Roman Empire | Roman Religious Practices

Prev | Next | Contents


My subject proper is the religion of an organised State: the religious experience of a comparatively civilised people. But I wish, in the first place, to do what has never yet been done by those who have written on the Roman religion--I wish to take a survey of the relics, surviving in later Roman practice and belief, of earlier stages of rudimentary religious experience. In these days of anthropological and sociological research, it is possible to do this without great difficulty; and if I left it undone, our story of the development of religion at Rome would be mutilated at the beginning. Also we should be at a disadvantage in trying to realise the wonderful work done by the early authorities of the State in eliminating from their rule of worship (ius divinum) almost all that was magical, barbarous, or, as later Romans would have called it, superstitious. This is a point on which I wish to lay especial stress in the next few lectures, and it entails a somewhat tiresome account of the ideas and practices of which, as I believe, they sought to get rid. These, I may as well say at once, are to be found for the most part surviving, as we might expect, outside of the religion of the State; where they survive within its limits, they will be found to have almost entirely lost their original force and meaning.

Every student of religious history knows that a religious system is a complex growth, far more complex than would appear at first sight; that it is sure to contain relics of previous eras of human experience, embedded in the social strata as lifeless fossils. These only indeed survive because human nature is intensely conservative, especially in religious matters; and of this conservative instinct the Romans afford as striking an example as we can readily find. They clung with extraordinary tenacity, all through their history, to old forms; they seem to have had a kind of superstitious feeling that these dead forms had still a value as such, though all the life was gone out of them. It would be easy to illustrate this curious feature of the Roman mind from the history of its religion; it never disappeared; and to this day the Catholic church in Italy retains in a thinly-disguised form many of the religious practices of the Roman people.

Stage after stage must have been passed by the Latins long before our story rightly begins; how many revolutions of thought they underwent, how much they learnt and took over from earlier inhabitants of the country in which they finally settled, we cannot even guess. As I said in the last lecture, we have no really ancient history of the Romans, as we have, for example, of the Egyptians or Babylonians; to us it is all darkness, save where a little light has been thrown on the buried strata by archaeology and anthropology. That little light, which may be expected to increase in power, shows survivals here and there of primitive modes of thought; and these I propose to deal with now in the following order. Totemism I shall mention merely to clear it out of the way; but taboo will take us some little time, and so will magic in its various forms.

About totemism all I have to say is this. As I write, Dr. Frazer's great work on this subject has just appeared; it is entirely occupied with totemism among modern savages, true totemic peoples, with the object of getting at the real principles of that curious stratum of human thought, and he leaves to others the discussion of possible survivals of it among Aryans, Semites, and Egyptians. He himself is sceptical about all the evidence that has been adduced to prove its existence in classical antiquity (see vol. i. p. 86 and vol. iv. p. 13). Under these circumstances, and seeing that Dr. Frazer has always been the accepted exponent of totemism in this country since the epoch-making works appeared of Tylor and Robertson Smith, it is obviously unnecessary for me either to attempt to explain what it is, or to examine the attempts to find survivals of it in ancient Italy. When it first became matter of interest to anthropologists it was only natural that they should be apt to find it everywhere. Dr. Jevons, for example, following in the steps of Robertson Smith, found plenty of totemistic survivals both in Greece and Italy in writing his valuable Introduction to the History of Religion; but he is now aware that he went too far in this direction. Quite recently there has been a run after the same scent in France; not long ago a French scholar published a book on the ensigns of the Roman army,[23] which originally represented certain animals, and using Dr. Frazer's early work on totemism with a very imperfect knowledge of the subject, tried to prove that these were originally totem signs. Roman names of families and old Italian tribe-names are still often quoted as totemistic; but the Fabii and Caepiones, named after cultivated plants, and the Picentes and Hirpini, after woodpecker and wolf, though tempting to the totemist, have not persuaded Dr. Frazer to accept them as totemistic, and may be left out of account here; there may be many reasons for the adoption of such names besides the totemistic one. In the course of the last Congress of religious history, a sober French scholar, M. Toutain, made an emphatic protest against the prevailing tendency in France, of which the leading representative is M. Salomon Reinach.[24] Let us pass on at once to the second primitive mode of thought which I mentioned just now, and which is not nearly so remote--speaking anthropologically--from classical times as totemism. Totemism belongs to a form of society, that of tribe or clan, in which family life is unknown in our sense of the word, and it is therefore wholly remote from the life of the ancient Italian stocks, in whose social organisation the family was a leading fact; but taboo seems rather to be a mode of thought common to primitive peoples up to a comparatively advanced stage of development, and has left its traces in all systems of religion, including those of the present day.

