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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Weekly
Vol. 11, No. 13 (Jan. 21, 1918), pp97‑102.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p97 Notes on the Development of Early Roman Religion

For teachers of the Classics who wish to know as much as possible about the daily life and thought of the ancient Greeks and Romans, for those who are not content to be mere hack teachers of certain portions of Caesar, Cicero, and Vergil, but insist upon their right to enter to the fullest extent into those ancient civilizations in order better to appreciate the extant literature of those peoples, there are few fields of study more attractive or more broadening than the investigation of Roman folklore and religion. It may be argued that such studies belong primarily to the anthropologist, or more particularly to the sophiologist; still, it must be admitted that the classical student is in closer touch with his material than is the sophiologist, and may at times furnish valuable suggestions to the latter.

Now, nearly everybody who writes upon anthropological subjects these days takes his text from Professor J. G. Frazer's wonderfully stimulating work, The Golden Bough, and then proceeds to strengthen or to pull down the theories advanced in that work. I, too, shall take my text from Frazer, and see what can be made of it.

In The Golden Bough 1.1.233 ff. the author maintains that in the development of a given people magic always precedes religion, and suggests that an intermediate step in the change from magic to religion may be represented by the very widely attested fact that the early gods of a people are often themselves adepts in magic (1.1.240 ff.). Strangely enough, Professor Frazer, who usually quotes quite freely from the Classics, does not at this point seem to realize what valuable corroborative evidence for his contention might be drawn from those sources. It is the purpose of my paper to point out some instances of the Roman gods as workers of magic, and so representing the stage of transition from magic to religion among the Romans; and then to discuss another transitional phase in this development, namely the deification of disease.

Before proceeding farther it might be well to define what I understand by the terms 'magic' and 'religion'. For the former I may quote a well known encyclopedia to the effect that "Magic is the art, or pretended art, of controlling occult forces, and of producing effects contrary to the known order of nature". Religion, on the other hand, may be defined as "the effective desire to be in right relation to the Power manifesting itself in the universe". According to Frazer's view, then, the development of any people from a general belief in magic to a general belief in religion is a development from the belief in personal, direct, human control of nature by preternatural means to the belief in the indirect control of those same forces through prayer and the placation of deities, with whom man seeks to get into proper relations. It is, on the side of oral expression, a development from spell or incantation to prayer and supplication. Considered from the mental attitude of the practitioner, it is a development from the spirit of command to the spirit of supplication. That early Roman tradition shows a midway phase of this development from magic to religion, from spell to prayer, will not, I believe, be difficult to prove.

In Ovid, Metamorphoses 9.297‑315, Alcmena tells how Juno for a time prevented the birth of Hercules (the reader will pardon, I trust, a maiden effort to render the original hexameters):

'And when she heard my groans, she sat down straight on the altar

Which is in front of the door, and crossing the right o'er the left knee,

Locking her fingers the while as the teeth of a comb are arranged,

Hindered the birth of the child. And then with word that was secret

Uttered her charms, and her charms stopped short the birth of the infant.

One of the servants most helpful was drawn from the midst of the people,

Who from her light-gold hair rejoiced in the name of Galanthis;

Eager was she to do the bidding of master or mistress,

Chosen for this very reason. She felt in her heart there was something

Wicked that Juno was doing: and so, as she came out and went back

Into the door of the dwelling, the goddess she saw on the altar

Sitting, over her knees her interlocked fingers tight holding, —

And, "Whoever thou art", she said, "rejoice with my mistress.

Now, relieved of her pain, Alcmena, daughter of Argos

Thanks to the gods returns for the precious gift they have sent her"

Hearing this, down from her seat she leaped, and in her vexation

Loosed her entwined fingers, the powerful goddess of childbirth.

Then were the bonds unloosed, and released was I from her magic'.

p98 In this story Juno is represented as practicing a perfect bit of sympathetic magic. That is, she went through certain acts in the hope that she might thereby lock up, so to speak, the labors of Alcmena, and thus prevent the birth of Hercules. In much the same manner the ancient Italian women were forbidden to twirl their spindles as they went along the country roads, for fear that the twisting motion of the spindles might induce twisted crops on either side of the road (Pliny, N. H. 28.28). But Juno did not stop at sympathetic actions. She accompanied her act with an incantation:

tacita quoque carmina voce

dixit, et incoeptos tenuerunt carmina partus,

and the carmina or charms seem to have been her chief source of power. Thus we have a very clear instance of an Italian goddess resorting to magic. Not only so, but her power over Alcmena vanished the moment she was induced through a stratagem to unlock her fingers — vinclis levor ipsa remissis.

