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Get ready for some ancient Roman flower power, dude! April 28 was date of the Floralia, a festival dedicated to the goddess Flora, the ancient Roman goddess of flowers and fertility. Flora was associated with Spring, the season of new life and color, and her feast day was a lavish festival dedicated to honoring and celebrating the spring season. There were theatrical performances, competitions, and games. Bright multi-colored clothing was worn by the people to emulate the various flower colors, and women wore wreathes of flowers around their heads and laced into their hair. In ancient Rome, April 28 was a day to let your freakus flaggus flyus!!!
Image © Jason R. Abdale. November 10, 2018.
The origins of this holiday are somewhat difficult to determine. On the face of it, it would appear that the ancient Romans dedicated this holiday to the goddess Flora to celebrate the coming of Spring. Throughout the ages and among numerous civilizations, flowers are regarded as emblematic of the Spring season, and the ancient Romans were no different.
Flowers are not just pretty to look at – they are also extremely important to an agriculture-dominant society. Most fruits and vegetables are created as a result of pollenated flowers. If the flower blossoms abruptly died before they could be pollenated, or if the plants didn’t even blossom at all for some reason, then not only would the farmer have a miniscule harvest, meaning that his finances would suffer a severe down-turn, but also a devastating famine would break out. Thus, it was important to honor, celebrate, and placate the flower goddess to ensure a good Spring blossoming and a good Autumn harvest.
In Ovid’s Fasti, the poet puts these words into Flora’s mouth: “Perhaps you think I only rule over tender garlands. But my power also commands the farmers’ fields. If the crops have flourished, the threshing-floor is full: If the vines have flourished, there’ll be wine: If the olive trees have flourished, the year will be bright, and the fruit will prosper at the proper time. If the flower’s damaged, the beans and vetch die, and your imported lentils, Nile, die too. Wine too, laboriously stored in the vast cellars, froths, and clouds the wine jars’ surface with mist. Honey’s my gift: I call the winged ones who make honey, to the violets, clover and pale thyme. I carry out similar functions, when spirits run riot, and bodies themselves flourish” (1).
Photo by Jason R. Abdale. March 22, 2021.
What do we know about Flora herself? Marcus Terentius Varro claims that Flora was a Sabine goddess. There was apparently a very old temple to Flora located within “the Sabine Quarter” of the city of Rome, and order of priests had been established to preside over her holy rites (2).
According to the poet Ovid, Flora was originally named Chloris, but an error in spelling led to the Romans mistakenly writing her name as Floris, and later Flora. She was neither woman nor goddess, but was a nymph – a divine spiritual entity which inhabited woods, fields, and other wild places. According to Roman legend, she was captured and raped by Zephyrus (I am amazed and disgusted how much rape is in ancient Greek and Roman mythology), and the two of them were afterwards married. The two lived in a house set in the fields, located near a spring, and Flora was given the duty of tending to the garden. Thus, she became “the mistress of the flowers” (3).
But as with anything involving ancient history, nothing is EVER that straight-forward. The Roman writer Lactantius, who wrote during the 300s AD, gives us the story that Flora was not a goddess or a nymph, but was in fact, a famous prostitute. This woman had acquired a massive amount of wealth as a result of her midnight activities. When she died, she decreed in her will that all of her money was to be donated to the Roman people, and stipulated that a portion of her wealth was to be set aside so that public games could be celebrated each year, which would be known as the Ludi Floriales, “the Games of Flora”. The men of the Roman Senate, who presented an image of being very dignified and virtuous, was ashamed of this woman’s activities. Consequently, they re-wrote her history, claiming that she was, in fact, a goddess who presided over flowers and blossoms, an that the games were necessary in order to please her and assure a good Autumn harvest (4).
It is said that the Floralia was celebrated for the first time in 238 BC. During that year, all of Italy was ravaged by prolonged periods of bad weather, and large quantities of the year’s crops were destroyed. Italy was threatened with famine and mass starvation. The Roman Senate consulted the Sibyl, the great oracle of the Roman world, as to what ought to be done. In response, she commanded the Roman people to hold a great festival in honor of the goddess Flora as a way to gain her favor and grant protection over flowers and blossoms. This was done, and the harvest was miraculously saved. However, it wasn’t until 174 or 173 BC that the Floralia was celebrated every year (5).