By this famous word taboo, of Polynesian origin, is to be understood a very important part of what I have called the protoplasm of primitive religion, and one closely allied both to magic and fetishism. For our present purposes we may define it as a mysterious influence believed to exist in objects both animate and inanimate, which makes them dangerous, infectious, unclean, or holy, which two last qualities are often almost identical in primitive thought, as Robertson Smith originally taught us.[25] What exactly the savage or semi-civilised mind thought about this influence we hardly yet know; we have another Polynesian word, mana, which expresses conveniently its positive aspect, and may in time help us towards a better understanding of it.[26] It is in origin pre-animistic, i.e. it is not so much believed to emanate from a spirit residing in the object, as from some occult miasmatic quality. All human beings in contact with other men or things possessing this quality are believed to suffer in some way, and to communicate the infection which they themselves receive. As Dr. Farnell says in his chapter on the ritual of purification,[27] "The sense-instinct that suggests all this was probably some primeval terror or aversion evoked by certain objects, as we see animals shrink with disgust at the sight or smell of blood. The nerves of savage man are strangely excited by certain stimuli of touch, smell, taste, sight; the specially exciting object is something that we should call mysterious, weird, or uncanny."

Based on this notion of constant danger from infection, there arose a code of unwritten custom as rigid as that enforced by a careful physician in infectious cases at the present day; and thus, too, in course of time there was developed the idea of the possibility of disinfection, an idea as salutary as the discovery in medical science of effective methods for the disinfection of disease. The code of taboo had an obvious ethical value, as Dr. Jevons pointed out long ago;[28] like all discipline carried out with a social end in view, it helped men to realise that they were under obligations to the community of which they were a part, and that they would be visited by severe penalties if they neglected these duties. But it inevitably tended to forge a set of fetters binding and cramping the minds of its captives with a countless number of terrors; life was full of constant anxiety, of that feeling expressed by the later Romans in the word religio,[29] which, as we shall see, probably had its origin in this period of primitive superstition. The only remedy is the discovery of the means of disinfection, or, as we commonly call it, of purification: a discovery which must have been going on for ages, and only finds its completion at Rome in the era of the City-state. We shall return to this part of the subject when we deal with the ritual of purification; at present we must attend to certain survivals in that ritual which suggest that at one time the ancestors of the Roman people lived under this unwritten code of taboo.

Let us see, in the first place, how human beings were supposed to be affected by this mysterious influence under certain circumstances and at particular periods of their existence. As universally in primitive life, the new-born infant must originally have been taboo; for every Roman child needed purification or disinfection, boys on the ninth, girls on the eighth day after birth. This day was called the dies lustricus, the day of a purificatory rite; "est lustricus dies," says Macrobius, "quo infantes lustrantur et nomen accipiunt."[30] In historical times the naming of the child was doubtless the more practically important part of the ceremony; though we may note in passing that the mystic value attaching to names, of which there are traces in Roman usage, may have even originally given that part a greater significance than we should naturally attribute to it.[31] Again, when the child reaches the age of puberty, it is all the world over believed to be in a critical or dangerous condition, needing disinfection; of this idea, so far as I know, the later Romans show hardly a trace, but we may suppose that the ceremony of laying aside the toga of childhood, which was accompanied by a sacrifice, was a faint survival of some process of purification.[32] Once more, after a death the whole family had to be purified with particular care from the contagion of the corpse,[33] which was here as everywhere taboo; a cypress bough was stuck over the door of the house of a noble family to give warning to any passing pontifex that he was not to enter it;[34] and those who followed the funeral cortège were purified by being sprinkled with water and by stepping over fire.[35] Society had effectually protected itself against the miasma in all these cases by the discovery of the means of disinfection.

