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March 17 | Liberalia: an ancient rite of passage

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Originally written on March 17 2021 – updated 2023

On March 17 the Romans celebrated Liberalia with sacrifices, processions, ribald and gauche songs, and masks which were hung on trees. After the abolition of the Bacchanalia, from the following year these celebrations were established, wild parties (but much less than the previous ones) in honor of the God Libero and his consort Libera, deities linked to wine, to the joy of living and crowned with ivy, such as Bacchus (the Roman version of the Greek god Dionysus).
It was not uncommon for a deity to be split into masculine and feminine, especially in archaic cults. In fact it would be more correct to say that divinity, more than doubled, was already born double, as an expression of the balance of Nature.
Libero and Libera were considered the children of Ceres, an expression of Nature itself, goddess of the Earth who creates us from her own body, because we too are in some way her children.
Libero is also a vegetation god, responsible for protecting seed and, again like Dionysus, had female priests although his priests were older women.

Libero, called Liber Pater, possessed the epithet of “father” because this feast celebrates the maturation of young boys to manhood. Roman boys, usually at age 15 or 16, would remove the bulla praetexta, a hollow charm of gold or leather, which parents placed about the necks of children to ward off evil spirits. At the Liberalia ceremony the young men might place the bulla on an altar (with a lock of hair or the stubble of his first shave placed inside) and dedicate it to the Lares, who were gods of the household and family. Thus the boys donned the clothing of adulthood, the pure white toga virilis, or “man’s gown”. The garment identified him as a citizen of Rome, making him an eligible voter, but also with the right to procreate and become fathers.

During the Liberalia, the elderly women, wearing wreaths of ivy, went to the streets and prepared the “frictilia” of fried sweets of oil and honey that they sold to passing devotees.
Now let’s sum up: in ancient times on March 17 a god the Father was celebrated for which sweet pancakes were prepared. Today in several countries March 19 is Father’s Day in honor of St. Joseph, for which the homonymous pancakes are prepared with a similar ancient recipe.
Another detail. In honor of Libero, green and flowered branches were carried in procession as a symbol of spring. Furthermore, Bacchus (with whom he was associated) possessed the “thyrsus” a particular stick, a phallic symbol of virility and linked to spring fertility.
Similarly, St. Joseph has a flowering branch as a religious attribute.
Anyway, whatever religion you belong to, today have a nice glass of wine and eat a pancake!

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