February 17 – The Fornicalia

February 17 was the ancient Roman festival called the Fornicalia. NO, get your mind out of the gutter, it’s got nothing to do with what you’re thinking of! The word comes from the Latin word fornax, meaning “oven”; the English word “furnace” comes from this. The word is also related to fornix, meaning an archway or a vaulted ceiling, probably in reference to the curved opening to an oven or its domed shape. On this day, grain was roasted in the oven which would be used to make sacrificial bread. The bread that was baked on this day was meant specifically for religious rituals and was not intended for ordinary day-to-day eating. Marcus Terentius Varro states that the informal name that was used for this day was “the Bakers’ Festival” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 13. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 187).

Photo courtesy of Ceramica Sigillvm (October 14, 2021).
Image used with permission.

As the ever-quote-worthy Ovid states…

“The earth of old was farmed by ignorant men. Fierce wars weakened their powerful bodies. There was more glory in the sword than the plough, and the neglected farm brought its owner little return. Yet the ancients sowed corn, corn they reaped, offering the first fruits of the corn harvest to Ceres. Taught by practice they parched it in the flames, and incurred many losses through their own mistakes. Sometimes they’d sweep up burnt ash and not corn, sometimes the flames took their huts themselves. The oven was made a goddess, Fornax: the farmers pleased with her, prayed she’d regulate the grain’s heat. Now the Curio Maximus, in a set form of words, declares the shifting date of the Fornacalia, the Feast of Ovens” (Ovid, Fasti, book 1, February 17).

The Fornicalia ritual is apparently quite old. It is stated that Rome’s second king Numa Pompilius instituted this holy day (John Mason Good et al, Pantologia, volume 5. London: 1819). The date of the Fornicalia was set up so that people who belonged to this or that clan gathered in their appointed curial districts to conduct their sacrifices. But what if you didn’t know which clan you belonged to – how do you know where to go to carry out the religious rites? Or what if, for some reason, something prevented you from carrying out the sacrifices on that day? In that case, anyone who didn’t know their religious district or who had missed the Fornicalia went on the last day. For this reason, this day, which was known as the Quirinalia, the fifth day of the Parentalia mourning period, was known as the “Day of Fools” or the “Feast of Fools” (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #89).


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