The festivities began on April 28 and lasted into May 3. The reason that the date of April 28 was chosen was that a shrine or a temple dedicated to Flora was established at the Circus Maximus and was dedicated on April 28. Flora’s temple was located very close to the Temple of Ceres, the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture. James Elmes stated that April 28 was actually Flora’s birthday (6).
It’s noteworthy that this flower festival extends through the first days of May. May 1 is the date of the ancient Celtic festival of Beltaine, which marks the first day of Summer in the Celtic calendar. The ancient Celtic and ancient Roman seasonal calendars were different from ours. To us, the Summer Solstice in late June marks the beginning of Summer, but to the Celts and Romans, that was the middle, the high-point, of Summer. To them, the real beginning of Summer occurred between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice, sometime in early May. To the ancient Celts, the festival of Beltaine marked the beginning of Summer. Just like with the Roman Floralia, flowers played a core part in the Celtic festival of Beltaine. In the Celtic world, on May 1, the outside of people’s houses were decorated with hawthorn branches and flowers, and doors, windows, and cattle would be adorned with yellow flowers because they represented the sun (7).
Photo by Jason R. Abdale. June 29, 2018.
Meanwhile in ancient Rome, May 1st – the Kalends of May – was also the date of the Spring Compitalia Festival. The compitaliae were a series of public street fairs which were held in Rome which were dedicated to the guardian spirits of crossroads. Probably the most well-known of these was the Winter Compitalia, which was held in early January, but there was one held during each season. You can read more about these holidays by clicking here.
The Floralia was held in the Campus Martius, in the shadow of Flora’s shrine, and the aediles were responsible for conducting and overseeing the day’s festivities. The festival’s expenses were paid for by allocating a portion of the fines that had been collected from people who illegally set their livestock on publicly-owned land (8). The festivities began with the blasting of a trumpet. Torches were lit throughout the city during this multi-festival, blazing throughout the night. In the words of Ovid, putting words in the mouth of the goddess herself, “Lights are thought to be fitting for my day, because the fields glow with crimson flowers, or because flowers and flames aren’t dull in colour, and the splendour of them both attracts the eye: or because the licence of night suits my delights, and this third reason’s nearest to the truth” (9). The Celtic festival of Beltaine was also marked by the lighting of the Beltaine Bonfire, which was believed to ward off pestilence and evil spirits and to bestow fertility upon livestock (10).
“Spring”, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1894)
The Floralia was a time of great merriment and celebration. During this time, more latitude was given to engage in activities which otherwise would have been frowned upon. In the words of the ancient Roman poet Ovid, “A goddess comes framed in a thousand varied garlands of flowers, and the stage has freer license for mirth… Mother of the flowers, approach, so we can honour you with joyful games!” (11). The Floralia was intended to be a day for fun and celebration, and the whole population as encouraged to lighten up and loosen up. Dining tables were covered with rose petals, people wore bright boldly-patterned clothes to mimic the vibrant rainbow of flower petals, and they wore garlands of flowers around their heads. There was dancing in the streets and a great deal excessive drinking! It was a day that the wine god Bacchus himself would have reveled in. After all, Ovid quipped, Bacchus loves flowers and he was often seen wearing crowns of them (12). During the reign of Emperor Galba, one of the monarchs who ruled during “the Year of the Four Emperors” in 69 AD, a new novelty circus attraction was exhibited for the first time: “In celebrating the games of the Floralia in his praetorship he gave a new kind of exhibition, namely of elephants walking the rope” (13).
A scene from a 1990s Xerox commercial showing an Olympian god wearing a tie-dyed toga, claiming he needs more color in his life. During the Floralia festival, he would have fit right in.
