Roman Empire | Roman Religious Practices
ON THE USE OF HUTS OR BOOTHS IN RELIGIOUS RITUAL
This may be taken as an addendum to Lecture II. on taboo at Rome; but
owing to the uncertainty of the explanation given in it, I reserved it
for an Appendix. The custom here dealt with is found both in the public
and private worship of the Romans, and also in Greece and elsewhere, but
has never, so far as I know, been investigated by anthropologists.
On the Ides of March, at the festival of Anna Perenna, a deity explained
as representing "the ring of the year," whose cult is not recognised in
the ancient religious calendar, the lower population came out of the
city, and lay about all day in the Campus Martius, near the Tiber. Ovid,
fortunately, took the trouble to describe the scene in the third book of
his Fasti, as he had witnessed it himself. Some of them, he says, lay
in the open, some constructed tents, and some made rude huts of stakes
and branches, stretching their togas over them to make a shelter.
plebs venit ac virides passim disiecta per herbas
potat, et accumbit cum pare quisque sua.
sub Iove pars durat, pauci tentoria ponunt,
sunt quibus e ramis frondea facta casa est,
pars, ubi pro rigidis calamos statuere columnis,
desuper extentas imposuere togas.
sole tamen vinoque calent, annosque precantur,
quot sumant cyathos, ad numerumque bibunt.
It appears also from Ovid's account that there was much drunkenness and
obscene language; this was, in fact, a festa very different in
character from those of the Numan calendar; and that there was a magical
element in the cult of the deity seems proved by the mysterious allusion
to "virgineus cruor" in connection with her grove not far from this
scene of revelry, in Martial iv. 64. 17 (cp. Pliny, N.H. xxviii. 78,
and Columella x. 558). Tibullus describes something of the same kind at
a rustic festival, though he does not make it clear what time of
year he is speaking of; a few lines before he had mentioned the drinking
and leaping over the fire at the Parilia, the shepherd's festival in
April, though I cannot feel sure that the following lines are also meant
to refer to it:--
tunc operata deo pubes discumbet in herba,
arboris antiquae qua levis umbra cadit,
aut e veste sua tendent umbracula sertis
vincta, coronatus stabit et ipse calix.
Here it is too much to suppose that the umbracula were contrived
to make up for the want of shade in a country so covered
with woodland as Italy was then; and the words "sertis vincta"
show that there was some special meaning in the practice. I
think we may guess that in both instances the extemporised huts
had some forgotten religious meaning. Yet another passage of
Tibullus, which also describes a rural festival, alludes to a similar
custom. I have given reasons in the Classical Review for
thinking that this was a summer festival, accompanied as it was,
like many midsummer rites all over Europe, by bonfires and
revelry, though the usual interpretation ascribes it to the winter.
tunc nitidus plenis confisus rusticus agris
ingeret ardenti grandia ligna foco,
turbaque vernarum, saturi bona signa coloni,
ludet et ex virgis exstruet ante casas.
The slaves can here hardly be playing at building houses of
twigs, like the children in Horace's Satire, unless we are to
suppose that Tibullus is thinking of slave children only, which
is indeed possible; but even if that were so, how are we to
account for the popularity of this curious form of sport?
There was, however, at Rome a public summer festival,
included in the calendar, in which we find this same custom.
At the Neptunalia, on July 23, huts or booths were erected,
made of the foliage of trees. "Umbrae vocantur Neptunalibus
casae frondeae pro tabernaculis," says Festus (following Verrius
Flaccus), where the last word is one in regular use for military
tents. This is the only thing that is told us about this festival,
and we may assume that even this would not have come down
to us if it had not been a survival rigidly adhered to, i.e. the
construction of shelters from the foliage of trees, instead of
using tents, which could easily have been procured in the city.
