The state religion of Rome permitted a few women to act as priestesses, but under tight controls. It usually required them to be patrician matrons still married to their first husband (univirae, or “one-man women”). This was required of the priestess of Fortuna Mulieribus, the only thing we know about her or her rites. [Scheid 1992: 389] The flaminica Dialis (priestess of Jupiter) also had to meet this requirement,  entering her priestly coupledom as a virgin bride and never remarrying. Like the Vestals, the flaminica enjoyed a suspension of male guardianship. [Lefkowitz andFant, 191]

State goddesses like Mater Matuta and Fortuna Primigenia embodied patrician norms. The statue of Mater Matuta was veiled like a patrician matron. [Ogilvie, 70] These state-sanctioned cults upheld women's legal status as dependent minors, divided women according to marital status and class, and elevated mothers of sons over other women. They enforced the class hierarchy. In the Matralia rites, noble, “one-man” matrons took a slave into her temple, simply in order to drive her out in a fury “with slaps and blows.” [Olmsted, 251; Scheid, 386, 405]

Male dominance was the backdrop to all this. Certain rituals highlight matrons’ vulnerability to cheating husbands, especially as they aged. Roman women made offerings to Fortuna Virilis on August 1 so that their blemishes might be hidden from the male gaze, and to “regain the loss of the waning affection and the desire of men for their wives or mistresses.” [Fasti IV, 133ff, in Webster, 171fn177]

Though barred from most official temple culture, Roman women celebrated their own rites commemorating birth, harvest, and death, as we’ve already seen with the Carmentalia. They laid out offering tables for Juno Lucina for a week following every birth. The groundbreaking women’s historian Sophie Drinker pointed out (in 1948!):

Every woman could offer sacrifice, burn incense, pour the libation,
play instruments, dance, and sing magic formulas for all the rites of the life cycle... she could sing the dirges [nenia] and make the gesture [planctus] appropriate for calling out to the deceased [conclamatio]. She could carry out the immemorially old customs of primitive faith.
[Drinker, 146]

Italian women kept their ancient goddess veneration alive in sanctuaries that were older than Rome. Wreath-crowned votaries carried torches to Diana’s temple at Nemi. A bronze priestess pouring libation shows the cultural mix at Nemi circa 125 BCE: she wears an Italic diadem, Greek robes and a Celtic torc. [Brendel, 428-9] The lake at Nemi was called the Mirror of Diana. It was fed by the spring of Egeria, who was also worshipped there. [Darrah, 28] Women came to Egeria’s sanctuary to pray for children and easy birth:

Almost countless clay models of the uterus have been found near her shrine, together with the torch, the symbol of midwives and of the Mater Matuta, who in the early hours of the morning opened the uterus and bade the baby come forth. [Hurd-Mead, circa 49]

The sanctuary of Nemi at Aricia remained an important center of goddess veneration under the empire. It welcomed the votaries of Isis. A relief found at the site depicts African women dancing in ecstasy surrounded by ibises and other symbols of Egyptian religion. Another major religious center was the Roman temple of Diana on the Aventine Hill. An ancient bronze pillar stood there, inscribed with the Aventine canon: laws governing the festivals of all Latin cities. Every hearth in Italy celebrated the festival of Diana on August 13th, when the Latin league was first founded. Her ancient statue was modeled on Artemis of Ephesus, by way of Marseilles. Diana had another grove at Tibur, where she was called Opifera, “help-bringing.” [Palmer, 58, 77; Ogilvie, 65-7]

Bona Dea

Opifera was also a title of Bona Dea, the “good goddess,” whose temples nourished a culture of female sovereignty and outright resistance. Tradition said that women built the sanctuary of Bona Dea in the distant past, and its association with the women's mysteries endured. [Drinker; Goodrich, 256] No men were allowed in this temple or the nearby temple of Diana, the headquarters of plebian women. Diana was seen as a protector of the oppressed classes, especially the enslaved. This was true of Bona Dea and Ceres as well. [Spaeth, 92]

Bona Dea's Roman temple was built over a cave where the priestesses kept sacred serpents. An ancient source says that these snakes “neither felt nor inspired fear.” [Scheid, 391] Statues of the goddess show a snake coiling around her right arm, drinking from an offering bowl in her hand. Her left arm cradles a cornucopia, the attribute of Fortuna and Terra Mater.

statue of bona dea Bona Dea
was depicted enthroned with cornucopia (an attribute she shared with Ops, Terra, and Fortuna) and a serpent coiled around one arm, holding a patera (offering dish.)

