Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Minerva - Goddess of Skilled Thought and Action

"Perseus Armed by Mercury and Minerva" (detail) by Bordone (c.1550)
Minerva is the Goddess of skillfulness and industriousness, or, to put it another way, Minerva is the divine spirit (numen) of skilled action and skilled thought. Caesar describes Minerva as she who “bestows the principles of arts and crafts”, and so she is the patron Goddess of any profession associated with skilled workmanship, thus carpenters, painters, sculptors, teachers, health care workers, shoemakers, anyone associated with the textile industry, indeed any artisan. Propertius describes Minerva as the Goddess of the chaste arts, and Cicero, Tibullus and Horace all refer to her as a chaste, or maiden, Goddess. Horace calls her “industrious”. She also has another significant aspect, a martial one. Ovid tells us that “fierce wars are waged by Minerva’s hands”, and calls her the “armed Goddess”  who likes “unsheathed swords”. Thus in iconography she is typically identifiable by her helmet. Though Mars is the God of war, he is more commonly associated with the bloody violence of war, whereas Minerva is associated with military strategy (skilled thought leading to skilled action), without which no war can be won.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Gods of Misery

"Nott" (Germanic Goddess of Night) by Arbo (19th century)
When misery comes at first one struggles against it. One tries to make things right, shake it off, force a smile, rise above it all and be kind and open hearted. Then hour by hour and day by day one somehow forgets how to be happy. Dull resentment, a sense of isolation and a sort of hopeless surrender to melancholia entrenches itself. One stops trying … and one stops crying. At this point one is lost in misery – yes, Gods of darkness and depression, it is easy to have faith in you.

But who are these Gods? To start off with we acknowledge that any God that can give a blessing can take that same blessing away – thus, for example, Apollo is the God of both healing and disease. In a similar vein, Ovid tells us that ancient Roman farmers made offerings to the God of wheat leaf rust, Robigo, not because they wanted Robigo to visit their crops, but to persuade her to stay away from them. It follows then that if we honour the Gods of misery, perhaps we can placate them, perhaps they will leave our sides sooner, though some of us, let’s be honest, take some kind of enjoyment in their company, lugubrious though it is.

Miseria and her extended family
The first deity of Misery is surely the Goddess Miseria herself, numen (spirit) of misery and wretchedness, Cicero refers to her as a child of Night, alongside some other unhappy siblings, including Dolus (Deceit), Metus (Anxiety), Invidentia (Envy), Mors (Death),  Tenebrae (Darkness), Querella (Lamentation), Fraus (Fraud/Delusion) and Pertinacia (Obstinacy). Another deity of misery, said by Hesiod to also be a child of Night, is Discordia – numen of discord (Eris to the Greeks). A very famous myth relating to her is perhaps a parable explaining her origins, namely wounded pride/ego. The story goes that, incensed at not being invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, Discordia threw a golden apple, inscribed with the words “for the most beautiful”, amongst the divine wedding guests. Paris, prince of Troy, was given the task of deciding for whom the apple was intended. He decided in favour of Venus, but in doing so he insulted Minerva and Juno, who each claimed the apple as their own – consequently, thereafter they were said to be enemies of Troy.  Meanwhile, Venus rewarded Paris by uniting him with Helen of Troy – the face that launch'd a thousand ships – and thereby the Trojan war began.

Monday, 27 October 2014

In Praise of Venus

"Venus healing Aeneas" by Blondel (19th century)
Love in her most high and divine state is freehearted and generous – this is why the ancient myths so often depict Venus as licentious. Love only becomes impure when it is stained by our fragile egos and selfish, grasping desires which give rise to shameful (and selfish) concepts of love. Regardless, love distilled is a supreme virtue.

In Greco-Roman mythology only Venus has the power to disarm Mars, whom we associate with violence, or to sooth Vulcan’s destructive and potentially life extinguishing fires. Even today, the white doves of Venus are the foremost symbol of peace. Venus also shared her love with the quick-witted Mercury and thereby bore he whom we think of as the masculine aspect of love  Cupid. Another of their children is one who transcends gender, Hermaphroditus. Interestingly in Germanic mythology we see a related pairing – Woden, God of wisdom (equated in ancient times with Mercury), is paired with Frija, Goddess of love – surely Venus in another guise. It seems to me that when the two Gods merge we find the highest state of being arises – the Buddha himself said that wisdom (prajna) and love (maitri) are conjoined paths to enlightenment.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Germanic Pagan Lego

