Saturday, 23 May 2015

neopolytheist.com


Painting of a woman writing by Zocchi (b. 1874)
I thought it might be fun to create a website drawing largely on content created for this blog; essentially the idea is to present content that I have created for this blog (plus some additional content) in a more navigable way. The website is neopolytheist.com and it has just gone live today. To be honest it has not been that fun putting it together (in fact it has been more complex and stressful than I was expecting) but I have put so much work into it I thought I may as well publish it. I own the domain name for a year, so I am thinking of it as a potentially temporary venture, whereas I am more or less committed to blogging, so long as I enjoy it (which I still do). I wish to emphasise that this website presents one person’s interpretation of Roman polytheism. I don't know everything there is to know about Roman polytheism, I am just someone who is rather keen on it, and is as addicted to writing, researching and the pursuit of knowledge as I am addicted to the internet.



Written by M. Sentia Figula; find me at neo polytheist and neopolytheist.com 

Saturday, 16 May 2015

A Long List of Deities


Janus head on a silver quadrigatus coin (225 BCE)
Ancient Roman polytheism was a bit like the English language, insofar as "new" Gods were continually borrowed and absorbed into the Religio Romana from other pantheons, just as English continually borrows and absorbs foreign words, without being particularly concerned with maintaining linguistic "purity". Similarly, the traditional mindset of Roman spirituality is open and diverse, and it is perhaps for this reason that there are more Deities associated with Roman polytheism than can possibly be counted. Thus, it is impossible to list all of them. Even if a historian was able to tell you the name of every Deity recorded from the Roman era (and such a list would surely list Deities in the hundreds if not the thousands) this would still not comprise a complete list, because from the polytheistic world view every river, every grove, every force of nature is divine and likely has some kind of spirit, or Deity, attached to it. Due to these facts the following attempt to list over 100 of the more well known Roman Deities is not comprehensive: 
  • Adonis: a God associated with the cycle of life, death and rebirth; beautiful lover of Venus who dies but is reborn every spring.
  • Aesculapius: God of healing.
  • Anna Perenna: personification of the year (annus), whose festival on 15 March involved drinking and signing of licentious songs by women.
  • Annona: numen / spirit / personification of the food supply.
  • Antinous: deified 19 year old (probable) lover of Hadrian; associated with young, masculine beauty, love and homosexuality.
  • Apollo: God of light and the sun, healing (and disease), music (especially stringed instruments), poetry, archery and prophecy.
  • Attis: Cybele's consort.
  • Aurora: Goddess of dawn.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Mars – the Virile God

Marble head of Mars Ultor (c. 2nd century CE)
Simply put, Mars is the God of war, specifically the violence of the warrior within the context of war (Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion, at 156). Naturally he is a patron God of the military, but also of less favourably viewed forms of violence, such as banditry, as Apuleius makes clear in The Golden Ass when the leader of a band of robbers says: 
“‘Well now, we’re going to sell the girl and since we’re going to recruit new associates, why not make an offering to Mars the Comrade, though we have no animal fit for the sacrifice, and not even enough wine for a proper drinking bout. Grant me ten of you then, and that should be sufficient to raid the nearest village and furnish a … banquet for us all.’ 
Then he departed, while the rest set about building a large fire, and piled up an altar of green turf to the god Mars. 
Later the leader and his men returned, driving a flock of sheep and goats, and carrying skins of wine. They picked out a large shaggy old he-goat and sacrificed it to Mars the Companion and Comrade. Instantly the preparations for a luxurious banquet began [Apuleius, The Golden Ass, bk VII].”
Mars' potency
However, Mars has another side, which is as potent as it is wholly male. He is not just a destructive force, nor even just protective, as we might expect, but also life-giving – he is virile in every sense. The ancient authors of Rome continually refer to Mars as “Mars Pater” (Father Mars), and there are two myths that ancient Romans seemed to especially associate with Mars, and neither of them involves violence. Instead they involve sex, and sex of a kind that should be shameful (for they involve rape and adultery) but somehow is not. The first myth is told again and again by the ancient authors, but Ovid tells it best:
“Vestal [virgin / priestess] Silvia  one morning … was fetching water to wash the holy things. She came to where the bank sloped softly with its path, and removed the earthen jar from her head … As she sat, shady willows and melodious birds bred sleep, and the water’s gentle murmur. Seductive peace stole over languid eyes; her hand becomes limp and slips from her chin. Mars sees her, desires what he sees, takes what he desires; divine power made his rape unfelt. Sleep departs, she lies freighted; there was now, of course, in her guts the Roman city’s founder [Ovid, Fasti, bk III].”
Virgil picks up the story;
“… a royal priestess, Ilia [ie, the Vestal priestess Silvia], heavy with child, shall bear Mars twins. Then Romulus will further the race, proud in his nurse the she-wolf’s tawny pelt, and found the walls of Mars, and call the people Romans, from his own name [Virgil, The Aeneid, bk I].”
In this passage there is an allusion to the famous wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. This is highly relevant, for to Roman minds the wolf is sacred to Mars and the wolf that suckled Rome’s founding twins is known as the “wolf of Mars”. As Propertius writes:
“Wolf of Mars, the best of nurses to our State, what towers have sprung from your milk [Propertius, The Elegies, bk IV]!”
In every conceivable sense this story sets out Mars as the divine ancestor of Rome. He provides the seed, and his sacred totem animal provides the nourishment.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

