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IN the last chapter, after illustrating the terms positive and negative mana, we discussed the taboo on blood and five other taboos which are allied with it--on women, children, death, leather, and days. The present chapter will illustrate rather fully and attempt to explain several more taboos which were prevalent among the Romans--those on sex, men, strangers, slaves, and on linen, knots, iron and places.


Among all peoples, chastity is often obligatory before the performance of religious duties. In certain Roman priesthoods, the taboo on sexual intercourse lasted for a long period of years; in some religious rites, abstinence was enjoined only at specific times, particularly on the eve of a religious festival. Even outside the Roman State religion, chastity was occasionally required before the performance of certain daily tasks. The most familiar example of forced chastity over a period of years is that of the Vestal Virgins. Chastity as a preparation for religious rites was familiar at the festivals of Ceres and of Bacchus, both divinities of the products of the earth; we know, too, that beekeepers, on the day before they handled the hives, had to refrain from intercourse. 1

The Vestal's vow of virginity lasted for thirty years. 2 During the first ten years she was a novice, during the next ten she performed the sacred duties of the order, and during the last ten she taught the girls who had just entered the order. After thirty years she was allowed to return to secular life and marry, if she chose, but this rarely happened.

One is forced to believe that the Vestals, despite their vows of chastity and their putative holiness, were a little lower than the angels. The maiden Tarpeia, who treacherously opened the portals of the Citadel to Tatius the Sabine, was a Vestal; she used her sacred office of drawing water from the holy spring of the Muses as a pretext for admitting the enemy. 3 If we are to give credence to these stories, unchastity among the Vestals seems to have been common. The founder of Rome saw the light of day as the result of the ravishing of the Vestal Rhea by the god Mars. In 483 B.C., soothsayers were consulted about the meaning of certain portents from the gods: they reported that sacred rites had been neglected. Accordingly, Oppia, a Vestal, was charged with having broken her vow, and was buried alive. 4 During the period of the First Samnite War, Minucia, a Vestal, brought suspicion upon herself because of her fondness for prety dresses; on the evidence of a slave she was charged with unchastity and was buried alive near the Colline Gate at a place afterwards called the Accursed Plain--presumably from this event. 5 At the time of the Second Punic War, two Vestals, Opimia and Floronia, violated their vows of chastity, and were detected: one committed suicide, the other was buried alive at the Colline Gate. Lucius Cantilius, one of the clerks of the pontiffs, charged with a liaison with Floronia, was scourged to death. 6 Catiline was accused of incest with a Vestal, a half-sister of Cicero's wife; but she was acquitted, probably because of influential friends. 7 We are not surprised to read that Nero, who had no regard for anything sacred, deflowered a Vestal. 8 Juvenal, with a contemptuous sneer, accused Crispinus of a liaison with a Vestal; 9 but Domitian's interest in Crispinus prevented the traditional punishment for the crime. Incest with Vestals seems to have been condoned by Vespasian and Titus; 10 but Suetonius tells us that Domitian visited offenders, at first with capital punishment, and later on with the extreme penalty, burial alive. Oculata and Varronilla broke their vows, and Domitian allowed them to choose their mode of death. Their lovers suffered banishment. Cornelia, the chief of the Vestals, had been acquitted once; but she was accused again, convicted, and buried alive, and her paramours were beaten to death with rods. One, an ex-praetor, was allowed to go into exile. In at least one instance--that of the Vestal Posturnia--the charge of unchastity was quashed; but, as Livy says, 11 she was under suspicion because of her free and easy manner. We recall that Vestals were supposed to dress modestly in white, to keep their eyes on the ground and their thoughts on holy things.

Colorable offenses of the Vestals were punished as follows: 12 the Vestal was stripped and placed in a dark place. The Chief Priest, with an arras between him and the peccant Vestal, lashed her with thongs to drive out the evil as well as to punish her. When a Vestal broke her vow of chastity a terrible fate awaited her if she could not prove her innocence or if she had no influential friends to espouse her cause. She was buried alive in a small underground chamber located within the city walls, at one of the gates. She was stripped of her sacred fillets, tied down on a covered litter in such a way that she might utter no sound, and conveyed to the Great Roman Forum, where the people who attended the litter made way for her to pass. When the procession arrived at the tomb, the Chief Priest loosened the cords which bound her, and, raising his hands toward the sky, prayed inaudibly. Then he brought the Vestal from the litter and laid her on the steps of the tomb. She then descended by a ladder into the subterranean room and was left to die, with the small comfort, however, of a bed, a lamp, some bread, milk and water; for since she had been consecrated to religion, it would have been impious to allow her to die of hunger.

Among many peoples, there is supposed to exist some connection between fertility in women and fertility in the earth. This is not difficult to understand when we remember that among savage peoples the men are engaged in hunting, fishing, and fighting, while the women plough and sow. This connection is suggested, for example, by the common practice  13 of throwing products of the earth, such as rice, at marriage ceremonies and at the birth of children. A Roman bride who desired to be prolific should be wed, as the superstition went, "in the very bosom of Mother Earth, among the ripened crops, above the fruitful soil." 14 The fertility of the earth and of the crops would thus be communicated to the bride.

