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 two (I acknowledge that the following prayers are better than mine!), though the second 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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Saturday, 28 February 2015

Freyr - Lord of Plenty

"Frey" by hellanim.deviantart.com
In Germanic polytheism, neatly put, Freyr is the God of good times, peace and plenty.  He is a protecting God of the earth and a male fertility God par excellence. Of the Roman Gods he is most like Faunus. Like Faunus, Freyr is associated with the fruitful earth and fertile flocks. Implicitly, both Gods are strongly associated with male sexuality. Respected Cambridge scholar H R Ellis Davidson goes so far as to speculate that ceremonies involving sexual abandon may have been among the wilder rites associated with Freyr in pre-Christian times (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe at 126), something that can easily be associated with the pleasure loving Faunus, who enables mating amongst livestock and fertile fields. This sexual aspect of the God is not simply about hedonism, it is about something far more serious and fundamental – it represents an affirmation of life and a continuation of this same force. For Freyr is not only fertile, he is wise (Poetic Edda; Skirnir’s Journey). When Freyr is honoured crops succeed, livestock flourishes and people enjoy good health. H R Ellis Davidson describes Freyr thus: 
“the Gods and Goddesses who brought peace and plenty to men were known as the Vanir … The God who stands out most prominently in the literature is called Freyr, a name meaning ‘Lord’. His twin sister was Freyja, ‘Lady’ [fertility Goddess of love], and their father was the God Njord [God of the fertile sea]. Freyr was said to have been worshipped by the Swedes at Uppsala in the late Viking Age, along with Thor and Odin [foremost of the Aesir Gods], and to have been represented in the temple there by a phallic image. He was described as the God who dispensed peace and plenty to men, and who was invoked at marriages [Scandinavian Mythology at 74].”
Thus it seems that just as Freyja (who is very like the Roman Venus) deals with female sexuality and fertility so is Freyr essentially a God of male sexual virility and fertility.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Contemporary Shrines

A Lararium. Source: cafet.1fr1.net
Maintaining a household shrine is, for many (myself included), the central focal point of Roman oriented polytheism. This is because in ancient times:
"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 ... 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 ... these shrines would have formed the focus of family rituals [Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook]."
Setting up a Lararium was one of the first things I did when I developed an interest in the Religio Romana. Doing so rapidly deepened my practice and understanding of the divine. I had no statuettes to start off with - which is fine, one can invoke the deities by name instead and/or place objects on the shrine to represent specific Gods (eg, an image of a peacock to represent Juno). It is the setting up of a designated sacred space within the home that is of primary importance. This space can include just about anything. The most important thing is that it is clean, and typically one would expect to see a candle flame (or a more traditional oil lamp flame), an incense offering and/or food, liquid or other kinds of offerings (eg, flowers). In my own case, over time, I added a statuette of my patron deity, Mercury, then a homemade figurine of a Lar (household spirit), then a statuette of Vesta and then Venus. Others have entirely different kinds of shrines, which is wonderful - polytheism is by its nature diverse - and some people also have what can be called a Sacrarium or Sacellum, which are shrines that do not necessarily include the Lares or other household Gods. 

Here follows a celebration of contemporary shrines in the home. If you would like to send a picture of your shrine for possible inclusion in this post please send a message to Roman Pagan on Facebook. 
I
My Lararium / household shrine, particularly dedicated to the household Gods, Mercury and Venus
II
Lararium of Lucanus, a Roman Pagan/polytheist from near Washington DC (Mercury depicted)