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Morrolepis

The Morrison Formation of the western United States is one of the most famous deposits of late Jurassic strata anywhere in the world. It is here that dinosaur fossils from famous species like Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus, and others were discovered and continue to be uncovered by paleontologists to this day. While the Morrison Formation is world-renowned for its superb dinosaur fossils, this landscape was home to many other species that dwelt here 150 million years ago. In addition to dinosaurs, fossils of pterosaurs, crocodiles, lizards, turtles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates have also been uncovered.

As you can see from the above list, there are many aquatic or semi-aquatic animals that are mentioned. This may sound bizarre because, as anyone who has even a vague knowledge of the Morrison Formation knows, this landscape was arid and dry for much of the year during the late Jurassic; click here for a video that talks about this. However, since fossilization is most likely to occur in areas that are prone to flodding, it would make sense that many of the fossils that we find come from creatues that made their homes in and around the water.

One of those creatures was Morrolepis, one of the fish species that lived in western North America during the Late Jurassic. Morrolepis belonged to a group of primitive fish called the palaeoniscoids, which superficially resemble something that you’d find in the deep ocean – very large eyes, short snout, big mouth, big snaggly teeth, and a general appearance that can be best described as “prehistoric”. The creature was officially named Morrolepis schaefferi in 1998 by Jim Kirkland, although there are other species of this genus that have been found elsewhere, noteably in Europe. This creature only measured eight inches long, far larger than its contemprary, the minnow-sized Hulettia, but at the same time it was far smaller than its other major contemporary, the three-foot-long lungfish Ceratodus. By the way, lungfish were the most common fish found in the Morrison Formation. Being able to breathe when you’re out of water is very helpful if you live in a landscape that has a long dry season and is prone to droughts.

We know quite a bit about Morrolepis’ anatomy based upon the fossils that have been uncovered, but how would it have lived? We know from geology that Morrolepis’ remains were found inland. Therefore, it was not a marine species, but was instead a freshwater species. The Morrison Formation was, as said before, a largely dry area, but there were a few places where there were permanent sources of fresh water. The landscape was mostly flat, and rivers that flow through flat terrain usually flow very slowly because the incline of the land is barely noticeable. Moreover, flat-land rivers tend to be very wide but very shallow, unless they happen to be cutting through a gorge or ravine. So, it appears that Morrolepis was at home in standing or slow-moving water, such as ponds, lakes, and slow-moving rivers. Water bodies that are standing or slow-moving usually have a lot of aquatic vegetation. This is because seeds and spores of aquatic plants have a better chance of taking root and growing because the current won’t sweep them away, like in faster-moving streams and rivers. Therefore, in water bodies such as this, there is a sufficient amount of aquatic plants and algae. In some circumstances, the water might appear to be green due to the heavy concentration of algae (visit Kissena Park in Queens, New York if you don’t believe me; the lake there looks like pea soup). So, what we have so far is a slow-moving river that is wide but shallow, and probably has a fair amount of aquatic vegetation in it – ambush country.

Predatory fish that live in this type of environment are almost exclusively ambush predators, waiting under cover for prey to pass by too close, and then suddenly lunging forward and gobbling them up. Morrolepis had large eyes set close to the front of the head, ideal for spotting its prey. Also, if the water was indeed so thick with algae that it appeared to be dyed green, visibility would be very low. Large eyes would compensate for the murky water. A large mouth lined with noiceably long spiky teeth would seem to be a good go-to method for swallowing down small prey in water that had low visibility. With a gaping maw like that, even if your aim was not 100% accurate, you still stood a fair chance of catching your victim anyway. Unlike other palaeoniscoid fish, Morrolepis is distinctive for having large fins (most palaeoniscoids have small fins in proportion to body size), with the dorsal fin and the anal fin set back much closer towards the tail than in its relatives. Morrolepis’ tail was asymmetrical, resembling the tail of a sturgeon or a shark. In fact, the whole animal sort of resembles a modern deep sea shark in terms of its general body plan. Morrolepis appears to have had the body plan of a hoverer or a slow cruiser, being able to use its large tail for a powerful forward thrust. This is a feature of ambush predators like pikes and gars. As an interesting coincidence, the fish’s body was covered in rows of thick gar-like scales. However, there is no evidence that the palaeoniscoids were related to gars.

