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February 2 – The Feast of Ceres and the Blessing of the Seeds

Today is February 2. Most Americans know this as “Groundhog Day” in which, according to their superstitions, a groundhog is able to predict if warm or cold weather will come. The story is that if a groundhog emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow, it will become frightened by it and scurry back inside. The act of returning to its burrow signifies that Winter is still here and it’s not practical to go outside looking for food just yet. However, if the groundhog exits its underground home and does not see its shadow, it will stay outside. This symbolizes that the groundhog is not afraid to venture out from its place of Winter hibernation and that Spring is right around the corner.

Many people nowadays scoff at such nonsense. How can an animal predict the coming of Spring? But did you know that there is an ancient religious background to this modern-day ritual? The beginning of February is important in a few religious calendars. It’s the time of the Feast of Ceres, the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture and the patron god of farmers; Ceres was the Roman version of the Greek goddess Demeter. It’s also the date for the ancient Celtic holy day of Imbolc. In ancient Ireland, the beginning of February was marked by a feast dedicated to the goddess Brigid, who was later turned into a Catholic Christian saint. Finally, early February marks the Catholic Christian festival of Candle Mass, which is either held in honor of the Virgin Mary or the day that the infant Jesus Christ was officially presented to the Jewish temple. This day was marked by a great lighting of candles in the churches and carried in processions, and it has been proposed that this ritual procession of people carrying candles originated in ancient Rome, because the Romans performed a nearly identical ritual in commemoration of the purification god Februus (1)

All three of these religious days have one thing in common: early February, either February 1 or 2, marks the half-way point between the coming of Winter and the coming of Spring. The beginning of February celebrates that Winter is half-way over, that the days are getting longer, and that warmer weather is on its way.

The ancient Roman seasonal calendar was different from ours. To us, the Vernal Equinox in late March marks the beginning of Spring, but to the ancient Romans, the Vernal Equinox marked the middle of Spring. To them, the real beginning of Spring was in early February, somewhere between February 1-4. Therefore, to the Romans, February 2 was their true Spring Festival.

Now that you know that warmer weather is coming, you need to get ready to plant your crops. In an earlier post, which you can read here, I described the ancient Roman agriculture festivals that took place in late January and early February. In that article, I stated that the Romans conducted a pair of religious rituals several days apart dedicated to the Mother Earth goddess Tellus and agriculture goddess Ceres. The Feast of Tellus, which was customarily observed on January 24 (although it didn’t always fall on this date), served to purify the soil by removing any pests and diseases in it and also called upon the Mother Earth goddess to bring good weather and other profitable growing conditions. The purification process would take several days, probably depending on how large your field was. Then on February 2, the second of the pair was celebrated, a festival dedicated to the goddess Ceres.

Like the first festival, the second was designed with the goal of purification. February 2 was marked by the Blessing of the Seeds, in which the Roman priests offered sacrifices of pork and wheat cakes, symbolizing livestock and crops, to Ceres and asked her to bless the seeds which they were about to plant into the ground 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 (2).

The seeds which the Romans were about to plant had been kept in storage since October. It was prudent for farms to set aside the seeds that they intended to plant the following year. However, to keep these seeds safe, they needed to be locked away. If anything should happen to them, such as animals eating them or leaving them out to go moldy and rotten, there would be no food and the country would be gripped with famine. So, once the Autumn harvest was taken in, the Romans placed the following year’s seeds into underground storage containers, which were dedicated to Ceres. You can read more about this by clicking here (3).

The ancient Roman poet 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” (4).

“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, 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” (5)

Note that Ovid makes NO MENTION of an agricultural festival occurring on February 2. All of the information that we have about this is mentioned in conjunction with the activities which took place on January 24.

Once all of the religious rituals had been conducted, the farmers could get to work sowing the seeds on their land. This was an important event in the minds of the ancient Romans. These were the first seeds planted in the year, and whether these seeds would do well or not would be a sign to the farmers about what the rest of the year would be like for them. If these first seeds did well, their Autumn harvest would be bountiful, but if they did poorly, they were likely going to suffer famine. In this way, we can see a similarity to the holiday of Groundhog Day – the good or bad fortune observed on this one day determines how things would play out in the future.

So on February 2, as you see snow blowing outside your window, be comforted in knowing that you are halfway towards sunshine and warmer days. Pray to Ceres for a good growing season for the coming Spring. Pray to Ceres to protect your seeds against birds, bugs, and bad weather. Offer sacrifices of pork and wheat cakes upon the household hearth.

Source citations

  1. John Audley, A Companion to the Almanack, 2nd Edition. London: 1804. Page 24; Reverend Alban Butler, The Lives of the Saints, Volume 2. Derby: Thomas Richardson & Son, 1798. Pages 34-42; Augustine Calmet, Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible, Volume II. Charlestown: Samuel Etheridge, Jr., 1813; Edward Augustus Kendal, Pocket Encyclopedia, or, A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Polite Literature, Volume I. London: 1811. Page 329; Hipolito San Joseph Giral del Pino, A Dictionary: Spanish and English, and English and Spanish. London: 1763.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
  3. William Warde Fowler, “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33; 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.
  4. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.