An excellent commentary on this passage is furnished by Pliny, N. H. 28.59: 'to sit with fingers interlocked comb-fashion near pregnant persons or when medicine is being given to anyone is an act of magic; and this, they say, was discovered when Alcmena was giving birth to Hercules'. The magic power is more effective if the fingers are interlocked around one or both knees (which is apparently the position assumed by Juno, according to Ovid's story). Therefore, continues Pliny, our ancestors (maiores) forbade such acts to be performed in the councils of leaders and men of power, on the ground that they put a stop to everything. They even forbade anyone to assume such a position at temple services and vows, for the same reason. In other words Pliny's maiores considered this act more powerful than religion. That seems to be the reason why the ancient Roman felt it not strange that a goddess like Juno should resort to magic. She was wise enough, he reasoned, to use that which was traditionally more powerful than her own divinity.

We may cite another interesting story from Ovid. This time it comes from the Fasti (6.143‑168), and concerns the ancient goddess Carna. This divinity, it may be said in passing, was thought to preside over the entrails of men, and especially, to protect the entrails of young children from the assaults of vampires known to the Romans as striges (compare Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer2, 236). I have attempted to tell the story in the original elegiacs. The poet is telling of an attack of these striges upon a young prince:

'Into the chamber of Proca they came, wherein the sweet infant,

Tender young spoil for the birds, five long days now had lain:

Sucked with their avid tongues at the pitiful breast of the baby;

And from the ill fated child forth came a piteous scream.

Frightened at this came running the nurse to the aid of her darling

Only to find his cheeks cut by the rigid claw.

What can I do, she thought, as she looked at the cheeks where the color

Now was like to a leaf, paled by the new-coming frost.

Then unto Carna she went, her grief to the goddess unfolded:

"Cease from thy fears", said she; "well shall thy darling be".

Then to the cradle she came, where the father and mother were weeping:

"Only restrain your tears; I will restore", she said.

First with the twig of the arbute she touches in order the door-posts,

Thrice with the arbutus twig seals against magic the door,

Sprinkles the threshhold with water — for water is often effective —,

Lastly the heart of a pig, the uncooked heart of a shoat,

Which from its mother's womb a bare two months had advancèd,

Taking into her hand, thus she addresses the birds:

"Birds of the night", she cried, "restore to the child now his vitals;

Even in place of the child, now is the small porker falln;

Vitals for vitals accept, and for heart the heart of the weanling;

This is the life that we give, payment for life of the child".

Then a libation she offered, and placed in the open the entrails,

Bidding all those who stood round not to look back at the birds:

Twig of whitethorn she placed, which some call Janus's flower,

Just where a tiny light entered to lighten the room.

After this action, they say, the birds never troubled the cradle,

And to the cheeks of the child youth's rosy color returned.

It will be helpful to examine the above passage somewhat in detail. First we may note that this divinity, Carna, who was so adept at magic, was one of the oldest of native Roman deities. So old, in fact, that even before Greek religion had practically ousted old Roman religion from its former ascendency, Carna had become a very hazy, shadowy figure, very little known even to Roman antiquarians (Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer, 20). We have seen that Ovid associates her with the times of Proca, king of Alba, and great-grandfather of Romulus (Livy 1.3.9). We are told also by Tertullian (Ad Nationes 2.9) that she had an ara on the Palatine, a fact which in itself would argue great antiquity. An especially noteworthy proof both of her antiquity and of her function is contained in a passage from the Saturnalia of Macrobius (1.12.31) to the effect that

'According to some the month of June gets its name from Junius Brutus, because in that month, that is on the kalends of June, after the expulsion of Tarquin, he vowed a temple to the goddess, Carna, on the Caelian hill. It is supposed that this goddess protects human vitals. . . .Sacrifice is offered to her in the shape of bean pulse and bacon, because with these foods the bodies of men are made strong. Among the common p99people, also, the kalends of June are called the bean kalends, because during that month full sized beans are used among sacred offerings'.

