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October 5 – The Opening of the Pit of the Underworld

“Then I saw an angel coming down from Heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while” – The Book of Revelations, chapter 20, verses 1-3.

For many modern-day people, October is the spookiest month of the year due to its association with Halloween. October is the month in which TV channels air marathons of horror movies, it’s when people put out decorations of ghosts and monsters, and it’s when children get a little bit more conscious about what might be lurking in their closet. It seems that throughout the whole of October, other-worldly supernatural entities increase their power, culminating on that special day at the end of the month. Those who are of a religious disposition feel that October 31 is the day in which Mankind is the closest to succumbing to the powers of Darkness.

The ancient Romans did not have Halloween, but it’s true that they had several days on their calendar which filled them with dread. Perhaps the most well-known was the time called the Lemuria, which occurred on May 9, 11, and 13. This was a time devoted to pacifying the lemures, the restless malevolent spirits of the dead, who might visit your home and cause mischief or harm. They might even take possession of your house, or even of you! Thus it was important to placate them with treats, or to ward them off with spells. This was, in effect, ancient Rome’s version of trick-or-treating, except these weren’t pint-sized munchkins dressed up in monster costumes – here, the monsters were real.

However, the Lemuria was not the only day that the ancient Romans felt apprehensive about. The fifth day of October (some sources say it was the fourth day) was an ominous day for the ancient Romans, for it was on this day that the portal to the Underworld would be opened, and the Romans were understandably worried about what things might come out.

October 5 was known as the Mundus Patet, “the Open World”. It was a day dedicated to Dis Pater, the god-ruler of the Underworld, and all of the other beings and entities that dwelt within his realm. The name Dis Pater means “the Father of Riches”. He was the Roman synonym of the Greek god Hades, who ruled the Underworld. Hades’ subterranean counterpart Pluto (who is often believed to be the same as Hades) was the god of riches – it was he who made all of the gold, silver, and other precious things which were mined out of the ground. The ancient Roman god Dis Pater combined attributes of both of these Greek gods. (1)

As an anecdote, within his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar writes that all of the Gallic Celts claim to be descended from the god of the Underworld, which he equates to Dis Pater (2).

The Underworld god Dis Pater is known to have had one temple dedicated to him within the greater area of the city of Rome. It was a small temple or shrine, and consisted of an underground chamber, with a single round room, and a round altar table within. This subterranean room was located on the edge of the Campus Martius near where the Tiber River flowed at a place known as the Terentum (no relation to the city of southern Italy named Tarentum). The term means “the crossing place”, and it likely referred to the place where people crossed over the Tiber River from one side to the other. However, in a spiritual sense, this was also a place where human and non-human beings would cross over from the world of the spirits into the mortal human world, and vice-versa. This is similar to the Celtic belief of Samhain (pronounced “saowein”), which said that the boundary separating the world of the living and the world of the spirits became so thin that entities from “the other side” could cross over into the human world (3).

There was a second location that is often ascribed to be that of the temple of Dis Pater. This was a small circular shrine made of bricks, with a small room large enough for only one person to stand inside, which was located on the Palatine Hill at the cross intersection of two main roads known as the Quadrata. This shrine marked the exact center of the city of Rome, and was the location of the omphalos, the naval, the center of the Roman world. In Latin, it was known as the Umbilicus Urbis Romae, the belly button of the city of Rome (4).

There is reference to certain stone located not far from this shrine within the district called the Comitium which was known as the lapis niger, “the black stone”, and in 1898, it was discovered. It was square, made of several slabs of black marble, and bordered with white marble. Upon it were inscriptions written in an archaic version of Latin, implying that it was of great antiquity; the inscription was dated to approximately 500 BC. Underneath this black stone were found numerous devotional offerings, including several figurines, dated from the 8th to the 6th Centuries BC. The ancient Roman writer Pompeius Festus says that this stone marked an unlucky spot, where the Romans intended to bury either Romulus or his foster-father Faustulus. Among the inscriptions, there is a curse upon anyone who defiles or desecrates the location, and anyone who does so shall forfeit his life to Soranus. “Soranus” was the name of the Etruscan god of the Underworld, so the inscription is essentially saying that anyone who defiles this place will die and be sent to Hell. It has been proposed that this “black stone” might have served as the altar to the beings of the Underworld because black was the color associated with the Underworld and the beings who lived within it, and due to the fact that an Underworld god is mentioned by name in one of the inscriptions (5).