Here follows a Lego tribute to the traditional Germanic Gods. The Gods depicted immediately below are meant to depict (from left to right): Heimdall (with a red shield), Freyr (horned), Freyja (in purple), Thor (with red hair), Loki (in the back), Odin (bearded), Skadi (blue shield) and Tyr. Of course there are many more Germanic deities than this.*
Source: brickshelf.com

One of the most revered Gods in the Germanic pantheon is Odin (also known as Wodan, Woden and Wotan). Very often he is portrayed as one-eyed, for it is said that he traded an eye for a drink from the waters of wisdom. Odin is the God of writing, wisdom, cunning, eloquence, travel, prosperity and psychopomp. In ancient times Odin was equated with Mercury and so the Latin dies Mercurii (Mercury's day) was translated into Germanic languages as Wodens' day, which we now call Wednesday.
Source: mocpages.com

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Paganism for Children

Goddess of wild animals, forests, the hunt and the moon -
Diana / Artemis, by xx12taylorxx.deviantart.com
This post is devoted to helping older children to understand what Paganism is. Pagans have a wide range of views and not all Pagans will agree with everything written on this page – which is fine. Paganism  embraces an open, not a closed, view of the world and can incorporate a wide range of different beliefs and practices – which makes it both very wonderful and very hard to describe. I have attempted to not use too many complex words, so that everyone can easily understand it – and disagree with it, if they want to.

What Paganism is
Paganism means different things to different people, but the one thing that almost all Pagans agree on is that the natural world includes sacred, or divine, forces and that it is good to show respect for the sacred forces, or spirits, that exist in nature – because as humans we are part of nature. When we show respect for the natural world we show respect for ourselves and the entire universe in which we live. Many Pagans understand that the most powerful divine forces of nature are Gods – which includes Goddesses. By tapping into the power of the Gods we can improve our own daily lives. As the Gods are powerful they can help us achieve the things we want.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Messenger Animals as Omens

"Sulphur Crested Cockatoo" by lithas-alterego
For me, being open minded about the potentiality of omens is part of polytheistic practice – omens being signs from the Gods indicating their will, favour or disfavour, as well as being divine signals indicating present or near future auspiciousness or inauspiciousness. In ancient Rome divination of omens could take any number of forms but the most common methods included observing the manner of the flight of birds; observing the way that birds ate; studying the state of the internal organs of sacrificial animals (haruspicy); analysing one’s dreams, and being alert to the import of unusual natural phenomena (Shelton at 375; Turcan at 15; Kamm at 83-84). Tacitus records  that as well as the casting of lots, which appears to an early form of reading the runes, the following means of divination were common amongst the ancient Germanic tribes:
“The widespread practice [in the Roman world] of seeking an answer from the call or flight of birds, is, to be sure, known here too, but it is a specialty of this people to test horses as well for omens and warnings. The horses are maintained at public expense in … sacred woods and groves; they are pure white and undefiled by any kind of work for humans. They are yoked to a sacred chariot and the priest or king or chief of the state walks beside them, taking note of their whinnies and neighing. No kind of omen inspires greater confidence, not only among the common people but even among the nobles and priests, who regard themselves as but the servants of the Gods, the horses as the Gods’ messengers [Tacitus at 42].” 
Thus it seems that signs communicated through what we might call messenger animals were key means of divination in the ancient world. Even before I consciously embraced polytheism I considered the behaviour of certain birds as capable of indicating auspiciousness, and since then it has seemed to me that certain animals may be associated with certain deities. Divination of omens through the observation of animals, or their presence in our dreams, is often an inexact art. In an effort to make sense of these potential omens I have put together the following alphabetical list, which records which animals are associated with which Gods, usually via myths. I note that Roman augury, as practiced by priests, involved very specific methods, some of which are described in my earlier post, Jupiter - Lord of the Heavens. Regarding unanticipated omens, it is the unusual behaviour of animals, their sudden and unexpected appearance, or their presence in dreams which tends towards indicating an omen, and one should take care not to become hyper-vigilant or superstitious, by imagining that there are signs in essentially mundane occurrences.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Salus – Goddess of Health and Well Being

