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.”

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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.

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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

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna

Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in Praeneste

Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in modern Palestrina (ancient Praeneste)

Italian translation

We have been talking about survivals of the Roman religion.

Of the goddess Fortuna or goddess of Luck remain at least today 1) our recurrent personification of Fortune; 2) something of the oracular function of this deity, linked to future-telling; 3) one of her emblems, the wheel, a symbol of mutability in human life.

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1. Personification. When we use phrases like “they invoked their fortune” or “the tricks of fortune” we have here a personification of something capricious which is deeply impressed in our mind and that can be traced back to the ancient Roman goddess Fortuna.

A tetradrachm from Hardrian's (76 – 138 AD) time, with Fortuna holding rudder and cornucopia

A tetradrachm (a silver coin) from Hardrian’s (76 – 138 AD) times, with Fortuna holding rudder and cornucopia. Click for credits and for both sides of the coin

2. Future-telling. Not far from Rome, in Antium and in Praeneste, were two well-known shrines of the goddess Fortuna. The Romans went there to know about their future, among the rest. At the oracle in Praeneste connected to the impressive sanctuary (see remnants on top) of Fortuna Primigenia (the fortune of a firstborn child at the moment of birth), a small boy gave oak rods to temple-goers, called sortes (lots), with words on them that revealed their future.

Similarly, we go today to the ‘fortune teller’ to get predictions about our fortune, namely our future. If these two words, fortune and future, are synonyms in this context it is also because of the ancient oracular (future-telling) role of the Roman goddess Fortune.

Wheel of Fortune in Singapore. Fair use3. The Wheel of Fortune. I think very few spectators of the Wheel of Fortune, one of the most popular TV shows ever produced, suspect they are in front of a fossil from the ancient Romans. Fortuna was in fact often represented standing on a ball or close to a wheel indicating that our future is as uncertain as the random spinning of a wheel (or the random rolling of a sphere.) She also bore a cornucopia, which symbolized abundance, and a rudder as controller of man’s destiny (see Hardrian’s tetradrachm above.)

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Only the wheel though survived and this was probably due, among the rest, to the influence of a great book, Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, an author descendant of a noble Roman family which issued emperors and consuls.

The tomb of philosopher Severinus Boetius

The tomb of Roman philosopher Severinus Boetius (early 6th cent. AD) in the crypt of the church of San Pietro in Pavia, Italy (Wikipedia: click for source)

Cicero had already mentioned the wheel but it was Boethius’ philosophical work that made the goddess Fortune and her wheel so popular in the Middle Ages (read Boethius’ text here):

I know how Fortune is ever most friendly and alluring to those whom she strives to deceive, until she overwhelms them with grief beyond bearing, by deserting them when least expected … she turns her wheel of chance with haughty hand … This is her sport: thus she proves her power; if in the selfsame hour one man is raised to happiness, and cast down in despair,’ tis thus she shews her might.

The Benediktbeuernm, a monastery founded in 739 AD. The Carmina Burana manuscript was there found, later set to music by Carl Orff. Written mainly in Medieval Latin; a few in Old French and Provençal; some vernacular, Latin, German & French mixed up. Click for credits and to enlarge

The Benediktbeuernm, a monastery founded in 739 AD. The Carmina Burana manuscript was there found, later set to music by Carl Orff. Written mainly in Medieval Latin; a few in Old French and Provençal; some vernacular, Latin, German & French mixed up. Click for credits and to enlarge

We’ll conclude by mentioning how in 1803 AD some mostly-in-Latin medieval poems ( 228 ) were found in the Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuern.

This collection, written around 1230 and now known as Carmina Burana, satirized the Church and was created by university students at a time when Latin was the European lingua franca. Some poems are dedicated to Fortuna and her wheel.

In 1937 the German composer Carl Orff put into music some of these texts. The most famous composition is “O Fortuna“, incidentally, which opens and closes the work.

While listening you might want to read the Latin original, with an English translation (source.)

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O Fortuna / velut luna
(O Fortune like the moon)
statu variabilis
(you are changeable)
semper crescis / aut decrescis;
(ever waxing and waning;)

vita detestabilis / nunc obdurat
(hateful life first oppresses)
et tunc curat / ludo mentis aciem,
(and then soothes as the sharp mind takes it;)
egestatem, / potestatem
(poverty and power)
dissolvit ut glaciem.
(it melts them like ice.)

Sors immanis / et inanis,
(Fate monstrous and empty,)
rota tu volubilis, / status malus,
(you whirling wheel, you are malevolent,)
vana salus / semper dissolubilis,
(well-being is vain and always fades to nothing,)
obumbrata / et velata
(shadowed and veiled)
michi quoque niteris;
(you plague me too;)
nunc per ludum / dorsum nudum
(now through the game I bring my bare back)
fero tui sceleris.
(to your villainy.)

