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

Is the Human Mind like a Museum?

As for the human mind, I’ve often thought about the metaphor of the museum.

Our mind, one of the functions of our brain ‘and other parts of our body’ (Sledpress’ objection I found interesting,) contains and allows that we manifest the infinite traces of our past (past conceptions, language, behaviours) from Stone Age or earlier onwards. Evolution enters the equation, but we will leave it alone for now.

Whatever world region we are from, we should be concerned about probing such repository I believe, that is our roots or cultural ID.

Language is an important portion of this ID. What a great digging tool for example etymology is, ie history of words (shown a bit in our previous post, see a good on-line tool) although lots of things are there well beyond words (see points I and IV below.)

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A few examples, to better understand.

(Italian-mind related, but they could hopefully work as a method example to different minds as well)

I. The Greek fear in gods’ envy, yet present in South Italy and Greece:

“Not long ago my friend Mario took me for a drive on his stupendous vintage 1960 Lancia Flavia (see image below.) Mario is from Naples, a South Italian city founded by the Greeks in the 8th cent. BCE.

On the way back I exclaimed merrily: ‘Diavolo, this car is a gem, it has rolled as smoothly as olive oil!’

Mario snapped with a worried look: “Hush! hush! Don’t you say that!”

I well knew what he meant:

“Oh please you shut the hell up! Do you want the car to break down or anything bad to happen to us?” as if the mere utterance of happiness would attract ill luck or the envy from someone … Well, the envy from whom?

(read more).

The ancient classical Greeks (V cent. BCE) believed their gods lived an eternal blissful life and envied men too prosperous that dared to get close to their happiness. They then humbled and punished them. That ‘too prosperous’ means it was excess and arrogance (ὕβρις) that was basically abhorred by the Olympian gods, which made people afraid of showing their happiness, or of being arrogant. It was like a socio-religious regulation valve, plus a factor without a doubt of the mostly upper-class (tho not exclusively) marvellous ‘5th cent. BC’ Greek perfect equilibrium.

Polycrates tyrant of Samos (where Pythagoras was born by the way) led a too prosperous and arrogant life. Horrible was then his death, Herodotus notes

Now, 2400 years later (!) people in Southern Italy and Greece are still afraid of expressing satisfaction when things are going WELL, lest ‘something’ might spot them and whack them.

Such a great item in their museum mind allow me to say!!

(read more)


II.
Phrases and the Wheel related to the Roman Goddess Fortuna:

  • A personification of Goddess Fortuna (“they invoked their fortune”) seen as something capricious (“the tricks of fortune”) is deeply impressed in modern Western minds and language;
  • The wheel of fortune also used in many popular TV shows is a survival of the goddess, often represented with a wheel at her side (read more)
Spectacular remnants of the Sanctuary to the goddess Fortuna Primigenia in Palestrina (ancient Praeneste), located just a few miles from Rome

III. When we say ‘deep in my heartor ‘she / he broke my heart’ we refer to a scientific superseded idea that the heart, and not the brain, is the seat of emotions. The Stoics saw in the heart the seat of the soul, Aristotle the seat of reason and emotion, the Roman physician Galenus the seat of emotions etc.


IV.
The Roman laughter

“Flavia’s ancient Roman laughter is heard in the room. It is loud, slightly crass, as it should be and as I hope it will ever ever be in the future, somewhat like a sympathetic, warm BIG HUG to the world.”
(from How To Learn Greek and Latin (2). Some Inspiration From Penates etc)

Another great mind item this laughter – I must record it some day – that belongs to the modern Roman mind, certainly not to the Greek one, modern or non modern.

Update
. Here is a sample of such laughter. Click on these words to listen to it: Marina’s (and MoR’s) laughter.

In short, before more details if you will

The γνῶθι σεαυτόν aphorism adapted to our 'museum' concept

There’s like a huge messy archive in our head so stuffed with things that just beg to be organized a bit and come to light.

Let’s get it all out dear readers. With meditation, concentration and fertile idea-exchanging let us make that inventory my good old Mentor used to mention us when we were so young.

As for my own cultural ID, I am trying to dig a bit with the present blog.

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[see in-depth details from our posts. Skip the first section – similar to the above writing – and start reading from Socrates’ T-shirt big face onwards – like the one above]

Related posts:

Fighting with Grandpa’s tomes. My Parents’ Marriage & the Roman Laughter

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

Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye

Not long ago my friend Mario took me for a drive on his stupendous vintage Lancia Flavia 1500. Although now living in Rome Mario is from Naples, one of the biggest towns of the Italian Mezzogiorno, and he is so proud of his gioiello (jewel) which he seems to care for more than he does for his wife and children.

The trip had been great, the green and smiling countryside north of Rome had shown so sunny and refreshing, and our glowing Lancia had well behaved so far despite its age (1960).

On the way back to Rome along the via Flaminia I exclaimed merrily:

Diavolo, this car is a gem, it has rolled as smoothly as olive oil and we didn’t have any problem during the whole drive.”

Mario snapped with a worried look:

Zitto zitto non lo dire! (hush! hush! don’t you say that!).” He didn’t add much but I knew what he meant:

“Oh you shut the hell up! Do you want the car to break down? Do you want anything bad to happen to us?” as if the mere utterance of happiness would attract us ill luck or the envy from someone.

Well, the envy from whom?

Ψ

A good answer is provided by the modern Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. When he was very young he once went travelling all over Italy. When he got to Florence (see image above) he felt so happy in front of all those palaces, statues and paintings that he felt that the rights of the humans were somewhat overstepped. As a young and superstitious provincial – he writes in his autobiography – he was terror-stricken for “as I well knew, the gods are envious creatures, and it is hubris to be happy and to know that you are happy.”

So, in order to counterbalance such blissful state of mind, he bought a pair of narrow shoes he wore in the morning and which made him miserable and “hopping about like a crow.” He then changed shoes in the afternoon so he could walk weightlessly and thus vent all his joy. He strode along the banks of the Arno river, he went up to San Miniato etc. but the next morning he went back to his narrow shoes (and to his misery again).

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More than 23 centuries before Kazantzakis’s trip to Italy, the Greek Herodotus, the first historian of the Western world, wrote about a man extremely fortunate who got everything from life and who was tyrant of Samos, a beautiful island of the Greek archipelago (see a picture by Nasa above). His name was Polycrates and he was so fortunate and his wealth and power so great that one day his friend Amasis, pharaoh of Egypt, wrote him a letter saying:

“Beware Polycrates: such fortune being not allowed to humans, get rid of whatever is most precious and dear to you in order to escape from gods’ wrath.”

Hit by fear and understanding that the pharaoh’s suggestion was wise Polycrates began reflecting on the things he possessed that were the most beautiful, precious and dear to him and among them he chose a stupendous ring with an emerald set in gold he was always wearing day and night. He then went on board of a ship and ordered the sailors put out into the open sea. Once far away from his island he took the ring from his finger and threw it away into the deep.

What happened is that some time afterwards a fisherman caught such a big fish he thought it deserved to be given as a present to the Lord of Samos. He thus brought the fish to the palace and when the servants cut the fish open they saw it contained a beautiful ring and brought it to the tyrant.

Polycrates much to his horror recognizing the ring finally understood that the envious gods had something in store for him.

After a few years he was captured with guile by the Persian governor of Sardis, Oroetes.

His life had been happy and glorious. Ignominious and horrible happened to be his death. Oroetes had him impaled and then crucified.

PS
The next post, Knowing Thyself, connects the three episodes and provides the reader with some explanation regarding Greek gods’ envy.