In early February, columnist at Polytheist.com — Hélio Pires — submitted his latest article for the site, but it was miscategorized by my inbox and dropped in a junk folder. As such, I didn’t get it up until after returning from PantheaCon and finding out — thanks to the author’s prompt — that I’d missed it entirely. It went live on Feb. 29, a leap day in our calendar, and can be read here: “The Dead are Gods, Too“.
The article has stirred up some controversy, as well as some fantastic discussions, since its launch. It touches upon some sore subjects and names some controversial figures from history, in specific contexts, which I’ll get to below. The article has, for various reasons (some clear, some confusing) been misread in a confounding and frustrating number of ways, many of which are linked only by their ad-hominem attacks on the author, rather than by any agreed upon disconnect or disagreement. In other words, two parties might be engaging in personal attacks on the author and article, joined in solidarity and behaving as though they are in agreement, even when their personal readings of the article are literally the opposite of one another, and neither is accurate to what the author actually wrote. It is my intent here to try at clarifying some points around all of this, and also, explore some of the misreadings of the article in question, toward the purpose of critically engaged theological discourse and expansive exploration of meaning.
However, it is important to note the following, prior to further engagement:
- The article is, as the author points out, discussing specifically Roman Polytheistic Religion, and its theologies are derive from (and anchored clearly in) that specific tradition. Remember: polytheism is a category of religions, not a single tradition.
- The article is discussing spiritual traditions and concepts in a manner that is, so far as I and other learned scholars I’ve prodded can attest, historically accurate with regard to the religion of Ancient Roman polytheists, complete with Latin-language attestations and categories (“taxonomies” in my lingo) of spirits, deities, and so forth. In other words, the author isn’t presenting original ideas, but reporting on historical religious frameworks and facts.
- Touched upon centrally (and titularly) in the article is the religious veneration of the dead, a thing commonly referred to (in the US, in American English) as “ancestor work” or “ancestor veneration”. There is almost no subject in all of polytheism and spirit-work traditions more hotly contested and controversial than this, because it involves three things that are amongst the most difficult and emotionally charged for people to address:
- Any discipline and practice outside of the immediate frameworks and world-views of most of the people involved in these discussions, who are by and large White American converts to various spirit-and-deific traditions, coming from a background probably absent of focused and established continuity of engagement with ancestors and the dead in a religious fashion, outside of ghost-stories and grimoired occult evocations. People by and large resist concepts that they do not already understand conceptually or paradigmically, because people are by large intellectually insecure, and this position is reinforced in the growing anti-intellectual cult of ignorance throughout the Western world.
- Ancestor work means working with the dead, and our society is a thing which has divorced itself from meaningful understanding of or connection to death. This is a real thing. People by and large resist concepts that they do not already understand conceptually or paradigmically, because… well, see above.
- The dead are, by matter of linear thinking, from the past, and in the Western (secular, post-Humanist) framework this means that they are of the past as well. Meaning that they were, rather than they are; there is a (popular Western) disconnect which is critically damning in this, which is the lack of established and affirmed continuity of being after physical death, wherein non-linear frameworks must be established because suddenly “the dead” are not merely “ideas from the past” but “beings and agencies which exist alongside us in the present”, in one form or state or another. As a result of this fallacy, people establish and cement the idea of ancestor work in the past, and then proceed onward to note: the past fucking sucked, and was full of genocidal patriarchal rapist atrocities and savagery and anti-moral horrors, slavery, wanton slaughter and unrestrained violence against women, rampant and socially promoted pedophilia, and more. As such, people who lived in the past probably had some level of intersection with these bad things, probably universally, because we as a fucking species hadn’t yet invented morality in the framework that we have it now. My mother grew up playing with mercury smashed out of old thermometers, because they hadn’t yet discovered the atrocious effects that mercury could have, toxically speaking, on a person’s health and well-being; but it would be probably unkind of me to judge her intellectually for this. Anyway, here’s the thing: when discussing ancestor veneration and religious practices of this sort, we must adopt an understanding of “continuity of being” in order to even approach these concepts theologically, morally, or otherwise, because inevitably the questions will arise of how religious mechanics, theological frameworks, or cultic practices should treat — in individual cases — controversial, horrible, or conflictual past events and figures. It is a lot easier to just write-off the whole of history as fucked up and bad when we don’t still have to deal with the dead who lived through it, except that we do, and sometimes in a manner that is active and religious and that can be hard, because some of them really, really sucked. Also, people by and large resist concepts that… yeah. That.
- Commenters who are not versed in theologies, structured polytheistic religions, or the structural systems and frameworks of religious traditions which hold centrally to practices of ancestor veneration, probably shouldn’t decide to stand up on milk-crates in the village square to attack a writer who is writing on a subject which they do not have education or familiarity with, because in the history of scholastic and intellectually savvy discourse, this has never gone well. The controversial subjects touched on in the article are intentionally selected because they demonstrate the challenges faced in ancestor-veneration practices and theologies, and present a relatable (and controversial) model of how Ancient Romans regarded these matters within their polytheistic frameworks, because again, the author is reporting on historically accurate religious ideas and structures, not personal opinions or views.
