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May 14 – The Sacrifice of the Argei

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

 

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

 

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

 

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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).

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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”).

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Tyrannosaurus rex juvenile, two years old

Tyrannosaurus rex juvenile, two years old. Drawn with No. 2 pencil on printer paper.

March 25 – The Hilaria: The Festival of Joy

As a famous ancient Roman proverb says, “Don’t worry, be happy”. Well, not really, but that was the general feeling in Rome every March 25th. Why? Because this was the date of a festival called the Hilaria. If this word looks similar to “hilarious”, you wouldn’t be that far off. The word Hilaria means “the cheerful times”, although I think that it could be better translated as “the Festival of Joy”, the reasons for which I shall explain further on. It was a day dedicated to the goddess Cybele, and it was described as a feria stativa, meaning that there was to be no work this day. The courts were closed, shops were shut, school was cancelled, and everybody was given the welcomed luxury of having a day off (“Origins of April Fools Day”; “Hilaria”).

Flavius Vopiscus says that at the Hilaria festival, “everything that is said and done should be of a joyous nature” (Flavius Vopiscus, Historia Augusta, Book 25 – “The Life of Aurelian”, chapter 1). Certainly the children had cause to be joyous with class cancelled for the day, but why was this day in particular supposed to be one where happiness reigned? According to Roman mythology, March 25 was the day of the resurrection of Cybele’s lover Attis after being dead for three days – does this sound familiar? To Catholic Christians, a festival taking place in early Spring dedicated to the resurrection of a divine being who had been dead for the past three days should ring a bell.

So, let’s party! Everyone was required to be in a good mood on this day. No kill-joys or wet blankets were allowed to bring down everybody’s upbeat feelings, and certainly no arguing or fighting. The Hilaria was a public street fair full of dancing and music. A statue of the goddess Cybele was carried in procession through the streets accompanied by numerous banners, artwork, flower garlands, and precious jewels. Incense was given away for free to anyone who wanted some. People dressed in masks and costumes, and danced and partied all along the way. Picture a combination of Saint Patrick’s Day, Easter, the Indian festival of Holi, the Gaelic festival of Wren Day, and the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, and that should give you a good idea of what the day’s festivities were like (Flavius Vopiscus, Historia Augusta, Book 25 – “The Life of Aurelian”, chapter 1; Herodian of Antioch, History of the Roman Empire, book 1, chapter 10, verse 5; book 1, chapter 11, verse 1).

Our best description of the activities that took place at the Hilaria are found in the writings of Herodian of Antioch. In his History of the Roman Empire, he explains…

“Every year, on a set day at the beginning of spring, the Romans celebrate a festival in honor of the mother of the gods [Cybele]. All the valuable trappings of each deity, the imperial treasures, and marvelous objects of all kinds, both natural and man-made, are carried in procession before this goddess. Free license for every kind of revelry is granted, and each man assumes the disguise of his choice. No office is so important or so sacrosanct that permission is refused anyone to put on its distinctive uniform and join in the revelry, concealing his true identity; consequently, it is not easy to distinguish the true from the false” (Herodian of Antioch, History of the Roman Empire, book 1, chapter 10, verse 5).

“As we have discovered by research, the Romans are devoted to this goddess for the following reason – a reason which it seems worth while to relate here, since it is unknown to some of the Greeks. They say that this statue of the goddess fell from the sky; the exact material of the statue is not known, nor the identity of the artists who made it; in fact, it is not certain that the statue was the work of human hands. Long ago it fell from the sky in Phrygia (the name of the region where it fell is Pessinus, which received its name from the fall of the heavenly statue); the statue was discovered there” (Herodian of Antioch, History of the Roman Empire, book 1, chapter 11, verse 1).

Another person who provides some rather questionable information regarding this day is the 19th Century writer Samuel F. Dunlap. His pseudo-academic ramblings on religious conspiracy theories remind me of the sort of thing that you’d see nowadays on the History Channel or in a supermarket tabloid, so his words need to be taken with an entire barrel of salt. He essentially claimed that Jesus went through several manifestations in human history, not just one, including the god Hermes, the hero Hercules, and the mythical figure of Attis or Adoni. In spite of his weird rantings, he does provide a few small snippits of info, though where he got this information from isn’t clear, and personally I think he made it up. In his book Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni, he says that the Hilaria was a resurrection festival dedicated to the Unconquered Sun, also known as Bromius the god of joy, who was the divine son of the sky god and the virgin daughter of the Phoenician hero Cadmus. On this day, people scattered violet flowers on the earth and put flowers in their hair, and there was plenty of flute-playing and singing (Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Pages 127, 129). I can’t say much for Dunlap’s logic, but I can definitely see the Romans tossing flower petals around and putting flowers in their hair while singing and dancing to flute music.