At several Roman festivals whose purpose was to assist the ripening of the crops, abstinence from sexual intercourse was enjoined upon the worshipers. Thus during the nine nights of the Festival of Ceres married women must not touch a man. 15 At the

Festival of the Ambarvalia no one who had had sexual intercourse the night before might approach the altar. 16 Inasmuch as primitive people thus closely associate the fertility of women with the fertility of the soil, the lashing of women at the Lupercalia may well have been intended to promote fertility in the crops. Again, in the rites of the Argei, which were closely connected with crops, and at the Festival of Pales, the Vestals had important functions. 17 At the Festival of Vesta, they offered sacred cakes, made in the primitive way by the three eldest Vestals out of the first grain garnered in May. 18 The burying of Vestals when they had broken their vows of chastity, then, may conceivably have been a sacrifice to the Earth whose products they were likely to harm by their immorality. Ovid himself comes close to this interpretation when he says: 19 "Thus the unchaste Vestal perishes, because she is buried in that earth which she contaminated. For Earth and Vesta are the same divinity."

We have the definite statement of Propertius 20 that there was a connection between sexual purity and good crops. At Lanuvium, in a grove of Juno the Savior, there was a pit in which a hungry snake awaited his yearly feast of barley cakes. These cakes were carried in baskets by maidens who were blindfolded and then lowered into the pit. If the girls were pure, the snake snatched away the food. Thus proved to be virgins, they returned home to their parents, while the shepherds cried out in joy, "The year will be fruitful." If, however, the girls were impure and the snake refused their gifts of food, they were punished by law--perhaps, as in the case of the Vestals, by being buried alive. Thus the rite was not only a test of the virginity of the maidens, but their purity had some mysterious effect in assuring good crops. The same reason, as we have seen, may be given for the sacrifice of the Vestals who broke their vow of chastity.

There is a modern parallel among the Ibibio in southern Nigeria, who wipe out the pollution of adultery by sacrifice to the Earth or to their ancestors. 21

In some Roman rites, abstinence from sexual intercourse was required, especially on the eve of a religious festival. The wife of the Priest of Jupiter must not have touched her husband until after the ceremony of cleansing in the temple of Vesta. 22 We have seen that during the Festival of Ceres women had to sleep alone. 23 The same prohibition applied to the worshipers in the Festival of Bacchus, also a god of one of the products of the earth. 24 Here again, in rites of an agricultural nature, sexual purity was necessary for the good of the crops. The Emperor Severus Alexander would regularly worship his Lares early in the morning, unless he had lain with his wife the night before. 25

Cooks, bakers, butlers must be chaste. 26 If one was sexually impure he had to wash in a running stream before touching the contents of the storeroom. We have already observed that beekeepers, before handling their hives, had to refrain from sexual intercourse. Frazer gives us an interestmg parallel. He writes: 27 "The Masai think that if the couple were to break the rule of continence while the wine is brewing, not only would the wine be undrinkable but the bees which made the honey would fly away." In such cases as these of course, the person does not know why he observes the taboo. At any rate the taboo on sexual intercourse among savages, as well as among civilized peoples, is required of persons engaged in occupations necessary for the good of the community. 28

In Oriental rites abstinence was a familiar requirement for worshipers. In the case of Isis, a ten days' abstinence was demanded, as we learn from the restive complaint of Propertius: 29 "The rites of Isis are now returning again to give me gloom; for Cynthia ten nights now has been continually engaged in worship." Tibullus similarly lamented the fact that Delia was separated from him during her observance of the rites of Isis. 30 Among the Gauls, too, persons who were chaste were most acceptable in religious rites. 31 The sexual purity of children may account for their employment in these rites. Thus children were used to bring provisions from the sacred storeroom. 32

The taboo on sex is difficult to explain. Generally speaking, however, we may ascribe it to the belief that the weakness following upon the sexual act will be communicated to the religious rite or to the action proposed. Specifically, in the case of the Vestals, the prohibition is referable to the principles of sympathetic magic. Assume a belief in the connection between chastity and the fertility of the crops, and that is sufficient to cause the prohibition. In some cases there may be originally a biological reason corresponding to the period after detumescence, when the savage would naturally be chaste. Thus chastity before certain religious rites would be an unconscious--instinctive, if you will--conservation of the sexual strength for expression during the festival involving the fertility of the crops.


Men were, naturally, debarred from rites in which women's interests were especially involved. The taboo on men in such cases is due to the fact that they were strange creatures, physiologically unlike women, and so potentially dangerous. Hence the presence of men in women's rites interferes with their efficacy. This was particularly the case in the Festival of the Good Goddess (Bona Dea). The temple of this divinity had been dedicated by an heiress of the Claudian family who had never had intercourse with a man. 33 We recall that the notorious Clodius, dressed as a music girl, entered the house of Julius Caesar with the connivance of Caesar's wife when the rites were being held there. This sacrilege was a first-rate scandal at the time and led to Caesar's divorcing his wife Pompeia. 34 Again, all men, except the Chief Priest, were prohibited from the worship of Vesta. 35 A curious instance of this taboo is recorded in one of Pliny's letters. 36 When the Vestal Cornelia, who had been accused of breaking her vows, was descending into her living tomb, her dress caught. The public executioner turned as if to disentangle it, but Cornelia drew back shuddering "as if to ward off the foul contagion from her chaste and pure body." Men were allowed to worship at all the shrines of Diana except one in the Patrician Quarter of Rome. The reason, as given by Plutarch, 37 is that a man had once tried to deflower a woman in the temple and had been torn to pieces by the dogs. Thereafter men avoided the temple.