"Hygieia" (the Hellenic Salus) by Klimt (1900)
Salus is the Goddess of safety, health, well being and, according to some translations, salvation. If we think of the English word deriving from her name – salubrious – we get an idea of who she is. The Arval Brothers, priests in charge of public sacrifices made for the well being of Rome, prayed and made offerings to her not just for the safety of the city of Rome but also for the health and fertility of the entire Roman community, including its animals and farms (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 52). The Nones/fifth of August was the day on which she was honoured most, with circus games and the public sacrifice of a cow (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2 at 73). She was revered from at least as early as the 4th century BCE, with her temple on the Quirinal Hill being founded in 302 BCE (Rüpke, Religion of the Romans at 55). In the 4th century CE her temple in Rome still stood – despite being twice hit by lightning, in 276 and 206 BCE, and damaged by fire in the 1st century CE (and then restored) – and she appeared on Roman coinage up until the reign of the Christian emperor Constantine I (Rüpke, A Companion to Roman Religion at 162; Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome). In her public aspect she was known as Salus Publica and even Salus Augusti – for during the imperial era the well being of the emperor was equated with the well being of Rome as a whole (Lipka, Roman Gods at 95). Another title was Salus Romana – Ovid briefly mentions that an offering should be made to her, alongside Janus, Concordia (Goddess of peaceful agreement) and Pax (Goddess of peace), on 30 March (Ovid, Fasti, Book 3). It may be that the three Goddesses shared a temple founded on that date (Boyle and Woodard’s notes to the Penguin edition of Ovid, Fasti at 229); at the very least we know there were statues of these Goddesses in Rome, erected by Augustus (Wiseman’s notes to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Ovid, Fasti at 136).

Sunday, 20 July 2014


Korean Shaman. Source: people.cohums.ohio-state.edu
A month or so ago I got talking to a fellow I know who had just come back from South Korea – he was a little drunk, which was fortunate as it opened up a bridge of uninhibited communication between us via which we landed on the fascinating topic of Shamanism. He told me he had been to Shamanic ceremonies in Korea and proceeded to describe them. I can’t recall his exact words but what really hooked me in was the fact that he was describing Shamanism as a living tradition. I had recently been reading about the Shamanistic religions of the former nomads of northern Europe, but it was all in the past tense. What he described was a continuing, unbroken tradition practiced by people of our own times who are not wildly different from ourselves – I can’t say I think of Koreans as exotic (there are a lot of Koreans in Sydney). Following our fascinating conversation, I got my hands on the most reputable book on Shamanism I could find. It is by Piers Vitebsky, who is described as “an anthropologist and head of Social Sciences at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge”. Most of the information, and all page citations with no other referencing, in this post are sourced from this book, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2001.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Prayer to Vesta

"The Vestal" by Frederic Leighton (1883)
Lately I have had a heightened sense of awareness of Vesta – so much so that I have bought a statue of her (though of the Hellenic Hestia in point of fact) for my household shrine. As I cannot keep her fire burning continually in my home, it is my hope that her statue facilitates her continual presence in some way. For Vesta is the great protecting deity; this is why ancient Romans were so concerned to keep her sacred flame alive and attended by the most important of all Roman priestesses – the Vestal Virgins.
“The Vestals were clearly set apart from the other priestly groups. Six priestesses, chosen in childhood, they lived in a special house next to the temple of Vesta. They had all kinds of privileges … they were responsible for tending the sacred fire, on the sacred hearth of their temple; they guarded their storehouse (penus) and they ritually cleaned it out and expelled the dirt … There is an obvious parallel between Vesta, the hearth of the city, and the hearths of individual families – the priestesses of the state apparently representing the women of the household …     

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Buddhist Tattoos

Thai Buddhist monk receiving a sak yant tattoo
Source: peaceloveandtea.tumblr.com
Given the popularity of my earlier posts on tattoos and my familiarity with Buddhism I thought I would do a post on Buddhist tattoos. I note that many devout Buddhists, especially Theravada Buddhists in south and southeast Asia (who make up nearly 40% of the Buddhist population worldwide), may be offended by certain kinds of Buddhist tattoos, so it may be an idea to get one in a place that is easily covered by clothing. Tattoos depicting the Buddha himself are the most likely to offend, as are tattoos below the waist, especially those near the foot. Western tourists sporting Buddhist tattoos in Sri Lanka have even been deported and in 2011 the Thai Ministry of Culture instigated a crack down on Thai tattoo parlours so to prevent Western tourists receiving Buddhist tattoos, and thereby (in the eyes of some) trivialising Buddhist iconography, by (supposedly) reducing sacred images to mere fashion statements. While I don't doubt there are people out there who have chosen Buddhist designs for essentially frivolous reasons, I do think those who are offended by Buddhist tattoos on Westerners may be underestimating the reverence many Westerners have for Buddhism; as well as misunderstanding Western attitudes to tattoos in general. I feel sure that many Westerners who get such tattoos, even those who don't fully appreciate their provenance, are trying to tap into and comprehend the sacred, as well as Buddhist teachings more generally.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Jupiter – Lord of Heaven

