Feb 232016
 

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Today was once celebrated in ancient Rome as the Terminalia, a festival in honor of the god Terminus, who presided over boundaries. His “statue” was typically a stone or post stuck in the ground to mark property boundaries. His worship is reputed to have been instituted by Numa Pompilius (753–673 BCE), legendary successor to Romulus, who was credited with having instituted a number of important Roman civil and religious institutions.

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According to legend, Numa ordered that every landowner should mark the boundaries of his property by stones to be consecrated to Jupiter Terminalis, and at which, every year, sacrifices were to be offered at the festival of the Terminalia. On the festival the two owners of adjacent property crowned the “statue” with garlands and raised a crude altar, on which they offered up some corn, honeycombs, and wine, and sacrificed a lamb or a suckling pig. They concluded with singing the praises of the god. The public festival in honor of this god was celebrated at the sixth milestone on the road towards Laurentum, presumably because this was originally the extent of Roman territory in that direction.

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One of Numa’s first acts was the construction of a temple to Janus (also god of boundaries) as a symbol of peace and war. The temple was constructed at the foot of the Argiletum, a major road in the city. After securing peace with Rome’s neighbors, the doors of the temples were shut and remained so for all the duration of Numa’s reign, a unique case in Roman history. Closing the temple doors as a sign of peace remained important throughout the Roman Republic and Empire.

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Numa reportedly sought to instill in Romans respect of lawful property and non-violent relationships with neighbors. The cult of Terminus involved rejection of violence and murder. The god was a testament to justice and a keeper of peace. In a somehow comparable, more moral rather than legal fashion, Numa sought to associate himself with one of the roles of Vegoia, from the religious system of the neighboring Etruscans by deciding to set the official boundaries of the territory of Rome, which Romulus had never wanted, presumably with the same concern of preserving peace. This act is reminiscent of the proverb, “good fences make good neighbors.”

The festival of the Terminalia was celebrated in the Roman calendar as a. d. VII. Kal. Mart., that is, the 23d of February, or, the day before the Regifugium (“king’s flight”) whose precise nature is obscure. During a short period, Terminalia was the last day of the year in Rome, and Regifugium was the first of the new year. Thus, Terminalia signified both spatial and temporal boundaries.

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The central Terminus of Rome (the place to which all roads led) was the god’s ancient shrine on the Capitoline Hill. The temple of Jupiter, king of the gods, had to be built around it (with a hole in the ceiling since Terminus demanded open-air sacrifices) by the city’s last king, Tarquinius Superbus, who had closed down other shrines on the site to make room for his prestigious project. But the augurs had read into the flight patterns of birds that the god Terminus refused to be moved, which was taken as a sign of stability for the city.

Terminalia may have descendants in later customs, such as beating the bounds. In times past in Britain, especially because for centuries precise maps were unusual, it was common to make a formal perambulation of the parish boundaries on Ascension Day or during Rogation week. Knowledge of the limits of each parish needed to be handed down so that such matters as liability to contribute to the repair of the church, and the right to be buried within the churchyard were not disputed. The priest of the parish with the churchwardens and the parochial officials headed a crowd of boys who, armed with green boughs, usually birch or willow, beat the parish boundary markers with them. Sometimes the boys were themselves whipped or even violently bumped on the boundary-stones to make them remember. The object of taking boys along was supposedly to ensure that witnesses to the boundaries should survive as long as possible. Priests would pray for the parish’s protection in the forthcoming year and often Psalms 103 and 104 were recited, and the priest would say such sentences as “Cursed is he who transgresseth the bounds or doles of his neighbour.”

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The ceremony had an important practical purpose. Checking the boundaries was a way of preventing encroachment by neighbors; sometimes boundary markers would be moved, or lines obscured, and a folk memory of the true extent of the parish was necessary to maintain integrity of borders by embedding knowledge in oral traditions.

In England the custom dates from Anglo-Saxon times, as it is mentioned in laws of Alfred the Great and Æthelstan. In England a parish-ale, or feast, was always held after the perambulation, which assured its popularity, and in Henry VIII’s reign the occasion had become an excuse for so much revelry that it attracted the condemnation of a preacher who declared “these solemne and accustomable processions and supplications be nowe growen into a right foule and detestable abuse.”

Beating the bounds had a religious side in the practice which originated the term Rogation, the accompanying clergy being supposed to beseech (rogare) the divine blessing upon the parish lands for the ensuing harvest. This feature originated in the 5th century, when Mamertus, Archbishop of Vienne, instituted special prayers and fasting and processions on these days. This clerical side of the parish bounds-beating was one of the religious functions prohibited by the Royal Injunctions of Elizabeth I in 1559; but it was then ordered that the perambulation should continue to be performed as a quasi-secular function, so that evidence of the boundaries of parishes, etc., might be preserved.

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Some locations have maintained traditions of beating the bounds, although now they are merely a quaint holdover with vague religious overtones.

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For me as an anthropologist this is a highly significant holiday. It emphasizes physical boundaries (city limits, property lines etc.) and temporal boundaries (year’s end and beginning). Anthropologist Victor Turner used the term “liminal” for such boundaries – from the Latin, “limen,” a threshold. These are places and times of immense power and danger in all cultures, because on the cusp of them you are capable of mixing things up, and, thereby destroying the order of the world. Are dawn and dusk, day or night? They are both and neither. Which side are you on when you are “sitting on the fence”? Why is a bride in the West traditionally carried over the threshold? Boundaries are of immense importance to ALL cultures – although what counts as a boundary varies enormously.

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Chief offerings on Terminalia were bread, honey, wine, and lamb or suckling pig. This gives you abundant choice for a contemporary recipe. Apicius in De Re Coquinaria gives us this:

Porcellum assum tractomelinum: porcellum curatum a gutture extenteras, siccas. teres piperis unciam, mel, vinum, impones ut ferveat, tractam siccatam confringes et partibus caccabo permisces. agitabis surculo lauri viridis, tam diu coques, donec lenis fiat et impinguet. hac impensa porcellum imples, surculas, obduras charta, in furnum mittes, exornas et inferes.

The title, porcellum assum tractomelinum, means suckling pig “treated with honey” but there’s wine and bread involved as well. Loosely the text says:

Clean the pig through the neck and dry it. Crush pepper with honey and wine, and put it on the heat. Break up some toast and mix it with the sauce. Add bay leaves and mix until the paste is smooth and cooked. Fill the pig with this dressing and put it in the oven. Garnish and serve.

You’ll have to make of this what you will. There’s no indication of proportions of ingredients. For my tastes I’d use a lot of toast and just moisten it with wine and honey, mixed, seasoned with pepper and bay laurel.