Roman Empire | Roman Religious Practices

Prev | Next | Contents


In the last lecture we interrogated the calendar as to the deities whose festivals are recorded in it, with the aid of what we know of the most ancient priesthoods attached to particular cults. The result may be stated thus: we found a number of impersonal numina, with names of adjectival form, such as Saturnus, Vertumnus, and so on; others with substantival names, Tellus, Robigus, Terminus; the former apparently functional deities, concerned in the operations of nature or man, and the latter spirits immanent in objects--Mother Earth herself, a stone, the mildew, or (like Janus and Vesta) the entrance and the hearth-fire of human dwellings or cities. Lastly, we found from the evidence, chiefly of the priesthoods, that certain more important divinities stand out from the crowd of spirits, Janus, Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus, and Vesta; and we found some reason to think that these, and possibly a few of the others, by becoming the objects of priestly cura and caerimonia at particular spots in the city, were not unlikely to become also in some sense personal deities, to acquire a quasi-human personality, if they came by the chance. In the present lecture I must go rather more closely into such evidence as we possess bearing on the mental conception which these early Romans had formed of the divine beings whom they had admitted within their city.

And, first, we must be quite clear that in those early ages there was nothing in Rome which we can call a temple, as we understand the word; nor was there any such representation of a deity as we can call an image or eidolon. The deities were settled in particular spots of ground, which were made loca sacra, i.e. handed over to the deity by the process of consecratio authorised by the ius divinum.[291] It was matter of no moment what might be erected on this bit of ground; there might be a rude house like that of Vesta, round in shape like the oldest Italian huts; there might be a gateway like that of Janus; or the spot might be a grove, or a clearing within it (lucus), as in the case of Robigus or the Dea Dia of the Arval Brethren. All such places might be called by the general name fanum; and as a rule no doubt each fanum contained a sacellum, i.e. a small enclosure without a roof, containing a little altar (ara). These "altars" may at first have been nothing more than temporary erections of turf and sods; permanent stone altars were probably a later development. Servius tells us that in later times it was the custom to place a sod (caespes) on the top of such a stone altar, which must be one of the many survivals in cult of the usages of a simpler age.[292]

With such spots as these we cannot associate anything in the nature of an image of the deity established there; and we have every reason to believe that no such thing was known at Rome until the Etruscan temple of the Capitoline trias was built near the end of the regal period. Varro expressly declared that the Romans remained for more than 170 years without any images of their gods, and added that those who first introduced such images "civitatibus suis et metum dempsisse et errorem addidisse."[293] What he had in his mind is clear; he had indeed no direct knowledge of those early times, but he is thinking of a definite traditional date in the kingly period--the last year of the reign of Tarquinius Priscus, who, according to Varro's own account, built the temple on the Capitol and placed in it a statue of Jupiter.[294] That was the oldest image of which he knew anything; and, as Wissowa has remarked, his belief is entirely corroborated by the fact that in every single case in which the image of a god has any part in his cult, it is always either this Capitoline Jupiter or some deity of later introduction and non-Roman origin. It is also borne out by another significant and interesting fact--that the next image to be introduced, that of Diana in the temple on the Aventine, was a copy of the [Greek: xoanon] of Artemis at Massilia, itself a copy of the famous one at Ephesus.[295] Let us note that these two earliest statues were placed in roofed temples which were the dwelling-places of gods in an entirely new sense; so far no Roman deity of the city had been so housed, because he could not be thought of in terms of human life, as visible in human form and needing shelter. But this later and foreign notion of divinity so completely took possession of the minds of the Romans of the cosmopolitan city that Varro is the only writer who has preserved the tradition of the older way of thinking. In the religion of the family Ovid indeed has charmingly expressed it, perhaps on the authority of some lost passage of Varro[296]:--

ante focos olim scamnis considere longis

mos erat, et mensae credere adesse deos.

Tibullus in one passage has mentioned what seems to be some rude attempt to give outward shape and form to an ancient pastoral deity[297]:--

lacte madens illic suberat Pan ilicis umbrae

et facta agresti lignea falce Pales.