One of the commonest forms of taboo is that on women, who, especially at certain periods, were apparently believed to be "infectious."[36] Of this belief we have very distinct survivals in Roman ritual, which I must here be content to mention only, leaving details to trained anthropologists to explain. We find them both in sacra privata and sacra publica. Cato has preserved the formula for the propitiation of Mars Silvanus in the private rites of the farm; it is to take place in silva, and its object is the protection of the cattle, doubtless those which have been turned out to pasture in the forest, and are therefore in danger from evil beasts and evil spirits. Now this res divina may be performed either by a free man or a slave, but no woman may be present, nor see what is going on.[37] In sacra publica women were excluded from the cult of Hercules at the Ara Maxima, and were not allowed to swear by the name of that god; facts which are usually connected with the doubtful identification of Hercules with Genius, or the male principle of life.[38] More conclusive evidence of taboo in the case of women is the fact that at certain sacrifices they were ordered to withdraw, both mulieres and virgines, together with other persons to be mentioned directly.[39] Unfortunately we are not told what those sacrifices were; but it seems clear enough that there had been at one time a scruple (religio) about admitting women of any age to certain sacred rites. If so, it is remarkable how the good sense of the Roman people overcame any serious disabilities which might have been produced by such ideas; the Roman woman gained for herself a position of dignity, and even of authority, in her household, which had very important results on the formation of the character of the people.[40] Traces of the old superstition doubtless continued to survive in folklore; an example, interesting because it seems to illustrate the positive aspect of taboo (mana), may be found by the curious in Pliny's Natural History, xxviii. 78.

Another widely-spread example of the class of ideas we are discussing is the belief that strangers are dangerous. Dr. Frazer tells us that "to guard against the baneful influence exerted voluntarily or involuntarily by strangers is an elementary dictate of savage prudence." You have to disarm them of their magical powers, to counteract "the baneful influence which is believed to emanate from them."[41] Of this feeling he has collected a great number of convincing illustrations. We find it also surviving in Roman ritual. A note, referred to above, which has come down to us from the learned Verrius Flaccus, informs us that at certain sacrifices the lictor proclaimed "hostis vinctus mulier virgo exesto," where hostis has its old meaning of stranger.[42] This is, of course, merely the old feeling of taboo surviving in the religious ritual of the City-state, and is also no doubt connected with the belief that the recognised deities of a community could not be approached by any but the members of that community; but its taproot is probably to be found in the ideas described by Dr. Frazer. We can illustrate it well from the ritual of another Italian city, Iguvium in Umbria, which, as I mentioned in a note to my last lecture, has come down to us in a very elaborate form. In the ordinance for the lustratio populi of that city the magistrate is directed to expel all members of certain neighbouring communities by a thrice-repeated proclamation.[43] Such fear of strangers is not even yet extinct in Italy. Professor von Duhn told me that once when approaching an Italian village in search of inscriptions he was taken for the devil, being unluckily mounted on a black horse and dressed in black, and was met by a priest with a crucifix, who was at last persuaded to "disinfect" him with holy water as a condition of his being admitted to the village. But the Romans of historical times, in this as in so many other ways, discovered easy methods of overcoming these fears and scruples: we find a good example of this in the organised college of Fetiales, who, on entering as envoys a foreign territory, were fully protected by their sacred herbs, carried by a verbenarius, against all hostile contamination.[44]

A remark seems here necessary about the apparent inconsistency between this feeling of anxiety about strangers and the well-known ancient Italian practice of hospitium, by which two communities, or two individuals, or an individual and a community, entered into relations which bound them to mutual hospitality and kindness in case of need:[45] a practice so widely spread and so highly developed that it may be considered one of the most valuable civilising agents in the early history of Italy. There is, however, no real inconsistency here. In the first place, the stranger who was removed on the occasion of solemn public religious rites may be assumed not to have been in possession of the ius hospitii with the Roman state, and in any case it must be doubtful whether that ius would give him the right of being present at all sacrificial rites. Secondly, the researches of Dr. Westermarck have recently, for the first time, made it clear that both the taboo on strangers and the very widely-spread practice of hospitality can ultimately be traced down to the same root. The stranger is dangerous; but for that very reason it is desirable to secure his good-will at once. He may have the evil eye; but if so, it is as well to disarm him by offering him food and drink, and, when he has partaken of these, by entering into communion with him in the act of partaking also yourself. Expediency would obviously suggest some such remedy for the danger of his presence, and this would in course of time, in accordance with the instinct of Romans and Italians, grow into a set of rules sanctioned by law as well as custom--the ius hospitii.[46]