It saddens me that this level of disclaimer and critical instruction is needed to read a fucking article, but, people by and large resist concepts, somewhat period, because concepts are hard and burdensome and stuff, I guess. But raise your fists in joined resist, I guess, because that’s what all the coolkids are doing… even when they’re not sure what they’re resisting. Who needs concepts, anyway? They’re just words, right? So frustratingly vague…
Ahem. Moving on…
To begin, here’s a preliminary statement as the guy behind the site: Hélio is one of my favorite polytheist writers, and I consider his work to be tremendously important, intellectually solid, and well thought out. I also don’t agree with it all the time, which is one of the things I love about Polytheist.com; it isn’t an echo-chamber of back-patting “attaboy” cool-clique dynamics. There is a diversity of views, expressions, levels and types of engagement, and so forth, and I appreciate the opportunity to disagree, sometimes fiercely, with somebody who I still respect and value.
Next, I’ll attempt to express some of my initial (personal) responses to the article’s supposition and terms…
Ahistorical (in terms of linguistic loans) as this may be, my own practices and distinctions look a bit like the following rough taxonomical sketch:
- All gods are deities, all deities are divinities, all divinities are spirits. Not all spirits are divinities, not all divinities are deities, and not all deities are gods.
This allows for both definition and elasticity; clarity without reduction, wiggle-room and flexibility without rigidity resulting in collapse. I utilize this set of distinctions not because I assume my mastery of language is better than anybody else’s, but because I am most often in the position of discussing these religious concepts at levels which are conversion-based, “untraditioned” (meaning with persons not/not-yet in established religious cultic trajectories), beginners, or folks with confusions because of the need to relearn things within a polytheistic and spirit-working and animist framework, coming out of something secular, monotheistic, strictly monist, dualist, or otherwise. I have chosen the metrics of meaning that I have specifically because they seem to be the most useful and effective for satisfying and resolving confusions both hypothetically and in the field, meaning engaging in “live” non-conceptual circumstances, for those who I am aiding, teaching, supporting, or providing guidance to. I do not pretend that this is the only religious framework of terms and taxonomies available, nor do I ever suggest that it overwrites the internal framework of an extant polytheistic religious tradition, because internal lingo is different from external lingo, and intrafaith discourse is different than interfaith discourse, and words have meanings which may shift with changing inner/outer context, as I’ve discussed extensively. This is why I keep reminding people that a lot of what is happening now is the hashing out of foundational polytheistic language, for having foundational theological discussions, which are not the only kind of discussions which need to be happening.
In the above, I reserve the term “god” (as in my practice, in my theology, and in how I choose to teach this material in terms of optimal frameworks and structuring) for those deities (and therefore divinities and spirits) who have a certain level of power/prestige proportionally measurable as “greater”. Power and hierarchy are a thing, but they are not necessarily a linear thing, and they do not necessarily lead on by requisite trajectory to “supremacy” or “absoluteness”. Childish aversions to discussing or exploring or recognizing power-dynamism is done almost universally by people who are operating from a place of fear and insecurity, not only of other people’s power positions, but also of their own; for to recognize and explore power (or associative concepts such as authority) dynamic is to potentially recognize that you wield power and authority over others and once this is done one might find the inconvenient reality that they’ve done so harmfully, reductively, disempoweringly, irresponsibly; and responsibility is a heavy burden that a lot of folks would prefer not to toil with. Such premises of anti-authoritarian ideology, applied at even the cosmic level, have very little place in theological discussions, especially such foundational points of theological framing where the only thing happening is the discussion and defining of differentiate and distinct terms, for use in either inner or outer contexts, and so forth.
(As an aside: in my experience, as with the author’s, the very ideas of “absoluteness” and “supreme power” often attributed to theistic discourse are derived mostly from more recent monotheisms, rather than the polytheisms being discussed, practiced, restored, reconstituted, et al. I do not have a sense of “gods=absolutesupremepower”, and in truth, I do not believe or affirm that there is such a thing as “absolutesupremepower”; I personally consider this the lazy concept lobbed by schoolyard children, cornered by bullies: “oh yeah? well my daddy is an ASTRONAUT NINJA, and he can KILL YOUR WHOLE FAMILY FROM SPACE” kind of thing. It is not, in my heavy bias, a particularly mature theological thing, behaving like insecure children.)
So, deities, divinities, gods, spirits…
Lots of divinities are deities, however, without being gods; the Òrìşà and the Lwa are good examples. Their own traditions of indigenous origin most often (today, at least) distinguish these from “gods” (albeit in the post-colonialist post-monotheist post-slavery worlds of indoctrinated use of linguistic loan and Western supremacy derived ideologies) without discounting “gods” as categories in theology. In some Yoruba religious approaches and theological processes, the Òrìşà are gods or not gods depending on what level of Creation (Ayé, Orun, etc.) they are experienced at, in that they “come down” from higher levels — perhaps that of gods — to lower levels — perhaps that of deities — in order to satisfy certain essential functions. Remember that the words “gods” and “deities” are foreign to the Yoruba culture and draw from two different external outsider backgrounds, used in various ways to mean various things in different theologies; the intent, then, in our using these words (since it is unlikely that we’ll all learn the Yoruba language fluently in order to reference the theologies held in this family of indigenous religions) is to arrive at meaningful, if not surgically exact, destinations of definition, whether we are looking to these traditions out of a desire to expand our understandings of world religions from strictly-speaking the outside, or are instead devoted practitioners, priests, or spiritually answering a call ourselves, as there is relevance to acknowledge in that there are something like 65 million Òrìşà practitioners in the English, Spanish, and Portuguese speaking worlds. Interfaith, intercultural, and interlinguistic work is always reliant on adaptive meaning and some level of metaphoric interplay, without a relativistic forfeiture of meaning or structure altogether.