Due to the environment that it lived in, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to imagine that Morrolepis was patterned in blotches or wavy stripes, and presumably would have been colored in various shades of tan, brown, and green to camouflage it in the murky muddy water and match the surrounding submerged vegetation.

I like to imagine Morrolepis as an ambush predator with good eyesight, and was likely covered in stripy or blotchy brown/green camouflage, which inhabited standing or slow-moving bodies of water. Below is a drawing that I have made of this creature. This illustration was made after consulting numerous photographs and scientific illustrations of Morrolepis fossils and comparing them with fossils of other palaeoniscoid fish. The drawing was made with a fine-tip black marker and colored pencils. Please provide any commentary or feedback below.

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Harpactognathus

This is Harpactognathus, a rhamphorynchid pterosaur from the Morrison Formation of the late Jurassic Period. It was one of the largest, if not THE largest, pterosaurs that called the Morrison Formation home. Although it is only known from fragmentary remains, including a large chunk of its upper jaw, paleontologists believe that Harpactognathus had an 8-foot wingspan, making it the size of an eagle. As to how long it would be, that’s uncertain. Rhamphorynchids are known for having long tails, often ending in diamond-shaped or kite-shaped fins, which were likely brightly colored. Unfortunately, no remains of Harpactongathus’ tail have been found yet. Based upon the appearance of its skull, with long interlocking teeth resembling a Venus fly trap, it is almost certain that Harpactognathus was a fish-eater.

There have been numerous comparisons made over the years between Late Jurassic North America and the modern-day African savanna. Therefore, I decided to portray Harpactognathus with a color scheme similar to the African Fishing Eagle. This drawing was made with a combination of No. 2 pencil, No. 3 pencil, colored pencils, and markers.

Liopleurodon

The middle to late 19th Century can arguably be seen as the glory days of paleontology. While this time frame is often associated with the discovery of dinosaurs and the so-called “Bone Wars” of the American West, discoveries were also being made elsewhere during this time and concerning the remains of prehistoric life other than those creatures that inhabit every child’s fantasies.

 

Europeans had known about the fossilized remains of prehistoric marine life ever since the Middle Ages. In the superstitious societies of those times, shells of prehistoric mollusks were often believed to be the nails and horns of devils. During the late 18th Century, grander discoveries were made, notably by the English paleontologist Mary Anning. Due to the impressive finds made by her and others, creatures like ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs made their entrance into our collective knowledge of life.

 

During the middle 1800s, some isolated teeth were discovered in northern France. In 1873, these teeth were ascribed the name Liopleurodon, meaning “smooth-sided tooth” by the French paleontologist and biologist Henri Émile Sauvage. It was evident that the teeth belonged to a large prehistoric marine reptile, and it was established that this creature belonged to a group known as the pliosaurs, which had been named by Sir Richard Owen in the 1840s. The pliosaurs were close relatives of their more famous long-necked plesiosaur cousins; in fact, pliosaurs are sometimes referred to as “short-necked plesiosaurs”. The pliosaurs had the same general body plan as their plesiosaur relatives – a rounded stocky body with four large flippers and a short tail – but they had short muscular necks and long crocodile-like heads which were very large in proportion with their bodies. The pliosaurs seem to have emerged during the early Jurassic Period, and quickly rose to be apex predators of their environment. Some species, such as the eponymous Pliosaurus and its cousin Kronosaurus grew to be some of the largest marine reptiles in Earth’s history, with their size commonly stated to be 40 feet long, just as big as Tyrannosaurus rex.

 

The remains of Liopleurodon have been found in Britain, France, and Germany within rocks dated to the middle Jurassic/late Jurassic boundary, approximately 165-155 million years ago. Phylogenic analysis suggests that it was an advanced member of the pliosaur family. However, it was only half the size of its gargantuan relatives. Only partial remains of this animal have been discovered so far, so it is difficult to gauge an accurate size. However, the most common size estimates for Liopleurodon are between 20 to 25 feet in length. Even though it wasn’t as big as Pliosaurus or Kronosaurus, Liopleurodon was likely the top predator in the shallow sea that once covered Europe during the Jurassic Period.