"Jupiter and Mercury reveal themselves" by Santi (1798)
Jupiter is without doubt one of the greatest of Gods. Essentially, he is the numen (divine spirit) of the sky, of weather, of thunder, lightning, and of rain. As the God of rain, he is inevitably also a major God of agriculture, if not of life itself (for rain is fundamental for human prosperity), and so from the start the Romans held him in especially high esteem and looked to this powerful God for divine protection. Thus, Jupiter sits at the apex of the Roman pantheon and was worshipped as one of the major protecting Gods of ancient Rome and her empire. The ancient epithets of Jupiter are especially revealing and may help us to understand both his divine essence and his importance. Some of the most common include:
  • Iuppiter Capitolinus (of the Capitoline hill, one of the holy triad which protected Rome and her empire)
  • Iuppiter Custos (guardian)
  • Iuppiter Elicius (sender of rain)
  • Iuppiter Fulgur (of lightning)
  • Iuppiter Libertas (of liberty/freedom)
  • Iuppiter Lucetius (light bringer)
  • Iuppiter Optimus Maximus (best and greatest)
  • Iuppiter Victor (victorious)
  • Iuppiter Tonans (thunderer)

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Voluptuous Venus

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of images of Venus which have survived from ancient times. Many of them are curvaceous, in fact some ancient Roman Venus' are even a little plump, and there are many that are slim, but they are never too skinny, for how could Venus look as if she starves herself when she is a Goddess of life and fertility? Neither have I seen any depictions of Venus as obese. Likewise, for most artists since the renaissance Venus has been celebrated as looking like a woman with a healthy body, neither skeletal nor grotesquely overweight. Here follows a celebration of the many portrayals of Venus over the centuries.

Roman Era Venus'
Fresco of Venus from Pompeii (1st century CE)
Celestial Venus (circa 2nd-3rd century CE), Bronze, 25cm
Mosaic depicting Venus from Tunisia (circa 3rd century CE)

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Ancient Germanic Tattoos and Cannabis Use

Comic book illustration by Kresse (1953)
I am reading the fifth book in the Warrior of Rome series by Harry Sidebottom, called The Wolves of the North. As well as being a novelist, Sidebottom is a Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at the University of Oxford. His intimacy with ancient history means that he is often able to bring the ancient world to life, and what I have been reading about recently is particularly intriguing. He is describing the Heruli – an ancient Germanic tribe who are depicted as, inter alia, tattooed inhalers of cannabis. How much truth is there likely to be in this portrayal? Well, it seems to be quite feasible. 

Describing the Heruli ("utterly abandoned rascals")
Briefly put, the Heruli were one of a number of Germanic tribes who became a problem for Rome from the 3rd century onwards. Originally from Scandinavia, by the mid 3rd century they were living in the general area of modern day Ukraine. From there they spread themselves in a number of directions, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Odin – God of the Fearless

"Wotan" (1969) by K Vasilyev
Most of what we know about Odin, and other Germanic Gods, comes from Icelandic manuscripts written roughly 200 years or more after Iceland formally adopted Christianity (though much of this material appears to copy works written hundreds of years earlier). Perhaps one of best descriptions of Odin comes from the Hyndluljod:
“Let's ask the Host-father [Odin] to sit in good cheer; he grants and gives out gold to the worthy ... He gives victory to some, to some wealth, eloquence to many, and sense to men; a fair wind he gives to sailors, and fine words to skalds; he gives manliness to many a fighter.
Another of the Icelandic poems, the Hávamál, is said to record the words of Odin. From this, perhaps the most haunting passage is the following:
“Wounded I hung on a wind-swept tree. For nine long nights, pierced by a spear, pledged to Odin. Offered, myself to myself. The wisest know not from whence spring the roots of that ancient tree. They gave me no bread, they gave me no mead, I looked down; with a loud cry, I took up runes; from that tree I fell.”
This is a tale of shamanism that hints at a means of acquiring sacred knowledge that has been lost but can be found. On a purely functional level it also establishes Odin as the father of the written word, and thereby the protector of knowledge. Thus he is known as the Fjölnir (wise one, all-knowing or concealer), Fjölsviðr (very wise one) and Saðr (truthful).* Another story that emphasises this aspect of Odin is told in the Prose Edda:

