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Romans, though you’re guiltless, you’ll still expiate
your fathers’ sins, till you’ve restored the temples,
and the tumbling shrines of all the gods,
and their images, soiled with black smoke.
~Horace, Odes, III, 6; A. S. Kline trans.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Calendar for May

The first day of the month is the Kalends, sacred to Juno. The Nones falls on the 7th. The Ides, sacred to Jupiter, falls on the 15th.

The 2nd, 8th and 16th are unlucky (ater).

Festivals this month include:

  • Festival of the Bona Dea and Vinalia: 1st.
  • Lemuralia: 9th, 11th, 13th.
  • Mercuralia: 15th.
  • Agonalia: 21st.

My notes this month will focus on the Lemuralia.

While the month of April celebrates the generative power of Nature, an important theme in May is "safe continuity", keeping order in the world.
The Kalends of May saw an altar dedicated
To the Guardian Lares, with small statues of the gods.
Curius vowed them: but time destroys many things,
And the long ages wear away the stone.
The reason for their epithet of Guardian,
Is that they keep safe watch over everything.
They support us, and protect the City walls,
And they’re propitious, and bring us aid. (Ovid, Fasti, Book V, Kline trans.)
Romans were aware that they had a history; that important changes had happened since their origin-time. But they also found a thread of continuity through all the change.
The year was once shorter, the pious rites of purification, februa,
Were unknown, nor were you, two-faced Janus, leader of the months:
Yet they still brought gifts owed to the ashes of the dead,
The grandson paid respects to his buried grandfather’s tomb.
It was May month, named for our ancestors (maiores),
And a relic of the old custom still continues.
The Roman honor paid the ancestors in May reminds some of the American tradition of tending the graves of ancestors on Memorial Day, now a movable holiday at the end of May.

Kalends of May and the Lares:
The Kalends of May saw an altar dedicated
To the Guardian Lares, with small statues of the gods.
Curius vowed them: but time destroys many things,
And the long ages wear away the stone.

Lemuralia: The festival of the Lemuralia (or Lemuria) is among the most mysterious of the Roman festivals, but also one of the most resonant. Ovid, our major source for this festival, admits to confusion on several points. The month of May (says Ovid) might have been so-called after the ancestors (maiores). The name “Lemuria” was also a mystery, so the poet calls on Mercurius for an explanation. The story that is given is that the day was once called “Remuria” and it was an expiation for the death of Romulus' brother Remus. The story is not convincing, but it serves to re-enforce the notion, mentioned by Ovid elsewhere, that the festival of the Lemuria was an ancient one. The relationship of the Lemuria to the ancestor festivals of February worried Ovid. His solution was that the Lemuria predated them:
The year was once shorter, the pious rites of purification, februa,
Were unknown, nor were you, two-faced Janus, leader of the months:
Yet they still brought gifts owed to the ashes of the dead,
The grandson paid respects to his buried grandfather’s tomb. 

Romans of Ovid's day may have been confused about the origin and meaning of the Lemuria, but Ovid, at least, was clear about one central ritual. The paterfamilias would rise at midnight and go barefoot, making an apotropaic sign (perhaps that of the “fig”), cleanse himself (Ovid says “in clear spring water”) and perform the ritual. He would throw black beans “with averted face”, repeating a ritual formula nine times: “haec ego mitto redimo meque meosque fabis” (with these beans I throw I redeem me and mine). This was done while walking through the house “without looking back”. Then he touched water and beat a bronze gong (“sounds the Temesan bronze”), saying “manes exite paterni” (paternal spirits, depart), this too repeated nine times.

The number nine (the potent number three, multiplied by itself), the connection of beans and the color black with the “underworld”, the appearance of water in a liminal context all suggest that Ovid's attribution of antiquity is correct. These are common features shared by many cultures.

The article in “Smith's Dictionary” (s.v. “Lemuralia”) unfortunately truncates the ritual and so garbles the meaning. The paterfamilias rises at the liminal time of midnight, and protects himself apotropaically while making connection with the home (walking bare footed). The cleansing is the normal Roman concern for ritual purity, but it also marks the start of the ritual proper. The black beans themselves are not apotropaic (as Smith's Dictionary seems to suggest) but simply serve to attract any cthonic spirits. The formula is made potent by repetition and it detaches the spirits from any connection that may exist with any member of the familia (note that the paterfamilias also avoids “eye contact”). Having freed the spirits from any connections and having led them to the symbolic boundary of the water, they are discharged, again using a repeated formula. The expulsion is given additional force by using the noise of “clashing bronze”. The final formula does not necessarily refer to “ancestral” spirits. The word paternus (paternal) may simply be a euphemism, that is, calling potentially hostile spirits “paternal”, meaning “friendly”, as a way of suggesting (or controlling) their behavior.

The purpose of this ritual, then, is to enforce the boundary that is implicit in the Roman world-view; that humans and the Gods each have their own proper sphere of activity. This enforcement is explicitly confined to a class of spirits, the Dii Manes, and as is well known, these are the spirits of the dead. Perhaps we can imagine that to the Romans these were the Gods most likely to transgress the human/divine boundary and because of their origin as humans it was appropriate for humans to have a hand in their “management”. It should be noted that Dii Manes would include not only the Dii Parentes, but also others, for example, deceased children, members of the familia who were not blood relations and those whom had not been given a proper burial. In these ways, the Lemuria is distinguished from the Parentalia (February 13th).

If this interpretation is correct, it suggests that the Lemures are Dii Manes who are not malevolent, necessarily, but simply transgressive, for whatever reason.

The Lemuria is resonant for us today in part because it was on an early 7th century C.E. Lemuria that Boniface IV misappropriated the Pantheon in Rome by burying a large number of Christian bones inside the building. Although the Pantheon remains standing in good condition today, its use as a burial ground continues and so it remains unfit to use for ritual purposes. According to some authors, this misappropriation of the building also marks the Christianization of the Lemuria as “All Saints Day”, although the date was later changed.

Another resonance is the world-wide prevalence of similar festivals. In Japan, for example, bean-throwing as part of an exorcism ritual is the central part of the spring “Setsubun” festival and the conclusion of “Obon” involves sending ancestral spirits off on the journey to the other world by floating paper lanterns down the rivers. Floating lanterns are also part of the similar Yu Lan observance in China.

Ideas for the Cultus Deorum in May

Because Ovid gives us such a clear description of the central ritual of the Lemuria, and because this is confined to the household, this is an ideal event to introduce into each private cultus. It requires no elaborate preparation and the Latin, for those who prefer to use it, is quite simple. In spite of the simplicity, the meaning is profound: keeping order in the world, at least, the part of the world constituted by the household. The foundation of a temple to the Guardian Lares on the Kalends is probably just a coincidence, but it does suggest that, weather permitting, this may be a good time to establish an out-door compitum.