The tenth month of the old calendar, December marked the end of the agricultural year and the beginning of winter for the Romans. So it was natural for them to want to celebrate the harvest, ward off the darkness of winter, and ensure the continued prosperity of the Roman people.
For this reason, December was a bumper month for Roman festivals. The celebrations of Saturnalia and Mithras are well-known, but the Romans also celebrated a variety of other festivals during this month. These mid-winter festivals included the festivals of Bona Dea, the Consualia, the Opalia, the Angeronalia and the Larentalia.
The Festival of Bona Dea: December 3
Bona Dea was the ‘good goddess’ of the Roman people and they dedicated her festival to their welfare.
As with so many Roman deities, the origins and exact identity of the goddess was obscure. ‘The Phrygians say that this goddess originated with them,’ states Plutarch in his Life of Caesar, but the Romans ‘say that she was a dryad nymph who married Faunus.’ The Greeks on the other hand referred to her as the ‘Unnameable One’ linked to Dionysus.
All Roman society marked the festival of Bona Dea but the main ritual of the festival remained private and happened at night in the house of the chief magistrate.The rite was exclusively female, headed by the Vestal Virgins and the female relatives of the city magistrates. Utterly secretive, its rites were never recorded. What little is known suggests agricultural emblems such as vine branches and a covered wine jar, representing milk and honey featured as decorations.
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The Consualia: December 15
The Romans dedicated this festival to their god of the granary, Consus,whose name came from the verb ‘condere,’ or to store. The festival of Consualia, which they also celebrated in August, marked the gathering of the harvest and the beginning of winter.
Consus was an ancient god, linked to the very beginnings of Rome by Ovid who describes how ‘Romulus prepares Consus’s Feast.’ The god originated in the valley of the Circus Maximus. This area remained the centre for the celebration of his December rites. The Romans stored grain underground and so Consus maintained an underground altar on his ancient territory under the Circus. This altar was only uncovered on his feast days when Consus stood surrounded by statues of other ancient agricultural deities such as Segesta and Tutilina.
During the Consualia, the Flamen Quirinalis and the Vestal Virgins made offerings of the first fruits of the harvest to Consus in his shrine. The religious formalities over, the whole of Rome would enjoy the festival which included horse races.
The Consualia was closely followed by another agricultural festival: the Opalia.
The Opalia: December 19
Celebrated four days after the Consualia, the Opalia honoured Ops, the goddess of abundance and the reserved harvest. Ops’ name meant ‘harvest.’ Her festival overlapped the festival of Saturn, the Saturnalia, leading to Ops being regarded as Saturn’s wife.
The Angeronalia: December 21
Romans also called this festival the Divalia and dedicated it to the goddess Angerona, a mysterious deity known as the goddess of the winter solstice and ‘the goddess of will.’
The statue of the goddess stayed in a temple near the Porta Romanula, one of Rome’s inner gates near the Palatine Hill. The statue of the goddess was kept bound and with her mouth sealed, one finger laid against her gagged lips. Here, priests sacrificed offerings to her on the shortest day of the year.
The name of the goddess and the meaning of her festival are debatable. Some believe her name comes from the Latin ‘angor,’ meaning suffocation, which would correspond to the condition of her statue. It is also possible it comes from ‘angerere,’ to raise up, or ‘angustiae,’ meaning a short period of time. Both relate to the period of the solstice, a short period of darkness before the re-emergence of the power of the sun on the 25th of December.
If this is the case, then the state of the statue of the goddess takes on a different significance. Her bound status may not relate to the negative aspects of silence and death associated with winter but, according to Dumezil, a focusing of will on the re-emerging sun through silence.
The Larentalia: December 23
“I must not ignore you, Larentia,” said Ovid, “Great nation’s nurse.” Clearly he spoke for all Romans as this was the day of the Larentalia, a festival dedicated to the goddess.
The origins of the festival, and the goddess it celebrated were obscure. It seems to relate to the funeral rites of the goddess Acca Larentia.
Acca Larentia’s name suggests she may have been the mother of the city Lares. ‘Acca’ may derive from the Sanskrit word for mother and Larentia from the name Lara or Larunda, the mother of the Lares.
Larentia is also a name applied to the wife of the shepherd who found Romulus and Remus and subsequently acted as their wet-nurse. She could also be a wealthy prostitute who left her wealth to the city of Rome on the condition that the city remembered her annually. This last role again ties in with her link to Romulus and Remus; in the person of the prostitute or lupa, who according to legend, originally saved and suckled them.
The celebration of her festival by the Flamen Quirinus as a Parentalia, or festival for dead parents, suggests that this festival commemorated the divine ancestors of the city of Rome.
Romans Celebrations in December
Like other cultures, Romans honoured their gods and goddesses during festivals each December, resulting in a period rich with symbolism and rituals.
Dumezil, G. Archaic Roman Religion, Volumes 1 and 2. (1996). John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London.
Ovid. Fasti. Trans. Boyle, A J and Woodward, R D. Penguin Books: London.
Price, S and Kearns, E. The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion. (2003). Oxford University Press.
Leftkowitz, M R and Fant, M B. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. (1995). Duckworth: London.© Copyright 2013 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past