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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source citations

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

Bibliography

January 11 and 15 – The Feast of Carmenta, the Ancient Roman Goddess of Prophesy and Childbirth

Will it be a good year for the crops? Are you going to meet the man of your dreams? Should you invest your dinarii in your deadbeat brother-in-law’s latest get-rich-quick scheme? Maybe you should consult Carmenta, the ancient Roman goddess of prophecy and childbirth. Her eyes will see into the future and let you know what awaits you.

There’s a legend that Carmenta, or Carmentis as her name is otherwise given, was originally a female prophet from the Greek region of Arcadia; her name is also recorded as either Themis or Nicostrata. Carmenta was unusual in that, when she would fall into a hypnotic trance, she would give out her prophesies in song form – hence she was known as Carmenta, which means “the chanter”. However, she did not always possess this gift. She was married to Pallas, the ruler of Arcadia, but her son Evander was the product of a union between her and the god Hermes/Mercury. It was not until “her spirit absorbed the heavenly fire” (1), as Ovid puts it, that she acquired the gift of prophesy. Following Pallas’ murder by his son, she and Evander were forced to flee from their native Greek homeland, and eventually landed at the mouth of the Tiber River in west-central Italy. In those days, the Italian Peninsula was inhabited exclusively by small tribal societies. When she arrived at the mouth of the Tiber, she experienced a divine vision in which she saw the arrival of a prince, the founding of a great city on the river’s bank, and that city’s rise to imperial glory. In later years, the Romans would venerate Carmenta as the woman who foresaw the coming of Prince Aeneas, the establishment of the city of Rome, and the creation of the Roman Empire, and would elevate her to the status of a goddess of prophesy. He son Evander established a community on the Tiber which he named Pallantium, and it was here that Prince Aeneas of Troy came seeking shelter and his native kingdom was destroyed by the Achaeans (2).

However, there’s another story stating that Carmenta is actually one of the Fates, a group of divine entities who were responsible for the ebb and flow of people’s lives. Specifically, Carmenta was the Fate responsible for looking after mothers in childbirth and determining the lives of children. As such, Roman mothers paid a great deal of reverence to her, hoping that in pleasing her, she would grant their children good health and a long life. In an age when child mortality was very high, this was a very real worry. Another concern was the mother not surviving childbirth. In pre-modern times, mothers dying in childbirth was an unfortunately frequent occurrence. Praying to Carmenta to look after you during those difficult hours might grant you her favor (3).

A small shrine (note that the Roman authors uses the words fanum “shrine” or sacellum, “chapel” to describe the building rather than templum or aedes both of which mean “temple”) dedicated to Carmenta, whose construction was funded by Roman mothers, stood at the base of the Capitoline Hill next to the Porta Carmentalis, the Gate of Carmenta. Roman legend says that the shrine was constructed directly atop the site of what once was Carmenta’s house. Carmenta’s priest was known as the Flamen Carmentalis, as recorded by Marcus Tullius Cicero (4).

The story behind how and why Carmenta’s shrine was constructed is almost comical. In the year 215 BC, the Roman Senate passed a law called the Lex Oppia, which stated that from now on Roman women were forbidden from riding in litters or driving horse-drawn carriages (carpentum) within the city of Rome; previously, this was not an issue. Infuriated at this sexist discrimination, the women of Rome resolved that, as a form of payback, they would never have sex with their husbands until this nonsensical law was dispensed with. For an astounding twenty years, men and women “went without”. In 195 BC, this law was finally repealed, ostensibly because the birth rate within the city of Rome had sharply dropped and the Roman Senate was concerned that the city might suffer a population decline. With the law gone, wives once again returned to their husband’s beds, and that year, the city of Rome experienced a baby-boom. The mothers were grateful that so many children had been born, and born without any difficulties or tragedies, that they paid to have a shrine dedicated in honor of Carmenta, who they believed had a hand in ensuring that their children were strong and healthy and also ensuring that they themselves did not suffer or die as a result. (5).

