Nemoralia – The Festival of Diana

Today is 14 August, the mid-date of the three-day Nemoralia, the Roman festival in honour of Diana Nemorensis, the Huntress Goddess of wild places and wild things, of nature, and of the Moon.

Diana is one of the oldest of the Roman gods: like Mars and Jupiter, Her worship far predates the Roman state itself. A shrine to Diana reportedly existed at Lake Nemi in Italy (hence Her epithet Nemorensis — ‘from Nemi’ — and the name of Her festival). She is the only goddess mentioned by name in the New Testament, and She’s one of few Greco-Roman gods whose direct worship has made it into the modern day in otherwise not-specifically-Roman religious traditions, such as Wicca.

Lake Nemi, also called “Diana’s Mirror”

In fact, learning more about Diana as part of my own religious path, I’ve been intrigued by some of the links to modern witchcraft traditions, and I thought it might be interesting to share a few of them here. This is a huge subject, obviously – the theology of any god would be far too much to compress into a single post — so I can’t be too comprehensive about it. But maybe a few ideas will be of interest.

As with most Roman gods, Diana lacked a great deal of specific mythology during the Roman age. The Romans generally held the gods to be spirits — Numina — rather than ‘divine people’ as they were portrayed in Greek culture. Roman religion, certainly in the early days, the years of the Roman Kingdom and the Republic, was quite animistic. That is, the gods were embodiments of natural forces and phenomena. Only once Greek culture began to be adopted widely in Roman society did the gods begin to syncretise with their Greek counterparts and take on their more distinct ‘human’ form and personalities.

Diana, having dominion over similar areas of business, was quickly syncretised with the Greek Artemis, also a Huntress Goddess and ruler over women’s matters and femininity, and the two soon became recognised as a single deity with responsibility for all these elements.

The Nemoralia was celebrated in the three days culminating in the Ides of August – the fifteenth day. As with most Roman festivals it’s impossible to know exactly what any celebration or observance looked like, but some writings have remained to us.

Wikipedia quotes the poet Statius, writing in the 1st century:

“Now is the day when Trivia’s Arician grove, convenient for fugitive kings, grows smoky, and the lake, having guilty knowledge of Hippolytus, glitters with the reflection of a multitude of torches; Diana herself garlands the deserving hunting dogs and polishes the arrowheads and allows the wild animals to go in safety, and at virtuous hearths all Italy celebrates the Hecatean Ides.”

— Statius

Plutarch describes some of the rites including a ritual procession and the washing of hair in preparation for it. He also notes that it is a time of rest for women and for slaves, and there’s a suggestion from Statius that hunting was not permitted during the Nemoralia — that it was, in effect, a time of respite for the wild beasts as well.

The post-Romantic pagan revival throughout the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries saw Diana receive a great deal of attention, and some notable portrayals of Her appear in works over this period.

In Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899), Charles Godfrey Leland portrays Diana as the divine ‘Queen Witch’ and mother of Aradia, who came to Earth to teach witchcraft to humans. This basic idea formed the foundation of several schools stemming from the pagan revival, including strands of Wicca and Stregheria. Ancient writings don’t entirely support the idea of Diana as the mother of Aradia, but Aradia is named in mediaeval writings as one of Diana’s nymphs – though an origin as Herodias, wife of Herod Antipas of Christian mythology seems to be the ultimate source for this figure.

In his 1890 work The Golden Bough, James Frazer describes the temple at Nemi as being the home of the ‘Rex Nemorensis’, a priest of Diana, always an escaped slave, who would be periodically replaced by being murdered by another escaped slave, who would then take the ‘crown’. Frazer uses this idea as the link to a theme of divine death and rebirth – a theme he argued was common to most religions. The Rex Nemorensis concept is widely dismissed as nonsense by anthropologists then and now, but its basic themes (if not the detail of the periodic ritual killing of the ‘Rex’) are consistent with the idea of Diana as the provider of refuge, and do gel with Statius’ mention of Her grove as “convenient for fugitive kings”.

A statue of Diana at Lake Nemi in Italy

In the Statius quote, Diana is referred to as ‘Trivia’. This is one of Her epithets — those names appended to Roman and Greek gods to identify aspects of their nature or emphasise particular areas over which they have dominion. In this case, ‘Trivia’ refers not to unimportant detail as it does in English, but to Diana’s nature as a triple goddess: ‘Tri-Via’ literally meaning ‘three ways’. She’s also known as ‘Diana Triformis’ — Diana of Three Shapes/Appearances/Faces.

As a triple goddess, She takes on three different aspects at different times and under different circumstances. She is Diana; She is Luna, goddess of the Moon; and She is Hecate, a cthonic goddess of the Underworld. These aspects must be familiar to anyone who recognises the triple goddess portrayed in Wicca — She who is Maiden, Mother and Crone in turn, and whose powers focus on beginnings, birth and youth; then maturity, development, constancy and middle age; and finally on closure, completion, endings, old age and death. Diana-as-Luna and Diana-as-Hecate are often seen as individuals in their own right with dominion over distinct elements of nature: Luna, of course, governs the Moon and those things traditionally associated with it; while Hecate is a sorceress goddess of magic and is often envisaged as standing at crossroads, especially where three roads meet. Further, Hecate Herself is often presented as a triple goddess and is often conceived as such in modern Wiccan theology.

As I said, Diana is an old goddess. Her worship goes back to a time long before the city of Rome was founded. She probably has Etruscan roots and some studies of the origin of Her name trace it back into Indo-European. The fifth-century scholar Macrobius postulates a link between her name rendered as ‘Jana’ and that of the god Janus — suggesting that Janus was the counterpart of Diana: a God to her Triple Goddess, and another intriguing link in light of modern Wiccan ideas of a divine pair in that exact configuration. Futhermore, Macrobius acknowledges Janus as the god of the sky and weather, a role later taken on by Jupiter, the King of the Gods, and of night and day. In essence, there is at least some thematic support for a link between Janus as god of sky and day, and Diana as the goddess of earth and night. A more precarious link — for me at least — is that this hypothetical original ‘Jana’ is also the root form of the Roman goddess Juno, who is also identified as a goddess of the Moon; though as I’m struggling to find a solid source for this, I’m going to call it an intriguing possibility for now, rather than say it’s likely. If it is so, however, it indicates a fascinating network of links: given Janus as a sky god, Diana as a moon and earth goddess, Juno as the wife and counterpart of Jupiter who is a sky god…

Things get quite complicated if you start digging.

Still, these last few ideas are speculative to some extent. ‘Conjecture’, let’s say (it sounds more academic, I reckon). But many of the basic ideas are, as far as I can tell, generally accepted.

Diana is old. Her name has roots in ancient languages, way before Rome. It can be reasonably compared to the roots of Janus’ name. Jana-Janus would constitute feminine-masculine forms of the same name which may indicate a specific connection between the two.

Diana is the Huntress Goddess, through Her syncretisation with Artemis and Her dominion over the wilderness and the beasts therein.

Diana is a triple goddess, Diana Trivia. As Diana, Luna and Hecate in turn and together, she holds dominion over matters of sky, earth and underworld.

And, regardless of the apparently Christian origins of the figure, Aradia is widely revered in Wicca (some branches) and Stregheria as the daughter of Diana, and the first to bring witchcraft to Earth. Diana Herself is certainly, through her aspect as Hecate, deeply linked to concepts of magic and sorcery.

Ave Diana.

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