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June 1 – The Month of Marriage and the Carnal Kalends of Carna

June is the month of Juno, the goddess of women, marriage, and women’s health. Most weddings in ancient Rome took place in June to honor Juno. Even today, there is a tradition of “June weddings”.

The poet Ovid states that the origins of this month’s name are uncertain, although naming the month after the goddess Juno is the most common explanation. Ovid in fact claims that the goddess herself came to him in a vision and told him straightly that June is named after herself. Juno was the queen of the gods, the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Hera. She was both Jupiter’s bride as well as being his sister – in ancient pantheons, marriage between brother and sister deities was somewhat common. She was the eldest child of the primordial god Saturn (the Roman version of the titan Kronos) (Ovid, Fasti, book 6, introduction).

The reason why June is the month that’s associated with marriages comes from early Roman legends. When Rome was first founded by Romulus and Remus, a system was needed to organize their society. Romulus purportedly divided the entire male population in half based upon age: the elders would provide council and run the affairs of state while the young, being more energetic and quick to action, would compose its military. However, these two broad divisions often quarreled with each other, especially regarding war. In its early days, Rome was in constant war with neighboring settlements. While the elders advocated for peaceful negotiations and diplomacy, the fitful youth wanted to fight in order to assert their manliness. Finally, the arrival of the goddess Concord, the goddess of peace and calm, put a stop to this. She said that Romulus and Chief Tatius had come into an agreement and they had agreed to merge their two settlements together, and so too should both bodies of the Roman men come together as well. For this reason, Ovid explains, June is associated with both the union (iunctus) of these two villages to form a larger and stronger village, as well as the uniting of both divisions of Roman male society to form a stronger state. Thus, June is associated with unions, and what better example than a union of two people to form one family? That’s why June is the month of marriages (Ovid, Fasti, book 6, introduction).

Another reason why June is associated with weddings is because the ancient Romans considered it to be VERY bad luck to get married in May, and they encouraged couples in love to postpone their nuptials until the following month. This is because of a festival called the Lemuria, which you can read about here.

June 1st was the day that a shrine to Juno Moneta, meaning “Juno the Adviser/Counsellor”, was dedicated. She gets this particular appellation because she gave advice to couples who were about to get married. A group of sacred geese was housed in this temple, and in 390 BC, their honking warned the people of Rome that the Celtic barbarians were trying to break into the city (Ovid, Fasti, book 6, June 1; Ovid: Fasti – Index D-J – “Juno”).

June 1st is also the day of the Feast of Carna. An unusual goddess whose name is hardly mentioned in the same breath with Jupiter, Mars, and Venus, Carna was the patron goddess of hinges. Yep, that’s right, I said it. I don’t believe that we are meant to take this description of her literally. The ancient Romans associated her with openings and closings. She was likely viewed as a goddess of one’s phases in life (childhood, adolescence, adulthood, etc), life opportunities (one door closes and another one opens), as well as people beginning or ending a certain chapter of their lives. She was a nymph, a forest being, who was lusted after by the Roman god Janus. One day, he caught her and raped her. Being the god of new beginnings as well as being the patron god of windows and doors, he promised her that in exchange for taking her virginity, he would make all hinges sacred to her (Ovid, Fasti, book 6, June 1). Sounds like a very poor exchange to me.

June 1st is also the day when mothers should be especially careful of their children. On this day, evil spirits disguised as owls swoop into people’s homes at night and devour new-born babies while their mothers or babysitters are either absent or distracted. Be attentive mothers! Do not ignore your children’s safety, or else the demon owls will get them! The story goes that one day, a mother went into the nursery and saw her five-day old baby’s face and chest being ripped apart by these creatures. Horrified and panicked, and not knowing what else to do, she called upon Carna (also spelled Cranae) to save her baby. Instantly, the divine being appeared. Carrying a handful of arbutus leaves, she touched each of the doorposts to the nursery room three times with them. Afterwards, she sprinkled a bottle of holy water around the entranceway with one hand, while in the other hand she held the intestines of a baby female pig. Where she suddenly got these items, I don’t know – did she just conjure them up, or did the frantic mother have to go out to the barn and kill one of her pigs and hand the bloody guts to the nymph? Then, the nymph Carna commanded “Birds of night, spare his entrails. A small victim is offered in place of this small child. Take a heart for a heart, I beg, flesh for flesh. This life we give you for a dearer life”. Carna carried the recently slaughtered pig outside, which attracted the demon owls’ attention, and laid it out on the ground. The birds took the meat and completely forgot about the child that they were about to kill. Carna healed the baby, and to make certain that the demon owls never returned, Carna placed a sprig of white-thorn on the windowsill. Like garlic to vampires, this plant made all such demonic entities shrink away and go elsewhere (Ovid, Fasti, book 6, June 1).

