Most of us have at least toyed with the idea of a voodoo doll, but we wouldn’t really curse someone… would we? The people of the ancient world weren’t so shy, and have left us a lot of their ill-wishing to study. The things that made them angry enough to curse someone aren’t so different from the things that annoy us now: lawsuits, theft, property damage, infidelity, stealing someone’s boyfriend/girlfriend, and so on.
Silvanus was a popular god in Rome, up there with Jupiter and Mercury in terms of altars and other devotional evidence. As a god of the common people, he had a large audience, and soldiers, slaves and freedmen to spread his cult abroad.
His popularity worked both ways, too: a British craftsman explained his god Callirius as Silvanus, and many of the other examples in this post could have worked the same way.
The Roman god Silvanus may not be the best-known, but he was popular with the people. He had no official cult or priests dedicated to his worship – his was a cult of country people, farmers, labourers and slaves.
Historically, the interpretatio has been diverse. In late sources, Silvanus and Faunus were equated, as indicated by Peter Dorcey in his Cult of Silvanus (1992, 34). According to the same scholar, Augustine’s reference to a childbirth ritual in Civitas Dei intended to ward off Silvanus may also derive from a confusion between Him and Faunus, but I’ll get to that later. Earlier sources are no less complex, since they appear to refer to the two gods interchangeably, but then there are also cases of distinction: Martial mentions altars to Silvanus and trees of Faunus (
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I reblogged an article on Nemesis, the goddess of rebalancing, last week, but I’m still really intrigued by this goddess, so fearsome and yet widely worshipped. The Greeks built temples to honour her, and the Romans took her cult to the ends of the Roman Empire, from Dacia to Scotland.
Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul, Germany and Britain occasioned great excitement in Rome. For Catullus “the Gaulish Rhine, the formidable Britons, remotest of men” represented “the memorials of great Caesar” (Cat. 11.10-11). Cicero too considered Caesar’s exploits against the Britons the stuff of poetry (Q Fr. 2.16.14). The reading public must have been interested in what he had to say about his foreign adversaries.
The image at the top is from a bust of Caesar, in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Wikimedia.
Although it’s common in popular books on mythology to describe the Roman goddess Minerva as a simple copy of the Greek goddess Athena, Minerva evolved as a native Italian goddess, influenced by the Etruscan Menvra.
The Celtic peoples had many gods of war, if the number linked to Mars is anything to go by. They also had a lot of war-goddesses, whom we would expect to be associated with Minerva, Bellona or Victoria.
Surprisingly, goddesses paired with Victoria are pretty rare (I will look at Minerva in another post), although there are a few. There are also some native goddesses named “Victory”, all from modern France.
When I was researching the story of how the giant Thiazi took the apples of immortality for the giants, one thing that kept jumping out at me was how often the goddess who kept the apples, Idunn, was treated as if she were property as well.