Mystic & The Mind: Of Mental and Spiritual Health

The landscape of mental health and spirituality in relation to the Pagan and Polytheist experience is vast and regularly uncharted territory. How can we gather the tools to help those that are experiencing spiritual emergence? What happens when emergence becomes an emergency? How can we support our community members who experience mental illness? And is it possible that there is a spectrum of experiences relating to mental health and spiritual transformation instead of a dichotomy? This blog explores the realm of mental health's intersection with spiritual health, both from a personal perspective and an academic one.

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Unpacking Piety

Do ut des means “I give so that you may give.” It is one of the defining points of Roman polytheism, and it is the most important. It is in these 3 Latin words that we can lay out how the Romans viewed their Gods. It is in these 3 Latin words that we can lay out a different approach than what we likely grew up with in regard to relationships with the Gods and society as a whole.

Ask someone in the Pagan community about Roman polytheism and you will regularly hear that it was contractual to the point of lifelessness. Actually, ask a lot of Roman polytheists the same, and they will repeat that statement as well, preferring to take the outdated tone of early scholars of the Roman religion, who regularly were Christian and carrying on a long tradition of upholding their perceived superiority through biased writing and opinion.

So allow me to start off this piece of writing by stating explicitly that the view of bland and superficial business contract is one that comes from the vantage point of the early Christian writers and is solely based on propaganda. Within this view do ut des reduced to the stereotype of business contract, and while it is used as a legal term it reaches far beyond legal contract, which we will touch upon momentarily.

The Christian God's covenant is one of moral actions and held beliefs in the form of a covenant, and in return, He1 watches over His people, making sure they don't lapse from their contract of religious morality. If they do, He tries to bring His people back into the fold so that they may be rewarded at the end of their lives. The Christian God defines how people are to act in all aspects of their lives, and it plays a rather all-encompassing role within the Abrahamic religions, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. It is because of this that many of us are unable to remove morality and philosophy from our religions, because even if, like myself, you weren't raised within Christianity, you were raised within a society that embraced the morality brought forth by the religions as a whole.

And really? Not all of it is necessarily bad. Moral codes are excellent things to live by. Philosophy makes life richer. We should all evaluate our actions and beliefs. In fact, we should challenge them in order to grow. But that doesn't necessarily have to come from the same place as our religion.

Attachment to a specific moral or philosophic code isn't something that the Roman Gods ask of their people, save for possibly mystery cults or philosophical schools directly tied to Gods. If you have been raised in an environment like that of the modern United States with many Christian roots, it can be hard to imagine Gods relating and working with humans in other ways until you've had direct experience with that, but it is exactly what it is. Each God regularly comes with their own set of moral expectations and desires if you work with them long enough, sometimes contradictory to another God you are working with. Just like working in human relationships of any kind, one cannot expect our friend James to like oranges just because the last person we visited with did.

Morality has nothing to do with Roman polytheism, and that isn't a bad thing. If we break a conduct rule, we don't have to be concerned that our Gods are going to punish us for eternity. And unless the breach of contract was truly egregious and ignored, we are likely safe as long as we make the proper apologies. While ancient Romans had concepts of the afterlife that sometimes played into specific cults, the religion sanctioned by the State was about making this life, specifically that of the community, a good one, which led to the religion of the home being about making the life of the household a good one. It was about a contract, yes, but that was a social contract that in turn extended out to the legal system. One must not forget that Romans believed their success was a direct result of their piety, and therefore no aspect of their lives was left untouched by their religion, held in mirrored symmetry with the most important social construct of Rome: The family.

Do ut des, I give so that you may give, is the basis of piety as the Romans saw it. It is not about contract in a business sense. It is about social contract, which encompasses our relationships not only with the Gods, but society as a whole. To the Ancient Romans and many modern Roman polytheists, all Gods of all sizes had a direct hand in the weave of society. For most, the Gods were not concepts or archetypes, but active players in every day life that have a specific role to assume. They are our Ancestors both celestial and infernal, They are the spirits of the land we walk on, and They are the “big guns” most think of when they think of the Roman pantheon. That is one of the reasons why the Romans are so infamous for having a God for every function – There is a God fulfilling very specific roles that no other can fill. It is mirrored in humans with our endless array of roles and jobs that we assume.

It is because of my Gods being real individuals that I accept piety as a key role in not only my religion but in every aspect of my life. For Roman polytheists, piety should not just be about our relations with the Gods. If we are reviving the religion of our Roman Ancestors, piety is about our relationship with humans, animals, and the land as well. Do ut des, the greatest expression of piety, is about social contract and fulfilling our obligations to our society, without denial that our world and society has active members who are not of the human condition.

And yes, I used the word obligation. We in the United States have not only been raised in a culture that is morally-inclined towards Christianity, but the last few generations have been raised to inherently believe that the individual is more important than the community. This isn't meant to be political commentary so much as it's simply a statement stressing that Americans as a whole are highly individualistic people, for better or worse. Our concept of social contract and obligation to our fellow citizens is skewed until in the face of crisis, when we see the very best of humanity reaching out to help those affected.