For most of the year, the temple to Dis Pater was shut. However, on just three days in the year – August 24, October 5, and November 7 – the door was opened. The opening of the temple of Dis Pater was a solemn occurrence, because it wasn’t just the doorway to the temple that was opened – the Romans believed that on these three days, the gate to the Underworld itself would be opened as well (6).

Within the temple, there was a portal to the Underworld. This opening was covered by a large stone known as the Lapis Manalis, “the Stone of the Manes”; the manes were the spirits of the ancestors. For most of the year, this gateway was sealed shut, except for three days, when the spirits of the dead were allowed to enter the human world. It’s possible that the stone altar itself was the Lapis Manalis and served as the covering for this portal, and therefore implying that the altar rested atop a hollow base (7).

The pit might have originally served as an underground cellar used for grain storage, which would explain why the pit was opened during times that are associated with the harvest season, but over the centuries the pit took on a more otherworldly significance. Evidence to support this hypothesis is found in the original name of this ritual. The ceremonial opening of these pits was originally referred to by the ancient Roman writer Pompeius Festus as Mundus Cereris Patet, “The World of Ceres is Opened” Ceres was the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture and the patron god of farmers; Ceres was the Roman version of the Greek goddess Demeter. The Romans had several feast days dedicated to her, and often grain or bread were offered as sacrifices (8).

The pit was opened for the first time on August 24, the day before the festival known as the Opeconsiva, the Feast of the Bountiful Goddess. This was a festival dedicated to the earth goddess, giving thanks to her for a bountiful harvest. She might have been a form of either the agriculture goddess Ceres or the Mother Earth goddess Tellus. In the words of Marcus Terentius Varro…

“The day named Opeconsiva (August 25) is called from Ops Consiva (Goddess of Abundance, the wife of Saturn, as planter or sower; another aspect of Terra) ‘Lady Bountiful the Planter,’ whose shrine is in the Regia; it is so restricted in size that no one may enter it except the Vestal Virgins and the state priest. ‘When he goes there, let him wear a white veil,’ is the direction; this suffibulum ‘white veil’ (an oblong piece of white cloth with a colored border, which the Vestal Virgins fastened over their heads with a fibula ‘clasp’ when they offered sacrifice) is named as if sub-figabulum from suffigere “to fasten down’” (9).

William W. Fowler speculates that on August 24, the seeds that were to be used for next year’s planting were set aside and were put away in storage until the time came for them to be planted. These seeds would be housed in a sacred chamber, under the protection of the earth goddess, who would watch over them and protect them so that the Romans would have food during the next year and not starve. However, depending upon circumstances, the grain crop did not become ready for harvest at the same time everywhere – different patches ripened at different times. Having three specific days, not just one, spread out over a few months where the seeds for next year’s crop could be collected and deposited would be very convenient for Roman farmers (10). The Romans would have been conscious about keeping the storage chamber sealed most of the time. If the chamber was left open, the seeds would be exposed to rodents, insects, fungi, and mold. If this happened, all of the seeds which were set aside to provide the following year’s food would be destroyed, and famine would rage throughout the city. In order to ensure the survival of the crop, the grain chambers needed to be opened only briefly, and then promptly sealed shut in order to minimize the chances of contamination.

So, if this chamber was originally intended as a storage pit for the next year’s seeds, then where did the idea of ghosts and goblins come from? It’s possible that the subterranean temple of Dis Pater was meant to be a stylized representation of a cave. Caves are regarded by many cultures as places imbued with elevated spiritual powers. The Celts, for example, believed that caves were entrances to the spirit world (11).

Now, let’s turn our attention to another question. If the Romans believed that this was a passage to the Underworld, then why on earth would they open it for any reason at all, allowing God-knows-what to come out? According to Plutarch in his work The Life of Romulus, when the city of Rome was founded, the early Romans placed offerings of the first fruits of the harvest into this chamber. Likewise in later years, when the portal was opened, offerings of the harvest would be thrown in (12). This again lends credence to the idea that these three days were originally associated with the harvest season and not ghosts. However, at some point in Rome’s social and cultural history, the logical pragmatic practice of placing seeds into underground storage containers to be kept safe until the time came for them to be planted the following year changed into the superstitious practice of throwing offerings of food into a pit that was believed to be the gate of the Underworld (shakes my head in Latin).