The priestesses of Bona Dea ran an herbarium: “... all kinds of herbs are found in her temple, from which the priestesses mostly make medicines which they distribute...”[Hurd-Mead, 49; quote, Brouwer, 224] Snakes and healing herbs were also kept at the grove of the goddess Angitia or Anguitina at lake Fuscinus. [Piscinus, online]

The healing power of the Good Goddess is also reflected in archaeological finds of offerings. At the sanctuary of Bona Dea in the southern city of Paestum, archaeologists discovered clay figurines, wombs, and eyes “left by cured or ailing women,” along with quantities of wine cups and loom weights. The temple dates back to the 5th century BCE. “Over the centuries, her intercession was variously sought for such purposes as healing, fertility, being freed from slavery, fruitfulness in agriculture and for the protection of the entire Roman people.” [Eric Pace, “Women's Cults Of Antiquity: The Veil Rises,” New York Times, April 30, 1985] Similar finds at female shrines at Nemi and other  goddess sanctuaries in Etruria and southern Italy show a connection between their religious observances.


One of the finest sculptures of Bona Dea. Although her arm is broken off, the serpent is still visible coiled beside her.

Inscriptions shower Bona Dea with titles: Caelestis, Augusta, Sancta (“holy”), Regina Triumphali, Lucifera (“light-bringing”), Obsequens (“well-disposed”), Opifera (“aid-bringing”), Pagana, Agrestis and Sevina (goddess of the countryside, fields, and seeds). As Domina (“lady”), she is thanked in an inscription for healing an eye disease. She is linked to other goddesses who share her titles: Fortuna, Ceres, Juno, the Parcae, Hygeia, and Venus Cnidia. [Brouwer, 236, 346, 376, 388-92, 416, 419, titles; 235, 315, 312, 413-19 on goddesses]

Bona Dea was itself a title, not the actual name of the goddess, which was taboo. Servius wrote that “it was forbidden to call her by her name.” Cicero explained further, “Bona Dea is that goddess whose name must not even be known by men.” [De Haruspicum Responsis XVII, 37] Her secret name was Fenta Fauna or Fenta Fatua. [A long-ago reference, which I can’t find now, said that Fauna was depicted as an old woman with pointed ears holding a serpent.]

Fenta was the name of a Gaulish goat-goddess the Romans called Caprina Galla. Her Roman counterpart was Juno Caprotina, who wore a goatskin cloak and drove a chariot drawn by goats. (See Juno Sospita in Photos.) Enslaved women were prominent among her devotees. The title Fatua, though Latin, was also borne by southern Gaulish goddesses of southern Gaul. [Brouwer, 221; Palmer, 167, 16, 35]

The names Fatua and Fauna are both associated with oracular cults. Fatua comes from fatuari, “to speak for,” implying prophetic utterances inspired by the goddess, with overtones of the Fatae, goddesses of destiny. (Our word fate, and also fairy, are derived from this root.) Writers of late antiquity ridiculed Fatua and linked her with the word fatuus (m.) “foolish,” which gave us the English “fatuous.” Etymologists are uncertain about the root of this usage, but I think that it might represent a degradation of ancient ecstatic prophecy in the minds of Roman writers. The Christian writer Isidore of Seville makes this explicit: “Some think that the Fatui are descended from the admirers of Fatua, Faunus’ prophesying wife, and that originally they were called fools (fatui) as they became exceedingly bewildered by her prophecies and turned insane.” [Etymologiae X, 103]

Fauna and Faunus were linked to prophecies spoken in ecstatic or intoxicated states. (His were linked to male dream-incubation wrapped in the hide of a sacrificed animal, a practice also attested in Ireland.) Bona Dea was a goddess of entranced prophecy. Her rites were celebrated with wine, music and “revelry.”[Brouwer, 369; on 335 he refers to Pliny’s connection of intoxication and stupor with the language of prophecy]

The serpent coiled around the goddess’s arm had prophetic significance (as with the Pythia) and symbolized healing power. Hygeia, the Asclepian goddess of healing, was also represented with a (much larger) snake. What Bona Dea’s priestesses did with the serpents in her cave herbarium is unknown, although her symbolism suggests that women fed them milk with the patera.