Bibliography

  • Audley, John. A Companion to the Almanack, 2nd Edition. London: 1804.
  • 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.
  • Butler, Reverend Alban. The Lives of the Saints, Volume 2. Derby: Thomas Richardson & Son, 1798.
  • Calmet, Augustine. Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible, Volume II. Charlestown: Samuel Etheridge, Jr., 1813
  • Fowler, William Warde. “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.
  • Kendal, Edward Augustus. Pocket Encyclopedia, or, A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Polite Literature, Volume I. London: 1811.
  • Morell, Thomas; Duncan, William. An Abridgement of Ainsworth’s Dictionary; English and Latin, Revised Edition. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1862.
  • Pino, Hipolito San Joseph Giral del. A Dictionary: Spanish and English, and English and Spanish. London: 1763.
  • Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.
  • Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.

 

February 1 – The Month of Februus, the Ancient Roman God of Purification

In the ancient Roman calendar, several of the months are named after gods in the Roman pantheon. January is named after Janus, the god of new beginnings. March is named after Mars, the god of war. But what about February? February is the month of Februus, the god of purification. The name Februus comes from the Latin verb februa (which may have either Etruscan or Sabine roots), which means “to purge, purify, or cleanse”. The word “fever” is based on the same origin as the name “February”, because the Romans believed that you could purge sickness from your body by sweating it out of your system (1).

In addition to having the entire month dedicated in Februus’ honor, the ancient Romans also had a specific day dedicated to him in their calendar. This was called the Februalia, the Feast of Februus. In one source, it says that the Februalia purification ritual spanned from February 13 to 15 (2), but in all other sources that I have seen, it states that it only took place on the 15th. Later, the purification rituals of the Februalia were absorbed into the fertility ritual of the Lupercalia, which you can read about in more detail here.

In the past, the Roman calendar began with the month of March and ended with the month of February. Mars was seen as the divine father of the Romans, for he was the father of their first king Romulus; the year began with the month that bore his name. February, the final month of the calendar, was regarded as the death of the year, and consequently February was known for reverence to the dead (3). Traditionally, Roman government officials began their term-of-office on the first day of the year (March 1st) and exited on the last day of the year (February 28th or 29th). However, during the 150s to 130s BC, several important changes occurred within the Roman Republic, and many of these changes had to do with the Roman military campaigns in Spain. Military campaigns almost always began in March or April, when the temperature warmed, the snows melted, and the Roman Army could move. However, the immensities of the fighting in Spain meant that Roman military commanders were given precious little time to organize their campaigns. As a result of the wars in Spain, the rules and conventions of government needed to be changed due to the necessities of waging military operations in that theater, including extending the term-of-office for certain officials in order for them to more effectively carry out their duties, and even changing the Roman calendar. It was decided to shift the months of the calendar around. January and February, which had previously been the eleventh and twelfth months, were now moved to the beginning of the year to serve as the first and second months. Roman politicians and military commanders now assumed their powers on January 1 instead of March 1, which gave them at least sixty more days to prepare their troops for the upcoming military campaigns. This is also the reason why the months of September (literally translated to “Month Number 7”), October, November, and December now serve as the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months of the year (4).

The Roman poet Ovid writes about the purification rituals of February in his Fasti:

“The fathers of Rome called purification ‘februa’. Many things still indicate that meaning for the word. The high priests ask the King and the Flamen for woolen cloths, called ‘februa’ in the ancient tongue. When houses are cleansed, the roasted grain and salt, the lictor receives, are called by the same name. The same name too is given to the branch, cut from a pure tree, whose leaves wreathe the priests’ holy brows. I’ve seen the priest’s wife (the Flaminica) ask for ‘februa’, and at her request she was given a branch of pine. In short anything used to purify our bodies, had that title in the days of our hairy ancestors. The month is so called, because the Luperci cleanse the earth with strips of purifying hide, or because the time is pure, having placated the dead, when the days devoted to the departed are over. Our ancestors believed every sin and cause of evil could be erased by rites of purification. Greece set the example: she considered the guilty could rid themselves of sins by being purified” (5)

Ovid also states that a gathering was held every February 1 at the Forest of Alernus, located where the Tiber River empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Unfortunately, he does not provide any reason for this assembly of people at this wood, nor does he go into any description as to what activities occurred there. Elsewhere, at the tomb of Numa Pompilius and at Jupiter’s temple of the Capitoline Hill, a sheep was sacrificed. (6)

Ovid also states that February 1 marked the date that at least two temples were built dedicated to the goddess Juno, the queen of the Roman gods. However, Ovid remarks that these temples had long fallen into ruins by the time that he was writing (7).

Source citations

  1. Definitions and Translations. “Februa”. https://www.definitions.net/definition/februa.
  2. Definitions and Translations. “Februa”. https://www.definitions.net/definition/februa.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction.
  4. Rome and the Barbarians, lecture 8 – “The Roman Conquest of Spain”.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 1.
  7. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 1.

Bibliography

February 23 – The Terminalia: The Feast Day of the Roman Border God

February 23 was the date of the Terminalia, the festival dedicated to the ancient Roman god Terminus, the god of property boundaries. Yep, that was a real thing. Agrarian societies like the Roman peasant class took land ownership extremely seriously. Trespassing on another person’s property was not a minor offense, and muscling in on another person’s property by letting your livestock graze on someone else’s land or plowing ground that didn’t belong to you were very serious offenses indeed. Not only was property sovereignty at issue, but in many cases life and death depended upon your ability to have the land provide for you and your family. If your neighbor’s cattle devoured all of your good pasture leaving no food behind for your own livestock, or if your grapes and olives were stolen before you could pick them, your family was going to be in for hard times. Therefore, property ownership and property disputes were taken very seriously.

