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Lemuria: The Ancient Roman Halloween

By Zoe Huang and Avery Benbow

Happy Halloween all!! ‘Tis the season to be spooky!

In keeping with this theme, we thought we’d draw your attention to the ancient Roman festival of Lemuria, and its connection to the afterlife and souls of the dead. Sounds interesting? Then read on…

While Halloween traces its origins back to the Celtic festival Samhain in Ireland, there were numerous ancient Roman festivals, such as the Lemuria, which took place to appease the dead. The Lemuria, the second annual spooky Roman festival, took place on the 9th, 11th, and 13th of May. During the festival, Roman householders gave offerings to their deceased ancestors to ensure they wouldn’t haunt them. These ghosts, or ‘Lemures’, were believed to be the spirits of those who died with incomplete business or by violent means. Even offerings weren’t enough for highly superstitious Romans, with some believing the entire month of May was unlucky. As a result, often lifelong commitments such as marriage were rarely performed during the period.

The rite of Lemuria has been traced back to Ovid, a Roman poet, from the time Rome was founded. Ovid recorded the Lemuria in his Fasti as one of the Roman festivals celebrated in May. He suggested that the festival got its name from ‘Remuria’, sourced from Remus, who was one of the famous brothers who founded Rome, though he was killed by his twin brother Romulus, as recorded in Vergil's Aeneid, a form of Augustan propaganda. It details that after being murdered, Remus appeared as a ghost and requested his brother’s friends make future generations honour him.

This led to Lemuria, a day to commemorate, interact with and deter the spirits. Regarding the spirits themselves, Ovid records them as differentiated from each other, for example, a main category of them were the ‘manes’. These spirits are defined as the “deified dead,” as they are referred to as a form of holy deity in Ovid’s ‘Fasti’. However, ‘manes’ also have a more sinister sibling, the ‘taciti inferi’, or the silent dead, which were mentioned in Lennon’s Pollution and Religion in Ancient Rome as being other spirits involved in the festival of Lemuria. Differing from the ‘manes’, these spirits were labelled as malicious and harmful. Considering the possible consequences for not appeasing them, it’s no surprise the Romans made an effort to satisfy all the varieties of ghost-gods during Lemuria.

This involved, as it does for many festivals, a set of rituals, which were intended to peacefully remove the present ancestral spirits from their living descendants’ homes, so that the spirits could go in peace until the next year, without harming the living. For Lemuria, every Roman family’s father would get up at midnight, wash his hands with fresh water in order to remove impurities, then throw or spit out black beans to draw in the spirits and recite chants, a common one being “These I cast; with these beans, I redeem me and mine." It also included making a hand signal known as a ‘mano fica’, meaning “fig hand” to ward off evil while walking in their bare feet. Interestingly, knots were prohibited from this whole ceremony as they are believed to prevent the flow of natural forces, which would restore the ancestral spirits to their propitiated state.

However, rituals such as the Lemuria are not solely apotropaic and reflective of a breed of magic to repel negative influences, but a source of communication and negotiation between the living and deceased. In various texts, the interaction between humanity and the ‘manes’ is supported and encouraged. After taking this into consideration, Lemuria offers insights into the nuances and complexities of the way Romans responded to death. This is because the practice of Lemuria indicates the Romans believed in the concept of an afterlife, and that within it there were spirits that could haunt and cause harm to their living relatives, likely for not honouring their memory, as is linked to the story of Remus.

Overall, the festival of Lemuria provides a fascinating insight into not only the belief system of the Romans, but into how festivals that celebrate or acknowledge the dead and spiritual realm have emerged across numerous cultures throughout history. For example, All Saints’ Day, Halloween, the Day of the Dead, and Lemuria. Throughout history, we’ve turned to the realm of the unliving as a source of both interest, comfort and fear, and though the ritual is different, Lemuria demonstrates the immortality of that human concern, even though it’s from the Romans, thousands of years ago.

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