A replica of an ancient Roman carpentum carriage. Romisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne, Germany. Photography by Carole Raddato (October 18, 2012). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The date of the Carmentalia, the Feast of Carmenta, which is mentioned by Marcus Terentius Varro (Liguae Latina, VI:12) was held on tJanuary 11 and January 15; the first date in in reference to when Carmenta and her son Evander left Arcadia, and the second date is in commemoration of when the Lex Oppia was repealed (6). One source that I have seen says that it was a multi-day festival spanning nearly a week, beginning on January 11 and ending on January 15. However, every other source which I looked at claims that these two dates were the only dates that celebrations were carried out, so there would have been a three day long gap in between the festivities. The Roman poet Ovid states that venerations to Carmenta took place only on January 11 and 15, and not on the days in between. The Praenestine Calendar, the Maffeian Calendar, and the Caeretan Calendar all indicate the occurrence of this festival on the dates of January 11 and January 15 with the letters KARM, KAR, or CAR. In Philocalus’ Calendar, the date of January 11 is marked with the words Dies Carmentariorum, “the Day of the Carmentalia”, but there is no similar description for January 15. Likewise in Polemius Silvius’ calendar, January 11 is marked with the description Carmentalia de nominee matris Evandri, “the Feast of Carmenta, the name of the mother of Evander”. Yet again, Silvius does not provide a similar description for January 15 (7).

One source infers that the original feast of Carmenta occurred solely on January 11, and it wasn’t until later that a second feast day dedicated to her was enacted on January 15 (8). Considering that some of the ancient Romans records give the date of the Carmentalia only on January 11 and not on both days, I am inclined to believe this explanation. The Carmentalia was celebrated exclusively by women, who would give offerings at her shrine known as sacerdus carmentalis (9). It was forbidden to bring into Carmenta’s shrine anything made of leather or animal pelts, since it was unfitting that things associated with death should be brought into a shrine to a goddess whose purpose was to safeguard life (10).

Not only was Carmenta regarded as a guardian goddess of mothers in childbirth, but apparently her gift of prophesy also made her sought out by anyone, be they man or woman, who wished to know the future. As the poet Ovid records, “Where shall I find the cause and nature of these rites? Who will steer my vessel in mid-ocean? Advise me, Carmentis, you who take your name from song, and favour my intent, lest I fail to honour you” (11). Although perhaps I may be reading too much into Ovid’s tendency for poetic flourish. Regardless of whether Ovid’s entreaty was a reference to Carmenta being frequently consulted about the future, or if he just wanted her to guide his muse in his writings (which is the explanation I favor), praying for divine guidance on decisions to be made concerning important events has always been with us, and always will be.

Source citations:

  1. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 11.
  2. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 11; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700; The Gentleman and Lady’s Key to Polite Literature, or, A Compendious Dictionary of Fabulous History. London: J. Newbury, 1767; Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Page 112.
  3. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Ovid, Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pages 177-178, footnote I.462.
  4. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Ovid, Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Page 180, footnote I.462; Page 182, footnote I.462; Page 188, footnote I.467.
  5. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #56; Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700; A Dictionary of All Religions, Ancient and Modern, whether Jewish, Pagan, Christian, or Mahometan. London: James Knapton, 1704; Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Pages 110-111.
  6. Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700.
  7. Ovid, Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Page 180, footnote I.462.
  8. Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Page 111.
  9. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume 1, Fifth Edition. London: 1741.
  10. Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Page 111.
  11. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 11.

 

Bibliography:

  • A Dictionary of All Religions, Ancient and Modern, whether Jewish, Pagan, Christian, or Mahometan. London: James Knapton, 1704.
  • The Gentleman and Lady’s Key to Polite Literature, or, A Compendious Dictionary of Fabulous History. London: J. Newbury, 1767.
  • Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume 1, Fifth Edition. London: 1741.
  • Danet, Pierre. A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Nicholson, 1700.
  • Ovid. Fasti, book 1, January 11. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.
  • Ovid. Fastorum Libri Sex: The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 2. Edited and translated by James George Frazer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Plutarch. Roman Questions, #56. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Roman_Questions*/home.html.
  • Pettazzoni, Raffaele. Essays on the History of Religions. Translated from Italian to English by H. J. Rose. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967.

