February Rites: Parentalia, Feralia, and Caristia

Parentalia starts next week on the 13th. In our home, this 9-day festival is one of 3 times in the year where we celebrate our ancestors beyond my daily devotional work in our household. Our other 2 festivals fall on Memorial Day, where currently we’re close enough to family graves to decorate them and honor the soldiers in my family line, and Samhain/Day of the Dead (All Saints and Souls Days), where we have started the tradition of opening up our home to friends and family to come celebrate and feed their ancestors beside our own.

The family in Ancient Rome was considered the very foundation of the civilization, and in our own home that belief in family remains the same. Long before my spiritual practice fell comfortably into the lines of a modern Roman practice, I held family and my ancestors in high esteem. Friends found this curious for a long time, many probably still do, but it is what it is. Now I have the alignment of my religious practice to help cement those I’ve come from as spiritually important.  This is a very meaningful and important relationship to me.

This upcoming week is going to be busy getting our dining room cleaned, swept, and organized for this festival, because you tidy up for honored guests. We will decorate the table, which is being turned into a place of offering for every meal. I plan on tracking down violets (though probably African, since it’s hard to find the real deal this time of year here) and making flower garlands to decorate for the week.

This is the loose plan of what is going to happen in our home during this time:

The First Day, February 13th: Parentalia is said to start at the 6th hour of the day, which I interpret as 6 in the morning. In upcoming years, this means I will be doing the first rites at 6 in the morning. However, it’s rare my daughter and I get out of bed that early in the day, and so we will simply be doing the rites as soon as we get up and washed up to do so. The Ancestors will hopefully understand this.

Traditionally this time starts with a performance of a parentatio done by the Vestal Virgins. I, obviously, have no Vestal Virgins around, and so I’m left to do what I can on my own. I’m unable to get pure water drawn from a spring, so the best I can offer for pure water in this purification ritual will be melted snow or rain water that hasn’t touched the ground. After making breafkast, I’ll wash my hands and offer incense, asking for divine witnesses to attend. And then I will walk around our table 3 times, giving offerings to my foremothers.

An invocation to Vesta and her Vestals comes next. Offerings of milk, red flowers, and honey will be made along with an adoratio done at the same time.

Whoever is home at the time will sit down to eat breakfast then, sharing it with our deceased. Traditionally this is a time when the Romans had a picnic of sorts at their deceaseds’ tombs, but February is freezing here and we have a bit of an open door policy on our home being a welcome place for our Ancestors to visit whenever they please. So they will eat in our home with us should they care to attend, and throughout the day I will keep candles burning for them to help guide them to and from their homes on the other side.

February 14th through the 21th: We won’t have any major rites in the home, but at each meal we will give offerings through sharing wine and cake along with offerings of salt. The table will be decorated with a wreath of flowers, especially violets, still.

Feralia, February 21st: This is the final day of Parentalia and is another meal for the dead. This isn’t a meal for family, though. This is meant for the Manes, the wandering dead. I don’t do rites to the Gods or Lares on this day, as Ovid suggested against it.

This year I will instead be taking a meal outside in the evening to give to any of the Manes who may be passing through. This meal is presented on broken pottery (in my case an unglazed flower pot that broke last winter) and in our house consists of leftovers from the dinner we had.

Caristia, February 22nd: The entire month of February to a Cultore is themed around purification. It’s a little like Lent in the final month of our religious year. We have an obligation to our Dead that we fulfill fully for the year during Parentalia. We have an obligation to the Dead who were unable to be buried with proper rites, who no longer have people attending their graves, and those who were never buried at all… Those wandering and alone. We satisfy our obligations to them with Feralia.

But as I was saying earlier, the Romans placed high importance on the family unit. It was the foundation of the religion, and the household was considered a microcosm for the larger family of Rome, united by Vesta. And so this is where Caristia comes in. This is a time when you get together with your living family and celebrate a meal together in love. Because love, like the binding power of Vesta as the spirit of Rome and that oldies song, is what keeps us together.

This is the meal where you attempt to move beyond your problems with your family. You lay your differences aside. You exchange small tokens of your affection and attempt to mend your own hurt feelings. And if you can’t do that you pretend you can. And if you can’t pretend? Then you don’t invite them. Personally to me, with my giant love of my extended family, means that if you can’t do the work within yourself to forgive them, then perhaps you need to evaluate whether they’re actually family to you or only in blood.

For me, being the only one in my entire family that is of my religion, I do my best to mentally prepare to lay my differences aside with those in my family who are indeed mine. I don’t feel particularly comfortable inviting them to this sort of meal, though they’re aware that I’m not of the Christian faith. On the practical side, our home is simply not big enough. On the emotional side, I’m just not up to trying to explain it all to them; perhaps one day I will be. Up until this year, our household hasn’t practiced the traditional Caristia feast, so it’s not been much of a problem.

This year my mother will be coming. She isn’t of the same religion, but she has always been an ally and welcome guest in my own practice. We observe multiple feasts and festivals throughout the year together, so it’s only natural that this will be one of them.

There are, of course, other purification rites in the month of February, but I feel like I should place them into their own blog posts if I’m going to write about them. Parentalia is the largest and longest for my family.

