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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.

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.

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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.

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