The Roman calendar for December is probably best known for the festival of Saturnalia, the midwinter festival in honour of Saturn. But earlier in the month on the 5th December was a less well-known festival, dedicated to Saturn’s grandson, Faunus, a god of the wildwood.
The Romans celebrated Faunalia Rustica not in Rome but the countryside.
Faunus was an unpredictable deity who could cause havoc to those who farmed the land around his wildwoods. However, if correctly pacified, he could be helpful– especially during the winter season.
The God Faunus
Virgil’s Aeneid described Faunus as the father of King Latinus and the son of Picus, another Latin king, who was, in his turn, a son of Saturn. This made Faunus genetically semi-divine.
But to the Romans, Faunus was primarily a wild god of the forest. They attributed any mysterious sounds that came from the trees to him. According to Varro’s ‘On the Latin Language,’ anyone who slept in Faunus’s woods would be gifted with prophetic dreams. Ovid describes how King Numa received wisdom in this way.
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Sometimes there was no need to dream. Dionysius of Harlicarnassus describes how a Roman army, unsure if it should continue in war, heard a voice:
“From the grove near which they were encamped, calling aloud to both armies in such a manner as to be heard by all of them… The voice of the divinity exhorted the Romans to be of good courage, as having gained the victory, and declared that the enemy’s dead exceeded theirs by one man. They say that Valerius, encouraged by this voice, pushed on to the Tyrrhenians’ entrenchments while it was still the dead of night, and having slain many of them and driven the rest out of the camp, made himself master of it.”
Faunus was also known as inuus or ‘fructifier.’ According to Servius, quoted by Dumezil, he was: ‘ad innuendo passim cum omnibus animalibus’– another way of saying he was a Lord of the animals.
The name ‘Faunus’ comes from the root word favere or ‘kindly one.’ But Faunus could be anything but kindly. Dionysius also describes how his apparitions could inspire ‘terror.’ He could become an incubus, pursuing women through their dreams. He could also make life a misery for farmers around his groves.
If they were foolish enough to claim woodland as fields for their farms without first appeasing him, Faunus would appear as an apparition on the edge of the fields, haunting them.
The Faunalia: a Roman Pagus
But, by taking precautions and offering him sacrifices, it was possible to pacify and tame Faunus– for a while at least. Ovid describes how country folk would make the “the altars of rural Faunus smoke” with the sacrifices to ensure the god of the wildwood blessed their fields and livestock with fruitfulness– rather than persecuting and blighting them.
For this reason, the Faunalia Rustica was a festival of the countryside, which explains why it never appeared on the official calendars of Rome. III.18 of Horace’s Odes captures the essence of the festival and its rituals:
“O Faunus, thou lover of the flying nymphs, benignly traverse my borders and sunny fields and depart propitious to the young offspring of my flocks; if a tender kid fall [a victim] to thee at the completion of the year and plenty of wines be not wanting in the goblet, the companion of Venus and the ancient altar smoke with liberal perfume.
“All the cattle sport in the grassy plain when the nones of December return to thee; the village keeping holiday enjoys leisure in the fields, together with the oxen free from toil. The wolf wanders among the fearless lambs, the wood scatters its rural leaves for thee and the laborer rejoices to have beaten the hated ground in triple dance.”
Purpose of the Faunalia
The sacrifice of a goat kid and wine to the god, while villagers danced and celebrated amongst the autumn leaves, evoked a last festivity before the harshness of winter. But it was also essential to have Faunus’ good favour during the harsh winter season.
The country folk required Faunus’ guardianship of their flocks during the harsh winter months– as well as his good favour if they were to safely mine his woodlands for fuel and supplement their food.© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past