This text is about Daesh. I was going to write on something else, but then things in Palmyra took a turn for the worst and Galina wrote about it here at While I agree with some of what she says and wholeheartedly support her call for polytheists to honour the gods of Syria and Iraq, regardless of the traditions each of us follows, I disagree on other points and decided to give my own perspective. So this is about Daesh and our reaction to it. It’s about the importance of not playing the game on their terms and keeping our heads cool. And it’s about hope. Take a deep breath and pour a little something for Lady Spes.

Know your enemy

The first thing you need to keep in mind is that Daesh is not your average Islamic gang on steroids. It’s on a dosage of something you’d give to horses, yes, but its goal is not merely to wage war on the West. Rather, it aims at immediately carving out a state from existing Arab ones. Which means that it needs functioning institutions, resources to keep them going, a population with reproductive capacity and a standing army capable of holding territory. They’re not playing hide and seek – they’re out in the open and very vocal about it.

This makes them look far more threatening, but in reality that’s an illusion produced by a skilful use of media. And the reason for that is that, because they want to build a viable state, they need to invest their resources into it instead of financing attacks on Western countries. That’s why lone wolves are all we’ve seen so far: it’s cheaper for Daesh to let people do things on their own initiative, using their own money. They may inspire or give a nudge, but weapons and manpower are best used to defend territory. Because they need territory: you cannot be a caliph without it and if you’re not a caliph, then you lose the right to call yourself leader of all Muslims. So why waste resources on blowing up buildings in London or New York? Why lose men on suicidal attacks in the West when Daesh needs them to hold its ground in Syria and Iraq?

This doesn’t mean they can’t pull a desperate stunt or go on an occasional shooting spree to keep a sense of fear going. But even the possibility of a dirty bomb going off in a Western city, while not impossible, is nonetheless made less likely by the need to build a proper state. Which is why, according to reports that came out last month, Daesh has used mustard gas not on Europe or America, but against the Kurds in Iraq. They need it to hold their ground.

So despite their constant boasting, publicity stunts and public frenzy, they’re not going to move on the West anytime soon. In a way, it’s like an echo: Daesh does something terrible, the media – ours and theirs – amplifies things and it sounds like there’s a huge monster at the end of the tunnel. In reality, it’s a mad pig whose magnified noises make it sound bigger than it really is. They may claim they’re going to conquer Turkey or India and half the world along the way, but that’s little more than wishful thinking. If anything, they’re currently being driven from the Turkish border by Kurds, Turks and Syrians with Western air support. And even if they do try to advance northwards, because they need the supply route to their “capital” in Raqqa, that means they’ll be pouring resources into a campaign that’s next door to a NATO member state. And by this I mean Daesh’s men will be easier to spot and strike, because they’ll be in sight of stationed allied troops. The battle for Kobane proved that.

Furthermore, keep in mind that this is also a religious war. Not between monotheists and polytheists – let’s face it, there’s not that many of us in the region – but between different factions of Islam. By proclaiming itself a caliphate, Daesh has declared that all other Arab States are null and void and would only gain legitimacy if it held Mecca and Medina instead of expanding north or west. And as Sunni radicals, they have a much greater and closer target in Shia Muslims and Iran. Which is why it’s important to bring Tehran back into the international fold and keep Saudi Arabia stable, regardless of how uncomfortable our relations with Riyadh are. Because the only places where Daesh has conquered any territory are failed or failing states. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria – countries where central authority is either weak or has collapsed altogether, allowing gangs and militias to fill in the power vacuum. Do you really want to consider the prospect of Daesh gaining legitimacy in the Muslim world by ruling Mecca and Medina because Saudi Arabia became a failed state?

Let’s talk like it’s 1618

In a way, the Middle East is going through its equivalent of Europe’s Thirty Years War. It started as an uprising and morphed into an escalating conflict along religious lines, expanding to several states, fracturing some and feeding on intolerance between opposing theological views. We’ve seen this before. Only instead of pitting Catholics against Protestants, with different countries championing one side or the other, it’s a struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Just as French Protestants rose in rebellion against increasing intolerance from Catholics, so did Sunnis in Iraq in the face of a sectarian Shia government. Just as Sweden invaded the Holy Roman Empire in support of German Protestants, Saudi Arabia has been intervening in Yemen to aid Sunni factions. Just as the Thirty Years War unleashed fresh waves of brutality and witch hunts, so too the Middle East is beset by renewed horrors and intolerance. And just as Christian Hungarians and Czechs allied themselves with Muslim Ottomans, or French Catholics supported German Protestants, because it served their survival, common or self-interests despite religious differences, so too modern countries find themselves in unlikely positions. Like the US cooperating with Iran or Sunni gulf countries bombing the equally Sunni Daesh. This is not to say that the two conflicts are the exact same thing. There’s a repeating quality to History, yes, yet the devil is in the details and today’s are not those of the seventeenth century. But having said that, there are signs that what followed in Europe after the Westphalia Peace of 1648 may slowly unfold in the Middle East.

