I read A History of Pagan Europe several years ago, while I was working on the research project. At the time, I made notes on the bits that I found particularly interesting, and now I’m going back through all my old notebooks to see what I’d written.
Part of the book focuses on the Etruscans, and when I read it, I made the following very intellectual-sounding note to myself:
“The Etruscans were the Italians while the Greeks were being ancient.”
There were various myths and legends that caught my interest. Firstly, the one about a child named Tages and the sacred doctrine he imparted to priests in Marta:
“Etruscan was… a revealed religion, whose sacred writings gave detailed instructions for the practice of ceremonies and concerning the nature of divine powers. In a field near Marta belonging to a farmer called Tarchon… a child mysteriously arose from a newly ploughed furrow.
Tarchon summoned the priests, to whom the child (calling himself Tages, son of Genius, son of Tinia, the chief god) dictated the sacred doctrine, upon finishing which he fell down dead…
The doctrine of Tages was preserved in sacred books, which like many Etruscan sacra were divided into three groups. These were the books of divination (by entrails), the books of interpretation of omens (especially lightning) and the books of rituals.
These last were themselves divided into three: the books of the allotment of time, the books on the afterlife, and the rules for interpretation, explanation and placation of spirits.”
And an overview of Roman Pagan belief:
“The basic Roman belief seems to have been in numen or supernatural power rather than in personified spirits.”
A lot of modern-day Pagans trace their roots back to earlier times, either by claiming literal familial descendancy, or by aligning their beliefs with the ancient ones as far as possible. This is particularly interesting when reading about the Roman Pagans’ relationships with the spirits they believed in.
Much of modern Paganism is an eclectic mixture of gods, goddesses and spirits from all over the world. In many Pagan households you’ll find people invoking the Greek goddess Hecate along with Egyptian gods like Anubis or Thoth.
Some focus more on “smaller” spirits though (for want of a better word, but it’s morning and I’m undercaffeinated), such as genii who would follow people around, live in their houses, and generally inspire them.
And yes, this is where we get the word genius from: the idea of a kind of divine inspiration, something special that springs up from within a person and allows them to exceed what would be perceived as normal ability.
Not only did people have their personal genii though (or juno if female); they also had household spirits, or lares familiaris, that would take care of the home and protect it. The lares familiares were loyal to places rather than people: so, if you moved house, your genius would go with you, but your lar familiaris would stick around and wait for the next owners.
Another interesting thing about the lares familiaris is their potential relation to Christian beliefs about the baby Jesus:
“At first, there was a single Lar Familiaris, but from the early first century BCE, there were two, represented as youthful, dancing mages.
In the houses of the poor, they were kept in a niche by the hearth, whilst in the more prosperous households they had their own shrine, the lararium.
Their worship remained virtually unchanged through the regal, Republican and Imperial periods.
In later times, the deity became known as Monacello (little monk) or Aguriellu (little Augur), the genius of the household.
Later, Christian images of the infant Jesus were direct continuations, in size, style and atributes, of Lares.”
A History of Pagan Europe also touches upon other Christian origins:
“The pontiffs, whose name means literally ‘bridge-builders’ and is of unknown signficance.”
“The pontiffs, like the augurs… remained a secretive and self-selecting body until the Lux Domitia in 104 BCE introduced elections.”
…as well as briefly skating over things that I’d really like to see explored in more depth:
“The boundary ceremonies of the Arval Brethren, carried out in their grove… included a taboo against iron.”
The taboo against iron is interesting because it’s seen frequently in ancient fairy beliefs. Researching Irish and Scottish mythology in particular, the reader will come across various taboos against different types of metal, but iron specifically was seen as a substance that could guard against fairies or spirits having their way with whatever the person wanted to protect.
In other, more fairy-sympathetic books (really not good with the words today, scar), iron is seen as a negative thing: a breaker of goals, a taker of power.
It made sense, then, that the boundary ceremonies of the Arval Brethren would include not being allowed to use iron. Since the rituals in which they took part were largely held to thank and appease spirits, it would follow that using a metal that could break the spirits’ power would be a spiritual taboo.
So, depending on where you are, which spirits live nearby, and whether you want to befriend them or not, it makes sense to either have a taboo against iron (in which case you’d be pleasing the spirits and allowing them to do their will), or to have as much of it around as possible (in which case you’d be stopping the spirits from doing things you didn’t want them to do).
This is also where the good luck horseshoe comes from.
The interpretation of omens was generally left to the college of diviners:
“The college of augurs or diviners had the duty of interpreting omens, which revealed the will of the gods. The chief magistrate or consul would ceremonially observe the omens from a special area, the templum, quartered and laid out for the purpose according to the sacred fourfold pattern.”
And as well as talking about beliefs in fairies, iron, witchcraft, Jesus, and the history of the pontiffs, we also have a brief history of how we got the word “calendar” and where the year used to begin.
“The original calendar seems to have been a lunar one. Each month began with the first sight of the sickle moon, which a junior priest would call out (calare) to the chief pontiff.
When the calendar was eventually based on the solar year (before written records began) the first day of each month was still called the ‘Calends’, and it was made sacred to Juno and to Janus.
The full moon, later the thirteenth or fifteenth day after the Calends, was the Ides, sacred to Jupiter, and between these, the ninth day before the Ides was called the Nones. Since the Romans counted inclusively, the Nones fell at the end of the week before the Ides, thus referring in the original lunar calendar to the first quarter moon. This was supposedly the date on which the king of ancient Rome used to meet with the villagers from the surrounding countryside, the pagus Romanus, and give out his edicts.”
“The original calendar began with the spring equinox [Ostara].”
You know how you always say you’ll do your New Year’s Resolutions in January, but then somehow it never quite gets off to a good start because the whole period from about late December to nearly the end of February makes you feel like you want to hibernate? Historic Pagans felt the same way:
“It seems to have been a ten-month calendar with what later became the winter months of January and February as a fallow period. From the winter solstice to the spring equinox, time is suspended.”
So next time you’re crap at going to the gym in January, you can pass it off as an ancient Pagan belief instead of just having no willpower.
Some final notes on the concept of a “Great Mother” or “Mother Goddess”.
A lot of modern Pagans talk about the concept of a Goddess whom they worship, invoke, or at least acknowledge in their rituals. Much of this seems to be about reclaiming the idea of the divine feminine from the patriarchal organised religions that make up a lot of Western European culture.
However, in early Roman Paganism at least, the Great Mother didn’t figure strongly.
“The last foreign duty introduced to Rome by order of the Sibylline Books was the Great Mother of Asia Minor… Although the Romans venerated Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, and Tellus, or Mother Earth, as well as a variety of individual goddesses such as Ceres, it is difficult to find a trace of any worship, however archaic, of a Supreme Mother as recognised in Asia Minor and the Levant.
When the Great Mother, in her form as a black meteorite given by the permission of the kind of Pessinoute, arrived in Rome, scandal ensued. Her priests were castrati, and they practised orgiastic rites of delirium and self-laceration.
This was not at all Roman, and… Roman citizens were not allowed to become priests of this goddess. In addition, rites of the goddess had to be conducted in private, within the temple precinct. Every effort was made to contain this alien form of worship.”
A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick is available to buy on Amazon.
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