The Opiconsivia: Harvest Time and the Chthonic Deities

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Goddess Ops

To the Romans, Ops personified abundance as seen in this Rubens painting. Image by RIbberlin.

The Opiconsivia is one of two annual festivals dedicated to the goddess Ops. Both come hot on the heels of festivals dedicated to Consus, the god of the stored grains.

The closeness of the two festivals shows how the Romans paired gods up according to function – as well as how they rationalized growth and abundance.

The Festival of the Opiconsiva 

“The day named Opiconsiva,” Varro tells us in On the Latin Language, “is called from Ops Consiva; ‘Lady Bountiful the Planter,’ whose shrine is in the Regia; it is so restricted in size that no one may enter it except the Vestal Virgins and the state priest.”

Varro’s limited description is the only surviving account of the Op’s August festival. However, we can deduce certain things about the significance of the festival from its location.

The Regia was the headquarters of Rome’s pontifex maximus. The close association between these sacred headquarters and Ops shrine, coupled with the fact that chief priest and the vestals attended the ceremonies, points to the importance of the ceremonies to the well-being of the Roman state. But to discover in exactly what capacity, we need to understand more about Ops herself.

 The Goddess Ops

Ops was one of the oldest Roman gods, introduced during the time of Romulus. To the Romans, she was indeed “Lady bountiful the planter” as they perceived her as the personification of agricultural abundance. The word “consiva,” which appears to derive from the Latin conserere, or “to sow,” in her festival name emphasizes this role.

However, it seems that Ops may not have been so much the sower as the sown. She is closely associated in both the August Opiconsiva and her December festival with another ancient Roman deity, Saturn. According to Varro:

“Saturn was named from satus ‘sowing ……..Ops’ is the Earth, because in it is every opus ‘work’ and there is opus need’ of it for living, and therefore Ops is called mother, because the Earth is the mother.”

This suggests that Ops’ festival on the 25th August was a celebration of the abundance harvest brought forth from Ops, after Saturn sowed her with seed. This association led to the two deities being associated as husband and wife. But it is not Saturn’s festival that Ops closely follows in August but that of another god: Consus.

Ops and Consus

 The Romans celebrated Opiconsivia four days after the festival of Consus- an event that repeated again in December. Consus was the god of the stored grains, which the Romans housed in underground storehouses in the valley of the Circus Maximus valley after the harvest.

Ops represented the abundance of this harvest and Consus protected it. Consus’s festival, the Consualia occurred on the 21st August at the temple of Consus in the area of the Circus Maximus. The Romans marked it with the exemption of all horses and mules from labour- except for those involved in the chariot races that marked the day.

But the location of the god’s temple was an unusual affair for it was not above ground but below it, buried beneath the earth except when required for Consus’s festivals, according to Tertullian.

The Chthonic Deities

This underground shrine is significant because it is a clue to Consus’s role as one of the chthonic deities. The Chthonic gods were essentially gods of the underworld.

To the modern mind, this invokes dark images of death and damnation but in the ancient world, gods of the underworld were not just the gods of death but also the gods of life. All life returned to the earth. But at the correct season, it was from the earth that life returned. Simply put, the chthonic deities oversaw the cycle of life.

Ops, was also a chthonic deity. Seeds sprang to life within her. According to Macrobius , her worshippers invoked her while sitting , their hands touching the ground.

It could be that their relationship as chthonic deities: one of the abundant harvest, the other as the protector of that harvest explain the close relationship between Ops and Consus. But then why was Ops festival placed after that of Consus? Surely the Romans should celebrate with a festival commemorating abundance first?

The Meaning of the Opiconsivia

Harvest

Op’s August festival marked the end of an abundant harvest safely gathered in and stored for the winter. Image by Fae.

It seems we can see the Opiconsiva in August as a way of marking the end of the grain harvest once it was all safely stored away, a final ritual of safekeeping.

Fowler draws an interesting link between the Roman family and its harvest and the wider harvest of the Roman state. Individual Roman families needed an abundant harvest in order to subsist over the winter.

But so, too, did the Roman state.

The regia was formerly the king’s house and the king had been the head of the wider roman family.

So a rite honouring Op’s abundance as they stored the final portion of the harvest  away, was a way of safekeeping the whole of the Roman state during the winter ahead.

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© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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