On Plagiarism

"Boreas" by John William Waterhouse (1903)
Yesterday I discovered that a website has appropriated a huge amount of content from this blog, ie, entire blogposts, one after the other, and has not only failed to cite the author (me) but has also claimed copyright over content on their website which is in fact stolen from this blog! I don't want to promote traffic by posting a link to it but please know that the people behind this website, if you should come across it, are charlatans. 

While it is theoretically flattering (though not in fact) that they would think content written by me is worth appropriating as their own, what they are doing feels like a most hurtful violation. It is small consolation to discover that they have ripped off many other blogs as well. Small also to see that their most popular post was written by me.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Organised Religion – a Perspective


Expulsion of heretics (c. 1415 illustration), British Library
Organised religion is a double edged sword. On the one hand organising religion allows religious beliefs to be preserved and propagated – this gives that religion accessibility, strength and potentially longevity. It also enhances the social aspect of religion, acting as a means by which a religious community can come together. On the other hand, organised religion can and does give rise to some serious problems. The main problem, as I see it, being that members of religious organisations may be prone to developing less flexible attitudes to their own religion, and then impose these onto other would be members of this religion and even non-members (who might be thought of destined to go to hell, or some other undesirable future state for not believing in the spiritual authority of the organisation). It can even go so far that some organisations believe they can represent their deity’s approval, and feel entitled to excommunicate members over trivial theological differences. In this case the believer’s ability to communicate with the divine is superficially abrogated in favour of the believer’s relationship with the leaders of an organisation, some of whom may be corrupt, stupid, fanatical and/or unkind. 

When it comes to Roman polytheism there is no person, or even groups of persons, who can simultaneously cast you out of their organisation and deny divine goodwill towards you. No human organisation can speak for the Gods. The Gods favour who they will – it is not for men to decide.  Even Pagan priests or priestesses cannot speak for the Gods. In any case, in Roman polytheism we are all, if we maintain a shrine and make offerings at it, priests and priestesses of the deities we honour. By this means we may come to understand the Gods we revere with a greater degree of insight, but only hubris could induce us into thinking we, of our own volition, can speak for them – the only possible exception being when efficacious divination occurs, or omens are perceived, but even in this case we merely interpret signs from the Gods.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Prayer to Venus

"Tannhäuser in Venusberg" by Collier (1901)
Venus is the Goddess of love in all its guises, as well as fertility, regeneration and divine protection from harm, for she is a life-giver. Ancient sources suggest that the offerings that most please her are roses, mint, myrtle, garlands of flowers, wine* and incense. As she is a maternal Goddess, milk is also a suitable offering, perhaps even more so if mixed with crushed poppy and honey removed from the comb (Ovid recommends that newly wed women should drink this mixture in honour of Venus). More elaborate offerings might include baked goods in the shape of a dove, a horned ram or a bull (these animals were sacrificed to her in ancient Rome); golden jewellery, especially necklaces, and pearls may also please the Goddess. During rituals in her honour, it is traditional for worshippers to wear white if possible, and to cover their heads (capite velato), as it is when praying to most Roman Gods. Prayers should be made with open palms (manu supina) and respect for her images is well conveyed by blowing a kiss in their direction. 

Here follows several prayers to Venus. I wrote the first, though it is heavily influenced by Boyle and Woodard's translation of Ovid's Fasti. For more on Venus see Venus, Goddess of Love and Life and In Praise of Venus.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Nicholson Museum

In the mid to late 19th century many educated British men and women were obsessed with ancient Greece and Rome. Adventurous British people of this era often found themselves in the colonies, including New South Wales, Australia. One of these fellows was Sir Charles Nicholson, who was a founder of the University of Sydney, which is now the oldest Australian university. The university was founded in 1850; seven years later Nicholson travelled to Europe, inter alia, to do a grand tour of Italy, Greece and Turkey and buy antiquities for what became, in 1860, the university's Nicholson Museum.

The Nicholson Museum is now home to the largest collection of Mediterranean antiquities in the southern hemisphere. The 600 or so objects that Nicholson initially brought back to Australia has now grown to nearly 30,000 artefacts of artistic and archeological significance from Egypt, the Near East, Cyprus, Greece and Italy. To attract younger visitors it is also home to one of the most amazing Roman Lego set ups in the world, at the moment they have a large scale reproduction of Pompeii. In the past they have also done the Colosseum and the Acropolis. I went there today, and while it is not the British Museum it is still definitely worth a visit. Here are some of the (mostly Greco-Roman) photographic highlights.

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