Feb 212019
 

Today was an ancient Roman public festival called Feralia according to Ovid in Book II of his Fasti, the only record of this holiday. This day marked the end of Parentalia, a nine-day festival (13–21 February) honoring dead ancestors, who went under various names including Lares, Manes, Lemures, Genii, and others, depending on the source. On this date Roman citizens were instructed to bring offerings to the tombs of their dead ancestors which consisted of at least “an arrangement of wreaths, a sprinkling of grain and a bit of salt, bread soaked in wine, and violets scattered about.” Additional offerings were permitted, however the dead were appeased with just these. These simple offerings may be an allusion to Aeneas, who poured wine and scattered violet flowers on Anchises’ tomb.

Ovid tells of a time when Romans, in the midst of war, neglected Feralia, which prompted the spirits of the departed to rise from their graves in anger, howling and roaming the streets. After this event, tribute to the tombs were then made and the ghastly hauntings ceased. To indicate public mourning, marriages of any kind were prohibited on the Feralia, and Ovid urged mothers, brides, and widows to refrain from lighting their wedding torches. Magistrates stopped wearing their insignia and any worship of the gods was prohibited as it “should be hidden behind closed temple doors; no incense on the altar, no fire on the hearth.”

No record of public rituals survives, however on this day as described by Ovid, an old drunken woman sits in a circle with girls performing rites in the name of the mute goddess Tacita who is identified with the nymph Lara or Larunda. The ritual consists of the old woman placing three bits of incense, with three of her fingers, beneath a threshold where a mouse is buried. She then rolls seven black beans in her mouth, and smears the head of a fish with pitch, impaling it with a bronze needle, and roasting it in a fire. After she formally declaims the purpose of her actions, saying, “I have gagged spiteful tongues and muzzled unfriendly mouths” (Hostiles linguas inimicaque uinximus ora). The use of the black beans in the old woman’s ritual may be related to rites that lend themselves to another festival of the dead in the month of May, called Lemuria. During Lemuria the dead ancestor spirits, particularly the unburied, called lemures, emerge from their graves and visit the homes in which they had lived. It was then necessary to confront the unwelcome spirits and lure them out of one’s house using specific actions and chants. According to Ovid, this includes the use of black beans to lure a spirit out of the home:

And after washing his (the householder) 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: ‘These I cast; 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, ‘Ghosts of my fathers, go forth!’ he looks back, and thinks that he has duly performed the sacred rites.

Perhaps the black beans carried with them connotations of warding away or dispelling bad things in general, whether it be unwelcome spirits haunting a household as seen during Lemuria, or preventing undesired gossip towards an individual as in the old woman’s ritual during Feralia.

It is implied through Ovid’s choice of words, “hostiles linguas inimicaque ora”, that the ritual is intended to curb gossip about a girl’s reputation. Gossip of such a nature and its consequences are the subject for the cause, which Ovid offers, of the Dea Tacita festival, which was held on the same day as the Feralia. Ovid then tells a story to explain the origins of Dea Tacita, starting with Jupiter’s untamed lust for the nymph Juturna. Juturna, aware of Jupiter’s lust for her, hides within the Hazelwood forest and dives into her sisters’ waters. Jupiter then gathers all the nymphs in Latium seeking their help in capturing Juturna, saying, “Your sister is spiting herself by shunning her own advantage, an entanglement with the highest god. Look out for us both. What will be a great pleasure for me will be in your sister’s great interest. Block her as she flees at the bank of the river to keep her from jumping into its waters.” One of the informed nymphs, Lara, could not hold her tongue and warns Juturna to flee. In addition, she approaches Jupiter’s wife Juno, saying, “Your husband loves the Naiad Juturna.” As a result, Jupiter rips out Lara’s tongue in anger and summons Mercury to escort her to be a nymph in the Underworld. During this mission, Mercury becomes lustful of Lara and rapes her, begetting twins. These twins become the Lares, the guardians of intersections and households who watch over the city of Rome.