In this long passage we find Carna again associated with early Roman legend, namely, with the exploits of Brutus, the expulsor Tarquini, who dedicated a temple to her on the Caelian hill, a very ancient portion of the city.

Let us return now to Ovid's account.

From Janus, another of the di indigites, Carna, according to our story, receives the magic whitethorn with which he too was accustomed to ward off harm from doorways (Fasti 6.129‑130). On her own account she seems to have been acquainted with the striges, birds of possibly magic creation, and with the various methods of appeasing them by magic. The magic virtue of the arbutus twig, of the number three, and of holy water are known to her. She is as proficient as Canidia in substitutional magic, persuading the striges to accept the entrails of a pig in place of those of the child. She forbids the onlookers to look behind them as she chants her incantation and pours out a libation for the striges. Finally, by placing a twig of whitethorn, the magic gift of Janus, in the window, she bars the further entrance of the striges.

Throughout all this we have one who is called a dea pleading with creatures who are thought to be carmine factae, i.e. created by a magic incantation, and resorting not to the superior power of her godship, but to magic. It seems to me, therefore, that Ovid is here reflecting a genuine tradition in which it is made clear that the old Italians looked upon their gods as inferior to magic in power, and indeed dependent upon their knowledge of magic. If this is true, it offers valuable evidence at least of the confusion of magic with religion among the early Romans; and of the superior power of the former.

Having shown this confusion of magic and religion among the early Latins, we shall next inquire which was the earlier to obtain general acceptance in Latium. I may say in the beginning that I have no hesitation in declaring in favor of magic, for the following reasons.

First, the fact that two very primitive goddesses, as we have shown, used magic as a more mighty force than divinity creates a very strong presumption in favor of the priority of magic.

To this strong presumption can be added actual evidence. We know that the earliest priests of the Romans were adepts in magic, and accepted magic as a natural accompaniment of their priestly functions. Vergil, for example, who in heart and feeling was a thoroughgoing Italian, represented his early Marruvian and Massylian priests as skilful magicians, like Livy's Attus Navius (1.36; cf. Valerius Maximus 1.4.1 exc. Par., 1.4.1 exc. Nep.; Apuleius, De Deo Socratis 7; Dionysius Halicarnassensis, Antiq. Rom. 3.71; Cicero, De Nat. Deor. 2.3; De Div. 1.32; Pliny, N. H. 15.77). Of the Marruvian priest Vergil says (Aen. 7.754‑755):

Spargere qui somnos cantuque manuque solebat

mulcebatque iras et morsus arte levabat.

The Massylian priestess of Aeneid 4.487‑491 is even more definitely a sorceress:

Haec se carminibus promittit solvere mentes,

quas velit, ast aliis duras inmittere curas,

sistere aquam fluviis et vertere sidera retro,

nocturnosque movet Manis; mugire videbis

sub pedibus terram et descendere montibus ornos.

We must remember that Vergil with a thorough knowledge of Italian religious antiquities paints these priests true to tradition. That tradition quite plainly represented its religious leaders as more than half-magicians. Such a condition could exist, I think, only in a community where magic had been in general and universal practice before the advent of an organized religion. Certainly it could not exist in a community where priests of a more purely religious type had previously exercised exclusive sway.

Furthermore, many fossilized remains of magic practice were retained in Roman religion itself. I have only to mention the taboos surrounding the person of the Flamen Dialis (Aulus Gellius, N. A. 10.15), the strange rites used in pacifying the Lemures (Ovid, Fasti 5.429‑444; Varro, De Vita Populi Romani, Book I, apud Nonium Marcellum 197, ed. Lindsay), Cunina as the averter of the evil eye (Varro, Antiquarum Rerum Divinarum Fragmenta 23A and 23B, ed. Agahd), and the magic powers popularly attributed to the Vestal Virgins (Pliny, N. H. 28.12‑13), in order to substantiate this statement. Now, it is a well known fact that formal Roman religion strove mightily to free itself of all known magic. The fact, therefore, that these bits of magic remained in that ritual must be interpreted to mean either that the magic element was too popular to be thrown out, or that it had occupied a place in the religious thought of the people so long that both priests and people had lost all idea of its magic origin. The latter seems to me the true explanation. We must conclude, I think, from these fossilized, unrecognized remains of magic in Roman religion, that magic was older than religion in Italy, and left its traces behind it in the later religion — the very place from which it would have been excluded, had the priests suspected its presence.

