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April 28 – The Floralia: The Ancient Roman Flower Festival

Get ready for some ancient Roman flower power, dude! April 28 was date of the Floralia, a festival dedicated to the goddess Flora, the ancient Roman goddess of flowers and fertility. Flora was associated with Spring, the season of new life and color, and her feast day was a lavish festival dedicated to honoring and celebrating the spring season. There were theatrical performances, competitions, and games. Bright multi-colored clothing was worn by the people to emulate the various flower colors, and women wore wreathes of flowers around their heads and laced into their hair. In ancient Rome, April 28 was a day to let your freakus flaggus flyus!!!

Image © Jason R. Abdale. November 10, 2018.

The origins of this holiday are somewhat difficult to determine. On the face of it, it would appear that the ancient Romans dedicated this holiday to the goddess Flora to celebrate the coming of Spring. Throughout the ages and among numerous civilizations, flowers are regarded as emblematic of the Spring season, and the ancient Romans were no different.

Flowers are not just pretty to look at – they are also extremely important to an agriculture-dominant society. Most fruits and vegetables are created as a result of pollenated flowers. If the flower blossoms abruptly died before they could be pollenated, or if the plants didn’t even blossom at all for some reason, then not only would the farmer have a miniscule harvest, meaning that his finances would suffer a severe down-turn, but also a devastating famine would break out. Thus, it was important to honor, celebrate, and placate the flower goddess to ensure a good Spring blossoming and a good Autumn harvest.

In Ovid’s Fasti, the poet puts these words into Flora’s mouth: “Perhaps you think I only rule over tender garlands. But my power also commands the farmers’ fields. If the crops have flourished, the threshing-floor is full: If the vines have flourished, there’ll be wine: If the olive trees have flourished, the year will be bright, and the fruit will prosper at the proper time. If the flower’s damaged, the beans and vetch die, and your imported lentils, Nile, die too. Wine too, laboriously stored in the vast cellars, froths, and clouds the wine jars’ surface with mist. Honey’s my gift: I call the winged ones who make honey, to the violets, clover and pale thyme. I carry out similar functions, when spirits run riot, and bodies themselves flourish” (1).

Photo by Jason R. Abdale. March 22, 2021.

What do we know about Flora herself? Marcus Terentius Varro claims that Flora was a Sabine goddess. There was apparently a very old temple to Flora located within “the Sabine Quarter” of the city of Rome, and order of priests had been established to preside over her holy rites (2).

According to the poet Ovid, Flora was originally named Chloris, but an error in spelling led to the Romans mistakenly writing her name as Floris, and later Flora. She was neither woman nor goddess, but was a nymph – a divine spiritual entity which inhabited woods, fields, and other wild places. According to Roman legend, she was captured and raped by Zephyrus (I am amazed and disgusted how much rape is in ancient Greek and Roman mythology), and the two of them were afterwards married. The two lived in a house set in the fields, located near a spring, and Flora was given the duty of tending to the garden. Thus, she became “the mistress of the flowers” (3).

But as with anything involving ancient history, nothing is EVER that straight-forward. The Roman writer Lactantius, who wrote during the 300s AD, gives us the story that Flora was not a goddess or a nymph, but was in fact, a famous prostitute. This woman had acquired a massive amount of wealth as a result of her midnight activities. When she died, she decreed in her will that all of her money was to be donated to the Roman people, and stipulated that a portion of her wealth was to be set aside so that public games could be celebrated each year, which would be known as the Ludi Floriales, “the Games of Flora”. The men of the Roman Senate, who presented an image of being very dignified and virtuous, was ashamed of this woman’s activities. Consequently, they re-wrote her history, claiming that she was, in fact, a goddess who presided over flowers and blossoms, an that the games were necessary in order to please her and assure a good Autumn harvest (4).

It is said that the Floralia was celebrated for the first time in 238 BC. During that year, all of Italy was ravaged by prolonged periods of bad weather, and large quantities of the year’s crops were destroyed. Italy was threatened with famine and mass starvation. The Roman Senate consulted the Sibyl, the great oracle of the Roman world, as to what ought to be done. In response, she commanded the Roman people to hold a great festival in honor of the goddess Flora as a way to gain her favor and grant protection over flowers and blossoms. This was done, and the harvest was miraculously saved. However, it wasn’t until 174 or 173 BC that the Floralia was celebrated every year (5).

The festivities began on April 28 and lasted into May 3. The reason that the date of April 28 was chosen was that a shrine or a temple dedicated to Flora was established at the Circus Maximus and was dedicated on April 28. Flora’s temple was located very close to the Temple of Ceres, the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture. James Elmes stated that April 28 was actually Flora’s birthday (6).