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.

October 1 – The Kalends of October

It is now the month of October in ancient Rome. The weather has begun to cool, the Autumn harvest is ready to be gathered, and the soldiers are preparing themselves to return home after another season of fighting abroad.

The whole month of October was dedicated to Mars, the god of war (1). This is likely due to the fact that October was the month when the year’s military campaigning season came to an end. The campaigning season officially terminated on October 19 with the ceremony known as the Armilustrium, but that’s a story for another day.

The first day of every month was known as the kalends, which is where the word “calendar” comes from. These were days in which all business was put on hold, possibly because merchants and businessmen were afraid of being jinxed (2).

In the ancient Roman calendar, the first day of every month was sacred to the goddess Juno, Queen of the Gods (3). However, the first day of October was also dedicated to the war-god Mars (4) as well as to Fides, the divine personification of faith (5). This is because October 1 was the date that a temple to Fides located on the Capitoline Hill was dedicated during the 3rd Century BC by Aulus Atilius Calatinus. This temple was often used as a place where oaths were taken, or where contracts and treaties were signed. Copies of treaties that Rome had signed with other nations were put on display within (6).

October 1 was also the date of a purification ritual known as the Tigillo Sororio, “the Beam of the Sister”, whose origins go back to the founding of the Roman Republic. Legend states that Horatius Cocles, one of the great heroes of the civil war between the monarchists and the republicans which lasted from 509 to 499 BC, returned home after being victorious in a battle, bringing with him the spoils of his defeated enemies. However, his sister was betrothed so a man who was on the monarchists side. When she saw her fiancé’s cloak, she knew that he was among the slain and she began to cry. Her brother Horatius, fired up with patriotic furor, accused her of showing sympathy to the Republic’s enemies and killed her on the spot. Horatius was acquitted of murder, but he was forced to undergo a purification ritual to expiate his blood-guilt. At least that’s the story, but it appears that this purification ritual existed before the era of the civil war, so then what was its original purpose? Perhaps, just as Horatius had to expunge his unclean self after shedding the blood of his own sister, so to might early Roman warriors have needed to purify their bodies and souls of blood-guilt prior to re-entering the city (7). This bears some resemblance to the Armilustrium, in which the weapons of war were ritualistically purified before being re-housed in the armories over the winter lull.

 

Source citations:

  1. Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: 1700. Page 14; The Metropolitan Magazine, Volume 17 (September-December 1836). “On the Origin of the Egyptian God, Anubis, and on the Twelve Months of the Year”. London: Saunders and Otley, 1836. Page 103; Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854. Page 184.
  2. History and Archaeology Online: Rediscovering the Past. “Double Roman Celebrations for the Kalends of October: The Fidei in Capitolio and the Tigillo”, by Natasha Sheldon (September 29, 2018). https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/double-roman-celebrations-for-the-kalends-of-october-the-fidei-in-capitolio-and-the-tigillo/.
  3. Molly Pasco-Pranger, Founding the Year: Ovid’s Fasti and the Poetics of the Roman Calendar. Leiden: Brill, 2006. Page 180.
  4. The Metropolitan Magazine, Volume 17 (September-December 1836). “On the Origin of the Egyptian God, Anubis, and on the Twelve Months of the Year”. London: Saunders and Otley, 1836. Page 103.
  5. UNRV. “Roman Festivals”. https://www.unrv.com/culture/roman-festivals.php.
  6. Ár Ndraíocht Féin: Public Worship, Fellowship, and Practice. “Major Holidays of Rome October (Mensis October)”. https://www.adf.org/rituals/roman/roman-holidays3.html.
  7. History and Archaeology Online: Rediscovering the Past. “Double Roman Celebrations for the Kalends of October: The Fidei in Capitolio and the Tigillo”, by Natasha Sheldon (September 29, 2018). https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/double-roman-celebrations-for-the-kalends-of-october-the-fidei-in-capitolio-and-the-tigillo/.

