Sunday, 23 June 2013

Tacitus on Indigenous Germanic Religion

Statue of the prophetess Veleda by Bücker (20th century)
Tactius’ Germania is perhaps one of the most important texts we have concerning the religious practices (inter alia) of the Germanic tribes in the 1st century CE. While we should read Tacitus with caution, because he was not Germanic himself and because we cannot be certain that he ever travelled to the Germanic lands (in which case he would have assembled the work based on the descriptions of others including, perhaps, traders, Roman soldiers who had fought in those lands, or manned German border outposts, and possibly Germanic mercenaries and those serving in the auxilia who had moved to Roman territory), what is exciting about his account is that he was not a Christian, unlike many later writers who were to record aspects of indigenous Germanic religion. His bias was more along the lines of occasionally seeming to idealise the Germanic peoples in such a way as to suggest the comparative decadence of contemporary (Pagan) Romans. He emphasised that these Germanic tribes were almost universally composed of people who were warlike, brave, loyal and hardened by their climate – in short they were formidable enemies for whom Tacitus seems to feel admiration on the one hand and a kind of disgust or horror (at their “barbarism”, eg, because they practiced human sacrifice and had a supposed tendency towards drunkenness and violence) on the other.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Vulcan – Fire God

"Red hot fire blowers" by dislexicpalindrome (2011)
If you want to understand the Roman attitude to deified fire, understanding Roman ideas about the nature of Vulcan (or Vulcanus, as the Romans knew him) is essential. Vulcan is the fertile, creative and yet potentially ugly and destructive side of fire. On the one hand he is propitiated – for his scorching fires, which threaten to burn and destroy forests, homes and harvests, are feared. On the other hand, he is honoured as a master metalworker who creates the finest armour, weapons and any other object forged in fire. Thus Vulcan is the God of fire and of metalworking, and one of the major Gods in the Roman pantheon.

The antiquity of Vulcan’s cult in Rome
Not only was Vulcan one of the Dii Consentes (one of the 12 major Gods of ancient Rome), he was also one of only 15 Gods to have a State appointed priest (flamen) and he is known to have had a shrine in the Roman Forum since at least the 6th century BCE – the Volcanal, which appears to have consisted of:
“an altar … next to it a column … which probably held a statue … [a] fragment of a Greek (Athenian) pot, 570-560 B.C., is the most ancient of the objects to be found associated with the Volcanal. It depicts the Greek god Hephaestus – who (as has always been known) was eventually ‘identified’ with the Roman Vulcan, as the god of fire and metalworking – returning to Olympus, riding on a donkey. The presence of this fragment at the site suggests that the identification of the Roman with the Greek god, far from being late or literary, was made already in the sixth century B.C. [Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook at 21-22].”