Originally written on April 15, 2020 – Updated 2023
On the Roman religious calendar, the month of April (Aprilis) was in general dedicated to deities who were female or ambiguous in gender, opening with the Feast of Venus on the Kalends.
With celebration of Fordicidia on this day, April 15, all those purifying and propitiatory festivities that characterized the month were launched: the Parilia, a feast of shepherds, on April 21, the Robigalia on April 25, to protect crops from blight, and the Vinalia, one of the two wine festivals on the calendar, at the end of the month.
It seems that Fordicidia was one of the oldest sacrificial rites in Roman religion, and it was a festival dedicated to Tellus, the goddess of the Earth, so that she blessed the cattle and made them fruitful.
Fordicidia was named from fordae cows, that carrying an unborn calf. Because on this day several pregnant cows were officially and publicly sacrificed in the curiae, the festival was called the Fordicidia from fordae caedendae, “the pregnant cows which were to be slaughtered.”
The sacrifice offered to the goddess was in fact rather bloody: the Vestals sacrificed some pregnant cows and burned their fetuses.
The ashes were preserved by the Vestals and used as one of the ingredients in the ritual substance suffimen, along with the dried blood of the October Horse from the previous year, and the stalks from which beans had been harvested.
The suffimen was sprinkled on the bonfires of the Parilia, on April 21, the festival devoted to purifying shepherds and their sheep, and later celebrated also as the “birthday” of the city.
Yes, horrible, but the ritual killing of fetuses constituted the offering of the first fruits, that is, the offering of something that is not yet ripe and therefore very precious.
This concept has been maintained in the Easter rituals, when lambs are killed (the first fruits of the flock).
Like many other aspects of Roman law and religion, the institution of the Fordicidia was attributed to Numa Pompilius, the Sabine second king of Rome.
Apparently, the rustic god Faunus instructed Numa in a dream that a sacrifice to Tellus would mitigate the harsh agricultural conditions Rome was grappling with, but the oracular message required interpretation: “By the death of cattle, King, Tellus must be placated: two cows, that is. Let a single heifer yield two lives (animae) for the rites.”
And Numa solved the riddle by instituting the sacrifice of a pregnant cow…