And Propertius hints at a like representation of Vertumnus, the garden deity. But without some corroborative evidence it is hardly safe to take these as genuine examples of early iconic worship.

Thus we may take it as certain that even the greater deities of the calendar, Janus, Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus, and Vesta, were not thought of as existing in any sense in human form, nor as personal beings having any human characteristics. The early Romans were destitute of mythological fancy, and as they had never had their deities presented to them in visible form, could hardly have invented such stories about them as sprang up in a most abundant crop when Greek literature and Greek art had changed their mental view of divinity. Roman legends were occupied with practical matters, with kings and the foundation of cities; and even among these it is hardly possible to detect those which may be really Roman, for they are hidden away, like rude ancient frescoes, under the elaborate decorations of the Greek artists, who seized upon everything that came to hand, including the old deities themselves, to amuse themselves and win the admiration of their dull pupils at Rome. He who would appreciate the difficulty of getting at the original rude drawings must be well acquainted with the decorative activity of the Alexandrian age.

Thus we might well presume a priori that the old Roman gods were not conceived as married pairs, nor as having children; and this is indeed the conclusion at which we have arrived after half a century or more of most careful and conscientious investigation by a series of German scholars. But quite recently in this country the contrary view has been put forward by an author of no less weight than Dr. Frazer; and another eminent Cambridge scholar, Mr. A. B. Cook, evidently inclines to the same view. I should in any case be reluctant to engage in controversy with two valued personal friends; but it is just possible that in what follows I may be able to throw some faint light on the evolution of the idea of marriage among divine beings; and on the strength of this I am content for the moment to be controversial. Dr. Frazer's arguments, with strictures on my opinions, will be found in an appendix to his book on Adonis, Attis, Osiris, 2nd edition.

In pure animism the spirits are nameless; when their residence and functions are more clearly recognised they acquire names, and these names are naturally masculine or feminine among peoples whose language is not genderless, as was the case with the Sumerians of Babylonia.[298] This would seem to be the first step on the path to a personal conception of divinity. But there are signs that the Romans had not got very far on this path when we begin to know anything about their religion. I have already alluded to the formula "Sive deus sive dea," which occurs in the ritual of the Fratres Arvales, in the formula given by Cato for making a new clearing, and elsewhere;[299] and indeed there seems to have been always some uncertainty about the sex of one or two well-known deities, such as Pales and Pomonus or Pomona.[300] It is not, therefore, a priori probable that the process of personalisation (if I may coin the word) should have proceeded, at the period we are treating of, so far as to ascribe to these named deities of both sexes the characteristics of human beings in social life and intercourse. Yet Varro, as Dr. Frazer points out, is quoted by St. Augustine as saying that his ancestors (that is, as Augustine adds), "veteres Romanos," believed in the marriage of gods and in their procreative power.[301] If Varro wrote "maiores meos," as he seems to have done, of whom was he really thinking? Was Augustine's comment based on the rest of Varro's text, or was he jumping to a conclusion which would naturally serve his own purpose? Varro, of course, was not a Roman, but from Reate in the Sabine country. But even if he were thinking of Rome, how far back would his knowledge extend? The Romans had known Greek married gods for three or four centuries before his time, and he may quite well be thinking of these. Of the di indigetes of an earlier period he could hardly know more than we do ourselves; his only sources of information were the facts of the cult and the books of the pontifices. The facts of the cult, so far as he and others have recorded them, suggest no pairing of deities, no "sacred marriage."[302] The pontifical books, which contained rules and formulae for the proper invocation of deities by their right names, do indeed seem to have suggested a certain conjunction of male and female divine names; and it is just possible that this is what Varro had in his mind when he wrote the passage seized upon by Augustine. I will proceed at once to examine this evidence, as it is incidentally of great interest in the history of Italian religion; and Dr. Frazer will probably allow that his conclusion must stand or fall by it.

