Jan 24, 2016

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The Festival of Lemuria

The Festival of Lemuria

LemuriaIn Ancient Roman mythology, the malignant spirits of the dead were referred to as lemures. Lemures were thought to be the vengeful ghosts of those who were not given a proper burial, slain enemies, or those who had no living family to honor them after death. These spirits, who were associated with dread and darkness, were believed to be formless, but perceptible by the living. The chthonic deities were greatly feared and said to be able to infest homes or farms.

While the Romans honored their benevolent ancestors regularly, they also set aside a part of the year for banishing lemures. Every year on the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth of May, they held a festival dedicated to exorcising the restless spectres of the dead from their homes. This ancient feast was known as Lemuralia or Lemuria. According to the Ovid, the Lemuria is derived from the Rumeria, a festival instituted by Romulus to appease the spirit of his murdered brother, Remus.

During the festival, the head of each household was supposed to rise at midnight and then wash his hands three times. Then, he would walk around the house barefooted and throw black beans over his shoulder while reciting the following nine times: “Haec ego mitto, his redimo meque meosque fabis”. This phrase means, “I send these; with these beans I redeem me and mine.”

There were two rituals performed by the Vestal Virgins associated with the festival. First, they prepared sacrad mola salsa, or salted flour, from the first ears of wheat collected for the season. The mola salsa was sprinkled on the animals prior to their sacrifice, the ceremonial altar, and into the sacred fire throughout the year. On May 13th, the second ritual included the practice of throwing images of thirty old men from the Pons Sublicius into the Tiber River.

There were public events that included honoring Mars with games held in the Circus Maximus on May 11th. On May 13th, the merchants would offer up incense and use laurel branches to sprinkle water from the well of Mercury at the Porta Capena over themselves and their goods. This was done in commemoration of the dedication of the Temple of Mercury in 495 BC and was thought to help their businesses prosper.

The entire month of May came to be considered unlucky due to the annual exorcism of evil spirits. Because of this, it was thought to be very unlucky to be married during this month, and to do so might even bring death to those who were wed. This superstition gave rise to the proverb “Mense Maio malae nubent”, which means “They wed ill who wed in May.”

According to cultural historians, All Saints Day was a Christianized version of Lemuria that was established first in Rome on May 13th. This was an attempt to de-paganize the holiday. It is recorded that on May 13, 609 or 610, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs, and since then Rome has celebrated the feast of that dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Martyres on this day.

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