Hostis vinctus mulier virgo exesto. We have noticed traces of taboo on women and strangers: what of the vinctus? This is, so far as I know, the only proof we have that a man in chains was thought to be religiously dangerous. I am not sure how his expulsion from religious rites is to be explained. It is, however, as well to note that criminals were in primitive societies thought to be uncanny, probably because the commonest of all crimes, if not the only one affecting society as a whole, was the breaking of taboo, which made the individual an outcast.[47] And we may put this together with the fact that in the early City-state such outcasts were probably not kept shut up in a prison, but allowed to wander about secured with chains; this seems a fair inference from the power which the priest of Jupiter (Flamen Dialis) possessed of releasing from his chains any prisoner who entered his house, i.e. who had taken refuge there as in an asylum.[48] Thus the fettered criminal, who was certainly not a citizen, might find his way to the place where a sacrifice was going on, and have to submit to expulsion together with the strangers. It is, however, also possible that the iron of the chains, if they were of iron, made him doubly dangerous; for, as we shall see directly, iron was taboo, and the chains of the prisoner who took refuge with the Flamen had to be thrown out of the house, no doubt for this reason, by the impluvium.[49]

Turning to inanimate objects, which are supposed by primitive man to be dangerous or taboo, we are met by a fact which will astonish anthropologists, and which I cannot satisfactorily explain. Blood is everywhere in the savage world regarded with suspicion and anxiety; there is something mysterious about it as containing (so they thought) the life, and its colour and smell are also uncanny; horses cannot endure it, and there are still strong men who faint at the sight of it. Yet at Rome, so far as I can discover, there was in historical times hardly a trace left of this anxiety in its original form of taboo; the religious law had effectually eliminated the various chances that might arouse it. No student of Roman religious antiquities seems to have noticed this singular fact. No anthropologist, as far as I know, has observed that among the many taboos to which the Flamen Dialis was subject, blood does not appear. The reason no doubt is that anthropologists are not as a rule Roman historians; their curiosity is not excited by a fact which must have some explanation in Roman religious history. From a single passage of Festus (p. 117) we learn that soldiers following the triumphal car carried laurel "ut quasi purgati a caede humana intrarent urbem"; and this is the only distinct relic of the idea that I can find. Pliny's Natural History, that wonderful thesaurus of odds and ends, affords no help; the mystic qualities of blood are hardly alluded to there, and the same can be said of Servius' commentary on the Aeneid. The word blood is not to be found in the index to Wissowa's great work, of which the supreme value is its accurate record of the religious law and all the ceremonies of the State. I am constrained to believe that the priests or priest-kings who developed the ius divinum of the Roman City-state deliberately suppressed the superstition, for reasons which it is impossible to conjecture with certainty. And this guess, which I put forward with hesitation, is indeed in keeping with certain other facts of Roman life. It is doubtful whether human sacrifice ever existed among this people;[50] it is certain that the execution of citizens in civil life by beheading was abandoned at a very early period.[51] The shedding of blood, except when a victim was sacrificed under the rules of sacred law, was carefully avoided; thus the horror of blood had a social and ethical result of value, instead of remaining a mere religio (taboo). It is true that in one or two rites, such as that of the October horse, the blood of a sacrifice seems to have been thought to possess peculiar powers;[52] but it is at the same time noticeable that this rite is not included in the old calendar, a fact of which a wholly satisfactory explanation has not yet been offered. In the Lupercalia there is a trace of the mystic use of blood in sacrifice, but a very faint one: to this we shall return later on. The two Luperci had their foreheads smeared with the knife bloody from the slaughter of the victims, but the blood was at once wiped off with wool dipped in milk.[53] This rite is of course in the old calendar; it stands almost alone in its mystical character, and may have been taken over by the Romans from previous inhabitants of the site of Rome. Lastly, in the Terminalia, or boundary-festival of arable land in country districts, the boundary-stone was sprinkled with the blood of the victims, showing that a spirit, or numen, was believed to reside in it;[54] but I cannot find that this practice survived in the public sacrifices of the city. It is found only in the sacrifices (Graeco ritu) supervised by the XV viri sacris faciundis in that part of the Ludi Saeculares of Augustus which was concerned with Greek chthonic deities in the Campus Martius.[55]

