As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, there’s many a pagan—not necessarily Gaulish in orientation—who worships Nemetona for the perfectly understandable purpose of sanctifying a ‘sacred space’; similarly, I suspect that Cloacina has many worshippers who would not necessarily admit to having a strongly Roman affiliation. This, of course, is for the reason that she is (in the parlance of our times) the goddess of sewers.* From this circumstance flows a motley torrent of blog posts and goddess-a-day–type descriptions whose writers, affecting a chuckling incredulity, describe her as the goddess of filth and purity: oh the paradox! oh the silly ancients! However, there are, as I’m sure many of my readers will have realized, very serious reasons for building a good strong relationship with Cloacina—a relationship that requires no more blushing or double entendres than, say, changing a belovèd child’s diaper (on which more anon).
Sewers, of course, are places—conduits—courses of water. In the ordinary course of affairs, there are naturally deities of place, of passages, of bodies of water. If we take seriously the old maxim that the whole world is full of gods, then there is hardly any excuse for imagining that no deities will have anything to do with sewers. On the contrary, in addition to the considerations aforementioned, there is a further distinctive function that may engage a deity’s interest—namely that drains and sewers are indispensable to cleanliness and hygiene, particularly in densely populated areas. If you’ve ever lived or worked in a building where the water gets shut off for a day, or where the plumbing is suddenly not to be trusted, you’ll discover with a jolt how essentially drains really are in many domains of life … and if you’ve ever been so unfortunate as to live without running water, as many millions of people do, then you’ll know this lesson far better than I do.
Enter the goddess Cloacina in all her beauty. She is, in the first instance, the tutelary goddess of the Cloaca Maxima in Rome—a particular place, a particular sewer, that has its tutelary deities as any other would. But Cloacina has the special and wider vocation of bestowing cleanliness by the plain expedient of letting waste water reliably flow out. It is, therefore, simply wrong to think of Cloacina as primarily or essentially a goddess who delights in excrement or filth.† Nobody installs a sewer system for the sake of gathering together liquid and solid waste and frolicking around in it. On the contrary, sewers and drains exist for the purpose of establishing a proper separation between the clean and the unclean. The unclean has its place, to be sure—and without that place, it would be impossible for anything else to become thoroughly clean.
And so it is that Cloacina assumes the more transcendent function of enabling beauty as well as good health. In this role it is easy to see why the Romans identified her with Venus. (I doubt I am alone in taking a shower before going on a date!) We participate in the genius of Cloacina not merely in the WC—although her effectiveness there is most welcome—but also in the bath … and, crucially too, in the kitchen. The effect in each case is to distinguish between the clean and the unclean, to expel what is unclean, and to allow what is clean to flourish. Hence my baby-changing analogy above: changing a baby’s diaper is an act designed less to celebrate bodily functions, or gather together the output, than to ensure the child’s comfort and well-being by separating the child from its inevitable waste and enabling it to emerge clean and unencumbered. Humble as it is, it is also an act of love—and such acts deserve recognition and return.
Happily, there are many opportunities for us to make offerings to Venus Cloacina. Most of the times when I pour out a libation, if I’m doing it indoors, it goes into a vessel. Once my main ritual is done, that vessel eventually gets emptied into a sink. This I’ll accompany with the following prayer, or some variation on it:
I pray that you might convey this offering of mead [or whatever] to Juno [or whomever],
taking whatever portion of it may rightfully be yours,
with my grateful and pious thanks.
[pour out the vessel and give it a rinse, seeing that all goes down the drain]
Macte uirtute esto!
[perform an adoratio to Cloacina]
In my own mind, “whatever portion” is basically all of the remaining liquid, the odour and spiritual sense of the offering being destined to the other deity—but I leave this to the deities themselves to sort out.
I’ve often thought it would be lovely to have an image representing Venus Cloacina—perhaps in the guise of Venus at her bath, as above—hanging over the sink. The most convenient arrangement, in my quarters, would be a magnet made of the painting above attached to the mirror—but sadly my mirror is not magnetic!
Our interactions with Venus Cloacina may indeed be thought a fit analogy for religion writ large: distinguishing the pure from the impure and rendering grateful and pious thanks to those through whom we can apprehend what is greater, more beautiful, more potent than ourselves.
* To call any deity “the goddess of such-and-such” is of course reductionist, potentially insensitive, and easily open to misinterpretation. Such canting expressions are, however, in common use, and they are not always without utility.
† There are other deities who will cheerfully fill such roles.