As the festival was in the hot month of July, we might suppose
that shelter from the sun was the real object here; but we do
not hear of it at other summer festivals, and the parallel practices
I shall now mention make the rationalising explanation very
doubtful. It is unlucky that we know hardly anything about
the older and un-Graecised Neptunus, and nothing about his
festival except this one fact; the comparative method is here
our only hope.
The Jewish feast of tabernacles will, of course, occur at once to every
one; this was in the heat of the summer, and the booths were here, as at
the Neptunalia, made of the branches of trees; the explanation
given to the Israelites was not that they were thus to shelter
themselves from the heat, but to be reminded of their homeless
wanderings in the wilderness, plainly an aetiological account, as in the
case of the passover. There are distinct examples in Greece of the same
practice, e.g. the [Greek: skiades] at the Spartan Carneia, and
tents ([Greek: skênai]) in several cases, as at the mysteries of
Andania, where the peculiar regulations for the construction of the
tents points to a ritualistic origin almost unmistakably. But
perhaps the most striking parallel is to be found in the famous letter
of Gregory the Great, preserved by Bede, about the British converts to
Christianity, who were to be allowed to use their heathen temples as
"Et quia boves solent in sacrificio daemonum multos occidere,
debet iis etiam hac in re aliqua solemnitas immutari: ut die
dedicationis, vel natalicii sanctorum martyrum quorum illic
reliquiae ponuntur, tabernacula sibi circa easdem ecclesias quae ex
fanis commutatae sunt, de ramis arborum faciant, et religiosis conviviis
sollemnitatem celebrent: nec diabolo iam animalia immolent,
et ad laudem Dei in esu suo animalia occident," etc.
Why should Gregory here take the trouble to describe the
material out of which these huts were to be made? Surely
because the custom was one which had been described to him
by Augustine or Mellitus as part of the heathen practice, and
one which he was willing to condone as harmless (possibly with a
recollection of the Jewish feast), since the Britons set great store
If these examples from Europe and Palestine are sufficient to
suggest that there was originally a religious or mystic meaning in
the custom, we must look for its explanation in anthropological
research. Robertson Smith was, I think, the first to suggest a
possible explanation of the Feast of Tabernacles, by comparing
with it the rule, stated in Numbers xxxi. 19, that men might not
enter their houses after bloodshed: "Do ye abide without the
camp seven days: whosoever hath killed any person, and whosoever
hath touched any slain, purify both yourselves and your
captives on the third day and on the seventh day." He also
pointed out that pilgrims are subject to the same rule, or
taboo, in Syria and elsewhere. Since then an immense mass of
evidence has been collected showing that all the world over
persons in a holy or unclean state are placed under this or some
similar restriction; and if this be the case with pilgrims and
warriors after a battle, it may also have been so with worshippers
at some particular festival, even if we are quite unable to recover
the special character of the worship which produced the
restriction. In the Feast of Tabernacles, which was a harvest
festival, the cause seems to have been the great sanctity of the
first-fruits, which are regarded with extreme veneration in many
parts of the world. In the now famous festival of the first-fruits
among the Natchez Indians of Louisiana, of which the details
have been recorded with singular care and obvious accuracy, we
find that the chief, the Great Sun, and all the celebrators, have
to live in huts two miles from their village, while the corn, grown
for the purpose in a particular spot, is sacramentally eaten. It
is quite impossible, without further evidence, which is not likely
ever to be forthcoming, to explain either the Greek, Roman, or
British customs in this way; we must be content with the
general principle that the holiness of human beings at particular
times is liable to carry with it the practice of renouncing your
own dwelling and living in an extemporised hut or booth. The
tents that we hear of in the Greek rites I look upon as late
developments of this primitive practice. The inscription of
Andania, which is the best Greek evidence we possess, dates
only from 91 B.C.; and by that time there would have been
every opportunity for the rude huts to become civilised tents.
The casae made by the vernae in Tibullus' poem were, I would
suggest, a kind of unconscious survival of the same feeling and
practice, the real religious meaning being almost entirely lost.