It’s noteworthy that this flower festival extends through the first days of May. May 1 is the date of the ancient Celtic festival of Beltaine, which marks the first day of Summer in the Celtic calendar. The ancient Celtic and ancient Roman seasonal calendars were different from ours. To us, the Summer Solstice in late June marks the beginning of Summer, but to the Celts and Romans, that was the middle, the high-point, of Summer. To them, the real beginning of Summer occurred between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice, sometime in early May. To the ancient Celts, the festival of Beltaine marked the beginning of Summer. Just like with the Roman Floralia, flowers played a core part in the Celtic festival of Beltaine. In the Celtic world, on May 1, the outside of people’s houses were decorated with hawthorn branches and flowers, and doors, windows, and cattle would be adorned with yellow flowers because they represented the sun (7).

Photo by Jason R. Abdale. June 29, 2018.

The Floralia was held in the Campus Martius, in the shadow of Flora’s shrine, and the aediles were responsible for conducting and overseeing the day’s festivities. The festival’s expenses were paid for by allocating a portion of the fines that had been collected from people who illegally set their livestock on publicly-owned land (8). The festivities began with the blasting of a trumpet. Torches were lit throughout the city during this multi-festival, blazing throughout the night. In the words of Ovid, putting words in the mouth of the goddess herself, “Lights are thought to be fitting for my day, because the fields glow with crimson flowers, or because flowers and flames aren’t dull in colour, and the splendour of them both attracts the eye: or because the licence of night suits my delights, and this third reason’s nearest to the truth” (9). The Celtic festival of Beltaine was also marked by the lighting of the Beltaine Bonfire, which was believed to ward off pestilence and evil spirits and to bestow fertility upon livestock (10).

“Spring”, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1894)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alma_Tadema_Spring.jpg

The Floralia was a time of great merriment and celebration. During this time, more latitude was given to engage in activities which otherwise would have been frowned upon. In the words of the ancient Roman poet Ovid, “A goddess comes framed in a thousand varied garlands of flowers, and the stage has freer license for mirth… Mother of the flowers, approach, so we can honour you with joyful games!” (11). The Floralia was intended to be a day for fun and celebration, and the whole population as encouraged to lighten up and loosen up. Dining tables were covered with rose petals, people wore bright boldly-patterned clothes to mimic the vibrant rainbow of flower petals, and they wore garlands of flowers around their heads. There was dancing in the streets and a great deal excessive drinking! It was a day that the wine god Bacchus himself would have reveled in. After all, Ovid quipped, Bacchus loves flowers and he was often seen wearing crowns of them (12). During the reign of Emperor Galba, one of the monarchs who ruled during “the Year of the Four Emperors” in 69 AD, a new novelty circus attraction was exhibited for the first time: “In celebrating the games of the Floralia in his praetorship he gave a new kind of exhibition, namely of elephants walking the rope” (13).

A scene from a 1990s Xerox commercial showing an Olympian god wearing a tie-dyed toga, claiming he needs more color in his life. During the Floralia festival, he would have fit right in.

Many of the features of this day’s celebrations could be quite raunchy! Among the day’s festivities were strippers, nude dancers, plays in which all of the actors and actresses should be naked, female wrestlers, and female gladiator fights – no mention is made if they fought naked (14). In the words of the poet Juvenal…

“The female wrestling ring; who hasn’t seen the battered training-post, hacked by repeated sword-blows, scarred by her shield. The girl’s fully trained, totally qualified, ready for the fanfare and fights at the Floralia, unless that is she plans something more, practises now for the wider arena. How can you call her decent, a helmeted woman who spurns her very own gender? She loves a fight, even so she’d not wish to be a man; the pleasure we get is so little, after all! What a sight, if they auctioned off the wives’ paraphernalia, the sword-belts, arm-protectors, crests, and the half-size left-leg shin-guards! Or if it’s a different fight she wages, how happy you’d be if she managed to sell off her greaves. Yet these are the girls who sweat in the thinnest dress, whose delicate skins are chafed by the smoothest wisps of silk. Hear her cries as she drives home the thrusts she’s learned, feel how heavy the helmet is that she bows beneath, see the breadth, the thickness, of those bandages round her knees, and laugh when she takes to a chamber-pot, fully armed! Grand-daughters of Lepidus, blind Metellus, and Fabius Maximus Gurges too, what gladiator’s wife ever wore stuff like this? When did Asylus’s wife grunt at the training-post?” (15)

