Sunday, August 13, 2017

On the Ides of August, Honor the Goddess of the Grove

She is a huntress, at home in the wild, fleet as any animal, her quiver on her back, her hounds at her side. She is the Moon. She is queen of tides, in water and in the body. She dies every month and is reborn, so she is also queen of the Underworld.
    She is called Trivia, but don't confuse that with anything trivial. Feel her presence where three roads meet. In your life, this is where you come to a fork where a choice must be made. She is a maker of nets, a weaver of veils.
    She is a healer and midwife, the protector of pregnant mothers and newborn babies.
    She is a virgin yet she draws the passions of men. They come to her to be cleansed from guilt and released from the madness of deviant mind. If they get close to her, they pay a terrible price, but may be reborn under her aegis, as in the story of Virbius.
    She is Diana, also called Selene and Hecate and depicted with them as a triple goddess on Roman coinage. Her mirror, the Speculum Dianae, is Lake Nemi, a beautiful spring-fed lake inside the crater of a volcano. It is near the ancient town of Aricia (modern Ariccia).
    She was called Diana Nemorensis, Diana of the Sacred Wood, or Grove (nemus). Today, the Ides of August, is her special day. * This is the day of the Nemoralia, which became a holiday across Italy but was celebrated most elaborately at her temple beside Lake Nemi. Burning torches were carried in a procession around the lake, known as Diana’s Mirror. Those whose prayers had been answered at her shrine came wearing wreaths of flowers, to show their gratitude and fulfill specific promises made to the goddess. Dogs were garlanded and given special treats today. Nemoralia was a holiday for slaves, reflecting the alternations in status we see in the face of the Moon.
    We may be drawn to Diana as we are drawn to the Moon. She does not begin as Artemis, though they are closely twinned when the Romans start importing Greek deities, and their statues as young huntresses in tunics, with bows, become interchangeable. By one account, the first image of Diana, described by Ovid as  "a golden goddess fashioned by a barbaric hand" [1] was smuggled to Nemi, concealed in a bundle of sticks, from what is now the Crimea.
    The precinct of Diana did not grow into the vast world-city of Artemis of Ephesus. It remained a remote place in the wild woods, though not far from Rome if you were able to get up the steep slope of the volcano in order to get down into the crater. However, a beautiful Hellenistic temple complex developed, with baths and healing pools and a theater - where actors came up and down from a pit as from the Underworld - and granaries and the ancient version of a teaching hospital, one of the best in the world.
    Pilgrims and petitioners of all social classes came here to seek guidance and healing. As with the cult of Asklepios and his divine family, it must have been the experience of the numinous in this place - and the word that was spread about it - that kept the supplicants coming. In an excellent recent monograph, classical scholar C.M.C. Green observes that "the success of the cult was the result of the religious experiences of the people who came to the sanctuary for the goddess." [2]
    Votive statues from the temple of Diana depicting body parts and internal organs and newborn babies suggest some of medicine people came seeking. Some of the ex-votos are heads of Diana, maybe suggesting that they wanted to get the numen of the goddess into their heads. Green reminds us that supplicants did not come to the temple of Diana looking only, or even especially, for miracles. Treatments of every kind were offered here, offering state-of-the art pharmaceuticals and surgery, as well as dream incubation in the sacred night. This was a hospital for dogs as well as humans, with the best remedies for scabies and other canine complaints known in ancient times.
    The sanctuary of Diana was famous for treating or containing mental and psychospiritual complaints. We hear again and again about men who seek refuge in Diana's woods, tormented by Furies of guilt and despair, with what modern psychiatrist might call PTSD but which Horace - following the assistants of the Goddess - called fanaticus error, the obsession of the deviant mind. [3]
    Now we come to the baking. The precinct of Diana at Nemi included large granaries, the source of the flour used to form and bake untold numbers of strange deformed pastry dolls. These were sometimes called maniae, which usually means evil spirits, especially unclean spirits of the dead, and is the plural of mania, which speaks for itself.
    It seems that a key practice for spiritual cleansing and repair, in the healing rooms of Diana, was to encourage a patient to transfer the entities and energies that brought affliction into one or more of these doughboys, some of which were quite hideous. Think Fright Night gingerbread boys. The pastry figures would then be broken up, crushing and dispersing the unwanted energies. It is possible - this part is speculative - that the pieces might then be mashed together, reshaped and baked into a new and desirable form, representing the return of the patient to physical and mental health.

