May 13, 2013

The Roman Lemuria, and the Ungrateful Dead

Fall of the Rebel Angels (detail)  
 by Luca Giordano
By Lucian

When I first attempted to research the ancient Roman holiday of Lemuria I found a lot of New Age theories dealing with lost civilizations, Atlantis, Mt. Shasta, and other things. Some of them attempted to connect their beliefs with the Roman holiday, but such conjecture was not what I was looking for. My goal was to research and summarize what we know about the Roman pagan tradition in an attempt to better understand ourselves through understanding our past. The rest, while it might prove interesting to some, did not serve my purpose.

The Roman Empire absorbed the civilizations of many Mediterranean peoples and ruled over them for many centuries. During this time the various parts of the Empire adopted many beliefs and practices that the Romans brought with them. This process, at least for the pagans, was less hostile than one might expect. As long as other religions acknowledged the Roman gods, paid their taxes, and followed Roman law they were allowed to continue their own traditions. Many of these practices were parallel with Roman beliefs, and that was to be expected because they were kindred peoples. The concept of celebrating, communing with, appeasing, or banishing the spirits of the dead were common. The Romans had two primary holidays dealing with the dead. One was a celebration and appeasement of their ancestors held in February, called Parentalia. Once appeased those spirits were supposed to be helpful and bring luck. The other was held on May 9th, 11th and 13th, and was called Lemuria. Its primary purpose was to deal with the malevolent spirits of the dead who return to the world of the living with evil intentions. Nothing good was expected from them, and the best-case scenario was forcing them to leave.

As with Parentalia and other holidays connected to the dead, the temples and courts were closed. It was considered very unlucky to marry during Lemuria, or conduct new business. The Romans felt that odd numbered days were unlucky in general, so Lemuria being observed only on three odd-numbered days lends a certain tone to the event. Ovid, in his work Fasti, describes one of the rituals in detail:
“When midnight has come and lends silence to sleep, and dogs and all ye varied fowls are hushed, the worshipper who bears the olden rite in mind and fears the gods arises; no knots constrict his feet; and he makes a sign with his thumb in the middle of his closed fingers, lest in his silence an unsubstantial shade should meet him.  And after washing his hands clean in spring water, he turns, and first he receives black beans and throws them away with face averted; but while he throws them, he says: 'These I cast; with these beans I redeem me and mine.' This he says nine times, without looking back: the shade is thought to gather the beans, and to follow unseen behind. Again he touches water, and clashes Temesan bronze, and asks the shade to go out of his house. When he has said nine times, 'Ghosts of my fathers, go forth!' he looks back, and thinks that he has duly performed the sacred rites.” Ovid, from Fasti p.292 translation by Sir J. G. Frazer 1931
Mano Fico, “The Fig” hand gesture.
Used to ward off evil, it is also for
good luck or a great insult, depend-
ing on where and how it is used 
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
The symbolic hand gesture described by Ovid is known as “The Fig,” (or Mano Fico) and can be described as a fist with the thumb protruding from between the index and middle fingers. In pagan times it was used as a symbol to ward off evil, and is thought to represent a female sexual organ. Historically it was not uncommon to use sexual symbolism, both male and female, to protect against the dead or other spiritual threats, perhaps because sex was identified with creating life. In modern times “The Fig” and similar gestures have taken on vulgar or mocking meanings. I’m unsure whether they had dual meanings in classical times, although I’m sure it is possible because sex has always been the cause of strong and conflicting emotions. It could also be possible that the change in meaning was purposely promoted to denigrate pagan symbolism or mock the superstitious. Or maybe not, modern vulgarities also have sexual connotations and do not necessarily have any connection to ancient times. In a few parts of the world “The Fig” is still used as a good luck symbol, in others it is a great insult. Oddly enough, it is also the symbol for the letter T in American Sign Language.

Winged phallus souvenir 
from Pompeii. In the ancient 
world sexual symbolism was 
often used to ward off evil
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
Ovid’s reference to knots constricting the feet was part of the Roman belief that knots or bindings hindered sacred rituals; sometimes even hair was required to be unbraided and worn loosely. There were similar ideas concerning rings. “The Priest of Jupiter was not allowed to wear a ring unless it was broken and stoneless.” (Burriss) During both Lemuria and Parentalia beans were used to placate the dead. It might seem strange by modern standards, but beans were a good source of nutrients and calories at the time. They were valuable because they helped you survive.

There is some confusion about the namesake of Lemuria. Ovid claims that it is a corruption of Remus, but others disagree. It is more likely that the name Lemuria was derived from the spirits being banished, who were called Lemures, and the Remus connection was attached to it later on, and not even advocated by everyone at the time.

Lares Familiares

The spirits of the dead were referred to as Manes, Lemurs or Larvae, but the difference between the Roman spirits is also confusing. Ovid uses the terms Lemure and Manes interchangeably, but others do not. In his City of God, St. Augustine claims: “Apuleius says also that men’s souls are demons, and become lares if their merits be good; if evil, lemurs, goblins; if indifferent, manes.” However, St. Augustine’s descriptions place the spirits of the dead into the three categories of the Christian concept of the afterlife. His book also promotes the idea that anything positive accomplished by paganism was done by pagans unknowingly following Christian philosophies before the coming of Christ. Besides, most experts agree that the Lares were originally spirits of the land, household and estate; only later becoming associated with deceased ancestors.

Most references that I have seen refer to the Manes as something positive, but references to Lemurs, or Larvae as they were sometimes called, were usually negative. Some ancient authors considered the Lemurs and the Larvae different; Pliny the Elder claimed that the Larvae (not to be confused with the Lares Familiares) were the tormentors of the dead.

People today might look down upon Lemuria and similar rituals as something primitive that humans have outgrown, but as a species we have not changed as much as we would like to believe. We have traded the Old Religion for new ones, and adopted different mythologies to explain existence. Even many of those who forsake religion entirely can be found embracing modern social theories as if they were scripture, ignoring any contradictions or obvious falsehoods in defense of their adopted philosophies, which are themselves often based on whimsical ideas about human nature.

A Jewish mezuzah
affixed to a doorframe
(New York Scugnizzo)
The belief in harmful spirits, or warding against them did not end with the pagan era. Christians have rituals to protect against or exorcise them, and there was an upsurge in those rituals in the 1960s and 70s. Even the simple act of having something blessed is a form of spiritual protection. When I was a child my family moved into a new apartment and I noticed a strange metal object fixed to the doorframe. My mother explained to me that the former tenants were Jewish and the metal container held their scripture and protected them while they slept. Even when we say, “God bless you” to someone who has sneezed, it is to protect them on a metaphysical level.

The claim that Lemuria was a holiday based on fear is not incorrect, but it is oversimplified. Fear is certainly a component, but so is facing the fear and acting to overcome the object of that fear with disciplined action. The people of the Empire knew that their ancestors lived in a world where some wished you well and others wished you harm. It is no surprise that that their observations were applied to the afterlife as well, for they also lived in such a world, and so do we.

• Fasti, by Ovid. Translation by Sir J.G. Frazer, published 1931 ISBN 0-674-99279-2
• City of God, by St. Augustine Vol. 1. Translation by John Healy published 1945, (The Ninth Book, Chapter XI - Of the Platonists that held men’s souls to become Demons after death.)
• Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome by Cyril Bailey, published 1932, reprinted 1972 ISBN 0-8371-4759-X
• Taboo, Magic, Spirits A Study of Primitive Elements in Roman Religion, by Eli Edward Burriss, published 1931, reprinted 1972 & 1974, ISBN 0-8371-4724-7