It is not a burden on me (or, I think, anyone) to decide (in an authoritative sense) what is or is not a god, a deity, a divinity; but rather to hold within our polytheistic frameworks and paradigms and theologies — and our own individual cults, organized and formal or loose, household, and informal — that these are different measurements which may exist exclusive or entwined with one another. Further, we hold the dual responsibility to recognize that the frameworks we hold to internal to our own practices and cults are not necessarily going to be true and accurate if applied in other cult traditions elsewhere (e.g. Roman Polytheism probably isn’t the best lens for understanding Yoruba theology!) and so, again, there are inner and outer frameworks of meaning to draw distinctions between. (All of which I’ve written about in a few other places, regarding definitions, differentiation, distinction, discernment, aka “the Ds”.)
I love Hélio’s article. I also disagree (from a standpoint of foundational theological discourse, rather than Roman Polytheism, which I recognized and affirm is what he is discussing) with the titular supposition that “the dead are gods, too”, in that I would instead argue that “the dead can be gods”, and “some gods were once humans who died”, and “the human dead are spirits”, and “some spirits are divinities, and some divinities are deities, and some deities are gods”, etc.
My primary issue is: I do not believe advocating for the term “god” as a catch-all synonymous with “spirits” is terribly useful for our global engagements of discourse today; it is one thing for terms like “Kami” or “di” to hold large-scale usage within specific isolate traditions (Shinto, ancient Roman State religion) and another entirely to adopt this large set of identifiers across multiple languages and cultic traditions at the global interfaith polytheistic level today. I also contend that the words “god/goddess/gods” were not in widespread use in Ancient Roman polytheisms and probably therefore it is best to stick with those which were, and are available, and even are still popularly used today, rather than the muddy/slippery equation of foreign loan-words that also carry their own unique set of complications across the board today.
Note: implicit in what I’m saying is that polytheism is not a single religion, but (as stated a maddening amount of times), a category of theistic religion and theistic religious approach which exists in a plethora of forms, defined most foundationally as a theistic religious framework which “affirms with religious regard many gods”, who are understood as holding genuine existence (rather than metaphor, poetic, or allegorical premise) which is independent in some way from humans and human thought. It has been suggested repeatedly, and recently, that polytheism does not require “religious regard”, and that the assertion that it does is an attempt at controlling people’s practices and thoughts by way of claiming central authority over them, and further, that these concepts “are just words” and that their definitions are “frustratingly vague”. This is paranoid Orwellian doublespeak ironically positioned to control the thoughts and behaviors of others. To be clear, there is nothing vague about the definitions of polytheism; polytheism is an approach to theistic religion, and is a category of theistic religions, which thereby include in some manner the religious regard for many gods. There is an attempt to “liberate” the term ‘polytheism’ (and ‘Polytheist’ and ‘polytheistic’) from this definition and usage — as a consideration and category of theistic religion — for some time, historically by Humanist atheists (who want to have “archetypal polytheism” without the burden of, you know, any kind of actual -theism) and now more recently by a contingent which affirms the existence of many gods but rejects the religious regard for them (because it’s much more fun to hang out with them or be friends with them or otherwise use them to lay claim to a currently popular social identifier by stealing it from, you know, its actual place and context of established meaning, vital and essential to the survival and development of the minority religions who it actually describes). What at least some of these folks don’t seem to understand is that there are already other terms — such as “spirit-work” and “animism” — which can describe these concepts, are already in common usage, and are popularly understood as recognizable and meaningful… neither of which have a categorical qualifier of “religious regard”.
Next, and more to the point of responding to some of the more interesting and confounding misreadings of this article…
At least some readers felt that the author was, in his equational linking of the aforementioned terms, proposing a world-view which had no space for non-gods, or spirits which were not traditionally considered gods. In the instances I am referencing, the standpoint of readership was animism with an emphasis on other-than-god categories of spirits (e.g. nature spirits, animal spirits, dead people spirits, etc) with gods not central to that configuration. The take-away from the article was that Hélio was against animist spirit traditions and was somehow collapsing all spirits into the concepts popularly understood as “gods” in a manner that erased the individuality of things like ancestors or animal spirits, despite this being literally the exact opposite of what the article was discussing.