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Roman Beliefs Regarding the Afterlife

"Charon" by mavnor.deviantart.com
February is the month when ancient Romans traditionally honoured their dead, during the festival of the Parentalia, and this got me thinking about Roman attitudes to the afterlife. Roman polytheism does not provide clear-cut answers about the much pondered question of whether or not there is life after death:
“Traditional Pagan culture offered all kinds of views of death and the after-life: ranging from a terrifying series of punishment for those who had sinned in this life, through a more or less pleasant state of being that followed but was secondary to this life, to uncertainty or denial that that any form of after-life was possible (or knowable) … the official state cult did not particularly emphasise the fate of the individual after death, or urge a particular view of the after-life [Beard et al, Religions of Rome 1 at 289-290].”

Traditional views – realms of the dead
The conventional view of life after death in ancient Rome conceived of an afterlife wherein the soul separated from the body and then typically lived on in the underworld kingdom of Orcus (Dis Pater/Pluto). Sometimes the spirits of the dead might return to the world of the living, as either Manes (protecting spirits of the dead) or Lemures (malevolent spirits of the dead). Over time, Roman ideas about the afterlife came to be strongly influenced by Hellenic visions, which were themselves not always uniform. The features most commonly ascribed to the afterlife included descriptions of Hades being surrounded by various rivers, including the rivers Styx, Acheron and Lethe. From this latter river the dead drank the waters so to forget their former lives. Meanwhile they crossed the river Styx by paying Charon the ferryman – thus the dead customarily had a coin placed in their mouths or their hands lest their souls be stranded in limbo. Upon crossing to the other side of the river they were confronted by Cerberus, the three-headed dog, who prevented unauthorised souls from entering or leaving Hades. Once within Hades, the earthly behaviour of the dead was judged by Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aecus, to determine their fate in the next life. War heroes went to the paradisiacal Elysium, as did, by some accounts, the virtuous. Those guilty of hubris or other behaviour deemed particularly offensive to the Gods might find themselves in Tartarus: a place of divine punishment apparently inhabited by only the most unfortunate of criminals. Meanwhile most of the dead were thought to dwell on in the Asphodel fields, which was neither particularly pleasant nor unpleasant.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Alma-Tadema - Roman Visions

Victorian Britain (1837-1901) was more than a little obsessed with the Roman era - from their Queen, who was named after the Roman Goddess of Victory, to the expanding British empire which bore similarities to that of Rome's, to the copious number of Romanesque artworks produced in the United Kingdom during that time. Of all the painters dealing with Roman themes none was more popular than Dutch-born Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) - a prolific painter who specialised in depicting (somewhat romanticised) scenes of everyday life in the classical world. While some of his work seems a little kitsch these days, some of it is wonderfully evocative and brings the ancient world to life. In homage to this true Romanophile, here follows some of my favourite Roman-themed works by Alma-Tadema.

Click on image to enlarge

The decorative marble floor and brightly painted wall in the image below is typical of ancient Roman architecture - but only the wealthy (and their slaves) lived in homes like this. In Rome itself most people lived in apartments. As we can see the sea in the background, Alma-Tadema perhaps intended to depict a villa in a wealthy seaside town, such as Herculaneum (destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE).
"An Oleander" (1882)

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Roman Calendar

"Spring's Innocence" by Norman Lindsay (1937)
Living in Sydney, where the seasonal calendar is the reverse of that of Rome’s (so that when it is winter in Rome it is summer in Sydney and vice versa), I have tended to not pay too much attention to the traditional polytheistic calendar of ancient Rome – for so many ancient celebrations were related to the seasonal cycles of Europe. I am also mindful of the fact that many ancient festivals celebrated the founding of temples that have long since fallen into ruin – if the temple no longer exists then celebrating its coming into being seems somewhat incongruous.  And then there is the fact that I don’t know too many Roman oriented polytheists – so with whom do I celebrate these festivals? 

Turning aside from contemporary concerns, I note that even when Rome’s empire was at her height there was no such thing as a universal Roman calendar of religious festivals, for each region of the empire established their own calendar, which did not necessarily mirror the calendar in Rome (Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion at 41-42). Furthermore, the religious calendars varied from century to century, so not only were they not uniform from region to region, they were not uniform from century to century either.