So far my argument has sought to strengthen Professor Frazer's view, at least so far as concerns the Romans, that magic existed prior to religion, and that the early gods were adepts in magic. His third statement, however (G. B. 1.1.242), "that many gods may at first have been merely deified sorcerers", can not, in my opinion, be accepted as true of the two goddesses whom we are considering. The speculation, however, is very interesting, though unconvincing.

Let us adopt, from a number of equally doubtful etymologies of the name Carna, that of H. Peter, in his edition of the Fasti, Part II page 89, which had occurred to me independently as probable, and which presents no linguistic difficulties, namely, that the word Carna is p100to be connected with caro, carnis, 'flesh'. The word Carna would then mean 'she who has to do with flesh'; and might have applied in the earliest times to all sorceresses who were thought to have had power over the human body, whether that power was used for good or for evil. In time, if we agree with Frazer's theory, the name became restricted to those sorceresses whose powers were beneficently used, and so these good flesh witches, carnae (with a small c), became in further process of time the goddess Carna. It is at this latter period that we begin to catch a glimpse of the early belief as reflected in literature; and this explanation, suggests Frazer's remark, above quoted, accounts for the mixture of magic and divinity in the Carna of our Ovidian story.

Of course this is pure speculation, and may be all wrong. It must be admitted that the etymology of the word Carna is very uncertain. Furthermore, there are no references, other than those already quoted, in all Latin literature that throw any light upon her character. Adjectives such as carnalis, carnarius, carneus, and carnosus, and nouns such as carnalitas, carnarium, carnifex, have been carefully studied in the Thesaurus, but I have failed to discover a single reference to Carna as goddess of flesh. Still, the passage which I have quoted from Macrobius fits so well into the Carna of Ovid's story that I am willing to accept her as the goddess who protected human flesh, especially the entrails of children from the striges. Those who believe that deities were originally magicians would have us go further. They would argue that Carna was originally a sorceress or type of sorceress whose beneficent protection of children elevated her finally to godship. When this latter event took place, the bean meal and bacon which the old Italian farmers originally gave as a token of gratitude to the protecting sorceress became their offerings at the shrine of the new-made goddess. And in this later development the old-time spells of the sorceress are now transformed into the prayers of the worshipper.

Unfortunately, a similar study of the origin of our other magician goddess, Juno, will not comport with the foregoing speculations regarding Carna. Walde (Lateinisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch2, s. v. Iuno) expresses the belief that the word Iuno is to be connected with iuvenis rather than with Jupiter, and that Juno was originally the deification of blooming youth. Furthermore, it is a well known fact that Roman women spoke of their Junos just as Roman men spoke of their Geniuses (compare Roscher, Lex., s.v. Iunones). Roman women swore also by their Junos, using the expression Eiuno, 'by Juno'. It seems probable, therefore, that Juno was originally thought of as the spirit of womanhood residing in each feminine breast, and that her deification was the "anthropomorphining result of the penetration of Greek ideas into Latium from the south". Such, I find, is the view of Mr. W. Warde Fowler (Religious Experience of the Roman People, 135‑136), and with him I thoroughly agree.

Now, this deification of the feminine principle as Juno, just as the masculine element in human nature was deified as Genius, is not in keeping with the theory that the old Roman gods were originally practitioners of magic, and nothing else. It seems rather to indicate that, like other forces of nature, the numina of femininity and of masculinity were very early conceptions of the Romans, of which the former in later days, under Greek influence, became anthropomorphized into the goddess Juno.

If, then, Juno was a development of the individual numen or alter ego residing in a woman into the general notion of the woman's deity par excellence, it seems likely that a similar development should be predicated for Carna. In other words, Carna may have been thought of originally as the numen of the body, just as Juno and Genius were considered the numina of the souls of women and men respectively. And so, in time, the various Carnae, each residing in one person, were merged into the one conception of Carna, the guardian divinity of the physical bodies of human beings. This is in opposition to Frazer's suggestion that "many gods may at first have been merely deified sorcerers". At least, these goddesses were not deified sorcerers. The study of these two stories of early Roman goddesses leads me, therefore, to the following conclusions: (1) that, so far as the early Italians were concerned, it may be confidently asserted that magic possessed a power superior to that of religion; (2) that a general belief in magic existed prior to a general belief in an organized religion; (3) that the two goddesses under consideration can not be shown to have been in their origin deified magicians, but were rather objectified and deified forces of nature, hazy numina.

