Thursday, January 29, 2009

Festivals in May

May was a month of more critical importance for the welfare of the crops, and therefore its festivals were mostly of a more sombre character. The 9th, 11th, and 13th were the days set apart for the Lemuria, the aversion of the hostile spirits of the dead, of which we have already spoken, and a similarly gloomy character probably attached to the Agonia of Vediovis on the 21st. But of far the greatest interest is the moveable feast of the Ambarvalia, the great lustration of the fields, which took place towards the end of the month: the date of its occurrence was no doubt fixed according to the state of the crops in any given year. As the individual farmer purified his own fields for the aversion of evil, so a solemn lustration of the boundaries of the state was performed by special priests, known as the Arval brethren (fratres Arvales). With ceremonial dancing (tripudium) they moved along the boundary-marks and made the farmer's most complete offering of the pig, sheep, and ox (suovetaurilia): the fruits of the last year and the new harvest (aridae et virides) played a large part in the ceremonial, and a solemn litany was recited for the aversion of every kind of pest from the crops. In Virgil's account the prayer is made to Ceres, and we know that in imperial times, when the Ambarvalia became very closely connected with the worship of the imperial house, the centre of the cult was the earth-goddess, Dea Dia; but in the earliest account of the rustic ceremony which we possess in Cato, Mars is addressed in the unmistakeable character of an agricultural deity. 'Father Mars, I pray and beseech thee that thou mayest be gracious and favourable to me, to my home, and my household, for which cause I have ordained that the offering of pig, sheep, and ox be carried round my fields, my land, and my farm: that thou mayest avert, ward off, and keep afar all disease, visible and invisible, all barrenness, waste, misfortune, and ill weather: that thou mayest suffer our crops, our corn, our vines and bushes to grow and come to prosperity: that thou mayest preserve the shepherds and the flocks in safety, and grant health and strength to me, to my home, and my household.' We have perhaps here another rustic ceremony addressed in origin to all numina, whom it might concern, and, as it were, specialising itself from time to time in an appeal to one definite deity or another, but it is also clear evidence of an early agricultural association of Mars. The Ambarvalia is one of the most picturesque of the field ceremonies, and a peculiarly beautiful and imaginative description of it may be found in the first chapter of Pater's Marius the Epicurean.

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