The ancient Romans often ascribed gods to things, and would, rather un-imaginatively, name the god simply as the name of whatever it was the god of. For example, the Roman god of the sun was called Sol, which simply meant “sun” in Latin. By extension, Luna was the goddess of the moon, and luna was the word for “moon” in Latin. Terminus was the Latin word for “boundary marker”, so when the time came for the Romans to concoct a god specifically of boundary markers, unsurprisingly, they named him after the thing that he was the god of. In ancient Rome, properties were often demarcated by large stone pillars or obelisks, or else with wooden posts set into the earth. In addition to being the god that looked after the boundaries of individual properties, Terminus was also the god who protected the boundary of the Roman Empire itself. He was, in essence, the ultimate border guard. NONE SHALL PASS!!!

According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the Terminalia festival was first conducted during the reign of King Numa Pompilius, one of Rome’s early kings. He passed a law stating that every individual property should be marked out so that there could no longer be disputes over who owned which piece of ground. He ordered that each household must draw a line around their property and then place stones along the property lines. Then, these stones were consecrated to “Jupiter Terminus” – Jupiter of the Boundaries – and he stated that the landowners should assemble at the boundary markers at a certain date and make sacrifices to them. In addition to demarcating private properties from one another, stones were also used to distinguish between private property and public property, and were also laid around the boundary of the Roman kingdom itself to mark the border between the city-state and foreign lands. King Numa furthermore stated that if anyone damaged or removed the stones, that person would be classified as an outlaw, outside of any legal protection, and anybody could kill that person with impunity (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 74).

Ovid reports that the place where this festival was first held was located six miles away from the city limits of Rome, along the road towards the town of Laurentum. In archaic times, this milestone marker also marked the end of the city-state of Rome’s lands, and it was at this spot that the first Terminalia sacrifice was performed. There was, apparently, an inscription which either stated or illustrated that a sheep was sacrificed at this marker as a sacrifice to the god who watched over and protected Rome’s border (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

According to Marcus Varro, the Festival of Terminus occurred on February 23 because this was the last day of the Roman year. Before the calendar was reformed, the Roman year began with March, the month of the god of war, since the Romans claimed that Romulus and Remus were the sons of Mars. It wasn’t until later that the calendar was shuffled around so that the year began with January. Months in the Roman calendar previously followed the phases of the moon, which could lead to some problems because the full moon did not always fall on the same days each year. Therefore, the calendar was changed so that it more resembled the calendar that we have today (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 13. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 187).

The poet Ovid gives us details about how the rituals dedicated to Terminus would have proceeded. First, everyone who was involved was required to be dressed all in white clothes. The people involved would be the two families that lived in neighboring properties which the boundary marker separated, and a priest would be presiding over everything. Two men – the two property owners who owned the adjacent lands – would approach the boundary stone that separated their two properties from each other from opposite directions, carrying a flower garland. Then, both men would drape the flower garlands upon the side that faced towards their respective properties (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

Nearby, a bonfire in the shape of a sacrificial altar was constructed out of branches and logs carefully stacked atop each other. It would have looked very similar to, if not identical to, a bustum cremation pyre. The matron from each household would bring hot coals from her own house’s hearth within a ceramic pot – these would later be used for igniting the pyre when the time came (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

Now was the moment when the various sacrificial offerings were made by the sons and daughters of both families, and it is here that our historical sources conflict with each other. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60 BC – 7 BC) states that the offerings consisted of cakes, grain, and the first-grown produce of the fields, and that no animals were used in this ritual because “it is not lawful to stain these stones with blood” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 74). By contrast, Ovid (43 BC – 17 AD) states that piglets and lambs were sacrificed as part of the Terminalia (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23). The historian Plutarch makes some sense of the differing statements made by Dionysius and Ovid. In the fourth part of his book Parallel Lives, Plutarch reports that nowadays Romans conduct animal sacrifices to Terminus, but in centuries past this was not done. In his words, “Terminus signifies boundary, and to this god they make public and private sacrifices where their fields are set off by boundaries; of living victims nowadays, but anciently the sacrifice was a bloodless one, since Numa reasoned that the god of boundaries was a guardian of peace and a witness of just dealing, and should therefore be clear from slaughter” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, book 4 – “The Life of Numa”, chapter 16). Plutarch also speaks of this in his series of short musings entitled Roman Questions: “Why is it that they were wont to sacrifice no living creature to Terminus, in whose honour they held the Terminalia, although they regard him as a god? Is it that Romulus placed no boundary-stones for his country, so that Romans might go forth, seize land, and regard all as theirs, as the Spartan said, which their spears could reach; whereas Numa Pompilius, a just man and a statesman, who had become versed in philosophy, marked out the boundaries between Rome and her neighbours, and, when on the boundary-stones he had formally installed Terminus as overseer and guardian of friendship and peace, he thought that Terminus should be kept pure and undefiled from blood and gore?” (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #15). It would therefore appear that it was during the reign of Caesar Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, who reigned from 31 BC to 14 AD, that the rules regarding what could and couldn’t be sacrificed during the Terminalia were changed. However, Caesar Augustus makes no mention of this in his Res Gestae, his list of accomplishments, and I do not know of any ancient writer who remarks that Augustus ordered the rule to be changed. It would therefore appear that it was not by imperial command, but rather, changing social attitudes that led to the change of sacrificial offerings.

