October 5 – The Opening of the Pit of the Underworld

Manes Lares and Lemures

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

“Then I saw an angel coming down from Heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while” – The Book of Revelations, chapter 20, verses 1-3.

For many modern-day people, October is the spookiest month of the year due to its association with Halloween. October is the month in which TV channels air marathons of horror movies, it’s when people put out decorations of ghosts and monsters, and it’s when children get a little bit more conscious about what might be lurking in their closet. It seems that throughout the whole of October, other-worldly supernatural entities increase their power, culminating on that special day at the end of the month. Those who are of a religious disposition feel that October 31 is the day in which Mankind is the closest to succumbing to the powers of Darkness.

The ancient Romans did not have Halloween, but it’s true that they had several days on their calendar which filled them with dread. Perhaps the most well-known was the time called the Lemuria, which occurred on May 9, 11, and 13. This was a time devoted to pacifying the lemures, the restless malevolent spirits of the dead, who might visit your home and cause mischief or harm. They might even take possession of your house, or even of you! Thus it was important to placate them with treats, or to ward them off with spells. This was, in effect, ancient Rome’s version of trick-or-treating, except these weren’t pint-sized munchkins dressed up in monster costumes – here, the monsters were real.

However, the Lemuria was not the only day that the ancient Romans felt apprehensive about. The fifth day of October (some sources say it was the fourth day) was an ominous day for the ancient Romans, for it was on this day that the portal to the Underworld would be opened, and the Romans were understandably worried about what things might come out.

October 5 was known as the Mundus Patet, “the Open World”. It was a day dedicated to Dis Pater, the god-ruler of the Underworld, and all of the other beings and entities that dwelt within his realm. The name Dis Pater means “the Father of Riches”. He was the Roman synonym of the Greek god Hades, who ruled the Underworld. Hades’ subterranean counterpart Pluto (who is often believed to be the same as Hades) was the god of riches – it was he who made all of the gold, silver, and other precious things which were mined out of the ground. The ancient Roman god Dis Pater combined attributes of both of these Greek gods. (1)

As an anecdote, within his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar writes that all of the Gallic Celts claim to be descended from the god of the Underworld, which he equates to Dis Pater (2).

The Underworld god Dis Pater is known to have had one temple dedicated to him within the greater area of the city of Rome. It was a small temple or shrine, and consisted of an underground chamber, with a single round room, and a round altar table within. This subterranean room was located on the edge of the Campus Martius near where the Tiber River flowed at a place known as the Terentum (no relation to the city of southern Italy named Tarentum). The term means “the crossing place”, and it likely referred to the place where people crossed over the Tiber River from one side to the other. However, in a spiritual sense, this was also a place where human and non-human beings would cross over from the world of the spirits into the mortal human world, and vice-versa. This is similar to the Celtic belief of Samhain (pronounced “saowein”), which said that the boundary separating the world of the living and the world of the spirits became so thin that entities from “the other side” could cross over into the human world (3).

There was a second location that is often ascribed to be that of the temple of Dis Pater. This was a small circular shrine made of bricks, with a small room large enough for only one person to stand inside, which was located on the Palatine Hill at the cross intersection of two main roads known as the Quadrata. This shrine marked the exact center of the city of Rome, and was the location of the omphalos, the naval, the center of the Roman world. In Latin, it was known as the Umbilicus Urbis Romae, the belly button of the city of Rome (4).

There is reference to a certain stone located not far from this shrine within the district called the Comitium. This stone was known as the lapis niger, “the black stone”, and in 1898 it was discovered. It was square, made of several slabs of black marble, and bordered with white marble. Upon it were inscriptions written in an archaic version of Latin, implying that it was of great antiquity; the inscription was dated to approximately 500 BC. Underneath this black stone were found numerous devotional offerings, including several figurines, dated from the 8th to the 6th Centuries BC. The ancient Roman writer Pompeius Festus says that this stone marked an unlucky spot, where the Romans intended to bury either Romulus or his foster-father Faustulus. Among the inscriptions, there is a curse upon anyone who defiles or desecrates the location, and anyone who does so shall forfeit his life to Soranus. “Soranus” was the name of the Etruscan god of the Underworld, so the inscription is essentially saying that anyone who defiles this place will die and be sent to Hell. It has been proposed that this “black stone” might have served as the altar to the beings of the Underworld because black was the color associated with the Underworld and the beings who lived within it, and due to the fact that an Underworld god is mentioned by name in one of the inscriptions (5).

For most of the year, the temple to Dis Pater was shut. However, on just three days in the year – August 24, October 5, and November 7 – the door was opened. The opening of the temple of Dis Pater was a solemn occurrence, because it wasn’t just the doorway to the temple that was opened – the Romans believed that on these three days, the gate to the Underworld itself would be opened as well (6).