Many of the features of this day’s celebrations could be quite raunchy! Among the day’s festivities were strippers, nude dancers, plays in which all of the actors and actresses should be naked, female wrestlers, and female gladiator fights – no mention is made if they fought naked (14). In the words of the poet Juvenal…
“The female wrestling ring; who hasn’t seen the battered training-post, hacked by repeated sword-blows, scarred by her shield. The girl’s fully trained, totally qualified, ready for the fanfare and fights at the Floralia, unless that is she plans something more, practises now for the wider arena. How can you call her decent, a helmeted woman who spurns her very own gender? She loves a fight, even so she’d not wish to be a man; the pleasure we get is so little, after all! What a sight, if they auctioned off the wives’ paraphernalia, the sword-belts, arm-protectors, crests, and the half-size left-leg shin-guards! Or if it’s a different fight she wages, how happy you’d be if she managed to sell off her greaves. Yet these are the girls who sweat in the thinnest dress, whose delicate skins are chafed by the smoothest wisps of silk. Hear her cries as she drives home the thrusts she’s learned, feel how heavy the helmet is that she bows beneath, see the breadth, the thickness, of those bandages round her knees, and laugh when she takes to a chamber-pot, fully armed! Grand-daughters of Lepidus, blind Metellus, and Fabius Maximus Gurges too, what gladiator’s wife ever wore stuff like this? When did Asylus’s wife grunt at the training-post?” (15)
As far as Ovid was concerned, all of this was perfectly natural. Surely, for a such a light-hearted and care-free goddess as Flora, dour solemnity would be banned on her feast days. These were the days to feel alive, to embrace the vigors of one’s youth, because you’re only young for a brief time, so make the most of it while you can: “I was going to ask why there’s greater wantonness in her games, and freer jests, but it struck me that the goddess isn’t strict, and the gifts she brings are agents of delight…The reason the crowd of whores celebrate these games is not a difficult one for us to discover. The goddess isn’t gloomy, she’s not high-flown, she wants her rites to be open to the common man, and warns us to use life’s beauty while it’s in bloom” (16)
However, for the prudish Lactantius, these festivities were a scandalous abomination: “Those games, therefore, are celebrated with all wantonness, as is suitable to the memory of a harlot. For besides licentiousness of words, in which all lewdness is poured forth, women are also stripped of their garments at the demand of the people, and then perform the office of mimeplayers, and are detained in the sight of the people with indecent gestures, even to the satiating of unchaste eyes” (17)
The sexual licentiousness associated with the Floralia festival might also have social connections with the pagan calendars of the Romans and Celts. This was, after all, “the lusty month of May”. In the Celtic world during May, marriage vows were temporarily suspended and people were given full permission to have affairs with whomever they wished. Men and women got their rocks off as if there was no tomorrow in the hope that their raging horniness would encourage flowers to bloom and crops to grow (18).
Beast hunts were held in the Circus Maximus on the last day of the celebration Hunting rabbits, deer, wild goats, and other herbivorous animals was encouraged on this day, but the hunting of predatory animals such as lions, wolves, foxes, and bears was not. The reason for this was that these herbivorous animals were a frequently-encountered pest in one’s farms and gardens. They devoured and destroyed acres of crops, and ate the green shoots before they had a chance to blossom and fruit. Such animals, went Ovid, were repugnant to Flora and to other gods and goddesses associated with the Earth’s produce, and therefore they needed to be culled to prevent them from causing too much damage. However, since creatures like lions and wolves did not eat grain, fruits, or flowers, they were no threat to farmers, and therefore could be left alone for today (19).
So on April 28 to May 3, go crazy! Lighten up, loosen up, and live it up! Put some flowers in your hair and wear outrageously colorful clothing. Eat, drink, and be merry, and enjoy the joys of life. Summer is a-comin’ in.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
- Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, chapter 74. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 71; Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 7, chapter 45. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 311; 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 92.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
- Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 1, chapter 20.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 18, chapter 69; Basil Kennett, Romae Antiquae Notitia, or, The Antiquities of Rome, in Two Parts. London: A. Swall and T. Child, 1695. Page 289; William Smith, A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853. Page 180; Seth William Stevenson, Charles Roach Smith, and Frederick W. Madden, A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889. Page 389; Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891. Page 238.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 28; James Elmes, A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824; Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891. Page 238; 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 92-93.
- Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 224-225.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Reverend Thomas Wilson, An Archaeological Dictionary, or, Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans. London: T. Cadell, 1783; William Smith, A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853. Page 180; 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 92.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 5th Edition. Volume 1. London: 1741; James Elmes, A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824; Seth William Stevenson, Charles Roach Smith, and Frederick W. Madden, A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889. Page 390.
- Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 218-225.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 28; Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; William Smith, A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853. Page 180.
- Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 7 – “The Life of Galba”, chapter 6.
- Quintus Valerius Maximus, Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, book 2, chapter 10, verse 8; Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 1, chapter 20; Basil Kennett, Romae Antiquae Notitia, or, The Antiquities of Rome, in Two Parts. London: A. Swall and T. Child, 1695. Page 289; James Elmes, A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824.
