RSS Feed

Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (1)

Household altar in Herculaneum, Italy. Click for attribution and to enlarge

“Everything is Full of Gods”

Sledpress has mentioned Greek Heraclitus who stated that “everything is full of gods.”

ψ

Pandemonism (or animism, see below), common to both Indo-Europeans and non Indo-Europeans, was fundamental also in the original Roman religion.

We have seen in our last writing how the Romans invoked the goddess of Fever, Febris, in order to be saved from malaria. They believed that fever itself (febris in Latin) was (or housed) a power that could therefore be invoked in order to escape death.

Deeply en-rooted in the rural areas such animistic polytheism never faded when the Romans met other folks and cultures and their religion became more complex. It was spread to the lands controlled by Rome (mixing with other forms of animism / polytheism) and it survived both the end of the Empire and the advent of Christianity – in the case of Febris we have seen how the goddess almost seamlessly became Our Lady of the Fever.

Such religious attitude went all throughout the Middle Ages thanks to the cult of saints, relics and miracles, and only from the Renaissance onwards some Christians abandoned it  – Calvinists and the Reformed churches especially, while Lutherans and Anglicans were possibly a bit more tolerant about it as far as I know.

Many Protestants engaged in a ‘war against the idols’ seeing the saints (with some right) as successors of the pagan gods.

The foot reliquary of St James, Namur, Belgium. The spirits of the saints were said to actually remain in the bodily remains.

Roman Pandemonism. A closer Look

Pandemonism – from Greek pan (πάν, all) + demon (δαίμων, spirit) – implies that there is a power or will in any object, action, idea or emotion. By worshipping such power (called numen by the Romans) man strove to bend nature to his purposes.

The religious practices regarding Roman numina were extremely complicated (and in case of an error in the ritual the ceremony had to be restarted,) the exact rites and words were known only to the pater familias, the priest of the family, a sacred entity, and handed down from father to son.

Outside the family – the state, another sacred entity – the rites and the words (regarding public, non domestic numina this time) were known originally to the kings and their priests only and later to the pontifices and other colleges of priests. They also were passed on from generation to generation and became immutable.

Speaking generally of the Roman numina R. H. Barrow [The Romans, Penguin 1949; the preceding paragraph owes something to him] observes that many household gods “have passed into the languages of Europe: Vesta, the spirit of the hearth-fire; the Penates, the preservers of the store-cupboard; the Lares, the guardians of the house. But there were many others.”

‘Many others’ is a bit of an understatement. They were in the hundreds and concerned every aspect of human life: household (there including every part of the house – door, hinges, threshold etc. – with its specific guardian god,) conception, pregnancy, love relationships (very rich this Wikipedia article on Roman birth and childhood deities), all phases of a person’s life; not to mention, on a more public sphere, agriculture (the priest of Ceres for example evoked twelve spirits at the start of the sowing season,) State (with public gods more or less corresponding to domestic gods,) commerce, war and so forth.

Tutelary Spirits of Child’s Development

As for child’s developement (Gordon J. Laing), without appropriate rites to Lucina, there was no good birth. No rites to Vagitanus? No first cry of the baby. Were Cunina or Rumina neglected? No security in the cradle or no breastfeeding respectively. No rites to Cuba? No sleep for the child in bed. Or, was Fabulinus disregarded? The child didn’t talk. And, if Statanus wasn’t correctly propitiated the child didn’t stand.

Moreover:

Abeona and Adeona attended him in his first ventures from the house; as he grew to maturity Catius sharpened his wits, Sentia deepened his feeling, while Volumna stiffened his will. And so he was passed from god to god and the long line of divine relays only ended when Viduus [at the end of his life, MoR] parted body and soul.”

[Gordon J. Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion, Longmans, Green and Co., New York 1931, where I took the list of the above tutelary spirits and other information]

Roman Fortuna holding in her arms Plutus, god of wealth. Istanbul

Also Bigger Gods were Specialized

Not only such small deities were part of the Roman pandemonism but the Pantheon of medium and bigger gods as well, such as Fortuna, Diana, Juno and the like, whose cult titles and epithets are evidence of a high level of specialization.

Fortuna for example – see a Roman statue above -, a medium goddess not as big as Juno but considered very powerful by the Romans, ramified into Fortuna Virginalis (fortune of the virgins), Fortuna Privata (fortune of the private individual), Fortuna Publica (fortune of the people), Fortuna Huiusce Diei (fortune of the present day or luck right now), Fortuna Primigenia (fortune of the first-born: a huge temple in Praeneste, today’s Palestrina, still surviving – just a few km from Rome – saw parents in the thousands bringing their first-borns to Fortuna Primigenia), Fortuna Bona (or good fortune), Fortuna Mala (bad luck), Fortuna Belli (fortune in war), Fortuna Muliebris (fortune of the married women), Fortuna Virilis (luck of women with men) etc.

ψ

Next time we will try to better understand how this “departmental idea of divinity” (to quote Gordon J. Laing) survived in the veneration of saints.

Italian translation

Related posts:

Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (2)

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna
Survivals of Roman Religion
From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever

Read also:

Ex Votos in Italian-American Devotions

About Man of Roma

I am a man from Rome, Italy. I’m 60 and a Roman since many generations. In my blog, manofroma.wordpress.com, I’m writing down my meditations. The idea behind it all is that something 'ancient' is still alive in the true Romans of today, of which few are left.