The Thirty Years War was the last great chapter in the religious conflicts born out of Luther’s breach with Rome in 1520 and the subsequent end of western Christian unity. The war wasn’t immediately followed by general religious tolerance, because History is a slow-motion process and not a series of instantaneous bursts where things are born fully grown, like Athena out of Zeus’ head. But it was a stepping stone. It basically took over a century of intense bloodshed and horrors for European elites to seriously consider mechanisms of religious coexistence. And then it took yet another century or two to get there. John Locke’s Letters Concerning Toleration are a good sign of that process. We Westerners are not more tolerant and inclusive because we’re somehow born that way. And yes, despite our many flaws, we are more tolerant and inclusive than, say, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Jordan. Try being an openly gay polytheist in those countries. But that is so because we went through historical experiences that shaped our ways and views, experiences that the Middle East did not have. They didn’t go through the Thirty Years War, the Enlightenment, the American and French revolutions. Nor did Islam have its Vatican II. As Richard Haass once said on CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria, the Middle East missed much of modernity. But that may be changing, because the horrors unleashed by Daesh, coupled with the Arab Spring, are confronting many in the Muslim world with the shortcomings of their own status quo. Iraqis and Syrians are openly satirizing the so-called “Islamic State”, earlier this year one of Egypt’s top clerics called for a reform of religious teaching and people are debating what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world.

It’s not a revolution, but it doesn’t have to be one. We may want things now, ASAP, and call for immediate change, but History doesn’t work that way, even when there are revolutions. It’s a series of slow and often overlapping processes that can last for generations: there was still plenty of religious intolerance in Europe after the Thirty Years War, it took almost a century for France to move from the revolutionary chaos of 1789 to a lasting and democratic republic, the US needed an identical amount of time and a civil war to abolish slavery. And don’t chastise yourselves for it, my American readers. A federation like the United States is a lot harder to manage than a small European nation-state, many of which, by the way, only fully abolished slavery in the nineteenth century as well. The truth is, change takes time to operate. It may seem a lot faster when we flip the pages of a History book, but in everyday life it can be excruciatingly slow. And yet it moves. Change happens. We may not see it in our lifetime, but it happens. Our task is to work patiently towards a goal, to seed the fields even if we do not reap the harvest. Do not try to get everything done now. Instead, be patient and take a long-term view of things. Which is also true for Daesh’s demise.

Don’t rush!

As much as we would like to go in and fight, to defend Palmyra with our own hands or have boots on the ground, that would likely do more harm than good. See, one of the things about Islamic extremism – and Daesh in particular – is that it’s not just militant and militarized: it’s also romantic! To many, it is a modern version of the adventures of a knight in shining armour or the Muslim equivalent of Europe’s medieval crusader. And as any good romanticism, it harkens back to an idealized past of purer and nobler ways. That’s why thousands have flocked to Syria and Iraq, including Europeans and Americans: they’re drawn by the prospect of adventure and a life-fulfilling cause. Which is an appeal that is expressed in Daesh’s medieval views and worked to perfection in its propaganda videos. And if you don’t have much of a life to being with, no long-term goals or steady job, the idea of physically fighting for something greater than yourself, no matter how twisted, can be enticing. Especially when, apart from the ideological side, you also get one wife or more, plus a wage. Yes, Daesh pays its men. Like I said, they’re trying to build a proper state.

So imagine what it would be like if the US and its European allies were to go into eastern Syria and northern Iraq. Like a new invasion of the latter, which worked out so well (not!). Or if hundreds or thousands of Americans and Europeans started going on their own to fight against Islamic extremists. How do you reckon Daesh would spin that? If you’re thinking “new crusaders”, you’re right! They would pour renewed calls for holy war all over the media, working the memory of the Christian crusades – which is still very much alive in the Middle East – to boost its propaganda and draw thousands more to their cause. Even more so if the western fighters were open polytheists. Then you’d really be giving Daesh a fight it would cherish, because it would be just like in the days of Mohammed and they could claim to be the prophet’s defenders. There’s something of a re-enactor’s pleasure in it.

I know humans have a tendency to strike back when someone strikes us. It’s a natural response to aggression and the harder we hit, the better we feel. And when we see the images of statues and temples being hacked or blown, people being tortured or horribly murdered, children being raped or brainwashed, we want to strike back. Hard! Preferably yesterday! But Daesh is an ideological movement with a propaganda machine. Like Fox News, it feeds on human emotions – fear, anger, hate – and you’re not going to beat it by playing its game. You need to deprive it of oxygen, not throw truckloads of it into the fire. Which means that instead of trying to be a pagan viking, legionnaire or warrior that goes off to fight monotheistic radicals, we need to think like a cold strategist.

