Thursday, January 29, 2009

Magic

Anthropology has taught us that in many primitive societies religion—a sense of man's dependence on a power higher than himself—is preceded by a stage of magic—a belief in man's own power to influence by occult means the action of the world around him. That the ancestors of the Roman community passed through this stage seems clear, and in surviving religious practice we may discover evidence of such magic in various forms. There is, for instance, what anthropology describes as 'sympathetic magic'—the attempt to influence the powers of nature by an imitation of the process which it is desired that they should perform. Of this we have a characteristic example in the ceremony of the aquaelicium, designed to produce rain after a long drought. In classical times the ceremony consisted in a procession headed by the pontifices, which bore the sacred rain-stone from its resting-place by the Porta Capena to the Capitol, where offerings were made to the sky-deity, Iuppiter, but from the analogy of other primitive cults and the sacred title of the stone (lapis manalis), it is practically certain that the original ritual was the purely imitative process of pouring water over the stone. A similar rain-charm may possibly be seen in the curious ritual of the argeorum sacra, when puppets of straw were thrown into the Tiber—a symbolic wetting of the crops to which many parallels may be found among other primitive peoples. A sympathetic charm of a rather different character seems to survive in the ceremony of the augurium canarium, at which a red dog was sacrificed for the prosperity of the crop—a symbolic killing of the red mildew (robigo); and again the slaughter of pregnant cows at the Fordicidia in the middle of April, before the sprouting of the corn, has a clearly sympathetic connection with the fertility of the earth. Another prominent survival—equally characteristic of primitive peoples—is the sacredness which attaches to the person of the priest-king, so that his every act or word may have a magic significance or effect. This is reflected generally in the Roman priesthood, but especially in the ceremonial surrounding the flamen Dialis, the priest of Iuppiter. He must appear always in festival garb, fire may never be taken from his hearth but for sacred purposes, no other person may ever sleep in his bed, the cuttings of his hair and nails must be preserved and buried beneath an arbor felix—no doubt a magic charm for fertility—he must not eat or even mention a goat or a bean, or other objects of an unlucky character.

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