Saturday, 18 July 2015

The Problem with Mythology

"The Rape of Europa" by Reni (1639)
We must be cautious when we read myths – too many of them are the spun out creation of storytellers that risk reducing the Gods to characters in a fairy tale. The great, divine and essential nature of the Gods may thus be obscured. We should be mindful that the popularity of some myths in the ancient world may have contributed to the decline of polytheism – and may also impede contemporary comprehension of the Gods. Christian writers of the Roman era, such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Minucius Felix, invoked Greco-Roman myths to mock the Gods, and therefore belief in them. The Christian poet Prudentius went so far as to write “depart adulterous Jupiter, defiled with sex with your sister” (cited in Beard 2 at 361). If we were to accept myths at face value then the early Christian fathers could be occasionally convincing, in terms of eroding our belief in the Gods. If we understand that myths may be beautiful and instructive in some way, but that they should always be treated with caution and never treated as somehow equivalent to sacred scripture, then we get closer to the truth.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Germanic Divination – Runes

Anglo-Saxon ring with Runic inscriptions
(8th-10th century CE)
In 98 CE the Roman historian Tacitus described the divination methods of the Germanic people:
“They attach the highest importance to the taking of auspices [typically by observing the movements of animals, especially birds and horses] and the casting of lots. Their usual procedure with the lot is simple. They cut off a branch from a nut [or fruit] bearing tree and slice it into strips. These they mark with different signs and throw them at random onto a white cloth. Then the state’s priest, if it is an official consultation, or the father of the family, in a private one, offers prayers to the Gods and looking up towards heaven picks up three strips, one at a time, and, according to which sign they have previously been marked with, makes his interpretation. If the lots forbid an undertaking, there is no deliberation that day about the matter in question. If they allow it, further confirmation is required by taking the auspices [Tacitus, Agricola and Germania, Oxford World’s Classics at 42].”
In this passage we seem to have the earliest recorded description of Germanic divination and, possibly, the use of Runic markings to do so. Tacitus does not refer to the Runic alphabet explicitly, only that strips of wood were marked “with different signs”. These signs could have been of anything, and certainly there is a possibility that they were not Runic at all but, perhaps supporting the case, the earliest archeological evidence of Runes dates from the second century CE – only one lifetime after Tacitus’ description. Professor Page of the University of Cambridge writes:

Saturday, 30 May 2015


Image source:
Nearly 2000 years’ ago the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote “religio honours the Gods, superstitio wrongs them” (cited in Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 216). In ancient Rome religio was a word associated with conspicuous, but not excessive, reverence for and piety towards the Gods. Seneca’s comment suggests that religio stands in contrast to superstitio. But what is superstitio? In the propaganda war against Paganism, Christians claimed that anything that was Pagan was superstitio. In an earlier age it was the other way around. To some extent superstitio was, originally, any religious practice which seemed thoroughly strange, unappealing and inexplicable, thus Jews were condemned for superstitio for engaging in the seemingly bizarre practice of circumcision, among other things. But there is much more to the word than xenophobia. Superstitio implies a lack of self-control, excessive devotion, and perhaps an inappropriate desire for knowledge, such as might be thought to be obtained via certain magical rites (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 217).
“[The] use of the term superstitio seems to have widened over the first century AD, both conceptually and geographically ... the concept of magic emerged as the ultimate superstitio ... [However] the definition of magic is famously contentious and and debated ... According to the encyclopedia of the Elder Pliny, magic was a heady combination of medicine, religion and astrology, originating in Persia, and meeting human desires for health, control of the Gods and knowledge of the future. The system was, in his view, totally fraudulent. He recounts, for example, how Nero (‘whose passion for magic was no less than his passion for the lyre and the tragic song’) lavished massive resources on magical arts wanting to give orders to the Gods – but dropped them when they failed to work: ‘that the craft is a fraud there could be no greater or more indisputable proof.’ And he frequently points to the mendacious claims concerning the magical properties of particular animals and plants made by the ‘magi’ (the title of Persian priests, but extended in the Greco-Roman world to include all ‘magicians’): a cure for toothache, for example, that prescribed burning the head of a dog dead from rabies, before dropping the ash (mixed in cyprus oil) into the ear that was closer to the painful tooth [Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 218-219].” 

Saturday, 23 May 2015

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 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 

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.