By Ti. Terentius Varro
We must teach the truth to next generation. We must teach them early, what we learned late. We must teach them who they are, and why. We must teach them about the cultus deorum.
But before we can do any of this, we need to know what it is we’re teaching. And if you think you know by now — or if your knowledge comes from a book that missed the point — then this is for you. This is a crash course on the cultus deorum.
The Faces of the Gods
The Romans had only one word for “religion”: religio. Religio meant more than just religious activity — it meant law, civil obedience, respect for tradition, and most importantly of all — piety. While modern people talk about organized religions, the Romans hadn’t invented that idea yet: they only recognized individual piety toward specific gods (i.e. cultus deorum). As described by early Roman historians, the cultus deorum was a highly venerated part of Roman society.
The Romans believed that everyone — even the most despised man on earth — had their own personal divine reflection called a Genius. Thus, the divine was the other side of the mortal coin. The domain of flesh was directly linked to the domain of gods on a 1:1 basis. For example, a common piece of graffiti from the time would be something like “Hercules is my great great grandfather and Juno is my great great great grandmother.” This had a literal element to it. So if Hercules or Juno were ever angry with you, your only hope to get back in their good graces was to perform a religious rite to appease him. The ancestors were divine even if not assumed to be grand gods. Your ancestors are similarly godlike as Manes today.
The cultus deorum was therefore focused upon action.
We need more action and more honor in our world today. The Romans also believed these gods were everywhere. Their houses, their offices, their streets, their shops — everything was full of the gods. And if they were not in one particular place, they were nonetheless present by being invoked as part of the religious ritual – by action. The gods wouldn’t be overlooked even in an act as simple as eating dinner, traveling to work, or being intimate with one’s wife. The world as we know it is a imperfect mirror of the divine. What a spectacular revelation!
We need this kind of focus on action in the world today. We need it now, not in some uncertain future.
Three elements combine to distinguish the cultus deorum from religion as it is generally understood: divinatio, sacrificium, and fabricatio. (Note that these are not exact translations of the Latin.)
A divinatio involves an individual’s personal relationship with a god. Perhaps it involves a specific sacrifice or prayer that will win favor with a particular god. Perhaps it involves a specific vow or moral obligation. In any case, the action is an expression of one’s personal devotion.
A sacrificium is the act of physically offering something to a god, as part of an individual’s divinatio. The core action towards building a divinatio with the divine.
A fabricatio is the gathering together of people for religious exercises during which time they sing, pray, perform rites, and generally honor those particular gods.
The Romans saw a difference between public and private religion and such gatherings. To the Romans, piety was a matter of duty to the immortal gods, and as such it was not limited to one’s personal worship nor to domestic ceremonies. There is nothing in our world more in need of repair than public piety.
Public piety begins with the study of our ancestors’ ancient wisdom, dating back thousands of years: it is the beating heart of cultus deorum. The essence of our ancestors and the fruit of the lives they lived bequeathed to us. It breathes the air of mystery and awe, and awakens the imagination. It is full of ancient ideas that modern people often no longer even try to understand. It recognizes deep truths about man and nature — not just the obvious facts that nature is beautiful, but also that it is a real reflection of divinity.
Piety toward the gods is a practical thing: it provides hope and light in times of darkness. It gives us courage when we are afraid, and reason for temperance when we are mad. It is a way of life. It is a way of thinking. It is a worldview. If you know even half of these things, you know enough about the cultus deorum to be weaponized in your life — and our society needs that, particularly in these horrific times we live in today.
The cultus deorum is a deeply personal affair. There are three levels of piety.
1. The first level concerns science and philosophy: understanding how the world works, how man has changed it, and how we can still help to change it for the better. From the reign of Staturnus to that of Iupiter the relationship between the divinities and humanity has evolved. Our knowledge has the human race has grown and expanded. This level has to do with how man relates to nature, as well as how man’s own nature manifests itself and evolves over time. In the words of the historian Varro (116-27 B.C.), “there is a difference between reading about the gods and honoring them”. Knowledge of the gods is what brings understanding of yourself and your place in the cosmos — and this is important. Knowledge is also the foundation of any action you take. It is the beginning of wisdom. Knowledge leads to wisdom, which brings about action. It makes us aware of our mortality, and gives us a sense of urgency to do something with our lives rather than merely allowing life to pass by passively without having made any lasting mark on our community or family.
2. The second level of piety concerns living the virtues. Virtue is the most important thing there is after the gods themselves. It is the central focus of life. There are many forms of virtue, and they are not “black and white”; there are shades of gray between good and evil. In every case, it is there where we find wisdom, courage, order, clarity, logic, peace, justice, honesty. Virtue has to do with knowing how to accomplish one’s goals in life — both in or outside of a spiritual framework. It has to do with living a good and noble life. It has to do with being a person of worth, honor, and integrity. It has everything to do with real strength in each of us. To learn more about Roman virtue visit http://romanrepublic.org/roma/bibliotheca/roman-virtues/
3. The third level of piety is participation in the cultus deorum. The only way to participate in the cultus deorum is to follow the prescribed ritual forms and practices of ancient Rome. It is a living tradition, handed down from father to son, mother to daughter. A tradition that groups like the RomanRepublic.org are carefully restoring.
Each and every one of us has a responsibility toward the gods — and that most likely starts with ourselves, as individuals within a family unit or gens. To participate in the cultus deorum, one must do a lot of research, learn how to make sacrifices to the gods, and perform rituals to ensure that they are performed correctly. A person is never meant to just “pick up any old god” and worship him or her based on what they make up from thin air or pure innovation; there are rules regarding just what is appropriate, and a person must learn these aspects of the tradition. The importance of our prayers and rituals cannot be understated in this regards. To dismiss this transition for your own invention is to dismiss the expirence aquired by thousands of our Roman ancestors over the generations. Do not dismiss their legacy which is gift given to you. The chief product of so many pious and good lives lived from long ago.
Part of participating in the cultus deorum is fostering public patronage of the gods for a community. In order to maintain the sacra publica of the Roman religion we must all work together to keep public priesthoods and public offices intact and well maintained. The gods of Rome are worshipped as protectors of the civitas, our modern community of Romans across the world. The RomanRepublic.org is paramount in coordinating this community effort.
We are all required to participate privately or publicly or in both facets of the cultus deorum if we seek piety. Again, this is a tradition of action. Not passive internal thought or private inwards perseveration. Believe what you believe. But honor the gods in action!
If you are ready to truly open your eyes, to take the leap into expanding your horizon. To realize the man or women you could become – Then start learning about the cultus deorum.
Visit RomanRepublic.org to get started.
The Cultus Deorum is our ancestor’s answer to the unseen threads of life. Their quest is to make things right with the gods. You can’t read about their history in a book any more than you can see them today. It’s up to us, as human beings, to make the old traditions live again and bring forth their bounty and their beauty for the modern world. That’s our duty as Romans today who love Romanitas — that we work together with our friends, loved ones and neighbors to insure that the gods are present within our lives every day.