The ancient Roman festival of the dead, Lemuria or Lemuralia, is celebrated every May 13th – meaning it is time to appease your dead relatives!
Ancient Romans, like many cultures, celebrated their dead ancestors and legend has it that the festival of Lemuria originated when the ghost of the murdered co-founder of Rome, Remus, haunted his murderous twin Romulus after he became Rome’s first king.
The original name of the ancient festival was Remuria – later the name was changed to Lemuria so that it included the deceased ancestors of all Romans who had met an untimely death as a result of foul play or accident – or those who had not received a proper burial or whose bodies had not been recovered. The festival also honoured those who might have died before their time as a result of disease.
In Ancient Rome, the spirits of the dead were known as lemures. Romans were extremely superstitious and there was a belief in ghosts – Romans feared that ancestors or newly-deceased relatives might decide to haunt them after death. Some might just pop in to say hello, whereas others might be more malicious – and some might just be looking for some amusement post-mortem.
The festival of Lemuria was spread out over three days in May – 9th, 11th and 13th. The 10th and 12th were not part of the festival – presumably Ancient Romans needed a break from their dead rellies and troublesome spirits during Lemuria. However, even days in Roman times were considered unlucky. There is no actual evidence for this belief – Julius Caesar was murdered on an odd day, 15 March 44 BC, one of the most cataclysmic events in Roman history.
Bad spirits were fairly easy to get rid of, the poet Ovid advises – Ancient Romans threw away beans as offerta, believing that the spirits would go after the beans and leave the living alone.
Festivals also often involved food and it is thought that Lemuria would also probably have involved the baking of salted cakes using wheat from the first harvest of the season. These were known as mola salsa and were baked by the Vestal Virgins to eat at festival times.
Entire families would join in special rites led by the male head of the family and starting at midnight – a suitably spooky hour for ghost busting. The beans would be thrown around the home and the rest of the family would drive the spirits out by banging cooking pots, while the male head of the family chanted incantations – the principal one exorcised the ghosts of paternal ancestors (“Manes exite paterni!”). Presumably, the ghosts of maternal ancestors were not so troublesome.
The date 13 May has significance in other belief systems – it is supposed to signal the start of a 13th “secret” zodiac sign – Arachnia, the sign of the spider – which runs until 13th June. Those born during this time are supposed to be granted heightened psychic abilities. The poet WB Yeats was born on 13 June 1865 – he was known for his interest in psychic matters and his seeming ability to appear in two places at the same time, as witnessed by friends who claim to have seen him in different locations simultaneously.
It is also thought that the idea of reincarnation for the dead was common until Emperor Constantine became a Christian and edited the idea out of the Bible – believing that if people thought they got a second chance, they would not abide by the law and give little regard to killing each other unlawfully, promoting social unrest.
The St James Bible New Testament still mentions that “spirit can move between heaven and earth”, however – although “the children of heaven are not given in marriage”. Fortunately, it seems we will not have to face any of our exes when we pass into the next world. Phew.
But if that doesn’t give you nightmares, nothing will – so get those beans and pots and pans out this Lemuria. And if you don’t believe in ghosts, maybe cook up a nice stew with them and feast like a Roman instead!
All images Pixabay unless stated.
Feature image: Roman death mask