I love my cultus deorum
I’ve been thinking about my own personal devotional practices over the past few days — with the coming of the New Year, I figure it is a good time to reevaluate my practices to see how I can improve and go more deeply into them. It also allows me to think back over the previous year and find all the touchstones in my devotional work that may inspire me in the year to come. I need that because the last thing I want is to remain static in my practices. Two things in this examination became radically clear. Firstly, I’m being pushed toward a far more specifically Germanic Heathenry, particularly with respect to Odin. As to what that means, I’m not yet sure but it’ll probably be a wild and crazy ride. Secondly, for all that I’m Heathen, I have a healthy practice of cultus Deorum as well. This is what happens when a Heathen goes into Classics and Odin says “make friends with the Greek and Roman Gods”. LOL. Over the past seven years or so, I’ve developed quite an extensive cultic practice to Hermes, Dionysos, Juno, Hera, and certain other of the Roman Gods. They’ve been very good to me too over the years.
There are a lot of things about the Roman approach that appeal to me. There’s a conscious emphasis on careful practice, on being in proper headspace and properly free of miasma before approaching the Gods or even one’s shrines (what are shrines but the homes of our Gods after all?). Knowing these requirements has made me more mindful in my Heathen practice. I hate to say it, but with familiarity comes the occasional cutting of corners and that’s not something that we should ever do with our Gods (I do it, we all *do* it, but it’s a bad habit to get into!). The requirements for purity and mindful execution of praxis have forced me to really confront where my own Heathen practices fall short and to attend to that. In my book, that’s a good thing!
I also find that the Romans have values that I deeply respect and wish to further cultivate in myself. They were a warrior state so their citizens were expected to have a sense of their own value as part of a whole. When you read about Roman cultural heroes like Lucretia or Cinncinatus or Mucius, or even Aeneus they differ greatly from their Greek counterparts. Unlike say Achilles who fought for his own fate and his own personal glory, the Roman hero was always connected to something bigger and greater than himself, namely Rome. The glory of the Roman hero or heroine is inseparable from the glory of Rome and always, in some way, specifically furthers it. As someone working for the restoration of our polytheisms, I have to keep the ultimate goal of strong, restored deity-centric communities always at the forefront of my mind. It’s the big picture that guides me, even though I know i’ll never live to see it happen. A huge part of my community work is done to lay the foundation for those who will come after me and hopefully pick up where i’ve left off. There’s a certain amount of frustration inherent in that at times, and it’s good to have models in the form of hero cultus to whom to go when acedia or just plain depression over the whole thing and apparent lack of progress threaten. Plus, i think to build a sustainable polytheism, we all need to be looking toward the future, cohesive goal, not necessarily prioritizing the here and now individual pleasures. It’s hard though and exhausting.
The Romans also valued modesty as an ideal (sexual profligacy was not encouraged in men or women). The ancient Romans took great pride in the strength and uprightness of their country and culture and considered lack of sexual discretion and restraint to be the equivalent of childish lack of self control and not the proper behavior of a citizen, male or female. That for me, stands in stark contrast to the excessive focus and over-sharing on sex and the crude behavior that so characterizes elements of our over-culture and sadly, elements of Paganism too (today, for instance, i read one of the most disgusting and misogynistic articles I think I’ve ever laid eyes on over at patheos talking about how women who refuse to have indiscriminate sex are puritanical and repressed and readers who disagree must be mentally ill. It was nauseating.). The Romans had a sense of their own value as people, as citizens, as pious individuals (and their piety went hand in hand with civic virtue). They had a sense of self-respect specifically as Romans that rather precluded the upstanding citizen from behaving as though they were public commodities. While their sense of privacy was very different from ours and in many respects far less than ours, their sense of personal modesty in their behavior was greater. Living in a culture where being a “slut” is apparently viewed as a positive thing to be cultivated, where people routinely over-share the most personal aspects of their sexual lives and attractions and talk about it endlessly, and where one cannot mention having some type of god spouse relationship without speculation arising as to the intimacies of how that works, this is a welcome relief. That’s not to say the Romans didn’t enjoy their share of raunchy, ribald, and hilariously crude literature. They did — we know, we have some of it surviving today and it’s a hoot to read—but that did not necessarily translate into the personal behavior of your best and brightest. I think we could learn a lot there.
Piety was also their defining virtue. I was talking about this with one of my classes this past term. The father of Rome, the Trojan hero responsible for founding the community that would eventually become the Roman empire, Aeneus was most often referred to not as ‘godlike’ (like Odysseus) or ‘fleet-footed’ (like Achilles) but as ‘pious.’ Piety was perhaps the most defining characteristic — if you asked an ancient Roman—of what it meant to be a good, upstanding Roman person. They weren’t ashamed of venerating the Gods well and often. I think many of us can be self-conscious both in our polytheism and in our devotion. No one wants to be thought less than, or foolish, or deluded after all and devotion in general and polytheism in particular is so often either pathologized, shown disrespect, or both in our society. Also, we’re most of us new to polytheism (most of us are converts after all) and there can be a pervading sense of awkwardness as we root ourselves in our new practices. I think that’s normal but also worth working hard to overcome. I like the ancient Roman model as an inspiration here. Piety was essential to the character of a good Roman. It wasn’t something to denigrate or dismiss, but was instead celebrated and enshrined in their national epic. It was an essential part of the character of a healthy, functioning adult.
And the ideal of an adult was one of character. There was equal emphasis on ‘virtus’, which for the Romans was valor or courage, but from which we get our world virtue. It was something the Romans tried consciously to cultivate in their youth but it was inseparable from piety and civic engagement. If you asked an ancient Roman what defined him as a Roman, the answer would very likely have been: “pietas, civitas, and virtus” and very likely in that order. So all in all, I am gaining a greater understanding of how to frame and nurture my engagement with the Norse Gods by my careful engagement with the Roman Ones. I’ve had more moments of “oh. OH. I never thought of that. I wonder if i should pay attention to that with Odin?” and sometimes the answer is no, but sometimes I find my Heathen practices deepening as a result and that is all to the good. I’m careful in ways I never before considered being now.
It’s good being a polytheist. (So many Gods, so little shrine space lol). The more deeply I go into my practices the more the way I see the world and everything in it changes, and the more I can see where things don’t align. It has allowed me to be even more rooted as a polytheist and even less likely to compromise on or hide my polytheism to make the secular or non-polytheistic world comfortable. There’s a line from a famous novel: “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” and I can’t help thinking that sometimes, in some ways, they did them far better than now.