The evidence to which I allude is preserved in the 13th book of the Noctes Atticae of Aulus Gellius (ch. xxiii.), and extracted from "libri sacerdotum populi Romani," as "comprecationes deorum immortalium"; these also occur, he says, in plerisque antiquis orationibus, i.e. in the invocations to the gods made by the orator at the beginning or end of his speech.[303] Among these Gellius found the following conjunctions of divine names: Lua Saturni, Salacia Neptuni, Hora Quirini, Virites Quirini, Maia Volcani, Herie Iunonis, Moles Martis, and Neriene Martis, or Nerio Martis. Now among these conjunctions there are three which obviously do not express pairs of deities, married or other, viz. Virites Quirini, Moles Martis, and Herie Iunonis; the first two of which plainly mean the strength or force of Quirinus and Mars, and the third conjoins two female names. The question is whether the others are to be understood as giving us the names of the "wives" of Saturnus, Neptunus, Quirinus, Volcanus, and Mars. The fact that these are associated with others which cannot mean anything of the kind is itself against this conclusion; but I have carefully examined each pair by the light of such stray information about them as we possess, and have failed to find anything to suggest Dr. Frazer's emphatic conclusion that these are married pairs. I should be tedious if I were to go through the evidence in detail in a lecture like this; but I will take the pair which Gellius himself discusses, and on which Dr. Frazer chiefly relies, Neriene or Nerio Martis: it is the pair about which we know most, and in every way is the most interesting of the set.[304]

After giving the list of names, Gellius goes on to express his own opinion that Nerio Martis means (like Moles Martis) the virtus or fortitudo of Mars, Nerio being a Sabine word meaning strength or courage;[305] and a little further he sums up his view thus: "Nerio igitur Martis vis et potentia et maiestas quaedam esse Martis demonstratur." This seems to fit in very comfortably with what can be guessed of the meaning of two of the other pairs, Virites Quirini and Maia Volcani: Maia was explained by another Roman scholar as equivalent to Maiestas.[306]

But Gellius goes on to quote three passages from old Latin authors in which Nerio (or Neria) appears positively as the wife of Mars; and again concludes that there was also a tradition that these two were coniuges. Of these passages we luckily have the context of one, for it occurs in the Truculentus of Plautus: turning this out (line 515) we find that a rough soldier, arriving at Athens, salutes his sweetheart with the words "Mars peregre adveniens salutat Nerienen uxorem suam"--words which Plautus must have adapted from his Greek original in such a way as to make them intelligible to a Roman audience. Gellius says that he had often heard a learned friend blame Plautus for thus putting a false notion about Mars (that he had a wife) into the mouth of his soldier--"nimis comice"--merely to produce a comic effect. But, he adds, there was some justification for it; for if you read the third book of the annals of Gellius (a namesake who lived in the second century B.C.) you will find that he puts into the mouth of Hersilia, pleading for peace before Ti. Tatius, words which actually make Nerio the wife of Mars: "De tui, inquit, coniugis consilio, Martem scilicet significans." Little, I fear, can be said to the credit of this Gellius;[307] he lived in an age when annalists were many and inventive, and long after the Romans had grown accustomed to Greek ideas of the gods; but we may take this passage as evidence of what may have been in his day a popular idea of Mars and his consort. Lastly, Aulus Gellius quotes a brace of lines from one Licinius Imbrex, an old comic writer of the same century, who, in a fabula palliata called Neaera, wrote:--

nolo ego Neaeram te vocent, aut Nerienem, cum quidem Marti es in connubium data.