    Reflecting on the many faces of Diana, Green writes: "Diana's triple form...represented the multiplicity of her sacred experience. There was not one Diana. She belonged to the underworld, to the earth, and to the sky. That triple nature would also be exemplified by the sanctuary itself, the lake and the caves and the springs, leading to the underworld, and the crater as the circle of the earth, all ruled by the moon moving slowly across the sky." [4]   

1. Ovid, Heroides 12. 70-71
2. C.M.C. Green, Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 153.
3. Horace, Ars Poetica 454.
4. Green, op.cit.,291.

The Goddess and the King of the Woods

In the sacred wood, the hunter becomes the hunted. Perhaps this goes to the depth of the mystical relationship between the hunter and the game animals in hunter-gatherer cultures. It is an enduring feature of the cult of Diana, shocking to many ancient, as well as modern, minds.
   The savage ritual observed at Nemi was made famous by James George Frazer, who brought from it the title, opening chapter and ruling theme of The Golden Bough. The following brief account departs from Frazer, drawing on recent scholarship.
    In the woods at Nemi is a wild man who is nonetheless a king, rex nemorensis, the King of the Sacred Wood. He arrives here a fugitive, an escaped slave, a man without a country. Maybe only a man in his condition would be desperate enough to pay the price of kingship.
    First, he must find the evergreen oak in the depths of the forest where mistletoe hangs from an upper branch. This is called the golden bough because yellow blossoms of the mistletoe that grows on oak are that color year-round. He must separate the parasitic plant with his bare hands.
    Once he has done this, he is given a sword. Weapons are forbidden to all except the King of the Woods and his challenger in this sacred precinct. Two desperate men now stalk and hunt each other through the woods. Even if he is old, the reigning king has the advantage of knowing the forest well, The challenger has the advantage of relative youth. They meet in mortal combat and one dies.
    The survivor, maybe wounded, must drag the body of the slain contender to the funeral pyre. After, he must carry ashes and bones down into a deep cave, viewed as a mouth of the Underworld, to lay them in an ossuary of fallen kings. Down there, he will dream and see visions. When he returns to the world above he will not be the same because he has gone through the death and rebirth of the shaman.
    His reward may include becoming the mate of the Goddess - embodied by her priestess - in the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage. His life will always be lived on the edge, with death at his shoulder.


* In the Roman calendar, while the Ides of March notoriously falls on the 15th of the month, the Ides of August falls on the 13th. Julius Caesar has an interesting connection with Lake Nemi. He had a sumptuous villa built overlooking the lake. But when he came to inspect it for the first time he ordered it leveled to the ground. It may be that surveying the sacred wood, he suddenly felt fear at the sight of a place where royal succession was accomplished by assassination.

Art at top: Speculum Dianae by Enrico Coleman (1909)


babygirlboomer said...

Thank you for your story on the Ides of August. I did not know that August had Ides, only that March did! Diana, as my namesake, really spoke to me in your story that came alive for me today! I will honour the Goddess of the Grove today especially.

Em Maxwell said...

Robert, thank you for this grove-gotten reminder! ��

Diane B said...

Thank you for this post about Diana. It reminded me of a dream in which I sensed Diana as a powerful presence.

Walking with Deer (10/9/11)

I am on a trip with my friend, Terry. We are on a hill or ridge above the ocean. I wander off alone for a walk in the woods along a path that is deeply worn, like a trough. I am startled to notice a deer is walking beside me, a palpable physical presence, positioned under my right hand, as if to guide me. This happens twice.

Feeling: Cheered, that I was being guided by such a stunning and important presence

Reality: My name is Diane and I have long felt an affinity with Diana/Artemis. Her chariot was drawn by a deer bridled in gold. Recalling this I felt an even greater encouragement and affirmation from this dream

marrob said...

I really appreciate how you take the time to 'scratch' the surface and
uncover a whole network, UNDERworld of mythical connections and lineages.
...and I thought the name 'Diane' was rather plain!! I reconsider.