I’d like to conclude this article with the following: Somebody (I can’t remember who) once said “In order to be sane, you need to go insane once in a while”. So lighten up, loosen up, and cheer up. Life’s short and it should be enjoyed as much as possible during the time that you have.

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March 23 – The Tubilustrium: Hear the Trumpet’s Call

March 23 was the date for an ancient Roman festival called the Tubilustrium. This was a day of important social and military significance, because it was the mustering day for the Roman Army, and was the official beginning of the military campaigning season.

As Marcus Terentius Varro explains, “The Tubilustrium ‘Purification of the Trumpets’ is named from the fact that on this day the tubae ‘trumpets’ used in the ceremonies lustrantur ‘are purified’ in Shoemaker’s Hall” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 189).

The tuba (plural tubae) was the name that the Romans gave to what was a long straight thin tube made of brass with a small mouthpiece and a flared muzzle, similar to the stereotypical cartoon images that we have of a Pilgrim’s musket. (John Ziolkowski, “The Roman Bucina: A Distinct Musical Instrument?”. Historic Brass Society Journal (2002). Pages 31, 36).

The trumpets that were sanctified on March 23 weren’t just any old trumpets. It appears that these were specifically used only for religious rituals. They are referred to as tubicines sacrorum, “sacred trumpets”, and would have been used by the priests for many religious purposes. They were often played to initiate games and were played during parades, funerals, and sacrifices (John Ziolkowski, “The Roman Bucina: A Distinct Musical Instrument?”. Historic Brass Society Journal (2002). Pages 31, 36).

There were, apparently, three Tubilustria festivals, not one. One took place on either March 22 or 23 (of the two, March 23 is the more common date that’s given), another took place on May 23 (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 23), and yet another on June 11. However, I must state that aside from one mention by one modern source, I have not seen any mention of such a ritual occurring on June 11, so this might be an error (Henry T. Riley, The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic Epistles, Ibis, and Halieuticon of Ovid. London: Bell & Daldy, 1869. Page 209).

In an earlier post, I described how the Feast of Minerva on March 19 initiated a five-day celebration known as the Quinquatria, meaning “the Festival of Five Days”, which lasted from March 19 to 23. Legend says that it was clever Minerva who invented the war trumpet, hence this festival took place on the last day of the Quinquatria. In reference to the ritual that took place on March 23, which was the last day of the Quinquatria, Ovid states “The last day of the five [days] exhorts us to purify the tuneful trumpets, and sacrifice to the mighty god [Mars]”. The purification ritual took place at the Atrium Sutorum, “Hall of the Shoe-Makers”, and the trumpets were made pure with the sacrifice of a lamb (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 23; Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 129; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 64).

Concerning the festival held on May 23, Ovid states, “The next dawn belongs to Vulcan: they call it Tubilustria: when trumpets he makes are purified” (Ovid, Fasti, book 5, May 23). Henry Riley, who translated Ovid’s works during the 19th Century, stated that the Tubilustria were held in honor of the gods Mars and Vulcan, because it was crafty Vulcan who created the weapons of war upon his heavenly forge, and it was war-like Mars who put them to use in battle. Concerning the gods that were worshiped or honored at these festivals, it appears that the first Tubilustrium in late March was dedicated to Mars while the second festival in late May was dedicated to Vulcan; why this distinction existed isn’t clear (Henry T. Riley, The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic Epistles, Ibis, and Halieuticon of Ovid. London: Bell & Daldy, 1869. Page 209; Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 127).

March 23 and May 23 were necessary for purifying the religious trumpets because on the following days (March 24 and May 24 respectively) the Comitia Curiata met to sanction wills (William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899. Page 63).

As I mentioned earlier, these trumpets weren’t only used for religious reasons. Trumpets also had important military functions, usually for issuing commands upon the battlefield. Also, at the beginning of every campaign season, the troops were called to the assembly area by a blast of the trumpet or tuba in Latin. This this reason, March 23 marks the beginning of the year’s offensive. Upon their assembly into ranks, the army’s herald yelled out three times to the men assembled “Are you ready for war”, and in response three times, the men answered that they were (The Roman War Machine, episode 1; The Roman Way of War – “The Dacian Wars”).