The real question is whether these passages from comic writers and an annalist of no reputation combine to prove that there was an ancient popular idea of Mars as a married god; as to the priestly view of the matter they can, of course, prove nothing. It seems to me that Dr. Frazer is entitled to argue that in the second century B.C. such a popular idea existed,[308] which the Roman state religion did not recognise, and which Aulus Gellius, as we have seen, could not agree with. I do not, however, think him entitled to go farther, and to infer that this was an idea of divinity native to Italy or of very old standing. Is it not much simpler to suppose, with a cool-headed scholar whom Dr. Frazer is willing to follow when it suits his turn, that pairs or conjunctions of this kind, the true meaning of which I hope to explain directly, were easily mistaken by the vulgar mind for married god and goddess?[309] In those degenerate days of the Roman religion, after the war with Hannibal, to which these writers belong--and all are later than Ennius, the first to make mischief by ridiculing the gods--nothing could be easier than to take advantage of what looked like married life to invent comic passages to please a Roman audience, now consisting largely of semi-educated men who had lost faith in their own religion, and of a crowd of smaller people of mixed descent and nationality. Such passages, in fact, cannot safely be used as evidence of religious ideas, apart from the tendencies of the age in which they were written. Had there really been religious beliefs, rooted in the old Roman mind, about the wedded life of gods and goddesses, it would even then have been dangerous to use them mockingly in comedy. And once more, had there been such genuinely Roman ideas, why, in an age that made for anthropomorphism, did they not find their way into the Roman Pantheon,--why did they survive only in literary allusions, to the bewilderment of scholars like Aulus Gellius?

The real explanation of these curious conjunctions of masculine and feminine names is, I think, not very hard to come by. Let us remember, in the first place, that they were found in the books of the priests, and that they belonged to forms of prayer--comprecationes deorum immortalium; in other words, they do not represent popular ideas of the deities, but ritualistic forms of invocation. As such they may indeed no doubt be regarded as expressing, or as growing out of, a popular way of thinking of the Power manifesting itself in the universe; but they are themselves none the less, like those strange lists of divine names called Indigitamenta, with which I shall deal directly, the creations of an active professional priesthood, working upon the principle that every deity must be addressed in precisely the correct way and no other, and accounting the name of the deity, as indicating his or her exact function, the most vitally important thing in the whole invocation. I have already pointed out how difficult the early Latin must have found it to discover how to address the numina at work around him, and I shall return to the subject in another lecture; at present all I want to insist upon is that the priests of the City-state relieved him of this anxiety, and indeed must have carried the work so far as to develop a kind of science of divine nomenclature. Every one who has studied the history of religions knows well how strong the tendency is, when once invocation has become ritualised, for the names and titles of the objects of worship to abound and multiply. The Roman Church of to-day still shows this tendency in its elaborate invocation of the Virgin.

With the old Romans the common method of elaboration lay in the invention of cult-titles, of which the different kinds have been distinguished and explained by Dr. J. B. Carter in his treatise "de Deorum Romanorum cognominibus."[310] Most of them are suggestive of function or character, as, e.g., Janus Patulcius Clusivius, or Jupiter Lucetius, Ops Opifera; sometimes they doubled the idea, as in Aius Locutius, or Anna Perenna, or Fors Fortuna; and in one or two cases they seem to have combined two deities together in rather puzzling conjunctions, which usually, however, admit of some possible explanation, as Janus Junonius, or Ops Consiva (i.e. Ops belonging to Consus).[311] In the Iguvian ritual, which is the highly-elaborated work of a priesthood as active as the Roman, we find combinations of not less than four names:[312] Cerfe Martie, Praestita Cerfia Cerfi Martii, Tursa Cerfia Cerfi Martii, which may perhaps be rendered "Spirit of Mars, protecting (female) spirit of the (male) spirit of Mars, fear-inspiring (female) spirit of the (male) spirit of Mars."

Such strange multiple combinations as these suggest that expressions like Moles Martis or Virites Quirini are only another form of the usual cult-title, expressing adoration of the power of the deity addressed; and it is only reasonable to explain the others of the same group on the same principle. As we have seen, Roman scholars themselves explained Nerio Martis as equivalent to Virtus Martis; Herie Iunonis probably means something of the same kind; the others are not so easily explained, and guesswork about them is unprofitable. But I hope I have said enough to show that there is absolutely no good ground for supposing that these combinations of names in nominative and genitive indicate a relationship of any kind except a qualitative one. Abstract qualities, let us note, are usually feminine in Latin, and I think it is not improbable that abstractions such as Fides and Salus, which were deified at a very early period at Rome, may have reached divinity by attachment to some god from whom they subsequently became again separated.[313] And lastly, we can trace the same tendency to combine names and ideas together far down the course of Roman history; witness the combination of Genius with cities, legions, gods, etc., as well as with the individual man, and again such expressions as Pietas Legionis, by analogy with which von Domaszewski, wrongly as I think, would explain those we have been discussing.[314]