Cornelius Labeo equated the “Good Goddess” with Earth and Maia and Ops, as the source of all life, caring and help for living things. Festus linked her to Damia, a goddess of growth. Bona Dea had two festivals. Women celebrated two festivals for the Good Goddess. One was celebrated on May 1, in accord with her title of Maia. (This date was to never relinquish its link with the Pagan Mysteries, nor with the goddess as Maia). The other festival was nocturnal and tied to the moon, always falling after the new moon and within its first quarter, in early December.

The May rites included the sacrifice of a pregnant sow, the animal traditionally offered to Terra Mater and Ceres / Demeter. Matrons wearing purple headbands roasted the pig on the hearth, offering its belly to Bona Dea with libations. (Later, sow-shaped cakes were substituted.) The eldest woman presided “in the presence of the Vestal Virgins,” while young women took part in public games. [Life of Cicero XIX; Labeo from Macrobius; both in Brouwer, 197, 224; 351; Scheid, 391]











Fenta Fauna nursing a goat amidst music-making and dancing women. Pompeii, Villa of Mysteries

Cicero knew of no cult older than that of Bona Dea. [Brouwer, 257] He and other writers portrayed it as restricted to patrician women, a claim dramatically contradicted by the epigraphic evidence. Inscriptions show freed slaves as the single largest category of Bona Dea devotees—and priestesses. Plebians are well represented too. Lower-class devotees dedicated hundreds of inscriptions to Bona Dea at altars, wells, and sanctuaries, as well as donating mirrors, basins, sacrificial tables, and temple repairs. [Brouwer, 256-7, 262ff, 281ff presents masses of evidence against the aristocratic theory, pointing out that our only sources on the goddess are patrician men, the very people who were excluded from her mysteries.]

The (elite male) literary sources emphasize that all males, including animals, were excluded from the mysteries of Bona Dea. They even say that the women covered up male statues and paintings during rites held in their homes. Ovid wrote that her temple “abhors the eyes of males.” [Fasti, V.147] Bona Dea rituals unquestionably took place in female space. However, men also dedicated offerings to the “Good Goddess,” and a few are even listed as priests. [Brouwer, 281, 255-8] If in fact some men were admitted to the rites, or to some of them, they were ones women selected, on their own terms. Lactantius names “the temple of of Vesta, that of Bona Dea, or of Ceres” as female-only space. [Brouwer, 219] (But, interestingly, not Diana.) One of the titles of Bona Dea is Feminea Dea, “Goddess of Women.” [Propertius, IV, 9, 25] Her mythology illuminates this emphasis, and the reasons for it.

Fenta Fauna is called the wife, sister, or occasionally daughter of Faunus. His exact relation to her is less important than his abuse of power. By all accounts, Fauna struggles against a male in authority over her, who responds with violence. Faunus beats her to death with myrtle sticks. (Caning was a traditional Roman punishment of wives and daughters.) Plutarch explains that her husband, the seer Faunus, killed her with myrtle rods when he discovered she had been secretly been drinking wine—a pleasure forbidden to women under old Roman law. Arnobius repeats the same story, using the name Fenta Fatua. [Brouwer, 356, 196, 233, 216]

Lactantius calls Fenta Fauna both the sister and wife of Faunus, bringing in incest. He briefly alludes to her prophetic power: “... she was called Fatua since she used to foretell women their fate, as Faunus did men.” [Lactantius, Institutiones I 22, 9, citing Gavius Bassus.] This reference harks back to the old dedications to Neuna Fata at Albunea, and to the Albunean (Tiburtine) sibyls. Bona Dea was a goddess of entranced prophecy, the female counterpart of Faunus at the Tibur sanctuary.