On Compassion, Offerings, and Honoring Our Gods

Recently many of my spiritual Sisters and I have been discussing the nature of the Gods and the relationship we humans have with them. Many people in the Pagan and Polytheist communities feel that offerings and sacrifices must take place in order for the Gods to love us or that we must give them something in order for them to love us.

I was involved with a discussion where someone well known in a certain Recon circle replied with ROFL to a fellow Polytheist who considers herself Hellenic and Roman saying that her gods love her no matter what and despite not giving offerings.

Beyond the place that leaves me feeling that the Roman Virtues were far from upheld in that moment with those four capitalized letters, it got me thinking on my own personal home practice. While I could light incense, fires, and give offerings upon rising and laying down at night, it doesn’t happen and likely won’t. I’m a mother of a toddler. In my small home, I have little room to build multiple shrines. My lararium is downstairs; our only bathroom is upstairs. Typically by the time I go to the bathroom in the morning, my daughter is up and moving. Morning prayers rarely get said.

Do my household gods, dii Penates and Lares, love me any less for this fact? Would they love me more if I were to give myself a bladder infection and ignore my duties as a mother for them? They would not.

Saying otherwise would be, in my opinion, teetering dangerously close to superstition – That we must appease our gods through grand gestures and offerings. Was it not Varro who said The Gods do not want sacrifice, their statues even less?

Did he not also say The religious man reveres the Gods as he would his parents, for they are good, more apt to spare than to punish?

If, then, the Gods are like parents, then they are capable of unconditional love – For that is the true nature of being a parent. And while I understand all too well that our mortal parents may not have been there for us due to abuse, death, illness, or any number of unfortunate situations, I do not believe the Gods fall to such human conditions.

I believe the Gods love us unconditionally. Perhaps sometimes they dislike a person for their own reasons, but I believe there is still an underlying love there to be held if the person is still out walking around in the world.

My mortal parents love me no matter what I’ve done or do. I do not feed them. I do not make offerings to them that are beyond my means. A few times a year I give gifts, though typically I get a very sincere “You didn’t have to do that” response when I do.  They understand that financially I’m unable to do these things quite often. This, too, is my relationship with the Gods. Even being on a devotional path with Apollon, he prefers other forms of offerings than food and libations; he prefers I don’t make a ritual out of my honoring him.

I feel that the greatest offering we can give the Gods is attempting to consciously model the virtues and ethics of our religions. As a person who practices mainly as a Roman polytheist these days, the Roman Virtues have been a framework with which to conduct my character for years. As an Apollonian, I attempt to live by the Delphic Maxims. I am by no means perfect, but when the time comes to reign myself in for whatever reason to align with these guidelines I remind myself that I am doing this to bring honor to my Gods…

Because I feel that honoring the Gods, and not simply worshiping them, is not so simple as burning incense or offering prayers praising and asking for something in return. While the Roman framework of ritual will help a person come into contact with the Gods more quickly, I find that my life is directly touched by the Gods with or without formalized offerings.

Instead my offerings come in the form of my daily life. I have been urging others to live a fully dedicated religious daily life for years now, and I will continue to do so. While I garden, I talk to the spirits and gods of the plants, the soil, the land around me. I offer a few strands of hair if feeling very moved to; otherwise I make watering the plants and composting into the soil and offering. While I clean, I bring myself into a mindful state and talk with the household gods; I offer them my time and the essential oils I use in my homemade cleaning supplies. While I cook, Vesta and I speak freely, and I find that she is quite pleased with the tiny space I’ve carved for her on the back of my oven where I spontaneously give her tiny pinches of herbs and sea salt as the mood hits me.

I feed the birds. I compost for Silvanus, who requested this of me recently. I dedicate my creative endeavors and running to Apollon, who in my own life is much more interested in creation and striving towards excellence than rituals of habit.

When you are truly involved with your religion and your Gods, when you allow yourself to push beyond the boundary of the boss/employee relationship so many of us cling to, you may find that you enjoy a much fuller relationship. For the Gods take on many roles in our lives. For they love us and, for the most part, wish to see us at our best. The Gods willingness to be our parents and help us grow as humans is one of the great offerings the Gods give us. Healing our own human understanding of what a parent should be like and the wounds that have been left by human parents’ shortcomings is liberating.

And this is not to say that my way is the only way. I am sure there are plenty of reasons why a person may chose to honor their Gods in a boss/employee relationship, including but no limited to the God in question wishing it to be this way. It’s simply that I see a trend of many Polytheists feeling that their way of practicing is the only way of doing things, and they treat those of us wishing to take a more personal approach to our faiths as “not doing it right.”  Or worse we are delusional or “as bad as monotheists.”

To that I say that the Gods love us with or without food offerings and libations. In fact, the Gods love us without offerings at all. I encourage everyone to actually have a conversation with those they honor and see what they answer you; perhaps they will ask you to keep on the way you are.  Perhaps they will tell you the same thing I am.  But I feel it’s important for everyone to understand that they way you practice your religion is not the end-all-be-all of your religion as a whole.  Most importantly, I feel it is our responsibility to our fellow community members to treat each and every person with respect and a valid voice in the tapestry of Polytheism and Paganism, to keep an open heart and mind in the event that our Gods are truly sending us a message that speaks to us down to the very core of our being – For that, I believe, is one of the greatest offerings we can give in honor of our Gods…  That of compassion to all of those who love our Gods.