Using both Dionysius and Ovid as references, each family brought a honey cake, grain (which was cast onto the pyre three times), the first-grown crops that emerged from the soil, sliced honeycomb, wine, a suckling pig, and a lamb. The piglet was killed and laid on the fire intact, but the lamb, which was brought to the altar last, was sacrificed differently. The lamb was slain and its blood was collected, presumably in a basin or pot or something, and laid aside for later. Then the lamb itself was laid upon the pyre along with all of the other sacrificial offerings (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 74; Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

Now was the time to light the fire. Dried bark and other tinder were shoved into the opening in between the logs. The hot coals that had been brought by both women of their households was carefully prodded inside, and soon, the wooden altar went up in smoke and flames. Nobody spoke at all during the whole course of all of this (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

Finally, the lamb’s blood was then splattered onto both sides of the boundary marker (Ovid doesn’t say who specifically did this, but it was probably the priest), blessing it, and the priest presiding over the ritual would give a speech that sounded something like this: “Terminus, protector god of our nation’s boundaries, it is you who lays the lines for estates, cities, and great nations. Without you, every field’s ownership would be disputed. You are not flattered or distracted by others to make you forget your duty. In good faith, you guard the land that you are entrusted to watch over. Unlike other gods, you are not free to wander. Therefore, remain on guard at your post, and do not yield an inch to our enemies. Proclaim where you stand ‘That land there is yours, but this land here is ours’” (based upon Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 23).

Sources:

February 22 – The Caristia: The Ancient Roman Family Thanksgiving Feast

February 22 was the ancient Roman holiday called the Caristia, and it was one of the biggest party days in the Roman calendar. Essentially it was Thanksgiving and Christmas put together – a private family get-together with lots of food and giving presents.

As stated in earlier articles concerning the Parentalia and Feralia festivals, the period from February 13 to 21 was devoted largely to remembrance of the dead. This was the time period known as the Parentalia, the main feast day was the opening day on February 13. The Parentalia was a remembrance period concerning paying due respects to any of your deceased family members. The last day of the Parentalia mourning period was called the Feralia, which was dedicated to the memory and honor of all people who had died during the past year regardless if they were related to you or not.

With the period of solemn mourning and duties to the dead being concluded, it was time to turn your attentions away from those who had died and towards those among your family who were still alive. February 22, the first day after the Parentalia mourning period, was the date of the Caristia, a day intended to celebrate the lives of your nearest and dearest. The festival was sometimes known as the day of cara cognatio, ‘dear relatives”. On this day, a great feast would be held in each household, full of laughter and merriment, devoted to the love and affection that parents had for their children and vice versa. It was a wonderful way of saying “We are so happy to have each other in our lives”. Because this was meant as a private celebration for each family, outsiders were not allowed to participate; to do so would be very intrusive and improper (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 308-309; Christian Roy, Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia, Volume 1. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2005. Page 45).

As the poet Ovid states…

“The next day has its name, Caristia, from our dear (cari) kin, when a throng of relations gathers to the family gods. It’s surely pleasant to turn our faces to the living, once away from our relatives who have perished, and after so many lost, to see those of our blood who remain, and count the degrees of kinship. Let the innocent come: let the impious brother be far, far from here, and the mother harsh to her children, he whose father’s too long-lived, who weighs his mother’s years, the cruel mother-in-law who crushes the daughter-in-law she hates. Be absent Tantalides, Atreus, Thyestes: and Medea, Jason’s wife; Ino who gave parched seeds to the farmers; and Procne, her sister, Philomela, and Tereus cruel to both, and whoever has gathered wealth by wickedness. Virtuous ones, burn incense to the gods of the family, (Gentle Concord is said to be there on this day above all) and offer food, so the robed Lares may feed from the dish granted to them as a mark of esteem, that pleases them. Then when moist night invites us to calm slumber, fill the wine-cup full, for the prayer, and say ‘Health, health to you, worthy Caesar, Father of the Country!’ and let there be pleasant speech at the pouring of wine” (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 22).

However, don’t get the idea that this was a drunken free-for-all atmosphere. Even on a woohoo day like this, there were still social conventions that had to be observed. For example, Plutarch states that it wasn’t allowed for husbands and wives to exchange gifts to each other, nor was it appropriate for a person to receive a gift from their son-in-law or father-in-law, and he gives several reasons why these rules existed (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #7 and #8).

While children get on their parents’ nerves from time to time, and vice-versa, it’s important to try to stay on good terms with your relatives as much as you can. For the moment, let by-gones be by-gones and eat and drink in friendship.

Sources:

February 21 – Rest in Peace: The Feralia Festival of the Dead

The ancient Romans had several days in their calendar dedicated to honoring the dead. Among these was a period that lasted from February 13 to 21 which was known as the Parentalia. This was a nine-day period that was set aside for people to visit cemeteries and lay offerings on the graves of deceased family members. You can read a more detailed description of the Parentalia, especially the rituals conducted on its opening day, here.

