Blood and Bulls
Rome’s pagan religions were once spectacular. The Cybeline priests dressed as women and castrated themselves in the city streets.
Pagan belief wasn’t just a matter of holy days and celebrations, though. The Gods, many and varied as they were, were woven into the fabric of state. Take Cybele again. Her cult in Rome was small and politically insignificant until the Punic wars.
Her partisans in the Senate insisted Cybele would deliver Rome from Hannibal; when Rome was victorious, the Senate enthusiastically brought her worship to Rome, and built her a shrine on the Palatine hill. There, along with the older Gods of Rome, she watched over the business of the Roman government, giving her implicit assent to the Senate’s actions. In the Republic, statues of the Gods were sometimes arranged to share meals with the Senate, usually to thank them for military victory or to propitiate them following its defeat.
Today, Cybele is gone from the Palatine Hill, along with the other Gods and the power of the Senate. Rome, dwindling and no longer the home of the Gods, is a city spiritually wounded. Some of those wounds are easily filled by the Church of Christ, but some become abcessed.
The Great Foreign Gods
Rome’s most popular Gods, particularly those whose cults survive underground, were imported within the memory of elders.
Isis: In the centuries before Christianity, Romans embraced a series of cults of supreme Gods, who were seen as the highest among their pantheons. In her native Egypt, Isis was the wife of her twin, Osiris, who she coupled with even in her mother’s womb. Osiris was murdered and dismembered by their other brother, Set. Isis, however, was able to find most of his body and bring him back to life. Osiris lacked only his penis; but Isis’ generative powers were so great that she could still conceive.
The Isis myth is genuinely ancient (Mekhet elders say that she was old when their sires were young), but her cult might never have found Rome if she had not been attached to another deity, Serapis.
When Alexander the Great died, his general Ptolemy became king of Egypt. Ptolemy saw strife between priests of the Egyptian and Greek deities, and so recruited the two wisest and most cunning priests in Alexandria. He employed them to create a new deity, one who would unite followers of Gods from both pantheons.
At the priests’ instruction, Ptolemy procured a nameless and foreboding Greek idol and christened it Serapis. Serapis combined the traits of several deities. The priests’ cleverest move was explaining Serapis’ connection to Osiris. The Egyptian priests led the worship of Osiris’ Ka, which was only one-ninth of the Egyptian soul. Ptolemy’s priests declared that Serapis possessed Osiris’ Ka–but also his entire soul, and so his cult was greater than that of Osiris.
With his wife, still Isis, Serapis was exported all along the Nile and then abroad. Isis, with her impressive resume, gradually began to dominate the worship of their followers. By the time she was brought to Rome, she had been declared Queen of Heaven and greater than all other Gods.
Isis is also a good example of how faith could divide the dead long before Christianity.
The Daeva consider themselves the priests and priestesses of a feminine deity, whose husband died and who raised him from the dead, along with their line’s sire (usually called Lilith). Some Daeva, therefore, took enthusiastically to the worship of Isis, seeing her as an equivalent to Inanna, Ishtar, or other Gods of their sires.
Others, however, viewed her as an enemy; her mortal cult performed rituals with alignment to the sun and fertility, neither of which they thought appropriate for the Goddess who raised the Dark Maiden.
Since the rise of Christianity, many pagan dead believe they were right, that Isis was a forerunner of the hated Christians. They see parallels between the Virgin Mary of the Christians and Lancea et Sanctum and Isis, Queen of Heaven. This bitter memory has been enough to quiet those who would venerate the mother of Longinus (a prostitute and, some say, murderess).
Still, such a cult seems almost inevitable.
Cybele: Cybele, so the story goes, was a Goddess who admired a young shepherd named Attis. Unfortunately for Attis, Cybele witnessed him having sex with another woman, and struck him with madness as revenge. Attis castrated himself, and swiftly bled to death. The gory spectacle moved Cybele to mercy, and she resurrected him from the dead.
