May 9, 11, and 13 – Rest in Peace: The Lemuria Festival of the Dead

Manes, Lares, and Lemures. © Jason R. Abdale (August 21, 2021)

Do you believe in ghosts? The ancient Romans certainly did. The spirits of the Undead were a real concern and a real fear for the ancient Romans. Therefore, it was important that these otherworldly beings be kept happy and pacified as much as possible.

Many people nowadays associate all things spooky with October 31, Halloween. You might be interested to know that the ancient Romans, too, had their own version of Halloween, except it occurred in May instead of October and it lasted for three days instead of just one. It was known as the Lemuria, named after the lemures, the restless malevolent spirits of the dead. These formless shapeless wraiths might be haunting you for a variety of reasons: they were not given a proper burial, they want revenge for a wrong committed upon them, or any number of things. Rituals were conducted to drive ghosts out of your home, and offerings were left outside homes so that the ghosts could be appeased and leave the family alone. Sounds similar to trick-or-treating, doesn’t it?

The Lemuria was held on May 9, 11, and 13 – notice that it skipped over May 10 and May 12. Because of the Lemuria festival, it was believed that May was an unlucky month to get married; any couple in love who wished to marry would have to wait until June. All temples were also closed on these three days (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 9).

The day was originally held in honor of Remus, Romulus’ twin brother who was murdered when a dispute arose between the two over who should be the first king of the settlement which they had established on the bank of the Tiber. May 9 was originally known as the Remuria, the remembrance feast of Remus and for all other fallen spirits of a person’s family. Over time, the first R in Remuria changed to an L. Eventually “the silent spirits”, as they were known, were collectively referred to as lemures. They were, in essence, ancient Roman poltergeists (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 9). The lemures are generally distinguished from the manes as being more hostile and also more likely to haunt people’s homes. Perhaps this is the reason why the word “lemures” was a synonym for “larva” (William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 108), because the larvae of insects make homes for themselves inside the bodies of plants or other animals. A beetle’s larva might burrow into the bark of a tree, or a parasitic wasp’s larva might develop inside an unsuspecting host. These creatures nest themselves within other homes, as the lemures might unexpectedly make a new home for itself inside your own home, or possibly within you personally.

In his 1899 overview of ancient Roman religious festivals, William W. Fowler posits that the Lemuria, along with the earlier Feralia festival conducted in late February, might be one of the most archaic of Roman rituals, conducted at a time when primitive cultures feared demons and undead spirits and needed to periodically expel them (William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 107).

Fowler also proposes that the Lemuria would have hit many Romans much closer to home than the Feralia would have. The dead transformed into lemures under many circumstances – violent death, suicide, bodies not buried properly or not buried at all, wrongs that were not avenged, and other reasons – and all of these were frequent if not daily occurrences in the ancient world. Maybe that’s part of the reason why you needed three whole days to placate any irate entities and protect your family from harm, because there were A LOT of angry bitter pissed-off ghosts out there (William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Pages 107-109).

Alright, enough of the background information. Time now to get into the details of how this festival was carried out. The poet Ovid provides us with the majority of information regarding the rituals of this spooky time of year. On May 9, the head of the household (always a man) would rise from his bed and began the necessary rites needed to placate any hostile spirits that may wish him, his family, or his property harm. He would go outside barefoot and walk around his house nine times, all the while tossing black beans over his shoulder. Black was the color that was associated with Underworld entities, and it was believed that they were attracted towards food that was black in color. While the man of the house was tossing the black beans outside, he would repeat the incantation “I throw these. With these beans, I redeem me and mine”. When the man of the house had performed this ritual nine times, he again washed his hands and rang a bronze bell saying “Ancestral spirits, depart!” – with this act, the sacred rites are concluded (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 9).

The part about ringing the bell and calling the ghosts who were haunting his home to leave immediately sounds similar to the “wassail” ritual of making noise to drive evil spirits away from apple orchards. It’s also similar to ideas held by some tribes that demons and evil spirits are driven away by excessive noise (A Merry Tudor Christmas; Lucy Worsley’s Christmas Carol Odyssey; Victorian Farm Christmas, episode 3; Edwardian Farm, episode 5).

Hopefully, all of these methods would achieve the desired result. However, if you were an ancient Roman, and you suspected that an evil spirit had entered your house, and you performed the proscribed exorcism rituals, and you still heard things go “bump” in the night…then you were in big trouble.

Sources:

  • Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 9. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFive.php.
  • Fowler, William Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899.
  • A Merry Tudor Christmas. Hosted by Lucy Worsley. BBC, 2019.
  • Edwardian Farm. Episode 5. BBC, 2010.
  • Lucy Worsley’s Christmas Carol Odyssey. Hosted by Lucy Worsley. BBC, 2019.
  • Victorian Farm Christmas. Episode 3. BBC, 2009.


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