Nemoralia - the ancient Feast of Templum Dianae

This new article is dedicated to the study and the deepening of the festival of the Nemoralia, the ancient festival of the Templum Dianae, celebrated in honor of the Goddess Diana Nemorense, on the shores of the Lake of Nemi!
In this new article you will be able to delve into numerous aspects about the cult of Diana Nemorense including:

  • the cult to Diana Goddess of Hunting
  • the feast of the flashlights at the Lake of Nemi
  • the Temple of Diana in Nemi
  • …and much more!

if you want to know more about the festivals sacred to the Goddess Diana start reading now!

nemoralia procession
Syracuse bride leading wild animals in procession to the Temple of Diana by Lord Frederick Leighton, 1866.

Nemoralia and Templum Dianae

Chapter 1

the feast of Nemoralia

The Nemoralia, also known as the Torch Festival or the Ides of Hecate, is a three-day festival originally celebrated by the ancient Romans on the Ides of August, August 13-15, in honor of the goddess Diana.
Although the Nemoralia was originally celebrated at Diana’s shrine at Lake Nemi, it soon became more widely celebrated.
The origin of this festival is still uncertain, the most common hypothesis is that the date may coincide with the foundation of Ariccia, although the foundation of the same according to Philip Cluverio may be 2752 BC. a date much earlier than the Etruscan culture, whose style is present in a decisive form in the construction of the architectural complex of the temple, while the ancient tradition has traced the foundation of the city to the son of the mythical founder of Athens Theseus, Hippolytus said Virbia, or the Sicilian commander Archiloco.
However, numerous finds antecedent to the Etruscan period, and the presence of numerous primitive Faunistic divinities, such as the famous Cynthia Fanum, from which the modern city of Genzano (always facing the lake Nemorense) took its name, then included together with its own cult among the nymphs of Diana Nemorense, suggest the presence of a primitive Mystic cult, celebrated among the Woods – Nemus adjacent to Ariccia, on which the city of Nemi (of the Woods) would then have risen.
The Roman poet Ovid described leaving an important trace of the celebrations:

“In the Arrician valley, there is a lake surrounded by shady forests, held sacred by a religion since ancient times….
On a long hedge fence hung pieces of woven thread, and inscriptions together gracefully placed as gifts to the Goddess.
Often a woman whose prayers have been heard by Diana, with a crown of flowers covering her head, walks from Rome carrying a lighted flashlight.
There a stream flows gurgling from its rocky bed…”

lake of nemi and genzano, painting by John Robert Cozens
lake of nemi and genzano, painting by John Robert Cozens

On the Night of Sacred Days the faithful formed a procession of flashlights and candles around the waters of Lake Nemi, also known as Diana’s Mirror, hundreds gathered together at the lake, wearing garlands and wreaths of flowers.
According to Plutarch, part of the ritual (before the procession around the lake) was to wash their hair and adorn it with flowers.
It was considered a day of rest for women and slaves. Hunting dogs were adorned and dressed with floral buds. Travelers from the north and south shores of the lake were transported by small boats lit by lanterns.
Similar lanterns were used by the Vestal Virgins and specimens have been found showing images of the Goddess Diana on Lake Nemi.

the temple of Diana

the Temple of Diana was the focal point of the procession and the ritual of the feast, a complex site overlooking Lake Nemi built close to the mountains and the “Nemus” (the woods).
The origin of the first foundation of the temple is probably antecedent to the Etruscan period, however, the plan of the sancta sanctorum suggests an important Etruscan foundation of the site, which served both as a temple but also as an important astronomical and augural observatory.
Subsequent are the expansions and the external “naves”, together with the squares, the mosaics and the exvoto chambers, and all the “public” areas that testify to how much the activity of the Temple was felt.
The temple was also the residence of the Rex Nemorensis, an atypical priestly figure and almost independent from the figure of the Roman Pontifex.

the Rex Nemorensis

The figure of the Rex Nemorensis is perhaps the most atypical priestly figure of the Greek-Roman world, whose tradition together with the splendor of the Nemoralia, seem very distant from the traditional ritualistic of the Italic cults.
The figure of the Rex is a figure cloaked in mystery, such as to justify the presence of an Initiatic cult within the activities of the temple of Nemi.
The Rex Nemorensis is the “King”, the important figure who presides over the feast and the proper conduct of the festivities of Nemoralia, however, he is also the superintendent of the temple and the sacred forest around it, and his rise to the role is obtained only through the murder of his predecessor (according to the myth), almost to recall the myth of Uranus and Jupiter and the killing of his father to ascend the throne.
However he is also a fugitive, a thief, a foreigner and not a native, almost like most of the mythical figures of the Copper Age and early Bronze Age where the spouse of the queen (in this case the Goddess) must come from an external “clan”, such as to be able to guarantee new strength and vigor to the local tradition, however he is also the only individual who is granted access to the sanctum sanctorum and to the most “confidential” knowledge of the local cult, a mythical figure who evokes the distant Heroes of myth and the ancient Priest-Kings of the Indo-Heroic cults.