Rome did not adopt Cybele in her role as a fertility Goddess, however. When Rome seemed destined to fall beneath Hannibal, Cybele’s worshipers preached that she could deliver victory over the Carthaginian invader. Indeed, they said, it had already been foretold, and they displayed prophecies to prove it. The prophecies were confirmed by the oracle of Delphi, representative of the popular Greek God Apollo.
The Senate made a sacrifice to Cybele, and when she delivered the promised victory, they welcomed her to Palatine Hill. She was brought before them in a fragment of a fallen star, which was enshrined in a new temple.
Once again, the Daeva see easy parallels with the story of Inanna and Lilith, and the claim that Attis died from madness rather than direct violence appeals to them. Many of them came to Rome already devoted Cybelines. The Gangrel find something to admire in self-mutilation, in overcoming pain through devotion to God. The Julii never took to the worship of Cybele. The Punic wars were a pperiod of relatively slow Embrace, so few living Cybelenes were brought into the fold.
Vampiric rites venerating Cybele often feature the castration of dead priests. The castration of Attis is performed with all the attendant spectacle of mortal celebrations, but just before dawn instead of at high noon. The next night, the worshipers awake, and the priest regrows his genitals, even as he rises from the sleep of the dead.
The living still use the temples as landmarks. A traveller who asks for directions will be oriented with reference to a temple of Apollo or Minerva.
Yet, they are beginning to forget. They simply describe the building by its facade, or by the faceless statue standing in front of it. The Gods have been cast out of their houses. Many Christians won’t even set foot upon grounds once consecrated to the old Gods, except to leave their garbage.
The earliest temples that still stand are built of wood. They occupy rectangular lots originally set aside for priests to contemplate the night sky. To divine the future, these augurs required an open view of the night sky to the horizon. Thus, they were set on high ground or facing away from obstacles. The most important feature of the temple was the boundary lines, which could be marked with walls, cloth, or even shallow trenches.
The Cult of Augurs remembers these temples. Many still mark out consecrated spaces, sprinkling blood and salt along a carefully-determined rectangle. Yet, it is hard to see the sky in Rome, with buildings crushed against each other, rising two and three stories, and with the smoke and vapors of the city rising. Some priests complain that they cannot tell the future with these obstacles, while others cry blood or cackle with sick delight, concluding that there is nothing left to see. The Eternal City has been tall and crowded for centuries, but the arguments of dead priests rarely change.
Temples from more recent centuries are made of stone, a practice imported from Greece. They are fronted with imposing facades, and often arranged in rows, creating long, imposing blocks of black against the sky. Marble also became common for a time, though usually only as decoration. Temples once pale and gleaming in the moonlight are now defaced with chunks of darkness where the marble has fallen or is being quarried away.
Those statues that still stand in or before their temples are pock-marked with chipped paint and obscene graffiti, and many of the terra cotta roofs lie in pieces in the street, drifting like Autumn leaves and without regard for the boundaries of sacred space.
The other vital piece of a temple was the altar, where sacrifices (of produce, animals or, by night, men) were offered. The altars of the most popular Gods were crowded with treasure donated by conquering generals and wealthy devotees, and every being worth praying to had at least one interesting artifact. The humblest might have only the broken bowls of beggars, but those possessions were once dear as well.
These treasures are long since vanished. Most were looted, by Christians or common thieves or even by the Senate, to pay for some long-forgotten war. For any given temple, though, there is a tale of how the priests escaped with gold and gems and hid them underground, and how a keen young man might find it. These are the tales young men tell each other, for they do not know the world beneath.
Through fires and rebuilding, many temples have effectively sunk into Necropolis, and those still see use. Some are still places of worship, where Gods selected by the Propinqui are revered by solemn dead. Others have become havens, stuffed with the bodies of whole broods or coteries during their daily sleep.
In previous decades and centuries, when a temple fell or burned, it was almost always rebuilt eventually. The God housed within might change, but the space was still sacred, and, more to the point, available. Today, however, the fortunes of Rome have declined; even if the worship of pagan Gods was still permitted, there are fewer wealthy patrons to endow the temples.
