Do ut Des: Adventures in Roman Revivalism
A blog dedicated to talking about Roman Polytheism and how it can be applied to our modern lives through the eyes of a Revivalist.
Adorn the Dead with Roses
(image: Two hands in black and white cupping the bloom of a deep red rose)
I had tentatively started a post on the Roman months of May and June being filled with rose festivals and how the adornment of roses and violets marked both life and death in the Roman world during the months of May through mid-July. I was mentally filling this essay with how we could all stop to honor our Beloved Dead in the summer with roses and all the historical bits I could yank out of my tumbling, sometimes foggy mind.
And then on June 12th, while I drank my coffee, the news filtered in that there had been a mass shooting in Orlando.
If my heart sank in that moment, it broke when I discovered that it had happened in a gay bar during an event for the Latinx community, a community that includes some of the first people outside of high school friends to welcome me as bisexual and into the queer family in my early adulthood. Shock washed over me until the day after, when it finally sank in that, yes, this had happened. And yes, despite being straight-passing and having a few days of struggling with internalized biphobia, I slowly started to let it wash over me that many of my friends, family of blood, family of choice, and countless others I have loved and lost due to life and death have faced so, so much. Despite eventually marrying a cithet man, I had faced too much, and my experiences had been mild. The QUILTBAG(1) community had faced too much. But even more so the queer Latinx community has faced too much.
Here we were with 49 dead and 53 injured in one night. I had not been active in the community for years. I have straight-passing privilege, for all its blessings and curses. I've always inhabited some uncomfortable liminal space between the queer world and the straight world, which I've now discovered brings up all kinds of emotional responses in times like this I'd not anticipated. And with this knowledge, I examine my own pain and understand that it is a drop in the bucket compared to many, those directly effected, those who are POC, and those who have simply lived their lives openly and obviously. My pain is there, yes, and I grieve. I grieve harder than I would have expected myself to grieve.
I bring this up on this blog, because it came into direct alignment with the topic that I had been planning to write about this month, the rites including roses and violets of Ancient Rome, and to a lesser extent the surrounding Hellenic world. You see, May through sometime in July, when the roses are blooming, the people of Rome from civic-level to private clubs to families, adorned both Gods and the Dead with roses.
The rose in Ancient Rome meant many things. You find them painted in tombs, which represented both the rite of the Rosalia, a littering of roses, and the hope of a blessed afterlife. In the Roman case regularly this means that proper rites bring you into the group of Lares Familiares , whom are deified ancestors of family lines. The deep reds and purples of roses and violets both invoke the understanding that the Dead live on in family lines. Those who are remembered never truly die.
I remember driving in downtown Des Moines with friends in my early queer and out about it days in the late 90s, singing We are Family and scooping(2) what was called the Gay Loop. Not all of us were out. Some of us at the time hadn't even come out to each other, and some of us remained allies as we aged. But we were family in a town where homophobia was pretty constant, and our elders hid in plain sight referring to each other as sisters and brothers instead of partners and lovers. Those of us who were underage and couldn't go to the one or two gay bars in the city quietly congregated in other spaces where others didn't tend to go at night.
We are family.
Those who have died this week were in a community place where they were allowed to be themselves and were supposed to be safe. Suddenly my generation and those who are younger have been hit with the realization that, for all the work that has been done, for all the same-sex couples kissing on TV and the celebration of marriage equality that happened, we aren't safe. These small triumphs are overshadowed by the understanding that at least 200 anti-LGBTQA++ bills were introduced in this country in only the first 10 weeks of 2016 (Griffin) and that our people, especially our POC, are murdered regularly without so much as a glance from mainstream media. No blip on the screen scrolling at the bottom of the newsfeed. Nothing. Silence.
We aren't safe, some more than others, and if we who are white try to erase that fact we are erasing the identity of those we call family. If that stings, then we should realize that it's because we usually know what it's like to have a key part of who we are erased and ignored.
We're scared. I understand I am safer than not just many but most. My attention has quickly turned to using my privilege in a way that hopefully breaks down the barriers of those who are fighting simply to survive. I'm still scared for those who don't have the safety of passing.