Well, the Roman gods were not of the highest moral order, certainly. But there is an important issue here. The tales of the high gods and their worship were important to Romans, but there was a certain amount of skepticism concerning the tales from the intelligentsia, and temple worship was primarily for the rich and powerful. Lares and Manes were a different matter entirely.  Archeological evidence indicates that Lares and Manes were honored in a variety of places including in households, at crossroads, and in other venues commonly frequented. The veneration of the spirits of dead ancestors and spirits of key places is very reminiscent of current Hindu and Buddhist practices. Here in Cambodia, every household has a shrine dedicated to the spirits of the house at which occupants light candles and incense and dedicate food and drink on special occasions. In Nepal I came across shrines just about everywhere I went – crossroads, hilltops, wells . . . Very much like Roman Lares.

Ovid’s description of the ritual with the drunken old woman mildly suggests a recipe, but I am a bit flummoxed by his reference to black beans. What we know as black beans now are originally from South America, so he can’t mean them. Indian urad dahl are black, but I doubt they had made it to Rome in Ovid’s day. However, he talks about blackening a fish with pitch, so it could be that they blackened the beans as well. The common bean in Ovid’s time would have been the fava bean. I wouldn’t recommend eating a grilled fish covered in pitch (nor beans either), but there is an opening here.

Boil fresh fava beans (broad beans for you Brits), and mash them well. Top with a nice piece of grilled fish.

 

Apr 052014
 

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Today is the day of the Qingming Festival in China, also known as Pure Brightness Festival, or Clear Bright Festival, or Ancestors Day or Tomb Sweeping Day. It falls on the 104th day after the winter solstice (or the 15th day from the Spring Equinox), so it is a minimally movable feast in that it can sometimes fall a day earlier or later, but normally it falls on 5 April in the Gregorian calendar. Qingming denotes a time for people to go outside and enjoy the greenery of springtime ( “treading on the greenery”) and tend to the graves of departed ones.  There are also special foods for the day usually tinged green from the juice of fresh wild greens of spring.

In China, the holiday is often marked by people paying respects to those who died in events considered sensitive. The April Fifth Movement and the Tiananmen Incident were major events on Qingming in the history of the People’s Republic of China. When Premier Zhou Enlai died in 1976, thousands visited him during the festival to pay their respects. Many also pay respects to victims of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and the graves of Zhao Ziyang and Yang Jia in areas where the right of free expression is generally recognized, as in Hong Kong. In most areas of China, observance of sensitive events is suppressed and all public mention of such events is forbidden. In Taiwan, this national holiday is observed on April 5 because the ruling Kuomintang moved it to that date in commemoration of the death of Chiang Kai-shek. Qingming has been regularly observed as a statutory public holiday in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Its observance was reinstated as a nationwide public holiday in mainland China in 2008.

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On Qingming Festival Chinese people visit the graves or burial grounds of their ancestors. Traditionally, people brought a whole rooster with them to the graves visited, but the occasion has become less formal over time. The festival is also associated with Hanshi Day (literally, “day with cold food only”), a memorial day for Jie Zitui. Jie Zitui who died in 636 BC around this time. He was one of many followers of Duke Wen of Jin prior to his elevation to the nobility. Once, during Wen’s 19 years of exile, they had no food and Jie prepared some meat soup for Wen. Wen enjoyed it immensely and wondered where Jie had obtained the soup. It turned out that Jie had cut a piece of flesh from his own thigh to make it. Wen was so moved that he promised to reward him one day. However, Jie was not the type of person who sought rewards. Instead, he wanted only to help Wen to return to Jin to become king. As soon as Wen became duke, Jie resigned and stayed away from him. Duke Wen rewarded the people who helped him in the previous decades, but for some reason he forgot to reward Jie, who by then had moved into the forest with his mother. Duke Wen went to the forest, but could not find Jie. Heeding suggestions from his officials, Duke Wen ordered men to set the forest on fire to force Jie out. However, Jie died in the fire. Feeling remorseful, Duke Wen ordered three days without fire to honor Jie’s memory. The city where Jie died is still called Jiexiu (literally “the place Jie rests forever”) and Hanshi Day became his permanent memorial.

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Qingming has a tradition stretching back more than 2,500 years. Its origins are credited to the Tang Emperor Xuanzong in 732. Wealthy citizens in China were reportedly holding too many extravagant and ostentatiously expensive ceremonies in honor of their ancestors. Emperor Xuanzong, seeking to curb this practice, declared that respects could be formally paid at ancestors’ graves only on Qingming.