I want to name that I’m a staunch animist (and my polytheism requires this as a foundational framework and starting point, which is why I refer to my approach as “polytheanimistic“). I also want to name that I do not practice Ancient Roman polytheistic religion, and the author does; that’s what he’s primarily interested in discussing and reviving. I’m not threatened or bothered when I read in his work approaches or views which are counter or contrary to my own. We are doing, and often writing about, different things. (I like different things. At the very least I consider my ability to navigate different motives, intellectual frameworks, ideas, or platforms to be essential exercise for navigating the distinctions of the many spirits, deities, and gods which make up my traditions, and being able to distinguish through impersonal discipline the objective and critical elements of theological discussions.) Where I disagree with Hélio in this article is not around what he’s saying about Roman religion — for it coincides with my loose understanding of Roman polytheism as well, and I find no error in his approach or use of Latin-descended language — but in his conflation of the Germanic loaned English “god” throughout, as equational to “deus, dea, and di”.
I disagree with his choice of word conflation, because I see no reason to equate “god” with “deus”, “dea” and “di”, and I find it useful to further develop these nuances (expansively) in the language(s) and time that we are writing in, without rejecting past frameworks. What is absent (in my view) from the author’s approach is a demonstration that not only did the words and theologies differ between diverse ancient groups (and modern descended/restorative groups), but that their frameworks and paradigms and methods of categorical affirmation and categorization differed significantly. Just as the Romans had different levels of the di — as expressed in the the article, all the different “spheres of divinity” therein, with appropriate categoried epithets — other groups (we modern Polytheists, of diverse traditions included) may have differently developed or deployed categorical approaches.
My categorical (and categorization) approaches, born of both my academically informed understanding and professional experience as an ecstatic spirit-worker, draw the aforementioned (see above) distinctions between how I choose to use the word “god” from “deity” and “divinity” and “spirit”. This is not in contest with an accounting of ancient Roman categorizations — I’m not that hubristic — but rather that the Roman systems of convening these ideas together just don’t work for my practice or cult, nor do I think for establishing a foundational framework at the interfaith level (because of the resulting reductive losses).
And, outside of a few areas of critique, I don’t think the author is suggesting that everyone needs to adopt this view as a foundational and all-encompassing one; rather, that what is being presented is a revivable (and defensible) approach drawn from the ancient Romans.
Here’s a fun thing, kiddies:
We can still disagree with somebody without personally scrutinizing, or having our opinions of a critically defensible article shaped by other people’s emotional and poorly framed (virtually unsupportable) attacks against the author and his “suspected” motives in writing. Call me crazy, but when a Roman polytheist writes about difficult or conflictual Roman polytheistic religious concepts — such as how to regard controversial ancestor figures in one’s ontological approach — I assume that he’s doing so from a motive of wanting to share about historic approaches to Roman polytheistic religious traditions. It turns out not everyone merely uses religion and religious structures or concepts as objectified vehicles for social, economic, and political agendas: some people actually respect religious pursuit as a discipline unto itself, and provide it the intellectual space for such. Some people, like Hélio, know how to talk about religion and account for necessary and uncomfortable intersection with controversies in history, such atrocity and genocide, without needing to stop talking about religion. Whether we agree with him or not, let’s try to keep our disagreements on-point and within the stated scope of the article, which is again a religious article discussing a specific religious tradition from a specific period of history, for the purposes of understanding its potential implementation toward restoration in the present day, by addressing some of the misunderstandings, erroneous assumptions, or controversial complexities commonly faced. In other words, getting angry at the author for pointing out the controversial complexities and/or misunderstandings of ancient religion by using modern or more recent examples (and their contemporary challenge or burdens because of today’s achievements in the understandings of morality and things like human rights), is like getting angry at the people who put warning labels on hazardous chemicals or safety-guidelines on public transportation platforms.
However, some readers couldn’t get beyond the complexities, controversies, or observed challenges which lay within a contemporary understanding of ancient Roman polytheism, because the author accurately and constructively drew parallels relevant to contemporary issues, by naming such historic personages as Christopher Columbus and Thomas Jefferson as examples of dead people. That’s right, kids: he is guilty of suggesting that human beings whose historic legacies are defined primarily by bad shit that they did while alive are in fact counted amongst those we now consider to be dead, and including them in a discussion of how a specific historic religion views dead people, whether we liked those dead people or not. By drawing forth examples, hyperbolic as they were, of how controversial or just outright hated-for-their-crimes-and-human-rights-violations historic figures might be viewed through the lens of Roman polytheism, the author was showcasing clearly exactly why this stuff can get so complicated. Need further evidence of his position on this? Go look at all of the confoundingly contradictorily complicated misunderstandings, misreadings, and meandered ad-hominem attacks which have been amongst the responses to this piece. On a website dedicated to religious discussion and theological explorations, an author proficient in both of these drew forth contemporary examples to highlight the complexities (and structures for dealing with the complexities) of a specific historically attested religious tradition, and for his troubles, has been accused in dark boozy corners of conversation of being a fascist, a “slavery apologist”, a racist, or a colonialist… because, again, in a setting dedicated to religious discourse, he held religious discourse, and explored in a reasonable manner (which did not condone or support past or present atrocity) how the subject of his writing (e.g. a specific religion) dealt with these complexities, and how these intersected in a challenging way with modern social moral assessments. Which, clearly, they do, as demonstrated by the radical responses to the article.