And we turn to the family that is the community built of those in the queer alphabet. I will continue to fight for my family and friends, because as long as they are not safe in the world I am not comfortable in my own safety.
The injured are our family. The Dead are our family.
They are family, extended family, yes, but family all the same. To those of us in the QUILTBAG family, we celebrate family of choice. So many have tenuous at best relationships with their family of birth. We gather in vigils for the Dead. We honor them by name. We are talking and demanding people listen. We love. The joy of marriage equality waned and passed for the straight majority, and those of us who were fighting for it are still here trying to get the rest of our work done. Our love and simply living are still revolutionary acts. We raise children with the hope that we will somehow beat society's lessons, and we hope that these children will grow to be loving, accepting adults who will advocate and demand their world be safe.
Like Stonewall, the Upstairs Lounge, and those lost to AIDS in the 80s, what happened at Pulse in Orlando will live on and the 49 Dead will be remembered. And as a polytheist with heavy roots in Roman traditions, we honor our Ancestors and the Dead. Those who died will continue to be our communal family, being added to our Ancestors as the years to come.
I've stewed over the last few days as to how my household was going to honor these spirits. I want to save my daughter from the reality of how unsafe it is to be queer in the world for now. She is so young. Her mother is queer. Her best friend has two moms. She has a long list of people referred to as aunts and uncles, and they are part of the QUILTBAG community, too. At the same time, the pious thing to do is to honor our Dead, and so we will.
In years to come, my household will be marking the 12th as a day where no rites will take place, even the household ones, though we will likely honor the year's Dead from the queer community and ideally by name. We'll call this day inauspicious. The Romans marked these days as a community, typically due to great military or civic loss, and we will do so as well.
For now, though, we wait the 9 days from death to approach the household shrine, because we are in mourning. 9 days is the traditional Roman polytheist space of time for deep, deep mourning. On the 21st, we will celebrate the lives of those who were lost, symbolically welcoming them into our collective Lares in our home and the greater community. I can think of nothing more perfect than a rose adornment ritual, which was so collectively meaningful that it survived in the Cult of Saints and made its way to America in our burial practice of placing roses on the Dead's casket.
The rose, a symbol of both youth and death, was meant to show life taken too soon, a sentiment that I felt all too heavily as the names of the dead at Pulse were released with their ages. Too young. Too soon. So much that could have been done with those lives taken from the mortal world too early.
The red rose, in our modern American culture regularly a symbol of true love. The love of the Dead considered a radical act. It seems eloquently fitting.
I will build the shrine with the names of the Dead turned Ancestors, just as I've murmured their names in the passing days as my fingers have run over prayer beads in the morning, hoping to ease the transition for Them. Hoping to burn away Their terror and fear. Hoping to offer Them peace.
I will adorn Their shrine with roses. As many as I can afford. All the color red.
I will offer them wine and cornmeal mixed with salt.
I will offer them a plate of food at our table as we sit down for dinner, welcoming them as members of my home should they wish to be here with us.
The next day I will get up, and I will live my life. I will write to my elected officials again and again and again, just as I've been doing for years, because one day I hope they will listen. I hope they don't forget the lives of those ripped from us this week; that maybe, just maybe, they will come to realize that POC and LGBTQIA+ lives matter. I cannot lose hope. I will not lose hope, even when there seems so little hope left. The loss of hope will take my will to fight.
And let me tell you a secret...
If it's needed, I'll still be fighting when I'm dead.
1. Queer or questioning, undecided, intersex, lesbian, trans*, bisexual, asexual, gay or genderqueer.
2. A Central Iowan term for driving around in a giant circle over and over again on an established path. The major weekend activity of many Iowan teenagers of the 90s.
Brenk, Frederick E. "7. "Purpureos Spargum Flores": A Greek Motif in the Aeneid?" Clothed in Purple Light: Studies in Vergil and in Latin Literature, including Aspects of Philosophy, Religion, Magic, Judaism, and the New Testament Background. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1999. N. pag. Print.
Griffin, Chad. "The Path Forward on LGBT Equality." Medium. N.p., 24 Mar. 2016. Web. 16 June 2016.
Toynbee, J. M. C. Death and Burial in the Roman World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1971. Print.
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