|Mosaic featuring Romulus and Remus.|
“It is an equal crime to eat beans and the heads of one’s parents.”
“Wretches, utter wretches, keep your hands from beans!”
I believe that at the heart of it, ancestor worship is about revering “the good” in one's ancestors and emulating those actions out of reverence and deference.
And yet, I suspect, there is something else. One of the problems that is emblematic of of online debates about ancestor worship is a general “all or nothing” attitude that one sometimes encounters: either an individual seems to be expected to worship every ancestor they have ever had on one end or one encounters those on the other side who declare that every ancestor they have ever had was a worthless bastard, and thus the practice is meaningless!
I find both attitudes to be deeply suspect. The latter issue I shall not discuss at length except to openly beg the question of: does anyone truly believe there is no one who has any redeeming elements in their entire genetic line and history? As for the earlier... Writing on the subject of belief in the dead, Lewis Bayles Patton comments that:
“Although, according to antique, the dead lost their physical powers, they lost none of their higher spiritual powers of knowledge, feeling, and will. Ancestors retained a keen interest in their posterity and actively intervened in their affairs. Enemies preserved their original hostility to their foes.”
(Spiritism and the Cult of the Dead in Antiquity. P. 4)
There is a question I feel inclined to ask: what does one do if their ancestor acts aggressively, as an enemy might? While it is easy to dismiss this possibility, there seems to be evidence that the ancients believed this could be the case:
“And Orpheus says: “Men performing rituals will send hekatombs in every season throughout the year and celebrate festivals, seeking release from lawless ancestors. [...]”
(Damascius, Commentary on the Phaedo 1.11.)
Today marks the occasion of just such a festival for release from lawless ancestors: May 9th (as well as the 11th and 13th of May), known to the Romans as Lemuria or Lemuralia. I feel I should let Ovid speak directly as to the nature of the festival:
“When from that day the Evening Star shall thrice have shown his beauteous face, and thrice the vanquished stars shall have retreated before Phoebus, there will be celebrated an olden rite, the nocturnal Lemuria: it will bring offerings to the silent ghosts. The year was formerly shorter, and the pious rites of purification (februa) were unknown, and thou, two-headed Janus, wast not the leader of the months. Yet even then people brought gifts to the ashes of the dead, as their due, and the grandson paid his respects to the tomb of his buried grandsire. It was the month of May, so named after our forefathers (maiores), and it still retains part of the ancient custom.”
(Fasti, Book V.)
Later, after discussing the rites that the paterfamilias was expected to perform on the date, he explains the origin of the Festival:
“Why the day was called Lemuria, and what is the origin of the name, escapes me; it is for some god to discover it. Son of the Pleiad, thou reverend master of the puissant wand, inform me: oft hast thou seen the palace of the Stygian Jove. At my prayer the Bearer of the Herald’s Staff (Caducifer) was come. Learn the cause of the name; the god himself made it known.When Romulus had buried his brother’s ghost in the grave, and the obsequies had been paid to the too nimble Remus, unhappy Faustulus and Acca, with streaming hair, sprinkled the burnt bones with their tears. Then at twilight’s fall they sadly took the homeward way, and flung themselves on their hard couch, just as it was. The gory ghost of Remus seemed to stand at the bedside and to speak these words in a faint murmur: “Look on me, who shared the half, the full half of your tender care, behold what I am come to, and what I was of late! A little while ago I might have been the foremost of my people, if but the birds had assigned the throne to me. Now I am an empty wrath, escaped from the flames of the pyre; that is all that remains of the once great Remus. Alas, where is my father Mars? If only you spoke the truth, and it was he who sent the wild beast’s dugs to suckle the abandoned babes. A citizen’s rash hand undid him whom the she-wolf saved; O how far more merciful was she! Ferocious Celer, mayest thou yield up thy cruel soul through wounds, and pass like me all bloody underneath the earth! My brother willed not this: his love’s a match for mine: he let fall upon my death – ‘twas all he could – his tears. Pray him by your tears, by your fosterage, that he would celebrate a day by signal honour done to me.”
