Friday, January 30, 2009

Winter Festivals

The winter-festivals cannot be summed up under one general notion so easily as those of spring or summer, but they fall fairly naturally into two groups—the festivals immediately connected with agricultural life and those associated with the dead and the underworld or with solemn purification. The main action of the farmer's life during the winter is, of course, the sowing of the next year's crop, which was commemorated in the ancient festival of the Saturnalia on December 17. Though the Saturnalia is perhaps the most familiar to us of all the Roman festivals, partly from the allusions in the classics, especially in Horace, partly because it is no doubt the source of many of our own Christmas festivities, it is yet almost impossible now to recover anything of its original Roman character. Greek influence set to work on it very early, identifying Saturnus with Cronos and establishing him in a Greek temple with all the accompaniments of Greek ritual. All the familiar features of the festival—the freedom and license of the slaves, the giving of presents, even the wax-candles, which are the prototype of those on our own Christmas-tree—are almost certainly due to Greek origin. We are left with nothing but the name Saturnus (connected with the root of semen, serere) and the date to assure us that we have here in reality a genuine Roman festival of the sowing of the crops. Of a similar nature—marking, as Ovid tells us, the completion of the sowing—was the feriae sementivae or Paganalia, associated with the earth-goddesses, Ceres and Tellus. Meal-cakes and a pregnant sow were the offerings, the beasts who had helped in the ploughing were garlanded, and prayer was made for the seed resting in the ground. A curious feature of the winter worship is the repetition of festivals to the harvest deities, Consus and Ops, separated by the same interval of three days, on December 15 and 19: it may be that we have here an indication of the final completion of the harvest, or, as Mr. Warde Fowler has suggested, a ceremonial opening of the storehouses, to see that the harvest is not rotting. Among the other country festivals of the period we may notice that of Carmenta, on the 11th and 15th of January: she seems to have been in origin a water-numen, but was early associated with childbirth: hence the rigid exclusion of men from her ceremonies and possibly the taboo on leathern thongs, on the ground that nothing involving death must be used in the worship of a deity of birth. The repetition of her festival may possibly point to separate celebrations of the communities of Palatine and Quirinal. At this time, too, occurred the rustic ceremonies at the boundaries (Terminalia) and the offering to the Lares at the 'marches' (Compitalia), of which we have spoken in treating of the worship of the house.

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