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January 11 and 15 – The Feast of Carmenta, the Ancient Roman Goddess of Prophesy and Childbirth

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Will it be a good year for the crops? Are you going to meet the man of your dreams? Should you invest your dinarii in your deadbeat brother-in-law’s latest get-rich-quick scheme? Maybe you should consult Carmenta, the ancient Roman goddess of prophecy and childbirth. Her eyes will see into the future and let you know what awaits you.

There’s a legend that Carmenta, or Carmentis as her name is otherwise given, was originally a female prophet from the Greek region of Arcadia; her name is also recorded as either Themis or Nicostrata. Carmenta was unusual in that, when she would fall into a hypnotic trance, she would give out her prophesies in song form – hence she was known as Carmenta, which means “the chanter”. However, she did not always possess this gift. She was married to Pallas, the ruler of Arcadia, but her son Evander was the product of a union between her and the god Hermes/Mercury. It was not until “her spirit absorbed the heavenly fire” (1), as Ovid puts it, that she acquired the gift of prophesy. Following Pallas’ murder by his son, she and Evander were forced to flee from their native Greek homeland, and eventually landed at the mouth of the Tiber River in west-central Italy. In those days, the Italian Peninsula was inhabited exclusively by small tribal societies. When she arrived at the mouth of the Tiber, she experienced a divine vision in which she saw the arrival of a prince, the founding of a great city on the river’s bank, and that city’s rise to imperial glory. In later years, the Romans would venerate Carmenta as the woman who foresaw the coming of Prince Aeneas, the establishment of the city of Rome, and the creation of the Roman Empire, and would elevate her to the status of a goddess of prophesy. He son Evander established a community on the Tiber which he named Pallantium, and it was here that Prince Aeneas of Troy came seeking shelter and his native kingdom was destroyed by the Achaeans (2).

However, there’s another story stating that Carmenta is actually one of the Fates, a group of divine entities who were responsible for the ebb and flow of people’s lives. Specifically, Carmenta was the Fate responsible for looking after mothers in childbirth and determining the lives of children. As such, Roman mothers paid a great deal of reverence to her, hoping that in pleasing her, she would grant their children good health and a long life. In an age when child mortality was very high, this was a very real worry. Another concern was the mother not surviving childbirth. In pre-modern times, mothers dying in childbirth was an unfortunately frequent occurrence. Praying to Carmenta to look after you during those difficult hours might grant you her favor (3).

A small shrine (note that the Roman authors uses the words fanum “shrine” or sacellum, “chapel” to describe the building rather than templum or aedes both of which mean “temple”) dedicated to Carmenta, whose construction was funded by Roman mothers, stood at the base of the Capitoline Hill next to the Porta Carmentalis, the Gate of Carmenta. Roman legend says that the shrine was constructed directly atop the site of what once was Carmenta’s house. Carmenta’s priest was known as the Flamen Carmentalis, as recorded by Marcus Tullius Cicero (4).

The story behind how and why Carmenta’s shrine was constructed is almost comical. In the year 215 BC, the Roman Senate passed a law called the Lex Oppia, which stated that from now on Roman women were forbidden from riding in litters or driving horse-drawn carriages (carpentum) within the city of Rome; previously, this was not an issue. Infuriated at this sexist discrimination, the women of Rome resolved that, as a form of payback, they would never have sex with their husbands until this nonsensical law was dispensed with. For an astounding twenty years, men and women “went without”. In 195 BC, this law was finally repealed, ostensibly because the birth rate within the city of Rome had sharply dropped and the Roman Senate was concerned that the city might suffer a population decline. With the law gone, wives once again returned to their husband’s beds, and that year, the city of Rome experienced a baby-boom. The mothers were grateful that so many children had been born, and born without any difficulties or tragedies, that they paid to have a shrine dedicated in honor of Carmenta, who they believed had a hand in ensuring that their children were strong and healthy and also ensuring that they themselves did not suffer or die as a result. (5).