Male writers invented revisionist theories about the goddess. They minimized her significance and reinterpreted her story in ways that obscured female resistance. Lactantius went so far as to claim that Bona Dea owed her divinity to her slayer; Faunus, repenting of killing his wife, “conferred divine honor on her...” [Lactantius, Institutiones] Varro negated the subversiveness of the Women's Mysteries, molding their exclusive female gatherings into a mindless embrace of the conventional patrician code of female seclusion. He claimed that women venerated Bona Dea for her great modesty, so extreme “that no man, except her husband, has ever seen her during her lifetime or has ever heard her name.” (This puts an entirely different spin on the ritual taboo against naming the goddess.)

Servius agreed, calling Faunus' daughter “the chastest of all women and well-trained in all skills.” [Brouwer, 218, 221] This contorted revisionism was applied even to her devotees. Ovid claimed that empress Livia restored the temple of Bona Dea “that she might imitate her husband and follow him in everything.” [Fasti, V.147]

Macrobius related a different version that emphasized the theme of female oppression, again involving  incest. Faunus tried to force his daughter to have sex with him. He got her drunk but she still resisted, so he beat her with myrtle twigs. Finally he prevailed over her by turning into a serpent and penetrated her in this form. [Sat. 1.12.20-29, in Brouwer, 224]

All sources agree that myrtle twigs were forbidden in the precincts of Bona Dea. Many writers have emphasized the known connection of myrtle with Aphrodite and love-making. Its Greek name was code for “vulva,” and the myrtle berry symbolized the clitoris. [Keuls, 130] Tracy Boyd has illuminated this aspect of myrtle as well as another connection, the sow as womb symbol. She emphasizes quotes Varro on the Roman slang usage of porca, “sow,” and its Greek counterpart, choeron, for the female organ of generation. [De Re Rustica, in Boyd, "Bona Dea's Secret Rites" at] Boyd also says that the Greeks called the sow delphas, “uterine animal,” and this is why she was the preferred offering to Demeter.

It’s a safe bet that the devotees of Bona Dea were not hostile to female sexuality, especially given the “revelry” with which they celebrated her rites, and the sexual aspersions on those rites from hostile male writers like Juvenal. Another meaning for the banning of myrtle must be considered. We should not forget that in Rome, the myrtle symbolized marriage. Brides wore myrtle wreaths, and grooms pinned sprigs on their togas.

The primary story of Fauna turns on a marriage turned disastrous by the husband acting on his privilege to punish and kill a disobedient wife. In the rites of the Feminea Dea, women commemorated Fauna, defied the rule against female wine-drinking, and symbolically broke out of the constraints laid on Roman wives. These constraints, and the violence which underlay them, were symbolized by the myrtle twigs, which were ritually tabooed from the women’s ceremonies.

 Latin sources agree that Bona Dea’s rites involved a vessel of wine covered with a cloth, always referred to as the "honey-jar," and its contents as "milk." [Arnobius, in Brouwer, 216; Macrobius, on 224] Wine was a sacrament, as in the Dionysian mysteries, but here it has a strong subversive valence. The taboo on naming wine harks back to the role that its prohibition to women played in the story of Fenta Fauna. Her husband put her to death for drinking it, as old Roman law decreed: “For Romulus permitted them to punish both these acts with death, as being the gravest offences women could be guilty of, since he looked upon adultery as the source of reckless folly, and drunkenness as the source of adultery." [Dionysius of Halicarnassus, 2.25.6] Both drunkenness and adultery were serious offences for women only; men were free to indulge, and to punish women for doing so.

