Friday, 30 December 2016

Bacchus, the Liberator

"Bacchus" by Solomko (earliest 20th century)
The simplest way to comprehend Bacchus (also known as Dionysus and Liber) is to understand him to be the God of the vine and of wine, and all that is associated with wine. Ancient Romans shared many of our contemporary associations with wine, such as cheerfulness, licentiousness and night-time partying, but beyond this the ancients added a sacred dimension. In Latin the name of the God, Liber, literally means free.* The English word liberty derives from it, and that which the word stands for was sacrosanct to the Romans. Bacchus is also the God of libations, with wine being integral to many Roman rites, and the divine patron of religious intoxication and ecstasy, which presumably played a role the Dionysian mysteries. The God also has a dark side, and not only because his revels are often traditionally associated with the night. In liberating his devotees from ordinary cares and inhibitions he momentarily breaks the order of things. When Bacchus holds sway traditional social bonds loosen, including those of class, the family, gender relations, even the order of the State – and the mind – may dishevel. The Hellenic myths relating to King Pentheus and King Lycurgus spell out the danger, a danger that went beyond the mythical in the 2nd century BCE, when the Roman Senate felt compelled to restrict the practice of Bacchic religion.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

A Critique of Atheism

A bus in the desert. Source:
In a couple of earlier posts I have spoken against the role Christianity played in my mother’s mind in the months leading up to her death from cancer – she was worried that as she was an apostate she was destined for hellfire.* However, it has since occurred to me that atheism was perhaps the fiercer torturer of her mind, because it was her quasi-atheism that prevented her from becoming the Christian she clearly wanted to be. Her heart was a Jesus loving Christian but her mind was a sceptical atheist – the two combined were a toxic mix that eroded her peace of mind at the time in life when we need peace of mind most (when we come to meet death). Atheistic tendencies and assumptions are becoming increasingly pervasive in contemporary (Western) society, and this is a problem for polytheists, for atheism denies the existence of all deities and so has the potential to act as spiritual poison in the wavering mind, as it did for my mother. I must admit that occasionally I feel myself swayed by atheistic tendencies (especially when I am sinking into depression). Thus, I feel the need to articulate the problems with atheism as I see it. They are as follows.**
  1. By denying the existence of the divine atheism implicitly advocates the supremacy of the profane.
  2. Atheism invites us to ignore, dismiss and degrade past personal experiences of the divine as mere delusions.
  3. Atheism encourages us to shut our minds and our hearts to the possibility of future experiences of the divine. In this respect it lacks the very spirit of enquiry and curiosity that its adherents so often proclaim to elevate.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Head Covering in Roman Polytheism (for Women)

Vibia Sabina, wife of Hadrian, 2nd century CE.
Source: iessi Flickr
For someone like me, who only allows my closest friends and family to know of my Pagan ways, I must admit I sometimes feel a tinge of envy when I see “moderate” Muslim women flaunting their religion so conspicuously by wearing colourful headscarves and modest Western dress.* It is historical fact that modest dress and head covering was widespread amongst ancient Roman women, so is this a tradition that contemporary Roman polytheists should adopt? I like to think I’m pretty open-minded so I want to try to understand what “the veil” meant to ancient Roman women. In particular, I want to understand if it was a religious practice.

Head covering  during religious rites
It is a fundamental basic of Roman polytheism that in most religious rites one, whether male or female, covers the head (capite velato), except where the ritus Graecus applies:
“The Romans usually sacrificed with the head covered. In the case of Apollo and Ceres, however, sacrifice was made in the Greek mode, with the head uncovered, apparently because these deities were considered to retain something of their Greek origin … [Warrior, Roman Religion, Cambridge University Press at 21].”
Plutarch (1st century CE) posed the question of why it is that when Romans worshipped the Gods they covered their heads and gave a tentative answer:
“… they thus worshipped the Gods, either humbling themselves by concealing the head, or rather by pulling the toga over their ears as a precaution lest any ill-omened and baleful sound from without should reach them while they were praying [Plutarch, Roman Questions,].”
Covering the head thus denotes piety and establishes the fundamental dress code appropriate to most Roman rites. For me, when I cover my head before the household shrine it is as if I move from the profane to the sacred dimension of life. Also, as Plutarch says, covering the head may minimise the chance of seeing or hearing something inauspicious while conducting the rite. Thus one is less distracted and more focused. Averting negative influences by head covering is also alluded to by Virgil, in book III of the Aeneid; in which head covering is advised so that “no evil-eyed enemy face can intrude” on the rite (line 406, as translated by Ahl).