(Here’s an example: the school subject “algebra”, addressed in a discussion of education, is one which deals with variable abstracts and numbers and orders of operations, for the purposes of solving critical and objective math problems, and — in a classroom setting — learning necessary and cross-disciplinary reasoning skills for later in life. However, it is true that in the history of Western education, some economic and racial and cultural groups receive disproportionally inadequate education opportunities, in terms of both caliber of instruction and fiscal support from the cities and state coffers, and so in discussing the realities of algebra, there is likely cause to reference that this is a field whose transmission and directed study is not universally available. It is possible to name this, and to discuss the fact that this sucks and needs to change without conflating the subject of algebra with the subject of social justice, because these are still distinct subjects (despite their unfortunate intersection in the subject of socio-economic disparity of educational resources). In an expansive, rather than reductive and erasive, approach to discussion and topical distinction, one can recognize that “algebraic mathematics” and “issues in educational disparity based on socio-economic and racial issues in the United States” are two distinct and mutually important conversations, which certainly intersect, but cannot be conflated or reduced into one another, without suffering an irreparable loss of meaning and erasive end.)
Back to Hélio’s article and the wondrousness that is the spectacular response to it:
What I love about reading the responses to this article (there are lots of them) is how clearly they showcase the reader’s default positions and biases, as there are only two primary “categories” of response: those offended by the author’s presumed (and often erroneously misread) suppositions around the nature of gods, and those offended by the histories and social progress theories cited (generally by the radical/anarchic/anti-capitalist contingent). On the one hand, we have people’s whose primary readership is informed by consideration and concern for gods, deities, and theology, and on the other hand people’s rejection of religious and theological consideration altogether, in favor of criticizing social/historical commentary (going so far as to call it “bad history” despite its lack of objective inaccuracies) even though the theologies present actually support their non-religious and irreverent approach to polytheistic considerations by decentralizing the focus of a formal polytheistic religious tradition from the exclusivity of the core pantheon, inclusive of less “big” or “powerful” or hierarchically divided spiritual and divine agents.
So what’s hilarious in that divide is that the many of the readers concerned mostly with the gods will critique the article (and reject it, rather than engage it fruitfully) and the ones concerned mostly with the social commentary will get so caught up in rejecting the historical-progress model employed (Jefferson, et al) that they’ll miss the opportunity to glean from the article a VERY useful approach (because Roman! rawr! damn the man!) in probable likely alignment with their own discomforts with the hierarchies suggested in other popular polytheistic theological approaches (such as my own). In other words, this article provided a little something-something for damn near all of the people who have moved to discredit it, from theological radicalism, and anti-authoritarian elements to animistic overlay, to a too-flexible-and-reductive-to-my-comfort approach to broadening definitions of commonly employed words. The very people who, outside of those practicing formal Roman religion, potentially stood the most to gain from the content of the article, on the very ones who lit the torches and brought the pitch forks, and decried its inclusion on Polytheist.com as alarming to them (for either deific or social-justice reasons).
On the subject of the conflation of “god/goddess/gods” with “deus/dea/di” and the (Roman polytheism derived) widening of these concepts to be inclusive not just of “core pantheons” of traditionally considered “supreme” god figures, to include (as they did in Ancient Rome as the di) other categories of spirits, from the dead to nature and land spirits to deceased and beloved animals… I really don’t think that those who read it as being “anti-animist” and “pro-gods” and “against non-god spirits” as being included in a religious world-view actually read the article. Let me explain:
One (clear) way to read it, all nuance and such aside, is that Hélio is showcasing in the polytheistic religions of ancient Rome that “the di” (which he makes, in his presented and suggested reframing, synonymous with “gods”, through a process of what I consider to be an erroneous redefining) were not merely the primary beings most people call Roman gods and Roman goddesses today but also “all categories of spirits, including nature spirits, dead humans, dead animals, heroes, kings, prophets, saints, dragons and mountains”.
He’s just showcased what can be easily and clearly read as a model of Ancient Roman Animism.
My only disagreement in this model the conflation of “god” with “spirit”, which is ultimately what his conclusion is.
In other words, this article can be read as intensely congruent in at least a lot of ways with how non-deity-focused animist spirit-work approaches and views around the diversity of divinity and spirit considerations are established and comfortable aligned. But, those readers are by and large not actually reading what is written… and tangentially straying into attacks on the author or condemnation of the article, on the grounds that… well, I guess maybe just people don’t like Rome? (Damn the man!)
(I could be wrong, and am open to such.)
Hélio actually seems to be doing quite the opposite of all these accusations and misunderstandings in his article: he’s not conflating all things with the word “god”, he’s equating the word “god” with all things, thereby stripping the distinction of “god” and “deity” to mean something more akin to “categories of spirits” which is closer to what the less deifically configured readers are animistically describing as their comfort-zones, theologically speaking, (and, ironically, is actually the root of my own discomfort, from a semantical standpoint).
What he’s doing, as I see it, with regard to these particular concerns, can be summarized as follows:
- Equational conflation of the Germanic-derived English word “god” with the Latin words “deity”, “dea” and “di”, which are commonly translated into English as god, goddess, and gods.
- Outlining of the various categories of “the di” (commonly translated, erroneously in his view, as “categories of gods”) and noting that a good number of these are not what we (modern polytheists, scholars, Westerners) consider to be “gods”, in that they allow for human spirits, animal spirits, and the like.
