From my Honours thesis to my current book trilogy, the festivals of Ancient Rome are a lot more important/relevant to me than just about any modern festival. So given that Twitter has been buzzing with lots of non-Americans complaining at the assumption that everyone follows the same traditions, I thought I’d offer some alternatives from the ancient world.
Because, let’s face it. Traditions are weird. All of them. If you actually think about them, they’re weird.
So, put aside the candy corn and Sarah Palin costumes and check out Ten Roman Festivals that are weirder than Halloween:
This one’s a classic, and it gives us the origins of Christmas. Held in late December, it involves general feasting and present-giving. Most notably, though, it was the night when masters and slaves exchanged places. Can you imagine how awkward that would be? Sure it sounds like it’s a bit of fun, letting the slaves have a night off, but they were back as slaves the next day, so I can’t think they would let themselves have too much fun… The most important thing about this festival, though, is that the blokes do the cooking.
Opinions are divided on whether this February festival is a ritual of purification or fertility. What they do know is that it involved barely-clad young men running through the streets, striking people with a goat thong. No, I do not know what a goat thong was. They did not cover that in my PhD. Moving on…
On April 1, this was another festival involving topsy-turviness (technical term there). It was the one day in which women (aristocrats and plebs mingling together) were allowed to enter the men’s baths, wearing myrtle wreaths in honour of Venus Verticordia. They would take a statue of Fortuna Virilis (fortune of men) in with them, removing her jewellery (yep, statues wore jewellery) to wash her.
A rural festival, this one involves shepherds jumping over bonfires. And, um, sheep. The sheep jump over the bonfires. I can’t even imagine how that works.
I’m not even kidding. Don’t get too excited, though, this one’s just about the baking of the corn. Honest. Corn-baking. Festival of ovens.
This one has shades of Halloween in that it’s a festival of the dead. Held in February in honour of the deified ancestors, this is a week of sacrifices (flower garlands, wheat, salt, wine-soaked bread, violets) to the manes or shades of the dead. At the end of the week, on the Feralia, the paterfamilias (senior male of the family) exorcises the ghosts, and the following day on the Caristia, everyone has a nice lunch and says nice things about the ancestors who are now (we hope) thoroughly gone again until next year.
No, this isn’t the holy Roman festival celebrating lemurs (though, wouldn’t that be awesome??), it’s another day of making sure the dead lie down. Possibly instituted in honour of the death of Remus (killed by his ambitious twin brother Romulus), this May festival is about appeasing the restless dead with the creative application of beans. Also, the Vestals baked cake. Salt cake, not layer cake, which is a shame because you’d think after a hard day of spirit-appeasing, everyone could do with a bit of cake.
Another nearly week-long festival, this one in April-May and revolving around flowers, flowers and more flowers. Also colourful clothes, milk and honey. It was dedicated to the springy goddess Flora, and was particularly popular with prostitutes, who claimed the festival as their own. This is the origins of the May Day celebration, of course, with its ribbons and morris dancers. The Romans also held the Ludi Florales or Games of the Flowers, which actually involved lots of theatre and performing arts as well as good old circus acts. Apparently at the end of the performing animal acts in the Circus Maximus, all the animals were set free, which sounds like a very bad idea indeed.
2. The October Horse
The famous racing festival of Rome (Melbourne Cup and Ascot, eat your heart out), this one took part on the Ides (full moon) of October, and involved a two-horse chariot race. This one is famous because the right-hand (outer) horse of the winning pair would be slaughtered, beheaded, chopped into little bits and burned as sacrifice. And the Vestals would keep some of the blood, for cake-making purposes. Oh yes they would. And everyone thinks they’re so sweet…
1. The Bona Dea.
This one’s my favourite. The first rule of Bona Dea is, you don’t talk about Bona Dea. The second rule of Bona Dea is, YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT BONA DEA. This was a women’s festival, no men allowed, and the rites were famously secret. This did not prevent male writers and artists from getting lasciviously excited about what actually happened at these ceremonies. There were rumours of snakes. Of drinking wine and calling it ‘milk.’ Did I mention the snakes? The important thing, though, is that no women have recorded what went on, because speaking of it was forbidden, leaving us with just the speculations of men. I’m suspecting that Lindsey Davis had it right with mint tea and finger sandwiches, sadly.
What we do know is that in 62 BCE it was being hosted by the wife and mother of Julius Caesar, and a tribune called Publius Clodius sneaked in, disguised as a flute girl, in the hope of seducing Caesar’s wife. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up. He was put on trial for blasphemy, but the women all refused to testify against him, saying in essence: the goddess will get him. And indeed she did…
Well, okay, he died in a riot, but it was near the temple.
Fine, it was within sight of the temple.
The moral of the story is that you don’t mess with the gods, okay? Just keep killing the animals and baking the cakes and everything’s Going to be Fine.