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Romans, though you’re guiltless, you’ll still expiate
your fathers’ sins, till you’ve restored the temples,
and the tumbling shrines of all the gods,
and their images, soiled with black smoke.
~Horace, Odes, III, 6; A. S. Kline trans.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Why You Should Not "Worship The Gods"

I have been uncomfortable for quite a while regarding the frequency with which I see phrases like "I worship the Gods of Rome". Of course I am happy to see the Cultus Deorum expanding. The problem is that the word "worship" is one of those tricky, culturally-determined words, and I do not believe that it conveys the correct meaning for us. Now of course I am aware that different people may have different ideas in their minds when they use this word, and I fully expect some readers to object to this post on the grounds that their meaning is something other than what I am talking about here. That is all well and good, but when we say things in public like "I worship the Gods of Rome" we should think about how others are likely to understand it.

What does "worship" mean, in the English language of today? The entry in Wiktionary is typical. The verb means:
"1. To honor and adore, especially as a deity."
"2. To participate in religious ceremonies."
The definition of the noun is similar but also adds: 
"4. (by extension) The ardent love of a person". 
Note that English "adore" derives from Latin "adōrō", (adore, worship, beg). So the question is whether these things actually capture the spirit of the Cultus Deorum. I claim that they do not, and there are two main reasons for this.

In the first place, the emotional tenor is wrong. M. Terentius Varro (1st. c. BCE) said, "The religious man reveres the gods as he would his parents, for they are good, more apt to spare than to punish." As John Scheid (Introduction to Roman Religion, p. 173) put it, the Roman view of the Gods was as  "... benevolent partners of mortals in the management of the world". The fever pitch of emotion that "worship" implies may be what led Pliny, after questioning two deaconesses, to characterize their cult as "nothing but depraved and excessive superstition" (Nihil ... quam superstitionem pravam et immodicam). Pliny had no objection to the communal singing and eating that they claimed to do, only their attitude was worthy of notice. Pliny used the word "susperstitio" as a technical term, meaning the belief that the gods are vengeful or jealous, and the attendant excessive and slavish behavior that is intended to placate them.

The second problem is "participate in religious ceremonies", which carries the implication that whatever is meant is confined to some special situation, time or place. There are certainly special situations, times and places in the Cultus Deorum, but more important is the constant application of religio, that is, pietas in all its aspects. Pietas is more than diligence in fulfilling the requirements of the partnership with the gods. It also extends to the social sphere and means the fulfillment of duties and the honoring of obligations. The world and its obligations were all made by the Gods, and so life calls for the constant application of pietas.

In sum, the word "worship" suggests a separation from daily life, a setting off some part of reality for exaggerated intensity or special activity. This is at odds with the Cultus Deorum which encourages us to live rationally, consciously and constantly.

When we read in English about Roman times we have to be wary of culture-laden words such as "worship". For example, in English translations of Tertullian, Apology, 24, (e.g. here) we find "...because we do not worship the gods of Rome". But this is a translation of "qui non Romanorum deum colimus" (source). The verb "colō" has as its participle form "cultus". That is, Tertullian chose to use a word closely related to our preferred term "Cultus Deorum" rather than other Latin words such as adorō and veneror, which gave rise to typical English religious terms "adore" and "venerate". Tertullian is not referring to early Christians refusing to perform such "litmus test" acts as reciting a hymn or burning a bit of incense. If he had meant that he could have said it. Rather, what set the Christians of Tertullian's day apart is that they did not cultivate the Roman Gods. They did not live according to religio and pietas. What should set us apart now is that we do not just worship the Gods but rather we live according to religio and pietas.

It is important that as we reclaim our culture we take care not to import outside ideas. This is the danger if we do not make careful examination of the words that we use. Much English writing about the Romans, especially but not exclusively older texts, is distorted through the use of words whose meanings have been either created or altered to express a Christian world view. And so I hope we will "follow the Roman Way". I hope that we will each "keep a lararium". I hope that we will "observe Roman traditions". I want us to "Romanōrum Deōs colere", but there is no easy way to say that in English. And now you know why I hope that we won't "worship" the Roman Gods.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with you. Of course it's important the way and the spirit through which one decides to "Colere Deos": but the words one uses are important as well. Unfortunately Latin language can be sometimes hardly translated into modern languages and the expression "Colere Deos" (from which the term "Cultus" derives) is one of these difficult expressions.

    We should always gain and maintain dignity and maturity in our "culti" so avoiding to be entrapped in the usual boring and stupid prejudices.