May 1 – Part 1: The Month of Maia, the Ancient Roman Goddess of Motherhood

May is named in honor of the ancient Roman goddess Maia, the goddess of motherhood. Maia was also referred to by the Romans as Bona Dea, “the Good Goddess”. She might be one-and-the-same with Tellus, the ancient Roman “Mother Earth” goddess. Considering that this time of year was one of growth and bloom, this comparison has some merit (1).

The ancient Roman poet Ovid gives us the following biographical information about this goddess…

“Tethys, the Titaness, was married long ago to Ocean, he who encircles the outspread earth with flowing water. The story is that their daughter Pleione was united to sky-bearing Atlas, and bore him the Pleiades. Among them, Maia’s said to have surpassed her sisters in beauty, and to have slept with mighty Jove. She bore Mercury, who cuts the air on winged feet, on the cypress-clothed ridge of Mount Cyllene” (2).

By the order of the Roman Senate, a temple to Maia / Bona Dea had been erected upon the slope of the Aventine Hill, and only women were permitted to worship there. The story concerning this temple was that it had been officially dedicated on May 1 (the year is not known) by a matron of the gens Clausi, who had taken a vow of virginity, and likely became the temple’s first priestess. However by the time of Caesar Augustus, this temple had fallen into disrepair, and his wife Livia took it upon herself to provide the funds to restore it (3).

In addition to the temple being a place of worship, it also served as a storehouse for all manner of medicinal herbs. This was in reference to mothers caring for their sick children, and since Maia could be seen as the embodiment of motherhood, it only makes sense that she would have a divine medicine cabinet to cure all manner of physical or spiritual ailments (4).

In ancient Rome, May 1st marked the day of the Spring Compitalia Street Fair. A compitalia was a festival celebrated in ancient Rome which was designed, at least in theory, to pray for the well-being of the community, but personally I think its real purpose was to bring people of the neighborhood together and have a good old-fashioned block party. There were four of these street fairs held in ancient Rome, one for each season: the Winter Compitalia on January 3-5, the Spring Compitalia on May 1, the Summer Compitalia on August 15, and the Autumn Compitalia on October 15 (5).

The poet Ovid has the following remarks to make concerning the Spring Compitalia…

“The Kalends of May saw an altar dedicated to the Guardian Lares, with small statues of the gods. Curius vowed them: but time destroys many things, and the long ages wear away the stone. The reason for their epithet of Guardian, is that they keep safe watch over everything. They support us, and protect the City walls, and they’re propitious, and bring us aid. A dog, carved from the same stone, used to stand at their feet: why did it stand there with the Lares? Both guard the house: both are loyal to their master. Crossroads are dear to the god, and to dogs. Both the Lar and Diana’s pack chase away thieves. And the Lares are watchful, and so are dogs. I looked for statues of the twin gods, but they’d fallen with the weight of years. The City has a thousand Lares, and Spirits of the Leader, who gave them to the people, and each district worships the three divinities” (6).

It was considered bad luck to get married in May, and Roman couples were urged to delay their nuptials until June. This was largely due to the occurrence of the Lemuria, which can be seen as the ancient Romans’ version of Halloween. It was 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? (7).

Please read the other two articles within this set:

Source Citations

  1. 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 100; Robert Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome: Religion in Everyday Life from Archaic to Imperial Times. Translated from French to English by Antonia Nevill. New York: Routledge, 2001. Page 70.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, “Introduction”.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, “May 1”.
  4. 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 104.
  5. Edward Greswell, Origines Kalendariae Italicae: Nundial Calendars of Ancient Italy, in Four Volumes, Volume II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1854. Pages 120-121.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, “May 1”.
  7. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, “May 9”.


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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