Chapter 2

the Symbolism of the Feast

For centuries it has been believed that the cult of the festivity of the Templum Dianae the Nemoralia, was of Lunar type, just for its crepuscular celebration, however the celebrating in a date so specific, distant to that one of the lunar movements, and the similarity to many other Indo-European celebrations, leaves to presuppose that the Nemoralia were a sort of primitive “capodod year”, in which the populations gathered the night for two main reasons:
the first more probable, was for the intense heat of the Days of the heatwave that characterized the period in the Mediterranean region.
the second always in relation to the First, is that at night, even through the mirror of water was possible to better observe the transits of celestial bodies, in particular the Transit of Sirius, (the star of Orion’s dog) the star of the heatwave, and the transits of Ursa Major (the constellation representing Diana – Artemis on the chariot)
In support of these hypotheses we find many analogies in other Mediterranean or Indo-European populations, which based on the transit of the stars were able to determine the beginning of the yearly count, as in Egypt in August always on the transits of Sirius, for the study of the floods of the Nile, in Ireland where the beginning of the summer season (Beltane) determined the beginning of the season of pastures, Ecatombeone in Greece, and always in the territory of Ariccia August 15 marked the beginning of the hunting season, so that all Latin hunters gathered at the celebrations to Diana, before the hunting season, asking the “permission” to the Goddess to be able to hunt the animals that belonged to her.

Great Bear in the summer skies during the nemoralia festival
what the Great Bear looks like in summer

The last celebrations ended with the ascent to power of the Emperor (tyrant) Caligula, who for boredom or perhaps for fun killed the contemporary Rex Nemorensis (priest of Diana Nemorense) and replaced the cult of Diana, a Sadic cult – orgiastic dedicated to ‘Roman Isis, on the two ships temple that sank in mysterious circumstances …
(which after being found at the beginning of ‘900 burned in a new mysterious fire …)

photo of the temple ship of caligula at the museum of ships of nemi
the temple ship of Caligula
Chapter 3

Nemoralia and Templum Dianae today

Today the rump of Nemoralia and Templum Dianae, is evoked by various cultural and / or religious associations that reside on Italian soil and also beyond the borders of the European continent, in particular in the country of Nemi during the days of August in particular the period preceding the August holiday many groups of historical reenactment gather to celebrate and reenact in the form of show the ancient Ides of Diana or Hecate.
However the archaeological site, and the town of Nemi is the site of numerous “pilgrimages” by the various religious groups Wicca or descendants of it as the Neopagans, or groups of Italian witchcraft, particularly in the summer period or during the historic date of Nemoralia and Templum Dianae: August 13.

Diana the Goddess of Witchcraft

Today the Goddess Diana, the ancient Goddess of hunting, woods, mountains, ports and streams is also known as the Goddess “Matron” of witches and witchcraft.
We don’t know exactly the historical period in which this epithet has been attributed to her, and if actually also in ancient Rome she enjoyed the same appellative, or if it is a simple superstition or a wrong historical or popular interpretation, but it is however possible that such fame could have been attributed to her also thanks to the intense fascination that the cult of Nemi was able to evoke:
as the obscure and particularly evocative Figure of the Rex Nemorensis, A King – Priest always armed with a knife ready to challenge and be challenged by a pretender, fugitive slave, dismissed only through an initiatory and violent ritual; or like the mystical and initiatory nature of the Nemoralia festivities, or the oracular divinatory work carried out inside the Temple together with the thermal and therapeutic activities, testified by the immense number of archaeological finds today kept in the museum of the Nemi Ships.
The nature of this rituality, so simple, tribal and primitive, was so intense to be perceived at a visceral level by every witness, and able to arouse an “initiatory tension” as few cults are still able to evoke today.
Perhaps also the enthusiasm aroused by some writers such as Leland, in his Gospel of the Witches, or Frazer in his Golden Branch, has contributed over the centuries to consecrate the figure of Diana to “Queen” of the witches, so that today the most iconographic and evocative figures that refer to this figure as the Befana, or St. Lucia are approached to the figure of Diana – Artemis, goddess who since the past has acquired within her “cult” numerous Goddesses in the form of Nymphs …

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