literary_equine (literary_equine) wrote,

The Cult of Silvanus: A Study in Roman Folk Religion (A Critique)

My interest in Peter F. Dorcey's The Cult of Silvanus: A Study in Roman Folk Religion (the twentieth book in the Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition series) stems from my ongoing interest in how early Christianity spread through pagan Rome. Admittedly, the $153 price tag will keep this book out of the hands of the typical reader and I want to thank the individual who had the opportunity to put this in my hands. You have my deep gratitude as you contributed to my knowledge substantially.

There is evidence Silvanus was one of the most worshiped gods in the Roman pantheon, but little has survived of his cult due to his temples being sacred groves and much of his idols being made of wood. Though Dr. Dorcey admits he stands on the shoulders of researchers before him and gives them ample credit in his bibliography, Dorcey has done a lot of hard work in hunting down every trace and scrap of information on Silvanus he could find.

Silvanus was a rural god of agriculture, forests, and boundaries whose cult was amazingly widespread and though much of archeology has found his artifacts in Italy, the worship of Silvanus was widespread throughout the Roman Empire with evidence as far away as Britain, northeastern Africa and northern Germany. Eventually, as the farmlands were deserted by the lower and middle classes who ultimately huddled in cities, the cult of Silvanus became an urban religion that turned into an idealistic picture of the time when humanity dwelt in peace with nature, but a nature that with divine assistance was subdued under the hand of man. The closest counterpart we have today of this phenomenon is Christianity's ongoing fascination with Celtic Christianity and a desire to return to a simpler and more nobler time.

And what I find most interesting about Silvanus is that he is a "civilized" god, which is rather rare for a pagan god of nature.

This goes against today's ongoing assumption that pagans of old were at peace between themselves and a personal, pantheistic nature. In reality, the people of Europe during the times of the Pax Romana were just as terrified of a vast, impersonal nature as any other peoples. The cult of Silvanus dealt with a desire not to return to uncontrollable nature, but to return to Arcadia, the idealistic rural life of the farmer-philosopher at peace in his relationship with a nature partially under his civilizing hand.

In another example of Silvanus' civilized demeanor, unlike Faunus and Pan who were gods of untamed nature, violent and sexually capricious, Silvanus was a chaste god of cultivated land, man made boundaries, and tamed forests. Also, unlike Faunus who in his sexual, predatory nature, put women and even animals in danger, Silvanus is normally accompanied by female attendants, the Silvanae and Nymphs in an asexual relationship. Though no family relationship is implied between the two in the cult, the interaction between Silvanus and his female companions is almost like one of father to daughter.

Secondly, I appreciated Dorcey's research that there is no strong evidence that Silvanus was ultimately absorbed into the early Christian Church and made a saint. The name of Silvanus was a popular name and there is no evidence the plethora of Saint Silvanuses are the pagan god undergoing a Christian conversion.

The Cult of Silvanus is very much approachable by scholar and interested amateur alike. Though a knowledge of Latin and Greek is helpful to understand the footnotes, almost without exception these terms are interpreted in the body of the text. It's just a pity the price will keep this information out of the hands of people with a non-professional interest in the subject.

In closing, Dorcey has inadvertently proved the reality of the intellectual wasteland the Internet has become. A Google search for Silvanus will pull up much information, but most of it is incorrect. It is in thanks to research such as Doctor Dorcey's which will bring to light Silvanus' fascinating history and the now obscure reality of what was an important part of humanity's religious formation.

Again, my thanks to the person whose generosity and selflessness put this into my hands. It has been a fascinating and awesome read. The only setback is now I want to purchase a glass-enclosed bookcase to protect this very expensive gift. :-)

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