The Qingming Festival is an opportunity for celebrants to remember and honor their ancestors at grave sites. Young and old pray before the ancestors, sweep the tombs and offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks, joss paper accessories, and libations to the ancestors. The rites have a long tradition in Asia, especially among farmers. Some people carry willow branches with them on Qingming, or put willow branches on their gates or front doors. They believe that willow branches help ward off the evil spirit that wanders on Qingming.

On Qingming, people go on family outings, start the spring plowing, sing, and dance. Qingming was also the time traditionally when young couples started courting. Another popular thing to do is to fly kites in the shapes of animals or characters from Chinese opera. Another common practice is to carry flowers instead of burning paper, incense, or firecrackers.

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Despite having no holiday status, the overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asian nations, such as those in Singapore and Malaysia, take this festival seriously and observe its traditions faithfully. Some Qingming rituals and ancestral veneration decorum observed by the overseas Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore can be dated back to Ming and Qing dynasties. Qingming in Malaysia is an elaborate family function or a clan feast (usually organized by the respective clan association) to commemorate and honor recently deceased relatives at their grave sites and distant ancestors from China at home altars, clan temples, or makeshift altars in Buddhist or Taoist temples. For the overseas Chinese community, the Qingming festival is very much a family celebration and, at the same time, a family obligation. They see this festival as a time of reflection and to honor and give thanks to their forefathers.

Overseas Chinese normally visit the graves of their recently deceased relatives on the nearest weekend to the actual date. According to the ancient custom, grave site veneration is only feasible ten days before and after the Qingming Festival. If the visit is not on the actual date, normally veneration before Qingming is encouraged. The Qingming Festival in Malaysia and Singapore normally starts early in the morning by paying respects to distant ancestors from China at home altars. This is followed by visiting the graves of close relatives in the country. Some follow the concept of filial piety to the extent of visiting the graves of their ancestors in mainland China. Traditionally, the family will burn spirit money and paper replicas of material goods such as cars, homes, phones, and paper servants. In traditional Chinese culture, it is believed that people still need all of those things in the afterlife. Then family members take turns to kowtow three to nine times (depending on the family adherence to traditional values) before the tomb of the ancestors. After the ancestor worship at the grave site, the whole family or the whole clan feast on the food and drink they brought for the worship either at the site or in nearby gardens in a memorial park, signifying family reunion with the ancestors.

The Qingming festival holiday also has significance in the Chinese tea culture since this day divides the fresh green teas by their picking dates. Green teas made from leaves picked before this date are given the prestigious ‘pre-qingming’ designation which commands a much higher price tag. These teas are prized for having much lighter and subtler aromas than those picked after the festival.

The famous Qingming scroll by Zhang Zeduan is an ancient Chinese painting which portrays the scene of Kaifeng city, the capital of the Song Dynasty during a Qingming festival.

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Quingming festival food consists of an assortment of dishes and drinks consumed on the Quingming festival. It includes eggs, rice porridge, cakes, and snacks such as Juan Bao Bing (pancake roll) and Po Zi Guo, a dish made of fruits and leaves of Po Zi Guo tree and prepared in a bamboo steamer.

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Green Tuanzi: It is a traditional Chinese dish, which looks much like a dumpling, and has a green color. The green color comes from the juice of a wild plant and the dumpling skins are made from rice flour.

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Qingming guo is a dish looking like a steamed dumpling, and made of an outer shell of rice, glutinous rice and green wormwood, with a stuffing of beans inside it. Fillings may also include dried bamboo shoots, bacon and mushroom in different regions of China.

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Wuren Rice: It is made of glutinous rice and leaves of wuren tree and is an essential part of Quingming festival food.

It is not really possible to give recipes for these dishes because they involve wild plants that are indigenous to Asia only.  However, I did find this one:

Making Wuren rice is not a complex or a difficult task. Here’s the recipe. Clean the Wuren leaves (vaccinium bracteatum) first, boil the leaves and remove them before adding glutinous rice into the prepared Wuren soup. Drain the glutinous rice after immersing for 9 hours and steam the glutinous rice in a bamboo steamer until the rice is cooked thoroughly. The prepared Wuren rice will have a nice and unique smell with a special flavor compared with common cooked glutinous rice.