The final day of the Parentalia mourning period was designed to be much more inclusive. February 21 was the date of the Feralia, which was a remembrance festival for all of those who have died, whether they were related to you or not. In the Catholic Christian religious calendar, the Feralia is the equivalent of All Souls Day (November 2), in which people pray for all who have died the previous year. In fact, the Feralia and All Souls Day are directly connected with each other. In the year 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV decreed that February 21 would be known as “All Saints Day”, a general holiday dedicated to all Catholic saints who did not have a specific saint’s day of their own. Later that year, Boniface ordered that the date for All Saints Day would be changed from February 21 to May 13, which was the last day of another ancient Roman festival period dedicated to the spirits known as the Lemuria. Afterwards Pope Gregory III changed the day once again to November 1, and it has remained that way ever since. The day after All Saints Day was designated as All Souls Day (Tom Ogden, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ghosts and Hauntings. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 1999. Page 11; Lisa Morton, The Halloween Encyclopedia. Jefferson: McFarland, 2003. Page 113; David D. Smith, The Pagan Church. Morrisville: Lulu.com, 2020. Page 60; The Haunted History of Halloween).

The objects of religious focus on the day of the Feralia were the manes, the spirits of the dead who inhabited the Underworld. Romans brought offerings to graveyards to appease the spirits and make them rest in peace. Tombs were garlanded with purple violet flowers and offerings of grain, bread, salt, and wine were laid upon the graves. The word feralia is derived from the Latin verb ferunt or ferre meaning “to bear” or “to carry”; the modern English word “ferry” comes from this, because you are carrying people or cargo across water (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21).

Because the Feralia took place on the last day of the Parentalia mourning period, the social rules that were applied during this time were still in effect. These included not getting married (which was considered bad luck), temples were closed, magistrates were not allowed to wear togas, and torture and executions were postponed. In addition to these general rules, there were more rules that specifically applied to February 21. Firstly, burning incense was not allowed, which is peculiar since most Roman religious rites were accompanied by burning incense, herbs, or dried leaves such as laurel, juniper, or cedar. Secondly, people were not allowed to have fires burning inside their homes – no cooking would be done on this day! Thirdly, it was not permitted to say any bad things about the person who had died, believing that it was inappropriate behavior to do so and also it might cause the spirit to become angry and take revenge on those who had insulted them, and possibly taking out its anger on anybody else whether they were offensive to the dead or not. Fourthly, virgins were forbidden to have sex (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21).

As the poet Ovid says regarding the Feralia festival…

“The grave must be honoured. Appease your fathers’ spirits, and bring little gifts to the tombs you built. Their shades ask little, piety they prefer to costly offerings: no greedy deities haunt the Stygian depths. A tile wreathed round with garlands offered is enough, a scattering of meal, and a few grains of salt, and bread soaked in wine, and loose violets: set them on a brick left in the middle of the path. Not that I veto larger gifts, but these please the shades: add prayers and proper words to the fixed fires. This custom was brought to your lands, just Latinus, by Aeneas, a fitting promoter of piety. He brought solemn gifts to his father’s spirit; from him the people learned the pious rites…But while these rites are enacted, girls, don’t marry; let the marriage torches wait for purer days. And virgin, who to your mother seem ripe for love, don’t let the curved spear comb your tresses. Hide the gods, closing those revealing temple doors, let the altars be free of incense, the hearths without fire. Now ghostly spirits and the entombed dead wander, now the shadow feeds on the nourishment that’s offered. But it only lasts ‘til there are no more days in the month than the feet (eleven) that my metres possess. This day they call the Feralia because they bear (‘ferunt’) offerings to the dead: the last day to propitiate the shades” (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21).

We have even found archaeological evidence that sacrificial rituals associated with the Feralia, or at least the Parentalia period in general, were conducted! Within the graveyard of a church located in the town of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England, there were discovered pieces of glazed tile and close-by were pig bones. It has been hypothesized that this is evidence that the Romans practiced sacrificial rituals here similar to those mentioned in Ovid’s verses, in which a supplicant laid a sacrifice of pork upon a glazed tile and left it in the cemetery (Thomas Dudley Fosbroke, Abstracts of Records and Manuscripts Respecting the County of Gloucester, Volume I. London: Jos. Harris, 1807. Page 464).

According to Ovid, as part of the Feralia ritual, an old drunk woman, who acts as the representative of the divine Tacita the Silent, sits in the middle of a circle formed by young girls. This woman places seven black beans in her mouth (black was regarded by the Romans as the color of the Underworld) and rolls them around and around over and over throughout the coming activities. First, she lays three clumps of incense resin underneath a door’s thresh-hold where a mouse is buried. Second, she welds together “enchanted threads” (no mention is made as to what this string is made of or why it’s considered blessed) with molten lead. Third, she takes the decapitated head of a fish, glues its mouth shut with tar, then drives a long bronze needle through the top of its skull, then sprinkles it with wine, and finally throws it into a fire. When this is done, all of the participants drink the wine that is left over. All of this sounds remarkably like witchcraft or what’s known as “sympathetic magic”. And what is the reason for all of this? The old hag herself annunciates “With this, we seal up unfriendly mouths and have silenced hostile tongues” (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21).

It’s possible that rites such as this were a surviving remnant of the old archaic beliefs of primitive Romans, back when they still presumably had a more shamanistic religion before they became Hellenized. The old krone sitting in the center of a sacred circle, intoxicated either with alcohol or hallucinogenic drugs, and chanting incantations sounds similar to rituals conducted by more tribal societies in which the shamans take on elevated forms of consciousness in order to commune directly with the gods and spirits. The fact that exclusively women participated in the ritual recorded by Ovid is telling. Many cultures have women acting as their religious leaders than men because it is believed that women are closer towards the divine than men are. If it’s true that the Roman rituals that were designed to ward off bad luck and the wrath of the spirits are truly old, then it’s possible that the Feralia was the oldest of all of the Roman festivals associated with the dead, and versions of it would have been practiced far back into remote prehistory (Miranda Aldhouse-Green and Stephen Aldhouse-Green, The Quest for the Shaman: Shape-Shifters, Sorcerers and Spirit-Healers of Ancient Europe. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 2005. Pages 12-13).

