Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Parentalia (and more!)

In ancient Rome, the Parentalia or dies parentales ("ancestral days") was a nine-day festival held in honor of family ancestors, beginning February 13 and encompassed Feralia (February 21), Caristia  (February 22) and Lupercalia (February 14). From Parentalia to Caristia all temples were closed, marriages were forbidden (Ovid urged mothers, brides, and widows to refrain from lighting their wedding torches), and "magistrates appeared without their insignia" (implying that no official business was done) and any worship of the Gods was prohibited as it "should be hidden behind closed temple doors; no incense on the altar, no fire on the hearth."

For the Parentalia, families visited the tombs of their ancestors and shared cake and wine both in the form of offerings and as a meal among themselves. The Feralia was a more somber occasion, a public festival of sacrifices and offerings to the Manes. The Parentalia was more a private affair, whereas the Feralia was a public affair. The Caristia was a recognition of the family line as it continued into the present and among the living.

Parentalia was an *official* holiday on the Roman religious calendar, when the Roman state conducted public ceremonies on the opening day, the Ides of February (February 13), when a Vestal conducted a rite for the collective di parentes of Rome at the tomb of Tarpeia. However, its observances were mainly domestic and familial. Ovid describes sacred offerings (sacrificia) of flower-garlands, wheat, salt, wine-soaked bread and violets to the "shades of the dead" (manes or di manes - "the good ones") at the family tombs, to strengthen the mutual obligations and protective ties between the living and the dead. This was a lawful duty of the paterfamilias (head of the family).

Parentalia terminated on February 21 in the midnight rites of Feralia, when the paterfamilias addressed the malevolent, destructive aspects of his manes. Feralia was a placation and exorcism: Ovid thought it a more rustic, primitive and ancient affair than the Parentalia itself. Ovid tells of a time when Romans, in the midst of war, neglected Feralia, which prompted the spirits of the departed to rise from their graves in anger, howling and roaming the streets. After this event, tribute to the tombs were then made and the ghastly hauntings ceased.

As concerns public rites nothing of them survives, however on this day as described by Ovid, an old drunken woman (anus ebria) sits in a circle with other girls performing rites in the name of the Mute Goddess that involve incense, black beans and a buried mouse. The purpose of the rite is revealed in her words, "I have gagged spiteful tongues and muzzled unfriendly mouths" (Hostiles linguas inimicaque uinximus ora).

It appears to have functioned as a cleansing ritual for Caristia on the following day, when the family held an informal banquet to celebrate the amity between themselves and their benevolent ancestral dead (lares).

Caristia, also known as the Cara Cognatio, was an official but privately observed holiday on February 22 that celebrated love of family with banqueting and gifts. Families gathered to dine together and offer food and incense to the Lares as their household gods. It was a day of reconciliation when disagreements were to be set aside, but the poet Ovid observes satirically that this could be achieved only by excluding family members who caused trouble. There were distributions of bread, wine, and sportulae (bonuses, tips, tokens of appreciation.)

Lupercalia is another Roman festival and one of the rumored origins of Valentines Day. Lupercalia is composed of several holy days linked together beginning on February 13th with Parentalia but actually unrelated to it. On February 14th and 15th, Lupercalia celebrants pay homage to the Wolf Goddess, Lupa (Rumina), who suckled Romulus and Remus. Rites involved a group of specially appointed priests gathering at the Lupercal, a cave at the bottom of the Palatine Hill. The priests would sacrifice a goat, and anoint the Lupercii (young male participants) on their foreheads with the blood. The blood was wiped away with milk by other priests, and the young men laughed at them. The Lupercii then skinned the sacrificed goat and ripped the hide into strips which they tied around their naked waists. They then got drunk, and ran around Rome striking everyone they met with goatskin thongs, a special flail called a Februa. Young women who were touched in this manner were thought to be specially blessed, especially in regards to fertility and procreation.

So, now that you know how the Romans spent these next two weeks, you can plan your own celebrations accordingly. Any opportunity that brings family together to enjoy one another's company, reminisce and eat is a recipe for a good time. Lupercalia aside (hold the sacrifices and bloodied hides, thank you very much!) there is much here to add to your own family traditions.

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