- Juvenal, Satire #6.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
- Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 1, chapter 20.
- Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 228-229; “Greenwood Marriages and the Fiery Passions of Beltane”.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891. Page 238.
- Juvenal. Satire #6. Translated by A. S. Kline, 2001. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/JuvenalSatires6.php.
- Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 1, chapter 20. Translated by William Fletcher. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886. https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/07011.htm.
- Maximus, Quintus Valerius. Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, book 2, chapter 10, verse 8. Translated by Samuel Speed. London: Benjamin Crayle and John Fish, 1684. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo2/A64910.0001.001/1:6.2.10?rgn=div3;view=fulltext.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 28. Translated by A. S. Kline, 2004. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2. Translated by A. S. Kline, 2004. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFive.php.
- Pliny the Elder. Natural History, book 18, chapter 69. Translated by John Bostock. London: Taylor and Francis, 1855. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D18%3Achapter%3D69.
- Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars, book 7 – “The Life of Galba”, chapter 6. Translated by J. C. Rolfe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Galba*.html.
- Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 5, chapter 74. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
- Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 5th Edition. Volume 1. London: 1741.
- Elmes, James. A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824.
- 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.
- Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Kennett, Basil. Romae Antiquae Notitia, or, The Antiquities of Rome, in Two Parts. London: A. Swall and T. Child, 1695.
- Seyffert, Oskar. A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891.
- Smith, William. A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853.
- Stevenson, Seth William; Smith, Charles Roach; Madden, Frederick W. A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889.
- Wilson, Reverend Thomas. An Archaeological Dictionary, or, Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans. London: T. Cadell, 1783.
- Huff Post. “Greenwood Marriages and the Fiery Passions of Beltane”, by Rev. Laurie Sue Brockway (May 1, 2014). https://www.huffpost.com/entry/greenwood-marriages-and-t_b_5242087.
I feel the coming of the flowery Spring,
Wakening tree and vine;
A bowl capacious quickly bring
And mix the honeyed wine.
Weave for my throat a garland of fresh dill,
And crown my head with flowers,
And o’er my breast sweet perfumes spill
In aromatic showers.
– Alcaeus of Mytilene
April 23 was the date of the Vinalia Priora, literally “the Festival of Wine from Last Year”, which was dedicated to the gods Jupiter and Venus. This was the ceremonial first-tasting of the wine that had been bottled and casked during the previous autumn and which had been fermenting over the winter. An offering of the first wine to be opened was made to the god Jupiter. Afterwards, the rest of the wine could be tasted.
“The Vinalia ‘Festival of the Wine,’ from vinum ‘wine’; this is a day sacred to Jupiter, not to Venus. This feast receives no slight attention in Latium; for in some places the vintages were started by the priests, on behalf of the state, as at Rome they are even now: for the special priest of Jupiter makes an official commencement of the vintage, and when he has given orders to gather the grapes, he sacrifices a lamb to Jupiter, and between the cutting out of the victim’s vitals and the offering of them to the god he himself first plucks a bunch of grapes. On the gates of Tusculum there is an inscription: The new wine shall not be carried into the city until the Vinalia has been proclaimed” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 16. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 189).
“The Vintage Festival”, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1871)
In addition to offering libations of wine to Jupiter, a similar ritual was dedicated to Venus. Venus was the patron goddess of prostitutes, for reasons that I think are self-evident. On this day, the “ladies of the evening” would gather at her temple, burn incense, and give offerings of myrtle, mint, rushes, and roses.