Yet unquestionably there had been a time when many inanimate objects were supposed to have a mystic or dangerous influence; this is sufficiently proved by the long list of taboos to which the unfortunate Flamen Dialis was even in historical times subject. He was forbidden to touch a goat, a dog, raw meat, beans, ivy, wheat, leavened bread; he might not walk under a vine, and his hair and nails might not be cut with an iron knife; and he might not have any knot or unbroken ring about his person. Dr. Frazer has the merit of being the first to point out the real meaning of this strange list of disabilities, and to explain the mystic or miasmatic origin of some of them.[56] They need not detain us now, as they are survivals only, and survivals of ideas which must have been long extinct before Roman history can be said to begin. Almost the only one among them of which we have other traces is the taboo on iron, which must have been of comparatively late date, as the use of iron in Italy seems only to have begun about the eighth century B.C.[57] This is found also in the ritual of the Arval Brotherhood, the ancient agricultural priesthood revived by Augustus, and better known to us than any other owing to the discovery of its Acta in the site of the sacred grove between Rome and Ostia. These Brethren had originally suffered from the taboo on iron; but in characteristic fashion they had discovered that a piacular or disinfecting sacrifice would sufficiently atone for its use whenever it was necessary to take a pruning-hook within the limits of the grove.[58] We may here also recall the fact that no iron might be used in the building or repairing of the ancient pons sublicius, the oldest of all the bridges of the Tiber.[59]

Every one who wishes to get an idea of the nature of taboo in primitive Rome, and of the way in which it was got rid of, should study the disabilities of the Flamen Dialis, and satisfy himself of their absence, with the exception just mentioned, and possibly one or two more, in the ritual of historical Rome. Nothing is more likely to convince him of the way in which Roman civilisation contrived to leave these superstitions as mere fossils, incapable any longer of doing mischief by cramping the conscience and inducing constant anxiety. If he is disposed to ask why such a large number of these fossils should be found attached to the priesthood of Jupiter, I must ask him to let me postpone that question, which would at this moment lead us too far afield.

I may, however, mention here that the Flaminica Dialis, who was not priestess of Juno as is commonly supposed, but assisted her husband in the cult of Jupiter, was also subject to certain taboos. On three occasions in the religious year she might not appear in public with her hair "done up," viz. the moving of the ancilia in March, the festival of the Argei in March and May, and during the cleansing of the penus Vestae in June. Also she might not wear shoes made from the skin of a beast that had died a natural death, but only from that of a sacrificial victim. There are traces of a religio about shoe-leather, I may remark, both in the Roman and in other religious systems. Varro tells us that "in aliquot sacris et sacellis scriptum habemus, Ne quid scorteum adhibeatur: ideo ne morticinum quid adsit." Leather was taboo in the worship of the almost unknown deity Carmenta. Petronius describes women in the cult of Jupiter Elicius walking barefoot; and we are reminded of the well-known rule which still survives in Mahommedan mosques.[60] The original idea may have been that the skin of an animal not made sacred by sacrifice might destroy the efficacy of the worship contemplated. On the other hand, the skin of a duly sacrificed animal had potency of a useful kind--a fact or belief so widespread as to need no illustration here; but we shall come upon an example of it in my next lecture.

