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Chapter 7
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Lupercalia

by Alberta Mildred Franklin

New York, 1921

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 9

 p74  Chapter VIII
The Dog as a Sacred Animal in Italy

Among the Romans there was no clearly marked center of the cult of the dog, as there was in Greece. Moreover, details about the few dog‑cults which are found in Italy are scanty. This makes an elucidation of the sacrifice of a dog in the Lupercalia very difficult, and we cannot hope to do more than offer a reasonable theory about its origin and significance, based upon a survey of the other dog‑cults of Italy and of Greece.

The god Silvanus is constantly portrayed in art with a dog at his side.​1 Yet the dog had no part in the cult of Silvanus: there is no indication that Silvanus was ever thought to be of dog form; a dog was not sacrificed to him, nor did it appear in any of the legends about him. It seems probable, therefore, that the dog was attached to Silvanus because of an art convention: just as a dog was regularly represented with the huntress Diana, so Silvanus, the guardian of the boundaries of the cultivated land, was naturally accompanied by the watchful dog.2

Dogs were able to see the Fauni.​3 This seems due to the widespread belief in the uncanny power of the dog to discern either ghosts or a deity who was invisible to men.​4 There is nothing in the cult or the attributes of Faunus to indicate that the dog was sacred to him.

Most clearly marked of the cults of the dog was the sacrifice of a dog at the Robigalia. Robigus was the dreaded blight, or mildew, which attacked the grain while it was forming in the ear and caused it to turn black and wither.​5 Robigus was, therefore, a numen who must be placated in order to avert evil from the crops.​6 The Robigalia was established in early times​7 in order to ward off this destructive blight.​8 The rite being apotropaic, the dog‑sacrifice had the same significance that it had among the Greeks. We remember that on the coins of Sicily the dog often appeared in conjunction with a sheaf or an ear of grain,​9 so that there, too, it may have been thought to protect the grain from harm. The officiating priest at the Robigalia was the Flamen Quirinalis,​10 a fact which suggests a Sabine origin. The legend that it was  p75 founded by Numa​11 indicates the same idea.​12 Another festival which seems an echo of the Robigalia took place near a gate called Catularia. There reddish puppies were sacrificed to protect the crops.​13 Whether that sacrifice belonged to the Robigalia or to a festival which was a Roman double of it,​14 is for our purpose immaterial.

Another dog‑cult was associated with two ancient and little-known deities, the Lares Praestites. Ovid says that he sought to see their statues, but they had decayed with age.​15 He knew, however, that they were represented with a dog at their feet.​16 The Lares Praestites are thought to be portrayed on a coin of the Gens Caesia which shows two youths, each bearing a spear, and with a dog seated between them.​17 Plutarch adds the further fact that the Lares Praestites were clad in dog‑skins.​18 The shrine of the Lares Praestites is by most authorities believed to have been on the Velia, on the same site as the Sacellum Larum which was erected by Augustus.​19 If that is true, the dog‑cult of the Lares probably belonged to a later period than the ancient cults of the Cermalus, for the structures on the Velia are associated with the time when the Sabines made their way into Rome.​20 Plutarch puts the Lares Praestites in a class by themselves, asking why it is, that, of the Lares, those that are called by the individual name of Praestites are accompanied by a dog and wear dog‑skins.​21 This question, together with the probable site of their shrine, suggests that the Lares Praestites were the Sabine Lares, as against the Lares Compitales, who were the protecting spirits of the Romans, and in whose cult the dog does not appear.​22 The prime function of the Lares is indicated by the prayer which the Arval Brothers, priests of the chthonic Dea Dia, offered to them, begging them to protect the people from all baleful forces.​23a Like Hecate, the Lares were worshipped at the crossroads,​24 but they also appeared as protecting deities in nearly all places.​23b The dog had, therefore, the same significance when associated with the Lares that he had with Hecate, for both were potent to protect from evil.