Within the temple, there was a portal to the Underworld. This opening was covered by a large stone known as the Lapis Manalis, “the Stone of the Manes”; the manes (singular: manis) were the spirits of the ancestors. For most of the year, this gateway was sealed shut, except for three days, when the spirits of the dead were allowed to enter the human world. It’s possible that the stone altar itself was the Lapis Manalis and served as the covering for this portal, and therefore implying that the altar rested atop a hollow base (7).

The pit might have originally served as an underground cellar used for grain storage, which would explain why the pit was opened during times that are associated with the harvest season, but over the centuries the pit took on a more otherworldly significance. Evidence to support this hypothesis is found in the original name of this ritual. The ceremonial opening of these pits was originally referred to by the ancient Roman writer Pompeius Festus as Mundus Cereris Patet, “The World of Ceres is Opened”. Ceres was the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture and the patron god of farmers; Ceres was the Roman version of the Greek goddess Demeter. The Romans had several feast days dedicated to her, and often grain or bread were offered as sacrifices (8).

The pit was opened for the first time on August 24, the day before the festival known as the Opeconsiva, the Feast of the Bountiful Goddess. This was a festival dedicated to the earth goddess, giving thanks to her for a bountiful harvest. She might have been a form of either the agriculture goddess Ceres or the Mother Earth goddess Tellus. In the words of Marcus Terentius Varro…

“The day named Opeconsiva (August 25) is called from Ops Consiva (Goddess of Abundance, the wife of Saturn, as planter or sower; another aspect of Terra) ‘Lady Bountiful the Planter,’ whose shrine is in the Regia; it is so restricted in size that no one may enter it except the Vestal Virgins and the state priest. ‘When he goes there, let him wear a white veil,’ is the direction; this suffibulum ‘white veil’ (an oblong piece of white cloth with a colored border, which the Vestal Virgins fastened over their heads with a fibula ‘clasp’ when they offered sacrifice) is named as if sub-figabulum from suffigere “to fasten down’” (9).

William W. Fowler speculates that on August 24, the seeds that were to be used for next year’s planting were set aside and were put away in storage until the time came for them to be planted. These seeds would be housed in a sacred chamber, under the protection of the earth goddess, who would watch over them and protect them so that the Romans would have food during the next year and not starve. However, depending upon circumstances, the grain crop did not become ready for harvest at the same time everywhere – different patches ripened at different times. Having three specific days, not just one, spread out over a few months where the seeds for next year’s crop could be collected and deposited would be very convenient for Roman farmers (10). The Romans would have been conscious about keeping the storage chamber sealed most of the time. If the chamber was left open, the seeds would be exposed to rodents, insects, fungi, and mold. If this happened, all of the seeds which were set aside to provide the following year’s food would be destroyed, and famine would rage throughout the city. In order to ensure the survival of the crop, the grain chambers needed to be opened only briefly, and then promptly sealed shut in order to minimize the chances of contamination.

So, if this chamber was originally intended as a storage pit for the next year’s seeds, then where did the idea of ghosts and goblins come from? It’s possible that the subterranean temple of Dis Pater was meant to be a stylized representation of a cave. Caves are regarded by many cultures as places imbued with elevated spiritual powers. The Celts, for example, believed that caves were entrances to the spirit world (11).

Now, let’s turn our attention to another question. If the Romans believed that this was a passage to the Underworld, then why on earth would they open it for any reason at all, allowing God-knows-what to come out? According to Plutarch in his work The Life of Romulus, when the city of Rome was founded, the early Romans placed offerings of the first fruits of the harvest into this chamber. Likewise in later years, when the portal was opened, offerings of the harvest would be thrown in (12). This again lends credence to the idea that these three days were originally associated with the harvest season and not ghosts. However, at some point in Rome’s social and cultural history, the logical pragmatic practice of placing seeds into underground storage containers to be kept safe until the time came for them to be planted the following year changed into the superstitious practice of throwing offerings of food into a pit that was believed to be the gate of the Underworld (shakes my head in Latin).

The Roman writers Macrobius and Varrone state that numerous activities were banned on the three dates that this otherworldly gate was opened, believing that bad luck was sure to follow. These included enlisting soldiers into the military, to start a war, engaging in battle, sail on a voyage, or get married (13).