- Concluding that “god/goddess/gods/deity/dea/di” are all basically synonymous in Roman polytheism with “different categories of spirits” rather than the more lofty and traditional western idea behind these terms.
In other words, the entirety of what is written could be reframed without the word “god” at all, and instead just be a discussion of how Roman polytheism treats “deus”, “dea” and “di” as terms relating to a diverse and myriad selection of spirits and begins, whose only real qualifier is that they’re not biologically and materially alive at the time of application (of these terms). In short, “three d’s of understanding spirit taxonomy in Roman animism”, which I would say is being proposed as being less theistically (god and goddess) focused than it is spirit focused, in at least some approaches. And, again, I find it both historically and linguistically defensible.
I disagree with his use (and proposed redefinition) of the words “god/goddess/gods” in this manner, but do not disagree with his attestations on the historic use of the Latin “deus” and “dea” and “di” in this manner, as they almost always had accompanying descriptors to anchor them to his mentioned “categories of spirits”.
I appreciate this writing tremendously from certain angles, and (for the reasons stated above and elsewhere) take issue with it from others. I feel that his writing on Roman religious approaches is essential; I feel that his social/historical commentary is easily read as offensive, while also recognizing the theological validity of what’s being discussed. Sometimes theological discussions require us to engage uncomfortable topics, such as the human rights violations of the past. In a world wherein gods and spirits are real, and there is continuity of being after death, we cannot simply disregard the theological questions and treatments of historic offenders of human rights, even when it is incredibly uncomfortable or inconvenient to have to address these things. To be clear, I side with others on the “fuck no, never” side of venerating the specific historic figures named as complex and controversial examples in the article; but I also acknowledge that the author intentionally chose historic figures of well-earned moral condemnation, for the purposes of outlining some of the challenging considerations many folks face when considering the idea of ancestor veneration in basically any context.
Having been around LOTS of different communities in the US, coast to coast around the teaching and training of ancestor worship, engagement, and so forth, one of the most common (secularly derived and moralizing) statements and condemnations is “why would I ever venerate or acknowledge such awful dead people”, because the general consensus (valid and solidly understood) is that basically no past era was free of atrocity, and even the most exemplary individuals were often fucking awful by modern moral standard. Without exploring this, it leads to people being positioned ethically AGAINST any engagement with the dead in a blessed and venerating fashion; or else it leaves only those who would engage them for the pursuit of soliciting power from them (e.g. evocation rather than veneration) which while a thing that has its place, really can’t be the only model availed to people. Except that right now, in so many respects, it is the only model a huge contingent of people have access to.
I read the uncomfortable parts of Hélio’s piece from the standpoint of mechanical objectivity; e.g. “this is how Roman spirit-work and religion are constructed, whether it’s comfortable for us or not, and here [within that lens of Roman religion] is how controversial dead people from history or national chronology might be regarded in this religious lens that is the focus of the article you’ve chosen to read”. (It’s worth noting that at least a lot of religious traditions of indigenous descent have similar treatment of the dead in the ancestor veneration sectors of theological and ritual focus. It turns out that dead people exist in every part of the world and every part of history, and not all of them were 21st century social justice icons, and so there have to be ways of viewing these. Ask any Palero, Santero, or Egungun initiate about this, and they may walk you through their traditions’ treatment of controversial dead.)
Which is to say, the article is intentionally controversial, but not (I think) written for the intent of harm; instead, it is written for the intent of discussion (exactly like is happening in some areas, despite what I consider to be harmful and distasteful discourse happening elsewhere), and the expansion of theological frameworks.
I’m amused, somewhat sadly, at how (intentionally, in some cases?) misread this article has been. There are voices trying desperately to shove the author into various boxes of ill repute, none of which — the voices, not the boxes — seem to have actually read the article.
This is an article about presenting some lesser-known (historically accurate) sides of Ancient Roman polytheism, which segues into a sort of Roman animism (again, these are my terms, not the author’s) in a manner I’ve never heard discussed, including the outlined “decentralization” the authority of the core Roman pantheon in the overall religious framework to be structurally and linguistically inclusive of all categories of spirits in a much less linear fashion than we’re used to today, without at any point threatening the place of that core pantheon. The article discusses one of the most hotly misunderstood (yet essential) elements of our religions — ancestor veneration/worship — in a manner which showcases accurately (as any professional educator or priest in ancestor rites in the US can attest) the exact issues, hang-ups, problems, moral and personal and social dilemmas which sit waiting for us in these theologies today.
The author addresses (again, accurately) the challenge faced by anyone approaching from outside of an unbroken religious practice inherited by family/culture, about taking up an ancestor practice when there’s a general moral understanding that “the past sucked”, and “the people of the past were monstrous, almost universally”. My immediate recent relations were missionaries (cultural genociders) and organized crime bosses (literal murderers), for example, and that’s just reaching back into the 20th century. Further still and I can tell you the origins of family surnames, which were given to them BY THE PEOPLE THEY CONQUERED to describe the manner of conquest chosen. Which is to say, ancestor practices are full of fucked up moral, ethical, personal, and emotionally charged discoveries or considerations, with fucking Thomas Jefferson being the least of these, not because he’s not a HUGE moral and historic concern, but because most people aren’t actually worshipping Jefferson. The author chose “big names” with recognizable controversies in order to clearly demonstrate the challenges faced by a modern practitioner, which… weren’t magically NOT considerations or concerns in past expression of Roman Polytheism.
