Sunday, 6 April 2014

Voluptuous Venus

For the whole of my life, until recently, I was sold (and believed) the story that equated only the thin female body with beauty. It would be tedious to point out how prevalent this story is - for just about everyone is familiar with it. Less told is the story where women give up their sense of guilt when they enjoy a good meal; where they embrace (healthy*) food, embrace their femininity, their sexuality and their men (or their women), who embrace them. Over the years I have seen so many images of Goddesses but the one thing I have never seen is a really skinny Venus - until I saw this post on, wherein famous paintings of Venus are photoshopped to make Venus conform to contemporary standards of synthesised beauty. The result is mostly hideous. There is something very wrong about a famished depiction of Venus. I cannot imagine that Venus could look as if she starves herself - for she is a Goddess of life and fertility.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of images of Venus which have survived from ancient times; you might be thinking I am about to claim that they are all voluptuous - but that is not true. Many of them are curvaceous, in fact some ancient Roman Venus' are even a little plump, but there are many that are slim, but they are never runway model thin. Neither have I seen any obese Venus'. What does this mean? It means that the Romans thought of Venus as looking like a woman with a healthy body, and they recognised that beauty comes in many forms. In that spirit, I want to celebrate the many portrayals of Venus over the centuries, not least the voluptuous ones, so here I go.

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

Really? Source:
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.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014


"Wotan" (1969) by K Vasilyev
Odin is the first God in whom I believed; he is the God in whom I believe the most. He is the God at whom I cannot look directly. He is the keeper of sacred knowledge; he is the protector; he is the terrifying. He is the Alfödr (Allfather), who inspires awe and devotion in his children. Odin is a God I sense, whilst having little intellectual comprehension of him. But what do the books say and can we trust their words? Almost everything we think we know about Odin derives from Christian authors. Some of the stories they tell retain the essence of something sacred, but they are not reliable and, like many Greco-Roman myths, they may sometimes confuse our understanding of the divine; for a number of these stories are the spun out inventions of successive poets seeking to entertain a hall full of drunken men. Thus we need to exercise caution and look for the hidden truth – fittingly, as Odin is God both of concealment and knowledge. 

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Roman Beliefs Regarding the Afterlife

"Charon" by
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 (eg, incest) 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.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Honouring One's Ancestors

"Iron Age Germanic Warrior" by dewfooter
There is a tendency among some Pagans to get quite attached to notions they have about their own ethnic origins. One comes across ideas about how important it is to honour one’s ancestors and occasionally this evolves into ideas about feeling a special sense of kinship with other people who belong to one’s ethnic group. I sometimes fall into this way of thinking but, ultimately, the more I think about it the more specious it seems. 

The most obvious implication of this way of thinking is that one must surely value one’s literal kin (blood relations) before all others. In my case we are mostly talking about people who are scattered across the globe (Europe, America, Australia, Asia) and whom I hardly ever see or write to. I honestly don’t feel a lot of kinship with most of my blood relations (cousins, etc) and my own experience is that it is the people who I share my life with who matter the most to me – unsurprisingly, a few of those people are my blood relations, but I suspect it is the proximity of space, time, shared experience and culture that are our strongest bonds, not that of blood.

Friday, 24 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.

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)

Saturday, 18 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?