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.