13 November 2014

Goddess of the Wild Places


T
oday, it seems, is the festival of Feronia, a goddess of the wild places worshipped by the Romans. The Abbé Banier wrote of her in 1740 (The Mythology and Fables of the Antients, Explained from History, iii 189-90) “Feronia, whose Name comes from the Verb Fero, to bring Relief, or from the Town Feronia, near Mount Soracte, was, according to Servius, the Patroness of the enfranchised Slaves, who had a great many Offerings presented to her; this Goddess being in high Veneration thro’ all Italy.” Her sacred places appear to have been located away from human habitation, visited primarily during festival times, during which traders traded, worshipers carried out vows and offered sacrifices, and apparently the usual robbery and skullduggery that infests such gatherings went on as well. Dionysius of Hellacarnassus recorded an incident:
At this festival some Romans of considerable importance happened to be present on a certain occasion and were seized by some of the Sabines, who imprisoned them and robbed them of their money. And when an embassy was sent concerning them, the Sabines refused to give any satisfaction, but retained both the persons and the money of the men whom they had seized… (Roman Antiquities, iii 32.2)
Failure to resolve matters led to war.
Strabo tells us that “a remarkable ceremony is performed” at her temple, “for those possessed by the divinity pass over a large bed of burning coal and ashes barefoot, unhurt. A great concourse of people assemble to assist at the festival, which is celebrated yearly, and to see the said spectacle.” (Geography 5.2.9) So there might have been firewalking too.
It’s hard to get the hang of a festival after it’s fallen into disuse for a long time. I don’t pretend to grasp the essential nature of this one, though firewalking in a sacred grove away from civilization sounds colorful. As the fragmentary accounts of this one come from writers separated in time and space we can’t even be sure that the things mentioned belong to the same festival as celebrated at any particular locale, or era. Still, it’s a glimpse of a bygone time—even though it may be seen through a kaleidoscope.

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