“You prostitutes, celebrate the divine power of Venus: Venus suits those who earn by your profession. Offer incense and pray for beauty and men’s favour, pray to be charming, and blessed with witty words, give the Mistress myrtle, and the mint she loves, and sheaves of rushes, wound in clustered roses. Now’s the time to crowd her temple near the Colline Gate, one that takes its name from a Sicilian hill: When Claudius took Arethusian Syracuse by force, and captured that hill of Eryx, too, in the war, Venus moved to Rome, according to the long-lived Sibyl’s prophecy, preferring to be worshipped in her children’s City. Why then, you ask, is the Vinalia Venus’ festival? And why does this day belong to Jupiter? There was a war to decide whether Turnus or Aeneas should be Latin Amata’s son-in-law: Turnus begged help from Etruscan Mezentius, a famous and proud fighter, mighty on horseback and mightier still on foot: Turnus and the Rutuli tried to win him to their side. The Tuscan leader replied to their suit: ‘My courage costs me not a little: witness my wounds, and my weapons that have often been dyed with blood. If you seek my help you must divide with me the next wine from your vats, no great prize. No delay is needed: yours is to give, mine to conquer. How Aeneas will wish you’d refused me!’ The Rutulians agreed. Mezentius donned his armour, and so did Aeneas, and addressed Jove: ‘The enemy’s pledged his vine-crop to the Tyrrhenian king: Jupiter, you shall have the wine from the Latin vines!’ The nobler prayer succeeded: huge Mezentius died, and struck the ground, heart filled with indignation. Autumn came, dyed with the trodden grapes: The wine, justly owed to Jupiter, was paid. So the day is called the Vinalia: Jupiter claims it, and loves to be present at his feast” (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 23)
- Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 16. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 23. Translated by A. S. Kline, 2004. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php.
- Alcaeus of Mytilene. “Spring”. In The Songs of Alcaeus, translated by James S. Easby-Smith. Washington: W. H. Lowdermilk & Co., 1901. Page 45.
April 4 marked the beginning of a multi-day festival in ancient Rome dedicated to Cybele, the mother of the gods; Cybele is the Roman version of the Greek goddess Hera. Cybele originated from Crete, with her sanctuary atop Mount Berekynthos (Virgil, Aeneid, book 9, line 77; “Berekynthos Mt. (Chania) 16 Malaxa – Βερέκυνθον”). In Virgil’s Aeneid, it is written “Behold, my son, under his command glorious Rome will match earth’s power and heaven’s will, and encircle seven hills with a single wall, happy in her race of men: as Cybele, the Berecynthian ‘Great Mother’, crowned with turrets, rides through the Phrygian cities, delighting in her divine children, clasping a hundred descendants, all gods, all dwelling in the heights above” (Virgil, Aeneid, book 6, line 777). Cybele herself is depicted as a woman riding a chariot pulled by a pair of lions instead of horses, indicating her abilities to tame wild beasts. She herself wore a crown atop her head fashioned to look like city walls with towers, since it was believed that she had given people the idea to add towers to their walls (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4).
April 4-10 was the period of the Ludi Megalenses, “the Games of the Great Mother”, which was one of the titles given to Cybele. This festival was first held in 204 BC. Ovid says that the courts were closed on the first day of the festivities (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4). As Marcus Varro explains, “The Megalesia ‘Festival of the Great Mother’ is so called from the Greeks, because by direction of the Sibylline Books the Great Mother was brought from King Attalus, from Pergama; there near the city-wall was the Megalesion, that is, the temple of this goddess, whence she was brought to Rome” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 15. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 189).
The games began on April 4, the Feast of Cybele. The celebration commenced with the blasting sound of a musical instrument called the Berecynthian pipe, a reference to the goddess’ Cretan origin. It was apparently a curved flute or horn made of boxwood which produced a loud buzzing sound similar to a bagpipe or perhaps a super-sized kazoo. That un-earthly sound was the signal that the festivities were about to begin (Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, book 4, chapter 522; Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4; Virgil, Aeneid, book 9, line 590).
Eunuchs, the priests of the Galli who castrated themselves in an act of dedication to Cybele, led the public procession through the streets, pounding on drums and crashing cymbals together, trying seemingly to make as much noise as possible. Meanwhile, they beat and whip themselves, and moan and shriek in pain and despair, in emulation of the tortured mind of Attis, Cybele’s lover. Behind them, a statue of Cybele was be carried atop people’s shoulders (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4).