Sors salutis / et virtutis / michi nunc contraria,
(Fate is against me in health and virtue,)
est affectus / et defectus
(driven on and weighted down,)
semper in angaria.
(always enslaved.)
Hac in hora / sine mora
(So at this hour without delay)
corde pulsum tangite;
(pluck the vibrating strings;)
quod per sortem / sternit fortem,
(since Fate strikes down the strong man,)
mecum omnes plangite!
(everyone weep with me!)

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

An additional note on Roman Fortuna
Survivals of Roman religion

Sex and the city (of Rome). A conclusion

Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510), an Italian early Renaissance painter

The Birth of Venus (1486) by Sandro Botticelli, an Italian early Renaissance painter. Detail of Venus’ face. Click to enlarge a bit

Italian version

Amazing Continuities

In Notebook IV of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks we read an appreciation of Ernst Walser’s suggestion that, in order to better understand Italian Renaissance men, one should think of contemporary Italians (to a certain extent.)

We believe that, inversely, the same could be said of Italian Renaissance men. To better understand them one should think of the Ancients, namely the Greeks and the Romans (to a certain extent.)

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OK. But don’t we have a greater distance between contemporary Italians and the Ancients?

We do. Nonetheless there are amazing continuities, and these only interest us. Which are these continuities?

An Army of Don Juans

Narrowing our focus on the themes discussed in Sex and the city (of Rome) 1, 2, 3 and 4, we’ve just heard this sentence in a History Channel war documentary film:

“An army of Don Juans was about to land…”.

The film referred to an Italian military expedition sent by Mussolini somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Elvis Presley. Public domain

Now, I find this funny, and I am asking myself: is this the way many people from the English-speaking countries consider us? A bunch of Don Juans lol?  I know it was perhaps a boutade but if this is even just partly true, what is the reason for that?

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Other associations in fact arise.

Why Latin folks are considered sensual (or sensualists) by many people in the United States and in the UK?
Why Casanova was Italian and Don Juan Spanish? And why all American women went crazy for Elvis Presley (or even more for Rodolfo Valentino) who came from the south of the USA, an area marked by some Spanish & French influence ? Was it only because he was just handsome and his voice great?

Now the BIG question: is it possible we’re facing here some of those long-period permanences or survivals French historian Fernand Braudel built his historical method upon?

I mean, aren’t we dealing here with remnants of ‘alien’, pre-Christian, ways of living one’s sexuality?

Isn’t this what is so seductive, though felt as sinful and almost amoral, but, for this same reason, irresistible?

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It is not our intent to exhaust (or to applaud) the phenomenon of Don Juanism, a complicated topic with a few unpleasant aspects (you might like this post on Julius Caesar’s Don Juanism). No self-indulgence here, pls, all we care about being the possible survivals of a far away past.

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Let us thus continue with our associative questions.

Amoral Pagans

Venus of Urbino (Venere di Urbino) by Titian, painted in 1538.

Venus of Urbino (Venere di Urbino) by Titian, painted in 1538. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence. Click for a much better and larger picture

How come the North Europeans who came down to Rome during the Renaissance were both spellbound and disgusted?

Is it because they perceived the Christian religion was not taken seriously by the Romans and by the Italians of that time?

Can’t it be this was due to the fact that most of these Northern people started to be really civilised only with the spread of Christianity, eg with Christianisation, while we were already civilised one thousand years earlier?
[highly civilized during ancient Roman times: Italian Renaissance didn't come out of a desert, read a moving page here]

Can’t it be that they are the true Christians (culturally, at least, so no matter if believers or not) while in us paganism (and behaviours attached to it) has left some (or many) traces?
[ See an overview of the MoR's blog main themes]

Sandro Botticelli. Portrait of a Young Woman: 1480-85

Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510), painter of the Florentine school. Portrait of a Young Woman: 1480-85. Click for credits and for other paintings by Botticelli

Can’t it be the reason (I am obsessive, I know) why the Christian religion was here felt mainly as a political thing, eg a way of governing the minds and the spirits of men, in ways not dissimilar to when ancient Rome was governor of nations?

Why our cardinals and even numerous Popes had lovers? Why the great Polish Pope (who surely had no lovers) was appreciated more by the big politicians of the planet (who flocked to his funeral) and less by the spiritual gurus of our time?

[Today the Vatican is perceived as a political – more than a spiritual – institution, I don't have many doubts about it; even in Germany the Dalai Lama is more popular - 44% - than the German Pope Benedict XVI - 42% -, data emerged from a poll published by Der Spiegel in July 2007]

Why in the end many British and American historians, when discussing the Italian Renaissance, show(ed) until recently some kind of moral repulsion?