There are two other dog‑cults of like character. The Umbrians offered a dog to their goddess Hontia.​25a Buecheler notes that the name Hontia​a is very similar to the name of the infernal regions and to certain words meaning destruction. He believes, accordingly, that the dog offered to Hontia was a purificatory  p76 sacrifice, designed to avert evil.​25b Another underworld goddess was Genita Mana, who is often regarded as identical with Mania.​26 Her realm, as is indicated by her name, was both birth and death.​27 To her a dog was sacrificed, with the prayer that none of the household might that year join the dead.​28a This sacrifice Plutarch makes parallel to the one offered by the Greeks to Hecate.​28b It was, therefore, designed to ward off the baleful powers of the underworld.

Outside the cults with which the dog was especially associated, it often possessed for the Romans, as for the Greeks, a magic power. Puppies were considered so pure a meat, says Pliny, that they were used as expiatory sacrifices, and were served at the banquets given in honor of the gods.​29 The power of the dog to avert evil was utilized in a most practical way by the Roman farmers. Before undertaking any one of a variety of important tasks concerning the crops or the cattle, they took the precaution of sacrificing a dog. Also, by a sacrifice of this convenient animal, they might perform on festal days certain labors that would otherwise be forbidden.30

In all these cases of the dog as a sacred animal in Italy, we see that the Romans regarded it in the same light as did the Greeks, as a creature able to protect the people from evil, and especially potent to dispel the powers which were inimical to birth and growth. Therefore its use in the Lupercalia was wholly natural, that being a festival which sought to ward off evil and to set free the life-activities.

The instances of dog‑sacrifice which have been found in Italy occurred either in the immediate environs of Rome or in Umbria; but a series of coins which bear the figure of a dog seems to indicate that the dog was honored as a sacred animal throughout the southern half of Italy. A coin of Metapontum shows, back of a head of the city's mythical founder, a dog seated, with fore‑paw raised.​31 The reverse pictures, as do many of the coins of Metapontum,​32 an ear of grain. We remember that an ear of grain frequently occurred in conjunction with the dog on the coins of Segesta.​33 In the Apulian town of Larinum, a coin was issued representing a dog walking, with one foot raised; the reverse bears a head of Minerva.​34 A coin of Campania also shows a dog with fore‑paw raised.​35 A dog with the same peculiarity of posture appears on  p77 a coin which is thought to come from Alba Fucens. This coin portrays also an archaic wheel,​36 a symbol which was often used on Sicilian coins in conjunction with the dog.​37 A similar type comes from the town of Tuder, in southern Umbria.​38 Belonging to Hatria, a town of Picenum, is a coin which portrays the head of Silanus on one side, and a sleeping dog on the other.​39 A coin that is thought to have come from Etruria shows the head of a youth, who was, perhaps, Hercules, and a dog.40

These coins, like the instances of dog‑sacrifice in Italy, do not present the cult of one dog‑shaped deity, but suggest, rather, a potent animal that was annexed by various gods. The dog‑cults of Italy give no indication that they were a native development. There is no definite region from which they originated, nor is there any one deity to whom the dog was markedly sacrosanct. No contrast could be greater than between the faint and scattered fragments of the cult of the dog in Italy and the dominant figure of Hecate in Thrace.

If the cult of the dog was imported into Italy, it must have been at an early date, as it was associated with very ancient deities. Foreign rites were first brought to Rome from the Greek cities of Sicily and of Southern Italy.​41 We have seen that the dog‑cult was strongly centered in Sicily, and that it was honored by the Mamertines when they occupied Messana.​42 Certain of the motives on the coins of Italy which were used in connection with the dog, as the sheaf of grain and the wheel, were also used in Sicily. The cult of the dog was also wide-spread in the cities of Southern Italy. The coins from both Southern and Central Italy which show the dog with fore‑paw raised, indicate, by this similarity of treatment, that there had been an exchange of ideas between those localities. The natural conclusion is that the worship of the dog, like so many early cults, was carried to Central Italy by the Greek traders who, as early as the time of the Tarquins, paid frequent visits to that region.43