This injustice, along with the beating to death of Fauna (and in some versions her rape as well) symbolized men’s oppression of women to her votaries. Masculine aggression (and patriarchal sanction for it) was the reason that men were excluded from the rites. Thus Macrobius compared Bona Dea to Medea, another wronged woman who came to be deified: “... no man may enter her temple on account of the wrong she suffered at the hands of her thankless husband Jason.” [Brouwer, 224]

Bona Dea was the only old Roman deity -- except for Diana -- who admitted freed slaves to the priesthood—as did the foreign religions of Kybele, Isis, and Mithras. In strong contrast to the state cults, no social distinction between ex-slaves and the freeborn, between citizens and foreigners, was evident in the veneration of Bona Dea. Many devotees and magistrae (priestesses) were of foreign origin. They formed collegia that, besides celebrating the rites, functioned as social clubs, support networks, and burial societies. [Brouwer, 258 fn25, 373]

In Provence, devotees called “To Fortuna of Arles and Nîmes. To the ears of Bona Dea.” This phrase imploring the Good Goddess to listen to prayers (and perhaps also recalling the pointed ears of Fauna) occurs in several inscriptions. The Greek freedwoman Caiena, a ministra of Bona Dea at Arles, offered her an altar adorned with an oak-leaf wreath around the ears of the goddess, and ribbon streamers. Her altar was found in the entrance area of Notre-Dame la Major, where a temple of Kybele once stood. The oak-leaf wreath is also reminiscent of Diana. [Brouwer 113, 134; see Boyd, online, for a picture of this altar.]

Festivals and shrines of Diana and the Bona Dea became the focus of a female culture of resistance that encompassed oppressed classes and foreigners. To the unease of patrician men, noble matrons, prostitutes, poor women, and slaves participated together in the rites of Bona Dea. Tibullus warned husbands: “Be on your guard whenever she goes out and says she is going to visit Bona Dea's sanctuary, forbidden for men.” [Brouwer, 177]

Cicero tells the famous story of Clodius disguising himself as a woman to sneak into Caesar’s house hoping for an assignation with Pompeiia, on the night when the Women’s Mysteries were being celebrated there. He was discovered and tried for sacrilege, but the powerful men of Rome dismissed the charges.

A legend recounted by Propertius and Macrobius explains the exclusion of women from the rites at Rome’s Ara Maxima (great altar). The patriarchal hero Hercules is thirsty after a battle. He comes across a grove, “the secret place of the goddess of women, with holy fountains and rites never revealed to men save to their cost.” The old priestess refused to give him water from the fountain forbidden to men, and alludes to Athena punishing Teresias for intruding on her bath.

But Hercules broke down the door, invaded the shrine, and drank from the fountain. He then founded the Ara Maxima and retaliated by banning women from its rites. [Properitus 4.9; Macrobius I.12.28, in Staples, 25-31; Brouwer, 178-81] This story speaks to patrician men’s resentment and suspicion of ceremonies forbidden to them. Tellingly, it also shows the priestess wearing the same purple fillets in her gray hair as the women who presided in the Maia ceremonies of Bona Dea.

 Men of the senatorial class were openly hostile to the mystery religions. These sodalities were considered subversive for welcoming “despised sectors of society, such as women and slaves.” Senator Cassius Longinus denounced large households with foreign slaves whose religion was different than their masters. Over a century later, Juvenal complained about the Syrians and other foreigners pouring into Rome, and he ridiculed Roman women’s participation in their ceremonies. [Lefkowitz and Fant, 109-10]

As early as 213 BCE, Rome was repressing foreign religions, according to Livy. [Vermaseren, 38] The Senate interdicted the Mysteries twice during the Republic, in 186 BCE and again in 64 CE, when Augustus abolished all the collegia. They came back, but the state tried to keep them under a tight rein. [Brouwer, 374] Their potent attraction was not easy to control, however, and it only grew with time.