Before leaving this complicated and cloudy system of divine nomenclature, it is as well to ask the question once more, even if we cannot answer it, whether if left to itself it might have developed into a polytheistic system of personal deities. I will give my own opinion for what it is worth. I do not think that such a result could have been reached without the magic touch of the Greek poet and artist, or the arrival of Greek deities and their images in Latium. Professor Sayce, in his Gifford lectures on the religion of Babylonia, has shown how the non-Semitic Sumerians knew only of spirits and demons until the Semite arrived in the Persian Gulf with his personal gods of both sexes;[315] and I gather that he does not suppose that without such immigration the Sumerian ideas of divinity could have become personalised. The question is not exactly the same at Rome; for there the spirit world had passed into the hands of an organised priesthood occupied with ritual, and especially with its terminological aspect; and the chance of personalisation, if it were there at all, lay in the importance of the functional name. But the question is after all beside the mark; we shall see what happened when the Greeks arrived. We may be content at present to note the fact that they found the functional terminology sufficiently advanced to take advantage of it, and to revolutionise the whole Roman conception of the divine.

Dr. Frazer gives me an opportunity of adverting to another point bearing on the question we are discussing,--the way in which the old Roman thought of his deities. "It is difficult," he says,[316] "to deny that the epithets Pater and Mater, which the Romans bestow on so many of their gods, do really imply paternity and maternity; if this implication be admitted, the inference appears to be inevitable that these divine beings were supposed to exercise sexual functions, etc." In a footnote he adds a number of formidable-looking references, meant, I suppose, to prove this point. I have closely examined these passages; what they do prove is simply that many deities were called Pater and Mater. Not one even suggests that paternity and maternity were in such cases to be understood literally and, so to speak, physically. The two that come nearest to what he is looking for are those from Varro and Lactantius. Varro says[317] that Ops was called Mater because she was identical with Terra, who was, of course, Terra Mater: "Haec enim--

'terris gentes omnes peperit et resumit denuo,

quae dat cibaria,' ut ait Ennius."[318] It is clear, then, that neither Varro nor Ennius understood this title of Ops and Terra in Dr. Frazer's sense of the word. The quotation from the early Christian father Lactantius, which contains three well-known lines of Lucilius, might possibly deceive those who neglect to turn it out and read the context; there we find at once that not even Lactantius could attribute to these epithets the meaning which Dr. Frazer wishes to put on them. He would have been as glad to do so as Dr. Frazer himself, though for a very different reason; but what he actually wrote is this:--

"Omnem Deum qui ab homine colitur, necesse est inter solennes ritus et precationes patrem nuncupari, non tantum honoris gratia, verum etiam rationis; quod et antiquior est homine, et quod vitam, salutem, victum praestat, ut pater. Itaque ut Iuppiter a precantibus pater vocatur, etc."[319]

Dr. Frazer's quotation begins with this last sentence; it is a pity that he did not read the context. If he had read it, his candour would have compelled him to confess that not even a Christian father, with a keen sense of what was ridiculous or degrading in the pagan religion, understood the fatherhood of the gods as he wishes to understand it.