If the cult of the dog among the Italians was a Greek importation, the dog‑sacrifice cannot have been an original part of the Lupercalia, which antedated the arrival of the Greek cults. Though Plutarch gives no hint of when the dog was first sacrificed in the Lupercalia, the complete lack of legends about it seems to indicate that it did not belong to the oldest stratum of the festival. In the  p78 Lupercalia, as well as in the Robigalia, the dog was sacrificed in conjunction with another victim. That may well indicate an extension of the original ceremony, for outworn cults were often rejuvenated by the inclusion of new rites or the sacrifice of a more unusual victim.​44 In Greece the sacrifice of a dog was at times severed from the worship of Hecate and used merely as a magic rite of purification.​45 In Italy the dog‑sacrifice was devoted to purposes of magic.​46 Thus the sheep sacrificed at the Robigalia and the goat at the Lupercalia may well have had "new magic" given to them by the additional sacrifice of a dog.

We cannot be sure of the agency by which this new victim was added to the Lupercalia. It may have been brought in from the cities of Latium, just as was the cult of Heracles or of the Dioscuri. The fact, however, that the chief priest of the Sabines offered the dog to Robigus, and that the Sabines seem to have introduced the Lares Praestites to Rome, suggests the possibility that they were likewise responsible for the sacrifice of a dog at the Lupercalia. The character of the Sabines and the part which they played in the religion of the Romans gives added ground for this assumption.

The Sabines hold a place apart from other Italic tribes, for they universally adopted the Mediterranean custom of burying, instead of cremating, their dead. In the vast necropolis of Aufidena, not a single incineration-grave has been found.​47 This departure from the burial customs of their race proves that there had been some vital alteration in the Sabines. Furthermore, even the skulls found in these graves are dolichocephalic.​48 In religion the Sabines show a strong tendency toward chthonic cults.​49 For example, the Flamen Quirinalis performed the offering at the tomb of Acca Larentia and officiated at the Consualia, at which the altar of Consus, which was buried in the earth the rest of the year, was uncovered.​50 The ancients considered the Sabines remarkable for their devotion to religion, as is shown by the popular derivation of Sabini from σέβομαι.​51 Also they ascribed to the Sabine kings, Numa and Titus Tatius, the majority of the important cults of Rome, thus expressing their belief that the Sabines had exercised a very great influence upon the development of religion in the Roman state.​52 Owing to this devout temperament, the Sabines would have been particularly ready to adopt the cult of the dog, for that, with its emphasis upon uncleanness and the need of purification,  p79 appealed to the most pious, as was shown when the Orphics made Hecate one of their chief gods.53

February, the month in which the Lupercalia was celebrated, was by legend connected with the Sabines. It was generally believed by the ancients that Numa, having divided the year into twelve months instead of ten as heretofore, added the months of January and February.​54 The latter month derived its name from the februa, the most solemn lustral media,​55 and was thus marked as the month of cleansing. Ovid says that when the year was only ten months in length, the Romans did not know the holy februa.​56 Though this statement need not be taken as literally true, it shows that Ovid believed that the Romans were indifferent to the rite of purification, but that the Sabines valued it and were chiefly responsible for February being devoted to lustral ceremonies. Of all these cleansing rites, the Lupercalia had, by Varro's time, come to be the most important. Varro even went so far as to suggest that the whole month had derived its name from the Lupercalia, which he called "the day of purification."​57 It is reasonable to think of the Sabines as responsible, at least in part, for this emphasis upon the lustral side of the Lupercalia, since that festival could hardly have failed to be influenced by the dominant note which the Sabines seem to have given to the whole month of February. It was, moreover, not a new meaning that was thus added to the Lupercalia, but an intensifying and clarifying of its oldest significance, that of protecting men from evil. For, as the Mediterranean people developed in religious thought, they came to believe that the chief cause of evil was man's impurity, and hence strove to avert evil by removing impurity. Consequently the Lupercalia could best perform its ancient function if it freed the people from uncleanness.