A replica of an ancient Roman carpentum carriage. Romisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne, Germany. Photography by Carole Raddato (October 18, 2012). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The date of the Carmentalia, the Feast of Carmenta, which is mentioned by Marcus Terentius Varro (Liguae Latina, VI:12) was held on tJanuary 11 and January 15; the first date in in reference to when Carmenta and her son Evander left Arcadia, and the second date is in commemoration of when the Lex Oppia was repealed (6). One source that I have seen says that it was a multi-day festival spanning nearly a week, beginning on January 11 and ending on January 15. However, every other source which I looked at claims that these two dates were the only dates that celebrations were carried out, so there would have been a three day long gap in between the festivities. The Roman poet Ovid states that venerations to Carmenta took place only on January 11 and 15, and not on the days in between. The Praenestine Calendar, the Maffeian Calendar, and the Caeretan Calendar all indicate the occurrence of this festival on the dates of January 11 and January 15 with the letters KARM, KAR, or CAR. In Philocalus’ Calendar, the date of January 11 is marked with the words Dies Carmentariorum, “the Day of the Carmentalia”, but there is no similar description for January 15. Likewise in Polemius Silvius’ calendar, January 11 is marked with the description Carmentalia de nominee matris Evandri, “the Feast of Carmenta, the name of the mother of Evander”. Yet again, Silvius does not provide a similar description for January 15 (7).

One source infers that the original feast of Carmenta occurred solely on January 11, and it wasn’t until later that a second feast day dedicated to her was enacted on January 15 (8). Considering that some of the ancient Romans records give the date of the Carmentalia only on January 11 and not on both days, I am inclined to believe this explanation. The Carmentalia was celebrated exclusively by women, who would give offerings at her shrine known as sacerdus carmentalis (9). It was forbidden to bring into Carmenta’s shrine anything made of leather or animal pelts, since it was unfitting that things associated with death should be brought into a shrine to a goddess whose purpose was to safeguard life (10).

Not only was Carmenta regarded as a guardian goddess of mothers in childbirth, but apparently her gift of prophesy also made her sought out by anyone, be they man or woman, who wished to know the future. As the poet Ovid records, “Where shall I find the cause and nature of these rites? Who will steer my vessel in mid-ocean? Advise me, Carmentis, you who take your name from song, and favour my intent, lest I fail to honour you” (11). Although perhaps I may be reading too much into Ovid’s tendency for poetic flourish. Regardless of whether Ovid’s entreaty was a reference to Carmenta being frequently consulted about the future, or if he just wanted her to guide his muse in his writings (which is the explanation I favor), praying for divine guidance on decisions to be made concerning important events has always been with us, and always will be.

Source citations:

  1. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 11.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 11; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700; The Gentleman and Lady’s Key to Polite Literature, or, A Compendious Dictionary of Fabulous History. London: J. Newbury, 1767; Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Page 112.
  3. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Ovid, Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pages 177-178, footnote I.462.
  4. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Ovid, Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Page 180, footnote I.462; Page 182, footnote I.462; Page 188, footnote I.467.
  5. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700; A Dictionary of All Religions, Ancient and Modern, whether Jewish, Pagan, Christian, or Mahometan. London: James Knapton, 1704; Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Pages 110-111.
  6. Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700.
  7. Ovid, Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Page 180, footnote I.462.
  8. Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Page 111.
  9. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume 1, Fifth Edition. London: 1741.
  10. Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Page 111.
  11. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 11.

 

Bibliography:

  • A Dictionary of All Religions, Ancient and Modern, whether Jewish, Pagan, Christian, or Mahometan. London: James Knapton, 1704.
  • The Gentleman and Lady’s Key to Polite Literature, or, A Compendious Dictionary of Fabulous History. London: J. Newbury, 1767.
  • Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume 1, Fifth Edition. London: 1741.
  • Danet, Pierre. A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700.
  • Ovid. Fasti, book 1, January 11. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.
  • Ovid. Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Plutarch. Roman Questions, #56. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Roman_Questions*/home.html.
  • Pettazzoni, Raffaele. Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967.

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