March is the month of Mars, god of war. The battle trumpet calls men to their ranks. The army is assembled, the men stand armed and ready. The herald calls to them “Sons of Mars, are you ready for war?!”, and from their mouth come the thunderous roar “READY!!! READY!!! READY!!!”

As an added bonus, I discovered that there is a piece of classical music entitled “Tubilustrium”, written by the Estonian composer René Eespere. Here is the link to listen to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHSxaLVZfF4.

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March 19 – The Feast of Minerva

March 19 marked the beginning of the Quinquatria, “the Festival of Five Days”, spanning from March 19 to 23. This was a five day long celebration of the goddess Minerva, the Roman version of the Greek goddess Athena. She was a goddess of wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, cleverness, wit, strategy, creativity, and artistic inspiration, and she served as the patron goddess of philosophers, writers, artists, musicians, doctors, and teachers. The festival was originally called the Quinquatrus, “the Fifth Day”, because it took place on the fifth day after the Ides of March (even though it’s actually four days). Later, this got changed to a five day festival and it was renamed the Quinquatria, “Five Days” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 187).

“The Quinquatrus: this day, though one only, is from a misunderstanding of the name observed as if there were five days in it. Just as the sixth day after the Ides is in similar fashion called the Sexatrus by the people of Tusculum, and the seventh day after is the Septimatrus, so this day was named here, in that the fifth day after the Ides was called the Quinquatrus” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 187, 189).

The main day of celebration was the first day, March 19, which served as the feast day of the goddess Minerva. Festus claims that the reason why Minerva’s feast day fell on March 19 was because this was the day that her temple on the Aventine Hill was consecrated. Religious law dictated that no blood could be shed on March 19. Therefore, there were no hunts, no animal butchering, no preparing of meat, no gladiator fights, and no physical harm done to anyone. However, there were gladiatorial games for the four days afterwards (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 19). Women also consulted sooth-sayers and fortune-tellers on this day. As a protector goddess, women were understandably anxious about the fate of themselves and their families (“Quinquatrus or Quinquatria”).

The Feast of Minerva was a day dedicated to creativity and the arts. It was a special day for artists and craftsmen, a day to let their muse truly shine. As Ovid states…

“Pray now you boys and tender girls to Pallas [“the Protector”, a title given to the Greek goddess Athena, and adopted by the Romans for Minerva]. He who can truly please Pallas is learned. Pleasing Pallas let girls learn to card wool, and how to unwind the full distaff. She shows how to draw the shuttle through the firm warp, and close up loose threads with the comb. Worship her, you who remove stains from damaged clothes, worship her, you who ready bronze cauldrons for fleeces. If Pallas frowns, no one could make good shoes, even if he were more skilled than Tychius. And even if he were cleverer with his hands than Epeus once was, he’ll be useless if Pallas is angry. You too who drive away ills with Apollo’s art, bring a few gifts of your own for the goddess. And don’t scorn her, you schoolmasters, a tribe so often cheated of its pay. She attracts new pupils. Nor you engravers, and painters with encaustics, nor you who carve the stone with a skillful hand. She’s the goddess of a thousand things, and song for sure. If I’m worthy may she be a friend to my endeavours. Where the Caelian Hill slopes down to the plain, at the point where the street’s almost, but not quite, level, you can see the little shrine of Minerva Capta, which the goddess first occupied on her birthday. The source of the name is doubtful: we speak of ‘Capital’ ingenuity; the goddess is herself ingenious. Or is it because, motherless, she leapt, with a shield from the crown of her father’s head (caput)? Or because she came to us as a ‘captive’ from the conquest of Falerii? This, an ancient inscription claims. Or because her law ordains ‘capital’ punishment for receiving things stolen from that place? By whatever logic your title’s derived, Pallas, shield our leaders with your aegis forever” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 19).

