Friday, 28 August 2015

The Germanic God and Gods of Fire

Scalloway Fire Festival (2014). Source: ft.com
Something that has long puzzled me about Germanic polytheism is the apparent absence of the worship of a God or Goddess of fire. Fire must have been an integral aspect of ancient and medieval Germanic life and is, in most Pagan religions, accorded due reverence. That ancient Germanic Heathenry shared this characteristic is suggested by Julius Caesar who, in one of the earliest historical descriptions of the Germanic people, specifically mentions that fire was, along with the sun and the moon, highly revered by the Germanic tribesmen he came into contact with. So why is this great Germanic God of fire so seemingly elusive to us now?

What has survived from the myths of the Norsemen puts forth two of the more obvious candidates:
  • Surt – a powerful and destructive giant from Muspellsheim, the realm of fire; it is prophesised that he will ride out as leader against the Gods at Ragnarok with a weapon that shines like the sun and, after defeating the foremost God of fertility (Freyr), he will burn the world; this final act of destruction is necessary in order for the renewed earth, renewed men and renewed Gods to emerge from the ashes of the old.
  • Logi – a giant whose name literally means “fire”; he is most famous for outdoing Loki in an eating contest; for fire consumes more swiftly than man or God. Snorri Sturluson tells us that “the one called Logi was wildfire itself” (The Prose Edda).

Both Surt and Logi are firmly associated with destruction; neither sounds like a God to give comfort, such as fire must of done, when it warmed the home and cooked the family meal. Much less so can we imagine Surt or Logi as Gods of ritual and sacrificial fire. At best Surt and Logi are forces of nature to be propitiated as representations of fire in its most violent form. Surely there is a more benevolent Germanic God of fire?

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Pagan Swear Words, Expletives and Exclamations

The TV series Spartacus is full of inventive expletives
When I experience momentary frustration or surprise I tend to outburst variously with “Jesus Christ!”, “Christ almighty!”, “crikey Moses!, “oh my God!” and other biblical profanities.* These words flow out of my mouth impulsively, and in a sense they are just meaningless words, and yet sometimes after I unthinkingly exclaim them they bring home to me just how close Christian thinking still is. Should I then switch my expletives to a Pagan mode? On television and online I have come across the following alternatives:
  • Gods be good!
  • Juno’s c-nt!
  • Juno’s peacock!
  • Jupiter’s cock!
  • Jupiter’s eyebrows!
  • Neptune’s beard!
  • Odin’s Raven!
  • Pluto’s thorny cock!

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

Superstition

Image source: polyvore.com
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

neopolytheist.com


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 neopolytheist.com 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 neopolytheist.com 

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.