Ceremonies on the Aventine

The center of the ecstatic Mysteries was the Aventine hill. This rural and plebeian district of Rome was home to some of its oldest temples: those of Carmenta, Diana, and Mercury. Plebeian worship of the Aventine triad—Ceres, Liber and Libera—thrived there. This hill was also the headquarters of Bona Dea, whose sanctuary was reputed to be most ancient. It seems to have been an open air shrine around a cave or rock shelter, as in paleolithic and neolithic times. Its Aventine neighborhood was named Bonadensis after the Goddess, and a mention survives of “the women of the Bona Dea quarter” being treated to mead and cakes. [Brouwer, 385]

Many foreigners settled in this commoners' neighborhood, bringing their own religions. The Aventine Hill became a center of multicultural cross-pollination of deities, rites and symbols. [Pailler, 42, 130] Among them were very old deities of pre-Roman Latium. The goddess Ops was honored there in the Consualia, a festival celebrating the storage of harvested grain. [Pouthier, 103fn]

Worshippers of the goddess Stimula (“goad”) entered into divine possession in a sacred wood at the bottom of the Aventine, along the Tiber river. Stimula was eventually syncretized with Ceres (herself interchangeable with Tellus and Ops) and with Semele, the mother of Dionysos. A fresco in the Villa of Mysteries at Pompei depicts her as a winged being who whips a kneeling devotee with a cane. [Pailler, 251, 94, 133-4]

Many newcomers to the Aventine were recently conquered nationalities who had been displaced from their homelands, especially Etruscans and Campanians. The southerners brought in Eleusinian, Dionysian and Orphic rituals from their homeland, which the Romans called Magna Graecia. Most early Roman priestesses of Ceres came from this region. In the supplications of the ritus Graecus, great processions of singing women wound their way along the Tiber to the Aventine temple of Juno.

Ceres-Demeter with serpents, grain, and poppies

These rites blended easily with the Aventine mysteries of Ceres, Stimula and Mater Matuta. [Pailler, 250, 278-9, 131, 6, 10; Scheid, 394 on carmen, ritus] On certain days the women raised a lamentation at every crossroads, as Demeter had cried out and, as Servius observed, like the women who wailed in the rite of Isis. [Spaeth, 107]

There's ample evidence that Bona Dea syncretized with other goddesses, especially her Aventine sister Diana, who appears with her in dedications. She also was conflated with Syrian Atargatis and the Carthaginian “All-Mother” who became known as Juno Caelestis. A Tiburtine inscription is dedicated “To Holiest Bona Dea Caelestis.” [79, 392] In faraway Chesters, north England, a dedication was found to Bona Dea, Queen of Heaven, harking back to the same ancient Semitic roots. [139]

A Roman woman left an stone altar inscription at Pag Island, Dalmatia, an offering “to Bona Dea Domina Heia Augusta Triumphalis, the Mistress of Land and Sea, the Protectress, the Mistress of Wisdom and Medicine, the Goddess of Right Judgement.” [Brouwer, 386] The syncretism of many goddesses into a Great Goddess is clearly visible here. Roman writers recognized this. Macrobius described how people identified Bona Dea as Juno, or Proserpina, or Hecate, or Semele. He quoted Cornelius Labeo as naming her Maia and Earth and as saying, “in the books of the pontiffs this same goddess is invoked as Bona Dea, Fauna, Ops, and Fatua.” [Brower, 224]

An inscription in Aquileia, Slovenia, invokes Bona Dea as Augusta Bona Dea Cereria. In fact, the Good Goddess shows many similarities to Ceres, including the sow sacrifice and her association with Liber, the Roman form of Dionysus. [Brouwer, 412-20]

The mystery religion that emerged from this fusion came to be called the Bacchanalia, after a Roman name for the Dionysian rites. A growing number of Roman women were attracted to these ecstatic ceremonies. There they could step outside of male control and into a ceremonial world led by women that turned the tables: “Always in [Roman] Dionysian initiation scenes, it is women who act as the leaders and initiators: the women have control of the veiled men or boys who are evidently the neophytes.” [Godwin, 41] By all accounts, most of the initiates were female.

Titus Livy acknowledged that these mysteries of the Bacchanals “had at first been a woman's sanctuary, and ordinarily no man was admitted... usually matrons were chosen in turn to act as priestesses.” This statement contradicted Livy's own claim that the whole thing had been started by a low-born Greek man. Unfortunately, his strongly biased account is virtually the sole historical source on the first mass witch hunt. Livy presents the official senatorial rationale for the “pitiless repression” that stamped out the matres bacchicae in 186 BCE. [Paillier, xiii, 8, 14, 596]


© Max Dashu 2004


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