According to the historian Suetonius, the emperor Domitian took the Feast of Minerva very seriously; it was one of his favorite holidays…

“He celebrated the Quinquatria too every year in honour of Minerva at his Alban villa, and established for her a college of priests, from which men were chosen by lot to act as officers and give splendid shows of wild beasts and stage plays, besides holding contests in oratory and poetry” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 12, chapter 4)

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March 17 – The Feast of Mars

Today is March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day. While people all over the world celebrate everything that it means to be Irish, things would have been different two thousand years ago. Tradition states that Saint Patrick died on March 17, but we don’t know for sure if he did indeed die on this day, or was born on this day, or whatever. That being said, if Ireland’s patron saint really does have nothing to do with this particular day, then why did the Church place Patrick’s feast day on March 17? It was common practice among the Catholic Church to take pre-existing pagan holidays and give them a Christian spin in order to gain converts and to suppress previous religious beliefs.

So what was so important about March 17 that made the Catholic Church want to Christianize it? March 17 was important to the ancient Romans for three reasons. Firstly, this was the date of the Feast of Mars, the ancient Roman god of war. The god Mars actually had several days held in his honor (March 1, March 14, March 17, and March 23), but March 17 was regarded by the ancient Romans as THE feast day of their god of battles. Secondly, March 17 was the date in which Roman adolescent boys ceremonially crossed the threshold of manhood. Picture an ancient Roman version of a bar mitzvah, and you get the idea. Thirdly, March 17 was the day of the Liberalia, a festival dedicated to the spirit of freedom. “Liber” was one of the titles that was given to the god Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and celebration, and thus was a Roman parallel of the ancient Greek god Dionysus. Bacchus Liber was, therefore, the god of freedom, licentiousness, and unrestrained behavior. On this day, people were uninhibited by normal social conventions, and I imagine that the Catholic clergy would have been shocked by a lot of the casual care-free behavior of the revelers.

Let’s turn our attention first towards Mars. Most people who are familiar with Roman civilization are pretty confident that they know who Mars is – he’s the Roman god of war, the parallel of the ancient Greek war god Ares. However, it’s more complicated than that. For starters, Mars wasn’t even a Roman god – he was an Etruscan god named Maris that the Romans adopted into their pantheon. Secondly, he wasn’t a war god, not at first anyway, but he gradually became associated with that role. I think I can explain it better here…

“Perhaps the god most identified with Rome was the war-god Mars, since Mars was the father of Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome. Originally a god of fertility and agriculture, based upon the Etruscan god Maris, he slowly became a war god, which may be due in part to his duty as a protector of fields and pastures – in other words, he guarded the homeland. As Rome’s borders expanded due to the frequent wars against its neighbours, the homeland expanded with it, and Mars’ job as a guardian of Roman soil took on greater importance until he became a full-fledged god of battles” (Jason R. Abdale, Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, Second Edition. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2016. Page 6).

Now that we know Mars’ background, let’s survey the rituals that are associated with his feast day on March 17. For many of my posts, I have used Ovid as a key reference because his book Fasti concerns explanations of key events in the Roman calendar; he regrettably died before he was able to complete it. You would think that the worship of one of the Roman pantheon’s main gods would be a focus of particular interest for him. However, intriguingly and puzzlingly, Ovid makes no mention whatsoever in his Fasti of any significance that March 17 held for the war god Mars. Instead, we have received most of our information concerning Mars’ feast day from the writings of Plutarch and Marcus Terentius Varro.

March 17 was the day of the Agonalia of Mars. In a previous post, I explained than an agonalia was a holy day in which live animal sacrifices were conducted, usually a ram. So we already know from the name given to this ritual that a ram would be sacrificed to Mars at some point during the day. I find it an interesting coincidence that the astrological sign of the ram is Aries, which is similar to the name of the ancient Greek war god Ares, which many regard as a synonym of Mars.

Plutarch provides us with the most information regarding the rituals of the Agonalia of Mars. In his work The Life of Numa Pompilius, he describes the rituals that were practiced by the priests of Mars. Numa Pompilius was one of the fabled kings of Rome, and his claim to notoriety was that he invented many of Rome’s religious practices. One of these was the establishment of a priesthood dedicated to the worship of the god Mars. This was the Salian Order, derived from the Latin verb salit meaning “to jump or leap”. So they were, literally, the Leaping Priests. Please restrain yourself from making any Blackadder jokes about the Jumping Jews of Jerusalem.

The celebrations opened with the entry procession of the priests. Leading the way was the high priest of Mars, the Flamen Martialis, who carries the sacred Spear of Mars. Behind him are twelve priests of the Salian Order, garbed in short purple cloaks, a broad belt studded with brass, a metal helmet with a chinstrap and capped with a metal spike, and they carry a dagger and a bronze ancilia shield. The shield itself was curvilinear, almost like a figure eight. Look at the Battersea Shield, and you get an idea of what it looked like. As these men advance, the Salians leap and dance, striking their daggers against their shields and chanting out songs. From the description, it almost sounds like something tribal, and one gets the idea that this might have been a very archaic ritual that was performed by the primitive inhabitants of Italy centuries before this (Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius, chapter 13).