But I am wasting time in pressing this point. Dr. Frazer would hardly have used such an argument if he had not been hard put to it. The figurative use of human relationships is surely a common practice, when addressing their deities, of all peoples who have reached the stage of family life. As another distinguished anthropologist says: "The very want of an object tends to supply an object through the imagination; and this will be either the vital energy inherent in things, or the reflex of the human father, who once satisfied his needs (i.e. of the worshipper). So, in Aryan religions, the supreme god is father, [Greek: Zeus patêr], Diespiter, Marspiter. Ahura-Mazda is a father.... Another analogy shows the relationship of brother and friend, as in the case of Mithra."[320] The Romans themselves were familiar from the first with such figurative use of relationship, as was natural to a people in whom the family instinct was so strong; we have but to think of the pater patratus of the Fetiales,[321] of the Fratres Arvales, or the Fratres Attiedii of Iguvium. What exactly they understood by Pater and Mater when applied to deities is not so easy to determine: we have not the necessary data. They were never applied, I believe, to imported deities, di novensiles; always to di indigetes, those on whom the original Roman stock looked as their fellow-citizens and guardians. And we shall not be far wrong if we conclude that in general they imply the dependence of the human citizen upon his divine protector, and thus bring the usage into line with that of other Aryan peoples. Behind this feeling of dependence there may have been the idea, handed down from remote ages, that Father Sky and Mother Earth were in a sense the parents of all living things; but there is nothing in the Roman religion to suggest that the two were thought of as personally uniting in marriage or a sexual act.

I will sum up this part of the discussion by translating an admirable passage in Aust's book on the Roman religion, with which I am in cordial agreement[322]:--

"The deities of Rome were deities of the cult only. They had no human form; they had not the human heart with its virtues and vices. They had no intercourse with each other, and no common or permanent residence; they enjoyed no nectar and ambrosia ... they had no children, no parental relation. They were indeed both male and female, and a male and female deity are often in close relations with each other; but this is not a relation of marriage, and rests only on a similarity in the sphere of their operations.... These deities never become independent existences; they remain cold, colourless conceptions, numina as the Romans called them, that is, supernatural beings whose existence only betrays itself in the exercise of certain powers."

They were, indeed, cold and colourless conceptions as compared with the Greek gods of Olympus, whose warmth and colour is really that of human life, of human passions; but the one remarkable and interesting thing about these Roman and Italian numina is the life and force for good or evil which is the very essence of their being. The puzzling combinations we have just been studying are quite enough to illustrate this character. Moles, Virites, Nerio, and perhaps others too, seem to mean the strength or force inherent in the numen; Cerfius, or Cerus, as the Latins called it, Liber, Genius, all are best interpreted as meaning a functional or creative force. Jupiter is the sky or heaven itself, with all its manifestations of activity; Tellus is Mother Earth, full of active productive power. At the bottom of these cold and colourless conceptions there is thus a real idea of power, not supernatural but rather natural power, which may both hurt and benefit man, and which he must attempt to enlist on his side. This enlistment was the task of the Roman priesthood and the Roman government, and so effectually was it carried out that the divine beings lost their vitality in the process.

We shall be better able to follow out this curious fate of the Roman deities in later lectures; here I wish to note one other aspect of the Roman idea of divinity, which will help to explain what I have just been saying about the life and force inherent in these numina.

In most cursory accounts of the Roman religion it has been the practice to lay particular stress upon an immense number of "gods," as they used to be called, each of which is supposed to have presided over some particular act or suffering of the Roman from the cradle to the grave--from Cunina, the "goddess" of his cradle, to Libitina who looked after his interment. I have as yet said nothing about all these. I will now briefly explain why I have not done so, and why I hesitate to include them, at any rate in the uncompromising form in which they are usually presented, among the genuine religious conceptions of the earliest period. Later on I shall have further opportunity of discussing them; at the end of this lecture I can only sum up the results of recent research into this curious cloud of so-called deities.

We know of them mainly, but not entirely, from Tertullian, and the de Civitate Dei of St. Augustine.[323] These scholarly theologians, wishing to show up the absurdity of the heathen religions, found a mine of material in the great work of Varro on the Roman religious antiquities; and though they found him by no means so elegant a writer as Cicero, they studied him with pains, and have incidentally added immensely to our knowledge both of Varro himself and of the Roman religion. St. Augustine tells us that it was in the last three books of his work that Varro treated of the Roman deities, and that he divided them under the heads of di certi, di incerti, and di selecti. In the first of these he dealt chiefly with those with which we are now concerned: they were certi because their names expressed their supposed activity quite clearly.[324] We know for certain that Varro found these names in the books of the pontifices, and that they were there called Indigitamenta:[325] a word which has been variously interpreted, and has been the subject of much learned disputation. I believe with Wissowa that it means "forms of invocation," i.e. the correct names by which gods should be addressed.