In addition to sacrifices being offered at the temple of Dis Pater on the ominous dates of August 24, October 5, and November 7, sacrifices were also offered upon this altar during the Ludi Saeculares, “the Games of the Age”. The term saeculum in Latin refers to one’s lifespan. The Ludi Saeculares, sometimes incorrectly translated as “the Secular Games” (which falsely implies that they were non-religious in nature), were supposed to be held every 100 years, since this was regarded as the maximum age that a person could naturally live, and were meant to commemorate the passing of one saeculum into another – that is to say, one lifespan into another, thus commemorating the cycle of life, death, and renewal. These games were intended to be held every 100 years of Rome’s existence. One might rightfully assume that the games were supposed to be held in late April (according to legend, Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC), and were to be held in the years 653 BC, 553 BC, 453 BC, 353 BC, 253 BC, 153 BC, 53 BC, 47 AD, 147 AD, 247 AD, 347 AD, and 447 AD. However, if you look at the record of when the Ludi Saeculares were actually held, you will discover that they were not held rigidly every 100 years, nor did they occur on the dates that were previously listed. We know that these games were celebrated as early as the middle 200s BC, but they might have been celebrated earlier. The following is a list of dates for the Ludi Saeculares (14):

  1. 249 BC (four years off-date).
  2. 149 BC.
  3. May 31 to June 2, 17 BC.
  4. 47 AD. This was the ONLY date in which the Ludi Saeculares were performed on schedule.
  5. 88 AD.
  6. 146 AD.
  7. 204 AD.
  8. 248 AD.

Gradually, the superstitions of the pagan pantheon gave way to the faith of Christianity. Ideas held by the Roman people about their gods and spirits, many of which appear bizarre or nonsensical to us today, would slowly fall away and become forgotten, and the temples and shrines which were once dedicated to the old gods would crumble into ruins.

Source Citations

  1. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 190; Pierre Grimal, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Translated by A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher, Ltd., 1986. Page 141.
  2. Julius Caesar, Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, book 6, chapter 18.
  3. Alexander Aitchison, The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807. Page 392; Lawrence Richardson Jr., A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Page 111; Calvert Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Page 351; The Haunted History of Halloween.
  4. William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Page 211; Mark Bradley, “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 120; What the Ancients Knew – “The Greeks”.
  5. Leon Ter Beek, “Divine Law and the Penalty of Sacer Esto”. In Olga Tellegen-Couperus, ed., Law and Religion in the Roman Republic. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pages 17-25; Mark Bradley, “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 120; Matthew Dillon and Lynda Garland, Ancient Rome, from the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar. London: Routledge, 2005. Page 8.
  6. Alexander Aitchison, The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807. Page 392; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 190.
  7. William Warde Fowler, “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/2/Mundus*.html.
  8. William Warde Fowler, “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/2/Mundus*.html; Thomas Morell and William Duncan, An Abridgement of Ainsworth’s Dictionary; English and Latin, Revised Edition. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1862. Pages 29-30; Mark Bradley, “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 120.
  9. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 21. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 193-195.
  10. William Warde Fowler, “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/2/Mundus*.html.
  11. The Celts, episode 3 – “A Pagan Trinity”.
  12. Plutarch, Parallel Lives – “The Life of Romulus”, chapter 11; Reverend John T. White and Reverend J. E. Riddle, A New Latin Dictionary, Third Edition. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869. Page 1,240.
  13. Alexander Aitchison, The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807. Page 392; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 190.
  14. Lawrence Richardson Jr., A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Page 111; Calvert Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pages 350-351; “Coins of the Ludi Saeculares and Rome’s Millennial Games”.

Bibliography

Books

  • Aitchison, Alexander. The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807.
  • Caesar, Julius. Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, book 6, chapter 18.
  • Dillon, Matthew; Garland, Lynda. Ancient Rome, from the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • Fowler, William Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899.
  • Grimal, Pierre. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Translated by A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publsher, Ltd., 1986.
  • Morell, Thomas; Duncan, William. An Abridgement of Ainsworth’s Dictionary; English and Latin, Revised Edition. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1862.
  • Plutarch, Parallel Lives – “The Life of Romulus”. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Romulus*.html.
  • Richardson Jr., Lawrence. A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
  • Watkins, Calvert. How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • White, Reverend John T.; Riddle, Reverend J. E. A New Latin Dictionary, Third Edition. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869.
  • The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829.

Articles

  • Bradley, Mark. “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pages 103-121.
  • Ter Beek, Leon. “Divine Law and the Penalty of Sacer Esto”. In Olga Tellegen-Couperus, ed., Law and Religion in the Roman Republic. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pages 11-30.
  • Warde Fowler, William. “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/2/Mundus*.html.

Websites

Videos

  • The Celts. Episode 3 – “A Pagan Trinity”. Hosted by Frank De Laney. BBC, 1987.
  • The Haunted History of Halloween. Narrated by Harry Smith. The History Channel, 1997.
  • What the Ancients Knew – “The Greeks”. Hosted by Jack Turner. The Science Channel, 2005.


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