In practical terms, this means that those fighting Daesh on the ground should be Muslims, preferably Sunnis. Because that way, they won’t be able to spin it as a new Christian crusade, a horde of infidels or a pagan onslaught against Mohammed. It will be the people they’re suppose to stand for that will be fighting them, which amounts to sucking out the oxygen. Western powers can help – e.g. airstrikes and arming the Kurds – but the bulk of the effort must be made by Middle Easterners themselves, both militarily and politically. Because there is a political side to this conflict, rooted in a daily intolerance of minorities and differences, just as it was the case in Europe’s religious wars. And yes, it will take time, as there’s no quick solution. But for crying out loud, it took six years to defeat Nazi Germany and that was an all-out-war on European soil! Don’t expect it to be any faster with Daesh, given the need for a less direct approach and the fact that we’re talking about a region with a different historical experience, hesitant leaders, weak states and dominated by a religion with huge unsolved problems of its own. A lot of things we take for granted in the west are still very much in its infancy in the Middle East.

What to do

This doesn’t mean we should stay put and wait. Like I said, we need to patiently seed the soil, even if we don’t get to reap the harvest. And there are things we can do. For the Gods, our polytheistic communities and the overall sake of Humanity.

We can start by not voting for people who think the solution is an all-out assault on the territory controlled by Daesh. One would think that the invasion of Iraq had served as a lesson on what not to do and of how a Western-style democracy cannot be simply imported into a country that lacks a Western historical experience. Change takes time.

If you work in the fields of archaeology and antiques, remain vigilant. Keep an eye out for stolen artifacts being illegally sold and report it to the authorities. And if you’re in the position to safely and legally help getting historical pieces out of war-zones in Syria and Iraq, go for it!

You can help refugees, which can be done in a myriad of ways without having to set foot in the Middle East – which, as we all know, may turn out to be a bad idea. You can take part in a campaign to collect money, food and clothes, donate those things yourself (or both!) or volunteer to work in a shelter. If you fulfill the requirements, you can even adopt or host one or more refugees, which is what several families in Europe are doing as we speak. Also, write to your political representatives if you think your country’s asylum policy should be improved – as thousands of Icelanders have done.

And because every human action has a religious counterpart, you can also adopt a Middle Eastern deity. By this I mean bringing one or more god/desses of Syria, Iraq and Arabia into your religious life, housing them and honoring them as guests, just as one would house human refugees. On a similar note, one can organize group or open ceremonies to Middle Eastern deities. And go public about your polytheistic identity. Be vocal about it. If people are focused on monotheistic extremists who turn their faith in one god into a religious dictatorship, remind those around you of the virtues of non-dogmatic polytheism. Of how it embraces diversity and tolerance, something of which you yourself should stand as an example. And for every sacred stone that’s hacked, let there be a hundred prayers and offerings; for every temple blown up, let there be twice as many made of words and gestures. Until the day comes when the Gods will once again be welcomed in their own land. Even if we do not live to see that day.

And relax

Seriously! Take a deep breath. It’s not that Daesh is harmless. It clearly isn’t and is obviously a threat to modern civilization. Nor should its crimes go unpunished, but be duly recorded and in time presented in a Nuremberg-style tribunal. And yes, the destruction of Palmyra is an act of religious intolerance and a crime against our common heritage. But however shocking and infuriating, you’re not going to turn back the clock or solve the problem with a heated response. Attempting to defeat crusading fanatics with a counter-crusade that can embolden them is like trying to put down a fire by throwing more firewood into it. Rather, you need to deprive them of the stream of emotions that gets them going, which can only be achieved if we keep our heads cool in the face of Daesh’s constant boasting and threats. So we can see them for what they are: an echo, a social media-fed beast that projects the image of an unstoppable monster. It’s not that the animal at the end of the tunnel is harmless – it clearly isn’t! – but it is less dangerous than what it likes to portray itself as. So take a deep breath. Pierce through the propaganda screen, rise above the immediate emotions, the daily storm, and gaze at the blue horizon.

Persevere and patiently seed the soil. Palmyra’s temples may be destroyed, but new ones can be erected if the beliefs and practices they once housed persist and grow. Be vigilant, but know your enemy. Put it in perspective so you won’t be controlled by it. Resist the urge to strike back harder and instead act with as much serenity and clear-thinking as possible. Look at things from the vantage point of History and be hopeful, be optimistic. The world yet moves and change operates, even if the clouds are dark, even if the night is long. Remember that line from the movie Gandhi and persist with confidence, devotion, optimism:

There may be tyrants and murderers and, for a time, they may seem invincible. But in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always!

Matters of faith and practice

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.

The author

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.