And that last phrasing is the most important — “expression of Roman Polytheism” — since it reminds readers that this is what the author is talking about. Not Northern Tradition, not eclectic anarchy buddy-buddy spirit-time, not Thracian polytheism, not African polytheism, but a specific religion from a specific culture group and practice which he has clearly defined. Which, call me crazy, but I seem to recall him indicating pretty succinctly.
It’s important to note a few things here:
- I do not support the veneration of the historic figures named. My foster mother is Passamaquoddy (a Northeast Native American people) and within the context of her influence over my upbringing, I was taught not to honor or whitewash the histories around those who had brought or otherwise enabled atrocity on this continent. That said, I’m not confused by why others who are identified at the national level in certain ways with our country — whether their version of history is whitewashed or not — might see it otherwise, while still actively engaging in dismantling power-structures of racism, colonialism, and similar atrocities. It turns out that collective affiliations are complex, and rarely black-and-white.
- It turns out that there are some shitty people in the history of all nations, and that even if those nations were magically made perfect (say, for sake of argument, stripped of their capitalism and corrupt systemic prejudices), they would still have shitty people in their history; the world is not black and white and divided up into good/bad dynamics. There are rights, and there are wrongs, but there’s also the complexity of being an actual whole three-dimensional full-spectrum being in the world, wherein we’re all related to or descended from murderers and war-lords — basically everyone in the world — so much so that it can’t be escaped from. Any religious practice which venerates ancestors, or for that matter any secular path of education which surveys history, has to be able to address these things in some manner without needing to nuke the whole thing from orbit.
- Lots of world traditions honor and take pride in things which may tangentially (or directly) intersect with historically bad shit. For example, should I disavow myself of any Scandinavian pride, because some of my ancestors were Vikings, who.. Viked? Prolifically? Or of Italian pride because one or two of my recent dead were original gangsters of the murder-with-pig-farms variety? How about my body? Should I be ashamed of my male anatomy, because of the staggering statistics of violence against women which are done most frequently by men? Maybe I shouldn’t identify with my physical body anymore, or with my cultural ancestry anymore, because these things intersect with bad atrocious shit in some direct or indirect or abstract or literal ways. That doesn’t make any sense. It also, in the case of honoring or not honoring complex bad-shit dead people, isn’t generally how things are done elsewhere in the world: some African and Afro-Diaspora traditions, as well as some Native American traditions, specifically venerate particularly volatile and nasty and aggressively or transgressively potent ancestors, not because they were fucking saints or because anyone would ever want to invite them over for a cup of tea but because they are perceived as having power, and powerful spirit allies, contacts, and benefactors can be really important when doing things like, oh I don’t know, having a revolution against slavery in Haiti. That’s how spirit-traditions work pretty much everywhere, folks. Sorry if you were absent that day.
- Not all spirits and gods, whether they were once human or not, are good-guy savior-saint pacifists. The staggering majority of them are not. If you want to whitewash your gods and pluck the teeth from lions, have at: you fluff that flaccidity all day long, for all I care, but do not try to pass that shit off as in any way reflective of “progress”, because in all likelihood, your ideas are being positioned at the expensive of indigenous religious traditions and extant at-risk marginalized people and cultures all around the fucking world. Stop that shit.
- It’s a position of privilege to be able to say, “you shouldn’t venerate ____, because they did bad shit”, if the veneration of worship of that spirit or figure is the difference between life and death for the practitioner. In many areas of the world, which face actual real day to day life and death circumstances, the past moral measure of present-day spirit contacts is far from the thought-process in practice: the question is whether this spirit can help now.
- The past is the past. Nobody but you thinks that ancestor veneration and polytheism is about worshipping the past. Because continuity of being, bitches. It’s non-linear and blah blah blah really stop contradicting yourselves anytime now, kthnx.
- So, a final thing, which again I need to state clearly is not support for the veneration of these figures: if spirits are considered to be both real and holding a genuine existence with agency independent of living humans, which they are, then they’re also considered to have (as has been stated repeatedly) continuity of being and a continued narrative and story after their mortal death (and transformation into spirits or ancestors or otherwise). Let’s clarify for a second here that this is kind of like talking about a human person who did some bad things for a period of years, maybe while they were struggling daily with drug addiction or self-medicating to try and manage or suppress psychiatric decompensation, but then fast-forward a significant period of time into their lives later, and deciding that they’re still to be held to those actions from way back when, universally, by all people, even if they have demonstrated total reform and change, because obviously people can’t really change, because change isn’t actually a real thing, is it? OF COURSE IT IS. Spirits aren’t necessarily the same people that they were when they were people, if they were people; maybe they are, maybe they’re not. But to assume that they can’t change, or that change is even particularly relevant to an individual’s cultural and religious practice of engaging them as spirits, is to directly deny agency, erase autonomy, and hold them in a manner simultaneously “universally intolerant” and breathtakingly narrow-mindedly dictatorish. However, as with the example of living humans with unethical or regrettable pasts, there is no compulsion that those inversely impacted by them need to forgive. I will never forgive the people who tortured and detained me, who destroyed my body and my mind for those years, and left me with PTSD and a lacerated nervous system and chronic pain, nor will I ever do anything but curse their names long after they are dead; but I sure as fuck wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they have children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren who venerate them and leave flowers at their graves or ask them to look after their infants. BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT HUMANS DO, not just shitty stupid bad supremacist evil humans, but all humans. It’s complicated, being human. Wake up, grow up, or shut the fuck up and let the adults talk; your so-called Leftist ideologies took a turn for the active call to engage in, amongst other things, silencing and erasing human voices and cultural practices, predominantly of the indigenous and minority variety, because from your place of privilege you want to be king of the hill.
