Apollo seems to have made a habit of swallowing up other gods. He took over (or was given, according to later mythology) the oracle of Delphi, which had belonged to his grandmother, Phoebe. He seems to have taken over the healing role of a very early Greek god, Paean, and also an Italian god named Soranus.
We don’t know a lot about Soranus, but he was worshipped at Mt. Soracte in Etruria, an area sacred to underworld gods like Dis Pater. Like most of the Italian gods, he had a partner, Feronia, whose sanctuary stood next to his. Although his cult may have involved the otherworld and the dead, his name is probably connected to that of the Etruscan god Suri, a god of purification and prophecy.
Two dedications to Apollo Soranus, one at the foot of the mountain near the city of Falerii and another at its peak, have been found, and among literary sources Silius Italicus’ Punica says that Soracte belongs to Apollo. (Punica V.175) Another mention of Soranus (alone) comes from Alburnus Maior in Dacia.
Soranus was paired with the goddess Feronia, whose sanctuary stood next to his at Mt. Soracte. Her cult was widespread throughout central Italy. A city called Feronia lay at the foot of Mt. Soracte, where she and Soranus had sanctuaries. (In fact, Strabo seems to credit her with the rites usually given to Soranus.)
Although her exact nature is difficulty to determine, she may have been a goddess of liberty. At her other sanctuary of Terracina, slaves were freed, and a collection for her temple was once taken up among the freedmen of Rome. Most of her worshippers were plebs, and her holiday was the ides of November (13th), during the Plebian Games (Ludi Plebii).
She may have had an underworld aspect, as she gave her son three souls, so that Evander had to kill him three times:
and sent King Erulus down to Tartarus, by this right hand,
he to whom at his birth his mother Feronia (strange to tell)
gave three lives, triple weapons to wield – to be three times
brought low in death… (Aeneid Book 8)
Besides the sanctuaries at Soracte and Terracina, she had others in the Sabine region, at Trebula, and Luna at Etruria. Dionysus of Halicarnassus compared her to Persephone (3.32.1).
All her shrines were located in wild places, and according to Wikipedia: “Servius writes that when a fire destroyed her wood and the locals were about moving the statues to another location, the burnt wood turned green all of a sudden.” (This suggests Nemetona and Diana to me, but there’s no record of Feronia taking on the role of Apollo’s sister.)
The wolf-connection comes from a legend that wolves stole the entrails from sacrifices offered to Soranus, from the very altars on which they should have been burned. The shepherds making the offering pursued the wolves, and tracked them to a cave. The poisonous vapours from this cave (you wonder why it didn’t bother the wolves) caused a plague, and an oracle prescribed an early version of the paleo diet – the people would have to live on game alone, like wolves.
As a result, the people there were known as Hirpini, from the Sabine word for wolf, hirpus. This name was joined to that of the local god, so they were called Hirpini Sorani.
The cult of the Hirpini Sorani was an interesting one: the people would walk barefoot on fir-wood coals while carrying the entrails of the sacrificial victims. It seems that certain families, who were exempt from military service, were the ones who carried out the rites. The rite was apparently popular with the whole community, who turned out to watch. (Rissanen: 117)
It seems to have been a joyful rite: one source describes the priests “leaping” exultare, as they crossed the burning coals. Silius Italicus describes Apollo being happy about the blazing piles of wood and the offerings. (Rissanen: 117)
It’s not quite clear how Apollo came to be associated with this cult. The two most likely theories are that 1) the Romans tended to blame foreigners for any weird elements in religious ceremonies, or 2) Apollo was already associated with a wolf-cult in Greece, as Apollo Lycaeus. (According to Rissanen the Greeks regarded wolves as messengers of Apollo.)
The Athenian cult of Apollo Lyceus was a warrior and athletic training cult for young men. (Price and Kearns: 39) But it’s not clear that there’s any real association between the Greek wolf-god and the Roman one, altough the link is certainly a suggestive one. Both the Beloved in Light blog and The Gargarean see a strong connectin between the two.
As I said at the beginnig of this post, Apollo had a habit of taking over other deities’ shrines and cults. It seems appropriate that a cult originating in theft of sacred food by Apollo’s messengers, wolves, should have been taken over by the prophetic god.
Price, Simon and Emily Kearns (eds.) 2003: The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth & Religion, OUP.
Rissanen, Mika 2012: “The Hirpi Sorani and the Wolf Cults of Central Italy” in Arctos: Acta Philological Fennica XLVI : 115-37.
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