Thus these lists of names come down to us at third hand: Varro took them from the pontifical books, and the Christian fathers took them from Varro. It is obvious that this being the case they need very careful critical examination; and till recently they were accepted in full without hesitation, and without reflection on such questions as, e.g., whether they are psychologically probable, or whether they can be paralleled from the religious experience of other peoples. Some preliminary critical attempts were made about fifty years ago in this direction,[326] but the first thoroughgoing examination of the subject was published by R. Peter in the article "Indigitamenta" in Roscher's Mythological Lexicon. This most industrious scholar, though his interpretation of the word Indigitamenta is probably erroneous,[327] was the first to reach the definite conclusion that the lists are not really primitive, and do not, as we have them, represent primitive religious thought. It was after a very careful study of this article, which is long enough to fill a small volume, that I wrote in my Roman Festivals of the Indigitamenta as "based on"--not actually representing, I might have added--"old ideas of divine agency, now systematised by something like scientific terminology and ordered classification by skilled legal theologians"; and as "an artificial priestly exaggeration of a primitive tendency to see a world of nameless spirits surrounding and influencing all human life."[328]

I was not then specially concerned with the Indigitamenta, and only alluded to them in passing. But before my book was published there had already appeared a most interesting work on the names of deities (Götternamen) by H. Usener, a brilliant investigator, which drew fresh attention to the subject. Usener found in mediaeval records of the religion of the heathen Lithuanians what seemed to be a remarkable parallel with this old Roman theology, and he also compared these records with certain facts in what we may call the pre-Olympian religious ideas of the Greeks. "The conclusion which he draws," writes Dr. Farnell[329]--and I cannot state it better--"is that the Indo-Germanic peoples, on the way to the higher polytheism, passed through an earlier stage when the objects of cult were beings whom he designated by the newly-coined words 'Augenblickgötter' and 'Sondergötter'" (gods of momentary or limited function). He went further than this, and claimed that the anthropomorphic gods of Greece and Italy, of the Indo-Iranians, Persians, and Slavs, were developed out of these spirits presiding over special functions and particular moments of human life; but with this latter part of his theory I am not now concerned. What we want to know now is whether in writing thus of the Roman Indigitamenta Usener was using a record which really represents an early stage of religious thought in Italy; and I may add that we should be glad to know whether his Lithuanian records are also to be unhesitatingly relied on.[330] As regards Greece, Dr. Farnell has criticised his theories with considerable effect.

The most recent contribution to the discussion of the Roman part of the subject is that of Wissowa, who in 1904 published a paper on "True and False Sondergötter at Rome";[331] this is a piece of most valuable and weighty criticism, but extremely difficult to follow and digest. I here give only the main results of it. Wissowa takes two genuine examples of Sondergötter which have come down to us from other sources, and more directly than those mentioned above: the first from Fabius Pictor, the oldest Roman historian,[332] and the other from the Acta Fratrum Arvalium.[333] Fabius said that the flamen (Cerealis?), when sacrificing to Tellus and Ceres, also invoked the following deities: Vervactor, for the first ploughing, as Wissowa interprets it; Redarator, for the second ploughing; Imporcitor, for the harrowing; Insitor, for the sowing; Oberator, for the top-dressing; Occator, Sarritor, Subrincator, Messor, Convector, Conditor, Promitor, for subsequent operations up to the harvest and actual distribution of the corn for food. Secondly, in the Acta of the Arval Brethren we find, on the occasion of a piaculum caused by the growth of a fig-tree on the roof of the temple of Dea Dia, at the end of a long list of deities invoked, and before the names of the divi of the Imperial families, the names of three Sondergötter, Adolenda Commolenda Deferunda, and on another occasion, Adolenda and Coinquenda; these seem beyond doubt to refer to the process of getting the obnoxious tree down from the roof, of breaking it up, and burning it.