Let me stray for a moment from my main narrative and provide some information about these priests who served Cybele. These people were known as the Galli, not because they were of Gallic or Celtic ancestry but because, as Ovid relates, in Phyrigia there is a river near the shrine of Cybele called the Gallus and anyone who drinks its water goes insane. Famously, the Galli as they were called castrated themselves by crushing their testicles in a bronze vice. What on earth would induce them to do such a thing? This practice had its basis in Roman mythology. A handsome Phrygian boy named Attis fell in love with the goddess Cybele. However, it was inappropriate for a god to have sexual relations with a mortal, so Attis vowed that since he loved her so much he would never be intimate with anyone else. Cybele was impressed by his devotion, and asked him to forever serve her and protect her temple, and as long as he held to his vow of virginity, she would treat him very well. Unfortunately, when he met the extremely beautiful nymph Sagaritis, he was filled with lust, and it got the better of his senses, and the two of them had sex. Almost immediately, he was filled with immense guilt over what he had done, and it drove him to madness. In an act of self-punishment, he ripped off his clothes and fiercely whipped his own back. Feeling that this pain, no matter how severe, was still not sufficient, he took a sharp stone and started stabbing and lacerating his naked body all over with deep gashes, and smeared dirt and mud all over himself to show how filthy he thought he was. “I deserve this! I deserve this!” he cried out. “Let me pay for my sin with my own blood! Let the parts of my body that brought me to this state perish, let them perish!” and taking a knife, he sliced off his own balls. Ever since then, in emulation of Attis, the Galli castrate themselves, beat themselves, whip themselves, and wail and cry in lamentation. A comparison might be made here between the Galli and the medieval flagellates, who punished their bodies so that they could gain God’s favor and remove the Black Death (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4).
The Roman writer Lucian provides us with some information on the Galli. In The Syrian Goddess, he explains how there is a temple in Syria at a place called Hierapolis, “the Sacred City”, which is devoted to the worship of Cybele, known in that region as Rhea. According to his story, Queen Stratonice of Assyria received a vision from Hera/Cybele/Rhea to build a temple dedicated to her in Hierapolis. Her husband the king could not go, so he sent his best friend Combabus to go with her. What the king did not realize was that Combabus had a crush on the king’s wife, but had never made his feelings known. Combabus believed that the journey in addition to the actual time constructing the temple would be long, and it might be possible that the queen might develop feelings for him during that time. Not wanting to be involved in adultery, he castrated himself so that he couldn’t give in to temptation. Building the temple took three years, and sure enough, the queen began to develop romantic feelings for her companion. One night, when she was drunk, she came to his bedroom and tried to seduce him. When persuading her to go back to sleep and to think of her husband didn’t work, Combabus revealed himself to her, showing her that he had, to use the term of the day, “un-manned” himself, and that immediately killed all romantic sentiments in her. Lucian then gives an intriguing statement: “The memory of this love is still alive at Hierapolis and is maintained in this way; the women still are enamoured of the Galli, and the Galli again love the women with passion; but there is no jealousy at all, and this love passes among them for a holy passion” (Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, 22). Lucian goes on to say that the priests of Cybele in Hierapolis still castrate themselves, and thereafter wear only women’s clothing and perform what is typically thought of as “women’s work”. “Combabus accordingly in despair at his incapacity for love, donned woman’s attire, that no woman in future might be deceived in the same way. This is the reason of the female attire of the Galli” (Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, 10, 15, 17-27).
Lucian’s description of the feast of Cybele in Hierapolis bears several similarities to those conducted in Rome: a procession of the Galli priests accompanied by loud music. The women in the audience become “frenzied and frantic”. The Galli slice their arms with knives and whip each other on their backs. Lucian comments that sometimes men in the audience are so swept up in the emotion that they castrate themselves on the spot (Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, 43, 50-51)
The 19th Century religious pseudo-historian Samuel F. Dunlap says of the Galli, “The priests and the Galli, dressed like women, with turbans, appear in a band. One who surpasses all in the tonsure begins to prophesy with sighing and groaning; he publicly laments for the sins he has committed, which he will now punish by chastisement of the flesh. He takes the knotty scourge which the Galli are accustomed to carry, whips his back, cuts himself with swords until the blood runs down. The whole ends by taking up a collection [of coins]. Copper and silver coins are flung into their lap; some give wine, milk, cheese, [or] flour, which are eagerly carried off” (Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 42).
Alright, I think I’ve talked enough about those people. What else do we know about the Feast of Cybele? In truth, once all of the sensationalist information about the Galli has been dispensed with, the answer is “not much”. We know that offerings of salad, herbs, and cheese were made to the goddess (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4), and we know that the games held in her honor lasted for seven days. On the last day, April 10, a chariot race dedicated to the goddess Cybele was held at the Circus Maximus, bringing the Ludi Megalenses to an end (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 10).
- Dunlap, Samuel Fales. Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861.
- Poetry in Translation. Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 10. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php.
- Poetry in Translation. Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php.
- Sacred Texts. Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, 10, 15, 17-27, 43, 50-51. Translated by Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, 1913. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/tsg/tsg07.htm.