Ahem. Moving on…
There’s a universe in which this article could have stirred up GREAT discussion, as it did in at least some places, rather than people looking for reasons to burn it down and complain into their respective echo-chambers about amazingly contradictory misreadings. It seems like one of the only things people agree on regarding the theological premises presented is that they disagree with the author for reasons, even though those reasons entirely contradict one another. In other words, I haven’t seen evidence that any of the detracting commenters (well, aside from one) actually read and made effort to understand the article, before trying to destroy it for public spectacle.
This is a piece which decentralizes the focus in religion on “only” supreme deities and “core pantheons”, expanding on spirit-traditions venerating ancestors, land spirits, and animal spirits, and more, while at the same time addressing challenging subjects like “what if our national ancestors were fucking awful?” which are realistic questions a real-life theologically engaged Polytheist should be asking.
Yet instead of engaging in religious discourse, people are more interested in engaging in ontological dismissal, or (badly informed) social-justice/historical criticism, missing entirely the fact that the author isn’t actually writing about reviving cults to those named figures, but instead addressing VERY REAL concerns faced in these very real considerations of our -various- practices.
My organized, defined, and structured practice with venerating with religious regard the individual and collective spirits of the dead goes back over two decades in my life. I have been teaching, or affiliated with the teaching of, ancestor based ritual and religion to people largely without extant ancestor venerating practices of their own, in various vaguely public settings for a decade now, not online but in terms of in-person ritual and theology and education, in group and one-to-one dynamic. In 100% of these cases where the people present were “converts” to these traditions — mostly White middle-class Americans — the question gets brought up eventually in one form or another of “but why would I venerate people who were dicks?”, or “what if our ancestors weren’t good people?”, or “what if our ancestors specifically harmed us when they were alive?” These are questions and concerns which not only present complication, but present truly haunting crisis for many converts to these traditions, which can be very personally challenging to overcome. More in-depth and nuanced treatment of these complexities — such as national ancestors whose lives were defined by what are understood incontestably as human rights violations — are essential to the growth and development of our theological understandings, and accessibilities. They should not be discouraged, but engaged.
Questions of this sort — how we categorize spirits alongside or in conjunction with gods, and how we address or choose not to address ancestral atrocity — is what I think the core take-away from this article should be for anyone who is a general polytheistic practitioner (rather than a person attached to Roman polytheism), or is otherwise attached to another tradition and reading Hélio for the purposes of learning about Roman polytheistic religions as presented by this one author (who has a unique international perspective and a great amount of historical knowledge and nuance to draw on). I don’t always agree with him, and that’s fine: he’s not (to my reading) anti-spirits-who-aren’t-gods, or anti-gods, or anti-human-rights (as some radicalized responders misread him) or pro-slavery or pro-colonization, etc, etc, etc; he’s writing about Ancient Roman religion, using accurate presentations of Latin language, theological structures, and expansive (rather than reductive) overviews of such concepts as animism and so forth.
But, yeah, I disagree with the equation of the “gods” with the three Latin specific terms utilized in this piece; because even within the Latin framework, I’d wager that there’s recognizable distinction to be made between the spirit (still amongst the di in that tradition) of a deceased war-dog and, say, Mercury. And within the Latin languages, that distinction would not have been made with the Germanic loan “god”. So this comes down to semantics, and later international loans, and linguistic developments; which are all important areas to also hash out, especially in an interfaith (Thracian, Northern Tradition, Roman Polytheism, Animist, etc) intersection of readers/writers/practitioners. Which is why I feel like the equation of “deus/dea/di” with “god/goddess/gods” is, at least from an interfaith foundational context, contestable; but the rest of the article doesn’t get thrown out because I disagree with one or two things.
For the record I also won’t be launching worship of Thomas Jefferson or Christopher Columbus, either, nor do I think this is terribly advisable for anyone. I do, however, encourage the spiritual and animist and ancestral and polytheistic exploration of what it means, specifically for European-descended White Americans to be living on a continent and in a nation, whose legacy is men such as these, on land and waters entirely foreign to our biological roots; too often we consider this only from a social-justice standpoint and not from a religious one. Traditional religions the world over venerate national figures, often whether they be of terrible or saintly repute in deed and dignity; how should this, or could this, look today, from a restoration standpoint in the 21st century? What, if any, relationship does our nation and national history have to our individual or collective religious practices or identities?