But there is another interesting step in the development of Roman religion which also depicts certain ideas of deity in a sort of half-way condition between the world of magic and the world of religion. I refer to the ancient Roman custom of deifying diseases.

That the Romans actually made a deity of Febris (fever) is shown conclusively by a passage from Valerius Maximus (2.5.6). This author, in enumerating the customs of the simplicitas antiquorum, remarks:

'Other gods, indeed, they used to adore for their good deeds; Fever, on the other hand, they worshipped in their temples in order to render her less harmful. Of these temples one is still extant, on the Palatine, another in the court of the Marian monuments, and a third at the top of the Vicus Longus. To these temples they used to bring and deposit the amulets which had formerly been attached to the bodies of the patients'.

Valerius then proceeds to indicate his own superiority to these antiquated and vulgar beliefs.

But the temple of Febris continued to be patronized long after the simplicitas antiquorum had become with Valerius Maximus a mere subject for speculation. He himself says that three temples to that deity were still in existence in his own day. Nor were these temples mere memorials of a dead past. Pliny the Elder, in p101ridicule of what appears to have been a very general belief in the divine attributes of various diseases, exclaims (N. H. 2.15‑16):

'We have discovered innumerable divinities, we have divided the gods of the nether world into classes, we have even done likewise with diseases and many pestilences, with the one desire that we may tremblingly placate them. And so a shrine has been dedicated on the Palatine to Fever even at public expense'.

Even the locations of the three temples of Febris extant in the time of Valerius are instructive. One was on the Palatine, the seat of Roma Quadrata, Romulus's Rome; another stood on the Esquiline, a hill whose settlement was second in point of antiquity only to that of the Palatine; the last stood on the Quirinal, just above the Subura or Bowery section of Rome, one of the lowest, and therefore one of the most fever-stricken spots in the city. It is difficult, therefore, to escape the conclusion that the temples on the Palatine and the Esquiline point to a very early origin of the worship of Febris; while the temple of the Quirinal, just above the Subura, where the population was very congested and the ground expensive, indicates that the populace of the time of Valerius Maximus, that is, of the Augustan age, still retained a lively belief in the power of Febris. It is noteworthy that all these temples stood on high ground, just above but in close proximity to low ground that was originally swampy; that is, on salubrious spots that were adjacent to fever-laden sections. For the same reason the Madonna della Febbreº was honored in later centuries on the Vatican (cf. Roscher, Lex., s.v. Febris).

Let us next ask what customarily happened in the temple of Febris. Was it an act of magic or an act of religion? In answer to our question we may profitably recur to our passage in Valerius Maximus. He says: In ea remedia, quae corporibus aegrorum adnexa fuerant, deferebantur. Here I should translate remedia as amulets, a meaning which the word will be found to bear in Ammianus Marcellinus 19.12.14. We shall then translate our passage thus: 'Into these temples of Febris were usually brought the amulets which had before that been attached to the bodies of the fever-stricken patients, and left there'. In other words, fever is no longer warded off or cured by the simple magic means of wearing an amulet; but Febris, now spelt with a capital F, is made into a divinity, into whose temple the old-time amulets are brought and deposited, just as crutches and similar memorials of disease may be found to‑day in many Roman Catholic Churches over which a healing saint presides. Here, then, we see the step forward from magic to religion in its halfway stage. Febris is scarcely a god, as yet; still, the old method of controlling fever with amulets has lost its vogue with many of the populace. Instead, therefore, of wearing the amulet in order to control fever, many Romans in the time of Augustus and before were in the habit of depositing their amulets in the temple of Febris, and of making certain prayers to the numen of the disease itself. This new way of placating fever proved, however, no more efficacious than the old; for Pliny (N. H. 30.98) continues to recommend amulets for quartan fever on the ground that scientific medicine had failed to find a cure; while Ammianus Marcellinus (19.12.14) tells us that in his day (400 A.D.) many persons were prosecuted for wearing amulets as a means of protection against tertian and quartan fevers.1

There is also epigraphical evidence of the Febris cult. Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer, 246, quotes from CIL 7.999 an inscription to dea tertiana and from CIL 12.3129 an inscription to dea quartana, i.e. to the presiding goddesses of tertian and quartan fever respectively. The date of these inscriptions is, according to Wissowa, later than the time of Augustus, and the volume numbers of the Corpus show that the cult had been carried, probably by Roman soldiers, into Britain and Gallia Narbonensis respectively.