Sources:

  • Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkTwo.php.
  • Aldhouse-Green Miranda; Aldhouse-Green, Stephen. The Quest for the Shaman: Shape-Shifters, Sorcerers and Spirit-Healers of Ancient Europe. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 2005.
  • Fosbroke, Thomas Dudley. Abstracts of Records and Manuscripts Respecting the County of Gloucester, Volume I. London: Jos. Harris, 1807.
  • Morton, Lisa. The Halloween Encyclopedia. Jefferson: McFarland, 2003.
  • Ogden, Tom. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ghosts and Hauntings. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 1999.
  • Smith, David D. The Pagan Church. Morrisville: Lulu.com, 2020.
  • The Haunted History of Halloween. The History Channel, 1997. Narrated by Harry Smith.

February 13 – Rest in Peace: The Parentalia Festival of the Dead

Note: Most of this information was posted earlier to Facebook on February 12, 2019.

The Parentalia was a private remembrance day for the family’s deceased. The festival, for lack of a better word, lasted from February 13 to 21. During these days, all of the temples were closed and marriages were forbidden because it was believed that getting married during a time devoted to the dead would bring bad luck. Magistrates were not allowed to wear togas during the Parentalia period. Finally, torture and executions were not allowed to take place during this time (Thomas Dudley Fosbroke, A Treatise on the Arts, Manufactures, and Institutions of the Greeks and Romans, Volume 2. London: Longman & Co., 1835. Page 168; 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 308)

All Roman cemeteries were located outside the city limits. There were obvious health reasons for this, but there were also spiritual concerns as well. The Romans did not want the dead to ritually contaminate the world of the living, therefore the worlds of the dead and the living needed to be separated from each other.

Legend had it that Prince Aeneas himself initiated the rituals that were to become associated with the Parentalia. Later, King Numa Pompilius, one of Rome’s early kings, established some regulations concerning this time, among them specifying that it would last for eleven days; it was later shortened to just nine (Thomas Dudley Fosbroke, A Treatise on the Arts, Manufactures, and Institutions of the Greeks and Romans, Volume 2. London: Longman & Co., 1835. Page 168).

Honor and respect needed to be paid to the spirits of your dead family. If not, then they would be insulted and they would come back to haunt you or cause misfortune, as the poet Ovid relates…

“Once, waging a long war with fierce weapons, they neglected the Parentalia, Festival of the Dead. It did not go unpunished: they say from that ominous day Rome grew hot from funeral fires near the City. I scarcely believe it, but they say that ancestral spirits came moaning from their tombs in the still of night, and misshapen spirits, a bodiless throng, howled through the City streets, and through the broad fields. Afterwards neglected honour was paid to the tombs, and there was an end to the portents, and the funerals” (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 21)

The Parentalia ritual began on February 13 at the sixth hour of the day with a general invocation made by one of the Vestal Virgins to the shades of the dead. This special prayer, known as the parentatio, was conducted at tomb of Tarpeia, who herself had been a Vestal Virgin in ages past. However, this opening address seems to be the only public part of this multi-day mourning period. For most Romans, this was a quiet, respectful, private affair. Family members visited the cemeteries and laid flower garlands on the tombs and grave sites of their loved ones, and left offerings of bread, water, wine, milk, salt, honey, olive oil, and violets to the spirits of the dead. Animal sacrifices did occur on this day – Lucrertius (“De Rerum Natura”) and Festus (“De Verborum Significatione”) make references to it – but they seem to have been extremely rare. It also said that families held picnics inside the cemeteries at the gravesites of loved ones. This may seem very bizarre to many people today, but the idea was to share a meal with the dead as though the dead were still alive (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 306, 308).

The Roman historian Plutarch makes some observations concerning Roman funeral rituals. For family members visiting the graves of their dead family, the men wore the “toga pulla”, which was blackened as a gesture of mourning, and they covered their heads as if in prayer with the folds of their togas when they escorted the bodies of their parents to their gravesite. The women, by contrast, wore a long white dress and walked with their head uncovered and their hair hanging loose. The whole of this is to create the opposite of what is customary, for in ordinary times the men wore white togas and only covered their heads when performing religious services, while the women often wore their hair up and covered as a representation of modesty; loose hair was often indicative of being a loose woman. Colored or decorated clothing was regarded as wholly inappropriate to the solemnity of the situation (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #14, 26, and 34; “Funus”).

Samuel Fales Dunlap, a 19th Century religious crack pot who fancied himself an academic, stated that on February 12 and 13 in ancient Greece, libations were poured over the graves of the dead, their stone monuments were sprinkled with spring water, a pot filled with seeds was brought to the grave as an offering, and prayers were given to Hermes (Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 97). It’s entirely possible that the Romans were taking cues from the ancient Greeks when it came to the particulars of these rituals, especially the idea that you should behave in a way which is uncustomary. For example, Plutarch relates that in Greece it was the custom of women to cut their hair very short and for men to go for prolonged periods of time without shaving as a mark of how they were overwhelmed with grief (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #14).

