February 21 – Rest in Peace: The Feralia Festival of the Dead

Classical Sunset

Classical Sunset. © Jason R. Abdale (August 20, 2021)

The ancient Romans had several days in their calendar dedicated to honoring the dead. Among these was a period that lasted from February 13 to 21 which was known as the Parentalia. This was a nine-day period that was set aside for people to visit cemeteries and lay offerings on the graves of deceased family members. You can read a more detailed description of the Parentalia, especially the rituals conducted on its opening day, here.

The final day of the Parentalia mourning period was designed to be much more inclusive. February 21 was the date of the Feralia, which was a remembrance festival for all of those who have died, whether they were related to you or not. In the Catholic Christian religious calendar, the Feralia is the equivalent of All Souls Day (November 2), in which people pray for all who have died the previous year. In fact, the Feralia and All Souls Day are directly connected with each other. In the year 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV decreed that February 21 would be known as “All Saints Day”, a general holiday dedicated to all Catholic saints who did not have a specific saint’s day of their own. Later that year, Boniface ordered that the date for All Saints Day would be changed from February 21 to May 13, which was the last day of another ancient Roman festival period dedicated to the spirits known as the Lemuria. Afterwards Pope Gregory III changed the day once again to November 1, and it has remained that way ever since. The day after All Saints Day was designated as All Souls Day (Tom Ogden, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ghosts and Hauntings. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 1999. Page 11; Lisa Morton, The Halloween Encyclopedia. Jefferson: McFarland, 2003. Page 113; David D. Smith, The Pagan Church. Morrisville: Lulu.com, 2020. Page 60; The Haunted History of Halloween).

The objects of religious focus on the day of the Feralia were the manes, the spirits of the dead who inhabited the Underworld. Romans brought offerings to graveyards to appease the spirits and make them rest in peace. Tombs were garlanded with purple violet flowers and offerings of grain, bread, salt, and wine were laid upon the graves. The word feralia is derived from the Latin verb ferunt or ferre meaning “to bear” or “to carry”; the modern English word “ferry” comes from this, because you are carrying people or cargo across water (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21).

Because the Feralia took place on the last day of the Parentalia mourning period, the social rules that were applied during this time were still in effect. These included not getting married (which was considered bad luck), temples were closed, magistrates were not allowed to wear togas, and torture and executions were postponed. In addition to these general rules, there were more rules that specifically applied to February 21. Firstly, burning incense was not allowed, which is peculiar since most Roman religious rites were accompanied by burning incense, herbs, or dried leaves such as laurel, juniper, or cedar. Secondly, people were not allowed to have fires burning inside their homes – no cooking would be done on this day! Thirdly, it was not permitted to say any bad things about the person who had died, believing that it was inappropriate behavior to do so and also it might cause the spirit to become angry and take revenge on those who had insulted them, and possibly taking out its anger on anybody else whether they were offensive to the dead or not. Fourthly, virgins were forbidden to have sex (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21).

As the poet Ovid says regarding the Feralia festival…

“The grave must be honoured. Appease your fathers’ spirits, and bring little gifts to the tombs you built. Their shades ask little, piety they prefer to costly offerings: no greedy deities haunt the Stygian depths. A tile wreathed round with garlands offered is enough, a scattering of meal, and a few grains of salt, and bread soaked in wine, and loose violets: set them on a brick left in the middle of the path. Not that I veto larger gifts, but these please the shades: add prayers and proper words to the fixed fires. This custom was brought to your lands, just Latinus, by Aeneas, a fitting promoter of piety. He brought solemn gifts to his father’s spirit; from him the people learned the pious rites…But while these rites are enacted, girls, don’t marry; let the marriage torches wait for purer days. And virgin, who to your mother seem ripe for love, don’t let the curved spear comb your tresses. Hide the gods, closing those revealing temple doors, let the altars be free of incense, the hearths without fire. Now ghostly spirits and the entombed dead wander, now the shadow feeds on the nourishment that’s offered. But it only lasts ‘til there are no more days in the month than the feet (eleven) that my metres possess. This day they call the Feralia because they bear (‘ferunt’) offerings to the dead: the last day to propitiate the shades” (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21).

We have even found archaeological evidence that sacrificial rituals associated with the Feralia, or at least the Parentalia period in general, were conducted! Within the graveyard of a church located in the town of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England, there were discovered pieces of glazed tile and close-by were pig bones. It has been hypothesized that this is evidence that the Romans practiced sacrificial rituals here similar to those mentioned in Ovid’s verses, in which a supplicant laid a sacrifice of pork upon a glazed tile and left it in the cemetery (Thomas Dudley Fosbroke, Abstracts of Records and Manuscripts Respecting the County of Gloucester, Volume I. London: Jos. Harris, 1807. Page 464).

According to Ovid, as part of the Feralia ritual, an old drunk woman, who acts as the representative of the divine Tacita the Silent, sits in the middle of a circle formed by young girls. This woman places seven black beans in her mouth (black was regarded by the Romans as the color of the Underworld) and rolls them around and around over and over throughout the coming activities. First, she lays three clumps of incense resin underneath a door’s thresh-hold where a mouse is buried. Second, she welds together “enchanted threads” (no mention is made as to what this string is made of or why it’s considered blessed) with molten lead. Third, she takes the decapitated head of a fish, glues its mouth shut with tar, then drives a long bronze needle through the top of its skull, then sprinkles it with wine, and finally throws it into a fire. When this is done, all of the participants drink the wine that is left over. All of this sounds remarkably like witchcraft or what’s known as “sympathetic magic”. And what is the reason for all of this? The old hag herself annunciates “With this, we seal up unfriendly mouths and have silenced hostile tongues” (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21).

It’s possible that rites such as this were a surviving remnant of the old archaic beliefs of primitive Romans, back when they still presumably had a more shamanistic religion before they became Hellenized. The old krone sitting in the center of a sacred circle, intoxicated either with alcohol or hallucinogenic drugs, and chanting incantations sounds similar to rituals conducted by more tribal societies in which the shamans take on elevated forms of consciousness in order to commune directly with the gods and spirits. The fact that exclusively women participated in the ritual recorded by Ovid is telling. Many cultures have women acting as their religious leaders than men because it is believed that women are closer towards the divine than men are. If it’s true that the Roman rituals that were designed to ward off bad luck and the wrath of the spirits are truly old, then it’s possible that the Feralia was the oldest of all of the Roman festivals associated with the dead, and versions of it would have been practiced far back into remote prehistory (Miranda Aldhouse-Green and Stephen Aldhouse-Green, The Quest for the Shaman: Shape-Shifters, Sorcerers and Spirit-Healers of Ancient Europe. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 2005. Pages 12-13).

Sources:

  • Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkTwo.php.
  • Aldhouse-Green Miranda; Aldhouse-Green, Stephen. The Quest for the Shaman: Shape-Shifters, Sorcerers and Spirit-Healers of Ancient Europe. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 2005.
  • Fosbroke, Thomas Dudley. Abstracts of Records and Manuscripts Respecting the County of Gloucester, Volume I. London: Jos. Harris, 1807.
  • Morton, Lisa. The Halloween Encyclopedia. Jefferson: McFarland, 2003.
  • Ogden, Tom. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ghosts and Hauntings. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 1999.
  • Smith, David D. The Pagan Church. Morrisville: Lulu.com, 2020.
  • The Haunted History of Halloween. The History Channel, 1997. Narrated by Harry Smith.


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