The Roman writers Macrobius and Varrone state that numerous activities were banned on the three dates that this otherworldly gate was opened, believing that bad luck was sure to follow. These included enlisting soldiers into the military, to start a war, engaging in battle, sail on a voyage, or get married (13).

In addition to sacrifices being offered at the temple of Dis Pater on the ominous dates of August 24, October 5, and November 7, sacrifices were also offered upon this altar during the Ludi Saeculares, “the Games of the Age”. The term saeculum in Latin refers to one’s lifespan. The Ludi Saeculares, sometimes incorrectly translated as “the Secular Games” (which falsely implies that they were non-religious in nature), were supposed to be held every 100 years, since this was regarded as the maximum age that a person could naturally live, and were meant to commemorate the passing of one saeculum into another – that is to say, one lifespan into another, thus commemorating the cycle of life, death, and renewal. These games were intended to be held every 100 years of Rome’s existence. One might rightfully assume that the games were supposed to be held in late April (according to legend, Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC), and were to be held in the years 653 BC, 553 BC, 453 BC, 353 BC, 253 BC, 153 BC, 53 BC, 47 AD, 147 AD, 247 AD, 347 AD, and 447 AD. However, if you look at the record of when the Ludi Saeculares were actually held, you will discover that they were not held rigidly every 100 years, nor did they occur on the dates that were previously listed. We know that these games were celebrated as early as the middle 200s BC, but they might have been celebrated earlier. The following is a list of dates for the Ludi Saeculares (14):

  1. 249 BC (four years off-date).
  2. 149 BC.
  3. May 31 to June 2, 17 BC.
  4. 47 AD. This was the ONLY date in which the Ludi Saeculares were performed on schedule.
  5. 88 AD.
  6. 146 AD.
  7. 204 AD.
  8. 248 AD.

Gradually, the superstitions of the pagan pantheon gave way to the faith of Christianity. Ideas held by the Roman people about their gods and spirits, many of which appear bizarre or nonsensical to us today, would slowly fall away and become forgotten, and the temples and shrines which were once dedicated to the old gods would crumble into ruins.

Source Citations

  1. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 190; Pierre Grimal, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Translated by A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher, Ltd., 1986. Page 141.
  2. Julius Caesar, Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, book 6, chapter 18.
  3. Alexander Aitchison, The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807. Page 392; Lawrence Richardson Jr., A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Page 111; Calvert Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Page 351; The Haunted History of Halloween.
  4. William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Page 211; 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; What the Ancients Knew – “The Greeks”.
  5. Leon Ter Beek, “Divine Law and the Penalty of Sacer Esto”. In Olga Tellegen-Couperus, ed., Law and Religion in the Roman Republic. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pages 17-25; 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; Matthew Dillon and Lynda Garland, Ancient Rome, from the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar. London: Routledge, 2005. Page 8.
  6. Alexander Aitchison, The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807. Page 392; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 190.
  7. William Warde Fowler, “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.
  8. William Warde Fowler, “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; 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.
  9. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 21. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 193-195.
  10. William Warde Fowler, “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.
  11. The Celts, episode 3 – “A Pagan Trinity”.
  12. Plutarch, Parallel Lives – “The Life of Romulus”, chapter 11; Reverend John T. White and Reverend J. E. Riddle, A New Latin Dictionary, Third Edition. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869. Page 1,240.
  13. Alexander Aitchison, The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807. Page 392; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 190.
  14. Lawrence Richardson Jr., A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Page 111; Calvert Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pages 350-351; “Coins of the Ludi Saeculares and Rome’s Millennial Games”.

Bibliography

Books

  • Aitchison, Alexander. The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807.
  • Caesar, Julius. Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, book 6, chapter 18.
  • Dillon, Matthew; Garland, Lynda. Ancient Rome, from the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • Fowler, William Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899.
  • Grimal, Pierre. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Translated by A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publsher, Ltd., 1986.
  • Morell, Thomas; Duncan, William. An Abridgement of Ainsworth’s Dictionary; English and Latin, Revised Edition. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1862.
  • Plutarch, Parallel Lives – “The Life of Romulus”. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Romulus*.html.
  • Richardson Jr., Lawrence. A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
  • Watkins, Calvert. How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • White, Reverend John T.; Riddle, Reverend J. E. A New Latin Dictionary, Third Edition. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869.
  • The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829.

