When midnight comes and drops silence for sleep,
and dogs and dappled birds are hushed,
The man who remembers the ancient rite
and fears the gods, rises up (barefoot)
And makes a thumb sign between his closed fingers
to avoid some ghostly wraith in the quiet.
When he has washed his hands clean with fountain water,
he turns around after taking black beans,
Glances away and throws, saying: ‘These I release;
I redeem me and mine with these beans.’
— Ovid’s Fasti
The head of the Roman household would, according to Ovid, perform this rite nine times and then, after rinsing his hands, would shout, “Leave, ancestral spirits!” another nine times, purifying his house of those departed whose souls refuse to rest. (The Japanese still observe a similar bean-throwing tradition during the Shinto lunar new year, Setsubun.)
The Roman superstition that Ovid describes was once a public festival known as the Feast of Lemuria, or Lemuralia, decreed by Rome’s co-founder Romulus.
Romulus and Remus were twin sons of Mars, god of war, who were nursed by a she-wolf in the wild. They wanted to build a great city, but couldn’t agree on the location. Romulus preferred Palatine Hill, Remus preferred Aventine Hill. They each built their own city. When Remus mocked Romulus by jumping over the wall meant to protect his, Romulus slew Remus in a fit of rage.
Guilt-ridden, Romulus was haunted by Remus’s ghost, who asked to be remembered on this day.
Lemuralia, says Ovid, is a corruption of Remus (Maybe Remuralia was too hard to pronounce?):
Over a long time the rough letter became smooth
at the beginning of the whole name.
Soon they also called the silent souls lemures…
The ancients shut temples on those days, as you now
see them closed in the season of the dead.
The same times are unfit for a widow’s marriage
or virgin’s. No girls who wed then live long…
Folk say: “Malicious girls marry in May.”
Around 610, Pope Boniface IV declared May 13 “All Saints Day”, in honor of all martyred. All Saints Day was later moved to November 1, coinciding with regional harvest festivals remembering the spirits of the dead.
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