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Crossing the Sacred Threshold: The Gods of Small Things
I am a Latin teacher currently (and laboriously) working my way toward a PhD in Classics. I read a lot of Latin texts (in Latin and usually with quite a bit of cussing along the way as I attempt to untangle classical Latin syntax). Fortunately, for the most part, I enjoy this and one of the tangential elements that I find particularly satisfying in my studies is occasionally coming across an interesting reference to ancient Roman [polytheistic] religion along the way. It happens a lot and for all that I am Heathen, not a practitioner of Religio Romana, I find that every time I read about how a man or woman, raised in Roman culture, steeped in its religion honored his or her Gods, I find my own practices enriched.
When I started in Classics I was told (by a PhD candidate) that no one really understands Roman religion. I admit to being a bit taken aback. It always made perfect sense to me: honor your ancestors, honor the living spirit of your city, its genus loci, maintain the proper household and public rituals, and live in a world where everything has its spirit, everything is alive. It made perfect sense to me and I’ll tell you why: for all of their diversity, polytheistic religions – which are indigenous religions-- seem, in my opinion, to share a common thread, one quite alien to monotheistic thought; that common thread is rooted not just in a polytheistic and by extension pluralistic worldview, but in one that is, to greater or lesser degree, animist.
Animism is the worldview/belief/understanding that every living thing is possessed of a spirit. Thus, I once wrote an article about honoring the spirit of one’s computer—can you think of any more important ally today for someone who spends 90% of her time writing?--, and I respect the spirit of my car, and I look to the trees on my property and the stones, and my house itself as being alive and aware. Every thing and every place is a being. The entire world is alive and we as humans are part of that living web.
In Roman religion, this translated into a plethora of what I have occasionally heard referred to as “small Gods.” I’m not sure how any Holy Being can be “small” when compared to a human being, but I’ll let that go for now. Academia is only starting to open its eyes to the validity not only of Paganisms and polytheisms, but of indigenous religion as a whole. It’s a work in progress and let’s just say there’s one hell of a learning curve still to go.
Anyway, what is meant by “small Gods”? (Most academics, by the way, wouldn’t capitalize the G in any God but Jehovah. Just last week I was sitting in a translation class and a student, upon translating the word ‘deus’, which means God and in the case of this particular translation referred to Jupiter, actually said “God with a small g.” Christian indoctrination and bias dies hard, even in little things like spelling conventions and even amongst people who should know better. Those conventions, by the way are important: they shape our thought and unconsciously impact the respect we give to certain things. But again, I digress.
As to ‘small Gods,’ no less a personage than Augustine of Hippo railed against the many ‘small Gods’ that filled the Roman pantheon. In his “The City of God – Against the Pagans” he mocks Roman Paganism for precisely this and thus, perhaps, we see one aspect of the start of the arrogance of the colonizer (for I believe Christian conversion was a process of mental and spiritual colonization and then, quite clearly, of physical aggression and colonization) in its condescension and dismissal of indigenous religions. Augustine had not been raised a Christian. He had converted and brought into his writing all the fundamentalist zeal of the convert. Quoting a Pagan apologist Porphyry, he comments that the worst demons (i.e. Gods) are the ones considered (by Porphyry) to be very minor. So watch out. These “little Gods” apparently pack a big punch in Augustine’s world. Well, I guess even an impious fool gets something right on occasion, because these Gods do pack a rather big wallop spiritually. Or They can should They so choose.
I suppose I still haven’t answered the question of what a “small” Roman God looks like so I shall do that now without further delay. My impression from everything that I’ve read is that by ‘small,’ Augustine and Porphyry before him were talking about Deities whose scope of interest is relatively narrow. (Porphyry of course, was not condemning these Holy Beings in his writing.) Romans were very precise linguistically and they were precise in their devotions. They had their Olympians, of course – Jupiter, Juno, Venus, Minerva, Vesta, Mars, et Al.; they had their household Gods (ancestor shrine I suspect from descriptions as well as a place to honor the genus loci of a house): the lares and penates; they had a cultus for Roma and She had Her shrine in the heart of Rome; they had sylvan spirits and nymphs and fawns and nature spirits of every sort; imperial Rome had their emperor cultus—ancestor veneration on a state wide scale; and they had many other Gods and Goddesses whose area of expertise was fairly narrow.