31 responses »

  1. Who wrote: “When walking Rome streets you have more chance of meeting a god than a human”?

    Reply
  2. Rome being the model for the nations of the West, I blame these people for the mentality that has created, in my local city-state, a God Of Tax Assessments, a God Of Tax Collections, a God Of Professional Licensing and God Of Probity, all of whom have to be propitiated just so that I can make a living. :)

    You need an extra boost from Catius just to keep up with it all.

    Reply
  3. How much of this do you believe, dear friend.

    Reply
    • Glad you are back Richard.
      – and when I say A I do try to mean A :-)

      Your question gives me the opportunity to process what I said in my posting a bit.

      As I *once* said to Paul I am not a neo pagan, I am an agnostic and have a secular (?) mind.

      If you meant a belief in powers, saints, relics that would help us when we are in need, no, I don’t believe in such stuff even though I am proud, in a very silly way, of these remnants of classical Rome.

      To be fair, most Italians from here neither believe in such things, there excepting people of rural origin in the area from Rome southward and possibly some of the Italians migrated to the New World.

      Which brings us to ‘superstition’. The way I see it, and should we mean by it any conception opposed to scientific and logical knowledge, all religious ideas and facts are superstitious.

      So I don’t see why, say, the concept of predestination by Calvin should be less superstitious than the cult of Saint Agatha in Sicily (whose traits are palpably pagan), or a more transcendent religious attitude should be less superstitious (and superior) to an immanent one.

      Which sounds a bit like cultural relativism as for religions, which in fact is.

      I am more and more convinced that all religions are interrelated in a way that is amazing and hard to believe. Which makes everybody on this planet – to quote Paul – pagan in some way :-)

      Sorry if I flooded you.

      Reply
  4. Hi Man of Roma,
    Looking at this beautiful Household altar I am tempted to place flowers there and be thankful for something, anything. I love these sacred places; one must have an affinity to such things!

    The southern Italians give homage to classical Rome while honouring their newer beliefs. I’ve always found this lovely in a country so overwhelmingly gorgeous.

    Hope you’re feeling less blue. Go on, take Pink Floyd down. :)

    Reply
    • Hi Geraldine, thank you.

      It’s your second comment here and I’m already getting addicted. Blue … what a lovely language you speak, you paint moods with colours! And yesss, I’m feeling less blue, and your thoughts & words are so gentle.
      I too find these places very spiritual. And southern Italians are our living museum.
      Come back.

      Reply
  5. Wondeer!! Thank for the post and you nice blog. I hope to
    link a good news by Vaite in reanaissance and expecially medieval on
    Federico
    II mediueval period. It’s in Italian words and video about his history in
    Italy . Goog vision Jacopo Here is the link:

    http://notitiae.wordpress.com/2010/10/04/palio-del-ducato-di-eggi-%E2%80%93-iii-edizione-3-ottobre-2010/

    Reply
  6. My understanding is that early Christians leaders quite properly understood that veneration of the saints was a vestige of paganism, but that they accepted it as inevitable, especially in light of their desire to spread the faith. And in some regions, I’m thinking of the Germanic areas, they pretty much encouraged it as a way to bring them into the fold. And when they were forcibly converting tribes, veneration of saints made it easier to retain the faithful in the church.

    A favorite reliquary of mine:

    More at my post on The Cloisters, here:

    http://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/2010/02/20/cloisters-of-nyc/

    Reply
    • It is my understanding too. I am writing part 2 and this is one thing I am trying to highlight. It was a compromise they had to accept, ie certain doses of syncretism to better expand the new faith.

      Not by chance when the Protestants emerged they tried, at various degrees, to re-Christianize Europe in some way by studying (and condemning) all forms of catholic paganism (ie ancient Roman, Germanic, Celtic etc.) that had survived.

      I’ll have a look at your posting when I’m over here. Ciao

      Reply
    • As with the adoption of Saturnalia and Eostre, of course, as Christian festivals.

      Reply
      • Yes. The Catholics and later the Protestants could not totally erase what was older than Christianity, whatever the folk.

        You possibly meant also an element of the Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) culture. A letter mentioned in Bede’s Historia gentis Anglorum from Pope Gregory to Mellitus, the first Bishop of London, argues “that conversions were easier if people were allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditions…”

        So Eostre possibly influenced our Easter. The Anglo-Saxons, present at the time of Gregory, weren’t Romanized so kept more or less intact their own specific pagan traditions.

        It’s only part of my blog research. I’m not that cultivated :-)

        Reply
  7. Interesting dialogue, from a secular point of view. I wonder what real believers have to say on this topic.

    Reply
    • It depends who you consider real believers, Rosaria. Does the real believer have to be a practicing congregation member, no matter what congregation he may belong to, or a believer in God or a Superiour Being but outside organized religions, a deist for instance but not a neo pagan? Maybe that is impossible.
      Is believing everything in this universe to be a facet of God and respecting it for that make you a true believer? Of course Pantheism was a Pagan characteristic.
      If saints cults are carried over from pantheism then paganism is not totally dead and survives in many religious rites and practices.
      That is why I like MoR’s parallel between the goddess of fever and Our Lady of the Fever.
      I consider myself a deist and a true believer.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of the Saints (2) « Man of Roma

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 155 other followers

%d bloggers like this: