The Lemuria - Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

The Lemuria
Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days

The Lemuria was the second annual (but oldest) Roman commemoration of the dead. It was held on three odd days in May—May 9th, 11th, and 13th. During these days, the dead walk the Earth and must be propitiated. Lemures was the term used for these walking revenants, hence the name of the festival in their honor. They were understood as the angry, volatile, dangerous dead and so appeasement and protection was particularly crucial.

According to Ovid the holiday derives from the death of Remus, whose death at the hands of his brother Romulus is reminiscent of the biblical Cain and Abel. Remus’ blood-stained ghost appeared to Romulus and demanded a festival in his honor. Remuria eventually became Lemuria. (There are also suggestions that the festival predates the arrival of the Romans in the region and has its origins in an Etruscan holy day.)

There is a description of the festival in Book 5 of Ovid’s Fasti. The paterfamilias, the male head of the household, arose at midnight. He made the life-affirming gesture of the fig-hand (thumb between first and second fingers mimicking the sexual act) and then cleansed his hands in pure water. He walked barefoot through his home, spitting beans while saying “With these beans I redeem me and mine.”

This ritual was repeated nine times. At the conclusion, the paterfamilias ritually bathed, then banged on metal pots and pans proclaiming “Begone, ancestral spirits!” nine times.