 

Liopleurodon first came to my attention in 1994 when it was featured in issue #85 of Dinosaurs! magazine. In the article, it was mistakenly stated that it grew to be 39 feet (12 meters) long, a much larger size than the one it was likely in life. It was also portrayed, remarkably, as being mostly toothless except for a crescent of curved fangs extending from the front of both jaws.

 

Liopleurodon afterwards came to mass public attention when it was featured in episode 3 of the BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs. In this TV show, the creature bears only a general resemblance to the real animal. Firstly, there was a drastic difference in size. As said earlier, many paleontologists think that Liopleurodon had a maximum size of 25 feet, but within the television series, Liopleurodon was portrayed as being three times larger, measuring 80 feet long, a truly gargantuan size indeed! This inflated size estimate was based upon a single fragmentary specimen uncovered in Mexico which was attributed to Liopleurodon and was believed to represent a gigantic individual. Although the evidence was flimsy, the producers took this as a cue and exaggerated Liopleurodon’s size to absurd proportions, claiming that it was the largest marine reptile that ever lived – it wasn’t. Secondly, the head was the wrong shape, with it being given a much more curvaceous high-arched skull. In reality, the skull was much lower and flatter. Thirdly, the body proportions were incorrect. It was stated in the episode that Liopleurodon’s head measured one-fourth the total length of its body. However, an article from 2003 stated that it was likely that the head measured one-fifth the total length of its body. This would have made its head seem somewhat smaller in relation to its body.

 

A reconstructed Liopleurodon skeleton can be seen in the Museum of Paleontology in Tübingen, Germany – you can see a photo of it here. Granted, much of the skeleton is fictitious, since only partial remains of Liopleurodon have been found in Europe, so the blank spaces were filled in with reconstructions based upon what we know about pliosaur anatomy. The first thing that one is struck by is that it is obviously much, much smaller than the size given in Walking With Dinosaurs. The skull is also much flatter than you would expect. This might be due to compression caused by the fossilization process rather than being an accurate portrayal of its natural appearance. However, there are other pliosaur species that have flat crocodilian-like skulls, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. The front teeth in both jaws are enormous, while the majority of teeth that line its mouth were only one-half or one-third the size of the front teeth, and most of them are missing. This is probably the reason why Liopleurodon was portrayed as having only front teeth in a largely toothless mouth in the Dinosaurs! article. The front end of the lower jaw is noticeably spoon or scoop-shaped – it is pronounced in relation to the rest of the dentary bone, and it has an obvious upward swoop. Like the 2003 article states, the head isn’t as large in proportion with the rest of the body as the BBC series showed. The neck is longer, and it has a much more pot-bellied barrel chest. All in all, this looks very little like its representation in Walking With Dinosaurs. Given the character’s well-known imagery from that show, you might be forgiven in thinking that the specimen on display was actually a completely different species.

 

Finally comes the issue of color. Ever since its appearance on Walking With Dinosaurs, reconstructions of Liopleurodon, either two-dimensional images or rendered into three-dimensional sculptures and toys, have portrayed it with a piebald black-and-white color pattern. While the repeated use of this color scheme may seem to be becoming over-used to the point of being trite, there may be scientific foundation to it, since it was claimed in a scientific study that prehistoric marine reptiles were probably darkly-colored in order to absorb as much heat as possible. Furthermore, this color pattern has become widely recognizable as the most identifiable and therefore definitive Liopleurodon appearance, and this motif is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

 

Seeing this reconstructed skeleton left an impression on me, and I decided to make a series of illustrations of what Liopleurodon would have looked like in real life. In contrast to my usual style, which is highly detailed and would take me weeks or even months to finish, I decided to knock out a few quick black-and-white line drawings made with an ordinary black ballpoint pen.