The ritual acts of the Lupercalia, like those of all ceremonies of purgation, would tend to diminish in power.​58 We see this exemplified repeatedly in Rome's history. It would, therefore, have been fully in accord with the march of events that the Lupercalia, at some time of need, should likewise have failed the people, and that persons who were familiar with the efficacy of the sacrifice of a dog should then have added that rite to the festival.

The Lupercalia started out as a ceremony of riddance. But the riddance of the infernal spirits is merely the savage man's way of  p80 putting it. Civilized man realizes that one must be rid of impurities that clog the life-power. Thus only could the gift of fertility, which was also sought by the Lupercalia, be assured. Among the Mediterranean people the most effective medium for this purpose was the sacrifice of a dog. This was a rite that was highly esteemed by the Sabines, who had adopted many beliefs of the Mediterranean race. The activity of the Sabines in reorganizing the religion of Rome and in developing the rites of purification, makes it easy to believe that they may have sought to fortify the Lupercalia, the oldest lustral ceremony of the city, by adding to it the most effective purificatory sacrifice that could be offered — a dog.

The Author's Notes:

1 Peter, in Roscher, IV.826; Hild, in Daremberg-Saglio, IV.1344.

2 Keller, Die Antike Tierwelt, I.136, 140.

3 Plin., 8.151.

4 Liebrecht, Zur Volkskunde, 23; Gruppe, 803‑4.

5 Serv. ad Verg., Georg., 1.151; Plin., N. H., 18.154161.

6 Gell., 5.12.14. Fowler (R. F., 89) regards Robigus as an indigitation of Mars. This is merely another view of the same idea, for Mars was implored by Cato (R. R., 141) to spare the crops from harm; and the mildew was the most dreaded form of injury.

7 The Robigalia is entered in the Fasti in large capitals, hence is one of the oldest festivals.

8 Var., L. L., 6.16; Paul. ex Fest., 267. Ovid (Fast., 4.939) offers in explanation of the dog‑sacrifice the reason that it was to propitiate the dog‑star, which was destructive to the crops. Dr. Fowler (R. F., 90) has shown the falsity of this explanation. See also Hild, in Daremberg-Saglio, IV.875.

9 See p70.

10 Ov., Fast., 4.910.

11 Plin., N. H., 18.285; Tertull., De Spect., 5.

12 The objection may be raised that the Robigalia is often believed to have been held, not in the land of the Sabines, but on the Via Clodia, two miles beyond the Tiber (Fowler, R. F., 89). This belief rests upon the identification of the Via Clodia with the Via Claudia, upon which, the Fasti state (CIL I, p392), the Robigalia was celebrated; but it is very hard to reconcile with Ovid's statement (Fast., 4.905) that he met the procession of the Robigalia when he was going from Nomentum to Rome. If Mommsen's explanation (CIL I, p392), that Ovid was going to his gardens which lay near the Via Clodia, is to be accepted, one must believe that Ovid described his route in a very ambiguous fashion. On the other hand, if Ovid's words are taken at face value, they would mean that the Lucus Robiginis was in the Sabine country between Rome and Nomentum. Since this  p81 territory had been held by the Claudian tribe from prehistoric times (Verg., Aen., 7.706‑12; Liv., 2.16.5; Suet. Tib., 1; Pinza, Monumenti primitivi di Roma e del Lazio antico, 221), it would have been very natural that a road passing through it should be known as the Via Claudia. This explanation also obviates the difficulty arising from the discrepancy of the names Via Claudia, mentioned in the Fasti, and Via Clodia; for the latter name never appears in inscriptions or itineraries in any other form.

13 Fest., 285; Paul. ex Fest., 45.

14 This is the view of Mommsen (CIL I, p392) and of Fowler (R. F., 90).

15 Fast., 5.143.

16 Fast., 5.137.

17 Babelon, I.281; Jordan, De larum imaginibus, 329.

18 Q. R., 51. Some scholars believe that a dog was also sacrificed to the Lares Praestites (Fowler, R. F., 101; Roscher, I.1612).

