Thursday, January 29, 2009

Spring Festivals

The old Roman year—as may be seen clearly enough from the names of the months still known by numbers, September, October, etc.—began in March: according to tradition Romulus reckoned a year of ten months altogether, and Numa added January and February. The Spring months properly speaking may be reckoned as March, April, and May. In March there were in the developed Calendar no festivals of an immediately recognisable agricultural character, but the whole month was practically consecrated to its eponymous deity, Mars. Now, to the Roman of the Republic, Mars was undoubtedly the deity associated with war, and his special festivals in this month are of a warlike character: on the 9th the priests (Salii) began the ancient custom of carrying his sacred shields (ancilia) round the town from one ordained resting-place to another: on the 19th, Quinquatrus, the shields were solemnly purified, and on the 23rd the same ceremony was performed with the war-trumpets: the Equirria (horse-races) of March 14 may have had an agricultural origin—we shall meet with races later on as a feature of rustic festivals—but they were certainly celebrated in a military manner. Yet there is good reason for believing that Mars was in origin associated not with war, but with the growth of vegetation: he was, as we shall see, the chief deity addressed in the solemn lustration of the fields (Ambarvalia), and if our general notion of the development of religion with the growing needs of the agricultural community crystallising into a state be correct, it may well be that a deity originally concerned with the interests of the farmer took on himself the protection of the soldier, when the fully developed state came into collision with its neighbours. If so, we may well have in these recurring festivals of Mars the sense, as Mr. Warde Fowler has put it, of 'some great numen at work, quickening vegetation, and calling into life the powers of reproduction in man and the animals.' Possibly another agricultural note is struck in the Liberalia of the 17th: though the cult of Liber was almost entirely overlaid by his subsequent identification with Dionysus, it seems right to recognise in him and his female counterpart, Libera, a general spirit of creativeness.

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