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.