 

First is a basic line drawing showing how Liopleurodon would look as it swam through the Jurassic ocean.

Second is another line drawing showing the iconic Walking With Dinosaurs color pattern, rendered to look like something that you’d see in a coloring book.

Finally is a colorized portrayal showing the classic black-and-white piebald color pattern.

I realize that these pictures may not be what you’d expect, especially given our engrained perceptions of what we think Liopleurodon ought to look like based upon its appearance in WWD, but holy heck, look at the size of those front teeth!!! It looks like something out of a nightmarish Wayne Barlowe painting! I hope you enjoy these pictures. Please like and leave any comments below.

August 3 – “Woe to the Vanquished”

On August 3, 390 BC, the unthinkable happened – the city of Rome fell to the barbarians. But first, some background information…

 

After a ten year long civil war, the Roman Republic was officially created in 499 BC. Ever since then, the Romans had been fighting a series of wars in central Italy against their Latin, Italic, and Etruscan neighbors. However, in the summer of 390 BC, they faced off against an enemy that they had never encountered before – the Celts.

 

The Celts were a collection of tribes that appear to have originated in what is now Austria. By the early 4th Century BC, they had spread and had become the dominant culture throughout much of western and central Europe. They had even crossed the Alps and had occupied all of the territory north of the Po River.

 

The Etruscan city-state of Clusium, which lay a hundred miles north of Rome, was under threat from the Celts. Although the Etruscans and Romans had been enemies for many years, the Etruscans feared these northern newcomers far more than the Romans, and so they decided to send a message to Rome asking for help.

 

However, the Republic was wary. They were still very conscious that they had formerly been under Etruscan rule and that the Etruscans had a century earlier assisted the monarchist forces during Rome’s civil war to overthrow the Tarquin Dynasty. Furthermore, Rome had been fighting wars against the various Etruscan city-states for many years, and had only recently emerged victorious in one such conflict. They were not going to suddenly change direction and extend the hand of friendship to their enemy. However, the officials in Rome were curious about who these strange northerners were, so they sent a delegation to Clusium to see if a peaceful settlement could be brokered between the warring sides, and also to gather as much intelligence on these foreigners as they could.

 

When the Roman envoys arrived, it soon became clear that the Celts had no interest in negotiating. Scarcely had the meeting began when they demanded to the Romans that land in central Italy should be handed over to them or else face the consequences. The emissaries were taken aback by this – nobody made demands to the Roman Republic. Things quickly turned ugly. An argument ensued which rapidly became heated, and in a flush of rage, one of the Roman envoys struck one of the Celtic warriors with a blow so hard that it killed him. Realizing that their own lives were now in danger, the envoys raced back to Rome.

 

Chief Brennus, the leader of the Celts, sent a message to the Senate demanding that the murderer should be delivered up to them to be punished, but the Senate refused. Fueled by anger and indignation, the Celts raced southwards with the cry “To Rome! To Rome!”

 

The Republic hastily cobbled together an army with the goal of intercepting and defeating the Celtic horde before it got close to the city. However, the majority of the troops that were called up were not professionally-trained veteran soldiers, but were instead hastily-trained draftees. Some of them hadn’t even done weapon drills yet when they marched out.

 

On July 18, 390 BC, the two sides met just eleven miles north of Rome along the banks of the Allia River. The Celtic and Roman forces were more-or-less evenly matched in size, but the Romans force was mostly made of new poorly-trained recruits while the Celtic force was made up of battle-hardened warriors. The Romans took up a defensive position, but they didn’t bother to build defensive barricades, and they also spread their forces out in a long thin line to protect against being out-flanked. However, this made them very susceptible to a heavy-scale head-on charge, especially if such a frontal attack was directed at just one spot on that thin line of men.

 

At the Battle of the Allia River, the Romans fought their first battle against the Celts and lost. The battle itself was a chaotic mess, and the army of the Roman Republic was thoroughly crushed and routed by Chief Brennus’ Gallic warriors. Some of the survivors fled back to Rome, others fled to the nearby town of Veii, while the remainder of the survivors hunkered down in a nearby forest for the next three days. The Celts eventually gave up hunting for the refugees and turned their full attention upon Rome itself.