Cults of One
The Romans’ former policy of tolerance left each individual or household to choose their own Gods, as long as they paid lip-service to the Gods of the Roman state has created tremendous diversity. No Roman knows how many Gods are worshiped in the city; even if he could count the temples, the worshipers have gone home, driven out by soldiers.
In this way, the rise of Christianity has only made the pagan faiths harder to count. They worship in caves or in darkened houses, or quietly in the insulae to avoid the hearing of Christian neighbors. Even a soldier who evicts worshipers from a pagan temple may retreat to a cave with his fellows to sacrifice a bull to Mithras. Religion among the Romans is and always has been personal.
How does a pagan cult spread? They don’t generally inspire mass conversions in the sense Christianity does. Most Gods attract worshipers by recommendation from one friend to another, or by being passed down from father to son or mother to daughter. Many Romans perform peculiar rituals whose origin–or patron–they can not even say, if asked.
Every fifth day, a man pricks his finger and smears a design of three pillars upon the south wall of his room. He doesn’t know why he does it; perhaps he picked it up when he was a soldier, or his father taught it to him. What he does know is that if he does not do it, he has nightmares of a beautiful woman whose eyes are obscured by smoke. She caresses him until dawn with fingers like razors. So he performs his little ritual, even as he mutters a prayer to his savior Christ.
This kind of uncertainty haunts Christians and pagans alike, and particularly those who don’t know which they are. A woman’s mother sacrifices a chicken to Juno and sprinkles its blood across the garden. The daughter cares for the old woman with some embarrassment, chiding her for ridiculous pagan practices, but never quite arriving in time to save the chicken. When her mother dies, she finds herself conducting the sacrifice in her absence. Her children chide her, but they let her alone, and she knows they will carry on the practice when she, too passes on.
The laws of the dead exempt them from the laws of the living, but the laws of Gods and spirits are something else. Many of the dead adapt personal spiritual practices to take with them into the long night. Indeed, compared to pagan Roman life, death in Necropolis has a paucity of public ritual, making personal practices even more important.
Early Roman spirituality was heavily animistic, and the people of Rome carry its little legacies to this day. Many family or personal rituals descend from obeisances to the spirits of the hearth or the threshold.
Players and Storytellers familiar with the modern World of Darkness know that there are many spirits that personify the natural world and attend to mortal thoughts. Are they the same ones the Romans believed in? Could they have inspired not only Roman ritual but even its famous Gods? That’s up to you; we’re referring to practices that vampires will see in Rome, not importing the mechanics of the present day.
The dead, of course, have their own spirit legends. They speak of owl-cries in the desert which precede delirious visions, of witch-corpses who tell tales in groves long ago given over to the weeds.
Though each clan of the dead keeps its own Masquerade, and the Christian priests rant ecstatically about eternal paradise and the evils of consorting with spirits, many Romans know that the dead do not entirely depart the living. The vast weight of pagan and Christian beliefs has not yet crushed the belief that the living can still reach out to the dead, and vice versa. After all, how could it crush love?
Ancestor worship is a household cult, with each family having their own rituals, their own ways of remembering lost fathers and grandfathers. There are almost always gifts or sacrifices; often these are buried in the ground or immolated in the hearth. Some treat their ancestors like minor gods, leaving a slaughtered, but whole, animal in the place of memory for a night or two.
There are always stories, too. When a man dies, the only stories told are of his life; what used to make him laugh, what he was like when he was angry. His daughter might retell stories he in turn told about the war, or about his own father. As years go by, though, as the father becomes a grandfather, the stories grow. His daughter, cradling a child, tells him about the time their landlord’s bully-boys tried to throw the family out, and how her father brought her gold coins, even though she had neglected his sacrifice. She tells him about his older brother, who died in his blankets, and how her father returned that night to hold her.
In her later years, graying and weak, she tells only good things about her father, because she knows she goes to join him soon. She cautions her children to only speak well of the dead, and never to forget the sacrifice.
Rituals for ancestors are usually simple affairs, particularly tonight. The exception used to be the Parentalia, from February 13th to the 21st. During the Parentalia, the temples were closed and no business was conducted, for fear of retribution from the dead, whose jealousy frightened even the Gods. Dinners were held in honor of parents and siblings gone.