Articles

  • 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. Pages 103-121.
  • Ter Beek, Leon. “Divine Law and the Penalty of Sacer Esto”. In Olga Tellegen-Couperus, ed., Law and Religion in the Roman Republic. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pages 11-30.
  • Warde Fowler, William. “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.

Websites

Videos

  • The Celts. Episode 3 – “A Pagan Trinity”. Hosted by Frank De Laney. BBC, 1987.
  • The Haunted History of Halloween. Narrated by Harry Smith. The History Channel, 1997.
  • What the Ancients Knew – “The Greeks”. Hosted by Jack Turner. The Science Channel, 2005.

May 9, 11, and 13 – Rest in Peace: The Lemuria Festival of the Dead

Do you believe in ghosts? The ancient Romans certainly did. The spirits of the Undead were a real concern and a real fear for the ancient Romans. Therefore, it was important that these otherworldly beings be kept happy and pacified as much as possible.

Many people nowadays associate all things spooky with October 31, Halloween. You might be interested to know that the ancient Romans, too, had their own version of Halloween, except it occurred in May instead of October and it lasted for three days instead of just one. It was known as the Lemuria, named after the lemures, the restless malevolent spirits of the dead. These formless shapeless wraiths might be haunting you for a variety of reasons: they were not given a proper burial, they want revenge for a wrong committed upon them, or any number of things. Rituals were conducted to drive ghosts out of your home, and offerings were left outside homes so that the ghosts could be appeased and leave the family alone. Sounds similar to trick-or-treating, doesn’t it?

The Lemuria was held on May 9, 11, and 13 – notice that it skipped over May 10 and May 12. Because of the Lemuria festival, it was believed that May was an unlucky month to get married; any couple in love who wished to marry would have to wait until June. All temples were also closed on these three days (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 9).

The day was originally held in honor of Remus, Romulus’ twin brother who was murdered when a dispute arose between the two over who should be the first king of the settlement which they had established on the bank of the Tiber. May 9 was originally known as the Remuria, the remembrance feast of Remus and for all other fallen spirits of a person’s family. Over time, the first R in Remuria changed to an L. Eventually “the silent spirits”, as they were known, were collectively referred to as lemures. They were, in essence, ancient Roman poltergeists (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 9). The lemures are generally distinguished from the manes as being more hostile and also more likely to haunt people’s homes. Perhaps this is the reason why the word “lemures” was a synonym for “larva” (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 108), because the larvae of insects make homes for themselves inside the bodies of plants or other animals. A beetle’s larva might burrow into the bark of a tree, or a parasitic wasp’s larva might develop inside an unsuspecting host. These creatures nest themselves within other homes, as the lemures might unexpectedly make a new home for itself inside your own home, or possibly within you personally.

In his 1899 overview of ancient Roman religious festivals, William W. Fowler posits that the Lemuria, along with the earlier Feralia festival conducted in late February, might be one of the most archaic of Roman rituals, conducted at a time when primitive cultures feared demons and undead spirits and needed to periodically expel them (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 107).

Fowler also proposes that the Lemuria would have hit many Romans much closer to home than the Feralia would have. The dead transformed into lemures under many circumstances – violent death, suicide, bodies not buried properly or not buried at all, wrongs that were not avenged, and other reasons – and all of these were frequent if not daily occurrences in the ancient world. Maybe that’s part of the reason why you needed three whole days to placate any irate entities and protect your family from harm, because there were A LOT of angry bitter pissed-off ghosts out there (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 107-109).

Alright, enough of the background information. Time now to get into the details of how this festival was carried out. The poet Ovid provides us with the majority of information regarding the rituals of this spooky time of year. On May 9, the head of the household (always a man) would rise from his bed and began the necessary rites needed to placate any hostile spirits that may wish him, his family, or his property harm. He would go outside barefoot and walk around his house nine times, all the while tossing black beans over his shoulder. Black was the color that was associated with Underworld entities, and it was believed that they were attracted towards food that was black in color. While the man of the house was tossing the black beans outside, he would repeat the incantation “I throw these. With these beans, I redeem me and mine”. When the man of the house had performed this ritual nine times, he again washed his hands and rang a bronze bell saying “Ancestral spirits, depart!” – with this act, the sacred rites are concluded (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 9).