As far as Ovid was concerned, all of this was perfectly natural. Surely, for a such a light-hearted and care-free goddess as Flora, dour solemnity would be banned on her feast days. These were the days to feel alive, to embrace the vigors of one’s youth, because you’re only young for a brief time, so make the most of it while you can: “I was going to ask why there’s greater wantonness in her games, and freer jests, but it struck me that the goddess isn’t strict, and the gifts she brings are agents of delight…The reason the crowd of whores celebrate these games is not a difficult one for us to discover. The goddess isn’t gloomy, she’s not high-flown, she wants her rites to be open to the common man, and warns us to use life’s beauty while it’s in bloom” (16)

However, for the prudish Lactantius, these festivities were a scandalous abomination: “Those games, therefore, are celebrated with all wantonness, as is suitable to the memory of a harlot. For besides licentiousness of words, in which all lewdness is poured forth, women are also stripped of their garments at the demand of the people, and then perform the office of mimeplayers, and are detained in the sight of the people with indecent gestures, even to the satiating of unchaste eyes” (17)

The sexual licentiousness associated with the Floralia festival might also have social connections with the pagan calendars of the Romans and Celts. This was, after all, “the lusty month of May”. In the Celtic world during May, marriage vows were temporarily suspended and people were given full permission to have affairs with whomever they wished. Men and women got their rocks off as if there was no tomorrow in the hope that their raging horniness would encourage flowers to bloom and crops to grow (18).

Beast hunts were held in the Circus Maximus on the last day of the celebration Hunting rabbits, deer, wild goats, and other herbivorous animals was encouraged on this day, but the hunting of predatory animals such as lions, wolves, foxes, and bears was not. The reason for this was that these herbivorous animals were a frequently-encountered pest in one’s farms and gardens. They devoured and destroyed acres of crops, and ate the green shoots before they had a chance to blossom and fruit. Such animals, went Ovid, were repugnant to Flora and to other gods and goddesses associated with the Earth’s produce, and therefore they needed to be culled to prevent them from causing too much damage. However, since creatures like lions and wolves did not eat grain, fruits, or flowers, they were no threat to farmers, and therefore could be left alone for today (19).

So on April 28 to May 3, go crazy! Lighten up, loosen up, and live it up! Put some flowers in your hair and wear outrageously colorful clothing. Eat, drink, and be merry, and enjoy the joys of life. Summer is a-comin’ in.

Source citations:

  1. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
  2. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, chapter 74. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 71; Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 7, chapter 45. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 311; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 92.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
  4. Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 1, chapter 20.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 18, chapter 69; Basil Kennett, Romae Antiquae Notitia, or, The Antiquities of Rome, in Two Parts. London: A. Swall and T. Child, 1695. Page 289; William Smith, A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853. Page 180; Seth William Stevenson, Charles Roach Smith, and Frederick W. Madden, A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889. Page 389; Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891. Page 238.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 28; James Elmes, A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824; Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891. Page 238; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Pages 92-93.
  7. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 224-225.
  8. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Reverend Thomas Wilson, An Archaeological Dictionary, or, Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans. London: T. Cadell, 1783; William Smith, A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853. Page 180; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 92.
  9. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 5th Edition. Volume 1. London: 1741; James Elmes, A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824; Seth William Stevenson, Charles Roach Smith, and Frederick W. Madden, A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889. Page 390.
  10. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 218-225.
  11. Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 28; Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
  12. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; William Smith, A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853. Page 180.
  13. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 7 – “The Life of Galba”, chapter 6.
  14. Quintus Valerius Maximus, Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, book 2, chapter 10, verse 8; Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 1, chapter 20; Basil Kennett, Romae Antiquae Notitia, or, The Antiquities of Rome, in Two Parts. London: A. Swall and T. Child, 1695. Page 289; James Elmes, A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824.
  15. Juvenal, Satire #6.
  16. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2.
  17. Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 1, chapter 20.
  18. Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pages 228-229; “Greenwood Marriages and the Fiery Passions of Beltane”.
  19. Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 2; Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891. Page 238.

Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources:

  • Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 5th Edition. Volume 1. London: 1741.
  • Elmes, James. A General and Biographical Dictionary of the Fine Arts, Volume 1. Chiswick: C & C. Whittingham, 1824.
  • Fowler, William Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899.
  • Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Kennett, Basil. Romae Antiquae Notitia, or, The Antiquities of Rome, in Two Parts. London: A. Swall and T. Child, 1695.
  • Seyffert, Oskar. A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, Second Edition. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1891.
  • Smith, William. A Smaller Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: John Murray, 1853.
  • Stevenson, Seth William; Smith, Charles Roach; Madden, Frederick W. A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889.
  • Wilson, Reverend Thomas. An Archaeological Dictionary, or, Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans. London: T. Cadell, 1783.
  • Huff Post. “Greenwood Marriages and the Fiery Passions of Beltane”, by Rev. Laurie Sue Brockway (May 1, 2014). https://www.huffpost.com/entry/greenwood-marriages-and-t_b_5242087.