 

Bibliography:

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).

Sources:

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).

Sources:

April 4 – The Feast of Cybele

April 4 marked the beginning of a multi-day festival in ancient Rome dedicated to Cybele, the mother of the gods; Cybele is the Roman version of the Greek goddess Hera. Cybele originated from Crete, with her sanctuary atop Mount Berekynthos (Virgil, Aeneid, book 9, line 77; “Berekynthos Mt. (Chania) 16 Malaxa – Βερέκυνθον”). In Virgil’s Aeneid, it is written “Behold, my son, under his command glorious Rome will match earth’s power and heaven’s will, and encircle seven hills with a single wall, happy in her race of men: as Cybele, the Berecynthian ‘Great Mother’, crowned with turrets, rides through the Phrygian cities, delighting in her divine children, clasping a hundred descendants, all gods, all dwelling in the heights above” (Virgil, Aeneid, book 6, line 777). Cybele herself is depicted as a woman riding a chariot pulled by a pair of lions instead of horses, indicating her abilities to tame wild beasts. She herself wore a crown atop her head fashioned to look like city walls with towers, since it was believed that she had given people the idea to add towers to their walls (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4).

April 4-10 was the period of the Ludi Megalenses, “the Games of the Great Mother”, which was one of the titles given to Cybele. This festival was first held in 204 BC. Ovid says that the courts were closed on the first day of the festivities (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4). As Marcus Varro explains, “The Megalesia ‘Festival of the Great Mother’ is so called from the Greeks, because by direction of the Sibylline Books the Great Mother was brought from King Attalus, from Pergama; there near the city-wall was the Megalesion, that is, the temple of this goddess, whence she was brought to Rome” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 15. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 189).

The games began on April 4, the Feast of Cybele. The celebration commenced with the blasting sound of a musical instrument called the Berecynthian pipe, a reference to the goddess’ Cretan origin. It was apparently a curved flute or horn made of boxwood which produced a loud buzzing sound similar to a bagpipe or perhaps a super-sized kazoo. That un-earthly sound was the signal that the festivities were about to begin (Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, book 4, chapter 522; Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4; Virgil, Aeneid, book 9, line 590).

Eunuchs, the priests of the Galli who castrated themselves in an act of dedication to Cybele, led the public procession through the streets, pounding on drums and crashing cymbals together, trying seemingly to make as much noise as possible. Meanwhile, they beat and whip themselves, and moan and shriek in pain and despair, in emulation of the tortured mind of Attis, Cybele’s lover. Behind them, a statue of Cybele was be carried atop people’s shoulders (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4).

Let me stray for a moment from my main narrative and provide some information about these priests who served Cybele. These people were known as the Galli, not because they were of Gallic or Celtic ancestry but because, as Ovid relates, in Phyrigia there is a river near the shrine of Cybele called the Gallus and anyone who drinks its water goes insane. Famously, the Galli as they were called castrated themselves by crushing their testicles in a bronze vice. What on earth would induce them to do such a thing? This practice had its basis in Roman mythology. A handsome Phrygian boy named Attis fell in love with the goddess Cybele. However, it was inappropriate for a god to have sexual relations with a mortal, so Attis vowed that since he loved her so much he would never be intimate with anyone else. Cybele was impressed by his devotion, and asked him to forever serve her and protect her temple, and as long as he held to his vow of virginity, she would treat him very well. Unfortunately, when he met the extremely beautiful nymph Sagaritis, he was filled with lust, and it got the better of his senses, and the two of them had sex. Almost immediately, he was filled with immense guilt over what he had done, and it drove him to madness. In an act of self-punishment, he ripped off his clothes and fiercely whipped his own back. Feeling that this pain, no matter how severe, was still not sufficient, he took a sharp stone and started stabbing and lacerating his naked body all over with deep gashes, and smeared dirt and mud all over himself to show how filthy he thought he was. “I deserve this! I deserve this!” he cried out. “Let me pay for my sin with my own blood! Let the parts of my body that brought me to this state perish, let them perish!” and taking a knife, he sliced off his own balls. Ever since then, in emulation of Attis, the Galli castrate themselves, beat themselves, whip themselves, and wail and cry in lamentation. A comparison might be made here between the Galli and the medieval flagellates, who punished their bodies so that they could gain God’s favor and remove the Black Death (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4).