The part about ringing the bell and calling the ghosts who were haunting his home to leave immediately sounds similar to the “wassail” ritual of making noise to drive evil spirits away from apple orchards. It’s also similar to ideas held by some tribes that demons and evil spirits are driven away by excessive noise (A Merry Tudor Christmas; Lucy Worsley’s Christmas Carol Odyssey; Victorian Farm Christmas, episode 3; Edwardian Farm, episode 5).

Hopefully, all of these methods would achieve the desired result. However, if you were an ancient Roman, and you suspected that an evil spirit had entered your house, and you performed the proscribed exorcism rituals, and you still heard things go “bump” in the night…then you were in big trouble.

Sources:

  • Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 9. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFive.php.
  • 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.
  • A Merry Tudor Christmas. Hosted by Lucy Worsley. BBC, 2019.
  • Edwardian Farm. Episode 5. BBC, 2010.
  • Lucy Worsley’s Christmas Carol Odyssey. Hosted by Lucy Worsley. BBC, 2019.
  • Victorian Farm Christmas. Episode 3. BBC, 2009.

May 15 – The Feast of Mercury

May 15 was the date of the Mercuralia, the Feast of Mercury. Mercury was the Roman version for the ancient Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the gods and a bringer of dreams, and the patron god of messengers, tourists, travelling merchants, as well as of thieves and game-cheaters (H. A. Guerber, Myths of Greece and Rome. New York: American Book Company, 1893. Page 134).

The ancient Greek god Hermes, and his Roman counterpart Mercury, have curious origins and legends attached to them. Although they are often given the designation of being a divine messenger, both Hermes and Mercury seem to have started off as rain gods who also had some connection to the Underworld. According to Samuel F, Dunlap, a 19th Century “theologian” (I use that term EXTREMELY loosely, since his writings bear more of a resemblance to the rambling rantings of a religious crack-pot or cult leader), the name Hermes comes from Haram-eias, who might he related to Baal-Ram. The name Mercury is related to the Phoenician rain god Mar, and also held the title Mar-Kuri, “Mar of the Dead”. In Greek myth, Hermes was one of several sky gods which included Zeus, Apollo, and Helios. Hermes is mentioned as a rain god who nourished the earth with water from Heaven, and who possibly gave restorative power to the dead. The rooster was an animal sacred to Hermes and served as his symbol (Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Pages 77-78).

The reason why the Feast of Mercury takes place on May 15 is because his first temple in the city of Rome was dedicated on this day, according to the Roman historian Livy. According to his report, the first temple of Mercury was officially opened on May 15, 495 BC (Gary Forsythe, The historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1994. Page 147).

However, it’s possible that May 15 wasn’t just some random date; the date of the opening for his temple may have been deliberately timed to take place on this day. There are two reasons why I say this. Firstly, the “ides” were regarded by the ancient Romans has being very important dates within the calendar. According to Roman myth, Mercury was the son of the goddess Maia, of whom the month of May is named after (H. A. Guerber, Myths of Greece and Rome. New York: American Book Company, 1893. Page 131). Therefore, having the temple’s dedication take place on the Ides of May would have been appropriate, considering Mercury’s divine parentage.

Secondly, it’s possible that Feast of Mercury takes place on May 15 as a continuation of the Lemuria festival. The Lemuria was a festival dedicated to the dead (one of several in the ancient Roman calendar) which was celebrated on May 9, 11, and 13. According to Roman mythology, the god Mercury had a part to play in things related to the souls of the departed: “To Mercury was intrusted (sic) the charge of conducting the souls of the departed to Hades” (H. A. Guerber, Myths of Greece and Rome. New York: American Book Company, 1893. Page 137).

But by and large, Mercury was not thought of as a god of death. Rather, he was associated with commerce, news, dreams, and cleverness. “The profession of merchandise (saith Plutarch) was honourable, as it brought home the produce of barbarous countries, engaged the friendship of kings, and opened a wide field of knowledge and experience” (Anonymous, The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book, and Universal Mirror. Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832. Page 485).