Speaking of archaic things, we have some information about the song that these twelve priests chanted. The Carmen Saliare, also known as the Carmine Saliorum, was a chant sung by the Salian Priests on this day. Written in Archaic Latin (that is to say, a very primitive form of Latin), only a couple of fragments have survived, recorded by Marcus Terentius Varro in his book De Lingua Latina, “On the Latin Language”…

Cozevi oborieso. Omnia vero ad Patulc[ium] commisse[i]. Ianeus iam es, duonus Cerus es, du[o]nus Ianus. Ven[i]es po[tissimu]m melios eum recum…Divum em pa cante, divum deo supplicate”.

“O Planter God, arise. Everything indeed have I committed unto (thee as) the Opener. Now art thou the Doorkeeper, thou art the Good Creator, the Good God of Beginnings. Thou’lt come especially, thou the superior of these kings… Sing ye to the Father of the Gods, entreat the God of Gods” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 7, verses 26 and 27. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 292-295).

Remember that I had mentioned earlier that Mars started off as an agriculture god and gradually became associated with warfare? Invoking him as “Planter God” is a reference to this. Anyway, back to our description of the Agonalia ritual. After the entrance procession has ended, the priest offer prayers to Mars, and then they sacrifice a white ram to him – sacrificial victims were almost always colored white.

So much for the holy rites offered to Mars. Now let us turn our attention to the ritual of coming-of-age and of the ceremonies held in honor of Bacchus. The two of these are related, or perhaps the transition from boy to man is in relation to the feast of Mars, which seems more likely. Ovid himself was uncertain as to why the ceremony of manhood was held on this day. One hypothetical explanation that he gave was that since today was the day of freedom, graduating from a boy to man granted you freedoms that you didn’t have as a child (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17).

Once you turned 16 or so, the boy would take off his bulla, the small leather pouch that hung around his neck which held good luck charms (note the strong similarity here to the customs of some of the Native American tribes, in which a “medicine pouch” was carried with them for protection and strength). Now that he was no longer a child, he would not need these things to keep him safe. The gods had safeguarded him through his youth. Now, he was a man, and he would have to look out for his own well-being. He then put on the toga virilis, “the toga of manhood” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17). As recognized adults, they were now eligible for military service. No wonder that the Liberalia and the Feast of Mars occurred on the same day.

Now that he had graduated to manhood, it was time to party. On March 17, a feast was held dedicated to Bacchus. The festival may have had its origins in ancient Greece. “In March the Greeks celebrated the FEAST OF BACCHUS and carried his statue to a temple in the Keramicus” (Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 127).

The poet Ovid hails Bacchus’s feast, one dedicated to the spirit of Liberty:

“Liber (the god or spirit of freedom), before your birth the altars were without offerings, and grass appeared on the stone-cold hearths. They tell how you set aside the first fruits for Jupiter, after subduing the Ganges region, and the whole of the East. You were the first to offer up cinnamon and incense from conquered lands, and the roast entrails of triumphal oxen. Libations derive their name from their originator, and cake (liba) since a part is offered on the sacred hearth. Honey-cakes are baked for the god, because he delights in sweet substances, and they say that Bacchus discovered honey… Father Liber loves honey: its right to offer its discoverer glittering honey diffused through oven-warm cakes” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17).

The poet Ovid goes into considerable length to describe the celebrations associated with Bacchus Liber. The person who presided over the day’s festivities was an old woman crowned with a wreath made of ivy leaves. In the past, but not in Ovid’s time, games were held in the city of Rome in honor of Bacchus; he further comments that the date of these games were moved to April 19, the date of the Cerealia, and the games themselves switched to being dedicated to the agriculture goddess Ceres. In reference to the story of Bacchus discovering honey, on March 17 vineyard owners would go into town to sell honey cakes to the people (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17). For the Romans, honey cakes was the food traditionally eaten on March 17, similar to the way that we often associate certain holidays with certain dishes, including corned beef, cabbage, Irish soda bread, and beer on Saint Patrick’s Day.

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March 16 – The Procession to the Argei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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