I met a blogger in the flesh a few days ago, Nita, journalist, writer and author of A wide angle view of India, one of the most successful blogs in WordPress, now on a hiatus. Touring Europe with her husband Anil, Nita was spending a few days in Rome.
I so invited them for dinner at our home, where they met my family, my wife and our two daughters, and where we spent two delightful hours together. One of my daughters had recently been to Mumbai for work and vacation and Nita had been so kind to provide her with useful information about the city. We tried to prepare a good meal since Nita had said they were eager to experience a real home-made Italian food and loved pasta.
One daughter – the one who went to Mumbai – was busy but popped up to meet Nita and Anil. The other daughter, who has never been to India but is pricking her ears up in new directions since her sister’s trip, was with us the whole evening and enjoyed the company quite a lot.
“We need more engineers than we actually have in India” said Nita to her. “We’ve got to build new cities.” Which of course captured my daughter’s imagination.
Conversing with a blogger face to face may be strange at first but all was very natural, as if we had known each other since a long time, which in some way is true. I had frequented Nita’s blog for quite a while, a gold mine of information on Indian matters. The themes proposed and the discussions around them among Indians and non Indians (so many commentators!) were terribly enlightening and instructive.
Nita and Amil are warm, educated, open minded people. Nita is outspoken at times and may make her points with intensity of feelings. “Something I have in common with my father” she said. I had noticed this while reading her blog and I was on the whole surprised to recognize some of Nita’s patterns of discussion during our dinner conversation. Virtuality and reality are not that far after all.
We all had no problem of cultural communication, being part of the same global space, and yet being true Italians from Rome and they true Indians from Mumbai. I believe that globalization, far from necessarily destroying cultural diversity, may create like a bridge that allows exchange between the local cultures, which are the most interesting part of it all, beyond a doubt. We had a good time because of the Indian-Italian connection, not because we were part of a globalized world, that’s for sure.
Curiously, and speaking of globalization, Anil worked many years for the same multinational company my daughter is working for at the moment in Rome.
A very pleasurable evening and experience. Thank you dear Nita and Anil!
Rewriting a bit in my mother tongue, since after more than three years of blogging in English I am starting to look for words when I speak in Italian. English-speaking readers may use an automatic translator if they will.
Riscrivere un poco nella lingua madre perché dopo più di tre anni di blog in inglese quando parlo in italiano cominciano a mancarmi le parole. I lettori di lingua inglese possono usare un traduttore automatico se vogliono.
Incontrai tempo fa in aereo un tizio di Trieste che era stato anche assessore della città per alcuni anni e con il quale instaurai una di quelle amicizie intense che nascono (e muoiono) nello spazio di un’ora. Mi disse che la sua vita cambiò dopo aver avuto due infarti.
“A brush with death always helps us to live our lives better”. L’avevo appuntato nel mio diario ma non so più chi l’ha scritto. Tradotto liberamente: quando la morte ti sfiora ti aiuta sempre a vivere meglio.
In fondo, e lo dico senza alcuno spirito macabro e in tutta serenità, quest’ultima fase della vita dovrebbe essere tutta un ‘brush with death’, il che dovrebbe renderla la più preziosa di tutte, giorno per giorno, accorgendoci di quanto è bello ciò che stiamo per lasciare, per cui molte preoccupazioni di fronte a una tale prospettiva dovrebbe scomparire, o attenuarsi di molto.
Dovrebbero. Ma quasi sempre non è così. It doesn’t work that way most of the time.
Ecco che forse può giovare dirigere, quasi spingere, la mente verso pensieri del genere, come quando cerchiamo di recitare versi o parole che danno forza.
As we wrote at the end of part 1 Roman polytheism based on a “departmental idea of divinity” – ie on specific deities helping people in specific aspects of human life – seems to survive today in the veneration of saints.
Nothing provides a more vivid idea of such polytheistic survivals than the lists of patron saints and their respective areas of patronage.
Patron saints are special saints who intercede to God for us in certain life situations. They are such either by the will of the Pontiff or by tradition.
A couple of these lists (for almost-once-century-ago Spanish and Italian peasants) I had seen in Gordon J. Laing’s Survivals of Roman Religion book (1931), which is guiding us a bit in this journey.
So revealing such lists looked to me that I searched around the web for more up-to-date catalogues.
Well, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Today’s saints’ lists appear even richer and incredibly detailed!
Here just a fraction of what you can find at SQPN.
Animals. Apart from saints protecting cities and countries [for ex. Agatha is patron saint of Catania – see the image at the posting header -; or Gennaro, of Naples, see above] there are saints protecting against dog bites (Walburga, Hubert of Liege), snakes (Paul the Apostle), bees (Ambrose of Milan, Bernard of Clairvaux); or protecting cattle (Brigid of Ireland, Nicostratus), dogs (Rocco, Vitus), poultry farmers (Brigid of Ireland), salmons (Kentigern) and even swans and whales (Hugh of Lincoln and Brendan the Navigator respectively).
Education. There are saints for teachers (Cassian of Imola, Catherine of Alexandria, Francis de Sales, Ursula, Gregory the Great) and there are saints for students (Albert the Great, Isidore of Seville, Jerome, Ursula, Thomas Aquinas).
There is even a saint for test takers (!), Joseph of Cupertino.