 

When the fleeing troops that returned to Rome reported the disaster, the people were gripped with panic and terror. The Celts were following them, and they would be arriving outside the city within a matter of hours. They realized that they did not have enough strength to adequately defend the whole city, so it was decided to make a stand at the city’s central defensive position – the citadel located atop the Capitoline Hill. Other people simply abandoned Rome entirely and fled elsewhere, believing that the city was doomed to fall to the barbarians regardless of whatever defenses may be mustered against them.

 

By the evening of the 18th, the Celts arrived outside the city. However, the decided to wait until the following morning to launch their attack. On the 19th, the Celts advanced. The gate was open and unguarded, and they cautiously advanced through the city’s wards. Resistance was miniscule, and the Celts went on a looting rampage, plundering the people’s houses and then setting them on fire. Still, the Celts did not attack the fortified center of the city. For the next two weeks, the Celts besieged the citadel with little success.

 

Meanwhile, the Roman troops who had fled to Veii after the disaster at the Allia River began to rally together to form a counter-attack. However, this force was delayed in striking the Celtic rear because they had to contend with the Etruscans once again. Veii had once been an Etruscan town, and now that the Romans were weakened, the Etruscans saw this as an opportunity to strike and take the town back. This attack failed, but it did delay the Roman reinforcements. A messenger was dispatched to Rome to let the Senate know that reinforcements were coming. This person knew a secret way to scale up the steep cliffs that formed one side of the Capitoline’s citadel. Unfortunately, this method of accessing the citadel was discovered soon afterwards by the Celts.

 

On August 3, after laying siege to the citadel for two weeks, the Celts ascended the cliff under the cover of darkness. The guards who had been posted did not notice their approach, and the watch dogs were all asleep. However, a flock of geese which were present sounded the alarm by loudly honking, and this is what alerted the Romans to the enemy presence. The defenders rushed to repel the attackers, who were driven off with great force.

 

However, this last-minute victory was short-lived. By now, people on both sides were suffering from hunger, disease, and heat sickness, and a ceasefire was called. Representatives from the two sides met to discuss the surrender terms for the city’s defenses. Chief Brennus demanded that the Romans pay him 2,000 pounds-weight of gold in order to encourage his warriors to leave. A set of giant scales was set up in the open, but the Gauls cheated by using heavier weights. When the Romans protested at this, saying that he was violating the terms of the agreement by making the Romans pay more money than what they had agreed to, he answered this simply by adding even more weight onto the scale, in this case by dropping his own sword onto the balance. With this, Chief Brennus uttered the Latin words “Vae victis”, which means “Woe to the vanquished”.

 

It would turn out that Brennus could not bask in his glory for long. Word soon arrived that his lands were under attack by neighboring tribes, and his warriors had to return home. To the Romans, the fall of their city was a crushing gut-check moment, and it would be forever scared not only onto their history but also onto their psyche. From that moment on, the northern barbarian was their most hated and feared enemy.

 

In later years, the events which occurred on the night of August 3 were marked by a macabre ritual enacted by the Romans on the third of August for years afterwards: the Supplicia Canum, which means “the Begging of the Dogs”. As a punishment for allowing the Gauls to enter the city because they were not being attentive enough, the Romans would take all of the stray dogs that they found in the city, crucify them alive, and carry them in a solemn procession through the streets. The name refers to the idea that as the unfortunate animals howled and shrieked in pain as they were cursed at by the Roman people lining the sides of the roads, they were actually begging for forgiveness for falling asleep on guard duty rather than protecting their masters. Perhaps the unearthly sound also conjured up something of the melancholy wailing of the souls in the Underworld who perished at the Gauls’ hands. Meanwhile, the holy geese who did raise the alarm cry were carried around on a golden litter draped with purple, and were praised and honored by all who saw them.

 

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 you wanted to fight in order to assert their right. 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 to 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).

 

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

 

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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).

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”).

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Tyrannosaurus rex juvenile, two years old

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