Certain places were also affected by the idea of taboo. In the later religious law of the City-state the sites of all temples, i.e. all places in which deities had consented to take up their abode, were of course holy; but this is a much more mature development, though it unquestionably had its root in the same idea that we are now discussing. Such sites, as we shall see in a later lecture, were loca sacra, and sacer is a word of legal ritual, meaning that the place has been made over to the deity by certain formulae, accompanied with favourable auspices, under the authority of the State.[61] But there were other holy places which were not sacra but religiosa; and the word religiosum here might almost be translated "affected by taboo." Wissowa provides us with a list of these places, and this and the quotations he supplies with it are of the utmost value for my present subject.[62] They comprised, of course, all holy places which the State had not duly consecrated, and therefore some which hardly concern us here, such as shrines belonging to families and gentes, and temple-sites in the provinces of a later age. More to our purpose at this moment are the spots where thunderbolts were supposed to have fallen. Such spots were encircled with a low wall and called puteal from their resemblance to a well, or bidental from the sacrifice there of a lamb as a piaculum; the bolt was supposed to be thus buried, and the place became religiosum.[63] So, too, all burial-grounds were not loca sacra but loca religiosa, technically because they were not the property of the state or consecrated by it; in reality, I venture to say, because the place where a corpse was deposited was of necessity taboo. Such places were extra commercium, and their sanctity might not be violated: "religiosum est," wrote the learned Roman Masurius Sabinus, "quod propter sanctitatem aliquam remotum et sepositum est a nobis."[64] So, too, the great lawyer of Cicero's time, Servius Sulpicius, defines religio as "quae propter sanctitatem aliquam remota ac seposita a nobis sit," where he is using religio in the sense of a thing or place to which a taboo attaches.[65] And again, another authority, Aelius Gallus, said that religiosum was properly applied to an object in regard to which there were things which a man might not do: "quod si faciat," he goes on, "adversus deorum voluntatem videatur facere."[66] These last words are in the language of the City-state; if we would go behind it to that of an earlier age, we should substitute words which would express the feeling or scruple, the religio, without reference to any special deity. Virgil has pictured admirably this feeling as applied to places, in describing the visit of Aeneas to the site of the future Rome under the guidance of his host Evander (Aen. viii. 347):--

hinc ad Tarpeiam sedem et Capitolia ducit, aurea nunc, olim silvestribus horrida dumis. iam tum religio pavidos terrebat agrestis dira loci: iam tum silvam saxumque tremebant. "hoc nemus, hunc," inquit, "frondoso vertice collem, (quis deus, incertum est) habitat deus."

This is a passage on which I shall have to comment again: at present I will content myself with noting how accurately the poet, who of all others best understood the instincts of the less civilised Italians of his own day, has used his knowledge to express the antique feeling that there were places which man must shrink from entering--a feeling far older than the invention of legal consecratio by the authorities of a City-state.

Lastly, the principle of taboo, or religio, if we use the Latin word, affected certain times as well as places. Just as under the ius divinum of the fully-developed State certain spots were made over to the deities for their habitation and rendered inviolable by consecratio, so certain days were also appointed as theirs which the human inhabitants might not violate by the transaction of profane business. But I have just pointed out that the consecration of holy places in this legal fashion was a late development of a primitive feeling or religio; exactly the same, if I am not mistaken, was the case with regard to the holy days. These were called nefasti, and belong to the life of the State; but there were others, called religiosi, which I believe to have been tabooed days long before the State arose.

When we come to examine the ancient religious calendar, it will be found that I shall not then be called upon to deal with dies religiosi, for the very good reason that they are not indicated in that calendar--there is no mark for them as religiosi, and some of them are not even dies nefasti, as we might naturally have expected.[67] What, then, is the history of them? We may be able to make a fair guess at this by noting exactly what these days were; Dr. Wissowa has put them together for us in a very succinct passage.[68] He begins the list with the 18th of Quinctilis (July), on which two great disasters had happened to Roman armies, the defeats on the Cremera and the Allia; and also the 16th, the day after the Ides, because, according to the legend, the Roman commander had sacrificed on that day with a view to gaining the favour of the gods in the battle. We may regard the story about the 18th as historical; but then we are told that all days following on Kalends, Nones, and Ides were likewise made religiosi (or atri, vitiosi, which have the same meaning) as being henceforward deemed unlucky by pronouncement of senate and pontifices;[69] thus all dies postriduani, as they were called, were put out of use, or at any rate declared unlucky, for many purposes, both public and private, e.g. marriages, levies, battles, and sacred rites,[70] simply because on one occasion disaster had followed the offering of a sacrifice on the 16th of Quinctilis. It is difficult to believe that thirty-six days in the year were thus tabooed, by a Roman senate and Roman magistrates, in a period when the practical wisdom of the government was beginning to be a marked characteristic of the State. Some people, we are told, went so far as to treat the fourth day before Kalends, Nones, and Ides in the same way; but Gellius declares that he could find no tradition about this except a single passage of Claudius Quadrigarius, in which he said that the fourth day before the Nones of Sextilis was that on which the battle of Cannae was fought.[71]

