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Appeasing the Ancestors: The Parentalia and Feralia in Ancient Rome

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Originally written on February 13, 2020. Updated 2023

The Romans held their dead in great respect. They were “di manes”, the “good” dead, or honoured ancestors never to be forgotten.
As such, it was customary for living relatives to visit family graves on the deceased’s birthday, to celebrate the day and remember the life of the departed one. However, Roman society as a whole also honoured the dead publicly especially in February, that was the month of the Parentalia, a festival dedicated todi parentes or dies parentales, the family dead.
The Parentalia was a nine-day religious festival began at noon on February 13 and culminated on February 21, and was essentially a private celebration of the rites of deceased family members.

The Parentalia began on this day, the 13th February, when, according to the calendar of Philocalus, a vestal virgin performed Virgo Vesta parentat, the opening rituals for the dead. In the period of the Parentalia, “No incense for altars, no fires for hearths,” were lit according Ovid, as priests barred the doors of the temples and no marriages were performed. Even the city’s political life was affected, as magistrates left off their official togas and the court’s closed.
During this holiday, Roman citizens retired behind their own closed doors to celebrate the rites of the dead amongst their own family.
It was believed that during the Parentalia, the dead arose to wander amongst the living. However, although dead, during their brief sojourn on earth, they needed sustenance and so families would leave consumable gifts for their shades. Ovid describes how relatives left offerings “lying on a shard in mid street” or at the tombs of the departed where they gathered to “build hearths and add prayers and ritual words” and leave “sprinkled corn and a thrifty grain of salt.”
Ovid also describes sacred offerings (sacrificia) of flower-garlands, wheat, salt, wine-soaked bread and violets to the “shades of the dead” (Manes or Di manes) at family tombs, which were located outside Rome’s sacred boundary (pomerium). These observances were meant to strengthen the mutual obligations and protective ties between the living and the dead, and were a lawful duty of the paterfamilias (head of the family).
Archeological evidence suggests these visits to the graveyard could be quite pleasant affairs and many tombs and necropilii were equipped with seating areas for visitors, set within peaceful garden settings. It seems that some of the more elaborate even had private tricliniaor dining rooms and cooking facilities. So, during the Parentalia, families did not just visit the grave to leave a bunch of flowers, but they prepared meals on site and stayed to eat with the deceased.

According to tradition, Parentalia concluded on 21 February in the midnight rites of Feralia, when the paterfamilias addressed the malevolent, destructive aspects of his Manes.
No account of the public rites of the Feralia survives today, although its prominence on public calendars indicates it was a major event.
Feralia was, basically, a placation and exorcism, and Ovid thought it a more rustic, primitive and ancient affair than the Parentalia itself.
He also describes a strange rite dedicated to Tacita, the goddess of the dead which was preformed on the Feralia by an old woman, surrounded by young girls:

Three fingers tuck three incense lumps under a door,
Where a tiny mouse built a hidden path.
The hag then fastens enchanted cords with dark lead,
And rolls seven beans inside her mouth;
And she roast on the fire the sewn head of the sprat
Smeared in pitch and spitted with a bronze rod.
She also drops in wine. What remains of the wine
She or her friends drink (although she drinks more)
‘We have tied hostile tongues and our enemies mouths’
The hag shouts.

Beans were the food of the dead. The images of binding, sealing and blocking suggests a rite of banishing and removing harm. All of this, plus the involvement of the silent goddess of death suggests the Feralia was a rite to guide the dead back to their proper place (and see that they stayed there).

Interestingly, In ancient Rome, when a person died, the rites and rituals surrounding the departed were not to help them on their way to the after life – but to keep them well away from the land of the living. The reason? They believed that the death was polluted and, not by chance, the dead were buried outside city walls, in their own cities of death. After a funeral, a family was impure until they had ritually cleansed both themselves and their homes.
Nevertheless, even though their remains were safely separated from the living, the Romans never forgot their ancestors.
“Animas placate patterns,” warned Ovid.
And this was the true reason behind the Parentalia. The poet then goes on to describe the consequences of forgetting the dead. Once during a time of war, the Parentaliawas not honoured and, apparently, the result was rather unpleasant. “Our ancestors”, he said, “left their tombs in night’s silent hour and wailed. The city streets and broad grassland howled, they say, with a hollow throng of shapeless souls.”
This “invasion” of Rome by the shades of the departed brought the Romans sharply to their sences. They hastily remembered their dutyand pacified their deceased loved ones with gifts and attention. Satisfied, the ancestors returned to their graves and were once again at peace.

Either way, individuals might also be commemorated on their birthday (dies natalis). Some would be commemorated throughout the year on marked days of the month, such as the Kalends, Nones or Ides, when lamps might be lit at the tomb. The Lemuria on 9, 11 and 13 May, for istance, was aimed at appeasing “kinless and hungry” spirits of the dead.

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