God of the Month: Hercules

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Temple of Hercules Victor

Hercules of the Romans is different from Heracules (Hercules) of the Greeks. They are both Demi-gods who performed the Twelve Labors (of Hercules). However, Hercules of the Romans is so uniquely Roman as to be another God.

As one of the early founders of Rome, Hercules set up the Ara Maxima (the Greatest Altar) for sacrifices. Cacus, a fire monster, who had been terrorizing the early Romans, stole Hercules’ cattle. After killing Cacus, He erected this altar (later known as the Ara Maxima of Hercules Invictus, the Unconquered Hercules), and sacrificed cattle to the Gods. Rejoicing at the demise of the fire monster, the early Romans celebrated Hercules’ victory, and made his altar a cult center.

Popular with merchants, Hercules receive one tenth of their profits. Unlike Heracules, He is considered a God of Commercial Enterprises. At the Ara Maxima, traders would make business deals, swearing oaths to Him. He is especially beloved by olive merchants, who called Him, Hercules Olivarius.

Nearby this altar, the Romans erected a statue of Hercules Triumphalis (Hercules Triumphant). Before setting off for battle, generals would ask Him, Hercules Victor (Hercules Victorious) and Hercules Invictus for victory. Afterwards in gratitude, successful generals would sacrifice at the statue, now clothed in triumphal robes.

In 218 BCE, on the orders of the Sibylline Books, a temple to Hercules Magnus Custos (Hercules the Great Custodian) was erected. The Romans then asked Him to save them from Hannibal of Carthage who was intent on invading Rome. Like all of his temples, this one was round. (Today, a person can ask for protection against home invasions from Hercules Magnus Custos.)

Hercules Musarum (Hercules of the Muses) is the Friend of the Muses. He is usually depicted playing the lyre. At his temple in the Circus Flaminius, Hercules and the Nine Muses were honored.

Hercules of Rome is a multi-faceted God/Hero. He is the Patron of Olive Merchants (Olivarius) and of Quarrymen (Saxanus, of the Rocks). Besides being noted for his gluttony and strength, Hercules is also recognized for being a Friend of the Muses. He is also Hercules Augustus, who protects the ruling emperor of Rome.

Salve Hercules!
You ended human sacrifices
You established the worship of fire
You slew Cacus, the fire demon
You protected Rome
You grant success in war
You sing with the Muses
You give health and strength
You grant commercial success
Undefeated and always victorious
Salve Hercules!

Gods and Spirits of the Land and Waters

 

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Dead and Kennebec Rivers, The Forks

 

My first experience with a God was with the River God of the Kennebec River in Maine. When I met the Kennebec, She was wild and untamed in spite of being dammed for over a hundred years. (Note 1) (Note 2). My family lived at the meeting of this river with the Dead River at The Forks. Although the Dead River is considered a branch of the Kennebec, it has a different nature. According to my late grandfather (former Maine Guide), this river was called “Dead” since it took so many lives of people trying to travel the river. While the Dead was quiet and menacing. I could sense that the Kennebec did not tolerate humans very much either.

Since then, I have met the acquaintances of other River Gods. The ancient God of the Potomac of Washington D.C. is so primordial that He is beyond language. The New River of West Virginia, although more primeval, is amused by humans and their activities.

Echoing my experiences, Regis Boyer wrote in his forward of “Demons and Spirits of the Land,” by Claude Lecouteux. (Note 3), “We evolve within an inhabited ‘natural’ world, one in which the gods themselves, or the deified dead, are the cornerstone of reality. As a result it is a world that cannot conform to appearances.” (Note 4) Boyer further observed that the “Spirits of the Land” (Genii Loci) have been devalued, starting with Christianity. Even in modern times, the devaluing continues, but the Sacred still manifests Itself.

In examining ancient and medieval customs, Claude Lecouteux concluded that people once understood that they cohabited with the Spirits (Gods). Because of this, ancient peoples performed rituals, listened to oracles and made sacrifices. The folk customs of the medieval peoples such as the “rite of crossing a river” continued to fulfill this contract with the Spirits (and various Gods). Lecouteux continued, “they left us one essential law: mankind should live in harmony with the surrounding nature…. In order to prosper then, we must continue to honor the genii loci.” (Note 5).

Lecouteux interprets the ancients as asserting that the world is neither human nor spirit centered, but is full of spirits. Some are Gods, some are land or water spirits, but none are human. A wise person understands that they would have to co-exist with all of these Spirits, since they will encounter Them at times.

Recognizing the power of the Gods, Christianity sought to tame Them. The Church renamed various Gods as Saints, and built churches by sacred fountains and in groves. Those Spirits (and Gods) they could not tame, the Church called demons, who had been expelled from heaven. Meanwhile, lay people often saw these Spirits as dragons, fairies, or simply “The Little People.” No matter how much the Church (and later Science) sought to de-sanctify Them, the Gods still remained powerful.

