January 24 – The Feast of Tellus: Ancient Rome’s “Earth Day”

Kissena Park. Photograph by Jason R. Abdale (2017).

It’s late January. In New York City, the temperature is cold and raw, there’s ice and snow on the ground, everyone walks around bundled up in Winter attire, and more than a few have developed a case of the sniffles and a deep rasping cough. As people shovel their sidewalks, or stand frigid and shivering at the bus stop on their way to work, thoughts inevitably turn towards the warmer days which lie ahead with the coming of Spring. We count the days. How many more weeks must go by before the weather warms, the snow melts, and the first leafy buds emerge from the trees? We count the days.

Likewise in ancient Rome, people’s thoughts turned towards warmer weather during this time of year. Rome’s existence depended on agriculture, and the sooner the farmers could get their plow into the frozen ground, the better. They, too, count the days.

In ancient Rome, late January marked the beginning of the agricultural calendar because this was the time that the farmers of ancient Italy prepared to plant their crops for the new year. This important stage consisted of a multi-day purification period dedicated to Tellus, the goddess of Mother Earth, and to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. In the city of Rome itself, this feast day was known as the Sementivae, “the Festival of Seed Sowing”. In the rural farm-covered countryside, the same festival was known as the Paganalia, literally “the Country Festival” (1).

The Queens County Farm Museum, located only a few miles away from my house, in the midst of Winter. Photograph by Sarah Meyer, Queens County Farm Museum (December 31, 2018), used with permission.

The poet Ovid states that the “Festival of Seed-Sowing” was not celebrated on a fixed day in the Roman calendar, but was appointed by the priests: “That day is set by the priests”, he affirms. “Why are you looking for moveable feasts in the calendar? Though the day of the feast’s uncertain, its time is known, when the seed has been sown and the land’s productive” (2). The reason why the festival did not occur on a fixed day (but it usually began on January 24) is because of the weather. You did not want to plant your seeds when the weather was still bad, because your seeds were likely to be destroyed and there would be a famine. So, the priests decided when the appointed day that the planting ritual should take place on be based upon how amenable the season was.

The beginning to the ancient Roman farmer’s preparations for the new growing season was a two-part affair. The Feast of Tellus, which took place in late January, was the date of the purification/blessing of the earth – it was important to bless the ground before the seeds were sown. The Feast of Ceres, which took place a few days later in early February, was marked by the blessing of the seeds themselves.

The opening festivities were dedicated to Tellus, the Mother Earth goddess; from her was born all of the life that you see around you. Therefore, I suppose that January 24 was ancient Rome’s version of “Earth Day”. Because Mother Earth was responsible for controlling all things related to the natural world, such as the weather, wild animals, and especially greenery and growth, farmers offered sacrifices and prayers to her to ensure a good growing season. A pregnant sow and wheat cakes, symbolizing livestock and crops, were offered up by families upon the household hearths. With this sacrifice, people prayed for a good growing season as well as protection for their crops against birds, insects, cold weather, drought, fungus, and weeds. People called upon Tellus to bless and purify their soil so that any pests or diseases that might damage their crops would be removed, and to pray for a prosperous harvest that Autumn (3).

Several days later in early February, usually February 2, the second part of this feast would take place. February 2 was dedicated to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and the patron god of farmers. What had previously occurred in late January was the blessing and purification of the earth, which was a multi-day process. Now that the soil had been ritually cleaned, the seeds could be planted within it. Just like with the Feast of Tellus several days prior, prayers were spoken and sacrifices were made. Like the Feast of Tellus, the Romans offered pork and wheat cakes, symbolizing livestock and crops, to Ceres and asked for her to bless the seeds that they were about to plant and to remove any impurities from them, such as fungus, disease, or pests. Once all of the prayers and sacrifices had been made, the farmers planted the purified seeds into the purified soil (4). In the words of the poet Ovid…

“You bullocks, crowned with garlands, stand at the full trough; your labour will return with the warmth of spring. Let the farmer hang the toil-worn plough on its post: The wintry earth dreaded its every wound. Steward, let the soil rest when the sowing is done, and let the men who worked the soil rest too. Let the village keep festival: farmers, purify the village and offer the yearly cakes on the village hearths. Propitiate Earth and Ceres, the mothers of the crops, with their own corn and a pregnant sow’s entrails. Ceres and Earth fulfill a common function: one supplies the chance to bear, the other the soil. Partners in toil, you who improved on ancient days replacing acorns with more useful foods, satisfy the eager farmers with full harvest, so they reap a worthy prize from their efforts. Grant the tender seeds perpetual fruitfulness, don’t let new shoots be scorched by cold snows. When we sow, let the sky be clear with calm breezes, and sprinkle the buried seed with heavenly rain. Forbid the birds that prey on cultivated land to ruin the cornfields in destructive crowds. You too, spare the sown seed, you ants, so you’ll win a greater prize from the harvest. Meanwhile let no scaly mildew blight its growth, and let no bad weather blanch its colour. May it neither shrivel, nor be over-ripe and ruined by its own rich exuberance. May the fields be free of darnel that harms the eyesight, and no barren wild oats grow on cultivated soil. May the land yield rich interest, crops of wheat and barley, and spelt roasted twice in the flames. I offer this for you, farmers, do so yourselves, and may the two goddesses grant our prayers” (5).

Ovid says that in the archaic past, the Romans would only offer grain and salt to their gods. However, they later added animal sacrifices to their rituals, and says that Ceres was the first god to have this done in her honor. On her feast day, a pig was sacrificed to her, supposedly as punishment for pigs uprooting a farmer’s crops. As Ovid relates, “Ceres was first to delight in the blood of the greedy sow, her crops avenged by the rightful death of the guilty creature. She learned that in Spring the grain, milky with sweet juice, had been uprooted by the snouts of bristling pigs. The swine were punished, terrified by that example” (6).

Marcus Terentius Varro reports that at the Temple of Tellus, there was a map of Italy painted on one of the walls. The reason for this is given by a Roman knight named Gaius Agrius, who was an acquaintance of Varro’s: “You have all travelled through many lands; have you seen any land more fully cultivated than Italy?” (7).

Source citations:

  1. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24; 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 294-295; Nova Roma. “Paganalia”. http://www.novaroma.org/nr/Paganalia.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  7. Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica, book 1, chapter 2.


Please check out my “Today in Ancient Rome” series for more articles on the ancient Roman calendar. You can find the whole list by clicking here!

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