Friday, 24 June 2016

Epicurean Polytheism

Fresco from the Villa di Livia. Source: Lo Dolce Lume
Oftentimes the philosophy of Epicurus and his followers (most notably the Roman Lucretius), is cited as an important founding stone in the story of Atheism.* This is despite the fact that Epicureanism does not deny the existence of the Gods, and in fact repeatedly affirms their existence. In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus wrote that the first principle of his philosophy is that:
“the Gods exist … but they are not as the majority think them to be … For the assertions of the many [in 4th/3rd century BCE Athens] concerning the Gods are conceptions grounded … in false assumptions [O’Connor (trans), The Essential Epicurus, Prometheus Books at 62-63].”
In the same letter Epicurus goes on to argue that the best kind of man “keeps a reverent opinion about the Gods, and is altogether fearless of death and has reasoned out the end of nature” (ibid at 67). What is radical, and must have been profoundly radical in the ancient world, is the affirmation in the Principle Doctrines of Epicurus that a God is “free from trouble nor does it cause trouble for anyone else; therefore it is not constrained either by anger or by favour” (ibid at 69). However this is not to say that worship of the Gods is therefore useless, for it is known that Epicurus and his followers in fact did worship the Gods, but not in a greedy, grasping way, but rather as an act of reverence for beings who exhibit “the ultimate beatitude” (Urmson & Ree (Ed), The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, Routledge at 93). The hope and belief was that by doing so we can become Gods ourselves, for to live according to Epicureanism is to “live as a God among men” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus).

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Faith in Polytheism

Roman coin depicting Fides, minted 2nd century CE
One of my first posts on this blog, nearly five years ago, was about the question of faith. It turns out this has been amongst the more popular of my posts. In it I essentially make the case for leaving faith out of my religious perspective. In one of the more articulate passages I wrote:
“Faith does not make anything true, it just makes something feel more true while at the same time abrogating one's ability to ask all possible questions and to be open to all possible answers.” 
When I wrote this my mother had been dead for less than a year. Her long illness (cancer) and death was profoundly traumatic for me and part of that experience was made up of her elder sisters, both devout Christians, coercing, persuading, and generally doing all that they could to convert her before she died. As she edged closer to death she began to fear the prospect of hell, without definitively converting, and it disturbed her peace of mind in her final months. For this reason I went through a phase of disliking Christianity and, to me, “faith” was a term irrevocably linked to it. I associated faith inextricably with the word that often precedes it – blind. The notion of faith seemed like (to me at the time) a dodgy trick by which people were lured into believing untrue things based on the flimsiest of evidence.* Fast-forward a few years and things have a changed somewhat. I can now look at faith without the caustic afterglow brought about by my previous antipathy to Christian beliefs.

Friday, 20 May 2016

The Lararium

Miniture bronze statue of Venus (1st-2nd century CE)
such as may have been placed on an ancient Lararium
For me, the heart of Roman polytheism lays with the Lararium – the household shrine which honours the household and patron Gods. For nearly seven years I have maintained this shrine and over the years its location, look and the ritual associated with it has changed. I make offerings several times a monthThis is the time when my home, or at least my shrine, becomes a sacred space; when I connect with the divine, which is to say I connect with the universe more fulsomely because I do not simply use it for my own ends but offer in return my respect, my reverence, fire, water, food and incense. Without the Lararium Roman polytheism would, for me, be no more than a theory, or an inclination. With the Lararium it is ritual action, it is part of my life and my home.