I am strongly inclined to suggest that the traditional explanation of the tabooing of these thirty-six, or possibly seventy-two days was neither more nor less than an aetiological myth, like hundreds of others which were invented to account for Roman practices, religious and other; and this supposition seems to be confirmed as we go on with the list of dies religiosi as given by Wissowa. The three days--Sextilis 24, October 5, November 8--on which the Manes were believed to come up from the underworld through the mundus (to which I shall return later on) were religiosi;[72] so were those when the temple of Vesta remained open (June 7 to 15),[73] those on which the Salii performed their dances in March and October,[74] two days following the feriae Latinae (a movable festival),[75] and the days of the Parentalia in February and the Lemuria in May, which were concerned with the cult and the memory of the dead.[76] Now the religio or taboo on these days obviously springs either from a feeling of anxiety suggested by very primitive notions of the dead and of departed spirits; or in the case of the temple of Vesta, by some mystical purification or disinfection preparatory to the ingathering of the crops, which I noticed in my Roman Festivals (p. 152 foll.); or again in the case of the Salii, by some danger to the crops from evil spirits, etc., which might be averted by their peculiar performances. In fact, all these dies religiosi date as such, we may be pretty sure, from a very primitive period before the genesis of the City-state, and were not recognised--for what reason we will not at present attempt to guess--as religiosi by the authorities who drew up the Calendar. Some of them appear in that calendar as dies nefasti, but not all; and I am entirely at one with Wissowa, whose knowledge of the Roman religious law is unparalleled for exactness, in believing that a religio affecting a day had nothing whatever to do with its character as fastus or nefastus.[77]

If all these last-mentioned dies religiosi are such because ancient popular feeling attached the religio to them, we may infer, I think, that the same was really the case also with the dies postriduani. The fact that the authorities of the State had made one or two days religiosi as anniversaries of disasters, supplied a handy explanation for a number of other dies religiosi of which the true explanation had been entirely lost; but that there was such a true explanation, resting on very primitive beliefs, I have very little doubt. Lucky and unlucky days are found in the unwritten calendars of primitive peoples in many parts of the world. An old pupil, now a civil servant in the province of Madras, has sent me an elaborate account of the notions of this kind existing in the minds of the Tamil-speaking people of his district of southern India. The Celtic calendar recently discovered at Coligny in France contains a number of mysterious marks, some of which may have had a meaning of this kind.[78] Dr. Jevons has collected some other examples from various parts of the world, e.g. Mexico.[79] The old Roman superstition about the luckiness of odd days and the unluckiness of even ones, which appears, as we shall see, in the arrangement of the calendar, was probably at one time a popular Italian notion, not derived, as used to be thought, from Pythagoras and his school.

I therefore conclude that we may add times and seasons to the list of those objects, animate and inanimate, which were affected by the practice of taboo in primitive Rome; and I hold that the word religiosus, as applied both to times and places, exactly expresses the feeling on which that practice is based. The word religiosus came to have another meaning (though it retained the old one as well) in historical times, and the Romans could be called religiosissimi mortalium in the sense of paying close attention to worship and all its details. But the original meaning of religio and religiosus may after all have been that nervous anxiety which is a special characteristic of an age of taboo.[80] To discover the best methods of soothing that anxiety, or, in other words, the methods of disinfection, was the work of the organised religious life of family and State which we are going to study. But I must first devote a lecture to another class of primitive survivals.

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]