Saint Peter Cathedral in Rome. Public domain

Let us therefore listen to the words of Preserved Smith, an American historian of the Middle Ages, who wrote the Renaissance entry in the 1956 edition of the Britannica:

“A succession of worldly pontiffs brought the Church into flagrant discord with the principles of Christianity. Steeped in pagan learning, desirous of imitating the manners of the ancients, thinking and feeling in harmony with Ovid and Theocritus, and, at the same time rendered cynical by the corruption of papal Rome, the [Italian] educated classes lost their grasp upon morality …”

“The Christian virtues were scorned by the foremost actors and the ablest thinkers of the time … The Church saw no danger in encouraging a pseudo-pagan ideal of life, violating its own principle of existence … and outraging Christendom openly by its acts and utterances.”

Italian society – Preserved Smith continues – was hardly aware that the New Learning it had mostly contributed to create had provoked “an intellectual force of stupendous magnitude and incalculable explosive power …”. His conclusion is beautiful (though tragic for us):

“Why should not [Italian] established institutions proceed upon the customary and convenient methods of routine, while the delights of existence were augmented, manners polished, arts developed and a golden age of epicurean ease made decent by a state religion which no one cared to break with because no one was left to regard it seriously? This was the attitude of the Italians when the Renaissance, which they had initiated as a thing of beauty, began to operate as a thing of power beyond the Alps”.

Madonna and child by Raphael, Italian High renaissance. Public domain

And in fact Italy was soon to be colonised by that same ‘power’ she had mostly contributed to bring into being.

[Speaking of paganism, Gramsci argues in that same Notebook IV: “There is no doubt that Italian religious feelings are superficial, as there is no doubt that religion here has a character which is mainly political, of international hegemony"]

So it seems we are often considered amoral and not true Christians. Are we amoral? Are we not true Christians? Are we decadent, rotten? Or maybe someone is simply not fully capable of understanding us?

Life with no Pang of Conscience

Sandro Botticelli. Magnificat Madonna. Uffizzi, Florence. Religious and non religious themes alike were painted with eroticism. Click to zoom in

Sandro Botticelli’s Magnificat Madonna. Uffizzi, Florence. Religious and non religious themes alike were painted with eroticism. Click to zoom in

I will finish this draft conclusion of Sex and the city (of Rome) with this interesting passage written by a British historian, C. P. Rodocanachi (of Greek descent, probably), and dedicated to what he considers a potent factor of the Greek miracle (Athens and the Greek Miracle, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1948).

This text sheds light in our view on the Greek mind and, to a certain extent, on the Roman mind, plus on some aspects of Italian Renaissance men as well:

Absence of conflicts of conscience: the Greeks were quit “of this inhibiting and agonizing struggle. Their morals were civic and not religious. Their sense of duty was directed exclusively to the city … They knew nothing of the Christian idea of good faith, of intentions conditioning acts in such a manner that the most law-abiding citizen may feel himself a great criminal at heart …”

“[They] may be considered as being intrinsically amoral and this very amorality was a powerful constituent of balance of mind which they could never have attained if their conscience had been torn, as ours is, between the conflicting forces of good and evil, virtue and vice, pleasure and sin.”

They could enjoy beauty, taste the delights of life without a pang of conscience. So long as they were faithful to the laws and interests of the city they had no damnation to fear, either in this world or the next.”

Botticelli. Youth

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Related posts:

Pre-Christian Rome lives (where this movie by Fellini reveals papal Rome’s pagan nature)

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 2

Sex and the city (of Rome) 3
Sex and the city (of Rome) 4


“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna (comments section)

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

PS. I had to erase a few insulting comments to this post. They were written by some commentators from the UK. I ask for pardon if I have offended somebody, it was not my aim, really.

My style is sometimes aggressive but I am fond of the British people. I wouldn’t have toiled so much to learn their language decently enough.

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The main idea behind this post is the fact (an historical fact, no doubt) that the people from the Italian peninsula (and elsewhere) were civilized long before Christianity arrived.

By civilization we refer to something distinguished from culture (see a discussion on it) for the reason of a higher level of complexity, a larger geographic locus, the presence of sophisticated urbanisation etc.

This fact, the existence of a pre-Christian high-level civilization – the Greco-Roman – may have engendered cultural differences (alive yet today) vis-a-vis  cultures who mostly reached a ‘fully civilized’ stage together with (and thanks to) Christianity.

Such differences may regard survivals of the Roman religion in Italy and elsewhere – traces which scholars recognize and which Protestants, it is known, always tried to eradicate. They may also regard, why not, sexual behaviours as well.