Before leaving our discussion of the deified Febris I should like to offer some explanation of the motive which could lead to such a deification. Recent students of religion are inclined to find its origin in the elemental feeling of awe which a man experiences in the presence of a phenomenon of nature which is beyond his control (compare Marett, the Threshold of Religion, 1‑28). If this is the true explanation of the genesis of religion, we shall not have far to seek in ascertaining why primitive man should deify disease. For in the presence of an unknown or an incurable disease both primitive and modern man feels a peculiar sense of helplessness, or even awe.

There were other diseases which the Romans thought worthy of deification. The passage we have quoted from Pliny (H. N. 30.98) indicates this plainly; for he says that diseases and even many pestilences have been assigned to their respective groups as divinities in order that they may be placated by their trembling devotees. From these words we may gather that not only was the numen of fever revered by the Roman populace, but that there were many other diseases of which the numina were held in like respect. Just what diseases were thus deified I am unable to state with any degree of certainty. I believe, however, that it will be possible to correct some overstatements contained in the otherwise admirable Companion to Latin Studies issued by Cambridge University. In §1075 of this manual we find the following statement: "We hear also of a Dea Mefitis (for malaria), Dea Angerona (for angina, ἀγχόνη, or inflammation of the throat); and even, it is said, Dea Scabies (for the itch)". The evidence for p102the above statement is, however, not very convincing, as I shall try to show.

That there was a deified Mefitis there can be no doubt. The inscriptions show that Mefitis was worshiped at Potentia (CIL 10.131‑133), Grumentum (CIL 10.203), Transpadane Gaul (CIL 5.6353); but especially in Central Italy (Pliny, N. H. 2.208; CIL 9.1421; 10.3811; 10.5047). Varro (L. L. 5.49) mentions a grove of Mefitis, and Festus (476.13, ed. Lindsay) a temple on the Quirinal at Rome, but without indicating the nature of the goddess. On the other hand Servius, commenting on Aeneid 7.84, says:

'Mefitis is, properly speaking, an offensive gas arising from the earth, originating in sulphurous waters; and is of heavier quality in groves, on account of the density of the wooded growth. . . . We know, moreover, that such a gas arises only from the corruption of the air. . . . So that Mefitis is the goddess of a most offensive odor'.

Other references to Mefitis in the Latin authors will be found in the article on Mefitis in Roscher's Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie. No one of them mentions the deity as any other than the deity of noxious gases, especially of those gases arising in volcanic regions. Hence, I believe, we may dismiss, as unsubstantiated by a scintilla of evidence, the statement in the Cambridge Companion to the effect that Mefitis was a goddess of malaria.a

That Angerona was a goddess of quinsy is also very doubtful. The truth seems to be that her cult had become so obscure even to Roman antiquarians that they were unable to agree upon either the etymology of the name or the function of the deity. That she was the deified quinsy rests only upon the statement of Julius Modestus, apud Macrobium 1.10.9, and on Festus 16, ed. Lindsay. The former passage reads: 'Julius Modestus says that sacrifice is offered to this goddess because through prayer to her the Roman people was relieved of the disease known as angina (quinsy)'. The latter passage has: 'Sacrifices were instituted to Angerona by the Romans when all of their herds were being consumed by angina'. Against this explanation we may quote Macrobius himself (3.9.4) for the belief that Angerona was the goddess who kept in her possession the secret name of Rome, and so protected the city. Finally, Mommsen, arguing from the fact that her festival came at the winter solstice, and from information gleaned from a much mutilated Praenestine calendar, has convinced so careful a student of Roman religion as Wissowa (Religion und Kultus, 241) that Angerona was probably connected with the winter solstice; Mommsen further suggested the etymology ab angerendo, id est ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀναφέρεσθαι τὸν ἥλιον. This explanation appears to Fowler (Roman Festivals, 274‑275) the most acceptable solution of a probably insoluble problem in Roman religion. At any rate, all scholars of to‑day and most of those of antiquity unite in condemning the idea that Angerona was the deification of quinsy. Perhaps the most convenient conspectus of the passages relating to Angerona is the article in the Thesaurus.

