The Parentalia and Feralia: Appeasing the Ancestors

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Tombs in Pompeii

The Parentalia was the time Romans visited the necropolis to revere and appease their ancestors. Copyright image by Natasha Sheldon, all rights reserved.

The Romans held their dead in great respect. They were di manes, the ‘good’ dead, and honoured ancestors never to be forgotten.

It was customary for living relatives to visit deceased family member’s graves on their birthday, to celebrate and remember. But twice a year, Roman society publicly honoured the dead.

Romans celebrated the Lemuria in May, but February was the month of Parentalia, dedicated to di parentes or dies parentales – the family dead.

During the eight-day festival, life paused while families observed the rites of remembrance for their ancestors, before the Feralia closed the period.

 The festivities were private; a way to keep the memories of the departed alive. But this was not the only motivation behind this Roman festival of the dead.

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The Rites of the Parentalia

The Parentalia began on the 13th February, when according to the calendar of Philocalus, a vestal virgin performed Virgo Vesta parentat’ – the opening rituals for the dead.

Because of its nature, the days of the Parentalia were tainted. For this reason, the temples closed with “no incense for altars, no fires for hearths,” in the words of Ovid. Magistrates left off their official togas and no marriages were performed.

Otherwise, the rites of the festival were a private occasions for individual families. During the Parentalia, the dead were believed to rise and wander amongst the living, consuming gifts left for them. These gifts took the forms of offerings, made by the deceased’s family. Ovid describes leaving offerings “lying on a shard in mid street’”or visiting the tombs of the departed to “build hearths and add prayers and ritual words” and leaving “sprinkled corn and a thrifty grain of salt.”

In practice, these occasions were not quite so clinical. Archeological evidence from Pompeii indicates that many tombs and necropilii were equipped with seating areas for visitors, set within peaceful garden settings. Some of the more elaborate, according to Virginia Campbell, even had their own triclinia and cooking facilities. This meant, the family of the deceased did not simply perform prescribed rituals, they could prepare and eat meals at the tombs. Even the very poorest could take a picnic.

Whatever the family’s status or standing, the idea was to connect with the ancestors. Relatives honoured and remembered them, garlanding their tombs with violets, sharing a meal with them- and petitioned them for their aid in the continued prosperity of the family.

The Feralia

On The 21st February, a one-day festival, the Feralia, closed the Parentalia. Nothing of the public rites of the Feralia survives to us, although its prominence on public calendars indicate it was a major event. But literature offers clues to its nature.

Varro in ‘On the Latin Language’ describes it as: “the Festival of the Dead,’ from inferi ‘ the dead below ‘ and ‘ to bear,’ because at that time they ferunt ‘ bear ‘ viands to the tomb of those to whom it is a duty to offer ancestor-worship there”.

Ovid describes a strange rite dedicated to Tacita, the goddess of the dead which was preformed on the Feralia by an old woman, surrounded by young girls:

 “Three fingers tuck three incense lumps under a door,

Where a tiny mouse built a hidden path.

The hag then fastens enchanted cords with dark lead,

And rolls seven beans inside her mouth;

And she roast on the fire the sewn head of the sprat

Smeared in pitch and spitted with a bronze rod.

She also drops in wine. What remains of the wine

She or her friends drink (although she drinks more)

‘We have tied hostile tongues and our enemies mouths’

The hag shouts.”

Beans were the food of the dead. The images of binding, sealing and blocking suggests a rite of banishing and removing harm. All of this, plus the involvement of the silent goddess of death suggests this was a rite to bear the dead back to their proper place – and seeing that they stayed there.

Roman tomb

Many high status Roman tombs were designed to include seating-even dining couches and cooking facilities for visiting relatives. Copyright image by Natasha Sheldon, all rights reserved.

The Roman Cult of the Dead

According to Mary Beard, in Religions of Rome, the Romans regarded their dead as intermediaries between themselves and the gods. The petitions for good fortune at the graveside certainly endorse this. But Ovid’s descriptions of the hag’s rites at the Feralia jars with this cosy image of families only divided by the grave.

To understand this contradiction, it is necessary to look at the Roman attitude to death and the deceased.

When a person died, the rites and rituals surrounding the departed were not to help them on their way to the after life – but to keep them well away from the land of the living.

For death polluted. The dead were buried outside city walls, in their own cities of death. After a funeral, a family was impure until they had ritually cleansed both themselves and their homes. Perhaps this was the Roman way of rationalizing the necessity of the hygienic disposal of corpses.

Nevertheless, the Romans never forgot their ancestors. They were honoured for their own sake. But they also needed to be pacified. “Animas placate patterns,” warned Ovid. This was the true reason behind the Parentalia. 

Forget the Dead at your Peril

Ovid describes the consequences of forgetting the dead. Once during a time of war, the Parentalia was not honoured. The consequences were unpleasant.

‘Our ancestors, says Ovid, “left their tombs in night’s silent hour and wailed. The city streets and broad grassland howled, they say, with a hollow throng of shapeless souls.”

But once remembered and pacified, the ancestors were once again at peace.

A Multilayered Festival

The Parentalia served a number of purposes. On one hand, it was a time of honouring and remembering the ancestors-and asking them to intercede for those left behind.

But it was also a way of pacifying the dead, and keeping them in their rightful place… Away from the living.

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© Copyright 2015 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past


  1. Chandran Methil says

    These are extraordinarily similar to Chinese practices for the dead. The Ancient Greeks cremated their dead. Wonder why the Romans,who took many things from the Greeks had these practices honouring their ancestors !!

  2. Natasha Sheldon says

    That’s interesting, Chandran and something I didn’t know. While it’s true, the Roman ‘shaped’ the public aspect of their religion so it matched certain Greek practices (I’m thinking here about the Roman state pantheon), many of their original religious practices developed completely independently of Greece. For instances, God’s like Janis have no equivalent in the Greek pantheon.

    Although archaic Roman religion was no doubt influenced by the Etruscans-who in their turn had been subject to Greek influence. So maybe influence travels in a wide circle.

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