Cicero explicitly states that the Romans had an aversion to foreigners. 38 Servius says that in ancient days the Romans seldom welcomed strangers unless they had the "right of hospitality" (ius hospitii).  39 The uncanny feeling which the Romans had from early times in the presence of their Italian neighbors is shown by the fact that they associated sorcery with the Marsians--the leaders of the Italian allies in the war for the Roman franchise. They were believed to have descended from Circe and to have inherited her magic powers. 40 Again, the sons of King Ancus considered it an outrage that the Roman State should fall into the hands of a foreigner. 41

The Roman's feeling toward his enemies is well illustrated by the words of a consul during the Second Punic War, who accused Hannibal's soldiers of eating human flesh. Even to touch these men, he felt, would be an act of impiety. 42 After the defection of the city of Capua to Hannibal and its subsequent capture by the Romans in 211 B.c., the statues which the Romans had purloined from the city were placed in the hands of the College of Priests, presumably to be purified from contact with the enemy. 43 Some notion of taboo may lie behind the expulsion of the foreign Volscians from the sacred games in Rome in 491 B.c. The Volscians, at least, so interpreted it. 44 The brother of Scipio the Elder was once fined for some reason or other, and he was given the choice of furnishing security or going to jail. A tribune--the father of the famous Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus--saved him from prison by his veto on the ground that the prison had been contaminated by enemy prisoners. This feeling of danger from contamination by foreigners was a sufficiently strong motive to use as a pretext to save Scipio's brother. 45

In one religious rite, of whose nature, however, we know nothing, it is expressly stated that the stranger must depart from the sacrifice. 46 The Romans had many requirements which the young girl who aspired to be a Vestal had to meet: among them, that her father must have his residence in Italy. 47 In certain rites at Iguvium, a procession about the town was made by the Fratres Attiedii. From these rites foreigners were excluded. "Send beyond the boundaries the Tadinate people, the Tadinate tribe, the Tuscan and the Narcan folk, the Iapudic folk (saying), 'if any remain, then bring (such person) whither it is lawful to bring him, do unto him as it is lawful to do.'" 48

We have already seen that certain priests called verbenarii went with the Roman armies into foreign lands, bearing with them the sacred herbs which were used to disinfect the army from contagion of blood and foreign influences. 49 One of the war-heralds in the ceremony of treaty-making took the sacred herbs from the citadel and touched the head of the chief herald to keep him free from contamination. 50

A curious case of taboo, germane to the taboo on strangers, is found in Livy's account of early Rome. In 445 B.C., a tribune proposed a bill to legalize marriage between the plebeians and the patricians. The consuls opposed the measure on the ground that, if it were allowed, religion would be thrown into confusion and nothing would be left uncontaminated. From the patrician point of view, the plebeians were taboo and hence dangerous to the religious system. At any rate, so they interpreted the point for the edification of the plebeians, whom they wanted to keep from usurping their immemorial rites. Again, the election of a plebeian consul was looked upon as impious. 51 In the consulship of Marcus Valerius and Quintus Apuleius an attempt was made on the part of the plebeians to secure representation in the college of augurs and pontiffs. The patricians were against the measure, contending that the gods would oppose such contamination. 52

It seems odd that among the Romans, as well as among other ancient peoples and among savages of our own day, strangers, who are ordinarily taboo, should often be treated with great consideration; 53 but the explanation is quite simple. As the stranger possesses mana which is at least potentially dangerous, he must be prevented from doing barm; and this end is attained by feeding and housing him. 54 The Malays, we read, 55 fear the Jakuns who are skilled in magic and can, by striking two sticks together, cause an enemy to die. But they can do good, too; and for this reason the Malays treat the Jakuns with respect.

Casar writes the following concerning the Germans: 56 "They do not think it right to violate a guest; those who, for whatever cause, have come to them, they keep from harm and hold sacred; the houses of all are open to them; with them food is shared." The Germans housed and fed the stranger as if he were their own; and thus becoming one of them in reality, he was no longer able to do them harm. The Romans thus welcomed foreign gods within their gates, albeit outside the sacred pomerium. 57


The presence of slaves was believed to interfere with the efficacy of many religious rites, both Greek and Roman. 58 The Romans, for example, had to repeat the Great Games of 491 B.c., because, on the morning set for the games, a citizen had driven a recalcitrant slave through the circus where the games were to be held. 59 It appears that the young rake Clodius flooded with slaves the theater where games in honor of the Great Mother were being held--a pollution which angered his arch-enemy Cicero. 60 The rites of Hercules at the Greatest Altar in the Cattle Market were, for many years, performed by members of two distinguished Roman families. One family, however, seems to have gained the chief control of the cult and to have delegated the performance of the rites to certain public slaves. As a punishment for this pollution by contact with slaves, the family died out. 61 Among the qualifications necessary for a Vestal was that neither of her parents might have been a slave. 62

Slave women were excluded from the temple of the Goddess of the Morning (Mater Matuta), whom the Romans identified with the Greek goddess Ino-Leucothea, because of many similarities in ritual, and myth. Each free woman, however, might bring a slave girl into the sacred precincts, but she had to slap the face of the girl before doing so. 63 The slap on the face may be considered a magic transfer, for the occasion only, of the freedom of the mistress to the slave. Similar temporary manumissions occurred at the Festival of Saturn and at the Festival of the Lares of the Crossroads (Compitalia). At this latter festival, the overseer was the sacrificer, apparently for the slaves of the family. 64 Slaves were also admitted to the rites of Fors Fortuna. The reason, as stated by Ovid, was that Servius Tullius, the founder of the temple, had been born a slave. 65 Despite the taboo on slaves in religious worship, it seems that a slave might have the right of refuge at the statue of a god. 66 Slaves were allowed to take part in rites in honor of the dead. 67

The Emperor Claudius offered a public prayer whenever a bird of ill omen appeared on the Capitol. From this rite he ordered all slaves and artisans to withdraw. 68 Nero, in 60 A.D., instituted games on the model of the Olympic Games; and while considerable license was allowed, pantomime actors, being slaves, were excluded because of the religious character of the games. 69

The taboo on slaves seems to have been partly an artificial one. It may have been fostered by the free people in order to keep religious matters strictly in their own hands. The fact that slaves were usually foreigners may have been a contributing cause.

