When we think festivals, we usually think of having a good time. The festival of Ieiunium Cereris was celebrated in Ancient Rome by fasting – “ieiunium” translates as abstinence or fasting.
The festival was introduced to appease the goddess Ceres, whose temple was situated on Aventine Hill near the the site of the Forum. However, The Romans decided to adopt the Greek goddess Cybele as Rome’s “Great Mother” (Magna Mater) – and set her up opposite the Aventine Hill within sacred Ancient Rome. Cybele was associated with Rome’s victorious military campaigns and the goddess was feted with banquets which coincided with a new cycle in the year denoting the harvest.
The cult of Ceres originated in Sicily and she is also associated with the harvest – as well as fertility and motherhood. She is often depicted holding a sheaf of corn in her hand. Cults in Ancient Rome were common, with temples and altars built, where the god or goddess would be attended by priests and handmaidens.
Ceres was also thought of as a goddess of the people – Aventine Hill was populated by the ordinary people (known as plebeians or “plebs”). Ceres was one of a triad of deities associated with the hill, along with her daughter Prosperpina and Cybele.
The Aventine Hill is also associated with Remus – one of the mythological founders of Rome – while his twin Romulus hung out on the Palatine hill. The Circus Maximus separates the two hills and the warring siblings.
Several emperors associated themselves with Ceres – including Augustus, who rebuilt the temple dedicated to her on the Aventine Hill, overlooking the Circus Maximus. Leading Roman noblewomen and emperors such as Nero also had themselves depicted in images and on coins wearing the coronet worn by Ceres, to associate themselves with the cult of the plentiful harvest or mother of the universe.
Ceres is also depicted with scales and she is seen as the inventor of justice.
Rome has several statues dedicated to Ceres – including a colossal white marble statue in the Vatican. The oldest known statue of a deity in Rome was a bronze of Ceres dating from 485BC. Her image still appears on global monuments associated with trade, wealth, agriculture and justice – including the official seal of the State of New Jersey in America.
Perhaps the best way of celebrating the goddess is not by fasting, however – but by having a hearty breakfast. The word “cereal” is derived from her name – so October 4 could be exactly the right moment to aim for three Weetabix at breakfast.
Main image: Statue of Ceres, Piazza del Popolo, Rome (images copyright A. Meredith)
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