The Roman writer Lucian provides us with some information on the Galli. In The Syrian Goddess, he explains how there is a temple in Syria at a place called Hierapolis, “the Sacred City”, which is devoted to the worship of Cybele, known in that region as Rhea. According to his story, Queen Stratonice of Assyria received a vision from Hera/Cybele/Rhea to build a temple dedicated to her in Hierapolis. Her husband the king could not go, so he sent his best friend Combabus to go with her. What the king did not realize was that Combabus had a crush on the king’s wife, but had never made his feelings known. Combabus believed that the journey in addition to the actual time constructing the temple would be long, and it might be possible that the queen might develop feelings for him during that time. Not wanting to be involved in adultery, he castrated himself so that he couldn’t give in to temptation. Building the temple took three years, and sure enough, the queen began to develop romantic feelings for her companion. One night, when she was drunk, she came to his bedroom and tried to seduce him. When persuading her to go back to sleep and to think of her husband didn’t work, Combabus revealed himself to her, showing her that he had, to use the term of the day, “un-manned” himself, and that immediately killed all romantic sentiments in her. Lucian then gives an intriguing statement: “The memory of this love is still alive at Hierapolis and is maintained in this way; the women still are enamoured of the Galli, and the Galli again love the women with passion; but there is no jealousy at all, and this love passes among them for a holy passion” (Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, 22). Lucian goes on to say that the priests of Cybele in Hierapolis still castrate themselves, and thereafter wear only women’s clothing and perform what is typically thought of as “women’s work”. “Combabus accordingly in despair at his incapacity for love, donned woman’s attire, that no woman in future might be deceived in the same way. This is the reason of the female attire of the Galli” (Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, 10, 15, 17-27).

Lucian’s description of the feast of Cybele in Hierapolis bears several similarities to those conducted in Rome: a procession of the Galli priests accompanied by loud music. The women in the audience become “frenzied and frantic”. The Galli slice their arms with knives and whip each other on their backs. Lucian comments that sometimes men in the audience are so swept up in the emotion that they castrate themselves on the spot (Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, 43, 50-51)

The 19th Century religious pseudo-historian Samuel F. Dunlap says of the Galli, “The priests and the Galli, dressed like women, with turbans, appear in a band. One who surpasses all in the tonsure begins to prophesy with sighing and groaning; he publicly laments for the sins he has committed, which he will now punish by chastisement of the flesh. He takes the knotty scourge which the Galli are accustomed to carry, whips his back, cuts himself with swords until the blood runs down. The whole ends by taking up a collection [of coins]. Copper and silver coins are flung into their lap; some give wine, milk, cheese, [or] flour, which are eagerly carried off” (Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 42).

Alright, I think I’ve talked enough about those people. What else do we know about the Feast of Cybele? In truth, once all of the sensationalist information about the Galli has been dispensed with, the answer is “not much”. We know that offerings of salad, herbs, and cheese were made to the goddess (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 4), and we know that the games held in her honor lasted for seven days. On the last day, April 10, a chariot race dedicated to the goddess Cybele was held at the Circus Maximus, bringing the Ludi Megalenses to an end (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 10).

Sources:

  • Dunlap, Samuel Fales. Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861.

April 1 – The Feast of Venus, Changer of Hearts

April is the month of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and April 1 was one of several days in the Roman calendar dedicated to her. April is also the month of Apru, the Etruscan goddess of love; her name is an Etruscan version of “Aphrodite”. It’s possible that the ancient Romans were influenced by this when it came to ascribing months to different deities in their pantheon (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, introduction; “Linguistic musings: Adur, Apru and Aphrodite”).

