If you leave a man on land which is someone else's property and tell him he is a completely free man and can work for himself, it's as if you drop him in the middle of the Atlantic and tell him he is free to go ashore. — Henry George in Tolstoy's Calendar of Wisdom
The Roman festival of Ceres, the Cerealia, was celebrated at the end of April. It’s likely the festival began on what is now our April 19th and lasted for a week, though some authors claim that it began on the 12th and ended on the 19th. In any case, it was the opening of the grain harvest season in ancient Rome.
Cerealia was one of the most durable festivals in the Roman calendar. The early and quasi-mythical King Numa is said to have been the festival’s founder. This puts its origins back in the middle 8th century BCE. Over a thousand years later, the festival was still an important part of the annual cycle until pagan rites were abolished in the newly converted empire of the middle 4th century CE.
Like many of those Roman pagan rites, Cerealia has elements that make it hard to understand just what was being celebrated. Ovid speaks of lighted torches being tied to the tails of foxes who were released into the Circus Maximus. He also describes women clothed in white, carrying torches and dashing about frantically, enacting Ceres’ search for her kidnapped daughter, Proserpina. Perhaps these two things were related in the murky past, but Ovid doesn’t seem to think so.
Ceres was the goddess of the harvest, specifically the grain harvest, and as such she was one of the main patrons of the plebs, the common folk of Rome. So the Cerealia was a very plebeian holiday. The plebs held banquets and games in her honor. There were horse races and theatrical performances. There was also some politicization of the festival. The pleb festival organizer — the aedile — Gaius Memmius cast a commemorative coin in honor of the games to generate political support for the distribution of free or heavily subsidized grain, a perennial interest of the pleb class. It is not said that he was successful in this effort beyond his own class, but his talents as an event coordinator led him to be remembered as the presenter of ‘the first Cerealia’, the first grand public pageant, not merely a private religious festival.
Interestingly, the festival has been resurrected in the 21st century. Twice! There is a sort of pan-Mediterranean (pun intended…) Cerealia that has been conjoined to the old dates of Vestalia in June. Then, the official website of the Roman tourist board promotes a Cereals Festival that honors the winter harvest, falling in late December. Both look very interesting… though there are no foxes, with lighted tails or otherwise.
The Sap Moon is ending tonight. Actually early tomorrow morning, at 12:13am. Sap season has already ended here in Vermont. It was not a good one, but also not the worst on record. The extended family of one of my co-workers has a sugar bush. They brought home about half of a normal harvest. It’s still good for them as they aren’t trying to make money, just syrup. I imagine that half harvest isn’t quite as welcome for the professionals.
A rare hybrid solar eclipse happens with the Dark Sap Moon this year. This eclipse is both annular — the moon’s apparent size is smaller than the sun, forming a ring around the moon — and total — the moon totally blocks the sun. Don’t ask me to explain any more than that because I can’t wrap my head around this geometry. The eclipse is only visible from the South Pacific, including western Australia and Indonesia. I don’t live anywhere near the path of this one. But since this only happens a few times a century, I’ll be making an effort to watch it online. Time and Date is running a live stream from the Perth Observatory on YouTube, beginning at 9:30pm (EDT) on the 19th.
©Elizabeth Anker 2023
2 thoughts on “The Daily: 19 April 2023”
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Interesting article on the Cerealia festival and its history in ancient Rome. It’s also fascinating to learn about the modern-day celebrations that have been resurrected. Thanks for sharing!
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I thoroughly enjoy reading your forays into festivals past.
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