Dec 3, 2015

Posted by in Bona Dea, Goddesses, Gods and Godesses, Holidays, Paganism | 0 Comments

Bona Dea

Temple of Bona Dea on a map of ancient Rome ar...

Temple of Bona Dea on a map of ancient Rome around 300 AD (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Ancient Rome, the secret festival of Bona Dea (the Good Goddess) took place over the night of December 3rd and 4th. This festival was held at the home of the senior annual magistrate, but neither he nor any other man could attend. Only women were allowed at the Sacra Opertum (the Secret Sacrifice), as it was called. In fact, nothing at all male – pets paintings, or other representations – was allowed in the house during this time. Even the true name of Bona Dea was kept secret from men, though most scholars concluded that the goddess was Fauna, Goddess of Prophecy and Fruitfulness, whose origins pre-date the founding of Rome.

The magistrate’s wife hosted the rites, which were officiated by the Vestal Virgins, and attended by matrons of Rome’s elite class. Like a temple, the house was decorated with every kind of leaf and flower, except for myrtle. Myrtle was excluded because legend had it that one day Faunus (her husband, brother, or father, depending on the source) beat Fauna with a scourge made of myrtle, when she got drunk. As would seem fitting, the women attending the festival wore wreaths fashioned from grape leaves. They called the large amphora of strong, temple grade wine the “honey jar”, and it’s contents “milk”. After offering libations to Bona Dea, and performing a blood sacrifice for the benefit of all the people, the women drank the wine, played games, and danced to music.

These rites were forbidden to men, which is why so little is known about them to this day. For a man to catch even a glimpse could result in his being blinded as an official punishment. As with anything forbidden, there was much speculation, and records show that, inevitably, at least one man tried to crash the party. The year that Julius Caesar’s second wife, Pompeia, hosted the Sacra Opertum, Publius Clodius Pulcher, an ally of Caesar’s, dressed as a woman to not only infiltrate the rites, but also to seduce Pompeia. Clodius was caught, and narrowly escaped execution.

What is exceptional about this festival is that everything the women did was completely the opposite of what Roman women were usually allowed to do. Women were forbidden to drink strong wine and make blood sacrifices. Women weren’t generally permitted to attend nocturnal festivals. Life for women in one of history’s ultimate patriarchies was severely constrained. That women even got to have such a festival in the first place is truly remarkable. How wonderful it must have been for these women to cast off male domination and expectations, relax, play, and celebrate one another, even for one night!

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