During the period in which families attended to the funerary rites, there were other holidays as well. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Lupercalia on February 15, which merits a thorough description in itself that you can read here. So don’t get the idea that February 13-21 was a dreary plodding period of somber melancholy, because it wasn’t. The time for duties to the ancestors concluded on February 21 with another festival known as the Feralia, which likewise I shall write a description of when the time comes.

Sources:

February 17 – The Fornicalia

February 17 was the ancient Roman festival called the Fornicalia. NO, get your mind out of the gutter, it’s got nothing to do with what you’re thinking of! The word comes from the Latin word fornax, meaning “oven”; the English word “furnace” comes from this. The word is also related to fornix, meaning an archway or a vaulted ceiling, probably in reference to the curved opening to an oven or its domed shape. On this day, grain was roasted in the oven which would be used to make sacrificial bread. The bread that was baked on this day was meant specifically for religious rituals and was not intended for ordinary day-to-day eating. Marcus Terentius Varro states that the informal name that was used for this day was “the Bakers’ Festival” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 13. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 187).

As the ever-quote-worthy Ovid states…

“The earth of old was farmed by ignorant men. Fierce wars weakened their powerful bodies. There was more glory in the sword than the plough, and the neglected farm brought its owner little return. Yet the ancients sowed corn, corn they reaped, offering the first fruits of the corn harvest to Ceres. Taught by practice they parched it in the flames, and incurred many losses through their own mistakes. Sometimes they’d sweep up burnt ash and not corn, sometimes the flames took their huts themselves. The oven was made a goddess, Fornax: the farmers pleased with her, prayed she’d regulate the grain’s heat. Now the Curio Maximus, in a set form of words, declares the shifting date of the Fornacalia, the Feast of Ovens” (Ovid, Fasti, book 1, February 17).

The Fornicalia ritual is apparently quite old. It is stated that Rome’s second king Numa Pompilius instituted this holy day (John Mason Good et al, Pantologia, volume 5. London: 1819). The date of the Fornicalia was set up so that people who belonged to this or that clan gathered in their appointed curial districts to conduct their sacrifices. But what if you didn’t know which clan you belonged to – how do you know where to go to carry out the religious rites? Or what if, for some reason, something prevented you from carrying out the sacrifices on that day? In that case, anyone who didn’t know their religious district or who had missed the Fornicalia went on the last day. For this reason, this day, which was known as the Quirinalia, the fifth day of the Parentalia mourning period, was known as the “Day of Fools” or the “Feast of Fools” (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #89).

Sources:

 

February 15 – The Lupercalia

Do you fancy yourself a wolf when it comes to the ladies? Well, today’s your chance to show your stuff! February 15 is the day of the Lupercalia, which was the major fertility festival in the ancient Roman calendar. The name might come from Lupercus, a god of fertility, but this explanation is seldom given. More likely, it is in reference to the Lupercal, the wolf’s lair, where the she-wolf suckled the infants Romulus and Remus. On the day of the Lupercalia, a boy dressed only in a goat skin wrapped around his waist and his body smeared all over with milk and goat’s blood would run through the streets whipping any woman that he met on the way with leather straps in order to get her pregnant. You can’t make this up. How in the world did we get from a wolf’s cave to this?

We know from the writings of the ancient Romans, especially Ovid and Plutarch, that even they scratched their heads in bewilderment at some of the rituals that they conducted as part of their culture. No doubt they also shook their heads and laughed at the reasoning behind some of the things that they did. Thankfully, we have a few Roman writers who give us details about why the eyebrow-raising events which occurred on this day happened in this manner, namely Ovid, Plutarch, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus.

The Lupercalia has its roots in the ancient Greek region of Arcadia. When the Greeks settled in southern Italy, a group of Arcadians, who were devoted followers of the god Pan, came to the area where Rome would later stand. Prior to the establishment of the village of Rome in the 8th Century BC, the area that the Eternal City stood on was unsettled and was used only by shepherds to graze their flocks. On one side of the Palatine Hill, which at that time was completely covered with trees, there was a large cave, and within this cave was a spring that streamed out water towards the Tiber. The Arcadian Greeks, who had occasionally visited here, consecrated the forest to Pan and erected an altar dedicated to him inside the cave, where they would sacrifice a she-goat to Pan in exchange for safeguarding their livestock. Therefore, the festival was originally a shepherd’s festival (Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar, chapter 61; Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 15; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapters 32, 79).

Ovid claims that the reason why the Lupercalian youths run naked through the streets wearing nothing but a goat skin is partly in emulation of the free-spirited Pan (who, if you remember your Greco-Roman mythology, was half-man and half-goat) and also as an act of remembrance of how they used to live in the dark ages of prehistory, a testament as to how old some of these belief are; Ovid comments that in centuries past, the people lived as hunter-gatherers, walking around naked, making simple huts out of branches and grass, and possessing no knowledge of art or agriculture. Ovid also relays an old tale involving Pan, the hero Hercules, and his mistress. Hercules and his lover were travelling through Latium and they stopped to rest at the Tiber River, near the sacred cave of Pan. When Pan saw her, he got randy as he always did at the sight of a pretty female. The two travelers took shelter inside the cave for the night, but when Pan went inside in the dark to have his wicked way, he got a very unwelcome surprise and fled (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 15).