On May 15, Roman merchants would take water from the well of Porta Capena, a well that was believed to be sacred to Mercury, and sprinkle it on themselves, their ships, and their cargo to protect them while travelling (C. Scott Littleton, ed., Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology. Volume 6: Inca-Mercury. Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish, 2005. Page 861). The water in Mercury’s well was known as acqua Mercurii was believed to aid in forgiving sins – both those committed in the past as well as any that might be committed in the future – and was thought to bring good luck. Travelling merchants needed all the luck that they could when carrying out commerce. The threats of storms, shipwrecks, pirates, thieves, bandit gangs, and even outbreaks of war were ever-present on their minds (Rebecca I. Denova, Greek and Roman Religions. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2019. Page 131).

The Romans also had a second Mercuralia festival later in the year, and this one lasted for more than just one day. The second Mercuralia was a six-day-long celebration that lasted from July 14 to 19 (Anonymous, The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book, and Universal Mirror. Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832. Page 485). We know a little bit more about the celebrations that took place during this period than the earlier festival in the middle of May. A sow was sacrificed, and, according to the Greek writer Athenaeus, “They poured libations at the conclusion of dinner and offered them to Hermes, not, as in later times, to Zeus the Fulfiller. For Hermes is regarded as the patron of sleep. So they pour the libation to him also when the tongues of the animals are cut out on leaving a dinner. Tongues are sacred to him because he is the god of eloquence” (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, excerpts from Book 1, 16B-C; Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Pages 77).

The symbol of both Hermes and Mercury was the caduceus. Myth says it was presented to Mercury as a gift from Apollo as a reward for inventing the lyre (H. A. Guerber, Myths of Greece and Rome. New York: American Book Company, 1893. Page 134). As an interesting coincidence (or perhaps it isn’t a coincidence), the third full week in May is unofficially known as “National Emergency Medical Service Week” (“National EMS Week”).

Sources:

  • Anonymous. The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book, and Universal Mirror. Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832.
  • Athenaeus. Deipnosophistae, excerpts from Book 1, 16B-C. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Athenaeus/home.html.
  • Denova, Rebecca I. Greek and Roman Religions. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2019.
  • Dunlap. Samuel Fales. Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861.
  • Forsythe, Gary. The historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1994.
  • Guerber, H. A. Myths of Greece and Rome. New York: American Book Company, 1893.
  • Littleton, C. Scott, ed. Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology. Volume 6: Inca-Mercury. Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish, 2005.
  • National Day. “National EMS Week”. https://nationaldaycalendar.com/national-ems-week-third-full-week-of-may/.

June 1 – The Month of Marriage and the Carnal Kalends of Carna

June is the month of Juno, the goddess of women, marriage, and women’s health. Most weddings in ancient Rome took place in June to honor Juno. Even today, there is a tradition of “June weddings”.

The poet Ovid states that the origins of this month’s name are uncertain, although naming the month after the goddess Juno is the most common explanation. Ovid in fact claims that the goddess herself came to him in a vision and told him straightly that June is named after herself. Juno was the queen of the gods, the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Hera. She was both Jupiter’s bride as well as being his sister – in ancient pantheons, marriage between brother and sister deities was somewhat common. She was the eldest child of the primordial god Saturn (the Roman version of the titan Kronos) (Ovid, Fasti, book 6, introduction).

The reason why June is the month that’s associated with marriages comes from early Roman legends. When Rome was first founded by Romulus and Remus, a system was needed to organize their society. Romulus purportedly divided the entire male population in half based upon age: the elders would provide council and run the affairs of state while the young, being more energetic and quick to action, would compose its military. However, these two broad divisions often quarreled with each other, especially regarding war. In its early days, Rome was in constant war with neighboring settlements. While the elders advocated for peaceful negotiations and diplomacy, the fitful youth wanted to fight in order to assert their manliness. Finally, the arrival of the goddess Concord, the goddess of peace and calm, put a stop to this. She said that Romulus and Chief Tatius had come into an agreement and they had agreed to merge their two settlements together, and so too should both bodies of the Roman men come together as well. For this reason, Ovid explains, June is associated with both the union (iunctus) of these two villages to form a larger and stronger village, as well as the uniting of both divisions of Roman male society to form a stronger state. Thus, June is associated with unions, and what better example than a union of two people to form one family? That’s why June is the month of marriages (Ovid, Fasti, book 6, introduction).

