CHAPTER II. THE 'ANTECEDENTS' OF ROMAN RELIGION
Sacred, Worship, Primitive, Magic, Objects, Spirit
In every early religion there will of course be found, apart from external influence, traces of its own internal development, of stages by which it must have advanced from a mass of vague and primitive belief and custom to the organised worship of a civilised community. The religion of Rome is no exception to this rule; we can detect in its later practice evidences of primitive notions and habits which it had in common with other semi-barbarous peoples, and we shall see that the leading idea in its theology is but a characteristically Roman development of a marked feature in most early religions.
1. Magic.—Anthropology has taught us that in many primitive societies religion—a sense of man's dependence on a power higher than himself—is preceded by a stage of magic—a belief in man's own power to influence by occult means the action of the world around him. That the ancestors of the Roman community passed through this stage seems clear, and in surviving religious practice we may discover evidence of such magic in various forms. There is, for instance, what anthropology describes as 'sympathetic magic'—the attempt to influence the powers of nature by an imitation of the process which it is desired that they should perform. Of this we have a characteristic example in the ceremony of the aquaelicium, designed to produce rain after a long drought. In classical times the ceremony consisted in a procession headed by the pontifices, which bore the sacred rain-stone from its resting-place by the Porta Capena to the Capitol, where offerings were made to the sky-deity, Iuppiter, but from the analogy of other primitive cults and the sacred title of the stone (lapis manalis), it is practically certain that the original ritual was the purely imitative process of pouring water over the stone. A similar rain-charm may possibly be seen in the curious ritual of the argeorum sacra, when puppets of straw were thrown into the Tiber—a symbolic wetting of the crops to which many parallels may be found among other primitive peoples. A sympathetic charm of a rather different character seems to survive in the ceremony of the augurium canarium, at which a red dog was sacrificed for the prosperity of the crop—a symbolic killing of the red mildew (robigo); and again the slaughter of pregnant cows at the Fordicidia in the middle of April, before the sprouting of the corn, has a clearly sympathetic connection with the fertility of the earth. Another prominent survival—equally characteristic of primitive peoples—is the sacredness which attaches to the person of the priest-king, so that his every act or word may have a magic significance or effect. This is reflected generally in the Roman priesthood, but especially in the ceremonial surrounding the flamen Dialis, the priest of Iuppiter. He must appear always in festival garb, fire may never be taken from his hearth but for sacred purposes, no other person may ever sleep in his bed, the cuttings of his hair and nails must be preserved and buried beneath an arbor felix—no doubt a magic charm for fertility—he must not eat or even mention a goat or a bean, or other objects of an unlucky character.
2. Worship of Natural Objects.—A very common feature in the early development of religious consciousness is the worship of natural objects—in the first place of the objects themselves and no more, but later of a spirit indwelling in them. The distinction is no doubt in individual cases a difficult one to make, and we find that among the Romans the earlier worship of the object tends to give way to the cult of the inhabiting spirit, but examples may be found which seem to belong to the earlier stage. We have, for instance, the sacred stone (silex) which was preserved in the temple of Iuppiter on the Capitol, and was brought out to play a prominent part in the ceremony of treaty-making. The fetial, who on that occasion represented the Roman people, at the solemn moment of the oath-taking, struck the sacrificial pig with the silex, saying as he did so, 'Do thou, Diespiter, strike the Roman people as I strike this pig here to-day, and strike them the more, as thou art greater and stronger.' Here no doubt the underlying notion is not merely symbolical, but in origin the stone is itself the god, an idea which later religion expressed in the cult-title specially used in this connection, Iuppiter Lapis. So again, in all probability, the termini or boundary-stones between properties are in origin the objects—though later only the site—of a yearly ritual at the festival of the Terminalia on February the 23rd, and they are, as it were, summed up in 'the god Terminus,' the great sacred boundary-stone, which had its own shrine within the Capitoline temple, because, according to the legend, 'the god' refused to budge even to make room for Iuppiter. The same notion is most likely at the root of the two great domestic cults of Vesta, 'the hearth,' and Ianus, 'the door,' though a more spiritual idea was soon associated with them; we may notice too in this connection the worship of springs, summed up in the subsequent deity Fons, and of rivers, such as Volturnus, the cult-name of the Tiber.
3. Worship of Trees.—But most conspicuous among the cults of natural objects, as in so many primitive religions, is the worship of trees. Here, though doubtless at first the tree was itself the object of veneration, surviving instances seem rather to belong to the later period when it was regarded as the abode of the spirit. We may recognise a case of this sort in the ficus Ruminalis, once the recipient of worship, though later legend, which preferred to find an historical or mythical explanation of cults, looked upon it as sacred because it was the scene of the suckling of Romulus and Remus by the wolf. Another fig-tree with a similar history is the caprificus of the Campus Martius, subsequently the site of the worship of Iuno Caprotina. A more significant case is the sacred oak of Iuppiter Feretrius on the Capitol, on which the spolia opima were hung after the triumph—probably in early times a dedication of the booty to the spirit inhabiting the tree. Outside Rome, showing the same ideas at work among neighbouring peoples, was the 'golden bough' in the grove of Diana at Aricia. Nor was it only special trees which were thus regarded as the home of a deity; the tree in general is sacred, and any one may chance to be inhabited by a spirit. The feeling of the country population on this point comes out clearly in the prayer which Cato recommends his farmer to use before making a clearing in a wood: 'Be thou god or goddess, to whom this grove is sacred, be it granted to us to make propitiatory sacrifice to thee with a pig for the clearing of this sacred spot'; here we have a clear instance of the tree regarded as the dwelling of the sacred power, and it is interesting to compare the many similar examples which Dr. Frazer has collected from different parts of the world.
4. Worship of Animals.—Of the worship of animals we have comparatively little evidence in Roman religion, though we may perhaps detect it in a portion of the mysterious ritual of the Lupercalia, where the Luperci dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats and smeared their faces with the blood, thus symbolically trying to bring themselves into communion with the sacred animal. We may recognise it too in the association of particular animals with divinities, such as the sacred wolf and woodpecker of Mars, but on the whole we may doubt whether the worship of animals ever played so prominent a part in Roman religion as the cult of other natural objects.
5. Animism.—Such are some of the survivals of very early stages of religious custom which still kept their place in the developed religion of Rome, but by far the most important element in it, which might indeed be described as its 'immediate antecedent,' is the state of religious feeling to which anthropologists have given the name of 'Animism.' As far as we can follow the development of early religions, this attitude of mind seems to be the direct outcome of the failure of magic. Primitive man begins to see that neither he nor his magicians really possess that occult control over the forces of nature which was the supposed basis of magic: the charm fails, the spell does not produce the rain and when he looks for the cause, he can only argue that these things must be in the hands of some power higher than his own. The world then and its various familiar objects become for him peopled with spirits, like in character to men, but more powerful, and his success in life and its various operations depends on the degree in which he is able to propitiate these spirits and secure their co-operation. If he desires rain, he must win the favour of the spirit who controls it, if he would fell a tree and suffer no harm, he must by suitable offerings entice the indwelling spirit to leave it. His 'theology' in this stage is the knowledge of the various spirits and their dwellings, his ritual the due performance of sacrifice for purposes of propitiation and expiation. It was in this state of religious feeling that the ancestors of Rome must have lived before they founded their agricultural settlement on the Palatine: we must try now to see how far it had retained this character and what developments it had undergone when it had crystallised into the 'Religion of Numa.'
|Written By Cyril Bailey|
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