The Gods of Water have many sacred places throughout Europe, which are still recognized. The Severn of the U.K. is named for an old British Goddess. The Rivers Boyne and Shannon in Ireland are named for the Gods Boann and Sinann respectively. The healing springs at Bath, England is the sacred place of Sulis, the Celtic Goddess of Healing. The Romans revered the Tiber River as Tiberinus. Each of these Gods received offerings from local peoples.

I, as a Roman Polytheist, do not see rivers, springs, mountains, and forests as aspects of “nature.” For me, They are not part of one divine entity such as “Mother Earth.” Each has their own power. Some heal, some kill, but all need to be respected. Bodies of water have yielded offerings of silver made by people, who understood the power of these Spirits. One does not enter a forest without permission nor drink from a spring. The Land and Water Spirits remain vigilant, ready to assert Themselves even in modern times.

Tourists like to white-water raft on the Kennebec and Dead Rivers. However, these rivers will claim lives as their due. The loggers who once drove logs down the rivers to the mills understood this. They knew these rivers took what was rightfully theirs.

Notes:
Note 1. Gods and Spirits of the Land and Waters include Those of cities, forests, mountains, and streams.
Note 2. The dam was removed in 1997. Since then, She has reasserted Herself as a powerful, wild river.
Note 3. Lecouteux, Claude, “Demons and Spirits of the Land,” translated by Jon Graham. Inner Traditions: Rochester (VT). 2015. Lecouteux, who is French, specializes in the study of medieval folklore and magic. He taught at the Paris-Sorbonne University.
Note 4. Page x, Claude Lecouteux
Note 5. Page 182, Claude Lecouteux

Picture of “The Forks Plantation” from Maine Encyclopedia.

God of the Month: Summanus

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On June 20, the shortest night of the year, black cakes are offered to Summanus, God of Nightly Thunder. As Jupiter rules the day, Summanus rules the night. He is the Protective God of the Night. Summanus may not be as well-known as the other Gods, but He is as important.

Summanus speaks to me at night in summer thunderstorms. Since my bed is next to the window, nighttime lightening wakes me up. Then I look out my window in awe at the display of lightening in the sky. For me, I make offerings to Summanus from May 1 to October 31. Then I switch to Jupiter from November 1 to April 30. This practice is personal to me, and is not traditional.

Salve Summanus!
God of the Night
You light up the dark
With your lightening.
You rumble to the stars
With your thunder.

We thank You
For protecting us
When we sleep.
Salve Summanus!

God of the Month: Vesta

Vesta, the Roman Goddess of the Hearth Fire, is usually represented by the flame, which is the eternal fire. Originally her cultus was based in the home, with the family making daily sacrifices at their lararium (altar). Later, King Numa Pompilius (715-673 BCE) set up a place for state worship for this Goddess.

King Numa placed Her House (Aedes, which is not a temple) on Palatine Hill. Resembling the circular thatched homes of the early Romans, this sacred place housed the holy relics of Rome. The six Vestal Virgins, who attended the sacred flame, guarded these items. (One was the Palladium, a statue made by Minerva, Herself, which protected Rome.)

The Goddess Vesta is more than the hearth fire. Her flame at the lararium acts as the axis mundi between the worlds. As the central axis, her flame receives the bodies of the dead, thereby connecting this world with the Di Inferi, the Gods of the Underworld. The fire becomes a bond between the living and the dead. Her flame also reaches up to the heavens, enabling Di Consentes, the Celestial Gods to traverse it to the world of the humans. The keeping of Vesta’s flame maintains the sacred contract between the people and the Gods.

Starting June 7, the inner sanctum (penus) is open to women. For the Vestalia, the Vestal Virgins and the women cleaned and purified both the relics and the area. Later the Vestal Virgins carried the debris to the Tiber River. (Legend has it that the accumulation of debris formed a new island. The temple of Aesculapius, the God of Healing, was located on this island.)

Modern Roman Polytheists celebrate the Vestalia (June 7-15) in various ways. Some will clean their houses, others their stoves. One theory is that the stove and oven is the modern hearth. (I would add the microwave.) I do daily prayers to Vesta at my lararium, and clean my oven on the Vestalia.

“Vesta, watch over him who tends the Holy Fire. Live well, fires, o undying flames, live long, I pray.” Ovid, Fasti 3.426-28

God of the Month: Juno Moneta

In 389 BCE, the sacred geese from Juno’s temple warned the Romans of an impending attack by the Gauls. Following another war with the Gauls, a temple to Juno, Who Warns (Moneta) was dedicated on June 1, 344 BCE. Juno Moneta has saved Rome from many invasions. Today, She warns people of other impending disasters such as earthquakes.

Salve Juno Moneta!
Who warns
Who advises

Your Sacred Geese
Once saved Rome
May we hear Them
May we heed Them
Before disaster overtakes us.

Thank You
For Your Warnings
Salve Juno Moneta!

Gods of the Month: June

June (Junius) is dedicated to Juno, the Patroness of Women. It is unclear why Juno is honored by Romans at this time, since only Juno Moneta has a festival day in June. However, marriages in the last two weeks of June were considered especially blessed by this Goddess of Marriage.