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/.

May 14 – The Sacrifice of the Argei

This is a follow-up post to another article that I had posted on March 16. I suggest that you read that one before you read this article. To read the article dated to March 16, click here.

Ancient writers such as Ovid, Plutarch, and Varro mentioned that on March 16, life-sized human mannequins made of straw or wicker, crafted to look like sacrificial victims with their arms and legs tied together, were ceremonially housed within special shrines that were located in the city of Rome. Both these figures and the shrines that they were located in were known as the Argei (pronounced Ar-GAY-ee). The number of shrines and associated dummies is variously recorded by ancient writers as somewhere between twenty-four to thirty. For the next two months, these wickerwork dummies remained cloistered within their vaults until May 14 came around. On that day, to paraphrase a famous British cult classic, it was time to keep their appointment with the Wicker Men (Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 21; Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 16, March 17; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #32, #86)

May 14 was allotted in the ancient Roman religion as the day to carry out human sacrifices to the god Saturn. However, human sacrifices had been outlawed by the time of Caesar Augustus, and certainly earlier than that, although exactly when is pretty impossible to determine. On May 14, a group of people consisting of the Vestal Virgins, representatives from the College of the Pontiffs, and notable members of the city government including Rome’s mayor visited each of these shrines one-by one. All of them were dressed in black, as if they were going to a funeral, and they also behaved like they were going to one as well; this was supposed to be a very somber and melancholy ritual. Each of the wicker argei mannequins would be removed from the shrine that housed it, and would be carried along the route to the next shrine. At the end of this group’s ambulation, they would be carting around twenty-something life-sized wickerwork mannequins. Tradition recorded that the method of execution used in human sacrifice was death by drowning. Therefore, they would journey to the Pons Sublicius, which was the old bridge made of oak timbers that had been erected centuries earlier during the reign of King Numa Pompilius; granted, this wooden bridge was regularly repaired and renovated to keep it in good condition. No reference is made in the ancient sources of any prayers that were made by the participants, but I’m sure that there were invocations to Saturn. As they stood upon the bridge, with the slow waters of the Tiber flowing below them, these wicker men were cast one after another over the side into the river below. Thus, in a metaphorical way, these mannequins were drowned in the river, preserving the tradition without having to actually kill anybody (“Argei”, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 2, 11th Edition (1911), by William Warde Fowler; “Argeorum Sacraria”, in A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, by Samuel Ball Platner (London: Oxford University Press, 1929); A. Cornelius Gellius, Noctes Atticae, book 10, chapter 15; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapter 38; Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 14; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #32, #86).

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March 16 – The Procession to the Argei

By mid-March, Spring had definitely come to central Italy. The weather was getting warmer and the first green shoots were emerging from the soil. It was also a date of important astrological significance. As the poet Ovid states, “When the next dawn has revived the tender grass, Scorpio’s pincers will be visible” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 16). However, the position of the stars in the sky has changed during the past two thousand years.

Ovid also makes reference to another significant aspect of March 16 and the day afterwards: “On this [March 17], and the preceding day [March 16], crowds go to the Argei” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17). What is the Argei (Ar-GAY-ee)? What is Ovid writing about? The poet is referring to a curious and rather somber ritual that was conducted by the ancient Romans in which they begged for the blessings and favor of the gods (and Saturn in particular) by conducting human sacrifice, or at least the closest thing to it, since human sacrifice had been abolished by the time of Caesar Augustus. However, the Romans still invoked the gods’ power and favor by crafting substitutes to stand in place of the victims. Dummies made of straw and wicker were made in the shape of humans, and were used in place of humans when the time came to offer them to the gods.

Our first clue about these rituals comes from the writings of the ancient Roman historian Titus Livius, commonly known nowadays by his Anglicized name Livy, who wrote during the reign of Caesar Augustus. In his epic work The History of Rome, he explains how, in the early days, the monarchy of Rome marked out places for undertaking religious rituals: “There were many other sacrifices appointed by him [King Numa Pompilius] and places dedicated for their performance which the pontiffs call the Argei” (Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 21). So, according to Livius, the argei were places within the city of Rome that were demarcated for conducting religious ceremonies, especially sacrifices.