It was this very same cave that would play a part in the foundation of Rome. When the basket containing Romulus and Remus had washed up on the shore of the Tiber River, they were discovered by a she-wolf who had just given birth to a litter of pups. Her carnivorous temper temporarily tempered by her motherly instincts, she carried the two babies into the cave and nurtured them. A little while later, they were discovered by a shepherd who adopted them as his children – again, the theme of shepherds emerges. (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 15; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapters 32, 79).

When they had become teenagers, Romulus and Remus were exercising in a field naked, as was the Classical custom, when the cry went up that thieves were stealing their cattle. Since it would have taken them too long to go back to their cottage to clothe and arm themselves, they immediately chased after the thieves, stark naked and weaponless, and regained their stolen cattle. This is one of the reasons why the male youth of Rome ran naked through the streets every February 15th (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 15).

Later, after Romulus became king and the infamous Rape of the Sabines occurred, the gods showed their displeasure at the Romans’ actions by making all of the women in the area sterile. After a while, husbands and wives came to the Sacred Grove of Juno and prayed for her help. The trees shook with a sudden wind, and the goddess said “Let the sacred he-goat pierce the Italian wives”. Needless to say, these words could be interpreted in several ways, some of them rather disturbingly, and the men were understandably worried about what the goddess meant. Thankfully, an Etruscan augur priest just happened to be travelling close by (amazing how all of these coincidences occur, isn’t it?) and he concluded that the women had to offer themselves up to the lash. He sacrificed a male goat, skinned it, cut its skin into long thin strips, and then whipped the women on their bare backs with it. Amazingly, it worked, and all of the women became fertile again (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 15).

Dionysius of Halicarnassus comments that by the time that he was writing, the Sacred Forest of Pan which covered the Palatine Hill had been entirely clear-cut, but the cave still existed. Furthermore, because it was such an important site to the Romans, it was regarded as a holy shrine. In his day, the cave’s entrance was framed with elaborate masonry, or “built up” as he put it, and outside was a bronze statue “of ancient workmanship” (he possibly means that the statue is either many centuries old or was made in an archaic style, or both) of the she-wolf suckling the divine twins. This is confirmed in Caesar Augustus’ list of accomplishments, in which he says with pride that he conducted a restoration project on the Lupercal cave (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapters 32, 79; Caesar Augustus, Res Gestae, part 4, chapter 19).

The date of February 15 had two titles in the ancient Roman calendar. Yes it was called the Lupercalia, but it was also known as the Februalia, the Feast of Purification. This particular feast day appears to be of Etruscan or Sabine origin, and it involved purifying the city and the landscape around it. This religious ritual was the epicenter of the month of February. The priests who presided over the purification ceremony wore crowns made from pine branches, which had to be cut from “a pure tree”, meaning that it grew straight, it had no physical defects such as a crooked trunk, broken branches, or other injuries, and it wasn’t infected with disease. The priests also wore special clothing on this day, but unfortunately no description is given as to what these purifying vestments looked like other than they were made of wool. The poet Lucan makes a comment that the priests wore their togas with a belt around the waist, “Gabii style”, and may be a reference to the Etruscan priesthood. Branches of pine were distributed to the people to burn as incense inside their homes in order to smoke out any bad smells or miasmas that might spread disease. So, it seems that the ancient Romans invented the pine air freshener – another accomplishment to their credit! The Roman priests sacrificed a dog in order to purify the city, although Plutarch wasn’t exactly sure where this tradition came from. He hypothesized that this tradition may have come from the Greeks, because the ancient Greeks used to sacrifice a dog as a means of purification, and since February was the month of purification (as I mentioned in an earlier post), this would make sense. He gives a few other hypotheses in addition to the aforementioned one, but the ancient Greek connection seems most likely, since both the Etruscans and Romans were very Hellenized people. Lucan and Vopiscus describe how the Roman citizens, led by the priests and the Vestal Virgins, conduct a ritual promenade around the city’s boundary – the “pomerium” – chanting their prayers and appeals to the gods; the goddesses Minerva, Vesta, and Cybele are called upon with much greater fervency than the rest. This particular aspect of the day’s festivities was known as the Amburbium, which means “walk around the city”. When the circumambulation is completed, a bull is sacrificed and its entrails are read to determine if their efforts have been successful in bringing good luck (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #68; Vopiscus, The Life of Aurelian, chapter 20; Lucan, De Bello Civili, book 1, lines 642-677).

Over time, these two separate holy practices of the Februalia and the Lupercalia, since they were conducted on the same day, merged together into a single celebration. During the time of the Roman Empire, the February 15th festival took on the form that we know. The festivities began with the sacrifice of a goat and a dog – the first in honor of Pan and to protect the shepherds’ flocks, and the second as a means of cleansing. Plutarch gives a description of what happened next: “At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped to an easy delivery, and the barren to pregnancy”. Not only did the Luperci supposedly grant fertility to barren women, but they also had a part in cleansing the earth. Ovid states “the Luperci cleanse the earth with strips of purifying hide”, meaning that they beat the ground with strips of leather in order to drive out the evil humors which might ruin their crops or flocks (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #68; Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar, chapter 61; Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction).

Sources:

  • Caesar Augustus, Res Gestae, part 4, chapter 19.
  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapters 32, 79.
  • Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 21. Translated by Reverend Canon Roberts. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1905. http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/livy/livy01.html.
  • Lucan, De Bello Civili, book 1, lines 642-677.
  • Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 15.
  • Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction.
  • Plutarch, Roman Questions, #68.
  • Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar, chapter 61.
  • Vopiscus, The Life of Aurelian, chapter 20.