Linen and Wool

That the Romans had an uncanny feeling with regard to linen is suggested occasionally in their literature. Corpses, for instance, were regularly shrouded in linen. 70 This in itself would be sufficient to invest linen with harmful mana. After the bones of a cremated body had been sprinkled with wine and soaked in milk, the moisture was removed with linen cloths. 71 It is possible that the linen on the breastplate of a Roman soldier had magical significance, probably warding off the spirits of the enemies slain in battle. 72 Just before Galba was assassinated, he put on a linen cuirass, "although openly averring that it would avail little against so many swords." 73 He probably felt that the only help it could give him was magical. The Roman standards may have been of linen. 74

In religious rites linen was usually taboo. Servius states  75 that linen was "foreign to Roman ritual." The heralds who were entrusted with the responsibility of declaring war and making treaties were not allowed to wear linen garments. 76 Again, if the wife of the Priest of Jupiter sewed her woolen garment with a linen thread, she had to perform an atoning sacrifice.

In spite of Servius' words, linen was occasionally used in religious rites. We have a definite statement of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius to this effect, in a letter written to his old teacher Fronto, where, among other things, he writes about a certain town: 77 "There was no corner without a shrine, a holy place, a temple. Besides, many books of linen were to be found in the temples, and the linen was of religious significance." He describes these books as sacra, not as religiosa. The latter adjective, as we have already noted, was regularly used in the sense of taboo, particularly the taboo on death. Sacer, too, often has the same connotation; but in this passage the context seems to demand sacra in the usual sense of "holy." A possible explanation may be that the taboo on linen began gradually to disappear under the Empire because of the growing familiarity with its use in Oriental cults. However, Marcus Aurelius' remark on the religious importance of the linen in the books naturally suggests that he had some reason for mentioning the fact to Fronto: possibly Fronto had usually associated some feeling of taboo with linen. The rolls containing the names of the magistrates, which were kept in the temple of Juno Moneta, were called "linen books."  78 Again, a Roman consul who had won a victory over the Samnites forced the vanquished enemy to serve in his army, using novel religious rites at their induction. These soldiers made up his "linen legion," so called because the sacrifice of induction was made in an enclosure covered with linen; and the forms used in the ritual were read by an old priest from a linen book. 79 The explanation of these rites is similar to that of the presence of linen on the breastplate of the Roman soldier. The soldiers were foreigners, and hence were taboo to a Roman. The rites were magical, intended to drive away evil forces which were felt to be attached to foreigners.

Sometimes an uncanny association was attached to wool. Thus there is record of a rain of wool following upon the death of a distinguished Roman. 80 Fillets worn by the priests and priestesses were commonly made of wool. 81 In the case of the Vestals they were tokens of chastity. Ovid mentions  82 wool among the instruments of purification called februa. The wife of the Priest of Jupiter wore a kind of veil on her head at sacrifices; to this was attached a spray of the pomegranate tree, the two ends of which were fastened with wool. 83 The envoy who went to the borders to demand satisfaction of a nation which had wronged the Roman people wore a woolen covering on his head. 84

Wool was regularly used in Roman religious rites. At the Festival of the Lares of the Crossroads, woolen images of men and women and balls of wool--the images representing all free men and women, the balls representing all slaves--were suspended at night at the crossroads and probably also at the housedoors. These represented a substitute for an earlier human sacrifice to the spirits of the dead in the underworld who might harm the living. Festus says: 85 " . . . As many balls as there are slaves and as many effigies as there are freeborn men and women in the family are set up, that the spirits may spare the living and be content with these balls as substitutes." That human sacrifice prevailed in Rome up to 97 B.C. is proved by a decree of the Senate of that year which provided "that no human being be immolated. . . ." 86 In the rites of the Sacrifice of the Pregnant Cow (Fordicidia), Ovid represents Numa slaying two ewes, whose fleece he spreads on the ground, and on these he lies in worshiping Faunus. 87

The fact that linen was commonly used by priests in Oriental cults, not only for clothing but as a veil for sacred things, may have tended to add negative mana to it at Rome where wool was normally worn in religious rites. In the tale of Thelyphron, for instance, which we related in our first chapter, 88 the Egyptian prophet who brought the corpse to life was clad in linen. We know that the worshipers of Isis dressed in linen. 89 Apuleius, who was initiated into the mysteries of Isis and Osiris, calls linen "the purest covering for divine things." 90 Wool, he reminds us, was considered unclean by the followers of Orpheus and Pythagoras. The Jewish prophets wore linen. 91 In Leviticus we read the specifications for the high priest's dress: 92 "He shall put on the holy linen coat, and he shall have the linen breeches upon his flesh, and shall be girded with a linen girdle, and with the linen mitre shall he be attired: these are holy garments . . ."

We have seen, then, that the Romans had an uncanny feeling about the presence of linen in religious rites because of its association with dead bodies and with magic, particularly the magic of aversion in the case of the spirits of slain enemies. We have seen, too, that linen was regularly worn by devotees of Oriental cults and that this would have a tendency to increase the danger of a material which was already endowed, for other reasons, with negative mana. Thus the taboo on linen may be closely linked up with the taboos on death and on the stranger. Furthermore, wool was commonly used in religious rites, and since wool was the older material, the gods would naturally be averse to adopting linen, which was new and was associated with death, magic, and foreign rites.