However, the name argei not only referred to the places of sacrifice, but also the sacrificial victims themselves. In his work Roman Questions, the Greco-Roman historian Plutarch inquires about these rituals, specifically why the facsimiles of sacrificial victims were given the name argei. He suspected that the name might be related to the name “Argive”, and hypothesized that it might refer to captured Greek prisoners that the ancient Romans executed when they expanded through the rest of Italy, since “the men of old used to call all Greeks alike Argives” (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #32, #86). However, I cannot find any evidence in any source, ancient or modern, that the Romans conducted executions of POWs in this manner.

Other ancient writers provide further information. The ancient Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus explains in his Roman Antiquities that, centuries ago, the primitive Romans carried out human sacrifices to the god Saturn, just as the Carthaginians did in former years and which some Celtic societies still performed in his own time. However, upon the urging of the hero Hercules, the people abolished this custom. Even so, they were concerned that Saturn would be angry at not being given the human sacrifices that he demanded, so the Romans crafted dummies made of straw and wicker and used them as substitutes. These wicker forms, which were known as argei, were fashioned to resemble men prepared for human sacrifice, with their arms and legs tied. The custom of human sacrifice involved the victims being drowned; note the similarity here to ancient Celtic rituals involving sacrifices and water. On the appointed day, preliminary religious offerings would be made, and then a procession consisting of representatives from the College of the Pontiffs, the Vestal Virgins, and the high-ranking members of the city’s government, all of whom were dressed in black as if preparing for a funeral, would carry these wicker effigies in solemn somber mourning to the Pons Sublicius, the old wooden bridge that had been constructed across the Tiber River during the time of the Roman kings. From its height overlooking the water, the figures were dropped into the river below and were swept away, and thus were ritualistically “drowned” when they sank into the sacred water. Thus, all of the particulars of the ritual would be carried out without there being any actual bloodshed (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapter 38; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #32; “Argei”, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 2, 11th Edition (1911), by William Warde Fowler)

The number of straw mannequins that were used in this ritual has been subject to academic quarreling. Varro says that there were twenty-seven, while Dionysius claims that there were thirty in total. The exact number appears to be of little importance. However, it is stated that the number of these dummies was the same as the number of sacrificial shrines within the city. These shrines were known as the Sacraria, Sacella Argeorum, Sacella Argeiorum, or Argea, and these dummies were housed within until the time came for them to be carried away to meet their pre-destined purpose (“Argei”, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 2, 11th Edition (1911), by William Warde Fowler; “Argeorum Sacraria”, in A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, by Samuel Ball Platner (London: Oxford University Press, 1929); A. Cornelius Gellius, Noctes Atticae, book 10, chapter 15).

It must be said that no ancient source specifically states that sacrifices were carried out on March 16 and 17; all ancient sources make reference to these events occurring only in mid-May. Dionysius of Halicarnassus says that the “sacrifice” was carried out on the Ides of May (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapter 38). The poet Ovid goes into great detail on this, and he too states that these rituals occur on May 14: “On this day too, the Vestals throw effigies made of rushes, in the form of men of old, from the oak bridge” (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 14). The historian Plutarch explains that one of the reasons why men do not get married in May is because that’s the month where “the wicker men”, to use my own term, are sacrificed to the Tiber River (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #86). So what on earth do the argei have to do with mid-March? One hypothesis, which seems plausible, is that it was on these days that the wicker facsimiles of the sacrificial victims were ceremonially deposited within the shrines, and were held there for safe keeping until the middle of May, when they would be taken out to be “executed” for lack of a better word (“Argeorum Sacraria”, in A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, by Samuel Ball Platner (London: Oxford University Press, 1929)).

If March 16 and 17 were noted as the days for depositing these wicker sacrificial victims into the shrines, only to be taken out two months later, what do we know of the customs associated with this that took place in mid-March? The answer is “Not much”. Scant information is given to the date set aside for placing these figures within the shrines while far more information in the ancient sources is devoted to the date of the sacrifice two months afterwards. As stated earlier, Ovid says that on March 16 and 17, crowds journey to the Argei, although he makes no mention as to what happened when they got there (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17). Cornelius Gellius writes concerning the priestess of Jupiter, “when she goes to the Argei, that she neither combs her head nor dresses her hair” (A. Cornelius Gellius, Noctes Atticae, book 10, chapter 15). So it appears that religious personnel, including the priestess or priestesses of Jupiter, journeyed to the argei shrines in order to place the wicker statues within, and were likely accompanied by a crowd of followers and devotees.

No additional information is given which would allow us to reconstruct whatever rituals may have occurred on March 16, although I imagine, given what we know of other Roman religious rites, that they were very elaborate and were full of metaphoric or allegoric symbolism. Any attempts by modern scholars to craft what the ceremonies on March 16 would have looked or sounded like would be extremely hypothetical.

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