The poet Ovid, still read tonight, warns of a Parentalia which was neglected. He describes tremendous losses at war and to plague, and funeral fires around the city. The dead, Ovid claims, rose in an army that night to take their due. Deformed, moaning creatures roamed the streets, taking any of their descendants they found back to the underworld with them.
Some elder Propinqui claim to remember this event, and recall it with satisfied smiles to their childer. They boast that once upon a time, the living denied the dead, and even lit fires over their tombs; they say that they entered the city in force with the Nosferatu to take vengeance. The living would not feast for the dead, and so the dead feasted upon the living.
Younger vampires listen, and they disbelieve. For though some of them still visit their families, they cannot imagine a night without Masquerade. Above, the living listen in their Christian churches during what was once the Parentalia, and they shiver. For it has been neglected for many years.
Quintus Crassus’ family remembers him for his wealth, and for his brush with greatness. They remember him for the fortune in real estate and slaves, which he left to them and which they have retained through Rome’s changing luck. They remember that he funded Julius Caesar in his bid for Praetor and later Consul.
They don’t remember him as an inveterate gambler and they don’t remember how he fell to the edge of ruin. Crassus was a talented architect, but a drunkard and a fool. He trusted easily, but everyone he trusted betrayed him, with two exceptions: his wife, Livonia, and his uncle, Lysander. Crassus wasn’t particularly close to his uncle when he was growing up; Lysander lived some ways outside the city, his father told him, in a grand villa. Quintus Crassus met him only a few times.
When Crassus was in his cups, and on the edge of ruin, though, his uncle came to see him. He promised the young man that if he did as he was told, he could have riches beyond what he had gambled away, beyond what he owed. The older man told Crassus that all he had to do was bring his wife and make sacrifice with her to honored relatives. The ritual was short, and confusing; Crassus passed out after sipping his uncle’s strange wine. Sure enough, though, his fortunes picked up. Not only did the customers his uncle introduced him to pay well, his luck at gambling improved; he was blessed.
The months passed and, in gratitude, Crassus set out to visit his uncle, bringing a cart full of gifts and his newborn son. He found Lysander’s villa, but the slaves did not recognize Lysander’s name. Confused, Crassus demanded to meet the owner of the house.
The man told Crassus that his uncle was many years dead, but that he himself owed his fortune to Lysander’s generousity. Lysander had left him the villa and slaves, though most of those who knew the old master were dead or freed. Crassus realized he had met a ghost, and drank heartily to thank his uncle.
His descendants do not know this story. Sometimes they are helped by a man with family features, or asked to do him small favors. They call him Quintus Crassus. But he is not Quintus, and he was not Lysander.
Vampires also venerate their ancestors, whether by blood mortal or eternal. Many broods, particularly among the Daeva, perform rituals of abasement before their sires, and address them in explicitly religious terms. Most, however, worship their sires and grandsires only after they have succumbed to torpor. They gather by their forebears’ moldy sepulchers and sing hymns of mourning and fear. Some broods Embrace only on these days; others shed no blood upon them.
Dead whose sires come from the Middle East tell stories of distant ancestors whose blood does not thin with torpor, and who, though mad and wild, can recall with perfect memory the deeds and names of their enemies. These are called Ancients, or among the Jews, Methuselahs.
They attempt to keep these creatures away through rituals that might be supplications or might be wards. The most common is to stake a mortal corpse as they would transfix a vampire, and to bury him at a crossroads in the world above. The dates vary, but the task is always performed in silence, lest the sound attract the Methuselahs’ attention.
The Julii perform a similar observance of their own on February 4th, in which they murder a young boy upon the floor of the Camarilla, then bury him in a shallow, stone-lined pit near the surface. The exact reason has changed with time. Tonight, they devote the sacrifice to Julius Senex, and they individually offer the same prayers and gifts they would to their immediate sires.
They remember, though, that the Senex himself once performed this ritual with them. Did he seek to propitiate Remus, or something else?