Rites of binding and tying and the use of knots were common in Roman magic. For example, while his sweetheart Delia lay ill, Tibullus performed magic rites for her recovery and made nine vows to Trivia, "his head veiled in wool and with loosened tunic." 93 Images of lovers, which were employed by witches, were commonly bound with magic threads. 94 Belief in the dangerous character of knots of all sorts, in religious rites, is not confined to any one people. Frazer writes, for instance: 95 ". . . among the gypsies of Transylvania, as soon as the birth-pains set in, every knot is untied, not only on the clothes of the woman in labor, but also on everything in her neighborhood. . . ."

We know that knots, as well as things tied or bound, were considered harmful in all religious rites among the Romans. This may have been due to fear that the binding principle would be carried over to the rites and hinder their effectiveness. Servius, in his commentary on Vergil's Aeneid,  96 says: " . . . In sacred rites, it is customary for nothing to be bound." The requirement that women must have their hair flowing and their garments ungirt in all religious rites is attributable to the taboo on knots. The wife of the Priest of Jupiter must leave her hair untouched by a comb on at least three occasions: during the ceremonial procession among the shrines called Argei, 97 at the Festival of Vesta until the Tiber had carried the sweepings from the temple of Vesta to the sea, 98 and during the ritualistic "moving" of the shields in March. 99 At funerals women wore their hair streaming and their garments had to be ungirt. 100 A pregnant woman loosened her hair before praying to Juno Lucina, a goddess of childbirth, in order "that the goddess might tenderly release her child."  101 Knots in any form were forbidden at the rites of this deity. 102 Crossing of the legs or fingers was considered harmful to pregnant women. 103 A person who was minded to do one harm could be forestalled by crossing the legs and intertwining the fingers. 104 Dido, in preparing for self-destruction, pretended to her sister Anna that she was performing magic rites to destroy her lover. We read: 105 "Dido calls to witness the gods--having freed one foot of its sandal, and with garment ungirt." The reason for thus baring her foot and loosing her dress is, as Servius thinks, 106 "that she may be freed and AEneas be entangled."

The Priest of Jupiter must have no knots on his conical cap, his girdle, or any part of his dress. 107 He was forbidden to touch ivy or to walk under vines, probably because of the grasping knotty character of their tendrils. 108 In Livy's account of the inauguration of Numa, representing, no doubt, that of a typical Roman priest, we read  109 that the curved wand of the augur must be without a knot. The worshipers at the festival of the Lemuria must have nothing binding on their feet. 110 The sacrificial animal had to be led to the altar by a rope in which there was no knot. 111 Animals were unyoked at country festivals, and the sacrificial victim must be one that had never touched a yoke or been mated. 112

A curious case of taboo is recorded by Pliny the Elder. 113 According to the law of most country districts in Italy, women were not permitted to spin or to carry their spindles uncovered as they walked on the highroads, for the crops would be harmed thereby. The reason for this taboo seems to be that as the threads became tangled on the spindle, so, by the principle of sympathy, the crops would become tangled with weeds. Again, for the same reason, women were not allowed to spin at the time of the Festival of the Ambarvalia. 114

Similarly rings, which, like knots, were commonly used in magic rites, were taboo. The Priest of Jupiter was not allowed to wear a ring unless it was broken and stoneless. 115 In the religious rites which Numa performs in the sacred grove of Faunus, as described by Ovid, the king is forbidden to wear a ring. 116

In all the instances cited--whether the taboo be on rings, dressed hair, crossed legs, crossed fingers, fettered culprit, peasant's spindle, or actual knots in clothes or rope--the same principle is involved: as the ring, the crossed legs, the fetters, the spindle, the knot, bind physically, so they bind the god and his rites--a survival of the earliest days when man believed that a thing or action which resembled another thing or action (whether actual or conceived in the imagination) was one and the same thing.

Servius has an inkling of the principle in his comments on the lines of Vergil which describe the priest Helenus removing his sacred fillets before approaching the temple of Apollo: 117 "In the procedure of sacred rites, this (i.e. the removing of the fillets) is appropriate both for soul and body; for generally those things which cannot be done with respect to the soul can be done with respect to the body--as loosing or binding--that the soul may, from resemblance, perceive what it cannot of itself perceive." The priest Helenus laid aside his fillets, and, thus removing the binding principle, he was free to receive the inspiration of the god.

We know that knots and rings were commonly used in magic, especially in rites intended to bind lovers together; and so it may be barely possible that the priests of the Roman State religion deliberately discouraged objects and actions which belonged to popular rites of magic. Whether this be true or not, the Romans had a feeling that knots had some evil influence on religious rites; hence they avoided them. The most natural explanation of the taboo is on the principle of similarity.

Iron and Bronze

The taboo on iron dates from the beginning of the Iron Age when religious conservatism forbade the use of the strange new material in place of the usual bronze. 118 It has been suggested that the magic significance of iron arose from its susceptibility to magnetism which, as the superstitious Romans often believed, it derived from witchcraft. 119 The Romans believed that the lodestone recruited its strength from iron. Roman priests, in at least one instance, used the lodestone's powers to bring about a mysterious attraction between an iron image of Mars--presumably a small one--and an image of Venus, made of lodestone. 120 Thus did the priests blithely employ science for their own ends.