The poet Ovid, being an ardent admirer of Venus, has a lot to say about this day…

“No season is more fitting for Venus than Spring: In spring the earth gleams: in spring the ground’s soft, now the grass pokes its tips through the broken soil, now the vine bursts in buds through the swollen bark. And lovely Venus deserves the lovely season, and is joined again to her darling Mars: In Spring she tells the curving ships to sail, over her native seas, and fear the winter’s threat no longer” (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, introduction).

“They say Spring was named from the open (apertum) season, because Spring opens (aperit) everything and the sharp frost-bound cold vanishes, and fertile soil’s revealed, though kind Venus sets her hand there and claims it. She rules the whole world too, and truly deserves to: she owns a realm not inferior to any god’s, commands earth and heaven, and her native ocean, and maintains all beings from her source. She created the gods (too numerous to mention): she gave the crops and trees their first roots: she brought the crude minds of men together, and taught them each to associate with a partner. What but sweet pleasure creates all the race of birds? Cattle wouldn’t mate, if gentle love were absent. The wild ram butts the males with his horn, but won’t hurt the brow of his beloved ewe. The bull, that the woods and pastures fear, puts off his fierceness and follows the heifer. The same force preserves whatever lives in the deep, and fills the waters with innumerable fish. That force first stripped man of his wild apparel: From it he learned refinement and elegance” (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, introduction).

In archaic times, the Sibyl of Cumae ordered that a temple dedicated to Venus ought to be built. In accordance with the oracle’s order, the temple was constructed and officially opened on April 1. From then on, April 1 was a day dedicated to the worship of Venus. Her specific title that was invoked on this day was Venus Verticordia, “Venus the Changer of Hearts”. On this day, the marble statue of Venus that was housed within the temple was carefully cleaned and fresh flowers were laid around it (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 1).

“Perform the rites of the goddess, Roman brides and mothers, and you who must not wear the headbands and long robes. Remove the golden necklaces from her marble neck, remove her riches: the goddess must be cleansed, complete. Return the gold necklaces to her neck, once it’s dry: Now she’s given fresh flowers, and new-sprung roses. She commands you too to bathe, under the green myrtle…Learn now why you offer incense to Fortuna Virilis, in that place that steams with heated water. All women remove their clothes on entering, and every blemish on their bodies is seen: Virile Fortune undertakes to hide those from the men, and she does this at the behest of a little incense. Don’t begrudge her poppies, crushed in creamy milk and in flowing honey, squeezed from the comb: When Venus was first led to her eager spouse, she drank so: and from that moment was a bride. Please her with words of supplication: beauty, virtue, and good repute are in her keeping” (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 1).

Plutarch also states that on April 1, great quantities of wine were poured around Venus’ temple. This ritual has its foundations in early Roman mythology as Plutarch explains:

“Mezentius, general of the Etruscans, sent to Aeneas and offered peace on condition of his receiving the year’s vintage? But when Aeneas refused, Mezentius promised his Etruscans that when he had prevailed in battle, he would give them the wine. Aeneas learned of his promise and consecrated the wine to the gods, and after his victory he collected all the vintage and poured it out in front of the temple of Venus” (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #45).

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March 31 – The Feast of the Moon

March 31 was the day held in honor of Luna, the divine personification of the Moon. As Ovid says, “The Moon rules the months: this month’s span ends with the worship of the Moon on the Aventine Hill” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 31).

Luna was depicted as wearing a dark cloak festooned with stars, and on her head was a tiara with the emblem of the moon on it. Her chariot was pulled by two white horses (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, April 5; “Roman Moon Goddess”).

The reason why March 31 is held in honor of the moon goddess is because this was the day that a temple dedicated to her was officially opened. The Temple of Luna, or Aedes Lunae, was located on the Aventine Hill near or next-door to the temples of Diana, Minerva, and Ceres. The first temple to Luna was built by King Servius Tullius and stood for the next 600 years in one form or another until the reign of Emperor Nero, when it was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome in the year 64 AD. It was never rebuilt (Lawrence Richardson, Jr., A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Page 238; “Roman Moon Goddess”).

Sources: