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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

Decameron Reloaded. That the Fun begin (with Bears and Ladies in Canada)

 

I’ve always found Giovanni Boccaccio‘s Decameron philosophically inspiring. Incidentally, this masterpiece works also as a signal, possibly, that at the end of the Middle Ages some freer sexual mores were surfacing back from antiquity.

Following this boccaccesca ispirazione I have given a sudden twist to a peaceful conversation with dear-to-me blog buds and made a ‘licentious’ story out of it (after asking them for permission.)

The original conversation is basically untouched.

Only from the ‘Amanda, Drinks and Bears’ section onward things get ehm weird a bit (due to MoR’s fancy only, not my buds’, please bear in mind.)

Licentious here means not lascivious but it refers to the original Latin meaning of licentia, ie ‘behaviour with some freedom’.

So here’s the story, at the end of which you will read an invitation from MoR.

[Minors are requested not to read any further]

In The Solitude of a Canadian Cottage …

Three blogger buds, Giulia, Paul and Giorgio (MoR,) finally decide to really meet (in their minds) and to spend their New Year’s eve in an unpretentious cottage in Canada. After placid conversation and toasting Amanda & a family of polar bears join the party.

It is to be said that it is exceptional, these kind of bears venturing South like that in desperate search for food. But let us not digress since after the bears arrive things get a bit out of hand.

The cottage is cosy and warm though isolated up North. It had been previously inhabited by Latin-Americans. The outside temperature is -20° C ( or -4 F). The three friends are conversing placidly in front of a fireplace.

Giulia. Yes Paul, Happy New Year to us. Thanks for a wonderful friendship.

Paul. Blogging is a strange thing. In a way it replaces the letter writing of yesteryears; however those letters were exchanged between two individuals, a blog is a wide open public thing. Yet on short order there develops a relationship between bloggers quite akin to genuine friendship, and international to boot.
When I began blogging last spring little did I figure that I would develop a link with a NYorker, a Roman and a Laval guy that I never met, and probably never will meet. Still I have the impression that I know them and can be quite close to them…despite some differences whether political, cultural or social.
Yes Giulia, it is wonderful.
Happy New Year.

Giorgio. Paul, Giulia, I’m back from Sicily, which literally blew my mind … [He stands up]

Happy New Year to the dear Canadian sage plus witty companion of so many discussions.
Happy New Year to our generous Giulia sharing her warmth and intelligence with so many of us.
And Happy New Year to the exuberant, unpredictable Commish, the dear Laval brat!

[They toast, also to absent Commish’s health]

Paul. MoR, Glad you enjoyed Sicily and escaped Etna’s wrath.

Retired Soldier to Retired Soldier

Giorgio. I heard in fact some tremblement de terre but had faith the Sicilian gods would spare the only person who basically hasn’t forgotten them (outside Sicily.)

Paul. I’m currently reading a book titled Le Christ Païen by Tom Harpur. It traces the parallels between Christian and Pagan beliefs. Astonishing.

Giorgio. I have checked in the French wiki. Donc, un prêtre anglican qui thinks l’existence de Jésus n’est pas evident. Merci. Could be useful. In Sicily I have visited Catania and most of all Siracusa. Toutes les deux, hanno la loro santa patrona, che è come una dea, like a goddess. The devotion people have for these two saints is beyond imagination. Catania has Sant’Agata, Syracuse Santa Lucia, deity of light also for the Northern Europeans, being so sun-starved and all. I have collected stuff for 20 posts but I’ll make 2 out of it, lest I lose all my readers.

Giulia, Paul, I’m getting at ease with my retirement, and also have to thank my blog for it, but most of all, the people I have met.

Paul. Retirement is a great period for doing all we always wanted to but never could do. It is not the end of our productive life, it’s the beginning of another kind of productivity and creativity, providing we do not let go.
Onward retired soldiers.

Giorgio. Ah ah ah. Yes Paul, onward, retired soldier to retired soldier. You made me laugh.

Paul. Laughing is excellent for one’s health.

Giulia. Good to see you are promoting laughter. Add a strong drink now and then, wonderful meals as often as one can, and life is as good as it can be when our wings are tired, our resources limited, and, our prospects for adventure, stuff we just dream about.

Good to see also that the weather is not getting you down, Paul.

Canadian Yearly Cycle

Paul. Weather wise we Canadians are tough hombres. You see it keeps our hoping capacity at it’s peak all year round. In winter we hope for spring’s balmy weather, then we wait for summer and it’s blissful farniente, while sweating away we hope for autumn foliage and it’s splendours followed by hoping winter will not be too harsh, and the cycle resumes.
Of course, in winter hot toddy and Rhum keep us happy, in summer a nice cold beer does it and all year round good wine and food are staples of a happy Canuck’s life.
It is said we are boring…and I am happy with that.

Giorgio. Weather wise Canadians: nice concept and depiction of the yearly psychological cycle, one of your gems, Paul. Canuck? You guys teach me so many words! And yes, I’d love more cold weather to be able to drink A LOT MORE than I can in Rome.

Amanda, Drinks and Bears

Amanda [suddenly knocking at the window from outside]. Yikes on all levels! Double yikes!

Paul. [He turns around and smiles at Amanda, but doesn’t notice the bears and especially Amanda being an object of curiosity to them.] Alcohol and cold do not mix well. You, briefly, feel a bit warmer after a stiff shot of Scotch or Gin, but it soon vanishes and you feel even colder…so another shot, when you have had one too many you feel sleepy…and you freeze to death if outside and alone.
Besides, cold slows your metabolism. Better stay in Rome, you’ll live longer.

Giorgio. I had heard about this alcohol thing [weird shrieks from outside. Nobody notices]. Paul, this conversation, it is so beautiful. It is good in this moment I’m about to change my life.

[They then pass to explore the differences between Scotch and Jamaican Rhum, with no objection to salt-rimmed margarita glasses. They sip this and that. Conversation quietly unfolds.]

Ψ

Amanda is still outside. She desperately tries to knock at the window again, but the bears don’t let her. They grab her merrily and start dancing the Ring a Ring o’ Roses with her.

Other shrieks (plus groans) finally catch the attention of the people within who, looking out the window, much to their surprise realise Amanda is now actually fighting against the bears. She is so brave that the two men feel inclined to go back to their alcohol experiments.

NO. They have to rise up (Giulia’s unwavering idea) and exit the cottage with guns and sleeping bullets in them (Paul’s idea) just to make the darn bears fall asleep a bit.

After the shooting occurs not without difficulty they are though afraid the poor bears would die in the cold so dead asleep and fluffy they are. They so drag them into the house and up to the fireplace (MoR’s idea, he’s so proud to say.)

Now the group is composed of Giulia, Amanda, Paul, Giorgio and the bears, who by the way wake up.

Ψ

“They first wanted to eat us up – Paul and Giorgio later told the people in a pub close by (1200 mi.) – but then they realised we are good people, so they accepted our meat and, the all of us, we chanted, we talked and drank and we all had lovely conversation together.” The people in the pub were now staring at them.

“Oh we got high (we were already.) Oh we got soo high. And we made the ladies happy. And after the ladies the bears. And the bears made the ladies happy, and a big party began where much joy was exchanged during the entire night.”

Ψ

The bears in the end were cheerful but also a bit surprised. They hadn’t thought about this new form of entertainment. So the voice spread among their population and a big migration southward began, not entirely unnoticed by satellites and TV.

Ψ

The Canadians, both the men and the women, were starting to feel awkward.

Now the invitation.

MoR is inviting willing readers
to bring in a comment to this post
with his/her original ‘licentious’
story to share, for some innocent fun.

You can also contribute anonymously. The stories, also very short (1-2-3 liners) and not necessarily in the style of Boccaccio will be accepted (in English or French, Italian and German) only if compliant with the following rules:

No vulgarity, crudity of language or situation.
Humour is requested but not required
(although it makes things lighter.)
No ‘pleasure and sin’ morbidity.
Sunlit sex, pls, with a gentle touch, and
(on sweet ladies’ request)
Love, divine Tormentor,
Applies here too.

Friends of the Man of Roma! What the heck are you waiting for? :-)

 

Are we Counting Cars?

Magister said one has to avoid going around with a lantern in search of the traces of the Roman and Italian civilization in the world. How mean! How sad it would be! – he remarked.

This brings to my mind a French guy I met at some friends’ house where he was staying for a brief vacation in Rome. He kept praising the beauty of the monuments and the historical importance of the city (“Ah, l’histoire, ici on voit vraiment l’histoire!”) but the couple of times we went out together he spent almost all his time counting the French cars in the Roman streets, and every time he saw one his pleasure was evident.

One aim of this blog is that of discussing all sorts of permanences of the ancient Greco-Roman world, in my country and elsewhere. We did some work on this already. For the future we are planning to talk about the only real last Roman legion left in our opinion, the French Foreign Legion (see picture below); we’ll also talk about the survivals of Roman habits and religious & non-religious traditions in Italy and Europe (ways of thinking, saints, festivals etc.), the list being long.

We’d like though to make it clear that we won’t do all this with that mean attitude we were talking about.

We’re not here for counting cars.

……

……

(are we?)

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