In many magic rites, iron early lost its power to harm. In the charm, for instance, which Cato has left us in his treatise on agriculture, iron figured in a helpful way. We give Cato's directions for inducing a broken or a dislocated bone to come together: 121

"If a bone has been dislocated, it will become whole by this charm. Take a green reed, four or five feet long; split it in the middle, and let two men hold the pieces against the hip joints. Begin to chant: 'Motas vaeta daries dardares astataries dissunapiter,' until the pieces of the reed come together. Keep tossing iron above. When the pieces of the reed have come together, and the one touches the other, seize them with the hand, and cut them right and left; bind them to the dislocation or to the fracture, and it will become sound. And yet every day chant (as above), or in the following manner: 'Huat haut huat istasis tarsis ardannabou dannaustra.'"

This is a piece of sheer magic. As the two split pieces of reed come together, so the broken pieces of the bone will mend. The element in the rite that concerns us especially here, however, is the tossing of iron above the broken bone. The iron apparently is used to ward off any evil influences which might hinder the mending of the bone. We find a similar use of iron in the case of the Priest of Jupiter, who placed a piece of iron under his pillow at night in order to ward off evil influences. 122 A like superstition had it that iron, placed beneath the straw on which hens had dropped their eggs, would keep the eggs from spoiling. 123

Another quality of iron may, along with its magnetic powers, help to account for its taboo in certain rites. Man must have noticed at a very early time that sparks flew from iron and stone when they were struck together.

The Arval Brothers were originally forbidden to use iron implements for engraving inscriptions in their sacred grove. They therefore performed an atoning sacrifice with a lamb and a pig in advance, in order to avoid the displeasure which the gods might feel because of their having used an iron graving tool. The atoning sacrifice was made again when the iron instrument was taken from the grove. 124 Similarly, no iron implement could be used in repairing the Sublician Bridge, which was made entirely of wood and fastened with wooden pins. 125 While it seems probable that the prohibition here is a religious one, there is a possibility, as Pliny suggests, 126 that it may have been necessary in order to facilitate tearing the bridge down quickly at the approach of an enemy. There was a similar taboo on iron at the building of the temple of Solomon. 127 In the regulations of the temple of Jupiter Liber at Furfo a special provision was made allowing iron to be used in repairing the temple, showing that there must have been some misgivings as to the propriety of its use. 128

Servius records 129 that if a man bound in chains entered the house of a flamen he must be loosened from his chains and that these had to be lowered through the skylight into the street. Here, not only the fact that the man was bound and in chains of iron made him dangerous, but also the fact that he was a criminal; for criminals were regularly taboo in Rome. 130

In historical times, bronze was commonly used in magic as well as in religious rites. Vergil, for instance, represents  131 Dido pretending to consult a witch who cuts herbs by moonlight with a bronze sickle. In the magic rites of the Silent Goddess, Tacita (to which we shall return in a later chapter), an old witch sews up the head of a small fish with a bronze needle, in order by sympathetic magic to bind the lips of a slanderous person. 132 Marcellus Empiricus, in his directions for the preparation of amulets, includes implements of reed, of copper, and of glass, but not of iron. 133 We know that both Etruscans and Romans used only bronze ploughshares to dig furrows in founding their cities; 134 and their priests, as well as those of the Sabines, used bronze razors. 135 The hair and nails of the Priest of Jupiter must be cut, not with iron, but with a bronze knife. 136 The dress worn by the flamens while offering sacrifice was fastened with a clasp of bronze. 137 The Leaping Priests of Mars wore bronze corselets. 138 While Italy was being threatened by the Goths, there was an eclipse, and the night rang with wailings and the beating of bronze. 139 Again, during the revolt of the Roman soldiers in Pannonia, an eclipse of the moon caused panic in the camp. The air rang with the crash of trumpets and other bronze implements. These were calculated, as Tacitus says, 140 to aid the moon in her labors; but, as a modern scholar has recently suggested, 141 they may have been believed to drive away the goblin which was swallowing up the moon.


That certain places were affected by the feeling of taboo we have already shown; and the reason for the uncanny feeling in each case was that associated with the place was a particular form of taboo: in the case of burial grounds, for instance, the taboo on the corpse.

Thunder and lightning have always caused feelings of uneasiness among men, whether savage or civilized. Juvenal, for instance, writes: 142 "There are those who tremble and blanch at every lightning flash; and when it thunders they are helpless even on the first rumbling in the sky." It is not strange, then, that places struck by lightning should be considered taboo by the Romans. Such places were surrounded with a low well-shaped wall and marked with an inscription indicating that the thunderbolt had been duly buried. 143 A lamb was sacrificed in expiation. 144 There seems to have been a college of priests whose duty was properly to care for the rites of "burying the thunderbolt."  145 On one occasion the temples of Jupiter and Minerva were struck by lightning and Nero, on the advice of soothsayers, purified the whole city. 146 The Emperor Galba's grandfather once performed an expiatory sacrifice after a place had been struck by lightning. 147 According to the laws of Numa, a man who had been struck by lightning must not be lifted above the knees and no rites of burial could be performed. 148 Such a man might not be cremated and must be buried, presumably on the spot where he had been struck. 149

Many taboos on places arose from particular events which had proved disastrous. For instance, there was a taboo on the right-hand passage of the Carmental Gate because the three hundred and six members of the Fabian family had passed through it to fight against the Veii, never to return. 150 Gervasius von Tilbury furnishes us with a parallel from Naples. 151 He and a friend tried to enter the city by the lefthand side of the city gate, when an ass, laden with wood, blocked the way and forced the travelers to use the right side. On reaching the home of their host, the latter inquired by which side of the gate they had entered, and, when he learned that they had used the right-hand side, he said: "Every one who enters the city by the right-hand side will succeed in whatever business he has in hand; every one on the contrary who enters on the left will find and meet with nothing but disappointment." The dusty traveler for the moment began to yield to the superstition; but catching himself he muttered piously: "In Thy hands, O Lord, are all things, and there is nothing that can resist Thy power."