Lastly, I will venture to suggest that the casae of the Roman
custom, made of branches at the Neptunalia and the feast of
Anna Perenna, and of virgae by the slaves on the farm, are
a reminiscence of the earliest form of Italian dwelling, which
survived to historical times in the round temple of Vesta, and of
which we have examples in the hut-urns discovered in the
necropolis at Alba. The earliest form of all was probably
a round structure made of branches of trees stuck into the
ground, bent inwards at the top and tied together. Just as
bronze instruments survived from an earlier stage of culture in
some religious rites at Rome, so, I imagine, did this ancient
form of dwelling, which really belongs to an age previous to
that of permanent settlement and agricultural routine. The hut
circles of the neolithic age, such as are abundant on Dartmoor,
were probably roofed with branches supported by a central
 Fasti, iii. 525 foll. See R.F. p. 50 foll.
 Tibull. ii. 5. 89 foll. Mr. Mackail has pointed
out to me a passage in the Pervigilium Veneris, line
5, which seems to contain a hint of the same practice
(cp. line 43).
 Tibull. ii. 1. 1-24.
 Classical Review, 1908, p. 36 foll. My
conclusions were criticised by Dr. Postgate in the
Classical Quarterly for 1909, p. 127.
 Hor. Sat. ii. 3. 247.
 Festus, ed. Müller, p. 377.
 Leviticus xxiii. 40-42. Cp. Plutarch, Quaest.
conviv. 4. 2. This was a feast of harvest and
first-fruits (Exodus xxiii. 16). Nehemiah viii. 13 foll.
gives a graphic account of the revival of this festival
after the captivity.
 Athenaeus iv. 41. 8 F. Cp. Farnell, Cults of the
Greek States, vol. iv., p. 260.
 Dittenberger, Sylloge inscript. (ed. 2), 653,
lines 34 foll. Cp. p. 200 (Teos).
 Baeda, Hist. eccl. i. 30 (ed. Plummer). There
is a curious case of isolation in a hut in a process by
which the sacrificer of the soma in the Vedic religion
becomes divine, quoted by Hubert et Mauss, Mélanges,
p. 34. This may possibly afford a clue to the mystery.
 Religion of the Semites, notes K and N at the
end of the volume.
 See e.g. Frazer, G. B. ed. 2, index, s.v.
 It has occurred to me that the shedding of blood
in animal sacrifice may possibly be the reason in some
of these rites. The last words of the passage quoted
above from Baeda suggest this explanation in the case of
the Britons. In the first-fruits festivals the "killing
of the corn" may be a parallel cause of taboo. See G.
B. i. 372.
 Du Pratz, translated in G. B. ii. 332 foll.
 See e.g. Helbig, Die Italiker in der Poebene,
p. 50 foll. Lanciani, Ruins and Excavations of Ancient
Rome, p. 132. It is worth noting that in a passage
quoted by Helbig, Plutarch (Numa 8) uses for some of
the most ancient Roman attempts at temple building the
same word by which he describes the booths at the feast
of tabernacles ([Greek: kaliades]).
 Whether there was in later days any special
religious signification in the use of green foliage and
branches I will not undertake to say, but I have been
struck by the constant use of them in cases of
religious seclusion, even where the person is secluded
in some part of the house, and not outside it. See e.g.
G. B. ii. pp. 205-214.
 Prof. Anwyl, Celtic Religion (Constable's
series), p. 10. Mr. Baring-Gould told Mr. Anwyl that he
had seen in some of the Dartmoor circles central holes
which seemed meant for the fixing of this pole. I will
add here that it has occurred to me that these huts
must, in one sense at least, be a survival (like other
points of ritual), from the days of pastoral life, and
of the migration of the Aryans. Temporary huts are
characteristic of pastoral as contrasted with
agricultural life, and must have been used during the
wanderings, as by the Israelites. See Schrader,
Prehistoric Antiquities of the Aryan Peoples (Eng.
Trans., London, 1890), p. 404.