The setting up of the Lararium is inspired by the ancient Roman practice of maintaining a sacred space in the home. Beard, North and Price write:
“The Roman house itself was the centre of family and private religion. In richer and middle-ranking houses a common feature was a shrine of the household gods – now conventionally known as a Lararium ... Commonly found in the central court (atrium) of a house, or sometimes in the kitchen, these shrines contained paintings or statuettes of household gods and other deities; they might also include (in a wealthier house) commemoration of the family's ancestors. We assume ... that these shrines would have formed the focus of family rituals ... [Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2, Cambridge University Press at 4.12]”

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Isis in the Roman tradition

Bronze statue of Isis-Venus, 1st-2nd century CE
When (some) Romans first came to worship Isis in the first century BCE they embraced a religion that was even older than Christianity now is to us, for Isis had been worshipped in Egypt since the mid 2000s BCE. In neighbouring Greece she had been attracting worshippers since the 4th century BCE. Five-hundred years later, during the peak of the Roman empire, she was worshipped from as far west as England to as far east as Afghanistan; Tacitus even claimed she was worshipped as far north as Germania. She must have seemed exotically alluring to Romans in the same way that Indian spirituality captures the imagination of many Westerners today. Beyond the enticing mysteries of the orient the success of Isiacism was at least partly attributable to its ability to meet the needs of the increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan societies of the Roman empire. As a Goddess who subsumed the numerous other Gods of different regions Isis was able to achieve universal appeal – her cult was not restricted to Egyptians, but was embraced by people of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. Likewise, Isis was revered by the educated elite as well as slaves, and by women as well as (or perhaps even more than) men.

Lucius Apuleius, an intellectual from Roman Numidia, reverently described a vision of the Goddess in his Metamorphoses (more commonly known as The Golden Ass):
“… she had a full head of hair which hung down, gradually curling as it spread loosely and flowed gently over her divine neck. Her lofty head was encircled by a garland interwoven with diverse blossoms, at the centre of which above her brow was a flat disk resembling a mirror, or rather the orb of the moon, which emitted a glittering light. The crown was held in place by coils of rearing snakes on right and left, and it was adorned above with waving ears of corn. She wore a multicoloured dress woven from fine linen, one part of which shone radiantly white, a second glowed yellow with saffron blossom, and a third blazed rosy red. But what riveted my eyes above all else was her jet-black cloak, which gleamed with a dark sheen as it enveloped her … Stars glittered here and there along its woven border and on its flat surface, and in their midst a full moon exhaled fiery flames. Wherever the hem of that magnificent cloak billowed out, a garland composed of every flower and every fruit was inseparably attached to it … In her right hand she carried a bronze rattle … when she shook the rattle vigorously three times with her arm, the rods gave out a shrill sound. From her left hand dangled a boat-shaped vessel, on the handle of which was the figure of a serpent … Her feet, divinely white, were shod of sandals fashioned from the leaves of the palm of victory … She breathed forth the fertile fragrance of Arabia [likely frankincense] as she deigned to address me in words divine: ‘Here I am, Lucius, roused by your prayers. I am the mother of the world of nature, mistress of all the elements, first-born in the realm of time. I am the loftiest of deities, queen of departed spirits, foremost of heavenly dwellers, the single embodiment of all Gods and Goddesses. I order with my nod the luminous heights of heaven, the healthy sea breezes, the sad silences of the infernal dwellers. The whole world worships this single godhead under a variety of shapes and liturgies and titles. In one land the Phrygians, first born of men, hail me as the Pessinnuntian mother of the Gods; elsewhere the native dwellers of Attica call me Cecropian Minerva; in other climes the wave-tossed Cypriots name me Paphian Venus; the Cretan archers, Dictynna Diana; the trilingual Sicilians, Ortygian Proserpina; the Eleusians, the ancients Goddess Ceres; some call me Juno, others Bellona, others Hecate, and others still Rhamnusia. But the peoples [of Ethiopia and Egypt] … worship me with the liturgy that is my own, and call me by my true name, which is Queen Isis.  
… set aside your grief, for through my providence your day of salvation is now dawning … Your future life will be blessed … and when you have lived out your life’s span and you journey to the realm of the dead … you will constantly adore me, for I shall be gracious to you. You will dwell in the Elysian fields … [Apuleius, The Golden Ass at 219-222].”