We have in the last two chapters treated the following taboos in Roman life: blood, women, children, death and corpses, sex, men, strangers, slaves, linen, knots, iron, and places. Of these, the taboo on blood has been found to have arisen either from instinct or because of the association of death and suffering with its presence; that on women and children from the fact that they are weak physically, and this weakness, by the familiar law of association by similarity, may be communicated to the religious rite, affecting it adversely. Furthermore, the presence of blood at menstruation and at the birth of the child adds to women and children the uncanniness of blood. That on corpses may be attributed to man's instinct for self-preservation; the strangeness of the dead body may add to its mysterious character; moreover, man associates death with the agonies of the last moments of the sick man, and hence fears death. The taboo on sexual intercourse may perhaps best be explained on the ground that after the sexual act comes a period of weakness which will be communicated magically to the religious rite or to the actions of daily life. The taboo on men is due to their physical unlikeness to women; that on strangers may be due both to the fact that what is new or unfamiliar is dangerous and to the association of ideas of death and blood and pain with the stranger. That on slaves seems to have been entirely artificial; but, inasmuch as slaves were foreigners, the taboo on strangers may apply here also. The taboo on linen may be due to its association with corpses, to its strangeness in comparison with wool (the older material), and to its use in Oriental rites--a taboo, therefore, on that which is foreign. The taboo on knots is obvious: the principle of sympathetic magic holds here. As the knot binds, so the action is bound. The taboo on iron is due to its strangeness at the time when it was introduced, to its susceptibility to magnetism, and to its power of producing sparks when struck. The taboo on places has no one origin. The uncanniness of each place has a special cause: contact with death, association with disaster, and the like.


1 Columella, De Re Rustica IX. 14, 3.

2 For the Vestals, see Plutarch, Numa X; Gellius, Noctes Atticae I. 12; Frazer's note on Ovid, Fasti VI. 283.

3 Livy I. 11. 6-9.

4 Livy II. 42, 10-11.

5 Livy VIII. 15, 7-8.

6 Livy XXII. 57.

7 Sallust, Bellum Catilinum XV. 1; Orosius VI. 3; Cicero, Oratio in Toga Candida.

8 Suetonius, Nero XXVIII. 1.

9 IV. 8-10; see Mayor's notes on these lines.

10 Suetonius, Domitianus VIII. 3-4; see Pliny, Epistulae IV. 11, 6.

11 IV. 44, 11-12.

12 Plutarch, Numa X.

13 See W. Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals, p. 94.

14 Apuleius, Apologia LXXXVIII.

15 Ovid, Metamorphoses X. 431-435.

16 Tibullus Il. 1. 11-12.

17 See Fowler, The Roman Festivals, pp. 114-115.

18 Servius on Vergil's Bucolica VIII. 82.

19 Fasti VI. 459-460.

20 V. 8, 1-14; see Frazer, The Fasti of Ovid, Vol. II, pp. 296-297.

21 Amaury Talbot, Life in Southern Nigeria, p. 220.

22 Ovid, Fasti VI. 227-232.

23 Ovid, Metamorphoses X. 431-435.

24 Livy XXXIX. 9. 4. XXXIX. 10, 1. XXXIX. 11, 2; Ovid, Fasti II. 327-330.

25 Aelius Lampridius, Severus Alexander XXIX. 2.

26 Columella, De Re Rustica XII. 4, 2ff.

27 Tolemism and Exogamy, Vol. II, p. 411.

28 Frazer, The Fasti of Ovid, Vol. IV. pp. 205-206.

29 III. 31, 1-2; see also III. 26, 15-16 (Lucian Mueller's edition).

30 I. 3. 23-26.

31 Aelius Spartianus, Pescennius Niger VI. 7.

32 Columella, De Re Rustica XII. 4. 2ff.

33 Ovid, Fasti V. 153-156; see also Tibullus III. 5, 7-8.

34 Plutarch, Caesar IX-X; see Dio Cassius XXXVII. 35 and 45.

35 Ovid, Fasti VI. 437-454; Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones III. 20; Aelius Lampridius, Antoninus Heliogabalus VI. 7.

