Note: this is republished from my mailing list.
I hope everyone's had a good and festive couple of weeks, and that you all studiously avoided talking about politics or religion in large group settings. But it's January 6th: let's take a little break from that, shall we?
But first, the first ten Major milestone! Unai has finished the first ten pages of inks for the book. They look so good! I yelled in excitement! As he works on the rest of the issue, DC will do the color for the first ten pages, and then comes lettering and pitching and lots of finger crossing. Here's the title page:
Syncretism This weekend I finished watching The Terror, which might be my new favorite show. The last episode! Woof. It led me to read a little bit about Netsilik, and then Inuit, cosmology. I found some cool and horrifying stories about some of their gods, like Sedna/Sanna/ ᓴᓐᓇ, the 'mother of the deep,' whose many origin stories all involve her losing her fingers and falling into the ocean because her father was a jerk. Her fingers become seals and walruses, and she becomes a vengeful sea-goddess. I'd be mad, too!
In my spin through Wikipedia, I also read a quote from Inuk writer Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley:
"The Inuit cosmos is ruled by no one. There are no divine mother and father figures. There are no wind gods and solar creators. There are no eternal punishments in the hereafter, as there are no punishments for children or adults in the here and now."
This has been rattling around in my head for a few days, because it's a stark contrast to how I tend to think about polytheism in the olden times. I've been trying to sort out a reasonable and interesting belief system for the Iceni and druids in the book. This made me realize I've been a bit stuck on the rules of 'Classical' mythology: groups of gods that were structured like (big, dysfunctional) human families, who had to be appeased so that your barrage of requests to them would be answered.
To the Romans, Britain was considered an island that was outside the borders of their world -- they thought of the ocean as a river that surrounded the known world, and believed that when they crossed the Channel, they were crossing that border entirely. There's an interesting parallel there to the 'thin spaces' of Britain: bogs and rivers and lakes where you might inter someone to protect a gateway to another world, or leave offerings, or where a watery tart might throw a sword at you in some farcical aquatic ceremony, if you're very lucky.
Tolerance, sort of All things considered, Rome was tolerant of different pantheons and modes of worship. There was a lot of syncretism, or blending of religious beliefs, happening, from the outer provinces to the city Rome itself. I imagine it was a practical choice on the part of the Roman authorities not to be zealots. There were a lot of people being absorbed into the empire every day. Asking those folks to pay your taxes, follow your laws, submit to your government, and give up their religion for yours is maybe a bit much.
Mithraism is one example of syncretism: it started off in Persia, and eventually became the hip secret cult-of-choice for Roman soldiers of good standing. Followers worshipped Mithras, an Iranian deity whose big thing was bull murder. Mithraism wasn't kept secret because it had to be -- the Roman authorities were alright with it, and even members of the Praetorian Guard practiced. It was secret so that Mithraists felt like it was an exclusive club; as it didn't directly compete with the imperial cult or interfere with empire building, the authorities let it happen.
I'm also happy to report that I've found my favorite religious symbol of all time. In Sacred Britannia by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, there's a description of a syncretic war god favored by Roman legionnaires of Germanic origins.
Sometimes, army-recruits brought their own local gods to Britain with them, already linked up with Mars. One such was Mars Thincsus, worshipped by a German military unit at the wall-fort of Housesteads in Northumbria. Thincsus was a Germanic deity who migrated to Britain with the German cohort... His devotees set up a sanctuary to him here; of a once imposing temple-building, an incribed altar and an associated fragmentary carved stone arch from a gateway survive...The arch depicts the war-god holding his sword, shield and spear, and accompanied by a goose, a symbol of alertness and aggression; he is flanked by two naked goddesses, members of the Alaisiagae, each bearing a sword and a victory-wreath. While Thincsus was assimilated with Mars, the Alaisiagae remained determinedly foreign, German goddesses who escaped overt linkage with 'romanitas'.
Geese seem to have been popular birds with Romano-Germanic gods of war: far away in Caerwent, South Wales, the Silures worshipped a Treveran god named 'Mars Lenus or Ocelus Vellaunus'. This god's name was inscribed on the base of a statue that has virtually disappeared, except for a pair of human feet standing next to those of a goose.
As someone who has hissed back at a pissed off goose while taking a nice jog more than once, I can confirm that geese are indeed very fucking mean, and not afraid of anything. Using them as a symbol of war resonates with me deeply and I am very excited for the Goose Legion to make a cameo in the book.
Maybe more important than the geese here is the principle this establishes. Just as soldiers came from all over the empire, were of different backgrounds, and whose traditional fighting styles were often incorporated and used to great effect by the Roman army, the people who colonized new provinces brought their gods and symbols with them. They'd slap a Roman name on the beginning or end of the name of their deity, but generally worshipping who you wanted to seemed to be alright enough with the Roman leaders, at least until Christianity really took off. I suppose when you have so many potential sources of strife and revolt in your gigantic, unstable empire, it pays to let some stuff go.
Tolerance, but not really There were some big honking (GET IT) exceptions to this tolerance. Rome really hated any religion that interfered with people paying their taxes and/or worshipping the imperial cult of the emperor and his family. There were two rebellions happening in the '60s that were related to that Roman insecurity: six years after the Boudican rebellion was crushed and Suetonius burned Angelsey (Druid Central) to the ground, there was an unsuccessful rebellion in Judea that happened for many of the same reasons.
As I mentioned in the last email, a lot of the description of Druids and Britons by Roman historians was likely calculated fear-mongering. As much of it was written after the Druids had been wiped out, I'm willing to make a narrative bet that the point of the writing wasn't to preserve historical record, but to prove a point of why you don't want to foment rebellion against the empire. In Issue 2 there's a sequence introducing a historian and his protégé (whose name is Timoleon, an Actual Roman Name that also allows me to nickname a character Timmy! I mean, come on). In those pages they discuss the nature of their job: to tell a story that makes sense given what they know, and to fill in the blanks with best-guesses. Above all, their job is to support the imperial cult and the institutions of the empire: they are not supposed to piss off the emperor with things like the truth.
All of this is to say that I think I've sorted out what I want the religion of the Iceni, and Gwyn's initiation into druidism to look like. Rather than being rebel leaders, I'd like the druids to be pacifists and observers in the extreme: their function is to record, preserve, and share their observations about the natural and human worlds, to carry out rituals, and to chat with the Otherworld when it's necessary. They have no mother or father gods, and therefore no respect for a cult that holds an emperor up as a father-god, but their resistance to the Roman occupation is ultimately passive. The druids' assumption that their practices won't be seen by the Romans as murderable offenses will be their downfall.
DUN DUN DUNNNN
Thanks for breaking your embargo on impolite conversation for me!