Who are the gods?

Anyone who follows my journal regularly knows that I’ve spent quite a bit of time the past few weeks thinking about the problems of reviving the religio in a virtual state. Because I’m not entirely happy with the justifications given for reviving Rome in the incertus, I’ve spent a smaller amount of time looking for some other model for reviving the religio. Now, I want to spend some time thinking about the gods themselves.

By definition, the Roman gods are those whose worship was established at Rome at an early period, and who were not, as for example Isis, regarded as foreign gods. Most of the Roman gods originated among the Latins, others were originally Sabine and Etruscan gods. They were worshipped even before the birth of Rome in the larger society from which Rome emerged.

The most famous of these gods are the Dii Consentii, the 12 gods who correspond, more or less, to the Greek Olympians. The parallel is not a coincidence. At some point in the distant past, the Romans seem to have had a revolution that self-consciously transformed certain native gods by equating 12 of them to the Olympians and promoting them to primacy over the older agricultural gods.

The older agricultural gods were those who presided over the grain, irrigation, the fruits, and so on. These were the gods of the Roman landscape, with whom the agrarian Roman state had its first contract. In contrast, the Dii Consentii were universal gods. Both sets of gods were undoubtedly honored both communally by the state and privately by its citizens.

Another set of gods were those of hearth and home. Camillus makes much of the gods of hearth and home in his speech arguing that Rome should be rebuilt: “Surely it would be nobler to live like country shepherds amongst everything we hold sacred than to go into universal exile, deserting the gods of our hearths and homes.” (Livy, 5.54)

Finally, there were the ancestors. Here, my best information comes from Celetrus: “The Latins called the maleficent ghosts of the dead, Larvae, and called the beneficent or harmless ghosts, Lares, or Manes, or Genii, according to Apuleius. But all alike were gods,–dii-manes; and Cicero admonished his readers to render to all dii-manes the rightful worship: ‘They are men,’ he declared, ‘who have departed from this life;-consider them divine beings.’”

Shinto illustrates what must also have been true of the most ancient Romans. A quote sent by Celetrus: “Before the advent of Buddhism, there was no idea of a heaven or a hell. The ghosts of the departed were thought of as constant presences, needing propitiation, and able in some way to share the pleasures and the pains of the living. They required food and drink and light; and in return for these; they could confer benefits. Their bodies had melted into earth; but their spirit-power still lingered in the upper world, thrilled its substance, moved in its winds and waters. By death they had acquired mysterious force;–they had become ‘superior ones.’”

In short, the deceased became gods in the oldest Greek and Roman sense. M. de Coulanges observes, in La Cité Antique: “This kind of apotheosis was not the privilege of the great alone. no distinction was made. . . . It was not even necessary to have been a virtuous man: the wicked man became a god as well as the good man,–only that in this after-existence, he retained the evil inclinations of his former life.” (Quote provided by Celetrus.)

For a religio that must emphasize private rites, and perhaps communal rites, over the rites of a non-existent state, the understanding that the dead become gods is a key insight. It allows us to understand how it is that the religio developed from the private and communal rites of the patrician gentes. The original rites must have included ceremonies honoring the ancestors of the household (including perhaps Quirinus and Indiges), the spirits of hearth and home (who might originally have been the ancestors), and the forces of nature relevant to an agricultural society (who might have also had some connection to the ancestors, as for example Tiberinus, Faunus and Marica). The universal gods came later, and their cults blended with the original cults of the Romans.

In this, the religio differs only in its details from the larger picture we have pre-Christian Europe and of many other indigenous religions. Yet, I think that the emphasis in the religio has been so much on the gods of the Roman state that the fundamental connections to other cultures will surprise some.

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