- Topos Text. “Berekynthos Mt. (Chania) 16 Malaxa – Βερέκυνθον”. https://topostext.org/place/355241LBer.
- Topos Text. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, book 4, chapter 522. https://topostext.org/work/668#4.522.
- Topos Text. Virgil, Aeneid, book 6, line 777. https://topostext.org/work/245#6.777.
- Topos Text. Virgil, Aeneid, book 9, line 590. https://topostext.org/work/245#9.59.
- Topos Text. Virgil, Aeneid, book 9, line 77. https://topostext.org/work/245#9.77.
- Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 15. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
April is the month of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and April 1 was one of several days in the Roman calendar dedicated to her. April is also the month of Apru, the Etruscan goddess of love; her name is an Etruscan version of “Aphrodite”. It’s possible that the ancient Romans were influenced by this when it came to ascribing months to different deities in their pantheon (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, introduction; “Linguistic musings: Adur, Apru and Aphrodite”).
The poet Ovid, being an ardent admirer of Venus, has a lot to say about this day…
“No season is more fitting for Venus than Spring: In spring the earth gleams: in spring the ground’s soft, now the grass pokes its tips through the broken soil, now the vine bursts in buds through the swollen bark. And lovely Venus deserves the lovely season, and is joined again to her darling Mars: In Spring she tells the curving ships to sail, over her native seas, and fear the winter’s threat no longer” (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, introduction).
“They say Spring was named from the open (apertum) season, because Spring opens (aperit) everything and the sharp frost-bound cold vanishes, and fertile soil’s revealed, though kind Venus sets her hand there and claims it. She rules the whole world too, and truly deserves to: she owns a realm not inferior to any god’s, commands earth and heaven, and her native ocean, and maintains all beings from her source. She created the gods (too numerous to mention): she gave the crops and trees their first roots: she brought the crude minds of men together, and taught them each to associate with a partner. What but sweet pleasure creates all the race of birds? Cattle wouldn’t mate, if gentle love were absent. The wild ram butts the males with his horn, but won’t hurt the brow of his beloved ewe. The bull, that the woods and pastures fear, puts off his fierceness and follows the heifer. The same force preserves whatever lives in the deep, and fills the waters with innumerable fish. That force first stripped man of his wild apparel: From it he learned refinement and elegance” (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, introduction).
In archaic times, the Sibyl of Cumae ordered that a temple dedicated to Venus ought to be built. In accordance with the oracle’s order, the temple was constructed and officially opened on April 1. From then on, April 1 was a day dedicated to the worship of Venus. Her specific title that was invoked on this day was Venus Verticordia, “Venus the Changer of Hearts”. On this day, the marble statue of Venus that was housed within the temple was carefully cleaned and fresh flowers were laid around it (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 1).
“Perform the rites of the goddess, Roman brides and mothers, and you who must not wear the headbands and long robes. Remove the golden necklaces from her marble neck, remove her riches: the goddess must be cleansed, complete. Return the gold necklaces to her neck, once it’s dry: Now she’s given fresh flowers, and new-sprung roses. She commands you too to bathe, under the green myrtle…Learn now why you offer incense to Fortuna Virilis, in that place that steams with heated water. All women remove their clothes on entering, and every blemish on their bodies is seen: Virile Fortune undertakes to hide those from the men, and she does this at the behest of a little incense. Don’t begrudge her poppies, crushed in creamy milk and in flowing honey, squeezed from the comb: When Venus was first led to her eager spouse, she drank so: and from that moment was a bride. Please her with words of supplication: beauty, virtue, and good repute are in her keeping” (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 1).
Plutarch also states that on April 1, great quantities of wine were poured around Venus’ temple. This ritual has its foundations in early Roman mythology as Plutarch explains:
“Mezentius, general of the Etruscans, sent to Aeneas and offered peace on condition of his receiving the year’s vintage? But when Aeneas refused, Mezentius promised his Etruscans that when he had prevailed in battle, he would give them the wine. Aeneas learned of his promise and consecrated the wine to the gods, and after his victory he collected all the vintage and poured it out in front of the temple of Venus” (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #45).
- Plutarch, Roman Questions, #45. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Roman_Questions*/home.html.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 4, introduction. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 1. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php.
- For what they were… we are. “Linguistic musings: Adur, Apru and Aphrodite” (February 6, 2011). http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/2011/02/linguistic-musings-adur-apru-and.html.