August 13, 2015

The Ides of August, Diana and the Nemoralia

Diana, from the Villa Arianna in Stabiae
National Archaeological Museum, Napoli

Photo by New York Scugnizzo
By Lucian
In the ancient Roman calendar the ides of any given month was the day halfway through it. The Romans placed special significance on certain numbers and dates, as did many cultures in ancient times.
It is well known that the ides of March was the day Julius Caesar was assassinated, setting in motion the pivotal events that led to the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. What is less known today, but was common knowledge in ancient times, was that the ides of August was celebrated as a holy day to the Roman goddess Diana. The deity was extremely popular throughout the Italic peninsula, just as Artemis (her Hellenic counterpart) was popular in Magna Graecia. She had many aspects and different cults that venerated her.
Diana was the goddess of hunting and wildlife; she was also associated with magic, the moon, childbirth, and the protection of women. Originally a local Italic fertility deity of flora and fauna (and connected with the harvest), Diana later became associated with the Greek goddess Artemis when the early Latin religions fused with the gods of the Greeks to create the Roman State religion. Some of Diana’s attributes also overlapped with Hecate and Jana (wife of Janus).
DianaTemple of Apollo in Pompeii 
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
In mid-August there were many celebrations in ancient Italy held in the name of the goddess. Some locations were declared sacred and dedicated to her. In southern Italy there was a famous temple dedicated to Diana at Mt. Tifata near Capua (modern Monte Maddaloni).
The celebration of Diana’s holiday varied depending on the particular cult or location, and in many places was thought to be casual. Although our focus is usually southern Italy, I’ve chosen to describe the Nemoralia, a celebration held for Diana at lake Nemi in Aricia (modern day Lazio) to show what a more formal event dedicated to Diana might be like. 
The Nemoralia, also known as the Feast of Torches was held on one of two dates, either the full moon of August or the ides of August (the 13th then later the 15th). Worshippers performed a special ritual of washing and decorating their hair with flowers, then gathered at Lake Nemi by torch or candlelight. Dogs were also honored and adorned with flowers. Diana’s followers wrote their prayers and requests on ribbons, which were then tied to trees. Although she was the goddess of the hunt, during the Nemoralia hunting or the killing of any beast was forbidden. Fruits and tiny effigies were offered as sacrifices. Bread and clay, formed in the shape of body parts that needed healing, were offered to the goddess. Women and slaves were freed of their duties on this day to enjoy the festival. Masters also participated but only on equal terms with the other participants, because the day was for Diana, not for them.
Carro di Fontanarosa, Avellino
100-foot-tall spire made of wood and wheat
dedicated to the Madonna della Misericordia 

Photo courtesy of Razzairpina, Wikimedia
In modern times mid-August is still dedicated to a powerful and immensely popular sacred female figure. August 15th is the Feast of The Assumption in honor of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. Sometimes grains are brought to the church to be blessed in order to secure a good harvest. The harvest is life, and Christian farmers are right to ask for God’s blessing at this time of the year. In southern Italy, in the town of Fontanarosa, the wheat that is brought to be blessed is combined and woven into a beautiful spire reminiscent of Nola’s famed gigli, and pulled on a giant chariot throughout the town.
Considering how difficult the lives of our ancestors were, the various festivals were welcome breaks from harsh work routines and the rigid social structure of Classical Civilization. This was also the case during the medieval period. The traditionalists among us recognize this and see our various religious feasts and ethnic cultural events as a legacy from our ancestors, with roots that span back through the centuries and millennia.

Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia, by M.C. Green ISBN-13: 978-0521851589
The Cults of Campania, by Roy Merle Peterson ISBN-13: 978-1330300084
From Artemis to Diana: The Goddess of Man and Beast (Acta Hyperborea), by Tobias Fischer-Hansen ISBN-13: 978-8763507882