On top of this societal viewpoint, many of us come from a place where words like piety and obligation are negative. As individuals we use obligation in a way that carries a lot of guilt behind it if we don't do something. Piety brings about the images of monastic life and being forced to go to a church we didn't believe in.

But the concept of piety is simply one of understanding your obligations to society and carrying them out, and it's naturally a neutral term. This is still part of our society. This is part of our culture. The place I can point to is taxes, which I understand many people hate, but we pay them with the understanding that we get something back from them... We give so that the government, which is created for and by our society, is able to give back to us in the form of public streets, schools, parks, and fire departments. And yes, I'm unable to remove my own political ideology from my religious beliefs, but at the same time my religious beliefs have greatly influenced my political ideology. However, my statement here is solely that of a text book example, in reality not perfect, but how things were set up to work.

Another example of social contract is that, as a parent, I'm expected to make sure my child is taken care of. If I don't, my child will be taken away from me. I'm obligated to take care of her. Some days that job is not so easy, but it's one I do because that is my place in her life. Obligation is simply expectations that come with the many roles we fulfill in our lives. It is a neutral term. The emotions we place on those obligations are our own to deal with, and we are equally obligated to speak up with expectations of our contracts with the greater society that do not match our deeply held convictions or we are being asked too much. Part of the American social contract is to protest when things are not aligning with our values as Americans and what we consider our inalienable rights to be.

Where I think we get hung up as modern people is that religious obligation has emotionally been a place of being forced to participate in religions that have not aligned with our values of beliefs and personhood, and when we were not able to fulfill these expectations, obligation turned into a place of guilt and shame. I hope we find a way to not force our children to experience those same feelings towards our Gods, because I feel that's not the way we are meant to approach the Gods.

But we are adults. Consenting ones at that. Adults who are capable of navigating our relationships with the Gods. We aren't even obligated to fulfill the contracts that the Romans had with the Gods, unless we are asked to do so. However, we can use their system as a way to approach the Gods, and in doing so we are able to have a clear definition of what is expected of us, making it easier to navigate the relationships we have with Them.

It's regularly said that sacrifice is gift-giving. It's stressed that reciprocal gift-giving was an intrinsic part of society for the ancients as if this isn't how our society works today. Perhaps we think of gifts as packages wrapped in pretty paper that we never get anything back for... This is not what is meant when we speak of offering and sacrifice.

Again, it comes back to social contract. To pretend that our various social roles do not act in this manner still today is ignoring the very nature of society. We give so that others may give, and it is cyclical.

We pay the farmers money in exchange for food, so that they may buy what they need while we feed our families. This is a cycle. My family eats the food, the farmer grows more food, I go back to the farmer to buy said food. And so on and so forth. If I don't pay the farmer for the food in some way, in the end we both go hungry.

As a Roman polytheist, this sort of basic social contract is the cornerstone of what piety is. If we accept and understand that pietas, piety, as what we consider right and good as citizens of a greater community, we accept that we cultivate a myriad of relationships with any and all members of this world. If we accept that in our understanding of the way things are, the Gods of all sizes are part of our greater society, we accept that They also deserve Their piece of what we have. We give Them what They've earned by being part of our lives, watching out for us, and playing Their part. This is what it means when it's said the Gods are like parents... They watch after us. They care for us. They do not punish us unless we've stepped outside of the contracts we have as humans, which varies from God to God, obviously.

But to practice cultus, to cultivate a relationship with the Gods is to invite Them into our lives and social groupings. This means that the right thing, the pious thing to do is give Them Their piece of the what we have in order to take care of Them as we would a beloved family member, and in return if They accept it then They can give back to us. What those offerings are is between the Gods and those offering, which means that it may be an agreement of actions, energy, or objects, but all of these things are ways we are able to offer to the Gods if They will have it.

Pretending that this reciprocal relationship between the Gods and humans is superficial or cold is allowing the very nature of all healthy human relationships to go unexamined. If the Gods provide for us, we, too, should provide for the Gods.

Religion is about the community of all Powers and souls involved being in a reciprocal relationship, because if we accept the Gods are real then we also accept that even the solitary practitioner is never truly alone in their worship.

If we don't get anything at all out of the relationship with Them, are we likely to stay in that religion?

The Gods come. They answer our prayers. They watch after us.

And in return we should do the same for Them.




1. You will see my capitalization in regards to the Christian God. This is due to my acceptance that He is a God, though I am not part of His tribe and therefore am not held by His covenants. I do not, however, reject His existence. That means that I afford Him the very basic signs of respect due to Him being a God while I, myself, am a human. He's simply not my God.

Photo: "My Heart is Hers" by Sean McGrath, under creative commons license

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Camilla Laurentine is a mother, artist, writer, and craftswoman wandering about Memphis, TN. She is a Roman Revivalist and American Pagan. Her path is a living, continuously changing entity that could best be described as a syncretic blend of the Continental Europe, honoring a careful balance of Spirit-informed gnosis and scholarly study. She has big dreams of building temples and a safe sanctuary for those struggling with spiritual and mental health issues. Camilla is a sibyl and teacher, available for spiritual consultation and mentoring. You can find her jewelry and art at her Etsy shop: Wunderkammer by C. Laurentine -  


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