Today is marked in my calendar as the day that Lucius Marius Vitalis died. While we do not actually know the historical date of this particular event, which probably happened in the year 128 CE, this date has long been established as the one we use for marking it all the way back to my days in the earlier, “original” Antinous group that I was a co-founder of back in 2002. As there was no compelling reason to change it, and divination has not revealed that it needs changing, we stuck with it.
We only know of VItalis’ existence at all because of a single inscription, which happens to be his funeral inscription. We know that he was a young student of the arts–perhaps of the clerical arts in particular–that was part of Hadrian’s entourage, which likely traveled with the Emperor to the Eastern Empire starting in 128 CE, and he very likely died toward the beginning of this journey, perhaps even in Athens. We are told what his age was at his death, which then allowed me many years later to determine that if his death-date was today, his birthdate would have been a day in early July–the 14th, to be exact–and the year of his birth would have thus been about 112 CE if 128 was the correct year of his death.
But this brings up the larger question that gives this particular post its title: why worship humans, which is to say, beings that were formerly humans who have now died, become heroized, or who have undergone apotheosis? It’s a question I’ve dealt with before, actually…but, from time to time, it’s good to be reminded of these things, and this is a day appropriate to think about such.
I’ve heard some polytheists outright say that to worship any former humans–including Hero/ines–is hubris. (So, what about Ancestors?) We’ll return to the issue of hubris below. At various times in the different Antinous groups, some people had a very vocal disgust (and that’s putting it mildly in some cases) for the idea of Sancta/e/i, even when these were understood and defined in non-Christian-derived terms (and on this, more in a moment). One individual, in the early days of the first Antinous group, stormed out of it because we were debating on what days to honor particular Sancta/e/I, and whether we should go by their birthdates (which would be more Roman) or their death-dates (which would be more Christian), and as this person flounced off, they chided those of us in the group by saying that all of us were more divine than any of these people, and we should be focused on that rather than on all of these “dead people.” That I found very confusing, because if we who are alive now are (already!) divine, then does that just “go away” after we die? Hmm…
Both Hero/ines and the Sancta/e/I, in my view, can be understood as particularly special and/or powerful Ancestors; and the Sancta/e/i in particular (as I’ve written in a published essay) can be thought of as “Group Ancestors,” lineage Ancestors, or any number of other distinctions which tie their honoring and veneration to the history and success of our modern traditions. I still pray to the Sancta/e/I as a standard part of my prayers every time I do a prayer to the main group of Deities and Hero/ines of the Antinoan Pantheon, and even though they get named last in the standard formula, that doesn’t mean a great deal in terms of their relative esteem or hierarchical divine status.
One of the reasons I have felt comfortable using the term Sancta/e/I for this group of revered dead is because it gets used on Lucius Marius Vitalis’ funerary marker–in fact, he’s not just called Sanctus in it, he is called Sanctissimus, “The Holiest.” There was a trend in the later Roman Empire to speak of almost all the dead in those increasingly superlative terms (and though Sanctus became relatively common, Sanctissimus is still relatively rare!), and to practically treat all of them as Hero/ines. This may explain some of what is seen as the excessiveness of Herodes Attikos’ honoring of Polydeukion, Memnon, and Achilles: it wasn’t just a rich guy trying to excessively mourn his foster-children, he was doing something that was not entirely uncommon, and that simply had a larger footprint because of his ability to commemorate them in grander fashion.
Something that I’ve heard some pagans and polytheists do as well in relation to questions of this sort is bring up “the whole Jesus issue,” and the idea that Jesus was (to use the phrase from Jesus Christ Superstar!) “just a man” and that the worship of Jesus as a God was an excess. Sadly, even those who arrive at this notion and then often become atheists (despite the historical evidence for Jesus ever being human at all being quite slight, but of course it is resorted to because anything suggesting divinity at all cannot be “true” from an atheist perspective…but let’s not get further into all of that just now!) are not aware of the tendency of many cultures in late antiquity to heroize and even deify their dead, which had been going on for centuries and even millennia at that stage. The idea that one hears in some religion classes, which I heard in one of my classes while studying at a Jesuit university, and said non-ironically as an observation with no self-reflexiveness in the process, that “all religions tend to deify their founders” may also be true…but, so what? In indigenous cultures, the dividing lines between living humans, effective spirits of the dead, Ancestors, Deities, and other such categories are very thin if not non-existent.
Strangely, what comes through in these kinds of dismissals is not so much that one distances oneself from the excesses of Christianity and its brand of piety, but instead that one proves how much one is in the grip of exactly that kind of thinking. It isn’t merely that, just as atheism is often the “photo-negative” version of whatever religion it is reacting against (an atheist from India is very different than an atheist from America!), it’s that some of the same underlying ideas about things like the questions of “what constitutes religion,” and–in this case more importantly–“what are humans” are still there, operative, and are determining one’s views on things despite one’s outward rejection of these in claiming to be atheist, or no-longer-Christian. Because humanity is viewed as fallen, imperfect-as-an-understatement, and in almost all ways very little above the mud and dust from which we were ostensibly created, therefore worshipping anything that isn’t at the other possible superlative degree–namely, a Deity that has never been tainted by anything human, material, and that is entirely beyond the reaches of the physical universe and all its vicissitudes–is viewed as the only viable and proper option. This is a post-Christian, anti-human bias that can even remain in some people who consider themselves “humanists.”