36 Epistulae IV. 11, 9.

37 Plutarch, Quaestiones Romanae III.

38 Tusculanae Dispulationes IV. 11. 27.

39 Servius on Vergil's Aeneid VIII. 269.

40 Pliny, Naturalis Historia VII. 2, 15.

41 Livy I. 40, 2.

42 Livy XXIII. 5.

43 Livy XXVI. 34, 12; see Macrobius, Saturnalia III. 3, 1.

44 Livy II. 37. 9.

45 Gellius, Noctes Atticae VI. 19, 7.

46 Festus: aesto (Mueller, p. 82).

47 Gellius, Noctes Atticae I. 12. 8.

48 The translation is that of H. J. Rose in Primitive Culture in Italy, p. 67.

49 Pliny, Naturalis Historia XXII. 1, 5.

50 Livy I. 24, 4-6.

51 Livy IV. 3, 9, and 2. 5-7.

52 Livy X. 6.

53 Livy I. 34. 11.

54 Westermarck, The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas, I. 570ff., 590ff.

55 Tylor, Primitive Culture, Vol. I, p. 114,

56 Bellum Gallicum VI. 23.

57 See W. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, pp. 223-247.

58 See Frazer, The Fasti of Ovid, Vol. IV, pp. 290-291.

59 Livy II. 36. 1.

60 Cicero, De Haruspicum Responso XI-XII.

61 Livy I. 7, 12-14.

62 Gellius, Noctes Atticae I. 12. 5.

63 Ovid, Fasti VI. 481; Plutarch, Quaestiones Romanae XVI.

64 Cato, De Agricultura V. 1-4; Dionysius of Halicarnassus,

65 Antiquitates Romanae IV. 14, 3-4.

66 Ovid, Fasti VI. 783-784. Seneca, De Clementia 1. 18, 2.

67 Dionysius of Halicarnassus IV. 14, 3-4.

68 Suetonius, Claudius XXII.

69 Tacitus, Annales XIV. 21.

70 Apuleius, Metamorphoses IV. 11.

71 Tibullus III. 2. 15-22.

72 Livy IV. 20. 7.

73 Suctonius, Galba XIX.1.

74 Propertius V. 3. 64.

75 On Vergil's Aeneid XII. 120.

76 Ibidem.

77 Cornelius Fronto, Ad Marcum Caesarem IV. 4.

78 Livy IV. 7. 12.

79 Livy X. 38.

80 Pliny, Naturalis Historia 11. 56, 147.

81 Ovid, Fasti III. 30.

82 Fasti II. 21.

83 Servius on Vergil's Aeneid IV. 137.

84 Livy I. 32. 6.

85 Pilae effigies (Mueller, p. 239) ; Laneae (p. 121). Macrobius, Saturnalia I. 7, 35.

86 Pliny, Naturalis Historia XXX. 1, 12.

87 Ovid, Fasti IV, 652-660.

88 See Chapter 1, pp. 5-7.

89 Tibullus I. 3. 30.

90 Apologia LVI.

91 Leviticus VI. 10.

92 Leviticus XVI. 4.

93 Tibullus I. 5, 15-17.

94 Vergil, Bucolica VIII.

95 J. G. Frazer, The Fasti of Ovid, Vol. III, p. 61.

96 IV. 518.

97 Gellius, Noctes Atticae X. 15, 30.

98 Ovid, Fasti VI. 227-232.

99 Ibid., III. 397-398.

100 Ovid, Fasti IV. 854; Plutarch, Quaestiones Romanae XIV; Tibullus III. 2. 11.

101 Ovid, Fasti III. 257-258.

102 Servius on Vergil's Aeneid IV. 518.

103 Ovid, Metamorphoses IV. 297-300.

104 Apuleius, Metamorphoses III. 1.

105 Vergil, Aeneid IV. 518.

106 Servius on Vergil's Aeneid IV. 518.

107 Gellius, Noctes Atticae X. 15, 9.

108 Plutarch, Quaestiones Romanae CXII; Gellius, Noctes Atticae X. 15, 13; Festus, Ederam (Mueller, p. 82).

109 Livy I. 18, 7.

110 Ovid, Farii V. 432.

111 Juvenal XII. 3-6.

112 Tibullus II. 1, 7; Ovid, Fasti I. 83, III. 375-376, IV. 335-336.

113 Naturalis Historia XXVIII. 28.

114 Tibullus II. 1, 10.

115 Gellius, Noctes Atticae X. 15, 6.

116 Ovid, Fasti IV. 657-658.

117 Servius on Vergil's Aeneid III. 370.

118 See J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, Vol. II, p. 230.

119 M. Cary and A. D. Nock, in The Classical Quarterly, XXI (1927), pp. 125-127; see Propertius V. 5, 9-10.

120 Claudius Claudianus, Carminum Minorum Corpusculum XXIX. 25-27.

121 De Agricultura CLX.

122 See Frank Granger, The Worship of the Romans, p. 164.

123 Pliny, Naturalis Historia X. 54, 152.

124 Henzen, Acta Fratrum Artalium, pp. 128-135.

125 Pliny, Naturalis Historia XXXVI. 15, 100; Dio III. 45.

126 Pliny, Naturalis Historia XXXVI. 100.

127 I Kings VI. 7.

128 Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 4906.

129 On Vergil's Aeneid II. 57; see also Gellius, Noctes Atticae X. 15, 8.

130 W. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, p. 32.

131 Aeneid IV. 513; see also Macrobius, Saturnalia V. 19, 7-14; Ovid, Metamorphoses VII. 227.

132 Ovid, Fasti 11. 575-578.

133 I. 85; VIII. 49, 50; see Tavenner, op. cit. p. 121, note 294.

134 Plutarch, Romulus XI. 2; Zollaras VII. 3.

135 Macrobius, Saturnalia V. 19, 13.

136 Servius on Vergil's Aeneid I. 448.

137 Festus: Infibulati (Mueller, p. 113).

138 Livy I. 20, 4.

139 Claudianus, De Bello Gothico 233-234.

140 Annales 1. 28.

141 J. G. Frazer, The Fasti of Ovid, Vol. IV, p. 48.

142 Juvenal XIII. 223-224.

143 Festus: Fulguritum (Mueller, p. 92) ; Bidental (p. 33). Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, p. 37. Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Romer, p. 122 and note 3.

144 Festus: Bidental (Mueller, P. 33) ; Horace, Ars Poetica 470-472.

145 See Wissowa, op. cit,, P. 131,

146 Tacitus, Annales XIII. 24.

147 Suetonius, Galba IV. 2.

148 Festus: Occisum (Mueller, p. 178).

149 Pliny, Naturalis Historia II. 145.

150 Ovid, Fasti II. 201-202; Livy II. 49, 8.

151 Translated in Comparetti, Vergil in the Middle Ages, p. 261.

Next: Chapter IV: Magic Acts: The General Principles