Medieval Scribes’ Complaints: Halloween Edition CONTINUED

[Note: The Fabulous SP Festus provides us with another post about scribal complaints. His two first posts are here and here.]

We left the previous post with some of the comparative evidence for ghosts on the floor. There are certain issues with the concept, easy to enumerate but harder to rationalize. How will ghosts on the floor appear to the living? Slithering like snakes? Just lying there like ill-behaved pets? Again, ghosts are traditionally quick to anger. Given their mortal origins, might they not take offense at having to grub food from the floor as opposed to food politely offered in dishes (cf. pets, above)? Fascinating though such issues be, more important to establish that ghosts were on the floor. The Festus evidence with the gloss does seem to establish it. But is there more? Oh yes. Oh my yes.


Here’s a passage from the Elder Pliny’s great encyclopedia, first century AD.:

“Also, food which fell from the diner’s hand was returned to the table at least during the courses, and they forbade, for the sake of cleanliness, blowing dirt off it; too, there are auguries connected, i.e. what the diner who dropped the food was saying or thinking would come to pass — the most dire of which would be if this happened to a pontiff at a formal dinner. In all events, putting it back on the table and burning it for the Lar counted as expiation.”

Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis, 28.27

cibus etiam e manu prolapsus reddebatur utique per mensas, vetabantque munditiarum causa deflare, et sunt condita auguria, quid loquenti cogitantive id acciderit, inter execratissima, si pontifici accidat dicis causa epulanti. in mensa utique id reponi adolerique ad Larem piatio est.

This passage gives us two important pieces of information. Burning it on the table solves the issue of ghosts annoyed by eating it on the floor.  And the Lar, more usually known in the plural Lares was provably a family ancestor as the Lar familiaris.

Armed with this information we can examine a classic ghost festival, the Lemuria, which took place on three days: May 9, 11, 13. It appears in the oldest Roman calendars, meaning it originally was rural and may even predate the traditional founding of Rome (753 BC). The early first century AD poet Ovid in his incomplete Fasti, a descriptive poem of the Roman calendar, offers this:

“When midnight has come and lends silence to sleep, and dogs and all ye varied fowls are hushed, the worshipper who bears the olden rite in mind and fears the gods arises; no knots constrict his feet; and he makes a sign with his thumb in the middle of his closed fingers,a lest in his silence an unsubstantial shade should meet him. And after washing his hands clean in spring water, he turns, and first he receives black beans and throws them away with face averted; but while he throws them, he says: “These I cast; with these beans I redeem me and mine.” This he says nine times, without looking back: the shade is thought to gather the beans, and to follow unseen behind. Again he touches water, and clashes Temesan bronze, and asks the shade to go out of his house. When he has said nine times, “Ghosts (Manes) of my fathers, go forth!” he looks back, and thinks that he has duly performed the sacred rites.”

Ovid, Fasti, 5.429-44, Frazer translation.

nox ubi iam media est somnoque silentia praebet,
et canis et variae conticuistis aves,
ille memor veteris ritus timidusque deorum
surgit (habent gemini vincula nulla pedes)
signaque dat digitis medio cum pollice iunctis,
occurrat tacito ne levis umbra sibi.
cumque manus puras fontana perluit unda,
vertitur et nigras accipit ante fabas
aversusque iacit; sed dum iacit, ‘haec ego mitto,
his’ inquit ‘redimo meque meosque fabis.’
hoc novies dicit nec respicit: umbra putatur
 colligere et nullo terga vidente sequi.
rursus aquam tangit Temesacaque concrepat aera
et rogat, ut tectis exeat umbra suis.
cum dixit novies ‘Manes exite paterni,’
respicit et pure sacra peracta putat.

He throws the beans, which will land on the floor which the ghosts will eat. It all fits together so far…hungry ghosts hanging (slithering?) about on the floor, waiting for food. The passage is not without problems. For example, the black beans. Impossible.  The black bearn, Phasellus niger, is a New World plant and also an India plant. Roman beans were Vicia faba, a creamy white color. Black is known to occur, but it is a recessive trait. Hence black beans would not be nearly common enough for the widespread and long-term practice of this festival. This problem can be solved, but we need to stay on track here.

What about that word for ghosts Manes? “Houston, we have a problem.” The Romans had multiple names for ghosts which overlapped and didn’t overlap all at the same time. Manes appear on literally thousands of tombstones, and usually are taken to mean “ancestral spirits”. It’s far more complex than that; see my article on same in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, third edition and later.

It puzzled the ancients too. Here is a selection from the second century AD author Apuleius:

“here is also another species of daemons, according to a second signification, and this is a human soul, which, after its departure from the present life, does not enter into another body. I find that souls of this kind are called in the ancient Latin tongue Lemures. Of these Lemures, therefore, he who, being allotted the guardianship of his posterity, dwells in a house with an appeased and tranquil power, is called a familiar [or domestic] Lar. But those are for the most part called Larvae, who, having no proper habitation, are punished with an uncertain wandering, as with a certain exile, on account of the evil deeds of their life, and become a vain terror to good, and are noxious to bad men. And when it is uncertain what the allotted condition is of any one of these, they call the God by the name of Manes; the name of God being added for the sake of honour. For they alone call those Gods, who being of the same number of Lemures, and having governed the course of their life justly and prudently, have afterwards been celebrated by men as divinities, and are every where worshipped in temples, and honoured by religious rites; such for instance as Amphiaraus in Boeotia, Mopsus in Africa, Osiris in Egypt, and some other in other nations, but Esculapius every where.

Apuleius, De Deo Socratis 14

Est et secundo significatus species daemonum animus humanus emeritis stipendiis vitae corpore suo abiurans. Hunc vetere Latina lingua reperio Lemurem dictitatum. Ex hisce ergo Lemuribus qui posterorum suorum curam sortitus placato et quieto numine domum possidet, Lar dicitur familiaris; qui vero ob adversa vitae merita nullis (bonis) sedibus incerta vagatione ceu quodam exilio punitur, inane terriculamentum bonis hominibus, ceterum malis noxium, id genus plerique Larvas perhibent. Cum vero incertum est, quae cuique eorum sortitio evenerit, utrum Lar sit an Larva, nomine Manem deum nuncupant: scilicet et honoris gratia dei vocabulum additum est; quippe tantum eos deos appellant, qui ex eodem numero iuste ac prudenter curriculo vitae gubernato pro numine postea ab hominibus praediti fanis et caerimoniis vulgo advertuntur, ut in Boeotia Amphiaraus, in Africa Mopsus, in Aegypto Osiris, alius alibi gentium, Aesculapius ubique.

But moderns are no better. In English we have, among other words, ghost, spirit, wraith, ghoul, revenant…the list seems endless.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a fragment of Maecenas, the emperor Augustus’ pal and literary adviso, no great fan of the Lemures:

“An unregenerate crew, they search out people at feasts, and assail households with the wine-cup, and, by hope, exact death.”

Maecenas, ap. Seneca, Letters 114.5

Inremediabilis factio rimantur epulis lagonaque temptant domos et spe mortem exigunt

Our concluding post will show you why the Lemuria in May has everything to do with Halloween in October. Be safe…watch where you step. Your feet are not alone on the floor.

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