VESTA

The main focus of June is the Vestalia from June 7 to 15. The Inner Sanctum of the Temple of Vesta, Goddess of the Hearth, was opened to women. The temple was cleaned, purified, and rededicated. (The rubbish was then into the Tiber River.) In the Roman religion, Vesta is the Perpetual Fire, Who keeps the Pact between the People and the Gods.

HERCULES

I have personal cultus to Hercules, who is considered to be one of the early founders of Rome. Some of the Greek mythology of Heracules was grafted onto Hercules, the Roman God Hero. However, Romans had their own particular myths about Him. For example, the focus of Hercules’ worship, the Ara Maxima (the Greatest Altar) is where He killed Cacus, the monster who terrorized the early Romans.

Two temples of Hercules have dedications this month. Hercules Magno Custodi (the Great Custodian) has one on June 4, and Hercules Musarum (of the Muses) on June 29. The first was vowed on the orders of the Sibylline Books in light of Hannibal’s victories against Rome. The second was where poets and others would come to pay their respects to Hercules and the Muses.

SUMMANUS

Another God, I have a cultus for is Summanus, the God of the Nocturnal Heavens. He ruled the night as Jupiter ruled the day. His festival day is June 20, when people offered round breads imprinted with wheels to Him.

Gods Recruiting: Buddhism and Westerners

“Buddhism” was the term used by the British to denote the myriad religions of Asia that featured worship of the Buddha. These religions include those practiced by the Japanese and Tibetans, as well as the Thai and other peoples. Originating in India, Buddhism is actually a missionary religion. In the 6th century, monks from Korea went to Japan to spread Buddhism. After World War II, priests of various Buddhist lineages emigrated to the West and set up temples for Europeans and other Westerners.

During the various exchanges, Buddhism both transformed and was transformed by each culture. Because of the evolving nature of each culture, there is no one “pure or authentic” Buddhism. Instead, there are many lineages and sects instead.

In the exchanges with the West, Western philosophy permeated Buddhism. Western scholarship methods are now taught in Buddhist centers. Students read commentaries of the Holy Scriptures in English. Meanwhile from living in India, the 14th Dalai Lama has adopted the ahimsa of non-violence taught by Gandhi into Tibetan Buddhism. In contrast, the 13th Dalai Lama told Gandhi that he had no idea of what ahimsa meant.

The Gods in Buddhism are a cultural part of the religion. The Goddess Tara, a popular Goddess in Buddhism has many forms, but most Pagans worship Green and White Taras. (Security and Compassion, respectively.) Tara, Herself, was formed by the tears of Avalokiteshvara, the original bodhisattva. She is considered by some to be a Mother Goddess.

Another Goddess that Pagans revere is Kuan Yin (Wade Giles spelling), whos often regarded as the Mercy Goddess. She is another form of Avalokiteshvara. Kuan Yin is sometimes referred to as the “Mother of All Buddhas,” and is similar to the Christian Mother Mary. (Tara is from the Indian tradition of Buddhism, while Kuan Yin is from the Chinese.)

In venerating these Gods and others of Buddhism, Pagans should be aware of several things. First, the Buddhism that permeates popular American culture is an invention of Henry Steel Olcott. (Note 1) He reimagined the religion as rational, free of dogma, and with no rituals. His reinvention has Buddhist tenets based on Western science.

Secondly, the Shangri-La myth (Note 2) of popular culture presents Tibet as the place of all wisdom, with the lamas as the “old wise ones.” By romanticizing Tibetan Buddhism, this myth gives Westerners the notion that this is the purest form of any religion. The Shangri-La myth spoke to the Western psychological needs of being unrooted in a modern world.

One Pagan that I knew regarded the Green and White Taras as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deities.” (Note 3). He viewed these Goddesses to be non-judgmental and compassionate. He often spoke of Them as helping him to heal and to be a happy human being. As he told me about Them, I thought of the Taras as therapeutic constructs for him.

I think that Pagans who worship Buddhist Gods should know their cultural origins. Not only that, but what sect of Buddhism are They a part of. Context will aid in knowing who these Gods are. This helps in keeping these Gods from becoming psychological devices to meet the particular needs of the worshipers. Once Pagans understand the cultural roots of these Gods, they can be better able to adore Them.

Notes:

Note 1: Olcott (1832-1907) is regarded to be the first American convert to Buddhism. He is a co-founder of Theosophy with Helen Blavatsky. He is also credited with the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Note 2: James Hilton (U.K., 1900-1954) presented a Tibetan utopia called Shangri-La in his novel “Lost Horizon,” written in 1933. This book became one of the most popular novels of the 20th Century.

Note 3: Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton coined this term in 2005 to describe the beliefs of American teenagers. They define Moralistic Therapeutic Deism defined as:

A God exists who created, ordered the world, and watches over human life on earth.  The God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in The Bible and by most world religions. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. The God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, except when this God is needed to resolve a problem. Good people go to Heaven when they die.

For Further Reading:

Tibetan Buddhism in the West: Cultural Issues: Info-Buddhism.com

Study Buddhism from Dr. Alexander Berzin: StudyBuddhism.com

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