For instance, there’s the Goddess Cardea. She’s the goddess of door-hinges. Apparently, She worked in tandem with the Gods Forculus (God of doorways) and Limentinus (God of the threshold). Sounds pretty unimportant, right? Perhaps, until one considers the physical, esoteric, and allegorical importance of doorways, locks, bolts, and freedom (or not) to cross a threshold; then She’s not so unimportant after all! In some religions, the God that guards the threshold, the God that guards the doorway and opens or closes doors (which would be dependent on a hinge, people), is honored before all others and is considered of supreme importance. Nothing, not blessing nor bane gets through to the devotee without this Deity’s ok.
There’s some evidence that Cardea may have been associated with the earth’s axis, celestial cycles, and cosmic order…but She was a ‘small’ Goddess. Given the potential scope of Her office, I’d say that – with all due respect—far from being ‘small,’ She has Her hands more than full!
Then there’s my absolute favorite of the Roman Gods: Sterculinus. He is the God of sh*t. Yep. You read that rightly: Sterculinus is the God of doing useful things with sh*t. Now, ancient Romans likely meant the creation and use of fertilizer for agriculture but I like to look at Him as a God of dealing with bullsh*t, after all, being Heathen, I see an awful lot of that. My colleague P. Sufenus Phillipus Lupus wrote a several delightful articles on Sterculinus (which were in fact my introduction to Him), of which one may be found here: http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com/2010/10/06/translating-sterculinus/. Need I add that Romans, being a nation rooted in a certain military sensibility were very practical, even in religion?
I read about – and occasionally make offerings to—these Gods and it makes me think what knowledge, what awareness and understanding of our world we, as 21th century Heathens, have lost. The battle for Christian ideological supremacy had been largely won by the time what passes for our ‘lore’ was written down and Christian monks, scholars, and theologians no longer spent time arguing about the supposed demonic nature of “small Gods.” They didn’t mention Gods like that at all. They barely mentioned the “Big” Ones and then, I suspect, only because cultural literacy demanded it. For every sacred story that has come down to us –however imperfectly—I have to ask: what was lost? I’m forced to conclude: a terrible amount.
Did we too once have our bevy of “small Gods” whose names have now been lost to Christian conquest? Personally, I think yes. We already know there were regional Gods like Tamfana – Goddess of a river (all we know, thanks to a Roman who was serving in Gaul who made an inscribed offering) in Germany. If the names of Deities who had their own shrines and temples (as we know from the aforementioned inscription Tamfana did) barely survived mention, what about Gods of the threshold, Gods of …I don’t know, waste, windows, the kindling of flame, and other seemingly small but essential aspects of living?
Every time I read about Roman veneration, I am reminded again that we as Heathens need to re-sanctify our world. It’s not enough to reconstruct. Somewhere in between honoring our ancestors and honoring the “Big Gods” like Odin, Thor, Frigga, and Freya, we need to bring back the “little Gods” too. They’re there. I’m sure of it. We have only to relearn the awareness of place that our ancestors had. It is our birthright. It is the thing that was once common to nearly every indigenous polytheism, ours too. There is no reason to believe that the pre-Christian religions of Northern Europe differed in this respect unless one buys in to Christian polemic that paints our polytheistic ancestors as primitive or foolish. I don’t. I think quite the opposite. I think our foremothers and forefathers had an exquisite awareness of the sacredness inherent in their world. I think that is what lay at the heart of their religion. The beating of that metaphysical heart was not something that required confinement in the pages of a ‘holy’ book; the entire world was holy. It was filled with sacred beings. I’ll tell you something else: it still is.
I think somewhere along the line as Christianity ravaged Europe we lost this sense and with it forgot about our Gods. Perhaps our ancestors had no choice---perhaps it was the only way to survive the ideological and religious aggression that would slaughter in the name of Christ rather than allow peaceful co-existence. What I do know, is that none of this needs to remain lost. We can reclaim it. Those Gods and Goddesses (large and small) and our ancestors are there for us. They are our memory keepers. They have access, direct access, to all the knowledge and wisdom that was torn from us during Christian conquest.
We can undo what was done. We can reclaim what was lost. So as we go about celebrating the seasonal holy tides, honoring our ancestors, and pouring out libations to the Aesir, Vanir, and perhaps the Jotnar, let’s not forget about the smaller beings that inhabit our world. They’re important too, most especially on a tangible, day to day basis. Let us learn to look for the breath and heartbeat of the sacred wherever it may be found…even if that place is in the squeaking of a door hinge.
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