19 Jordan, Lar. im., 326‑9; Becker, De Romae veteris muris atque portis, 12; Wissowa, R. K., 171.

Thayer's Note: Augustus probably restored an existing shrine rather than building a new one, despite the verbs feci and ἐπόησα in Mon. Anc. IV.7; at any rate, the story of the sacellum (and/or aedes) is a convoluted one: see the article Lares, aedes in Platner & Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome.

20 Both Numa and Ancus Martius are said to have dwelt on the Velia (Solin., 1.21, 23). Numa was said to have built the Regia (Ov., Trist., 3.1.30) and the temple of Vesta (Dionys., 2.65, 66).

21 Q. R., 51.

22 Fowler, R. F., 101.

23a 23b Henzen, Acta Fratrum Arvalium, 145.

24 Ov., Fast., 5.140; Macr. 1.7.35.

25a 25b Buecheler, Umbrica, 128.

26 Müller, Etrusker, II.105 n. 78b.

27 Roscher, I.1612.

28a 28b Plut., Q. R., 52; Plin., N. H., 29.58.

29 N. H., 29.58.

30 Colum., 2.22.

31 Hunterian Collection, 91.24.

32 Hunterian Collection, 91.

33 See p70.

34 Babelon, I.29.

35 Hunterian Collection, 52.33, Pl. IV.8.

36 Hunterian Collection, 11.1.

37 See p70.

38 Head, 22; Hunterian Collection, 5.

39 Head, 23; Hunterian Collection, 7.

40 Hunterian Collection, 18.

41 Fowler, R. F., 197.

42 See p70.

43 Carter, The Religious Life of Ancient Rome, 39; Pais, Anc. It., 289; Fowler, R. F., 121; Schwegler, I.679.

44 Fowler, R. E., 287.

45 See p68.

46 See p76.

47 Modestov, 254.

 p82  48 Modestov, 255.

49 Piganiol, 30, 132, et passim.

50 Tertull., de Spect., 8; Gell., 7.7.7.

51 Var. ap. Fest., 343; Schwegler, I.244.

52 Wissowa, R. K., 430; Fowler, R. E., 108; Schwegler, I.248; Marquardt, III.27‑31.

53 See page 68.

54 Var., L. L., 6.34; Liv., 1.19.6; Ov., Fast., 3.152; Plut., Num., 19; Solin., 1.37; Cens., 20.2, 4, 5; Macr., 1.13.2‑5.º The following scholars are inclined to believe that the organization of the calendar was due to the Sabines: Huschke, Das alte römische Jahr und seine Tage, 8, 26; Wissowa, R. K., 430; Marquardt, III.284; Fowler, R. E., 108. The difficulties involved in the idea of a ten‑month year (Fowler, R. F., 2) cannot be considered here, but the names January and February show by their formation that they were later than the names of the other months (Schulze, Zur Geschichte lateinischen Eigennamen, 487).

55 Var. ap. Non., p114.17; Censor., 22.14; Ov., Fast., 2.19; Plut., Q. R., 19; id. Num., 19; Lyd., de Mens., 4.25. From these februa was fashioned the god Februus, an infernal deity, the double of Pluto (Serv. ad Verg., Georg., 1.43; Isid., Orig., 5.33.4; Macr., 1.13.3; Gelas. adv. Androm., 3). He was named by Lydus (de Mens., 4.25) the god of the Lupercalia. He was, however, evidently a late abstraction, as his name does not occur before the fourth century.

56 Fast., 5.423.

57 L. L., 6.34.

58 Diels, 83.

Thayer's Note:

a The name of this exceedingly obscure Umbrian hound-goddess is properly Huntia, as spelled in the Iguvine Tables, IIa.15, the only ancient occurrence of her name that I know of. The form Hontia is that of Bücheler's Latin translation of the table, found along with the original Umbrian text in Carl Darling Buck's A Grammar of Oscan and Umbrian (1904). Augusto Ancillotti and Romolo Cerri, Le Tavole Iguvine (Edizioni Jama, Perugia, 1997) includes an Italian translation in which the form Hondia is used.

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