To all mothers who have recently given birth and who want to protect your newborn child, bless your baby’s nursery and the cradle. Bless the doorway of your child’s room three times with sacred arbutus leaves, and sprinkle holy water in the entranceway to deter any demons that might come by. Lay a twig of white-thorn on the window, because the demon owls are repelled by the sight of it. However, to make sure that they don’t go away unappeased, sacrifice a young female piglet and offer it as a sacrifice to the birds. Lay it out in the open air so that the nocturnal birds of the night may feast upon it (Ovid, Fasti, book 6, June 1). Now that I think about it, the name “Carna” and the sacrifice of meat might be connected to each other.

June 1st was marked also by the eating of certain foods (by humans, not demon owls), as Ovid states:

“You ask why we eat greasy bacon-fat on the Kalends [of June], and why we mix beans with parched grain? She’s an ancient goddess, nourished by familiar food, no epicure to seek out alien dainties. In ancient times the fish still swam unharmed, and the oysters were safe in their shells. Italy was unaware of Ionian heath-cocks, and the cranes that enjoy Pigmy blood: only the feathers of the peacock pleased, and the nations didn’t send us captive creatures. Pigs were prized: men feasted on slaughtered swine. The earth only yielded beans and hard grains. They say that whoever eats these two foods together at the Kalends, in this sixth month, will have sweet digestion” (Ovid, Fasti, book 6, June 1).


May 14 – The Sacrifice of the Argei

This is a follow-up post to another article that I had posted on March 16. I suggest that you read that one before you read this article. To read the article dated to March 16, click here.

Ancient writers such as Ovid, Plutarch, and Varro mentioned that on March 16, life-sized human mannequins made of straw or wicker, crafted to look like sacrificial victims with their arms and legs tied together, were ceremonially housed within special shrines that were located in the city of Rome. Both these figures and the shrines that they were located in were known as the Argei (pronounced Ar-GAY-ee). The number of shrines and associated dummies is variously recorded by ancient writers as somewhere between twenty-four to thirty. For the next two months, these wickerwork dummies remained cloistered within their vaults until May 14 came around. On that day, to paraphrase a famous British cult classic, it was time to keep their appointment with the Wicker Men (Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 21; Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 16, March 17; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #32, #86)

May 14 was allotted in the ancient Roman religion as the day to carry out human sacrifices to the god Saturn. However, human sacrifices had been outlawed by the time of Caesar Augustus, and certainly earlier than that, although exactly when is pretty impossible to determine. On May 14, a group of people consisting of the Vestal Virgins, representatives from the College of the Pontiffs, and notable members of the city government including Rome’s mayor visited each of these shrines one-by one. All of them were dressed in black, as if they were going to a funeral, and they also behaved like they were going to one as well; this was supposed to be a very somber and melancholy ritual. Each of the wicker argei mannequins would be removed from the shrine that housed it, and would be carried along the route to the next shrine. At the end of this group’s ambulation, they would be carting around twenty-something life-sized wickerwork mannequins. Tradition recorded that the method of execution used in human sacrifice was death by drowning. Therefore, they would journey to the Pons Sublicius, which was the old bridge made of oak timbers that had been erected centuries earlier during the reign of King Numa Pompilius; granted, this wooden bridge was regularly repaired and renovated to keep it in good condition. No reference is made in the ancient sources of any prayers that were made by the participants, but I’m sure that there were invocations to Saturn. As they stood upon the bridge, with the slow waters of the Tiber flowing below them, these wicker men were cast one after another over the side into the river below. Thus, in a metaphorical way, these mannequins were drowned in the river, preserving the tradition without having to actually kill anybody (“Argei”, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 2, 11th Edition (1911), by William Warde Fowler; “Argeorum Sacraria”, in A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, by Samuel Ball Platner (London: Oxford University Press, 1929); A. Cornelius Gellius, Noctes Atticae, book 10, chapter 15; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapter 38; Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 14; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #32, #86).