Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Murderous Cult of Roman Diana and Her Sword-Wielding Priests

The Murderous Cult of Roman Diana and Her Sword-Wielding Priests In the US, the President has to retire after eight years in office, but at least they get to live after their second terms as President. Some of the ancient Romans werent so lucky. In order to become the new priest of the Italian sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis (Diana of Nemi), the incoming priest had to murder his predecessor to get the job! Although the shrine was  located in a sacred grove and near a gorgeous lake, so applications for the position must have been through the roof... Priestly Problems So whats the deal with this sacerdotal situation? According to Strabo, Artemiss worship at the grove of Nemi - included a barbaric ...  element. The priestly turnover was quite graphic, for, as Strabo recounts, the priest had to be a runaway slave who killed the man previously consecrated to that office. As a result, the reigning priest (dubbed the Rex Nemorensis, or King of the Grove at Nemi) always carried a sword to protect  himself against murderous interlopers. Suetonius concurs in his  Life of Caligula.  Apparently, the ruler of Rome didnt have enough to occupy his twisted mind during his own reign, so he meddled in religious rites...Supposedly, Caligula got fed up with the fact that the current Rex Nemorensis had lived for so long, so the dastardly emperor hired a stronger adversary to attack him. Really, Caligula? Ancient Origins and Mythical Men Where did this odd ritual come from? Pausanias states that when Theseus killed his son, Hippolytus - whom he believed to have seduced Theseuss own wife, Phaedra - the kid  didnt actually die. In fact,  Asclepius, god of medicine, resurrected the prince. Understandably, Hippolytus didnt forgive his father and the last thing he wanted was to stay in his native Athens, so he  traveled to Italy, where he set up a sanctuary to his patron goddess, Artemis/Diana. There, he set up a  contest for runaway slaves to become the temples priest, in which they fought to the death for the honor. But according to  the late  antique author Servius, who wrote commentaries on major  epic texts, the Greek hero Orestes had the honor of founding the ritual at Nemi. He rescued his sister, Iphigenia, from the sanctuary of Diana at Tauris; there, Iphigenia sacrificed all strangers to the goddess, as recounted in Euripidess tragedy  Iphigenia in Tauris.   Servius claims that Orestes saved Iphigenia by killing Thoas, king of the Taurians, and stole the sacred image of Diana from her sanctuary there; he brought the statue and the princess back home with him. He stopped in Italy - at Aricia, near Nemi - and set up a new cult of Diana.   At this new sanctuary, the ruling priest wasnt allowed to kill all strangers, but there was a special tree, from which a branch could not be broken. If someone  did  snap a branch, they had the option to do battle with the runaway slave-turned-priest of Diana. The priest was a fugitive slave because his journey symbolized Orestess flight westwards, says Servius. This ritual, then, was Virgils source of material for the legends about the area where Aeneas stopped off in the  Aeneid  to find a magical plant and enter the Underworld.  Sadly for these entertaining tales, neither probably had anything to do with the ritual at Nemi. Issues of Interpretation Aeneas and the slave-priests came up again in modern studies of religion. Ever heard of anthropologist James Frazers seminal work The  Golden Bough? He theorized that Nemi was the spot where Aeneas went to Hades, as Servius suggested. The sacred sparkly in the title refers to a bough, golden leaf and pliant stem Aeneas had to grab in Book VI of the Aeneid  in order to descend to  the Underworld. But Serviuss own claims were spurious at best! This odd interpretation has a long history -  well-chronicled  by Jonathan Z. Smith and Anthony Ossa-Richardson.  Frazer took these ideas and claimed that used the slaying-of-the-priest as a lens through which he examined world mythology. His  thesis - that the symbolic death and resurrection of a mythical figure was the focus of fertility cults across the world - was an interesting one. This idea didnt hold much water, but that  theory of comparative mythology informed the works many historians and anthropologists, including the famous Robert Graves in his  White Goddess  and  Greek Myths, for decades ... until scholars realized Frazer was wrong.

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