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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, March 23, 2012

Reconstructionism Methods: Community Practice

OK, so I have Blogger envy. Our friend, Helio, has been making some impressive series of posts on his blog, and I want to try to do the same. I've been thinking for a while about "method", and so I will start what I hope will be a series of posts on this topic.

When I say that I am a Cultor, I mean that I have some attitudes in mind, and they are specific to the Roman tradition. When I say that I am a reconstructionist, I mean that I have some specific methods in mind, and these methods are common to many reconstructionist traditions.

In a metaphorical way, reconstructionism is the process of trying to recover the best likeness of the photo that was on the cover of the now-lost box of a 1000 piece picture puzzle, while having just 100 pieces. The 100 pieces are scattered all over, and many of them are found embedded in other things. We have to collect those pieces and try to fit them together. We may be able to assemble some parts of the picture, but we still have many gaps. We can extrapolate around the edges of the bits we have, giving us pretty good confidence equaling maybe another 50 pieces.  The pieces that we have also give us information about the topic and the style of the picture, letting us make some fair guesses about more, maybe another 100 pieces. For the final 750, we can make sure that our educated guesses do not clash with the parts that we have. Can we get the whole original picture with perfect confidence? Obviously not. Can we come close enough that an ancient Roman, seeing our reconstruction, would recognize the original in the reconstruction? I think so.

Even if we do our best to reconstruct every possible aspect of the ancient traditions, another problem remains. What do we do in situations that never faced ancient Romans? How can we know the correct way to respond to a novel situation?

This is a recent thread from our Facebook group, and I copy it here with permission of the participants, because it is an example of exactly what I think we should be doing, in the most general sense:
  • solving modern problems by
  • reference to Roman practice and
  • comparing modern parallel traditions, combined with
  • personal experience.
It all started when a tongue-in-cheek article, "Goddess Caffeina, Roman Goddess of Coffee", made a member think of a serious issue:

René: I find this hilarious, However it brings me to a serious question, we now sacrifice "new" things that the ancient romans didn't like chocolate or chiles or stuff like that so I was wondering, Since coffee is an intoxicant, is it under the sphere of Divine Bacchus or to what god does this drink belongs to? Would he accept libations and offerings of coffee? 
Agricola: Personally, I stick to things that were known to the Romans. Not because I think new things are wrong, but because doing so puts me in the right frame of mind. It reminds me that I have to adjust my way of thinking and not stick with the familiar old habits of thought. 
Bert: The Romans offered what was important to them, and precious. This would naturally have been relative to one's ability. The aristocrats, and other rich folks, are known to have sacrificed peacocks. Peacocks are from India, though somewhere along the line they also got attributed to Iuno. The original dirt farmer, cattle stealing Romans would not have had peacocks. 
Bert: While on a walk about the neighborhood I went into a Hindi Indian gift shop. In the back is an altar to Ganesha. Large statue with offerings before and on it: flowers, fruit, dollar bills, a bottle of Gatoraid and a small container of Hershey's chocolate drink. The Hindi pagans obviously don't have any problem with offering their immortals new and exotic things. (from a November post of mine on the Roman Recon wall) 
René: I think the same as the Hindu pagans, while it does matter what you offer it think that it is not more important than how pious you are, how you offer it and the fact that you even want to offer something, all of this makes those Above us, Around us and Beneath us happy and pleased 
Agricola: We didn't really answer the coffee/Dionysios question. I don't think that there can be a clear answer. I say, go ahead and try it, and then watch for signs that it is accepted or rejected. After a number of people do that we can compare experiences and decide. 
Anna: I know of Germanic heathens who offer tobacco and coffee to the wights and gods, but it is considered UPG [Unverified Personal Gnosis] and isn't taken as lore. I believe that if it lasts the test of time, it will be considered lore. 
Agricola: That's what I'm sayin'. 
Damian: Coffee is upper, Alcohol is downer so I don't see Bacchus there. Maybe Mercury (speed/trade/office work)? 
Livia: I think the American products like chocolate, maize, peppers, tomatoes all have their own deities. I wouldn't offer them to our deities, just like I wouldn't offer olives to some South-American deity. Coffee is a more complex matter. Apparently its use was started by Sufi Muslims, so it has no deities associated. I would be cautious in associating it with Bacchus, though. According to Francesco Redi (in his "Bacco in Toscana", written in 1685) Bacchus definitely despises such barbarian beverages as beer, or the newly introduced coffee, and likes Tuscan wine best. A different matter are offerings to the Manes. I offer coffee to my deceased aunt, as it was her favourite drink. Cigarettes are also common as offerings to deceased smokers in Italian cemeteries. 
Marco: Depends on why I am making an offering. I use copal, rather than laurel or frankincense, when offering incense for the spirits of the land in the Americas. And for Roman deities I usually offer what Romans would have offered. However, if I am just outdoors, speaking with Jupiter, and I happen to be drinking coffee, then I offer to share with Him what I have. In each case it is a matter of thought behind the sacrifice, and not so much what is sacrificed. If Romans had known about chocolate, they would have offered it, just as they offered other rare and precious goods to the Gods. They shared what they had. 
Helio: Two thumbs up, Marco Orazio! You took the words right out of my mouth!

I'm very proud of this group's ability to look at problems from different angles without going into conflict mode. Of course, there can be no definitive answer, but this kind of discussion moves us forward, deepening our understanding of Roman thinking and building our modern traditions on a sound basis.

Helio blogs at:

Marco blogs at:

Anna is host of the Roman Recon forum.

Damian blogs at

There is a long tradition of "Caffeina" posts, as this Witchvox article attests.


  1. Thanks! And thanks for your part in the thread.

  2. The issue of "modern" offerings is something I have encountered many times already within the Hellenic community as well, sometimes discussed ad nauseam.

    My view is that we should just share what we have, I believe this to be the whole point of offering to the Gods. The only thing I'd recommend against is offering coca cola or other artificial stuff like that. If only to avoid altars getting sticky with the immense amounts of sugar in it...

  3. What I am really interested in is that we do not just have discussions "ad nauseam". It is time for us to be past that, and there are two things that will help us. First, having solid communities and second, having established methods. I'll be posting more soon.