Did scholars research on these difference? If so, how far they went? We do not know, our research on roman-ness being a knowledge journey.

See the comments area for further information.

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As for the expansion of the Greco-Roman ‘civilization’ toward North-West Europe:

Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When North-West Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)

 

Saw Bacchus in Wenzhou

Chinese Meal. Fair use

A few days ago our bunch of friends decided to have a Chinese dinner at our home. Everyone loves Chinese cooking. This food is of course not a novelty any more even here, but since while getting better it keeps being incredibly cheap, we still eat it a lot and like it (a lot.)

Advised by the youngest of us all I therefore went to this Chinese restaurant close by, located at the end of Via Cavour, not far from Via dei Fori Imperiali. I ordered a take-away meal for 8. I had never been there before. Wow was I surprised by the place and by the people!

The restaurant was elegant enough. I admired the professionalism, dynamism and hard working style that reigned in the place, everybody being so serious and dedicated.

A big family clan, I believe, with all ages being present: male teenagers serving tables; middle-aged women organising, calculating, pinning small sheets of purple paper to the wall; young sweet-looking women serving too, clad in traditional silk dresses with fine motifs on them; a man who I think was the husband of one of the older women and apparently the boss; the eldest woman finally, white-haired, the grandmother definitely, who worked hard at the counter despite her age, so incredibly attentive to all that happened and typing the bills on the counter keys with solemn vigour.

I smiled at her and she smiled back. Romans are good-natured but they have some difficulty in understanding such closed-up and reserved people who nonetheless, when they feel one doesn’t perceive them as aliens, quickly respond. I told her I had a few friends from China and asked her what town they came from, what type of Chinese language they spoke, whether their language was Cantonese- or Mandarin-related. She said that their speech was related to none of them, that it was an entirely different language. The way she said it revealed she enjoyed answering to me even though it was not apparent (although I felt it clearly.)

She then said they all came from Wenzhou, which (I later learned) is a town in the south-eastern Zhejiang province residing “on the Ou Jiang delta, with picturesque buildings and surroundings. The port (…) very active in the 19th century (tea export) was later used for fishing only” (La Piccola Treccani). Thence the emigration to foreign countries of large portions of these active people with “a reputation for being an enterprising folk who starts restaurants, retail and wholesale businesses in their adopted countries.”

Wenzhou. Such a difficult word I remember only because the guy got close – the one I thought to be the boss – and was so pleased to write it down for me, and he asked me if I was a real Roman, and I said yes, I am a real Roman, and after a while I realised ALL of them suddenly knew this Roman had an interest in them. They sort of suddenly knew I was sympathetic.

Mifu’s Chinese calligraphy. Public Domain

Someone probably overhearing the said conversation and exchanging quick Chinese whispers they all were immediately aware of everything getting immediately hidden-attentive, hidden-agreeable, while two young men prayed me several times to please sit down while waiting for my package (till I finally accepted) and offered me gratis this unbelievable Chinese H-bomb liquor (of which I drank two shots.)

I felt this quasi imperceptible attention, these good vibes in the air despite their not showing it much. Chinese people are delicate, steel-strong, intelligent and – I must gather – telepathic, while most of the people here consider them a totally indecipherable marble-faced folk – funnier than stone-faced, it is a joke I have with some Hong Kong IT students: I tease them, they tease me back.

Oh such a lovely lovely evening it was! My fantasy was flying high, this nitro-glycerine booze being not totally guiltless.

And then – like a sudden cool breeze coming from nowhere … I looking at the paintings around … looking at the smiling faces around – I clearly felt like the presence of a God as my sight began to blur …

Bacchus-Dionysos. Louvre. Public Domain

At home our Chinese dinner was a success. It went on and on as only Roman dinners can go (for hours,) mixing both Chinese and Italian dishes washed down with an icy Italian white this time though, a tuscan Galestro not at all bad.

I didn’t bring any of the Chinese H-bomb though (meeting Gods too often can be a problem beyond a doubt.) I in fact know I owe that stuff a brief, intense encounter with Bacchus-Dionysus (son of Semele and Jupiter) in that Wenzhou restaurant and in the cool open air outside, a place right at the border of the ancient Roman Subura.

While actually my sight slightly blurred within the restaurant I remember I was gently given my take-away meal.

Bacchus-Dionysus. Louvre. Face. Public Domain

Moments later I was driving back home with my motorbike, winding and winding like a crazy birdie, fresh crisp air on my ecstatic face.

Rome, the eternal loose woman, imperial, magnificent, was smiling all around.

Colosseum. Fair use

Italian version
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