As the ghost gave this charge, they yearned to embrace him and stretched forth their arms; the slippery shade escaped the clasping hands. When the vision fled and carried slumber with it, the pair reported to the king his brother’s words. Romulus complied, and gave the name Remuria to the day on which due worship is paid to buried ancestors. In the course of ages the rough letter, which stood at the beginning of the name, was changed into the smooth; and soon the souls of the silent multitude were also called Lemures: that is the meaning of the word, that is the force of the expression. But the ancients shut the temples on these days, as even now you see them closed at the season sacred to the dead. The times are unsuitable for the marriage both of a widow and a maid: she who marries then, will not live long. For the same reason, if you give weight to proverbs, the people say bad women wed in May. But these three festivals fall about the same time, though not on three consecutive days.”
So the festival itself goes back to the foundation of Rome, following the slaying of Remus by Romulus. It is a day in which the dead, wronged or angered or not, are propitiated so that they might be kept from harming their line in the days that follow.
In many respects, I cannot help but compare Lemuria to the Greek festival of Anthesteria, although we are entirely lacking in Dionysian elements (at least as far as I can tell). While they both fall on different dates (although this may be due to calendar changes, as Ovid seems to suggest) the places where they overlap are fascinating: in addition to propitiating the dead and holding that the time of the festival was their time (as well as 'dangerous' or 'impure'), the Vestals made mola salsa: a flour-based salted cake, made from the first wheat harvested that year. I cannot help but compare that act to the creation of pottage offered to Hermes Kthonios during Anthesteria, although I acknowledge that they are different: the Vestals would use the mola salsa again during sacrifices at Vestalia and Lupercalia. However, the fact that the 'first wheat' was used seems similar to my mind of the pottage made during Chytroi, which often included the first fruits and grains. The final similarity between the two is that both Anthesteria and Lemuria were considered “unlucky,” although the Romans felt that these three days rendered the entire month of may unlucky (and especially bad for marriages).
|Sign of the Fig.|
As for the performance of the rites, Ovid's directions are more or less straightforward:
“When midnight has come and lends silence to sleep, and dogs and all ye varied fowls are hushed, the worshipper who bears the olden rite in mind and fears the gods arises; no knots constrict his feet; and he makes a sign with his thumb in the middle of his closed fingers (the Sign of the Fig), lest in his silence an unsubstantial shade should meet him.And after washing his hands clean in spring water, he turns, and first he receives black beans and throws them away with face averted; but while he throws them, he says: “Haec ego emitto; his redimo meque meosque fabis.” (With these beans I redeem me and mine.)This he says nine times, without looking back: the shade is thought to gather the beans, and to follow unseen behind. Again he touches water, and clashes Temesan bronze, and asks the shade to go out of his house. When he has said nine times, “Manes exite paterni!” (Ghost of my fathers, go forth!)He looks back, and thinks that he has duly performed the sacred rites.”
On my end, I do not feel simply offering black beans to propitiate the ancestors is enough. The beans – which are a taboo object in certain cultures that associate them with the dead – are not all that I plan to offer, though. While I am perfectly content to propitiate and dismiss the more noxious ancestors, I find myself desiring to make honey-cakes for those ancestors who do their job. I am certainly not a Vestal virgin, and making mola salsa is perhaps not something I should do, but I still think even a festival such as this can include... less dramatic and fearful offerings. After all, it's what magicians do, and today is a good day to do it, I think.
“… prayers and sacrifices appease the souls, and the enchanting song of the magician is able to remove the daimones when they impede. Impeding daimones are revenging souls. This is why the magicians perform the sacrifice as if they were paying a penalty. On the offerings they pour water and milk, from which they make the libations, too. They sacrifice innumerable and many-knobbed cakes, because the souls, too, are innumerable.”
(The Derveni Papyrus.)
Be seeing you,
EDIT: In the original version of this entry, I expressed hostility towards Helio and his thoughts on Polytheism.com. This blog entry was neither the place nor was it the time to do so, and more importantly, it appears I may have misunderstood what I read and - while responding emotionally - mischaracterized the entire discussion. For this, I apologize to the site management of Polytheist.com and Helio in particular. This month has been one of virulent fights all over, I have been reconsidering my interactions with others, and how and why I engage in such activities. The only way to fix this is to try and change my behavior, regardless of anything else.