Health. Any health problem has its specific protectors: angina pectoris (Swithbert), arthritis (Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Colman, James the Greater, Killian, Totnan), autism (Ubaldus Baldassini), hangovers (Bibiana), headache (Acacius, Anastasius the Persian, Aurelius of Riditio, Bibiana, Hugh of Grenoble, Teresa of Avila), breast cancer (Agatha of Sicily, Aldegundis, Giles), diabetes (Paulina do Coração Agonizante de Jesus), depression (Amabilis, Bertha of Avenay, Bibiana, Dymphna, Moloc of Mortlach), epilepsy (Alban of Mainz, Balthasar, John Chrysostom, Valentine of Rome), lunacy (Alban of Mainz, Balthasar, John Chrysostom, Vitus, Willibrord of Echternach) and so on.
There are saints for AIDS care-givers (Aloysius Gonzaga) and saints for AIDS patients (Aloysius Gonzaga, Peregrine Laziosi, Therese of Lisieux).
Family. Difficult marriages are taken care of (so many protectors, I’ll just mention Catherine of Genoa, Dorothy of Montau, Edward the Confessor, Philip Howard, Thomas More, Radegunde) and so are divorced people (Fabiola, Guntramnus, Helena). We have saints for childless couples (Anne Line, Catherine of Genoa, Henry II, Julian the Hospitaller), for unmarried men and unmarried women, plus those who protect against the death of children, the death of fathers, of mothers, of both parents; saints against spouse abuse, incest, abortion and so forth.
If This Was Polytheism, Why Was It Tolerated?
As Ernest Renan (1823 – 1892), French philosopher and writer, once observed:
Every person “who prays to a particular saint for a cure for his horse or ox or drops a coin into the box of a miraculous chapel is in that act pagan. He is responding to the prompting of a religious feeling that is older than Christianity …” [quote from Laing’s book]
If this is even partly true why the leaders of Christianity, who certainly disliked polytheism, allowed such survivals of the older religions?
Polytheism (of any kind, not only ancient Roman) was probably too ingrained a religious attitude for Christianity to be able to root it out. So certain doses of syncretism (ie combinations, compromises) were the price the founders of Christianity had probably to pay in order to Christianize the unsophisticated pagi (ie rural districts of the former empire, thence the term paganus, pagan), together with the folks in the far outposts of the Roman world or right outside it.
[See a comment by Lichanos on this point. As for pagans as rural people, the word ‘heathen’ in English is probably a derivative of Goth haiþi ‘dwelling on the heath’: see the Etymology dictionary; and German Heide indicates both ‘pagan’ and ‘heath’]
“It may be that the founders of Christianity – argues Gordon J. Laing – found that the belief of the people especially the illiterate class in these specialized spirits of minor grade was one of their greatest problems. They recognized the people’s predilection for spirits that would help in specific situations, and they realized also that the masses felt more at home with beings who, while of divine nature or associations, were not too far removed from the human level.
They were keenly interested in winning the pagans to the faith and they succeeded. But undoubtedly one element in their success was the inclusion in their system of the doctrine of the veneration of Saints.”
Veneration and Worship
Now veneration and worship are considered differently by the Church. Veneration is a lesser-degree adoration, while worship is due to God alone.
[Veneration of saints is accepted today, as far as I know, not only by the Catholic Church but also by the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church and the Lutherans. Some of the saints mentioned above might belong to those churches too, hard for me to say]
Gordon J. Laing observed in 1931:
“The Church has never taught the worship of Saints […] but whether the peasants of southern Italy and other parts of Europe distinguish with any degree of precision between veneration and worship is another question. It is not likely that they do, and for those who are looking for evidence of the continuance of the creative power of Roman religion, the beliefs of the illiterate are of as much importance as the formulated doctrines of the Church. Our subject is not survivals of paganism in the modern Church but survivals in modern times.”
Roman Pompa vs San Gennaro’s Procession
We will finish our posting with a fascinating passage by Gordon J. Laing:
“The similarity in attitude of mind of pagan and Christian devotees and the survival of the polytheistic idea in modern times may be seen in a comparison of the behavior of the people who watched the procession which preceded the circus games in ancient Rome [pompa circensis was a grand procession before the games: read a description at LacusCurtius,MoR] and that of the crowd which fills the streets of Naples today on the occasion of the festival held in May in honor of San Gennaro [Saint Januarius,] the patron saint of the city.
In the old Roman procession a conspicuous place was given to the images of the gods that were borne along in floats; and as they were carried past, pious Romans called upon the names of those whom they regarded as their special protectors.
So too at the Naples festival. In the procession referred to the images of many Saints, each of them with his own place in the affections of the Neapolitan proletariat, are carried from the Cathedral to the Church of Santa Chiara. Saints of all centuries are there, some of whom attained the dignity hundreds of years ago, while others are more recent creations. As the procession moves along, persons in the crowd call out the name of their patron Saint, and when the image of San Biagio, a sort of Christian Aesculapius with special powers in diseases of the throat, passes by, the Neapolitan mothers hold up their croupy bambini and implore a remedy.”
[Note. Patron saints remind also of the practice of patronage in ancient Rome (see our post on Ancient patronage and clientage,) since beyond a doubt between the believer and the saint – exactly like between patrons and clients – there is like a sort of exchange: prayers and offers in exchange of favour and protection in certain areas of life.]
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.
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.
“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]
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.
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.