Monday 9 May 2011

Festival of the Week: Lemuria

Today is the start of an ancient Roman festival to exorcise the ghosts of malevolent ancestors who might wish to return to their old homes and haunt the living.

Lasting three days, Lemuria - sometimes called The Feast of the Larvae - was named after spectres of the restless dead known as lemures or larvae. These were ghosts of family members who were hanging around the house in an unwholesome way and needed a bit of encouragement to move on.

According to Daniel Ogden in Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worldsthere are two kinds of lemures. Some of them took the duty of caring for their living descendants and they were called Lares. They were peaceful guardians of their family home.

The others, however, had generally been nasty people in life and were punished by a form of exile. These demonic terrors were known as the larvae and it was necessary to take care that they didn't hang around your house causing a nuisance and scaring everyone in sight.

I guess however much one honours one's ancestors, one doesn't really want Mean Aunt Martha's ghost returning to wail about the state of the place since she died.

According to Roman writer Ovid, the festival of the larvae was instigated by Romulus, Rome's legendary founder, to appease the spirit of his brother Remus.

Ovid said that during the festival, the head of the family would appease any angry spirits by walking barefoot round their house three times while throwing black beans over their shoulder. They would also shout out: "With these beans I redeem me and mine. Ghosts of my fathers and ancestors, be gone!" The rest of the household would follow, banging pots and pans.

This ritual was traditionally performed at midnight. But, if you are thinking of giving it a go, I would warn people living in the houses nearby. Angry neighbours can be more of a problem than angry ghosts.

In folklore, May is considered an unlucky month for marriages and it is thought that superstition might be because the Feast of the Larvae falls at that time, with its association with malevolent spirits. You certainly wouldn't want a pissed-off poltergeist messing up your wedding celebrations.

You can shop for the Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worldsand Ovid's Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)on Amazon.

Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds

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