The evidence for Scabies (the itch) as a deity seems even less substantial. It consists of a single passage, Prudentius, Hamartigenia (published about 405 A.D.), 220; unless, indeed, we understand a deified itch in Horace, Ars Poetica 417. In this passage Horace makes one who would compose poetry without enduring the labor of preparation say:

Ego mira poemata pango;

occupet extremum scabies! mihi turpe relinqui est,

et quod noti didici sane nescire fateri.

The expression occupet extremum scabies Acron interprets thus: 'May he get the itch who comes out last at composing verses'; for, he says, 'the poet is here speaking metaphorically, drawing his figure from children's games. For when children are playing at certain running games, they shout! Occupet scabies in extremo remanentem'. Porphyrio and the Commentator Cruquianus give similar explanations. On the basis of none of these could anyone possibly admit, it seems to me, the existence of a deified itch; though it might be allowable to think of it in the minds of the children as a personified itch.

Our search, then, for deified diseases other than fever has resulted in the rejection of the malaria, the quinsy, and the itch god. Nor have I been able to find any actual diseases, except fever, which were deified by the Romans.

Our excursion into Roman religion has sought to show that religion somewhat in the process of making. It has led us to the conclusion that Roman magic was older and stronger than Roman religion, and that the latter borrowed from the former. As to the origin of the gods, we have given reasons for believing that the Roman gods were not deified sorcerers, as Professor Frazer suggests, but were rather deifications of the more or less hazy numina of nature. Among these latter, in process of deification, we have called especial attention to the deification of disease.

It may be that to many ransacking of out of the way authors for out of the way facts appears to be a waste of energy; but, to my mind, no labor is lost which enables teachers of the Classics to get into more living touch with the every-day life of the ancient Romans and the ancient Greeks; nor, in my opinion, is there any field of investigation which will yield a richer first-hand appreciation of the life of a people than the study of that people's folk belief and religion.

Eugene Tavenner.

State Normal College

Murfreesboro, Tenn.


The Author's Note:

1 'Of the three temples to Febris whose locations are given by Valerius Maximus, only one, that on the Palatine, is specifically mentioned elsewhere. Compare Cicero, De Leg. 2.28: De Nat. Deor. 3.63; Aelian, Var. Hist. 12.11. There are other references to temples of Febris which do not specify location, such as Augustinus, De Civitate Dei 3.25: 4.15; Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 6; Theodorus Priscianus Physicus, 3. All these probably refer to the Palatine temple. Compare Roscher, Lexikon, s.v. Febris; Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer, 245 and note 10.


Thayer's Note:

a Yet the surmise is a very reasonable one. First, we need to backtrack and provide a full and correct translation of the passage in Servius: both the excerpting and the translation seem somewhat disingenuous to me. The parts omitted by Tavenner are italicized.

Mephitis, properly speaking, is a stench [putor] of the earth, which is born of sulphureous waters, and it is heavier (or: more pronounced) in groves, on account of the density of the wooded growth. Others would associate the god Mephitis with Leucothea [a goddess associated with the sea], just as Adonis is with Venus, Virbius with Diana. Others would identify Mephitis with Juno, who is air. We, on the other hand, [autem] know that a stench [putorem] arises only from a corruption of the air, just as a good odor arises from uncorrupted air, so that Mephitis is a goddess of a very powerful odor, that is, of one that smells bad.

At any rate, as is well known, our own modern name for the disease, malaria, means "bad air"; and although noxious gases (not actually mentioned by Servius) are often volcanic and foul-smelling, the temples of Mefitis known to us were in areas not volcanic but malarial: the one in Rome (Platner & Ashby, s.v. Lucus et Aedes Mefitis) and the one in Cremona (Tacitus, Hist. III.33). Sure enough, Servius paints us a picture not of a volcanic zone of dry clefts spewing forth poisonous gases, but of putrid water and vegetation.


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Page updated: 17 Nov 13