Taking the auspices

I notice birds.

White-headed Munia
Hildegard & Alexander were White-Headed Nuns

I began to notice birds back around 1992, when my then-husband and I brought a pair of tiny exotic finches into our home. We named them Hildegard and Alexander. Two years later, we added zebra finches whom we called Papageno and Rosamund to our flock. I used to refer to them as the home entertainment center because watching their interactions was better than TV.

I began to notice outside birds, and of course, I still do. That pair of finches inaugurated a life-long love affair with our avian friends. Wherever I go, I’m attuned to the presence of birds. Even seeing some house sparrows brightens my day. I was thrilled the other day when I spotted a pair of goldfinches feeding on what I think were echinacea flowers outside a 7-11.

The Romans also noticed birds. The word “auspices” comes from Latin and is a contraction of “avis” and “specere”, literally, to look at birds. They divined by laying out a sacred space and watching the sky for the movement of particular birds. They also consulted sacred chickens (never insult the sacred chickens, it’s bad luck).

Taking the auspices relies mainly on watching for unusual patterns of bird activity. But I look at the normal bird activity in my East Coast U.S. city and think about the gods who are patrons of the birds I see.

rock_dove_rwd2Take pigeons, for example. Pigeons have a bad rep, but they are technically feral rock doves. Their ancestors were domesticated for thousands of years, for their meat and for their companionship. Doves belong to Venus and Aphrodite, so that includes the humble urban pigeon and the fancier mourning dove, one of my favorite birds with its soft subtle colors and hollow crooning call.

I think songbirds, too, belong to Venus, though that’s my own headcanon (or UPG, if you prefer). That includes the invasive house sparrows and starlings and the native sparrows and goldfinches who populate the city, and the juncos who winter here. I’d assign her the cardinal, too, who pair-bonds as devotedly as the dove.

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Large and loud

We also have a lot of Canada geese who used to winter here and then just never went home. (I’ve started calling them Chesapeake geese.) Geese belong to Juno and were kept at her temple in Rome, where they warned the citizens of a Gaulish invasion. Juno was given the title “Moneta”, the warner or admonisher, in gratitude; because coins were struck at the temple, currency acquired the name “money”.

Crows and ravens belong to Apollo. I don’t see ravens in my urban neighborhood, but there are lots of crows. I have a probably bad habit of cawing back at them when I hear their slightly nasal “awk, awk” coming from overhead.

The eagle belongs to Jupiter. I have actually seen bald eagles near my workplace, because it lies close to the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. I once watched in astonishment as a mockingbird attacked a bald eagle, swooping and even ramming the much larger bird, which simply sat there atop the power lines with a long-suffering air. I would tend to associate other raptors with Jupiter, too. We have a peregrine falcon nest atop one of our skyscrapers that has been in use for decades, and I’ve seen smaller hawks, too.

longwood_2012_10_20_1074_28867391559029You might be surprised to know that a bird I see frequently and all over the city is the Northern mockingbird. This is entirely my headcanon, but I can’t help thinking a bird whose scientific name is Mimus polyglottis, and who can imitate everything from another species of bird to those obnoxious car alarms that go through half a dozen noises, has to belong to Mercury. They are clever and also fearless, whether of humans or of other birds; threaten a mocker’s territory at your own risk.

As trees belong to Silvanus, flowers to Flora, the seasons to Vertumnus, so the birds belong to different gods and embody their presence. And I wonder what gods or spirits or numina (to borrow a very useful Roman word) watch over the companion birds in our lives? The highly popular cockatiel, budgerigar, and zebra finch all hail originally from Australia; other popular birds come from Africa and South America. I am grateful to those unknown numina for the birds who have shared my home.

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My boy

Let’s talk about something else

There are a number of topics I’d rather not talk about right now, gentle readers, including but not limited to my hiatus in writing, whether trans women are really women (they are), and whether all goddesses manifest as Maidens, Mothers, and Crones (I think not). At a certain point one has to look at some of the shenanigans on the internet and say, “Not my circus, not my monkeys,” or perhaps, “Not my theology, not my deities.”
So let’s talk about something else. Here’s a suggestion: Are the Greek and Roman deities the same beings?

The ancient Greeks and Romans certainly identified their pantheons with one another. The Greeks interpreted the gods of Egypt in terms of their own gods; Zeus was Ammon or Amun, Dionysus was Osiris, Hermes was Thoth. The Romans interpreted the gods of the Celtic and Germanic tribes as Roman, building shrines and temples to Apollo Belenus and Mars Cocidios. Even late-comer Antinous was identified with Belenus.

So here is–I don’t want to call it my personal gnosis. Here are my impressions. Better yet, to borrow a fandom term, here are my headcanons about the gods, the things that are canonical for me, in my head.

Christian philosopher Nicholas of Cusa wrote that “God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”. He was thinking of the Christian god, but I would apply those words to Hestia and Vesta. The hearth goddess, the sacred fire whose presence creates home and altar and temple, she is surely the infinite center of a circle whose circumference is everywhere and nowhere.

If I were to draw a Venn diagram of Hermes and Mercury, their two circles would overlap almost entirely. Hermes is a bit more tricksterish, Mercury concerned a bit more with business and commerce. But I tend to invoke them in the same breath, and to honor them together with Thoth, Seshat (the Egyptian goddess of records, archives, and libraries), and Hermanubis (the son of Isis and Serapis).

Aphrodite and Venus, on the other hand, seem to me to be quite distinct. My mental image of Aphrodite is of a golden-haired beauty who appears to be in her twenties, although if you look into her eyes, you see she is much older. My mental image of Venus is of a dark-haired woman in her forties–okay, basically my mental image of Venus is Gina Bell as Sophie Devereaux in Leverage. Dark-haired, olive-skinned, always perfectly dressed, and simultaneously the mom friend in any gathering and the embodiment of what a man desires in a woman, able to show each particular man the face he desires to see.

I have to admit that my perspective on Zeus and Hera has been influenced perhaps beyond saving by the myths about them I read as a child. I know intellectually that Zeus is more than the chronically unfaithful dad, Hera more than the scold who hides her hurt beyond anger at the wrong targets, but my emotions say Nope. Jupiter and Juno are easier for me to relate to, separately from those myths and from Zeus and Hera, as the god and goddess of the sky, of rain and cloud and weather, and as the granters and guardians of sovereignty, along with Minerva. They were worshipped as a triad on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, and I tend to approach them that way. Jupiter guards the sovereignty of the state and desires that it be good and just. Juno guards the sovereignty of women and, by extension, other minorities. Minerva guards what I would call intellectual integrity, public reputation, virtuous conduct as a citizen.

Apollo is just the same everywhere. The Romans were quite direct about having imported him, and likewise Dionysus, even if they called him Bacchus. I don’t have much relationship with Diana or Artemis, but my headcanon is that they are not the same goddess, but have closely overlapping interests. Demeter, Persephone, and Hades are such major deities for me that I have little sense of Ceres, Proserpina, and Dis Pater at all. My headcanon for Demeter, incidentally, is absolutely Majel Barrett as Lwaxana Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. She even calls her daughter “little one” instead of her given name.

So that’s the end of my round in this game, gentle readers. Stop by and tell me who you think is the same or different in the pantheons of Greece and Rome, or anywhere else.