In both these examples, which have come down to us more directly than the lists in the Fathers, Wissowa sees assistant or subordinate deities (if such they can be called) grouped around a central idea, that of the main object of sacrifice in each case;[334] these are the result of the cura and caerimonia supervised and over-elaborated by pontifical law and ritual. It is, I may add on my own account, most unlikely, and psychologically almost impossible, that any individual farmer should have troubled himself to remember and enumerate by name twelve deities representing the various stages of an agricultural process; and Cato, in fact, says nothing of such ritual. It was the flamen of the City-state, who, when sacrificing to Tellus and Ceres before harvest,[335] pictured, or recalled to mind, the various processes of a year of what we may call high farming rather than primitive, under the names of deities plainly invented out of the words which express those processes--words which themselves are certainly not all antique. And in the second example, which dates from the second century A.D., we see that the process of destroying the intruding fig-tree is represented in ritual in exactly the same curious way: the names of the deities, Deferunda and the rest, being invented for the occasion out of the words which express the several acts of the process of destruction. These Arval Brethren of the second century inherited the traditions of their predecessors of an earlier age, and carried out the work of amplification in their invocations by pedantically imitating the pontifices of five or six centuries earlier. They held, in a way which to us is ludicrous, to the old notion that you should try and cover as much ground as possible in worship, and to cover it in detail, so that no chance might be missed of securing the object for which you were taking so much trouble.

Now to return to Varro and his lists of names. What is Dr. Wissowa's conclusion about these, after examining the two examples of Sondergötter which have not come down to us through so much book-learning as the rest?

Varro's di certi, he says[336]--and I think there is no doubt that he is right--included the name of every deity, great or small, of which he could feel sure that he knew something, as he found it in the books of the pontifices; and the part of those books in which he found these names, known as Indigitamenta, probably contained formulae of invocation, precationum carmina,[337] of the same kind as the comprecationes deorum immortalium from which Gellius quoted the pairs of male and female deities which we discussed above. Varro arranged all these names in groups of principal and subordinate or assistant deities, the latter amplifying in detail the meaning and scope of the former, as we have just seen; and of this grouping some traces are still visible in the accounts of Augustine and Tertullian. But the good Fathers tumbled the whole collection about sadly in their search for material for their mockery, having no historical or scientific object in view; with the result that it now resembles the bits of glass in a kaleidoscope, and can no longer be re-arranged on the original Varronian plan. The difficulty is increased by the etymologies and explanations which they offer of the divine names, which, as a rule, are even more absurd than the divinities themselves.[338]

But, in the last place, the question must be asked whether these Sondergötter of the real kind, such, for example, as those twelve agricultural ones invoked by the flamen at the Cereale sacrum, had their origin in any sense in popular usage or belief. At the end of his paper Wissowa emphatically says that he does not believe it. For myself, I would only modify this conclusion so far as this: they must, I think, have been the theological, or perhaps rather the ritualistic outcome, of a psychological tendency rooted in the popular mind. I have already noticed that curious bit of folklore in which three spirits of cultivation were invoked with a kind of acted parable at the birth of a child;[339] and I cannot regard this custom as a piece of pontifical ritualism, though the names may have been invented by the priests to suit the practice. The old Roman seems to have had a tendency to ascribe what for want of a better word we may call divinity, not only to animate and inanimate objects, but to actions and abstractions; this, I take it, is an advanced stage of animism, peculiar, it would seem, to a highly practical agricultural people, and it is this stage which is reflected in the ritualistic work of the priests. They turned dim and nameless powers into definite and prehensible deities with names, and arranged them in groups so as to fall in with the life of the city as well as the farm. What was the result of all this ingenuity, or whether it had any popular result at all, is a question hardly admitting of solution. What is really interesting in the matter, if my view is the right one, is the curious way in which the early Roman seems to have looked upon all life and force and action, human or other, as in some sense associated with, and the result of, divine or spiritual agency.

Prev | Next | Contents

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13]
[14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24]