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January 3/5 | Compitalia, Ancient Rome’s winter street fair

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The Compitalia (in Latin Ludi Compitalicii) was an ancient Roman festival celebrated from January 3-5 in honor of the Lares Compitales, the guardian spirits of crossroads.
The Lares were a kind of household deity who represented the guardian spirits of deceased ancestors, to whom sacrifices were offered at the places where two or more ways met.

The word derives from the Latin “compitum” or “crossroads”, and was used to indicate the small temple located at the crossroads.
This festivity is of previous derivation to that of the Roman civilization, and it is said to have been instituted by Tarquinius Priscus in consequence of the miracle attending the birth of Servius Tullius, who was supposed to be the son of a Lar Familiaris, or family guardian deity.
Dionysius says that Servius Tullius founded the festival, which he describes as it was celebrated in his time. He relates that the sacrifices consisted of honey-cakes (Ancient Greek: πέλανοι) presented by the inhabitants of each house, and that the people who assisted as ministering servants at the festival were not free men, but slaves, because the Lares took pleasure in the service of slaves. Moreover, he adds that the Compitalia were celebrated a few days after the Saturnalia with great splendor, and that the slaves on this occasion had full liberty to do as they pleased.

Thankfully the poet Ovid, verbose as always, provides a much more thorough examination of this festival’s origins:

Hear of what I’ve learned from the old men. Jupiter, overcome with intense love for Juturna, suffered many things a god ought not to bear. Now she would hide in the woods among the hazels, now she would dive into her sister waters. The god called the nymphs who lived in Latium, and spoke these words in the midst of their throng: ‘Your sister is an enemy to herself, and shuns a union with the supreme god that would benefit her. Take counsel for both: for what would delight me greatly would be a great advantage to your sister. When she flees, stop her by the riverbank, lest she plunges her body into the waters’. He spoke: all the nymphs of the Tiber agreed, those too who haunt your spaces, divine Ilia. There was a naiad, named Lara: but her old name was the first syllable twice-repeated, given her to mark her failing. Almo, the river-god often said: ‘Daughter, hold your tongue’, but she still did not. As soon as she reached the pools of her sister Juturna, she said: ‘Flee these banks’, and spoke Jupiter’s words. She even went to Juno, and showing pity for married women said: ‘Your husband loves the naiad Juturna’. Jupiter was angered, and tearing that tongue from her mouth that she had used so immoderately, called Mercury to him: ‘Lead her to the shadows: that place is fitting for the silent. She shall be a nymph, but of the infernal marshes’. Jove’s order was obeyed. On the way they reached a grove: Then it was they say that she pleased the god who led her. He prepared to force her, with a glance instead of words she pleaded, trying to speak from her mute lips. Heavy with child, she bore twins who guard the crossroads, the Lares, who keep watch forever over the City”.

It seems that the Compitalia was originally a countryside festival, where offerings were made at the places where major roads intersected.
However, by the late 500s BC, when Rome was still rules by kings, these festivals were occurring also within the city of Rome itself. During Caesar Augustus’ reign, the city of Rome was divided into fourteen neighborhoods, and each one had a shrine dedicated to the protective spirit of that neighborhood.
During the celebration of the festivity, each family hung a statuette of the underworld goddess Mania on the door of their home.
They also hung up at their doors figures of wool representing men and women, accompanying them with humble requests that the Lares and Mania would be contented with those figures, and spare the people of the house. Slaves offered balls or fleeces of wool instead of human figures.

Most Roman holidays took place upon important astrological dates. For example, the Compitalia occurred when the constellation Cancer was no longer visible in the night sky. As the poet Ovid said, “When the third night before the Nones has come, and the earth is drenched, sprinkled with heavenly dew, you’ll search for the claws of the eight-footed Crab in vain: it will plunge headlong beneath the western waves”. However, things have changed in the past 2,000 years, and the constellations have shifted in the sky.
The festival marked the end of the winter agricultural cycle and at the crossroads people set up altars for the Lares and was part of the feriae conceptivae (movable festivals), i.e. the official holidays that were indicated annually by magistrates or priests. The exact day of this festivity was therefore celebrated on different dates, although it always took place during the winter. It wasn’t until later in the Roman Empire’s history that the date for the Compitalia was permanently established at January 3 to 5.

Note that a custom still in vogue today is to place a tray of offerings at a crossroads to thank the Gods in the early days of the year, a gesture that seems all too similar to what was done during the Compitalia.
So, today, or this coming January 3, get out your pork, garlic, honey cakes, and poppies, and pray that your local community sees good fortune during the Winter season!

Images from web – Google Research

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