Another reason why June is associated with weddings is because the ancient Romans considered it to be VERY bad luck to get married in May, and they encouraged couples in love to postpone their nuptials until the following month. This is because of a festival called the Lemuria, which you can read about here.

June 1st was the day that a shrine to Juno Moneta, meaning “Juno the Adviser/Counsellor”, was dedicated. She gets this particular appellation because she gave advice to couples who were about to get married. A group of sacred geese was housed in this temple, and in 390 BC, their honking warned the people of Rome that the Celtic barbarians were trying to break into the city (Ovid, Fasti, book 6, June 1; Ovid: Fasti – Index D-J – “Juno”).

June 1st is also the day of the Feast of Carna. An unusual goddess whose name is hardly mentioned in the same breath with Jupiter, Mars, and Venus, Carna was the patron goddess of hinges. Yep, that’s right, I said it. I don’t believe that we are meant to take this description of her literally. The ancient Romans associated her with openings and closings. She was likely viewed as a goddess of one’s phases in life (childhood, adolescence, adulthood, etc), life opportunities (one door closes and another one opens), as well as people beginning or ending a certain chapter of their lives. She was a nymph, a forest being, who was lusted after by the Roman god Janus. One day, he caught her and raped her. Being the god of new beginnings as well as being the patron god of windows and doors, he promised her that in exchange for taking her virginity, he would make all hinges sacred to her (Ovid, Fasti, book 6, June 1). Sounds like a very poor exchange to me.

June 1st is also the day when mothers should be especially careful of their children. On this day, evil spirits disguised as owls swoop into people’s homes at night and devour new-born babies while their mothers or babysitters are either absent or distracted. Be attentive mothers! Do not ignore your children’s safety, or else the demon owls will get them! The story goes that one day, a mother went into the nursery and saw her five-day old baby’s face and chest being ripped apart by these creatures. Horrified and panicked, and not knowing what else to do, she called upon Carna (also spelled Cranae) to save her baby. Instantly, the divine being appeared. Carrying a handful of arbutus leaves, she touched each of the doorposts to the nursery room three times with them. Afterwards, she sprinkled a bottle of holy water around the entranceway with one hand, while in the other hand she held the intestines of a baby female pig. Where she suddenly got these items, I don’t know – did she just conjure them up, or did the frantic mother have to go out to the barn and kill one of her pigs and hand the bloody guts to the nymph? Then, the nymph Carna commanded “Birds of night, spare his entrails. A small victim is offered in place of this small child. Take a heart for a heart, I beg, flesh for flesh. This life we give you for a dearer life”. Carna carried the recently slaughtered pig outside, which attracted the demon owls’ attention, and laid it out on the ground. The birds took the meat and completely forgot about the child that they were about to kill. Carna healed the baby, and to make certain that the demon owls never returned, Carna placed a sprig of white-thorn on the windowsill. Like garlic to vampires, this plant made all such demonic entities shrink away and go elsewhere (Ovid, Fasti, book 6, June 1).

To all mothers who have recently given birth and who want to protect your newborn child, bless your baby’s nursery and the cradle. Bless the doorway of your child’s room three times with sacred arbutus leaves, and sprinkle holy water in the entranceway to deter any demons that might come by. Lay a twig of white-thorn on the window, because the demon owls are repelled by the sight of it. However, to make sure that they don’t go away unappeased, sacrifice a young female piglet and offer it as a sacrifice to the birds. Lay it out in the open air so that the nocturnal birds of the night may feast upon it (Ovid, Fasti, book 6, June 1). Now that I think about it, the name “Carna” and the sacrifice of meat might be connected to each other.

June 1st was marked also by the eating of certain foods (by humans, not demon owls), as Ovid states:

“You ask why we eat greasy bacon-fat on the Kalends [of June], and why we mix beans with parched grain? She’s an ancient goddess, nourished by familiar food, no epicure to seek out alien dainties. In ancient times the fish still swam unharmed, and the oysters were safe in their shells. Italy was unaware of Ionian heath-cocks, and the cranes that enjoy Pigmy blood: only the feathers of the peacock pleased, and the nations didn’t send us captive creatures. Pigs were prized: men feasted on slaughtered swine. The earth only yielded beans and hard grains. They say that whoever eats these two foods together at the Kalends, in this sixth month, will have sweet digestion” (Ovid, Fasti, book 6, June 1).

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