Fuck that noise.
Venerating, honoring, commemorating, and even outright worshipping former humans as Ancestors or any other category (and I’ve heard some people in polytheism distinguish these things, just as Catholics have to distinguish between dulia and latria, despite these being terminological distinctions without a difference when it comes down to actual phenomenological matters…sociologists and anthropologists will tell you that Catholic saints cultus is no different phenomenologically from the cultus to any number of Deities in other cultures!) does not diminish the divinity of Deities, and does not make the overall devotional time one gives to them as opposed to Deities a waste of time. Many polytheists consider the Deities’ works in the natural world as beautiful, awe-inspiring, and even worthy of worship or veneration in and of themselves, and I see no problems with that…but, what if humans are also divine works? What then? It is fine to worship and honor a tree, lightning, a mountain, a river, various animals…but not humans? Do you see how very inconsistent this seems, that humans are “always the exception” and in a negatively-valenced fashion? (Just as scientists and Christians often think of humans as different than and to some extent “above” the “mere” other types of animals, which has allowed so much destruction and exploitation to occur–except, of course, when it benefits them to think of humans as animals, as they do when questions of gender and sexuality are concerned, whereupon they’re one-hundred percent in the category of “science proves!”–why is it that we are then exempted from the goodness and potential divinely revelatory possibilities that all of the rest of nature has? You can’t be a pantheist without EVERYTHING being IN THE PAN!) One cannot–or, rather, in my view, should not-ignore a whole category of “nature” in the form of “human nature” and exclude it from reverence and respect when such is given to all else in the cosmos.-
As to the matter of hubris: yes, there are some instances from Ancient Greek myth that are worth noting in this matter. Ixion challenging the Deities of Olympos and trying to usurp Them as a mortal (though his father was Ares, so he was technically capable of being a Hero or demigod and thus having legitimate cultus rather than eternal punishment) and attempting to rape Hera was a case of hubris, unquestionably; but, his crimes of violations of xenia, kin-slaying, anger, and lustfulness were just as much responsible for his fate as hubris. But, in cases like Arakhne or Odysseus, the hubris involved wasn’t so much wanting to usurp the positions of the Deities as a mortal, but instead of comparing oneself in one’s pride and arrogance to a Deity (in Arakhne’s case, she did so justifiably, it could be argued!) or to be excessive in one’s cruelty and shaming of another person in defeat, which is what Odysseus did to Polyphemos and thus incurred the wrath of Poseidon. In fact, for the Greeks, hubris was not just excessive pride or arrogance, but often was what is reflected in Odysseus’ actions of humiliating someone in defeat, and there was often a sexual element to the whole thing as well, which then brings in the Ixion example once more.
If the people who complained about Hero cultus or any reverence for humans as being hubris were really to be “proper” in their Hellenic understanding of such things (which is why some modern Hellenic polytheists seem to think that later strata of Greek and Graeco-Roman culture are so “degenerate” because of the prominence of Hero/ines, deified emperors, and so forth!), then it surprises me that they don’t rail more against people who are in divine marriage or divine lover relationships with Deities…and I’m not throwing the latter to such people as apt targets, but instead am pointing out that if one really wants to be “original” and “strictly reconstructionist” in such things, then even the aspiration of having such a relationship might shade toward the Ixionic or Aktaionic extremes. (Of course, that is also nonsense, because in almost all the cases I know of personally, the Deities have the initiative, and when that occurs in Greek myth, it’s perfectly fine…but that gets into a whole other domain of discussion which we’ll leave aside for the moment!)
In the radical re-evaluation of one’s life, thoughts, and assumptions that should occur when one shifts to a polytheistic worldview, I think it would be useful to also shift one’s views of humans and of human nature and human potential as well. Yes, this does occur, and in some contexts more than others (Orphic strains of tradition come to mind, as do many Mystery Religions), but it should probably take place on a wider basis. Apotheosis, whether to fully deified forms, or simply to the status of honored Ancestors, Hero/ines, or something else is something that we should not only accept as polytheists, we should probably expect it, including amongst our own ranks. Apotheosis is not an anomaly; it should be our aim, in whatever form that might take. Indeed, in the Egyptian afterlife texts, that is the expectable outcome of having done all of the rituals and passed all of the trials ahead of one, which is available to absolutely anyone.
That is one of many reasons why, I would argue, worship of former mortals is a good thing: it is a reminder of what is possible for any one of us. Cicero himself said as much in a quote that I often use at the end of larger public rituals:
Now the law which prescribes the worship of those of the human race who have been deified, such as Hercules and the rest, makes it clear that while the souls of all men are immortal, those of good and brave men are divine. It is a good thing also that Intellect, Loyalty, Virtue and Good Faith should be deified by the stroke of a pen, and in Rome temples have been dedicated by the State to all of these qualities, the purpose being that those who possess them (and all good men do) should believe that the Gods Themselves are established in their own souls.
One cannot do much better than Cicero, so I shall end there!